Enlightenment: What It Is And What It is Not
Updated: Feb 11
If you ever stumbled upon books about spirituality and non-duality or you have been practicing meditation or yoga, it is likely that the concept of enlightenment is familiar to you. In this post I would like to talk about enlightenment from my personal experience.
Whatever it meant, I had a clear goal in pursuing this path: to become enlightened. It appeared to me a happy place from where to live life, a place devoid of suffering where everything would finally just look and feel good. I had enough of suffering in my life and I was ready for a total commitment in what, it appeared to be, a solution for all human problems. Reading about enlightenment and enlightened people sounded as if those people had solved all their problems and they had figured all out. They were finally liberated from any possible disturbance and nothing could be possibly bother them. The path appeared to be quite long and challenging, made out of many sitting hours of meditation, contemplation and who knows what else.
This is how enlightenment looked to me at the beginning of my journey and some years later I have definitely a more comprehensive and personal opinion about it.
As I already said in my previous post (link), any time we commit to explore a new territory we need to rely on experts to make our way easier and safer. Though this approach sounds reasonable in the early stages, I believe it represents in the long term not only a limitation in making new discoveries and progresses but also a danger. The danger relies in turning our guide into a sort of guru or unquestionable figure upon which our understanding totally depends on. This danger is potentially present in all branches of knowledge, from religion to science, where dogmas are formed and anyone going in a different direction is isolated, put aside and often ridiculed. Spirituality is not immune to this threat and I personally realized that a sort of brainwashing can occur during this journey turning spirituality into an intellectual practice made out of new beliefs and assumptions rather than a direct experience of whatever it entails.
Direct and personal experience is in my view the only way to turn whatever you decide to commit to into something tangible that will have the power to transform your life in better.
Most of the time, when we hear about the path toward enlightenment, we are tempted to think about great historical characters such as Jesus, Buddha or monks that have spent the rest of their life on the top of a mountain meditating. We tend to believe that we will never be that good, that this work is for few elect masters. Just to be clear isolating our self for years without any human contact is not a prerequisite to “get” enlightened, it might help though. This is to say that there is no magic formula or a better practice to become directly conscious of what enlightenment entails. In my opinion only an honest dedication and commitment to the work is truly necessary and the rest will come by itself. The best description for me of enlightenment is the realization, accessible to everyone, about what is ultimately true about the nature of yourself and the reality in which you live. For most of people this realization is a journey composed of many ah-ah moments and ups and downs that will open up new perspective about you and the world you live.
I personally do not like much the word enlightenment because it comes together with a package of expectations and assumptions that might not necessarily match the real outcome. For this reason I will use instead the word awakening because it gets closer to what actually happens once you have this realization: you wake up from the illusion you were living into for most of your life. Many spiritual teachers use the metaphor of dreaming. Most of people are spending their life sleeping, they do not realize that they are living a sort of dream (or nightmare in some cases) and spirituality functions as a sort of alarm clock to wake you up from the dream of what you thought was absolutely true. Even though there is not a specific amount of time needed to wake you up, for most of people (especially western people) it might require years of dedication, study and practice. And since we are talking about a lot of your time and some money investment, I think it is important to have a clear idea whether your initial personal motivations match what awakening truly entails. There are many false assumptions and misconceptions about awakening and I want to clearly list here what awakening is not.
Awakening does NOT include: obtaining super human powers such as walking on water or flying; developing paranormal and psychic abilities or extrasensory perceptions such as clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy and precognition; achieving human immortality (as a human you were born and you will die); miraculous healing; becoming thoughts-free; silence completely the mind. Do not expect mystical visions, do not expect to see spirits or angels, do not expect any light shedding on you, do not expect to experience any specific emotions. During the awakening process some of these experiences might occur as an outcome but they do not represent awakening itself. Many people associate awakening with some specific yoga practices, Kundalini experiences, chakra opening, fastening, specific diets, out of body experiences or with some specific states that have to be attained. It is none of this things. Some of these practices or events might help in “attaining” enlightenment but they are not strictly required.
There are reasons why people choose to meditate or to practice yoga to get enlightened instead of eating pizza but all these practices should be considered only as means to get there, not the actual thing. Pointing to an object is not the same that the object itself. Indeed, the so called spiritual seekers that are engaged in spiritual or religions practices such as yoga, meditation, chanting and prayer are just playing a more subtle ego game that might appear to be spiritually higher than something else but it is fundamentally another ego trap in trying to “attain” liberation. There is nothing wrong in practicing these activities and they do represent a great tool to get closer to the truth but ultimately they might represent a distraction.
True spiritual practice springs from, but not toward, awakening. In the words of Suzuki Roshi: “If our practice is only a means to attain enlightenment, there is actually no way to attain it. Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit is, itself, enlightenment". Spiritual practices are the most appropriate expression of awakening and even if, in our spiritual practice, it appears we are trying to attain awakening, we are actually only expressing it. Awakening is about being rather than doing.
Awakening cannot be acquired or lost: it is not about become anything else that you are not already. You looking for awakening is like the fish looking for water. It is right here and nothing has to be done, added or achieved. However, we are so used to look at reality in a certain way that we cannot see the obvious and some pointing is necessary.
The main limitation of talking about spirituality is that the final goal, that is, your true nature cannot be described or explained in words, it cannot be thought about, it cannot be communicated in any way. Mind is used to pay attention outwards, to external objects, to something that can be perceived. However, your true nature transcends words, thoughts, feeling, perceptions, emotions, state of being, sensations and nevertheless you can directly become conscious of it. In the same way that a hand cannot grasp itself, an eye cannot see itself, a knife cannot cut itself, a tongue cannot taste itself, I cannot come to you and say: “Look you are this or that”. You might ask which is then the point to spend so many words in explaining something that cannot be explained. Language and words are limited but can be used to point to a specific direction, to define the path where to look at. They can be used to make this hard work easier to be understood by the mind. What you need to do is looking at the moon and not at the finger pointing to it.
In a sense at the end of this process you will end up exactly in the same position you have started but a profound shift in Consciousness will have occurred. As a human being, you will always need to walk, eat, drink, pay your bills and make your living but the way you are going to relate with the whole world is going to change dramatically. The sense of self, the identity you are currently bound to will gradually dissolve and a larger and more inclusive self will appear. The boundaries you have created will crumble and with that the fear that is associated to the sense of identity in being something or someone in particular. Whatever you identify with needs to be protected and defended by you otherwise your sense of existence will be threatened. Fear is the price you need to pay for this identification. Fear is survival in action. Who need to survive? Whoever you think yo be.
Do you consider yourself a Christian? You will fear any other religion and culture with a different system value than Christianity. Do you consider yourself a sportive person? You will fear the impossibility to move or be active in your life. Do you consider yourself a rich and important person? You will fear poverty and mediocrity. Do you consider yourself a scientist? You will fear whatever is immaterial, paradoxical and illogical. Do you consider yourself a physical entity? You will fear death.
Keep in mind that blaming, denial, ridiculing and judging are nothing else than masked forms of fear.
Awakening will show you that whatever boundary you have imposed on yourself is illusory and that there is nothing to fear about. As a consequence fear will turn into love and compassion for others living and not living creatures and your sense of belonging with the entire Universe will increase. Even though awakening might represent the ending point, it actually represent a fresh start to live and experience life in a more conscious way without being pulled here and there by your personal and collective ego. Once you will discover that there is no physical you but that what you call you is simply an idea or a concept on which an entire personal history has been built, new doors will be accessible ready to be explored.
I will never stress enough the importance of this work and its practical implications in your daily life. Spirituality touches and influences all aspect of our society such as politics, science, religion, relationship, technology, environment and so on. It helps the human species not to focus at its personal and egoistic needs, it deflects the attention from its short term goals and it invites us to look forward for a better global society.
I consider this work priceless and infinite times more worth than pursuing anything else in life.
Thanks for reading!