Enlightenment and Individuation

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Excerpted from the book Astrology Is Real

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In most schools of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, enlightenment is the consummate goal.

In Western esoteric paths, the supreme accomplishment is individuation.

What is enlightenment? What is individuation?

The number of definitions of both may exceed a million.

Here’s what Theravadin Buddhist monk and scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi says about enlightenment: “The Buddha describes his attainment as a multifaceted, comprehensive understanding, an act of penetrating the nature of reality—the nature of experience—from multiple angles. It involved understanding the four noble truths from twelve angles, the five aggregates from twenty angles, the links of dependent origination from countless angles.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi goes on to explain why he thinks the Buddha’s attainment should be rendered by the English term “enlightenment” rather than the currently in-vogue term “awakening.” He says, “The word ‘enlightenment’ better conveys this vast, profound, stable, and comprehensive level of understanding.”

Many Buddhists, especially Americans and Westerners, harbor a less technical understanding of the meaning of enlightenment. The variety of definitions is so abundant, it’s a challenge to formulate meaningful generalizations.

I like what Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Sutherland testified: “In Buddhist terms, the way things really are is enlightenment, and our experience of the way things really are is also (the same) enlightenment. It is the vast and awe-inspiring nature of the universe itself, and it is the way each of us thinks, feels, and acts when we’re aware of and participating in that vast enlightenment manifesting as us.”

Sutherland adds, “‘Enlightenment’ has an absolute quality about it, as though it describes a steady state, something not subject to time and space or the vagaries of human life. We imagine that once over that threshold, there’s no going back. But it’s far from static.”

Here’s one more message about enlightenment, from poet Ikkyu: “To all I care about, here’s a friendly tip: enlightenment is gaffe upon error upon blooper.”


What is individuation? Here are various ways Jungian psychologists and I might define it.


Can devoted seekers manage a quest for both enlightenment and individuation? I don’t see why not. “Go for it!” I say to them.

Individuation is the primary work and play of my own devotional practice. I know I’ll never finish doing it. There’s no perfect version I will someday embody. It’s an endless process I wrestle and wrangle with because it’s so fun and interesting.

Bonus! My theory is that to the degree that I individuate, I’m approximating viable versions of enlightenment—of which there are at least a trillion.


Surprise! Individuation can’t be accomplished in isolation or on the strength of epic solo struggles. It’s the opposite of rugged individualism. It is undermined by selfishness and narcissism, and it doesn’t engender selfishness and narcissism.

Individuation requires deep engagement with other creatures. How can we know who we truly are and forge the best versions of ourselves unless we interweave our destinies with those of allies and compatriots—and everyone else, for that matter?


Surprise again! For me, individuation proceeds with greatest alacrity as I seek conscious union with the Divine Intelligence, whose presence permeates every cubic centimeter of the universe.

As I merge my personal awareness with the Supernal Awareness of the Only Being in the Universe, my unique soul’s code is activated more and more. My personal genius gets the full-blast nurturing of the Ultimate Genius.

The outrageous paradox, the hilarious and sublime anomaly, is this: As I merge my personal will with the One Will, my personal will thrives.


PS: In the most sublime versions of both enlightenment and individuation, compassionate service to humanity and the earth is an essential element of the quest. I aspire to embody that devotional integrity.

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