What is Enlightenment?

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People from the Orient are acquainted with the term “enlightenment.” People from the West are more acquainted with the term “awakening,” but both terms describe the same thing.

So what is “awakening” or “enlightenment?” In the Western tradition, Abraham Maslow was the pioneer in studying the wonderful experiences that accompany this state. He called them “peak experiences.” They are magical, wonderful, expanded experiences of being wholly present in the moment. They entail feeling fully alive, being so present that you feel and sense everything around you and everything inside of you. It was a very magical, beautiful experience he discovered as he researched the nature of self-actualization many years ago.

In Eastern traditions, they use the word “enlightenment” to describe the same thing. Enlightenment entails losing the ego and being present with the now. Buddha is quoted to have said, “There is no self.” I think what he meant is that we are so in touch with all that is around us that we lose the egoist identity of “me” and “mine.” There’s a greater love and we’re more in touch with other people than we are with our own limiting identity.

Sometimes when people do drugs, this experience of the folly of “me” and “mine” occurs. I definitely don’t advocate drugs as a way of trying to awaken. We all know drugs are not a solution to finding ourselves, but will only put us on a path to self-destruction. Meditation is a safe and much more effective way of experiencing awakening.

There are many different definitions of enlightenment or awakening and whole books have been written about it. In fact, it has to be experienced to be understood, much like an avocado has to be tasted to be understood. However much “avocado” might be described, we really have no idea what it is like until it’s in our mouth for the first time.

In the Western tradition, awakening is sometimes described by the term “via negativa,” which means, “It isn’t what you think it is.” In the East, they use the term “neti neti,” which means “not this, not that.” So enlightenment is really beyond description. It fascinates us, we pursue it, and some people even enter monasteries to experience it. Some people enter retreat centers and special programs to find enlightenment or awakening. There is a lot of energy around the world going into experiencing this state of awareness.

Enlightened, awakened people are very quiet. I don’t mean they don’t talk; what they do is stay still inside. They allow their mind to be quiet, to be at rest, and to be present with what is. Children are often perfect examples of enlightened beings because they are totally present with what is right here, right now. They don’t worry about the past or the future. They concentrate on the moment they are living in.

If you’re interested in having your own enlightenment experience, I encourage you to be still. Be quiet. Quiet the mind. In that vacuum, you will find a huge emptiness of nothingness that is actually filled beyond description. Let me give you an example. If you have ever been in a cave, as I have been when spelunking, you know that when you turn off all lights, it becomes pitch black. It is still, with no talking, yet that silence is amazingly full of energy. I encourage you to find this emptiness, this quietness, and be present with what is. Don’t think about it, don’t put words to the moment, don’t describe it, just be in that state of peace. It is a state beyond adjectives or description. Lose all the adjectives, and just be. When you are able to maintain this state consistently, with eyes open, that is called enlightenment.

In the Christian and Jewish Bible, there is a beautiful verse that says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Become still, and the whole vast cosmos opens to you. The wonderful thing is that you can experience this on your own. All you have to do is work toward quieting your mind. I know it’s work, but it is so worth it to reach the point where you find that inner calm, the peace that surpasses understanding. Keep practicing and working on it.

One of the best ways to develop one’s inner silence is to go on a retreat, but if this is not possible, keep using the techniques I teach you here or on my website podcasts. These will draw you closer to that moment when you become enlightened. Eventually you will find that place in your mind where you are still, all on your own. Work toward this and keep meditating. You will begin to have perhaps “mini-enlightenment” experiences; these will get bigger and grow. Perhaps someday you will enter a world where throughout the day you are truly present and still. You will be enlightened, at one with the vast and wonderful cosmos that used to be cluttered with your thoughts throughout the day.


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