What is Enlightenment?
One of the slipperiest concepts on the spiritual path is enlightenment.  What is it, how does one search for it, how do you know when you’ve “got it”?  In this article I’d like to explore my personal take on the topic of enlightenment.  I hope you find it en … no, I won’t do that to you…

Before we dive into that topic though, let’s take two small steps back.  Enlightenment is just one of three similar ideas that are all intertwined.  The other two are awakening and awareness.  In order to set the stage for our discussion of enlightenment, we need to look at them first.


Awakening is probably the easiest idea to grasp.  One moment you’re cruising along happily through life, fulfilling your social roles, believing the things your culture tells you are true, responding to events as you have learned to do, and generally not worrying too much about what, if anything, might be going on underneath it all.  The next moment something happens that throws all your comfortable assumptions out the window, as you find yourself careening off the beaten path.

Just as a sharp noise may wake us from a physical sleep, it usually takes a sharp event to wake us from our dreaming life.  Often it’s a trauma of some sort – the death or illness of a loved one, your own illness, the loss of a job.  It may happen at the bleak bottom of a depression, as it did to the modern spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. He was on the brink of suicide when he had two thoughts.  The first was, “I can’t live with myself any longer.” The second thought was, “That’s odd – who is the “I” that can’t live with “myself”, and why do they feel different?”  With that question he awoke.
On the other hand, some people awaken themselves deliberately through practices like meditation or inner inquiry.  They hear of the concept of awakening, either through reading or meeting someone who is awakened.  The value of the awakened state speaks to them on some level, so they pursue the practices that have been known through the ages to encourage it.

Regardless of whether our awakening was voluntary or involuntary, the outcome is the same.  Once we awaken, things change.

It can feel as though the world has acquired an extra dimension.  Relationships become richer, the world becomes at once more transparent and more mysterious.  Our values may change – things that had been overwhelmingly important when we were asleep may now seem trivial, and things we barely noticed now consume our attention. We may change our careers, develop new interests, or change the objects of our passions.  The concerns of those sleep-walking around us may suddenly seem petty and constricted.

It goes without saying that such a profound shift in our world-view may be disconcerting to our friends, family and loved ones.  It may even rupture some relationships.  Amid such upheaval, some may look at what we are doing as stupid; some may see it as courageous.  In truth it is neither.  If you come across the famous quote of Martin Luther, you will understand it instantly: “Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders” – Here I stand; I can do nothing else.


Once we have awakened, the next step is to develop this new awareness.  It might feel as though we are having recurrent mini-awakenings as we investigate this new yet strangely familiar world around us.  Our new mantra may become, “Pay attention!”  As we become used to being in a relatively constant state of curiosity, we start to notice deeper aspects of the world.  But more importantly for this journey, we begin to notice our own reactions to the world.

Some of our reactions may be pleasant, for example a deepening of our love for others in our lives.  Some may become decidedly unpleasant, as we keenly notice our negative reactions to some of the things people do or say.

As we look for ways to protect ourselves from those unpleasant feelings, we run into a problem.  When faced with such feelings, people who are still asleep have the dubious luxuries of denial, distraction and blame.  “It’s not really important,” they may think, or “I’m just misinterpreting things,” or “Just try and think pleasant thoughts,” or “Why is that guy being such a complete jerk?”

People who are awake and aware have no such refuge.  We have to live with the feelings as they arise, and find other ways of dealing with them.  Luckily, others have been here before us, and their techniques are widely available.

The first lesson is “You own your own reactions.”  Someone may say something that is intended to hurt you, but whether you accept their intention and feel hurt is entirely up to you.  Their desire to hurt you is their “stuff”, not yours.  You can’t control their inner mechanisms that make them want to say things like that.  All you can control is your own reaction.

A wise teacher of mine says that the clue that you are not in control of your response is if it takes one of three forms.  If your immediate reaction is to attack, defend or blame, then it’s a good bet you’re reacting to a trigger that is rooted somewhere besides the immediate situation.  We’ll explore reactions a bit more later on.

The second and most important thing we need to do is to develop what is called our inner witness, our observer, or Big Mind. Although this may sound mysterious, it’s really not.  All of us have this capability, but most people never find out about it.

It’s simply the ability to take a step back from ourselves, to adopt a detached, non-judgmental attitude toward what we’re feeling.  The witness sees everything that’s going on, but simply lets it be.  The witness doesn’t interpret, evaluate, weigh, compare or react.  It simply observes whatever is happening, inside and out, and lets it be just as it is.  It doesn’t even accept what’s happening, just as it doesn’t reject.  The witness simply observes.

A couple of remarkable things happen as we practice simply witnessing events and our responses to them.  First, we notice that our reactions come in waves of emotions and body sensations.  As we watch them, we notice that, like waves on the ocean, they rise and fall, come and go.  When we are in the grip of one of these waves and are not witnessing it, we may feel that it represents some permanent, immutable Truth about ourselves or the situation (in fact that feeling is a clue we can use to alert ourselves that we are in reaction).  If we engage our witness, however, we discover that these thoughts and feelings are transitory, and if we simply wait and do nothing about them, they subside on their own.

The next thing we notice is that as we gain experience with observing the rise and fall of our feelings, we become much less prone to the “attack, defend or blame” reactions.  As we come to accept that these feelings are temporary, and we can catch them as they begin to happen, they lose most of their power over us.  We start to understand that we don’t need to respond to “other peoples’ stuff” by attacking them, defending ourselves, or blaming them for our feelings.  We begin to see that doing such things makes the situation worse and isn’t worth the emotional energy we expend on it.

The best technique I’ve found for strengthening my observer or entering Big Mind is simple meditation.  Don’t do anything fancy.  Just sit and close your eyes, and notice what’s going on in your body, your emotions and your mind.  Don’t try and do anything about it, just notice it.  Don’t try and quiet your thoughts, because you can’t anyway.  Just notice them.  Don’t try to suppress your emotions, even if they are negative – just notice them.  Notice any body sensations that arise with your thoughts or emotions.  Just notice.

Think of yourself as a guest house, and all these sensations, feelings and thoughts are the guests.  They take up temporary residence, but then they depart.  Just notice them.


So at last we come to enlightenment: the holy grail of the spiritual quest; the ineffable, eternal mystery.  What can I say about it?  What can any of us who have not experienced it say about it?

Let me say right off the bat that I’m not enlightened and I don’t know anyone who is.  I know a very few people who seem to be pretty close, but that’s about it.  What follows are my personal impressions (aka opinions) of what it is and isn’t. They may not match yours, which is as it should be – enlightenment is about the most personal experience there can possibly be.

Let me start with what I think enlightenment is not.   If this is your goal you may reach it by pursuing enlightenment, but you will not reach enlightenment by pursuing this goal.

Enlightenment is not “union with the divine”.
  Now, my view on this may be coloured by the fact that I’m an atheist and had to do some fancy inner work to come up with acceptable definitions of words like “divine” and “sacred”.  The feeling of union with the divine is much like what the Buddhists call “nirvana”, the Hindus call “moksha”, or what the Dalai Lama meant when he asked the hot dog vendor to “Make me one with everything, please.”  An enlightened being may have this feeling, but unenlightened ones like yours truly can have it too.  In fact, the hallucinogenic drug LSD (among others) is famous for giving glimpses of this state, so strongly that many devotees have mistaken it for enlightenment.  This oceanic feeling is not evidence of enlightenment, as far as I can tell, though enlightened beings apparently spend more time there than the rest of us.

So what do I think enlightenment is?  To ease into it sideways, I think the main prerequisite to enlightenment is integration, and the greatest obstacle to it is reactivity.

I believe enlightenment requires us to be fully integrated as human beings. That means digging up all our psychological crap, figuring out where it came from and what hold it has on us, in order that we may reclaim all the hidden, shadowed and disowned parts of ourselves. Unless we do this, we can achieve only acceptance of who we are, but not full integration. As I described above, we can develop our witness or observer and in the process arrive at an acceptance of our thoughts, feelings and sensations.  However, if we achieve only acceptance but not the integration that comes from resolution we will still fall prey to our unconscious programs and filters that bind us in reactivity.

Similarly, drugs like LSD can, if used properly, help us see ourselves more clearly and accept who we are more easily.  However, without doing the work of peeling our inner onion layer by layer we will never fully integrate. No integration, no lasting enlightenment. I took a fair bit of LSD back in its heyday and it gave me some well-remembered glimpses of cosmic unity. But lasting enlightenment wasn't part of the deal. So I think there's no substitute for doing the work, though better tools for that would be most welcome.

What do I mean by reactivity? Well, let me try to illustrate this by using a hypothetical but all too common example.

Let's say that starting when I was 3 years old I was repeatedly, savagely and unpredictably beaten by a family member, and no one intervened to put a stop to it.  Over time I learned to protect myself as best I could by always knowing where everyone in the house was and what was going on at all times, so I could avoid situations where the abuse could happen.

The beatings stop after a few years, and to keep the pain at bay my conscious mind buries the memory of them.  I now have no recollection of any trauma, but my coping mechanism is deeply imprinted, and doesn't go away. As an adult, without knowing why, I can't tolerate fluid, shifting, uncertain situations.  I need lots of order and certainty to feel comfortable in my life.

Now I go out on a date with my partner, who is the same sex as the person who beat me as a child. We're going on a dinner date: my partner is driving and I've chosen the restaurant. Halfway there, they announce that they know another restaurant that serves the same style of food but has a much better chef, and we're going to go there instead. With no further consultation they turn towards the new restaurant.  I freak. I start screaming that they don't respect me, they never listen to me, they don't value my opinion, they are oppressing me, they've never really loved me. My partner reacts defensively and the whole shit-storm spirals out of control.

That's reactivity.

The psychic wound that was inflicted when I was three years old and the defensive mechanism I developed as a result are still with me.  They have imprinted on my unconscious mind and behaviour even though the actual memory has been suppressed.  I now react to unrelated situations as though they were the one that caused the wound in the first place.  Because I have no memory of the events that caused the psychic wound, my "rational" mind insists that my reaction is really to the current triggering event (the change of plans) rather than a leftover from the forgotten wounding event.

As long as this keeps happening, I can never hope to respond to reality around me as it actually is.  Instead I will keep fighting the paper tigers of my past.

So I peel a layer of my inner onion. I find a good coach or therapist who can start from the anger and upset I felt in the car and facilitate me as I travel back into my past to find out what's underneath it. If they are good, and I am brave and persistent, I may unblock the memory of the wounding event, the beatings I suffered as a helpless young child.

By bringing that memory into my consciousness, I can start to heal the trauma and defuse the unreasoning reactions that flowed from it. With enough work I will gain the ability to understand that in selecting a better restaurant my partner was trying to please me, not trying to abuse me. The next time something similar happens I will be more able to see the reaction before it takes me over.  I will let the wave of feeling pass, and be able to respond to the actual situation in the present moment rather than reacting to the paper tigers of the past.

These hidden wounds don't need to be as dramatic as the one I used in my example.  Our lives are filled with events big and small that have left unrecognized marks on our psyche and behaviour.  Every time we resolve one of those events or reclaim a disowned part of ourselves we gain a bit more ability to respond to the universe as it truly is rather than as we perceive it to be, filtered and altered by our projections. Each time we do this we resolve another situation in which we are being unconsciously reactive, and replace a bit more of our reactivity by clear perception and conscious choice.  And bit by bit, we inch toward a full integration of our psyche.

As we reduce our reactivity by addressing the hidden wounds that are causing it, we increase the integration of our Selves and gain the ability to see and accept the world (including ourselves) as it really is.  Do you see where this is leading?
There is one last important aspect to the metaphor of the onion.  We all know that when we peel all the layers of an onion, we are left with … nothing. And in the paradox of existence so well expressed in Zen teachings, “Nothing” is identical with “Everything”. 

Eventually, when the last layer of the onion has been peeled and there is No Thing left, we are in complete alignment with reality as it truly is.

From this point of complete alignment, of “No Thing”, everything becomes possible.  Union with the divine is available if you want it. Complete immersion in the affairs of the world is possible, without becoming consumed by them. The ability to work without effort (what the Taoists call “wu wei”) is at your fingertips. Synchronicity will spontaneously open unimagined doors.  Your thoughts will achieve an effortless power.

And that, I believe, is enlightenment.


July 29, 2009

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