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Martin LeFevre: What Is Illumination?

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

What Is Illumination?

There is a lot of talk about illumination these days, most of it throwing little light on the subject. The interest no doubt reflects a hunger for spiritual substance, as religions and beliefs slide into the ash heap of history. But can a discussion of illumination produce anything more than a halo effect?

The reader will have to decide whether the following reflections offer any insight on the subject, or just add to the confusion. My starting premise is that illumination is a real phenomenon, requiring great drive and diligence to attain. On the other hand, I’m sure that the pursuit of illumination as an idea or end causes it to recede away from one.

That said, what is illumination? The time for clothing and cloaking ‘enlightenment’ in the mists and myths of Eastern tradition has passed. Buddhism may have preserved the perfume of the creative explosion from the time of Siddhartha, but it is a vastly different and rapidly changing world now, both in the West and in the East.

Science is now man’s milieu, not tradition and theology. Through science humankind is discovering and unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos. Therefore if illumination has any actual meaning, it will have to be conveyed in the language of science.

That doesn’t mean science will encompass the phenomenon of illumination, or even provide its context. By definition illumined human beings will throw light onto the scientific enterprise, as well as the proper uses of the technologies science is now exponentially producing.

As I see it, human consciousness, produced by the evolutionary mechanism of ‘higher thought,’ is inherently separative, symbolic, and accumulative. With attention, this consciousness as we know it can give way to another order of consciousness altogether, based on direct perception and insight.

Consciousness based on thought is a function of time. But with the effortless silencing of thought in attention, the human brain contacts a timeless dimension. Of course the momentary experiencing of timelessness isn’t illumination, but it may be an intimation of it.

In my experience, the meditative state is a ‘temporary’ phenomenon resulting from taking time to sit still and observe the movement of thought to its end. Meditation is like effortlessly gathering the energy of attention into a laser within, which then pierces through the material of content- consciousness, letting light stream through for a while. Is illumination the breakthrough event when all blocks and accretions irrevocably fall away, allowing an uninterrupted radiance in the individual?

In a commentary about Siddhartha Gautama, H.G. Wells said, “when the mind grapples with a great and intricate problem, it makes its advances, it secures its positions step by step, with but little realization of the gains it has made, until suddenly, with an effect of abrupt illumination, it realizes its victory.”

After a few months without rain the late summer hills are desiccated, a shimmering sea of brown grass and thistle weeds. But as I make my way up the canyon, the stream to my right flows strong and clear and cool just a few meters away.

Preceded by her two dogs, I pass a happy pregnant woman, her bare, late-term belly protruding. A few hundred meters on, a mother and young daughter are also returning from a morning hike, the girl looking hot, tired, and bored. It’s just past noon, and when I say ‘good afternoon,’ the mother glances at her watch and replies, ‘Well it is afternoon isn’t it?’ The little voice of the daughter trails behind: “What did that man say?”

Taking long, quick strides along the mostly flat trail, I’m soon a couple miles in at a spot where the creek is waist deep. I strip down and dive out onto the surface, my hands lightly touching the stones on the bottom. I swim and float back and forth, with and against the gentle current, on top and under the water.

The water is cool, and I can hardly believe how good it feels. If there is any real meaning to baptism, of returning to innocence and being bathed new again, this is certainly it. After a few minutes in the sun, I find a shady spot to sit and observe the outer and inner movement.

Thoughts and even thinking continue for a while, but the pungent smell of dirt, water, and plants penetrate and become primary. The music of the water sounds enters and breaks up the continuity of deliberation. Thought surrenders; the brain grows still; and the mind touches realms beyond knowledge and knowing.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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