12 Enlightenment Charlatans

Peter Gould

The essayist H.L. Mencken is supposed to have said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” We take that to mean that dumbing down one’s commercial message can be very very profitable.

I would add, no one ever went broke underestimating American Exceptionalism. We are good at proclaiming ourselves Number One, from Sea to Shining Sea, God-protected, the best of everything, anywhere, ever! According to us, we don’t have to do what everyone else does; we are exempt.

This attitude, which we start breathing right after we get slapped into taking our first gulp of North American air, breeds a kind of proselytizing energy that is unique in the world–especially now since its opposite, crusading communism, has pretty much vanished from the world. This energy is there to be used by any persuasive charlatan offering a quick salvation. (Oh, even if genuine communism has vanished in most of the world, the fear of it remains, and can be used as an organizing principle. But that is another story.)

We have peddlers, mountebanks, hucksters, evangelicals, science deniers, itinerant preachers, apocalyptics, creationists, and some politicians, all bent on proclaiming that their faith or their -ism is the best. Some of them even want you to join their army! Their army of patriotism, anti-vaccinationism, Trumpism, Stop the Stealism.

On the planet of Mindfulness, we even breed a western style teacher of Buddhism and meditation who wants you to follow his or her way at the expense of any other way, and who holds out to you the carrot, gift, prospect, of ENLIGHTENMENT! And, HAPPINESS!

I’m here to tell you that enlightenment does not exist. I guess I have been saving this tough news till most of the chapters of this Reader are under our belts.

There is almost no creep creepier than the one pretending to have seen it, or to actually still have it. In the smiling photo, the flash of teeth is scary. Nobody has more teeth than a grinning enlightened mindful North-American—usually white, typically male, often suburban, some variant of lapsed Catholic, moderate Christian, or non-observant Jew.

There is nothing permanent called enlightenment. Sorry! At best, maybe you will chance upon a flash of something—call it insight, call it deep calm—that may last a second, like a lightning flash, and as soon as you say look: there it is, it’s gone. As Juliet says, “…too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say, ‘it lightens!’ ” Well, to stick with that metaphor, maybe like a lightning bolt your flash may leave something behind. Like: a split open tree trunk, a scorch mark on the earth, a shattered boulder, a charred fencepost, a burning house, a rock that’s suddenly worth a lot of money, a blackened corpse… This moment of insight you have may leave behind something recognizable like that, in you, after it’s gone. I hope that it does, because it can help to define the rest of your life.

The reason that the huckster wants you to buy into his vision of enlightenment (whoops, there is that favorite American word: “buy.”) is that they often have something to sell. They have a product: a book, a CD, a crystal, a diet supplement, an aroma, a seat cushion, a magazine subscription, a club you can join, a series of classes, a channel, a retreat at a drop-dead gorgeous elite gated community in the redwoods just north of San Francisco.

Okay, maybe some of these hucksters have nothing to sell. Then, I don’t get to call them hucksters. Agreed. I might call them something else. They still want you; they want your affirmation, your participation. Then, when they have landed you, their smile grows even wider.*

You do not need a product; you don’t need a leader. You don’t need to buy anything. You don’t need to go on a retreat, you don’t need to sign up for some religious faith. You don’t need to show up in the Temple. You don’t need to beat yourself over the head or the back because you haven’t reached sublime satori yet. There’s nothing anyone can give you to make it come quicker.

Actually, like with love-making, you may even want it to come slower.

It’s your work and your work only, and anyone who claims that enlightenment–or indeed any degree of spiritual salvation–is a gift from outside, or a benefit of joining up, or right inside this Amazon Prime box—the packaged answer to your packaged prayer—is a HUCKSTER!

Nowadays we have to watch out more and more for hucksters–they’re all around and they have more platforms than they used to: no longer just the old panel truck with a scratchy P.A. on the roof, no more the county fair with the revival tent set up next to the girlie show, no more the heaped-up table in the market or street corner with the skinny guy with bad teeth peddling snake oil, liver pills, dried-up comfrey, suspicious mushrooms, coyote fat. Now they have shiny magazines, cable TV, websites, apps, mega-Temples, golden ashrams, endangered-alligator-skin attaché cases full of named pharmaceuticals—-

Forget all that. You can do it all for free, all on your own. Just make yourself comfortable and quiet. Relax. Sit, breathe, and spiral down for fifteen minutes, and maybe some of the more superficial things about you and your identity will peel away or at least let light through. Maybe one or two of the semi-automatic systems in your mortal coil (the ones you rarely think about) will get the memo that times have changed, temporarily. Maybe therefore an organic process you’ll never understand will stimulate a signal you can’t feel, which will release a chemical you can’t name, in a part of your brain you could never find, and a chain reaction will begin: slowing your breathing more, evening out your lub-lub-lub, balancing your spinal fluid flow, warming your hands, changing the electricity in your amygdola and hippocampus, strengthening your immunity to bad germs, bad thoughts, and bad people—and while you’re doing this, you’re fortifying yourself against charlatans, in a place where no one else can go.

If you ask me, that’s enlightenment. Lightening your heavy load. Letting light in. For the sake of clarity. It’s not something at the end of the road. It’s all there for you right away, as soon as you begin.

*Here is an updated warning, in our new age of #MeToo: One of the Buddhist teachers, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, whose writing is admired and shared in classes around the world, has had to resign with hasty enforced apologies to all the women he abused while occupying his venerable position. It seems he wanted much more than their mindful participation. He sensed great opportunity for himself in the vulnerability of his followers. He is surely not the only one. 



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The Inner Peace Outer Peace Reader Copyright © by Peter Gould & John Ungerleider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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