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Martin LeFevre: What Is Illumination?

What Is Illumination?

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

The shirtsleeve weather of the previous few days suddenly shifted last night. Rain fell in the valley and snow fell in the foothills, just a few hundred meters above the city.

Black filigrees and fractals of twigs and branches of an oak grove in the parkland are set against a white and gray sky holding small patches of blue.

Well layered against the cold, I sit for three-quarters of an hour at a picnic table overlooking the creek. Many runners, bikers, and walkers go by on the single lane park road on the other side of the stream, which has become a torrent of twice its normal width and speed.

The passive observation in the deepening dusk allows one to see the beauty behind the surface dreariness of the day. As darkness begins to descend, a nearly full moon shines through the foggy skies above the bare branches of the oaks and sycamores.

Negating the observer, life springs forth within and around one. The spaces between thoughts widen, and one is soon completely clear of content-consciousness. These spaces are the silence, insight, and renewal of life.

One has to allow the contents of the mind and heart the freedom to flow unimpeded by judgment and evaluation. Thought is a stream that only stops when it is undividedly and intensely observed as a whole.

Meditation means taking the time to sit still and observe, without employing time to reach some self-projected goal. One then finds that the spaces between thoughts grow. Recent and ancient emotions pour forth, and, in the uncontrolled action of attention, are discharged.

When passive observation negates the illusion of the separate observer, attention gathers its own momentum, and the mind spontaneously falls silent. Then the present is no longer overshadowed by the past. Meditation entails effortlessly leaving the stream of content-consciousness, which is the past.

Consciousness, as we usually know it, is like a dense material that allows little light to pass through. Right observation ends the infinite regress of the observer, and allows attention to gather. Undirected attention then acts like a laser, and burns a hole all the way through the material.

The cumulative material of memory may seep back into the spaces opened up by the laser of attention. Then the mind falls back into the habit of thinking and associating--that is, the ebb and flow of the past. But one is changed, and cannot completely go back to operating in terms of thought.

What then, is 'enlightenment?' As I understand it, illumination occurs when attention remains relatively constant, so that the material of the past does not leach back into the spaces of the mind. Then one lives in a steady state of awareness and insight that is not a matter of will, effort, or choice, but seeing, being, and acting.

I don't favor Buddhist conceptions of illumination, since our linguistic and conceptual frameworks arise from the culture and times in which we live. Ours is a scientific and material age, and we need a new language for 'enlightenment' that is put in those terms. Besides, tradition impedes illumination, and can never ignite it.

Buddhism is an Eastern tradition dating from the time of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 2500 years ago. Very little is known about the life of Gautama, and his teachings were first part of an oral tradition, not committed to writing until 400 years after his death.

Though many pretend to take on a mantle of authority with regard to Gautama's teachings, or Buddhism in general, it is a false attitude, and not just because there is inherent uncertainty about the Buddha's teachings. Authority where spiritual matters is concerned is utterly antithetical to learning and freedom.

Just as transformation and illumination aren't possible in the individual without self-knowing, so too a revolution in human consciousness is not possible without individual awakening.

There have been many revolutions throughout human history; nearly all have been violent, and changed nothing essentially. Indeed, the basic course of humankind has not changed since 'modern humans' first emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago.

Now, as no other time in history, because of globalization and technology, a psychological revolution can ignite. And it certainly needs to ignite, if greed, power, conflict, and fragmentation aren't to render this beautiful planet unlivable.

Martin LeFevre


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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