Two fundamentals of enlightenment: non-attachment and presence
Be forewarned: I don’t consider myself to be enlightened. Although many spiritual teachers state that everyone is yet enlightened and that each one of us has simply forgotten about this, I am still led by the continuous commentary in my mind. I haven’t yet reached the levels of insights/epiphanies the gurus seem to be tuned in with. And, even though I have tried, I haven’t even had a full non-dual experience. Therefore, talking about the concept of enlightenment is very tricky and discouraged by many, in particular since enlightened beings all agree upon the statement that this experience is beyond language and the only way to transmit this state of being is by the direct experience of it. However, I consider non-attachment and ‘being present’ to be useful mondaine concepts as well. On my personal journey, I have come to realise that non-attachment is a crucial concept in the pursuit of personal freedom and emotional stability. Furthermore, ‘being present’ is a tool to fully experience life rather than being trapped in your head al the time. Thus, both concepts are of service even if you simply want to improve the quality of your life. Note that both concepts are interrelated.
Although many gurus hold slightly different visions on the path towards enlightenment, nearly all of them point to the importance of non-attachment and presence; it’s a true common tread. So without considering myself to be enlightened, I am confident in what I am sharing here.
According to the Buddha (Siddharta Gautama), the root of all suffering (‘Dukkha’ in Sanskrit) is attachment. Transcending all attachment allows you to spiritually liberate yourself. In an enlightened state of being, there are no attachments, which implies that nothing has a hold over you, you are completely bulletproof. But what are attachments exactly and how can they be categorised?
Fear is just a perspective/thought that is rooted in lack. The concept of ‘fear’ is based on the fact that you have an investment in something, and you are afraid of losing it. This investment can take diverse forms: materialistic investments like money or property, (romantic) relationships, a piece of self-image implemented in the minds of others et cetera. These investments enhance your chances of survival. Therefore, it’s completely normal that you feel the need to defend these investments, thereby acting upon the fear of losing it. It appears to you that much is at stake. A disadvantage of having these investments is that you constantly have to safeguard these investments. Whereas all of the abovementioned investments are outside of you and therefore are only partially controllable, your emotional state is something within you, and – with some training – appears to be very controllable. Your entire life is experienced inside you. Al the outside information is transformed into an inner experience. Love and happiness arise on the inside. I am not saying that feelings of love and happiness are not interrelated to what happens in the outside world, though, if you manage to master your inside, you have much less to worry about. The more external investments you have, the more your mind is occupied with protecting these, or even expanding these investments. As a result, you are constantly working on the external rather than the internal. From this perspective, one can hypothesize that you are only 100% free if you don’t have any investments in the external world. It’s not hard to fathom that many gurus maintain a minimalistic lifestyle. Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.’’
Emotional baggage as attachment
Emotional baggage is another form of attachment. Although not many human beings are that developed that they consciously experience burdens from the past as a limitation to their emotional range of motion, it affects you subconsciously for fact. A slightly charged word for emotional baggage is ‘trauma’. Each time you are disrespected, each time somebody violates your feelings, each time you don’t express yourself as you truly are, energy is stored in the body-mind system, in the form of trauma. This trauma is holding you back – the accumulated trauma over the years causes people to calcify/harden psychologically. Feelings of pain, grudge, humiliation will all be stored in the body mind system if they are not treated in the very moment of administration. If these feelings remain untreated, your ego is still attached to grief/suffering of the past. If you are not ready to forgive the people who have violated your personal space during the past, you have a negative investment in the past so to speak. From this perspective, you are only 100% free if you can let go off all negativity of the past. For this reason, the Buddha articulates the art of forgiving to be highly important.
Sins and karma as attachments
Well known from Christianity is the need to redeem our sins. As soon as we commit moral reprehensible matter, we have to purify ourselves afterwards. Why is so much attention paid to living in clear conscience? Check with yourself: how do you feel if you have done something wrong? You may feel good at the time, but oftentimes you will only later realise that you have made a mistake or that you need to apologise. These sins accumulate over time and stick to your soul if you don’t wash them off. You will carry them with you as a burden that limits your emotional freedom. To be free, one should redeem its sins. The older and more experienced people get, the more refined their inner supreme court/more compass becomes. It is never too late to say sorry.
Karma. Karma can be accumulated throughout this life or in past lives. Whether you believe in the existence of past lives or not, if you extrapolate the aforementioned it isn’t hard to fathom that, if you want to be 100% free of anything, you should also clear out the rubbish of your past lives. It is said that karma accumulates during the journey of the soul, and to reach enlightenment, it’s required to wash off the burden of this life and your past lives.
Appreciate, but don’t attach
Love is about appreciation, not about possession. This holds for both relationships and materialistic objects. As soon as you enter a relationship with the subconscious goal to cover up your inner uncertainties or to assign additional value to your ego, you hold an investment in something external, meaning that you will fear the fact of having it lost. If you can appreciate someone else without clinging on to him/her to fulfil a need in yourself, the relationship will be less tight. One should be aware of the fact that everything you add to your possession will eventually slip away, whether is something materialistic or unmaterialistic. So don’t take possession of it, try rather appreciating it for the time being. The less you possess, the less you lose.
The ego as attachment
The bigger your ego – which in this context means ‘your identity or your sense of self’ rather than a reference to selfish behaviour – the harder it is to reach enlightenment. The ego has an intrinsic incapacity to let itself go; it’s designed to perpetuate/maintain its existence. The ego wants to cling on to itself. Humans somehow have identified with the ego, which is the false self. After an ego-death, one will experience the true self (Nirvana, god, nothingness, consciousness, awareness, Allah, the void; however you want to call it). As your sense of self and the resulting behavioural patterns are all accumulated in the ego and while knowing that the ego likes to perpetuate itself al it is, you are per definition imprisoned by the past. You subconsciously/consciously act according to your self-image, which has been build in the past. In this context, the smaller your ego is, the less subconsciously driven your actions are, the freer you are.
Becoming aware and letting go of your attachments by ‘the psychedelic experience’
I am an advocate in the use of psychedelic medicine to remove any types of blockages. I see psychedelics as a mirror of life; they provide insight into what blocks you emotionally/spiritually at the moment. They will give you what you need, not what you want. They confront you with untreated trauma from the past, they force you to let go, and they show which part of your personality is built on certain attachments. This accredits the power to burn away all the fake parts of you. It’s not uncommon after a psychedelic trip to feel totally relieved, to feel physically lighter, and to experience heightened perception, enhanced clarity, and improved cognitive function. Psychedelics allow you to become aware of all the rubbish – which is mainly rooted in attachment – inside. To become free, one should transcend these attachments. Disclaimer; I don’t take any responsibility for negative results of the use of psychedelics. It’s 100% your responsibility. Conduct proper research, make sure the setting is good, don’t use them if you don’t feel ready.
Presence is the other fundamental pillar on which enlightenment is based. ‘Presence’ means to be fully present, fully aware. At first, one should understand the clear distinction between ‘raw perception’ or observation on the one hand, and ‘interpretation’ on the other hand. If one understands this distinction, you will understand the concept of being present, or being ‘in the now’ so to speak. Note (and find out for yourself!) that our ‘visual displays’ have to choose between raw perception or interpretation; they cannot be experienced at the same time. It’s just the mechanics.
Raw perception is nothing more than how you perceive the world around you with your senses. You see, you hear, you smell, you taste, etc. For instance, children are very talented in just observing what’s going on around them; they are astonished by the beauty of small things as they see things as they physically are. Animals are zen gurus as well – if you look to a cat playing a ball, he is fully absorbed by its activity.
Then there is the mind. Fundamentally, the mind is there to serve our survival instinct. The mind unlocks intelligence, creativity, visualisation, comparison, judgement, problem-solving capacity, future predictions, growth, knowledge storage, long-term thinking and so on. In addition, the mind provides a filter of the sensory perception; if we repeatedly observed everything to the fullest extent, it would be very inefficient. The aforementioned highly sophisticated features and mechanisms are embedded in the human race and suggested to be present in some animals like whales and dolphins. The human species have come so far in evolution thanks to our minds. Unfortunately, the mind has become so powerful that it distracts us from fully experiencing the moment. The constant chatter in our minds prevents us from being mindful, which means to pay full attention/focus on what we are doing at this moment. The non-stop bullshit parade inside your head limits our experience of life.
The older we get, the more we get trapped inside our minds. By growing up, we come to see more of the world and start figuring out how things work, which perfectly combines with the societal pressure of gaining personal significance. Consequently, we constantly compare, which is linked to judging and we are figuring out how to maximise our yields. We are enslaved by our thinking. Our experience of life is predominantly occupied by our thoughts. Our thoughts are leading us rather than we leading our thoughts.
A simple exercise to figure out the difference between sensory information and interpretational information.
But Nico, I am not sure whether what I am experiencing now is sensory information or mind information. Can you clarify the difference for me?
There is a very simple, albeit a very luminous one, exercise to ‘decompose’ your experience into sensory input and interpretational input. It’s an exercise that covers the essence of mindfulness. I call it the ‘raisin exercise’. Pick an eatable raisin to start with. Just observe it; look at his colour, his shape, feel its skin, see its wrinkles, smell the raisin; observe it with your five senses for like ten minutes. During these ten minutes, just see it as it is. Observe the physics of the raisin. When you experience thoughts like: this colour reminds me of cola, this raisin is heavy, what a wonderful raisin, or this raisin feels quite light, you are in your mind. Get back to the senses please! When you experience visual images of how this raisin was attached to its stem, or questions like how would it be to be a grape farmer, your focus is wandering off. Get back to the senses please! Then, open the raisin by tearing one edge. Lick the grape, from the outside and inside. Feel the difference in surface texture with your tongue. Taste the difference. If you think of licking a clitoris, you are done. Now eat the raisin. Stick with you physical experience; hear the chewing of your teeth, taste its taste, feel how your tongue is leading this process. Be aware of everything that happens inside your mouth. If you get trapped in mental images of the raisin being mutilated in your mouth, you are done. Refocus! If your mind wanders off to other food, refocus! By now. By doing the exercise myself, I have come to realise that I am a very explanatory/ conceptual thinker. Just by seeing the raisin, my mind jumps to questions, comparisons and conclusions right away. I don’t experience the raisin, I experience a mental image of the grape and a bunch of questions. Although I associate this with intelligence, I am not fully there. Do this exercise for yourself and try to extrapolate the lessons learned in your life. Figure out which part of your life experience is raw observation, and which part is mind activity.
Living ‘in the now’
Another topic, albeit a more familiar one, associated with presence is the concept of time. ‘Be here now’ is the adage spoken by many spiritual leaders. Essentially, only the now exists. The future has still to arrive, and it will arrive in the now. The future doesn’t exist; it only exists as mental image/imagination in your mind. The future is a projection or a prediction of what might happen. You can only be 100% sure of what happens when the future arrives in the now. The past has already gone. Once, the past presented itself as being the now. At that moment, it was relevant. Now, that moment only exists as a mental image – in the form of memory – inside your mind. I am not saying that future predictions or memories are useless, no, I am saying that future and past are not real in this particular moment; they can only live inside our minds. If the mind was dead, future and past would be dead, and we could only be here now. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant and physicists like Carlo Rovelli already suggested that time is merely an illusion.
I want to make a distinction between clock time and psychological time. Clock time is the simple measurement of time passing by in seconds, minutes, weeks etc. As we use this clock time for planning and meeting others, It is a harmless useful tool. Secondly, there is psychological time, which is the root of suffering. Why? Many of us tend to become somebody or are working towards a point in the future in which our needs will finally be satisfied, and therefore, we continuously ‘deny’ this very moment. Our feelings, thoughts and actions are employed to pursue an image of ourselves in the future, and therefore, we suppress the direct experience of life at this moment. We subconsciously tell ourselves that ‘I will be worth it when I get this diploma’, or ‘I will be happy when I reach the €70.000 income per year’. Our whole experience of life – our emotions, thoughts and actions – is led by this ‘becoming’ and therefore we neglect ‘being’. A suitable saying by Rumi and Osho is: “Don’t become, be.’’ On top of the before-mentioned lies the inevitable dissatisfaction of the appearance of another new objective when our initial objective is reached. We think: as I have reached the €70.000, I want to strife for the €100.000. And then the enslavement starts over again… In modern times, we are constantly going somewhere, there is always something to do, there are always problems to be solved, resulting in a permanently clenched mind. Buddha intelligently described enlightenment as ‘the end of suffering’. Why did he give this soberly fashioned description? To prevent your mind (‘ego’ is more suitable in this case) from clinching to a moment of achievement in the future! Our mind is a prison. According to Eckhart Tolle, tension, stress, worry and all sorts of fear are caused by living too much in the future and not in the present moment. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. To get rid of these emotions, one should learn to fully accept the now.
I see a lot of value in living in the moment. My drive to achieve things often prevented me from enjoying things; I was always working on tomorrow’s improvements, I was always working on an image of myself that I should become. My mind was always attached to peak performance moments in the future thereby neglecting the joyful experiences of the now. No wonder that an overtraining syndrome hit me frontally in 2014. My life crashed. It felt like my brain was being replaced by a brick implying a focus and memory of no more than 10 seconds. My senses, my perception, my lust for life, my sex drive and my energy levels hit rock bottom right after it happened. I could barely get out of my bed in the mornings. Although at that moment it felt like the most tragic event of my life, today I am grateful it happened. At that moment, I perceived this crash as my life being derailed, but today – when I am able to see the process through – I can see how it in fact has put my life back on track. It took me around four years to get back to 90% of my cognitive performance before the crash. Meditation and yoga brought me into the now; both dampen mind activity, thereby enhancing your senses, and after all, you perceive the world around you as more beautiful. The biggest shift I have made in this area is in the approach; I give full dedication to what I am doing now without constantly reflecting on what I am doing. Of course I think carefully about what an effective step might be at the moment, but right after I quit thinking and drown myself in dedicated action. Dedicated action is primary, the outcome is secondary. I shifted from having clear predefined goals and a vague direction towards having a clear direction and no goals. I stay open to be inspired along the way and I enjoy life more fully and freely. Life is a process. Too much focus enables you to achieve short term results but suppresses long term progress/results.
And by the way, I don’t always agree that one should be completely present. People experience happiness from being deeply sunk in fantasies or imagination, or when they are looking forwards or backwards to certain events coming, like a concert, a marriage or the arrival of a new-born. In this way, the mind provides an additional joyful experience without the event physically happening.