Spiritual Enlightenment: What It Is and How to Experience It

the mystical experience of spiritual enlightenment. photo:shan sheehan

Its a ridiculous idea that I, or anyone, could possibly convey what enlightenment really is. The most accurate relationship to the matter would demand that I just shut up. Although that leaves you with nothing, thats

Whatever methods may purport to achieve such an endwhether its to be highly disciplined and monk-like, sit endlessly in contemplation, or learn to surrender to a higher powerat some point were supposed to be rewarded with a dramatic change in state, experiencing something blissfully transcendent. The good news about this view is that it encourages personal participation, as opposed to merely asking one to believe in religious, spiritual, or even scientific assertions. The bad news is that its fundamentally a false view. A change in state is irrelevant to the truth. Freeing the term enlightenment from the baggage of rumor and myth is useful if our goal is to know whats true about it. When considering what enlightenment really is, its important to get beyond the word and hearsay, and to realize that this Consciousness is prior to any idea, image, term, or belief.

Consider that at some point in human history, even after someone had already become deeply and directly conscious, there was no enlightenment. In other words, no one was seeking spiritual enlightenment; they were seeking the Truth. If the legend of Gautama Buddha is to be trusted, even he wasnt searching for something called enlightenment. He was trying to become free, to completely understand and transcend life and death. This is a different focus.

In the work of trying to personally understand what self, life, and reality are all about, enlightenment is a term used to indicate a direct-consciousness of the Absolute truth, whatever is absolutely true regarding what is. In the case of you, which is the primary subject for spiritual enlightenment, it is your true nature, what you really are, the absolute reality of your existence.

the only way to truly know spiritual enlightenment is to experience it firsthand. photo: victor bezrukov

Even disregarding how its used in other domains, the term enlightenment can be confusing. Although spiritual enlightenment is always about whats True, there are various degrees of consciousness to be had, and the term refers to all direct-consciousness, whether shallow or deep, about self or reality. While it always refers to being directly conscious of the true nature of something, its not always referring to the same subject matter or the same level or depth of consciousness.

Vernon Howard

Although defining or explaining spiritual enlightenment isnt possible with any kind of accuracy, that doesnt mean that it is ambiguous or that it is something open for debate, about which each individual should draw their own conclusionslike what kind of diet is best for them, or whether or not to believe in god. Such intellectual pursuits are a completely different matter from direct-consciousness. By definition, a direct encounter cant be found in anything heard or imagined. It also cant be found within opinion or conclusion, thought or feeling. These are all activities that relate indirectly to things. Being conscious of whats absolutely true is not something to decide about within ones world of opinions. Even though all this may be challenging to sort out, spiritual enlightenment is exactly and only what it is.

Why is it so difficult to understand the domain of enlightenment? Because comprehension comes from the mind, and the mind best grasps only what can be categorized and objectified. In other words, the way our minds work is to take meaningless indirect input and carve it up into distinct and separate aspects, and then give meaning to these distinctions as they relate to us and to every other distinction.

The word object originally referred to an item presented to the senses. What we perceive both physically and mentally is the object of perception. When we think about something that is not an actual object, we still use objectification as a mental reference, either as image, metaphor, or representation. Its the way we create and relate to whatever is imagined, perceived, or thought. When you imagine something, for example, you create an image or mental object in your mind. Since image is a function of sight, you must mentally form an object to view. In similar ways, this object-relating is involved in how we create thought, memory, emotion, and so on.

Our whole mind is framed upon object relations. For example, we speak of an emotion as if its a particular and separate thing located inside the body, and even somehow imposed upon us, it was like sticking a knife in my heart, or when we hear that someone is a political lightweight, or that a conversation was a heavy discussion. Time itself is not an object, but notice how we think of the past as a place where things happened, and the future as the next objective reality we will enter. The depth and reality of this mental framework go far beyond my simplistic examples and in ways that are difficult to describe or notice. Even with further explanation, its likely that much will be overlooked, but the reality of this matter will arise again and again. Im suggesting that this objectified framework for thinking is the foundation for our entire perceived world, which makes it well worth considering on your own.

In any case, because of this natural limitation of mind, we are challenged when tackling thought outside this framework, and further, are incapable of grasping what cant be grasped by the mind. Direct-consciousness or spiritual enlightenment is of that kind. It cannot be understood short of having it, because it does not fit into any framework whatsoever.

Because the Absolute cant be grasped by the mind, its impossible to imagine what spiritual enlightenment is. Trying to conceive of something inconceivable is doomed to failure. Since the mind functions by making distinctionsbasically knowing everything as if separate objectsand relating these distinctions to each other, this creates what we call experience and so what we perceive as reality. That being the case, the mind is ill-equipped for the job of being conscious of absolutes. An absolute lacks objective or even subjective distinctions. The Absolute truth isnt separate from anything. It is everything, but not any thing, nor is it several things or even all things. The absolute nature of Being is the source of reality and reality itself.

See? That just doesnt communicate anything useful, does it? There is no use in talking too much about direct-consciousness since it will of necessity sound like gobbledygook. Just consider that it is not anything you think or imagine. Enlightenment is not a change of state, an experience, a conclusion, or a philosophy. Its not even an insight or realization. It is not a function of the mind or perception, which is all we have access to. It is only you. It is the thing itself. That is why we call it direct. But as Ive said, even direct is too far.

to experience spiritual enlightenment is to transcend the mind.

Using the word direct implies immediate and without buffer, but even that implies a separation, as though some action needs to be taken to be direct. This is not the case with spiritual enlightenment because you are already there, so to speak. There is no action, there is no perception, there is no separationno matter how infinitely small or close. There is NO separation, NO process. It IS you. It IS reality. It IS the nature of existence. It is NOT a perception of these. It is NOT an experience of any kind, subjective or objective.

You can see then that if your mind struggles to identify and so know the object (physical or ethereal) that is your true nature, it can never happen. We must consciously be in the very same place and reality that is the thing-itself. So if we use a term like direct experience, it is only for lack of any more accurate means of conveying whats meant. Thats to be expected, however, since no term or idea can be accurate. Spiritual enlightenment is not something experienced, and although direct is the modifierindicating something different about this use of the word experienceit will inevitably be misunderstood.

Nothing in our culture or language can adequately represent thisConsciousness. One reason is that almost no one ever has such deep direct-consciousness and so there is very little that is widely sharedwhich is necessary for something to be culturally acceptable and known by people in general. Yet even if it were represented and we had ways to speak about it that were more closely aligned with whats true, these would still only be representations and not the real deal. More than any other aspect of human existence, enlightenment can only be grasped directly. Short of that, it cannot be understood.

Lets try to clear up what I mean by experience since its crucial to this discussion. Your experience, in this moment and every moment, is all that you know and perceive. It is everything you are aware of in any wayyour internal state, mental activities, what you perceive as your environment, everything you feel or sense, intuit, imagine, remember, think, believe, and even the influence of the content of your unconscious mind. It is the whole world for you; it is what you experience as you and reality, others, and everything else.

Think of it this way: There is nothing in your awareness that is outside of your experience. If you think there is, then you arent grasping what Im calling experience. People with a spiritual bent or imagination often seem to hold that they can experience something outside of what Im referring to as experience. If youre doing that, stop it.

Experience is created by mind; and the predominant, although not exclusive, contributor to this knowing of our reality is perception. Perception is not a direct encounter of what isit is always indirect, different than, and separate from whatever is perceived. Spiritual enlightenment requires a direct-consciousness of the truth, not an indirect perception or experience. Our consciousness is stuck within this indirect perceptive-experience. Its as if we are looking out from rather than being conscious of the very place we exist.

The perceived reality in which we live is very difficult to get free of because its nature isnt recognized. Our perceived-experience is a bit like being in a dream. Within the dream, no matter where you look or what you do, there is nothing outside the dream world that constitutes your entire experience. Grasping that its a dream will suddenly end the search because it becomes clear there is nothing within the dream that you could possibly use to free you of it. This is because the perceived dream reality itself is not real. Once you wake up from the dream, that entire perceived reality falls away. The problem with this analogy, however, is that when you wake up, you are immediately in a very similar reality. Its basically the same kind of perceptive-experience, with the added distinction of being the real one, allowing you to make a distinction between the dream world and the real world, grasping that the dream world isnt real. But youre still stuck in perception and experience, and the context of object-reality.

It is this object context that creates the most significant difference between these two worlds. Because of this context, we see that in the dream world there are no lasting consequences, while in the real world there are. This difference makes it almost impossible to deny the reality of our real world. The thing is, nothing needs to be denied. Its the true nature or absolute reality that were considering. Whatever is true about the world is already true. Our problem in grasping that, however, is a lot like searching within a domain that can never provide the answer. In that way, this analogy of the dream worldwhere there is no way out of that experience without grasping the true nature of itis apt.

Enlightenment is not an aspect of experience or mind on any level or in any way. This is not to say that ones mind goes unaffected when having an enlightenment experience. It is affected, and always in a positive way. There is increased freedom from previously binding aspects of mindnot every aspect, and usually not most, but some. This may be why, in some circles, it has come to be called a spiritual enlightenment experience. But any changes in ones experience or mind are not the enlightenment itself. This often goes unnoticed, even by people having some direct-consciousness.

Accompanying a spiritual enlightenment is often a temporary euphoria, the length of which depends on the depth of the consciousness. This doesnt mean that having an insight or realization and being euphoric about it constitutes an enlightenment. The only essential aspect of spiritual enlightenment is an increase in consciousness, and specifically becoming directly conscious of the true nature of some aspect of existence. From this consciousness, the mind will create some form of knowing whats true in the matter. It will be as accurate as the mind can be, but it will not be the consciousness itself. You may have a genuine insight or realization but, without this clear consciousness that is the same as the thing itself, you have not had an enlightenment.

When you have a genuine spiritual enlightenment, you become conscious that your nature is nothing. You have no quality, no aspect, and you exist in no location, so there is no objective aspect for the mind to grasp. The true nature is absolute, and so paradox is an aspect of this consciousness, making it incomprehensible to the mind.

Although much of this cant be understood prior to having an enlightenment or twowhich I highly recommend for everyonethe idea at least provides a possibility to which you can relate in some way. Yet I cant overemphasize that this is not something to believe. If you believe what I said about being nothing, etc., then you are believing in the wrong thing. No matter what you think or believe about this, it is not the truth.

Having an experience about which you might say there is nothing or you experienced emptiness or some such, is NOT an enlightenment. It is a perceptive-experience, and any experience is a function of mind. People who work hard to contemplate these matters can and do come up with many altered states, realizations, conclusions, and experiences, many of which might be described in similar terms. But these are not direct-consciousness. Spiritual enlightenment is a consciousness of the true nature of you, not an experience of any kind. These statements about enlightenment are made only to provide a springboard from which to leap, and to shake up the fixed mind-set about something that is literally inconceivable. Please hear them in that context.

The Consciousness that is enlightenment is grasping the Absolute truth about the nature of existence (fill in the blank as to the existence of what). It turns out that there is absolutely nothing here, but this isnt an absence of anything, nor separate from what is, because it is existenceits not an aspect or quality or perception. There is no objective reference for understanding this. What I just said will be confusing because, of necessity, you will search experience, mind, perception, thought, and feeling in order to translate whats said, and no matter what you come up with, it wont be what I meant. The Absolute truth does not and will never lend itself to something that can be thought, felt, sensed, intuited, or perceived in any waynot even in an unusual or special way.

Creating the possibility of dropping some aspect of the person you are opens the space to do so, but it doesnt do it for you. Recognizing, for example, that youre not your anger, or even one who needs to use anger as a tool to manage his needs, does not eliminate anger from your automatic impulses. It does, however, create the opportunity for you to see anger for what it is and stop using it, or begin to use it in a very different and conscious way.

This is true for any aspect of yourself, such as the idea that you are superior or worthless, wanting to control others, your fear of rejection, your habit of interrupting, your urge to smoke, the need to be right, being pretentious, or any other characteristic within your self-experience. But youll instinctively hang on to anything that is seen as you, so how is it possible to let go of it?

In order to let go of or eliminate any characteristic feeling-impulse or behavior, it must be recognized as not-you and not needed. The operative word here is recognized. Whether it is in fact not you does little unless you experience it as such. Once something is experienced clearly as not-you, the mental-emotional impulse that creates the characteristic in question can then be released from the lexicon of aspects identified as you or as a tool of yours.

Depending on the depth of your experiential consciousness, this may be as easy as simply dropping it, or you may find yourself undergoing a process of long-term hard work. No matter how it goes, the first requisite to free yourself of anything is that you recognize it is not you. Very powerful and embedded human assumptions make this difficult.

Spiritual enlightenment allows one to grasp that the self is unreal and that your true nature is inconceivable and not formed at all. This provides a platform upon which to truly transform. At this first level of direct-consciousness it is likely not to be all that deep or clear, but this distinction will eventually evolve as you become even more conscious. With this consciousness you create the possibility of more readily letting go of any aspect of your self-experience, since, with some attentiveness and work, you can see it as not-you.

In that case, it seems less like destroying something called you and is instead freeing yourself from limitations that you are not. If you hold that something is you, you cant let go of it because its you. If its experienced as not-you, then obviously you can let go of it. See how this works?

Dont confuse disliking something about yourself for seeing it as not-you. Rejection of some self-aspect isnt the same as grasping that it isnt you. The very fact that you feel compelled to reject it already acknowledges that you experience it as yourself and want that to be otherwise.

Wanting, liking, disliking, denying, ignoring, believing, and so on are not the same as the distinction of you and not-you. You can apply all these reactions to anything perceived. What makes something you is that you identify it as you. Multiple aspects exist in what you call yourself, both positive and negative. With enlightenment, you become conscious of what is really true about your nature and existencewhat you actually areand realize that you are not what you previously experienced as yourself.

But make no mistake, spiritual enlightenment is not a panacea. Simply having an enlightenment experience, or several, doesnt change you without your participation. As Ive said, enlightenment isnt the end, as people often think. Its the beginning.

Whatever occurs within the mind is never a consciousness of ones true nature. Mind is about brain and mental activity, concept and perspective, perception and experience. Your true nature is about the actual or fundamental existence of the being that you are. You are your true nature; you generate and perceive the content of mind. Consciousness isnt mind, but mind is a form of consciousness.

Becoming conscious of your true nature doesnt necessarily change the mind. Consciousness, mind, and brain arent all references to the same thing. For clarification, we could hold the brain as a tool, and mind as using the tool. Sort of like a piano is the tool and music is what arises from playing it. Music isnt the piano, and the piano isnt music, but they are related. Consciousness, in this analogy, is like the player-listener, which is neither music nor piano, but the creator of both.

Im just trying to make some distinctions here so that you have a better way to understand what Im saying. In this depiction, spiritual enlightenment is becoming conscious that you are the player-listener (sort of), and not the tool being played, or the resultant content of the playing. Dont take all this too seriously; it is just a way to provide you with an inaccurate understanding of what I mean by saying spiritual enlightenment doesnt necessarily change the mind. Grasping that your nature is neither an object (the brain) nor the activity of experiencing and understanding (the mind) doesnt change the object or activity. Only changing those changes those.

Of course, realizing that you are the player-listener when you formerly experienced yourself as music or piano would be quite an awakening. This would likely change the way the music comes out, or what is played, but much would remain the same. After all, the keys and notes are still the same ones, and most of the music has already been written. Furthermore, since so much of the brain mind has been ingrained as automatic and repeated patterns of reaction and activity that have been deemed necessary for self-survival, this forceful activity is likely to continue. It is the activity of life, and this proceeds as if of its own accord.

We need to take care not to divide up these distinctions too sharply for fear of falling into the trap of oversimplifying the matter by object-ifying everything. Unfortunately, such objectification is supported by the very use of an analogy. In fact, the analogy only works because it does just that. It divides the references into distinct and known objects that are more easily understood. This is its purpose and strength, but also its weakness. It demonstrates the assertion I made about how mind works to grasp things. This is unavoidable.

But, as can be seen within this piano analogy, there is an even greater danger of misunderstanding. Please dont hear player-listener as the observer or witness or awareness. These are already the accepted forms of self-as-consciousness and they are not what Im talking about. To make this mistake would be a significant setback. Remember, although Consciousness is not mind, mind is a form of Consciousness, so in our piano analogy, you would actually be all of it and none of it at the same time. But you will be ignorant of this fact if you are identified as any of the elements experienced, rather than the Absolute Consciousness that is you. This is why we need to take care to reach beyond the presentation of any analogy or model to seek out the truth.

Changing anything about oneself takes a personal commitment. Yet theres a cultural reason why people confuse spiritual enlightenment with transformation. Because contemplation is the accepted road to spiritual enlightenment, it appears that its a task of searching for something. This something might be held as grand, life altering, and the greatest thing since sliced breadotherwise why would anyone work so hard to pursue it? I suspect people imagine that anything with such a reputation would transform them merely upon its encounter. This is false. As Ive said, consciousness of the truth doesnt change anythingthe truth is already that way.

Becoming conscious of who and what you really are is invaluable for transformation, but this awakening alone doesnt accomplish it for you. For the most part, any personal changes that occur must be done consciously and deliberately, or else little about the self is changed. Without intervention, the automatic programmed self-mind will still tend to dominate your experience, and so, shy of profoundly deep or complete spiritual enlightenment, some ignorance or lack of consciousness will remain. Because of this, spiritual enlightenment degrades into a form of knowing but not being. This knowing is correct as a reference, but inaccurate if its considered to be the thing-itself, or the true nature of being.

Enlightenment only occurs suddenly, since it is outside of time or process. When someone has what is called an enlightenment experience, it is a sudden glimpse of the true nature of something, usually oneself. Although such consciousness is absolute and true, it is rarely universal. It isnt becoming conscious of everything, so to speak. This is obvious to anyone whos had a first enlightenment and is confused by the fact that there still remains much unknown and the self remains pretty much intact. Remember, after realizing his true nature, one of my students said, Its now obvious that I am not this mind or this self, so why do I continue to be trapped within both mind and self? This is a good question, and requires some attention.

As Ive said, becoming conscious of whats true isnt about changing anything. Most of the attachments and identifications that comprise the self-experience usually remain intact. The consciousness of your true nature doesnt necessarily provide any depth of consciousness about the workings of the self-mind. With such direct-consciousness, however, experience, self, and mind will be viewed from a different perspectivesort of like seeing them from the outside for the first time, and with the understanding of not being any of them, thus providing the possibility of not identifying with them. This creates a new relationship to all that, but it doesnt change all that.

As ones consciousness increasingly deepens, the confusion, or remaining ignorance, regarding consciousness and mind begins to clarify over time. Still, this is only likely to occur if the self and mind are studied and observed through the lens of this consciousness. Such clarity is usually a gradual process, since it occurs within the normal activities of being human and within human understanding. Although spiritual enlightenment is sudden and outside of mind, understanding is usually slow, as the mind is steadily recreated to include a new function capable of paradoxical thought. We might call that developing wisdom.

Even with this depth of consciousness and understanding, there usually remains in the mind a separation of self and being, of consciousness and perceived reality. Eventually, there should be no such separation. The entire matter of absolute existence can have nothing left out or left unconscious. Existence and non-existence cant be seen as separate or different. Enlightenment is absolute existence and must include the direct-consciousness of the self, the mind, reality, and all that is, or it isnt complete.

Eventually, when Absolute Consciousness is grasped to be the same as existence, a natural transformation must occur since, at that point, being human wouldnt be separate from the Absolute. This would change the whole foundation of experienceit would both exist and not exist, and these would be the same. This maybe an ultimate goal for some, but not for many, and is exceptionally rare. The truth is almost no one is going to achieve it. Upon his own complete spiritual enlightenment, Gautama Buddha himself didnt think people could possibly grasp it, and he was only convinced to teach because of the slim possibility that someone might. Yet this shouldnt stop anyone from pursing it, accomplishing whatever depth of consciousness can be had and freedom attained.

Albert Einstein

Most people who pursue spiritual enlightenment dont actually want the complete and Absolute truth. Perhaps they want to directly experience their own true nature and have that as an accomplishment. This is fine, and a good outcome for most. From here, transformation can be undertaken in earnest and with a much better foundation. Some sort of transformation was probably their real goal in the first place. Of course, just as in the case of spiritual enlightenment, they will find that their fantasies were wrong about transformation too; but that is how it always begins.

Although it cant be stated any more clearly, people just dont believe that spiritual enlightenment is not something perceived in any way. Since perception is how we know or experience reality, we dont imagine any other real possibility, and certainly not something weird called direct-consciousness. How can you relate to a statement such as: Absolute Consciousness does not exist in the domain of experience, and yet is not elsewhere? The response to such an assertion is to imagine that it is a very special form of experience, or a unique domain of perception. No. This is simply what can be thought when trying to conceptualize the matter. Of course, it is mistaken. It may be impossible to communicate, but it really cant be said much better than this:

The Heart Sutra

Another option would be to say that objective reality is Nothing or does not exist; and Nothing is objective reality. Here, form is everything that is or exists. Nothing is an absolute and is the true nature of form. Since its a translation as well as a reference, we can reword this description a bit without changing the meaning but perhaps clarifying the message:

That didnt help much, did it? Im sorry that its not easier to get. The above communication represents a very deep level of consciousness. This depth of realization goes beyond self and into the heart of the real nature of reality. Even those whove had their first few spiritual enlightenments dont really grasp the truth of whats being said. Although it sounds neat, doesnt it?

Enlightenment is not an experience or something experienced. It is not a perception or something perceived. It is not an object or even a subject. It isnt what you may define or figure out. It is not an idea or conclusion. It isnt a state of mind of any kind, nor a really big and wonderful world of magical phenomena. All of these things may happen, but none of them are spiritual enlightenment, no matter how hard you may assert that they are.

Enlightenment simply reveals to your consciousness that there is absolutely nothing here, and it is you, and it is reality, and it is everything. Since the mind cant hold such an absolute consciousness, this will degrade into a form of knowing that can be related to; and even those whove had such consciousness often take this knowing for the consciousness itself. They are mistaken.

If youve had a kensho (first glimpse) or two, all this may make some sense to you, although youve likely found such acknowledgments absent from the enlightenment discourse. Hearing my assertions, however, you can probably relate to them in some way. Some of what Im saying (and will continue to say throughout this book) is directed to those whove had at least one spiritual enlightenment experience. Regarding such experiences, there is precious little communication available, and most of it is kept on a very cryptic level. I understand why this is sotrying to explain these matters, one has to be willing to come off as a pontificating fool. Although my attempted communications will run into more serious challenges than that and may be misunderstood, know that Im trying to speak to you as seriously and candidly as possible.

If you havent had your first enlightenment experiences yet, much of whats said here wont make any sense, but you should hear the story and possibility anywayit plants a seedand its useful to hear that it doesnt automatically transform you, since transformation exists in the domain of process. Therefore you can begin transformation without spiritual enlightenment. Of course, enlightenment can help a great deal but much can be done without any enlightenment whatsoever. If transformation is your goal, you would be ill-advised to wait for complete spiritual enlightenment.

This article on spiritual enlightenment is excerpted with permission from Chapter 3What Is and Isnt Enlightenment of Pursuing Consciousness: The Book of Enlightenment and Transformation by Peter Ralston.

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Spiritual Enlightenment: What It Is and How to Experience It

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