Are You Enlightened or an Escapist?

Enlightenment is not just for meditators or yogis, but it’s often misunderstood and misused, which ruins it for everyone

What does the word enlightenment mean to you?

Does it evoke images of a monk in a saffron robe, sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, with a slight smile of contentment? Does it conjure up thoughts of Instagram photos of a perfectly dressed and perfectly made-up “wellness influencer” on top of a mountain at sunrise, heartily breathing in the aroma of a steaming cup of coffee?

What about a mother of 4 young children, in wrinkled clothes, with frizzy hair, making PB&J sandwiches for her kids — 2 of which are hanging on to her legs while she navigates over and around the toys scattered on the floor of the kitchen?

Almost no one thinks of the latter image when they think of enlightenment. But why not? Why can’t someone with a hectic life, urgent demands, and barely enough time to think about their clothes be enlightened?

I think they can. In fact, I know they can. No matter what your situation, you too can become enlightened — because we’ve all got the wrong idea about what enlightenment is.

What many of us think is enlightenment is actually a form of escapism. And it’s important to understand the difference.

So, What Is Enlightenment?

Over the years, enlightenment has been sold to us as a form of quiet mental solitude — a tranquil transcendence, where one floats above the problems of the workaday world. It’s long been packaged as the result of long meditation sessions and days or weeks-long silent retreats.

Surely, the rest of us — with our 9-to-5s, families, relationships, hectic schedules, bills, and drama — we can’t get enlightened, right?

What utter nonsense.

If that’s enlightenment, I’m not sure it’s something that I want. But enlightenment isn’t any of those things. It’s not withdrawal or transcendence. It’s the opposite. Enlightenment is engagement. Enlightenment is embedment. Enlightenment is being engaged with and embedded in the goings on of your life — each and every day.

Enlightenment means being a full and enthusiastic participant in your life. It means understanding your relationships, admitting and working on your shortcomings, striving toward your goals, and being okay with whatever challenges and pain come your way.

The Myth of the Two Lives

Contrary to many popular ways of thinking, you can become enlightened right in the middle of your crazy, problem-filled, nerve-wracking daily life. In fact, there are more opportunities for enlightenment there than you can find anywhere else. Many of us fail to see this, because we have come to believe in this myth that we lead two separate lives.

On one hand, there is this thing that we call our daily life. There’s a job, bills, a family, friends and neighbors, fights, jealousy, sex, anxiety, self-doubt — and the myriad things that bombard us each day.

On the other hand— supposedly — there’s this joyful, peaceful way of life away from all those struggles of daily life, called “enlightenment”. It’s a place of serenity and joy; it’s the promised land, the endgame. There’s this accompanying idea that enlightenment happens separately from all of the challenges and struggles of daily life, and so you need to unplug and retreat in order to really get enlightened.

Maybe that’s how some folks get there, but I wonder how sustainable it is for them once they dip their toes back into the fast-paced workaday world from which they came? Does that enlightenment scale? My guess is no.

One thing that I’ve learned recently is not to view enlightenment as some graceful, peaceful, transcendental, esoteric, out-of-this-world phenomenon. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Enlightenment is actually a down and dirty, roll your sleeves up, stumbling-bumbling, imperfectly perfect thing. It’s something that you both learn in the trenches, and deploy there.

And enlightenment is not just for a select few, it’s for everyone.

Enlightenment is Engagement, Not Escapism

You can’t become enlightened by disconnecting from the things that make up your life — unless you’re leaving it all behind forever. Rather, enlightenment happens when you fully engage with the components of your life as they are right now.

I used to buy into this idea that enlightenment would come to me if I detached myself from the the ins and outs of daily life, and brought my mind up to some other level — whatever that means. But what I realized was that when I attempted to do that, what I was really doing was practicing escapism. I was instead adopting a different ritual to make me less connected to the things in my life.

Am I saying not to mediate? No. Am I warning you that yoga is a waste of time? Not at all. These practices are valuable practices that can help you de-stress, clear your mind, and gain insight. But those things alone will not do the trick. Once you do de-stress and clear your mind, it’s time to get re-engaged with your life — time to take action.

What I am saying is that whatever your mode of pursuing enlightenment (or its many synonyms), make sure you’re not practicing an elegant form of escapism.

Remember, just because your brand of escapism looks like a sacred practice, complete with all the ornate bells and whistles— doesn’t mean it’s not still escapism.

The fact is, you are either engaging with or avoiding the stuff in your life, and at a subconscious level, your mind knows which one you’re doing. And it will either stress out or relax accordingly.

Be Sure You’re Not an Escapist

Relaxation doesn’t come from escape. We tend to think that it does, but that’s only a short term phenomenon. Relaxation comes from engagement and decisiveness. When you have taken on the things in your life head-on, and made the decisions you know you need to — when you’ve changed the things you can, accepted the things you can’t, and learned a bit better how to tell the difference — relaxation is the natural response.

There are many different ways to do those things — many different spiritual or self-improvement practices. But those same practices can either be used to engage, or used to escape. Make sure you’re choosing the right one. Your mind and body will thank you.

So, by all means, meditate, do yoga, pray, leverage the power of crystals. If it gives you the strength to engage with both the pleasure and the pain of your life, then it’s enlightening.

If whatever you’re doing is helping you learn how to navigate challenges, overcome obstacles, process your emotions, and enrich your relationships — keep it up. But if what you’re doing is a hiding place, a crutch, or a way of putting off taking on the tough things in your life — it’s most definitely not a path to enlightenment; it’s escapism.

There are so many ways that we can turn things from possibly enlightening to full-on escapism. The trick is to keep asking yourself: am I fully engaged in my life, or am I ducking out of it? Ask yourself every day — whatever it is you’re doing. Ask yourself as you veg out on the couch, or dip into a pint of ice cream: am I doing this as part of engaging with the stuff of my life, or is this escapism? Asking and answering that question honestly — that’s enlightenment. No robes or retreats necessary.

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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