What is Enlightenment?

With everything that’s been written about enlightenment, have you ever wondered what it would be like to know someone who is enlightened and living in the real world? Typical portrayals of enlightenment describe an otherworldish sort of character who turns heads everywhere he or she goes. Everyone would immediately notice the great profundity, serenity, and light radiating from the enlightened individual. Every utterance would be pearls of wisdom. Each glance would melt even the coldest of hearts.

Preconceived notions about what enlightenment is like are as abundant as they are absurd. They include the idea that an enlightened person never gets angry, would never need glasses, never gets sick, never feels lonely or sad, and could even perform miracles. Let’s for a moment dismiss all such notions. Consider the idea that it may be impossible to determine whether or not another person is enlightened. Let’s assume that an enlightened individual can behave and appear as ordinary as you or I. Here, another problem immediately arises: if enlightenment is that “normal,” then what good is it? The point is that the state of enlightenment involves wakefulness on profoundly deep levels of being, where individual awareness is commonly dormant. It is a level that lies beyond thoughts, emotions, and the physical body. Many may ask with all sincerity, “But what else is there besides thoughts, emotions, and the physical body?” What lies beyond is the grandeur, the true greatness of who it is and what it is we are. What is remarkable is not the state of enlightenment. What is remarkable is that so many people live their life unaware of that level of life.

Scientists theorize that the human mind is a quantum mechanical computer capable of maintaining awareness of the underlying basis of the entire universe which is the field of unfettered, unbounded consciousness – what modern physicists refer to as the Unified Field. When an individual’s consciousness has become distracted or preoccupied by programmed modes of function, deeper awareness is obstructed. The state of enlightenment is quite simply a state of physiology when those cobwebs and distractions are sufficiently cleared so that the awareness can function naturally. That is to say, beyond the limitations of conditioned programming. This is an entirely physiological process. Enlightenment, then, can simply be thought of as normal life. Unfortunately, it’s not ordinary, but it is the normal, healthy function of human awareness.

It has been said that the attainment of enlightenment is as elusive as traversing the razor’s edge or moving through the eye of the needle. This speaks to the power our conditioned beliefs, thoughts, and emotional states have over us. By and large, we function of, by, for, and through those conditionings. The entire process is completely circular. Any knowledge we acquire is assimilated in terms of that conditioning. Anything that reinforces the conditioning is embraced; anything that questions it is rejected. We live in a cognitively and behaviorally oriented society. Our approaches to spiritual growth, psychological health, and all fields of life are reduced to those orientations. If we have an intellectual understanding of something and if we behave in accordance with our idealized guidelines about that something, then we believe we are that something. If we read all about enlightenment, come to know everything that is said about it, and if we behave in a manner consistent with those beliefs, we have a tendency to believe we’re actually enlightened. However, if you dress a pauper up to look like a king, he is still a pauper.

There is a huge difference between knowing about and mimicking versus actually embodying enlightenment. The methodology of the actual attainment of that state of awareness has essentially been lost to time. Esoteric teachings, meditation techniques, and spiritual practices, by and large, impose and reinforce a conditioned state of function. In contrast, enlightenment or spiritual liberation is the state of liberation from all such conditioning. The art of facilitation of the cultivation of enlightenment is indeed as subtle and elusive as the nature of life itself. Though it can be understood as the state of freedom from conditioning, it must not be confused with an attitude of anarchy. The enlightened still function through conditioned precepts, but simultaneously see beyond those limitations. As it has been said, the trick is to have the boat in the water, but not have the water in the boat. I heard about a rather heartless, but revealing study done at M.I.T. From birth, kittens were placed in a room painted with all horizontal lines. After several weeks, they were placed in a room with vertical lines. The kittens immediately flipped on their sides. Their awareness was conditioned to view the world only a certain way. The challenge is to ask yourself, “How is it that your awareness has been conditioned? How many of your emotional responses are conditioned responses? How much of your intellectual understanding of the world is simply conditioned? How much of what you believe to be your perception is, in actuality, your projection?”

Sometimes the notion of enlightenment is viewed as simply a state of “letting go and letting God.” That’s much easier said than done. It generally amounts to nothing other than holding onto the notion of letting go. Sometimes enlightenment is thought of as a state of nonattachment and freedom from desire. People then attempt to attain enlightenment by being attached to nothing and having no desires. They are sadly mistaken. The state of enlightenment has much more to do with awakening to a particular deep level of your being that is unattached and free from desire. It has nothing to do with the attempt to convince yourself on a personality level that you have no desires and are unattached. In the state of enlightenment, on the personality level, individuals can still prefer chocolate ice-cream to vanilla and still feel attached to their loved ones. They are simply awake to deeper levels of their being where they are eternally one with, and therefore not separate from, anyone or anything. On that level then, it is impossible to desire anything because you already have it. In fact, you already are it.

Throughout history, there have been some saints who behave in a fully unattached manner on the personality level of their being. Their devotees had to hit them with sticks so they wouldn’t wander off into the jungle. They had to be force fed because they were “free from all desire,” even the desire for food and sustenance. Let’s assume for a moment they were awake at the deepest level of their being. Even if that were the case, they were still functioning in an unintegrated manner. Their personality was not functioning in a healthy way. They were living a dissociative state. Since they were, perhaps, awake to that deepest level of their being, one may choose to call them enlightened. Because the state is so unhealthy and unnatural, I prefer not to refer to it as enlightenment. But this is a matter of semantics. If someone were to insist these saints were enlightened because they were awake to that deepest level, I would offer no strong objection. What is most important to me is that the bigger picture be understood. A healthy state of enlightenment is an integrated state where people are awake to the deepest levels of existence, yet concurrently function quite naturally and appear perfectly normal around other people.

© Michael Mamas, 12/04