Enlightenment experiences of Robert Forman

In 2010, Robert Forman wrote a book entitled Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be. It is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B005S0KF8E.

His book honestly describes his experiences of enlightenment including features that don’t match the hype promulgated by the Bhagavad Gita, spiritual traditions, and many gurus. His book title alludes to the fact that his enlightenment did not lead to bliss, unshakeable equanimity, and an end to all suffering.

Robert Forman was a teacher of Transcendental Meditation who had an awakening experience in December 1971 while on his TM teacher training course (TTC) in Mallorca, Spain. For several days on TTC, he felt pins and needles on his skin. Later he felt as though some kind of tubes at the back of his head were opening up; although this was not a classic kundalini awakening, it left him with what he considers to be the classical awakening state.

Robert had significant depression and anxiety issues in the years prior to his awakening experience. He also had depression and anxiety issues for years after his awakening even though the unbounded silence/nothingness had become his identity. Through psychotherapy, he came to terms with panic attacks and not being the person he wanted to be while around his wife and colleagues. Besides being provocative, his book title of “enlightenment ain’t what it’s cracked up to be” was his opinion based on his experience.

A quote from his book: “Behind everything I do now is this bottomless emptiness, so open as to be without end. I have grown accustomed to the fact that this is now me. Not me doing dishes, not the me that is worried or writing a paper, not the me that feels alone or scared or happy. But it is the me that watches and lives and holds it all. I am, strange to say, infinite. And astonishingly, miraculously, the old me is here as well.”

Robert Forman comes with credentials that bolster his announcement that he is enlightened. After TTC he struggled teaching TM, and he struggled working in his father’s business for a while, but he eventually succeeded in education by earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at Columbia University, specializing in the study of mystical experiences. He has been a professor of religions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, Vassar College, Union Theological Seminary, and the New School for Social Research. He has taught courses on mystical experiences and spiritual goals of every tradition. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Forge Institute for Spirituality and Social Change. He is also the author of ten scholarly books on spirituality, mysticism, and world religions.

Dr. Forman agrees with the poet Coleridge and others that spiritual knowledge steers spiritual experience. He states that history, training, and expectations may actually shape the neural pathways that make religious experience, BUT there are some experiences (such as his awakening) which are so surprising and unexpected that the experience could not have been triggered by spiritual knowledge.

To religious/philosophical scholars, the view described in the last sentence above is called Perennialism and leads to the opinion that mystics from different religious traditions can have the exact same experiences. The opposing Constructivism view holds that there is no innate experience free from mental and cultural constructs and also that there is no objective, numinous reality.

Dr. Forman participated in some publicized debates between Perennialism and Constructivism that are known as the “Katz-Forman debates”. Points and counter-points are at the following website https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/.

Dr. Forman said he knows lots of enlightened gurus and spiritual teacher/leaders, but he doesn’t know any who don’t have “stuff” to work on; if you hear a guru say that he doesn’t have an ego, Dr. Forman advises, “Run!”

Interview links

His interview on Buddha at the Gas Pump is at https://batgap.com/robert-k-c-forman-ph-d/.

His interview at ConsciousTV is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHl0hivK180&t=2887s.

Dr. Forman’s own website is at http://www.robertkcforman.com/about/about.htm.

My conclusion

Even if a state of enlightenment does indeed exist, many gurus and spiritual traditions have exaggerated the merits of enlightenment while not adequately mentioning possible unwelcome aspects of enlightenment. If seekers knew this, they might make different choices in their lives.

The internet age is fostering truth-telling about gurus, spiritual experiences, and spiritual movements. Today’s spiritual seekers have a huge advantage in having access to the inside stories whereas spiritual seekers from the past only had the hype and “official stories without any of the dirt”.

Robert Forman, some gurus, and some spiritual seekers are being much more forthright about their experiences than the “previous enlightened” from decades and centuries ago. It is laudable that they are truthfully revealing hardship in awakening and aspects of awakening that were hidden from previous seekers. Still, the skeptic in me wonders if the truth-tellers are holding back somewhat in order to paint themselves and their spiritual practices in a nice light.

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