What is Enlightenment?

Featuring musings about cooking ground beef, opinions about Professor Severus Snape, and the nature of reality

Has somebody ever did or said something that instantly clicked in your head? Like somebody turning on a light bulb in your brain?

I had this happen to me once after cooking ground beef for the first time.

I don’t know why, but I had this absurd idea that if I didn’t cook ground beef just so, it would just obliterate into something totally inedible. Of course, there are better and worse ways to cook ground beef for ideal flavor (like seasoning or pattying), but I had this weird notion that I could royally screw up ground beef in general with very little effort.

I had to directly confront this reality head on shortly after my wife and I were married. She worked later than I did at the time, so she asked me to cook spaghetti with ground beef for dinner. I obliged but then about had a mental breakdown when I saw the frozen brick of beef in the freezer.

“Well, here goes nothing,” I thought. Worst case scenario, we’d be dining on the cuisine of the nearby McDonald’s if this goes south.

As you’d expect, I quickly caught hip to the idea that cooking ground beef pretty much just requires one thing: heat. Let it heat up until it gets a decent color of brown, then pull it off before it burns. Again, it might not be 5 star quality, but it’ll be edible.

I honestly was a little dumbfounded at the time. I held this absurd idea for so long that I could royally screw up ground beef that I was stunned when I found out that I could make beef for a nice spaghetti. (A staple in our household even until this day!)

If I were a more proper, Dumbledore-like character, I might exclaim something like, “Ah! How enlightening!”

Enlightening.

Enlightenment.

Somebody was using their noodle when they came up with that English word!

Note something interesting though: my reality did not change. Though I now understand that meat didn’t operate in some weird way where I had to cook it just so, the reality of cooking meat was there all along.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about enlightenment in that people believe it changes the state of your reality. Am I going to see rainbows pouring out of trees or radiating auras out of a living being’s body?

Nah.

That tree is still a tree, and that “aura” you’re picking up on is somebody’s lack of putting on deodorant this morning.

In this manner, enlightenment isn’t a difficult thing at all to achieve. All you have to do is accept base reality as it is.

And how do we determine what that single base reality is?

Science.

As Google defines it, science is…

“the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

Or in more layperson’s terms, it means agreement from everybody on what the reality of something is based on reproducible patterns.

So we know that a rock is a rock because we can put it under a microscope and see the molecular structure of a rock and know, yup, that’s a rock. You don’t have to take my word for it. I could hand a microscope and rock to a person in Madagascar, and they’d also be able to observe the molecular structure of a rock. Heck, even a kangaroo could look through a microscope lens and observe the same thing.

Where life gets tricky is with conceptual ideas. Things like love and hate. Good and evil. Heroes and villains. These conceptual ideas are ones that we can’t (or at least haven’t found a way to get) systematically describe in scientific terms. That last example of heroes and villains is particularly telling in the best of fiction stories.

Try this on for size: Would you ultimately classify Snape from the Harry Potter series as good or evil?

I honestly think you could make an argument going both ways. Allow me to digress for a minute… *spoiler territory ahead* though Rowling ultimately painted Snape as a hero in the end, I think we way too easily dismissed how Snape mentally abused a child. I know, I know, Harry is no ordinary child, but there’s no way any school would keep Snape employed, despite his “ultimately good intentions.”

(Sorry… I just had to get that out.)

Ultimately though, you and I can agree that our opinions aren’t backed by science. My microscope isn’t going to come to my rescue today. There’s no empirical way to measure the “trueness” or validity of our opinions.

And let’s be really clear here: it doesn’t even matter if we do discover an empirical, science-y way to measure the “trueness” of a person’s opinion. Why not? Because of this pesky concept we call free will. So even if you can 100% prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Snape is a hero, I can still be belligerent about the science and disagree. (Looking at you, Flat Earthers!)

At this point, you might be thinking that I’m going down a pure postmodernist route. If you’re not aware of what postmodernism is, it is — in its distilled form — the worldview that you basically accept reality in the direction that you want it to go. There are a lot of flaws with this thinking, but the most important flaw, in my opinion, is that postmodernists buy too much into the “game” they’ve crafted for themselves. An unenlightened postmodernist will fight tooth and nail to make their reality come true, even if it ultimately means pushing up against base reality to do so.

Enlightened people, on the other hand, accept reality for what it is and don’t necessarily hold things preciously. Some might call that “detachment”, and as Jed McKenna recently enlightened for me, detachment is a byproduct of enlightenment. The reason I bring that up is because Jed notes that people think practicing detachment will lead you to enlightenment. Being 100% honest here, I’ll raise my hand and put myself in that camp.

But if you think about the nature of base reality and how conceptual ideas can’t ever be grounded, you begin to approach things as you would a video game or movie. You get invested and absorbed into that reality, and while the sting of a death of your favorite character might hurt, you recognize that it’s ultimately no big deal because that movie or video game “isn’t real.”

That’s another important thing to note: detachment might be a byproduct of enlightenment, but it is not a requirement. I’m glad for this because, truthfully, detachment can be a bit of a downer, and as I noted above, I thought detachment was a requirement to achieve enlightenment. Silly me!

This is the big reason why enlightenment and “spirituality” as we traditionally define it are so compatible. Can we agree that we ultimately don’t know what’s going on here with reality? I think so. But based on how I perceive reality, I have faith that there is probably an “empirically better” way to live life. I would say there’s a high probability that we are intelligently designed (or created by God, if you will), and I can have a peek at the nature of that God through my perceptions.

My heart breaks when I see my daughters cry.

I mutter a cuss word automatically when I stub my toe.

I get a lot of pleasure from sitting underneath this tree right now typing this post on my iPhone.

Am I really supposed to believe it’s not all supposed to mean something?

Honestly, yeah. It really all could be nothing.

But that’s okay. This reality suits this body — this self — just fine regardless of my wacky opinions or beliefs. So I try now to enjoy every step of the way, holding it lightly just as I do my favorite stories. And this story has a lot of wonderful characters like my daughters, Emma and Elena.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I’m not ready to put this book down.

Machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Organizational Leadership, PMP, CSM