As many folks have found a sense of existential angst in our post-religious world that intoxicants, sex and career status cannot truly negate, many are turning towards spiritual awakening in a bid to finally rest in inner contentment, but what is enlightenment?
While many have become weary of the notion that only one religious tradition has the monopoly on the truth – or the militant atheistic notion that the world is nothing more than a meaningless void – the search for enlightenment offers a get out, in that it takes in varying spiritual traditions and teachers to point at the ultimate reality of life that anyone can access right now.
Yet, more importantly, the teaching of self-inquiry aimed at enlightenment states that enlightenment as a ‘thing’ doesn’t even actually exist – meaning it is beyond being objectified.
In essence, enlightenment is just a term we use to describe the natural reality of life from the limited perspective of the mind.
Further still, there’s nothing you can do to actually achieve enlightenment, as by virtue of being conscious, you already are the truth that the notion of enlightenment points at – pure consciousness.
This is a truth expressed by mystics down the ages:
St Francis of Assisi said: “The one you are looking for is the one who is looking”
Rumi said: “I’ve lived on the lip of insanity wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside.”
Alan Watts said: “You are the Universe experiencing itself”
So, whether ancient spiritual figure or modern-day mystic, when asking ‘what is enlightenment’, the essential truth being pointed at is that conscious awareness is what we are in essence, not an individual ego.
What is Enlightenment? What is the Ego?
In spiritual parlance, the ego refers to the collation of thoughts and perceptions that give rise to the notion of an individual sense of self.
The egoic sense of self is how the vast, vast majority of us live – we see ourselves as fundamentally distinct from others, an individual human walking in the universe being controlled by the inner thinker we call ‘I’, with a collation of hopes, dreams and fears related to this conceptual being.
However, enlightenment switches all this on its head, and instead sees the pure reality of consciousness manifest in form as the universe, which is experienced subjectively in what we call ‘I’.
An example would be my name being Richard, yet there’s nothing ‘Richard’ about me – it’s just a name, a signifier given to me by my parents – and this is true for ALL things in the world.
If you follow this down far enough, you’ll see that there only ever is pure consciousness at the root of all things.
What is Enlightenment?
Upon recognising the above, awakened beings report an intense sense of love emanating from deep within along with powerful compassion and a felt sense of Oneness with life.
It’s common to ask at this point, ‘but why isn’t everyone enlightened?’
Well, because our true reality – awareness – has become tangled in the names, form and thoughts of identification with an individual person, we have decades of conditioning, as well as a world culture, telling us that we simply must be an individual within the universe, not the universe within an individual aperture.
Henceforth, enlightenment is counter-intuitive to the way we see reality and the mind immediately rejects it, because it can only understand forms and labels, not the fundamental reality of life which is always here and now, without form and without name.
Because of this, enlightenment can be a challenging and dramatic process, which is often conceptualised as experiencing the death before a rebirth into pure consciousness.
This is also why many accounts of enlightenment experiences involved feelings of actually dying, or actual near death experiences.
Spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti have both commented on the death and rebirth nature of there experiences, with Tolle stating that the key of life is ‘To die before you die.’
We can also see here how this experience is synonymous with the teachers at the root of the world’s major religions:
The Buddha spent his life facing suffering and faced death before his enlightenment
And perhaps most famously the story of Jesus is clear in its symbology of death and rebirth
However, our religions often divest these stories of their innate spiritual meaning, turning them into thought structures that lack the deep symbolic meaning and guidance for seekers of spiritual completion.
Yet with an open mind and a willingness to explore our consciousness without judgement, without a reliance on the unstable and fractious ego, and without superstition, dogma or pretending we have all the answers, we can open a new page for sincere seekers in our generation.
With fresh eyes we can look on the symbolic stories of old to guide us guidance in the here and now, showing us true reality and unlocking the door of love, peace and contentment within.