Joshua Keel

I Ditched My Enlightenment Complex and Became Ordinary Again

August 23, 2019

Man on a mountain top, staring off into the distance
Photo by Elijah Hiett

I wasn’t always spiritual. I grew up as a committed evangelical Christian, but not a particularly spiritual one. I was more interested in theology than mysticism. When I deconverted and embraced atheism in my mid-20s, I disavowed all forms of religious expression and spirituality.

I carried tremendous amounts of hurt and anger toward Christianity and the people who I felt had made me suffer under life-deranging false beliefs. But as that anger cooled and my hurt turned into compassion, I relaxed my stranglehold on atheism and got curious again.

Although I felt freer as a non-believer, I still suffered quite a lot psychologically. Depression, anxiety and existential unsteadiness were still things I struggled with. I wanted to be free from suffering, and spirituality—in the form of contemporary teachers and ancient Hindu/Buddhist wisdom—promised to hold the answers.

What started off with reading a book or two in time became a full-blown obsession. I read any spiritual books I could get my hands on. I spent countless hours watching teachers on YouTube. I became part of a self-inquiry group and met like-minded, spiritual people. In short, I did anything I could to wake myself up from whatever delusions I thought I harbored.

This went on for years, sometimes with more intent and obsession than others. At times, my spiritual pursuit (of enlightenment, I suppose) was absolutely my top life priority, and at other times my enthusiasm waned. Always at the back of my mind was the idea that seeing through my illusions would bring lasting change and peace. I wouldn’t struggle anymore.

Then I read Robert Saltzman’s book The Ten Thousand Things. Robert, being a natural skeptic like me, cuts through the spiritual and religious bullshit that tends to keep us from clearly seeing the plain and simple truth of our experience. While I was reading Robert’s book, something very subtle came squarely into focus for me. I realized the extent to which I was struggling against my life, rather than simply being myself.

Shortly after this acknowledgement that I had been creating my own inner struggle, I was washing dishes, and simply gave in to the experience. I gave myself over to the reality of the moment. I’m washing dishes. This simply is as it is. My inner tension relaxed and I found myself at peace. A truce was declared in the psychological war.

After Robert, things seemed fundamentally different. I marked the shift, and even questioned is this it? Have I arrived? I wasn’t sure, but spurred on by my apparent success, I felt motivated to keep looking for that missing piece, the final answer. More of this is what I want, I thought.

But most of my psychological suffering had dissipated. My zest for life, at the same time, seemed to have left me. I felt lost and aimless, maybe because the things I had been obsessing about for years now seemed less enticing. I felt disappointed that I had not emerged into some new and beautiful spiritual state. I started to lose interest in enlightenment.

Even though I was feeling disillusioned, I began meditating very regularly, hoping to continue to break through into something more. I had been following a teacher named Tom Das online for some time. I resonated strongly with his style and approach, the way he wove ancient Hindu scriptures into his teaching, often writing commentaries on texts from legendary figures like Ramana Maharshi or Adi Shankara. So, one day I decided to contact him about a one-on-one video chat session.

We talked for over an hour. Tom was wonderful, and I felt greatly encouraged and validated. He suggested that something quite substantial had taken place in my life, since it seemed so much of my suffering had disappeared, however I may not have the fullest and deepest understanding. There may still be traces of spiritual separation—the idea of a me separate from you and the rest of the world, one of the fundamental illusions—in my thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

I was grateful to Tom, and in our next session, when he encouraged me to meditate for two hours a day in order to really go deep, I was hesitant but willing. I was already meditating forty-five minutes a day, and could certainly try increasing that slowly and steadily.

In a short time, however, I found that meditation was not fulfilling or motivating me. The more I tried to increase my meditation time and enforce the discipline required to meditate for hours a day, the more disconnected from the whole project I felt. I was forcing it, trying to do something my heart and body would not have.

So, I quit. I bought a few more spiritual books I thought could be helpful, but they sit unread on my bookshelf. In a period of a few weeks, the spiritual bug left me. I became thoroughly uninterested. I still resonate with what is taught, and I still believe in the core truth that the self is an illusion, and one best seen through.

I’m no longer concerned with seeing through that illusion, though. I spent much of my spiritual journey judging myself for not living up to an arbitrary expectation of what it means to be spiritual. I constantly caught myself thinking in ways I believed were based on illusion. If I was upset at my wife, I assumed the problem was with me, that there was something in me that needed to be fixed, and then I wouldn’t get upset anymore.

I believe my humanity was the very thing I was trying to expunge. To be angry, or sad, or frustrated, was not a common human experience, but based on an illusion of self and other, me vs. them. But how exhausting it is, to feel that way! Indeed I think the essence of delusional preoccupation is to make much of what happens in this human body, to take it personally, and to turn what is natural into a problem to be solved.

This humanity I was fighting against is beautiful in its brokenness, flawed by evolutionary design. What a relief not to need to make it better through spiritual effort! I really believe all my life I have been wanting to be rid of the baser aspects of my personality. I desperately want to be a good person, to believe of myself that I am OK, and to do the least harm possible to others.

My spirituality was in some way a pernicious attempt to eradicate the parts of myself I had not accepted—could not accept. It’s rather amusing to realize that the very thing spirituality is all about—acceptance—is something I could not find because I was too busy pushing parts of my inner self away.

These days, thoughts about spirituality have receded to the background. The biggest challenge in my life is not psychological suffering, but building a meaningful and fulfilling career. I focus my attention there. And I’m far from perfect as a partner, employee, friend and family member. But there’s an element of humor now in my imperfections, an ability to just relax and let go into whatever vulnerable human experience I happen to be having.

I have learned that the best way to not be upset at my wife is to communicate calmly and clearly what I actually mean, and to be emotionally open with what I’m feeling and thinking. When we quarrel, we allow our love and honesty to carry us through the small bits of hurt to the other side—a deeper love, based on truer knowledge of self and other.

When we make peace with ourselves, with our deeply flawed personalities—which, like everything else that appears in our lives, we did not choose—sometimes we stumble upon a peace and joy that is untroubled by the presence or absence of feelings like fear, anger and sadness.

That is the real spirituality, the one that meets life in the trenches. Life has already been accepted, already allowed. We don’t have to accept, just notice that everything that comes and goes in our awareness has a right to be there—dark as much as light, hatred as much as love.

I’m not so spiritual anymore. I don’t spend my time trying to see through the delusions of my own mind—at least not in an effortful way. Life is extremely ordinary now. There’s nothing high-minded about it. I’m simply moving through life in the best way I know how at any given moment, wanting to appreciate and fully live it, to the best of my ability.

I’m extraordinarily grateful for the spiritual journey I’ve taken for the last few years. It has shown me much about myself, the world and others that I would have missed. I could have gone the great majority of my life without thinking much about why my conscious experience is the way it is. Psychological suffering in the form of worry, guilt, blame, etc. is very real, and very worth endeavoring to be rid of. Spirituality can be a powerful tool for that.

But in the end, we’re all just human—trying our best to make the most of our brief lifespan. We humans have limits. We are not, and will never be gods. You don’t have to spiritually wring your hands or wait for some bolt of lightning from heaven in order to be happy. Ordinary human life, when we are not keeping it at arm’s length, is a beautiful thing. We all, no matter our circumstances, have much to appreciate, if only we will look.

I hope you will.