Not “Enlightenment”, but “Enlightenments”, plural. An ah-ha moment where one realizes something paradoxical, or ridiculous, or both, and suddenly gets freedom and peace (and, in my experience, a good laugh) about it.
The funny thing about the ones I’ve collected is that, until you “get” them–experience them as enlightenments–they seem like really bad news. A few years ago, I made a list of the ones of which I was aware–maybe half a dozen–and shared them with a friend. When I noticed the terrified look on her face, I realized how depressing it all sounded, and I was laughing about it.
“Are you… are you alright? You know you can call any time, any time at all, even in the middle of the night–” and I laughed. “No, no, this is good news, I promise!” and then proceeded like I was trying to explain a joke, with similar results.
The best collection of enlightenments I know is “An Eschatological Laundry List” from If you Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, by Sheldon Kopp. I’ve recreated it on the wiki here. I used to maintain a list of my own. It contained some I’d been taught or given by others, and a few I’d found on my own. The Eschatological Laundry List covers everything I’d found elsewhere though.
“We are already dying, and we’ll be dead a long time.”
When I was much younger, maybe not even a teenager, I went with my mother to an informal memorial service for one of her friends. This friend hadn’t lived in our part of the country for a long time, so there wasn’t a funeral; just a few people getting together around a campfire. My mom sang “Secret O’ Life” by James Taylor, which made an impression on me at the time. I later forgot about the service and the song.
“Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride…”
When I was probably 19 or so, I heard the song again while going through old cassette tapes. It held me completely captive, and I was terrified. I’d never considered the inevitability of death before. More than that, the idea that this is the only life I get, disturbed me at a deep level. What if I screw it up?
My “act” (Landmark jargon) is “go away, leave me alone,” and it exists to hide from my existential position that “I screwed up, and I can’t fix it.” So of course the idea of only having one life is terrifying. I am so driven to getting it right, to fixing things, thinking of no second chances seems like hell.
Of course today, I find perverse and macabre humor in telling Christians, “This is it! This is your life! You only get one! If you wanted more than one, you picked the wrong religion!” That’s not to say I’ve made peace with the idea of death; I haven’t. I fully expect to either upload my consciousness into a computer someday and discard the physical, or become a time lord and live forever, careening about the Universe in a box that’s bigger on the inside.
Still, “This Is It” is how I live. (At least when I’m paying attention.) I am like an atheist, in that I have “everything to live for, and nothing to die for.” (Ricky Gervais.)