When east meets west in the consulting room
Walter Truett Anderson
Several decades have come and gone since Eastern enlightenment traditions, such as Buddhism, began migrating into the Western world, and by now, just about everybody has some idea of what the word enlightenment is supposed to mean. Ask the average person on the street and you're likely to be informed that it's a state of near-supernatural wisdom attained by great spiritual leaders, and also by students who find the right guru and faithfully absorb his teachings over many, many years. This state involves a loss of ego and an awareness of unity with the cosmos--hence the famous joke about the Zen master who said to the hot-dog salesman: "Make me one with everything."
That description isn't entirely wrong, but it leaves out a lot. One of the things it leaves out is the fact that enlightened beings are still human, with human kinks in their character and human gaps in their knowledge. This is an important omission that feeds the spiritual hero-worship so prevalent among seekers
after enlightenment. The common understanding of enlightenment also leaves out most of the human race. Not included are people who aren't spiritual, who don't study with a teacher of Zen, Hindu, or Sufi lineage, or who do study, but find that the teachers don't quite speak their language.
Fortunately, a more comprehensive view of enlightenment is now emerging. Building on inquiry across a number of fields, together with the rediscovery of much wisdom of the past, it considers enlightenment as an ongoing restructuring of consciousness through which individuals form a different idea of who and what they are, what's real, and how the world works.
In this emerging view, we can begin to see enlightenment as a quite real and thoroughly natural development in the lives of individuals and the evolution of the species. It involves experiences that happen in varying degrees to many people more or less like you and me, all over the world, in all kinds of contexts, and it involves an understanding of self and the universe that's surprisingly compatible with the worldview offered by 21st-century science. This way of looking at enlightenment doesn't deny the great value of the wisdom that's come our way from Asia, but it puts those teachings into a larger context and opens the door to a new concept of human nature--of what we are and what we may become.
This restructuring of identity may take place gradually over time, like the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It may also be marked by one or more powerful aha! experiences like those that often occur in psychotherapy, in which the client suddenly recognizes that she's been seeing herself and her problems within a certain framework of assumptions, and that entirely different frameworks are available. And it happens to different people in quite different ways.
A Matter of Death and Life
You can see some of the elements of this alternative view of enlightenment in the experience of a man named Steve Berkov, whom I've interviewed several times. When he went into therapy, he was about 40. He was an emergency-room physician with an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pharmacology who'd been having unexplainable dizzy spells that interfered with his work. He went to see a neurologist. A CAT scan revealed a shadowy spot in the left side of his brain that appeared to be a brain tumor, an astrocytoma. If it were that, the prognosis was clear and devastating: he had a short while to live, probably not more than a few months. His therapist was Abraham Levitsky, a Gestalt analyst in the San Francisco area who was a student and friend of the late Fritz Perls. In therapy, Steve was hoping to get some help in dealing with this new development, which he describes as "absolutely terrifying." He had to make an abrupt transition from being a man in good health with a lot of living ahead of him to one staring death in the face. …