Detangling Spiritual Enlightenment:
What It Is and How to Experience It
Clarifying Enlightenment—Sort Of
Explaining the meaning of enlightenment is no easier than explaining the existence of the soul. It simply can’t be done. The most accurate relationship to the matter would demand that I just shut up. Although that leaves you with nothing, that’s actually the best thing to be left with. Of course, the problem is you aren’t really left with nothing—you’re left with everything you assume, have heard, or think you know. Because this is unfortunately so much less than nothing, I’ll try to provide a doorway to a better understanding of the matter. Even so, this “door” can only be discovered personally, by connecting the dots through multiple layers of disparate communications. Forgive me in advance for the presumptuousness of the attempt, and try to look beyond the words to grasp what’s really meant.
Many misconceptions and myths have been built up over time and we need to shake these off of the word “enlightenment.” In Chapter One we touched on some of the ideas and beliefs surrounding the word. You know that we’re not talking about a seventeenth-century movement, a modern outlook, or being informed of something. Our focus is more akin to a Zen usage, referring to what’s thought of as a “spiritual” awakening of some sort. But even here, people are often misled to believe that becoming enlightened means transforming from an ordinary “caterpillar” of a human into the “butterfly” of a transcendent soul, or some such.
“When considering what enlightenment really is, it’s important to get beyond the word and hearsay, and to realize that this Consciousness is prior to any idea, image, term, or belief.”
Whatever methods may purport to achieve such an end—whether it’s to be highly disciplined and monk-like, sit endlessly in contemplation, or learn to surrender to a higher power—at some point we’re 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 it’s 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 what’s true about it. When considering what enlightenment really is, it’s 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 enlightenment; they were seeking the Truth. If the legend of Gautama Buddha is to be trusted, even he wasn’t searching for something called “enlightenment.” He was trying to become free, to completely understand and transcend life and death. This is a different focus.
Turns out, of course, that you can’t transcend anything without becoming fully conscious of what it is. Ultimately, spiritual enlightenment—knowing what is absolutely true about self and reality, life and death—must occur in order to achieve such freedom. But having one or two enlightenment experiences isn’t enough or Gautama would have stopped his search early on. He undoubtedly had a number of enlightenment experiences but knew that he still wasn’t completely free of life and death and that an even deeper consciousness was necessary. He couldn’t have known whether it was possible, much less what it would be, only that it had to be whatever is really true about existence.
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 enlightenment, it is your true nature, what you really are, the absolute reality of your existence.
Even disregarding how it’s used in other domains, the term “enlightenment” can be confusing. Although enlightenment is always about what’s 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, it’s not always referring to the same subject matter or the same level or depth of consciousness.
“Truth is not a matter of personal viewpoint.”
— Vernon Howard
Although defining or explaining enlightenment isn’t possible with any kind of accuracy, that doesn’t mean that it is ambiguous or that it is something open for debate, about which each individual should draw their own conclusions—like 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 can’t be found in anything heard or imagined. It also can’t be found within opinion or conclusion, thought or feeling. These are all activities that relate indirectly to things. Being conscious of what’s absolutely true is not something to decide about within one’s world of opinions. Even though all this may be challenging to sort out, enlightenment is exactly and only what it is.
The Challenge of the “Objective Mind
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.
Stated simply, our minds like to think in terms of objects. This “objective” domain isn’t restricted to physical objects, however, but includes process and all relational distinctions such as speed, distance, condition, location, time, images, and so on. This domain presents us with our primary form of thought. We perceive objects as separate from one another and so can relate all objects to each other. When we relate them to ourselves, we immediately apply to them qualities of function, association, and meaning. Our minds are constructed to represent and relate to every aspect of reality in order to form an experience that is consistent with this “object” framework.
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. It’s 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 the 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 it’s 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 the further explanation, it’s likely that much will be overlooked, but the reality of this matter will arise again and again. I’m suggesting that this “objectified” framework for thinking is the foundation for our entire perceived world, which makes it well worth considering on your own.
“This is why so many of the communications around enlightenment seem enigmatic, confusing, vague, or mysterious. Sometimes this might be because the speaker really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
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 can’t be grasped by the mind. Direct-consciousness or enlightenment is of that kind. It cannot be understood short of having it, because it does not fit into any framework whatsoever.
This is why so many of the communications around enlightenment seem enigmatic, confusing, vague, or mysterious. Sometimes this might be because the speaker really doesn’t know what he’s talking about and wants to obscure this fact or make enlightenment sound more interesting. But even without any monkey business, the matter is still impossible to express in any meaningful way to anyone who hasn’t had at least one enlightenment experience. Even then it can be challenging, but the person has some foundation— if only as a previously inconceivable openness—from which to consider the dialogue.
Because the Absolute can’t be grasped by the mind, it’s impossible to imagine what spiritual enlightenment is. Trying to conceive of something inconceivable is doomed to failure. Since the mind functions by making distinctions—basically “knowing” everything as if separate objects—and 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 isn’t separate from anything. It is everything, but not anything, 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 doesn’t 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. It’s 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 I’ve said, even “direct” is too far.
Using the word direct implies a separation, as though some action needs to be taken to be direct. This is not the case with enlightenment because you are already there, so to speak. There is no action, there is no perception, there is no separation—no 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 the 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 what’s meant. That’s to be expected, however, since no term or idea can be accurate. Enlightenment is not something “experienced,” and although “direct” is the modifier—indicating something different about this use of the word “experience”—it will inevitably be misunderstood.
Nothing in our culture or language can adequately represent this Consciousness. One reason is that almost no one ever has such deep direct-consciousness and so there is very little that is widely shared—which 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 what’s true, there 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.
Being Trapped within Experience
Let’s try to clear up what I mean by “experience” since it’s 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 way—your 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.
“Enlightenment requires a direct-consciousness of the truth, not an indirect perception or experience.”
Think of it this way: There is nothing in your awareness that is outside of your experience. If you think there is, then you aren’t grasping what I’m calling experience. People with a “spiritual” bent or imagination often seem to hold that they can experience something outside of what I’m referring to as an experience. If you’re doing that, stop it.
Experience is created by the mind; and the predominant, although not exclusive, contributor to this “knowledge of our reality” is perception. Perception is not a direct encounter of what is—it is always indirect, different than, and separate from whatever is perceived. Enlightenment requires a direct-consciousness of the truth, not an indirect perception or experience. Our “consciousness” is stuck within this indirect perceptive-experience. It’s 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 isn’t 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 isn’t real. But you’re 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. It’s the true nature or absolute reality that we’re 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 world—where there is no way out of that experience without grasping the true nature of it—is apt.
Enlightenment is not an aspect of experience or mind on any level or in any way. This is not to say that one’s 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 mind—not 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 one’s experience or mind are not the enlightenment itself. This often goes unnoticed, even by people having some direct-consciousness.
Accompanying enlightenment is often a temporary euphoria, the length of which depends on the depth of the consciousness. This doesn’t mean that having an insight or realization and being euphoric about it constitutes an enlightenment. The only essential aspect of 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” what’s 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.