Explain Spiritual Enlightenment

“Accompanying an enlightenment is often a temporary euphoria, the length of which depends on the depth of the consciousness.”

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 the paradox is an aspect of this consciousness, making it incomprehensible to the mind.

Although much of this can’t be understood prior to having an enlightenment or two—which I highly recommend for everyone—the idea at least provides a possibility to which you can relate in some way. Yet I can’t 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 the 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 mindset 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 isn’t an absence of anything, nor separate from “what is,” because it is the existence—it’s 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 what’s said, and no matter what you come up with, it won’t 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 way—not even in an unusual or special way.

Why Becoming Conscious Doesn’t Always Create Change
Creating the possibility of dropping some aspect of the person you are, opens the space to do so, but it doesn’t do it for you. Recognizing, for example, that you’re 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 you’ll 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.

“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.”

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.

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” can’t let go of it because it’s “you.” If it’s experienced as not-you, then obviously you can let go of it. See how this works?

Don’t confuse disliking something about yourself for seeing it as not-you. Rejection of some self-aspect isn’t the same as grasping that it isn’t 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 between 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 existence—what you actually are—and realize that you are not what you previously experienced as yourself.

But make no mistake, enlightenment is not a cure-all. Simply having an enlightenment experience, or several doesn’t change you without your participation. As I’ve said, enlightenment isn’t the end, as people often think. It’s the beginning.

Whatever occurs within the mind is never a consciousness of one’s true nature. The mind is about the 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 isn’t the mind, but a mind is a form of consciousness.

Becoming conscious of your true nature doesn’t necessarily change the mind. Consciousness, mind, and brain aren’t 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 isn’t the piano, and the piano isn’t music, but they are related. Consciousness, in this analogy, is like the player-listener, which is neither music nor the piano, but the creator of both.

I’m just trying to make some distinctions here so that you have a better way to understand what I’m 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. Don’t take all this too seriously; it is just a way to provide you with an inaccurate understanding of what I mean by saying enlightenment doesn’t necessarily change the mind. Grasping that your nature is neither an object (the brain) nor the activity of experiencing and understanding (the mind) doesn’t change the object or activity. Only changing those changes those.

“As I’ve said, enlightenment isn’t the end, as people often think. It’s the beginning.”

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 objectifying 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 the 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 don’t 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 I’m talking about. To make this mistake would be a significant setback. Remember, although Consciousness is not the mind, the 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 there’s a cultural reason why people confuse spiritual enlightenment with transformation. Because contemplation is the accepted road to spiritual enlightenment, it appears that it’s a task of searching for something. This something might be held as grand, life-altering, and the greatest thing since sliced bread—otherwise 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 I’ve said, the consciousness of the truth doesn’t change anything—the truth is already that way.

Becoming conscious of who and what you really are is invaluable for transformation, but this enlightenment alone doesn’t 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 automatically 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 it’s considered to be the thing itself, or the true nature of “being.”

Enlightenment and the Human Condition
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 isn’t becoming conscious of “everything,” so to speak. This is obvious to anyone who’s 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, “It’s 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.

“When someone has what is called an enlightenment experience, it is a sudden glimpse of the true nature of something, usually oneself.”

As I’ve said, becoming conscious of what’s true isn’t about changing anything. Most of the attachments and identifications that comprise the self-experience usually remain intact. The consciousness of your true nature doesn’t 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 perspective—sort 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 doesn’t change all that.

As one’s 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 can’t 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 isn’t complete.

Eventually, when Absolute Consciousness is grasped to be the same as “existence,” a natural transformation must occur since, at that point, being human wouldn’t be separate from the Absolute. This would change the whole foundation of experience—it would both exist and not exist, and these would be the same. This may be 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 didn’t think people could possibly grasp it, and he was only convinced to teach because of the slim possibility that someone might. Yet this shouldn’t stop anyone from pursuing it, accomplishing whatever depth of consciousness can be had and freedom attained.

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”
— Albert Einstein

Most people who pursue spiritual enlightenment don’t 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.

The Absolute Is Beyond Distinctions
Although it can’t be stated any more clearly, people just don’t believe that spiritual enlightenment is not something perceived in any way. Since perception is how we “know” or experience reality, we don’t imagine any other real possibility, and certainly not something weird called “direct-consciousness.” How can you relate to a statement such as: “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 can’t be said much better than this:

“Form is no different from emptiness. Emptiness is no different from form. Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness is precisely form
— 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 absolute and is the true nature of form. Since it‘s a translation as well as a reference, we can reword this description a bit without changing the meaning but perhaps clarify the message:
That didn’t help much, did it? I’m sorry that it’s not easier to get. The above communication represents a very deep level of consciousness. This depth of realization goes beyond the self and into the heart of the real nature of reality. Even those who’ve had their first few enlightenments don’t really grasp the truth of what’s being said. Although it sounds neat, doesn’t 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 isn’t what you may define or figure out. It is not an idea or conclusion. It isn’t 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 the reality, and it is everything. Since the mind can’t hold such an absolute consciousness, this will degrade into a form of “knowing” that can be related to; and even those who’ve had such consciousness often take this “knowing” for the consciousness itself. They are mistaken.

“The nature of form is Absolute Nothing. Nothing isn’t the absence of anything. Everything is the same as Nothing, Nothing is the same as something.”

If you’ve had a kensho (“first glimpse”) or two, all this may make some sense to you, although you’ve 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 I’m saying (and will continue to say throughout this book) is directed to those who’ve 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 so—trying 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 might be misunderstood, know that I’m trying to speak to you as seriously and candidly as possible.

If you haven’t had your first enlightenment experiences yet, much of what’s said here won’t make any sense, but you should hear the story and possibility anyway—it plants a seed—and it’s useful to hear that it doesn’t 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 a transformation is your goal, you would be ill-advised to wait for complete spiritual enlightenment.


This article on spiritual enlightenment is excerpted from Chapter 3 “What Is and Isn’t Enlightenment” of Pursuing Consciousness: The Book of Enlightenment and Transformation by Peter Ralston.

About the Author
Peter Ralston is one of the founders of the consciousness movement that began in the San Francisco Bay Area—the birthplace for much of the personal growth work generated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Peter spent thousands of hours in Zen contemplation and has participated in dozens of intensives with Charles Berner, the founder of the Enlightenment Intensive. After powerful enlightenment experiences of his own in the early 1970s, and maturing in his work through further study with other teachers, in 1977 he opened his own teaching center in Berkeley, California. Peter works with people to authentically expand and deepen their consciousness, and to become more real, honest, and effective human beings. He facilitates people in understanding their own selves and minds, and in becoming increasingly conscious of the nature of perception, experience, and existence, as well as the nature of being. Peter is an inspired teacher, electrifying his students as he leads them to experience new insights and breakthroughs, transforming their views of themselves and their experience of life. Visit his website: chenghsin.com

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