A dialogue with author and journalist Theresa Bauerlein
Theresa: Suppose I were a reasonably intelligent Western-minded person who had never heard of the idea of “spiritual enlightenment,” and as such, I would ask you, ‘What is enlightenment?’ – what would be your answer?
Shai: I would start by saying that there are two possible modes in which the human mind can function: one is personal, or psychological, and the other one is impersonal, or universal.
In between these two modes we have what can be generally called “philosophy.” Philosophy is when we activate the higher intellectual functions of the mind. As soon as these functions begin to operate, the human being, who is usually reduced to a person who mainly thinks of one’s own life, emotions and choices – the rather immediate and minimal uses of the mind, or the lower intellectual functions – reaches a higher, impersonal functioning of the mind.
In philosophy, we activate the mind for the sake of big universal questions. Instead of driving our mind to overwork with thoughts of worries, wishes, needs and opinions, we try to transcend with it to a level in which the human mind can actually aspire to understand the universe: the universal nature of things and people, the meaning of life and death and so on. By making this switch, we impersonalize our mind; in a way, it becomes the mind of humanity. We ask and inquire as one mind, which is not yours or mine.
T: But can a person be impersonal at all?
S: As long as the mind functions on the lower intellectual level, no; it cannot be. In this lower mode, everything seems intensely and intolerably personal and self-centered, and so an impersonal view would simply not exist for such a mind.
T: Could you give me an example of the difference between personal and impersonal thinking?
S: Personal thinking would be: I wake up in the morning and from that moment onward, all day long, my thoughts revolve around my happiness, my sorrow, my wishes, my past and my future.
Impersonal thinking could be expressed, for example, through the scientific mind. A great scientist doesn’t only work but lives their science and their pondering. So such a scientist would wake up in the morning and most naturally think about the Big Bang, the behavior of particles, the nature of space and similar things. On the same level, we can find the philosophical mind. Any great philosopher – like Socrates, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or Freud – would wake up in the morning and, most probably, their first thoughts would be about the nature of the mind, the nature of death, or the meaning of life.
It is, therefore, a different use or function of the human mind. In this impersonal mode, it is like a naked human mind facing the mysteries of the universe. It is not a mind that belongs to a person, since in a way all its energy and drives are gathered into higher forms of wishes and questions.
Take Gautama the Buddha, for instance. When he dramatically sat under the so-called “Bodhi tree,” determined to attain the highest understanding, he didn’t sit to ask, “How am I going to resolve my personal suffering? How am I going to become happier?” Instead, he asked, “What is the cause of human suffering and what is its ultimate solution?” This is an example of switching the mind into a very different mode, a universal one. But such a mode belongs only to what we can consider the higher type of human beings: those humans who don’t waste their mind’s reservoirs on personal questions.
T: Wait, when you say, “a higher type of human,” what do you mean? More developed?
S: Yes, those who are more spiritually, philosophically and mentally developed; those who activate dormant capacities of the mind and stretch the mind’s capacity far beyond its automatic, reactive, emotional and unconscious mode. “Higher,” of course, is not meant to lead to arrogance or superiority, but rather to a simple understanding that we can use a very tiny percent of the mind, or we can stretch it beyond imagination.
T: I guess that for most people, the impersonal thinking is more like the inclination of geniuses, and in a way, for non-geniuses, this seems quite futile, like a sophisticated form of daydreaming, while ordinary human beings simply live their life. What I find interesting about enlightenment is that the way I understand it, it is not a type of thinking; it is a different kind of being and living that may include a different way of thinking but is a more general transformation that happens on all levels.
S: This is true, since at the beginning I mentioned two modes of mind activity, while the philosophical one is just in between these two.
The first one is the lower activity, which includes automatic and personal thinking. It also gathers information, so one can study and develop all sorts of skills and abilities, yet it doesn’t initiate the activation of the higher faculties. Then there is the medium mode, which is a universal thinking: using the mind for higher questions, but still through what we can call the higher reason, or higher intellect. This mode belongs to great minds like thinkers, profound scholars and scientists.
I agree that this medium mode is known for its geniuses, yet in spiritual enlightenment we also talk about geniuses, only spiritual ones. And here enters the third level: using the mind for pondering the nature of consciousness itself. Because in the second mode you activate the mind still within a ‘subject-object’ relationship…
T: Since you contemplate on the universe…
S: Yes, exactly. The second mode investigates the nature of the universe – its quantum nature, for example – or the nature of the human mind – like Freud’s analysis of the structure of the psyche. Here the universe is still an object. The scientific or philosophical thinking objectifies everything – naturally, because this is how it draws conclusions. Right now what we are doing in our talk is objectifying the subject of the mind, you see? So we have to have the scientific mode for that.
But the third mode is investigating the subject that investigates. We basically begin to turn our philosophy and science to fathoming the nature of the perceiver. And this is where a different type of philosophy and a different mode or activity of the mind come into being. Because, as you were saying, this already doesn’t belong to the realm of thinking. We investigate into the root of thinking, or the source of thinking, since the perceiver is not its thinking.
Now, when you mentioned that the second mode seemed for geniuses only, this mode of mind is also a sort of genius: a genius in the field we may call “consciousness.” Those we call “truly enlightened beings” were simply geniuses of consciousness, in the very same way we have had great thinkers and scientists.
T: But this sounds very discouraging, because usually you are either born a genius or not.
S: First of all, yes – in a way. What can we do? When we think of Einstein or Spinoza, nobody needed to tell them: “Hey, try to think about the nature of the universe, would you?” Or, “Please try to reach ultimate conclusions about a unified theory about everything.” They were just driven to do so. They couldn’t eat or drink, because this was their mode of mind; this is what they found effortlessly fascinating. They couldn’t care less about the personal mode or a mere gathering of information. So yes, in that sense, the genius of those who are driven like this naturally cannot be truly imitated.
But can people cultivate these modes and come into contact with them? Can they turn them more and more into a spontaneous activity within their own lives? Of course, this is possible. Still, this would demand a certain reversal of momentum, unlike in the case of the genius. The genius Nietzsche didn’t need you to tell him: “Come on, stop thinking about your miserable life and start thinking about the universe.” For him, this was not an effort to tune into this mode, you see. He couldn’t sleep because of it anyway. But for those who don’t have this mode naturally, they would need to go against their basic constitution, which tends towards the first mode.
And this is only fair. We have only one Plato in a generation, or at best a few Platos, but we have many students of Plato and many students of Einstein; those who follow in their footsteps. In that sense, it is only natural that there are those who lead in the field, as for some strange reason they are simply driven mad by these kinds of questions.
You don’t get many Buddhas in every generation, someone who just leaves his child, wife and beautiful palace only because he cannot live with himself while not fathoming the mysteries of the universe. In my lifetime, I have met only a few individuals who were naturally driven away from the lower functioning of the mind.
T: You are saying that geniuses of consciousness were naturally driven to contemplate on consciousness, so what happens when it is so? When you are an Einstein, you think of the laws of the universe. But when you are a consciousness genius, what happens? What do you create? What does this process do? Because you do not only think about consciousness.
S: You think about consciousness until you cannot. This is the thing with consciousness: thinking about consciousness is an activity that brings thinking to an end; you try to stretch thinking to do something it cannot. Thinking can only objectify. It must have a certain relationship: inner and outer, “me” and other, “I” and god.
T: Right, so I start thinking about my consciousness…
S: Yes – for example, pondering on the question, “Who am I?” – which is a very simple question that demonstrates the activity of the mind when it turns towards its source, or possessor, or holder: who is the one who uses the mind? More simply, it’s the mind asking, “What is the mind?” Now, if the mind asks, “What is the mind?” – what can it do? It certainly reaches a limit because…
T: This seems like a dead end.
S: True, but for those who are in the field of consciousness, they are driven by the intuition that these kinds of questions are the missing link in understanding something about the universe which could never be understood objectively. They understand that no matter how far we will go in our objective investigation, the universe, by its very nature, cannot be understood only objectively. It can only be understood when we first find out who the investigator is.
T: This is not so obvious. You are saying that the universe cannot be understood objectively but only subjectively?
S: No, I say that it cannot be understood only objectively.
T: So what does a subjective understanding of the universe look like?
S: Well, to answer this, we first need to consider the nature of consciousness. The universe as we know it is divided into seer and seen. This is a simple fact: as soon as the universe brought forth from within itself human consciousness, it is almost like it split itself into two, into an investigator and investigated, the exploring consciousness and the universe, knower and known.
T: Sounds similar to what cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson stated – that humans are the mechanism that the universe created to understand itself.
S: Yes, and this statement is all-encompassing: more and more great scientists and philosophers come to realize that we are the universe becoming aware of itself. This is, I believe, the one statement that crosses the borders between the second mode – the philosophical, intellectual or higher thinking – and the third mode, which is the inquiry into consciousness.
If we take this statement into consideration, this is probably the most shocking statement we could ever make about our role in the universe and who we are as human beings. Because if we really take it to heart, this means that the mind is not here for self-contemplation in the personal sense. Of course, we are complex beings and we need to consider our individual fate, direction and choices as human beings, yet the largest portion of the activity of the mind should be: I am the universe becoming aware of itself.
Now let’s take this one step further. If I am the universe becoming aware of itself, if I am the activity of the self-awareness of the universe, or life becoming aware of itself, what does that imply on my identity? You see, this is outrageous. But who walks on this earth, including the scientists who declare that, knowing that this is who they are – that this is their actual subjectivity? The thing is that if this is our subjectivity, this means that our subjectivity is not really separate from the object, which is the cosmos. The subject, my consciousness, is an emergence from the object, or perhaps the object is an emergence from the subject – here this is already the ‘chicken and the egg,’ which marks the distinction between science and spirituality.