Enlightenment is generally considered a spiritual term – one that conjures up images of monks meditating on mountaintops. In spiritual terms, enlightenment means “awakening” or “understanding.” Enlightenment is the attainment of insight into the workings of the mind and the true nature of things. Common to all spiritual philosophies, enlightenment is an understanding of the workings of the human mind and its propensity to project onto existence an artificial duality. A secular, textbook definition of enlightenment is the full comprehension of a situation.
The concept of enlightenment as it relates to mundane affairs took hold in Europe in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The purpose of “The Enlightenment” was to use reason to reform society and advance knowledge by challenging entrenched ideas. The Enlightenment promoted skepticism and opposed intolerance. The cause of The Enlightenment was liberty: political, economic, religious — and individual.
In an essay published in 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as “man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity.” Kant described immaturity as the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another and, he argued, it is self-caused — not by the lack of intelligence, but by the lack of determination and courage to use own’s intelligence without being guided by another.
In other words, enlightenment is being skeptical about established ideas. It is about challenging entrenched beliefs. Enlightenment is challenging socially accepted ideals. It is forming our own opinions without worrying about what others will think. Enlightenment is thinking for ourselves.
Combining the metaphysical notion of enlightenment with the movement of freedom and liberty that arose from Europe, we come to see that enlightenment is about challenging our own beliefs, our own ideals. How many of our beliefs and opinions are truly our own? How many of our beliefs are those handed down to us by our parents? How many of our opinions simply mirror those of our peers? How many of our ideals and goals are those that others have decided for us?
Enlightened thinking calls upon us to be skeptics, and the first thing that we need to examine are our beliefs, our opinions, and our ideals. Are they really ours or have we passively inherited them without challenge? Do we really believe what we believe, or has someone simply taught us what to believe?
Enlightenment begins with a critical examination of every thought, belief and prejudice that arises in our own minds. Enlightenment requires an open mind — what Shunryu Suzuki called, “beginner’s mind.”
In the beginniner’s mind, the possibilities are endless; in the expert’s they are few.
As we examine our own beliefs and ideals, we may find that very few of them have originated with us. We may find that we really don’t know why we believe what we believe. For many, this can be a frightening proposition. The realization that what we believe has no rational basis and cannot be self-justified threatens to open the floor beneath us. But that is exactly what we need. It is only when we shed our second-hand belief system that we can live a genuine life.
And we may find that we don’t need any beliefs at all. We may discover that there is little rational justification for any fixed view. Then, we re-enter life with beginner’s mind. Then, we earnestly embark upon the path of enlightenment.