Demystifying Enlightenment

An Interview with Stephen Cope

In this fast-paced age, the often-overwhelming realities of daily life may leave us feeling uncertain about how to realize our life’s true purpose. Stephen Cope, a psychotherapist and senior Kripalu Yoga teacher, says that in order to have a fulfilling life we must discover the deep purpose hidden at our very core. In his latest book, The Great Work of Your Life, he describes the process of unlocking the unique possibilities harbored within every human soul, and here, he gives us an overview of that process.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Why does enlightenment seem so mysterious?

Stephen Cope (SC): What I love about the eastern contemplative traditions is that enlightenment isn’t seen as a mystery, as we think of it in the West. It’s a set of skills that most anyone can practice and master. I’m enamored by the research on practice showing it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any number of complex cognitive skill sets. Coincidentally, if you look at research on mastering meditative attainments, it also shows it takes monks about 10,000 hours to master the most difficult meditative skills.

IYM: Would you give us a psycho-spiritual view of enlightenment?

SC: Enlightenment is the cultivated, or developed, capacity to see how things really are perceptually and to see through what Yoga calls the four erroneous beliefs. The first is the erroneous belief in the permanence of self and objects in the world. Seeing through that allows us to see the true extent of the flux of all things, impermanence and change. The second thing we need to see through is the idealized ego that sees itself in charge of the world; that sees itself as omnipotent. This is what we call in the West: narcissism, the preoccupation with “I, me, mine.”

Narcissism really describes the ego that feels fragile, fragmented and on the verge of falling apart. At its core is a very immature internal idea about the solidity and grandiosity, the magnificence and largeness of the ego. This manifests as distorted and erroneous ideas of how important we are, that the world revolves around us, that we run the world. The treatment of narcissism involves the gradual scaling back of and seeing through this idealized ego—and ideally involves a whole series of optimal disappointments. The ego, from an enlightened perspective, isn’t to be rejected but rather to be seen through. The third thing to see is the radical extent to which raga-dvesha saturates our experiences and creates suffering. It is stunning to face the extent to which our consciousness is constantly stained by grasping and aversion, and seeing this changes the way we are in the world. The last erroneous belief concerns the nature of the self. The enlightened view is to see through the solid view of the self under its own power and to instead realize the true interdependence of the self. The self is much more contingent than we normally understand.

IYM: In the 1970s, many thought of enlightenment as a kind of permanent drug “high.”

SC: It’s true [laughs]! Our communities had elaborate ideas of enlightenment. For example, we had an idea that died very hard at Kripalu, about the diamond body, the divine body. Some thought that Bapuji (Swami Kripalvananda, the namesake of Kripalu) had attained the divine body. Those who massaged him even talked about him not having internal organs. This kind of magical thinking abounds when there is an immature understanding of enlightenment. These kinds of things get very elaborated. When we were younger, the longing for this construct we had about enlightenment was very strong and we were throwing ourselves against the wall of sadhana—waking up at 4:30 a.m. to do many hours of practice, eating weird, exotic diets and so forth.

There were great, immortal Gurus of the Himalayan traditions. Dadaji, which is how we referred to Swami Kripalvananda’s teacher, was believed to be one such immortal being. Dadaji appeared to Bapuji when Bapuji was suicidal and in the midst of what we would today call a spiritual emergency. Bapuji had been going through a great deal of confusion about who he was and what he was supposed to do in his life. It was at that point that Dadaji appeared to him and Bapuji lived and studied with Dadaji for over a year. Bapuji was perfectly sanguine about the real nature of enlightenment in his tradition. He said the attainment of the divine body and immortality happened only once every 500 years or so. It’s not something to which we can reasonably aspire. What happens in enlightenment, which many of us thought to be an altered state, becomes altered traits of character.

IYM: How does that work?

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.