Jay Michaelson
What the World Is, and what to do about It, p. 3

3.     Is Enlightenment Worthwhile?

Humans have evolved many complex and varied ways of gaining satisfaction in life even without passing on their genetic material. Thus it is by no means clear that enlightenment is 'worth' pursuing, if we define 'worth' in terms of activities that bring either (a) satisfaction to the individual or (b) benefit to human society and/or Being in general. There are many other pursuits which may bring satisfaction to the individual, even if such satisfaction is fleeting. These may include raising children, pursuing sensual pleasures, building a sense of self, gaining various accomplishments and achievements, or expressing the nature of the individual through art. In addition, it might be argued that social/political activism, direct assistance to suffering people, and other such activities may bring more immediate benefit to human society than the pursuit of enlightenment. ,

There are many reasons why pursuing enlightenment may be worthwhile from an individual's point of view, however. First, even apart from enlightenment, meditation may engender calm, peace with one's life, a sense of purpose, and enjoyable mind states such as rapture and ecstasy. It may also lead one to be a more careful, loving, compassionate person, traits which many individuals see as desirable. Second, insofar as meditation leads to interim truths about oneself and one's world, as well as larger truths about Being,; many see truth itself as 'worthwhile' in the sense defined above, or in terms of some general value of human essence. Third, since the experience of Reality as it is removes the veil of separateness that conditions ordinary experience, it is often described in terms of awe/amazement on the one hand and great love on the other. Particularly for those who feel a lack of love in their ordinary lives, or search for an enduring Source of love, deeper than any particular romantic or religious manifestation, a contemplative path may thus be attractive. Finally, many people seem temperamentally attracted to meditation, even going so far as to see it as tied to their own identities and their purpose on Earth.

At the same time, pursuing enlightenment carries certain costs to the individual. Many people derive satisfaction from "making a mark" or "making something of themselves," or from certain kinds of loving relationships, or from the gaining of sensual pleasures. However, the long retreat process necessary for undoing the error of self, and the resultant self-abnegation, may undermine these efforts (efforts and values which may be naturally 'selected,' even though many adherents of contemplative paths say they are doomed to fail). In addition, meditation may also uncover fear, anxieties, and other difficult emotions that are ordinarily buried by the conventional self; although some may claim these will eventually become visible in any case, certainly meditation is a difficult path of self-confrontation.

From the non-individual point of view, there are likewise many reasons for and against seeking enlightenment. On the negative side, many claim that meditation takes people away from practices which may reduce suffering or counteract selfishly-motivated activities which threaten the health of the planet. Proponents of meditation counter that the contemplative path gradually leads to more compassion and less selfishness on the part of humanity in general, as more and more people come to see themselves not as individuals but as manifestations of the One. Empirically, this claim appears to be true, although it is impossible to measure whether non-contemplative activism or the contemplative path yields "more" overall good.

Meditation does promotes several non-individual values. First, if suffering is seen as something to be minimized, then meditation is good because it promotes gentleness and compassion in its practitioners. Second, while it is not certain that life is preferable to non-life (although most humans believe it to be), to the extent that it is, then having more and more people engaged in meditation is likely good for all life forms because contemplative practice tends to lead to less destruction of life and more gentleness with respect to it. Third, even apart from the welfare of sentient life, some have noted that Being in general has tended to evolve across time toward the direction of greater knowledge of Itself from undifferentiated spacetime, to organized inanimate matter, to life forms, to human beings, and through human history toward a direction of greater understanding of Being understanding which, of course, 'belongs' to Being, not to the particular manifestations of Being which express it. If this trajectory is true, then each attainment of enlightenment is a further development of Being itself.

In some religious traditions, this last benefit is sometimes expressed as "The purpose of life is to serve God and know God."

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February 2003

Michael Shurkin

the other rally
Sam Brody

what the world is &
what to do about it
Jay Michaelson

Ron Mohring

Abraham Mezrich

what is charlie kaufman doing?
Dan Friedman

josh visits the
holocaust museum

Josh Ring

David Stromberg

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