Reflections on Jed McKenna’s “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damndest Thing”
Thoughts on the first book of McKenna’s “Spiritual Enlightenment” trilogy
Well, friends, I unfortunately have COVID-19. My wife and I spent almost two years trying to avoid it, but it came to our house anyway. We are fortunately doing well and will almost assuredly make a full recovery, so that’s good news. But one interesting symptom my littlest daughter and I have had is light sensitivity. Specifically, it’s hard to look at things like TV or computer screens right now. (I’m typing this post on my iPhone in a dark room with dark mode, in case you’re wondering.)
Reading on my Kindle, fortunately, has been totally fine, so I’ve been doing a lot more reading these last few days. Now, this might surprise you given how much I write, but I’m a terrible reader. My mind often drifts off the page into some sort of mental digression, so it’s pretty common that I have to read the same page 2–3x over if I want to grasp onto the material well.
That said, I just finished reading Jed McKenna’s book, Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damndest Thing. I started reading the book back in May of last year (like I said, I’m a slow reader) and finally finished it yesterday. For those of you not familiar with the author, Jed McKenna is actually a pseudonym for some unknown author. While many have tried to figure out the true identity of the author, his identity ultimately remains a mystery to this day. This book I just finished is actually part one of three referred to as the “Spiritual Enlightenment” trilogy. I just started reading the second book, so I have to caveat everything I’m about to share below with the fact that perhaps McKenna elaborates on some of my reflections in this post.
So this post isn’t a review, per se, as a book review is more or less an encouragement or discouragement from reading the book. To be totally honest, I don’t know if I’d recommend it to most people. I certainly found a ton of value in it, but I think you kind of have to be mentally (spiritually?) ready to read something like this.
(Mr. McKenna, if you ever read this, I apologize in advance if I botch anything you shared in your book!)
A few months back, you might recall that I wrote another post myself on what enlightenment is. To summarize that in a single statement, I would say that enlightenment is awakening to the reality that we essentially live in a dreamstate. That is, we don’t have any way of knowing that our reality is simply what we perceive, and even if we did… what difference would it make? From a human perspective, we are born naked into the world, and we die taking no possessions of this earthly life.
McKenna more or less reflects that same idea in this first book. He does a far better job at explaining it than I could, but the thing I still can’t shake is this idea of… why? I noted in a previous post that enlightenment doesn’t really have any utility because it doesn’t change the nature of reality. I think McKenna would say that utility should be a non-concern, and that’s a perfectly valid thought.
Except it doesn’t hold up well for most people, including myself.
Let me be perfectly honest with you all: I constantly struggle with that “chasing after the wind” that McKenna rightly notes is a fruitless effort. Would I like this blog to become more popular? Absolutely. Do I want that next promotion at work? Of course. These things are indeed ultimately fruitless because I’m going to die someday, and I can’t take those things with me.
I’d like to think in my heart of hearts, I’d be okay with discarding those things. My finances are in a place that while it would be difficult, I could probably quit my current job, work at McDonald’s, and still manage just fine. But the one thing I absolutely cannot shake is the love of my daughters. I absolutely refuse to stop loving my 3 and 5 year old little girls, and even the thought of trying to do so literally makes me feel sick. I would give my life 100x over to protect those little sweeties.
So what am I supposed to do with that? Moreover, what are we supposed to make of life with a post-enlightenment mindset? Again, I’m hoping McKenna elaborates further in his later books, because he obviously doesn’t take a pure nihilistic mindset. That is, it’s clear in his stories that he still actively engaged in life and obviously did not commit suicide.
As somebody who reads a lot of Ram Dass’s works, I kept coming across this idea he talks about called “ultimate devotion,” but to be honest, I still don’t really understand what he means. But in light of my recent reading of McKenna’s book, I’m now wondering if Ram Dass means this: Because we are ultimately “characters on a stage,” it only makes sense to throw ourselves into that role with full, whole-hearted devotion. This is what the best actors and actresses do in the movies. The late Heath Ledger ultimately died because he threw himself so much into the role of Joker for The Dark Knight that his body literally could not handle it.
But things can get a little dangerous with a mindset like this. Specifically consider the case of the eponymous Adolf Hitler. He certainly threw himself into his role, which caused the deaths of countless Jewish people. I think you and I would agree that that was a terrible event. Hitler is obviously an extreme example, but there are a lot more subtle ways in which people can throw themselves into toxic roles.
I’m jumping ahead a bit, but McKenna’s second book opens with a story of McKenna traveling to Los Angeles to meet with a friend, Henry. Henry and his group of highly intelligent friends discuss this plan to promote a new “spiritual movement” that, on the surface, seems very positive. These people volunteer with charities, promote sustainable living practices like recycling, and more.
Yet McKenna is basically disgusted by it all. I haven’t read far enough yet to understand why McKenna is disgusted, but if I had to guess, it has to do with the fact that these people seem very self-righteous. And when you become very self-righteous, you begin to see the rest of the world as “less than.” Again being totally honest, I’ve found myself in this trap many times. My wife frequently jabs me that I’m a super judgy person, and while I would like to “course correct” that, she’s unfortunately not wrong.
What specifically has helped me to get over that is to remember that we all are a product of some level of privilege. Modern society talks a lot about privilege these days in terms of things like white privilege or male privilege, and while those aren’t incorrect, we’re forgetting that privilege can get super deep and super specific.
Consider the homeless person living on the streets. It’s easy to judge and say that they are in their current state because of their own actions. But what if they had been born in different circumstances? A different gender, a different point in time, a different country, a different race, a different socioeconomic background? Given all those factors — which this homeless person did NOT choose — it’s reasonable to believe that in an alternate universe, that same homeless person could be the CEO of a major corporation.
(I joke with my wife all the time that we need to be supportive of McDonald’s because that’s how her parents met, and if not for McDonald’s, it’s totally possible that my wife would have never been born and thus neither would have my beloved daughters. 😂)
Likewise, the same holds true for ourselves. There’s no doubt that a lot of my personal success came from the fact that I grew up in a loving home with resources that could provide me with a good education. It could very well be that an alternate universe version of myself is living on the streets right now.
I’ve digressed from the main point of this post, but the idea of “ultimate devotion” seems to be the only natural path forward if you can temper that with ensuring the thing you’re ultimately devoted to doesn’t devolve into something toxic.
(I totally recognize that there is an argument to me made that even the things I perceive to be “toxic” are ultimately “perfect” in the sense that even the badness can be “contributive,” but I personally don’t find that to be valuable thinking. And honestly, I don’t want to talk anymore about that here because this post is already getting long enough. 😅)
Let’s go ahead and wrap up the post here. Maybe I’ll write another follow up post whenever I finish the next book, although that could be a long time away given how slow of a reader I am. Regardless of any of this is true or not, I personally find this sort of thinking to be entertaining, and I’ve always said I have the weirdest notion of what fun is! Hope you enjoyed reading this post as I had writing it! See you in the next one.