What Is Enlightenment? A Practitioner Explores the Big "E". (Part 1)

“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
~Mark Twain


We drive south on the Pacific Coast Highway, ocean waves crashing to our right, her home nestled in the hills of Laguna Beach behind us on the left. In the new, light gray electric Fiat, we are on the way to a yoga class with her favorite teacher who just happens to be one of the most popular teachers in Ocean County. My sister lives the life of a modern day seeker: yoga, workshops, lectures, Big Sur. I turn and ask her: “Have you ever met anyone who was enlightened?” Long pause – “no”… slightly shorter pause – “well, at least they weren’t all the time”… another pause – “actually, I’d probably have to say no”.

My question for her came from my own inquiry: had I met anyone who was enlightened and what criteria would be used to judge it.  Would it be the gal who inspired me to become a yoga teacher and to return again and again to her classes with her ecstatic chanting voice who, when I saw her a few years later, seemed to be off- her- rocker? Was it the dharma talking, sharp-tongued beauty with the celebrity packed classes who I later saw drunk at an Irish bar in the East Village? How about the lady who, after twenty years as a respected yoga master and words-of-wisdom author who may be in hiding because of the sexual harassment suit against her? Or the friendly gentleman who created one of the largest hatha yoga brands in history, inspiring thousands of devotees, who went down in flames and disrepute for money schemes and sexual misconduct?

Do we reserve the moniker “enlightened” exclusively for the big-named yoga gurus from the East, disregarding their cruelty, patriarchic and ethnocentric political incorrectness, not to mention their own money and sex scandals? How much does health and wellness play into the enlightenment equation? Or is it reserved most exclusively for “neck-up” only types of meditation techniques? What of Sri Ramana Maharishi, crippled in a cave and who could barely walk, his body destroyed from neglect? Are you excluded or included from full-enlightenment if you set your precious human body on fire like the Cambodian monks in the 1960’s?  And how about that perennial question: in order to reach the highest enlightened state, do you have to be dead already anyway?

Do we have different definitions for enlightenment depending on if you are from the East or the West? Would a Westerner’s many trips to India contribute to becoming enlightened or simply up their chances of getting hepatitis? Would a Zen master totally “get” Joel Osteen and the other televangelists?

Does glamour and talent count towards enlightenment and if so, can I claim David Bowie and George Harrison were enlightened? Do the angels and saints with halos automatically qualify? Are achievement and brilliance significant and if so, what about Thomas Jefferson, though he owned slaves and might be considered a serial rapist today? Would anyone who actually was enlightened say they were, and would they, could they be all the time and fully so? Does time and epoch in history make a difference?

If we say that the Buddha was fully enlightened, does that mean if transplanted here in the world today, now, he would instantly grasp string theory? Would St. Paul be able to tell me how to transfer my iTunes from my iPod onto a drive to download it to a new PC (without spending hours having to research it on YouTube)?  Would Nāgārjuna back Bernie Sanders?

At the risk of seeming disrespectful, I seek to examine what criteria we use not only to say someone is enlightened, but what to expect if we choose that goal for ourselves.

And if we do choose that goal for ourselves, or look to others that are enlightened for inspiration, has the criteria changed over time and can it even be a realistic endeavor today. By “today” I mean our rational, evidence-seeking, post-industrial, modern and post-modern multi-cultural world view (as contrasted to prior magic- mythic belief-systems, agrarian cultures and ethnocentric world views). I also wish to look at the ways we may be confused because of this shifting of world views, and to investigate ways to use our mindfulness practices to evolve a fuller and richer and more complete way to look at what enlightenment is.

My sister, when pressed again, defined enlightenment as “being totally present”.  I liked it – it was a good start. But I still wondered: Can you be a jerk with a bad personality who doesn’t get along with anyone, morally bereft, out-of-shape, slightly insane and still be “enlightened”?

“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who, after painfully searching for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Traditional Views of Enlightenment: Waking Up to Who You Are

The traditions have many terms for enlightenment: Mokṣa, Salvation,  Realization, Redemption, Nirvana, Samādhi, Initiation and Adepthood to name a few. Could they all mean the same thing?

It’s not our (us “moderns”) fault having to ask this question.  Sometimes we are talking about terms from another language loosely translated into our own, or from another time period with a different ethos or even from teachings with deliberate blinds, coded for misunderstanding in order to protect technologies from falling into unskilled hands, to prevent misuse and even to spare innocents.

Moderns today face another obstacle when it comes to understanding what is meant by enlightenment terms and technologies: a lack of metaphysical training. Those of us brought up in traditional religious backgrounds were exposed only to the exoteric aspects of the teachings, mainly via a belief system of mythic and magical stories meant to be taken literally and accompanying rituals, with shame and guilt thrown in for extra measure to ensure the culturally passed-down behavioral codes. Not a bad start actually, and certainly better than no training at all but the esoteric, occulted wisdom teachings remained hidden, and one had to dig to find them and be lucky enough to gain some intuitive insight when found.  The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this article.  But know this: when looking at occult code language devices (metaphor, simile and hyperbole etc.), they are not so much designed to INFORM the mind (esoteric concepts are often indescribable by language means to average earth-functional minds) but to TRAIN the mind to reach beyond the normal everyday range of thinking, feelings and desires used to survive, procreate and herd.  

The esoteric texts, manuscripts and techniques we do have records of (and there are gaps in our records too, adding to confusions and obfuscation) oftentimes begin where years of prior occult training in those areas would have left off. There is a presumption that the seeker would have already been familiar with its technical terms as well as metaphysical concepts common to the individual traditions.

For instance, “Mokśa”, the Vedanta term for enlightenment, is translated into English as “liberation.”  OK, liberation from what? This translation would have pre-supposed the seeker had a belief in reincarnation, dissatisfaction with life in the natural world and possibly have been prepared to make great sacrifices to renounce its pleasures. The seeker would have been familiar with the metaphysical idea that an individual’s deepest essence (Ātman in this tradition) will ultimately re-unite with the “ground of all being” (Brahman – existence itself). Thus Mokśa occurs after the cycle of life and death runs its course within the sphere of relative time and space (more about that later). Techniques to reduce the suffering of relative existence (Maya) and speed this return to oneness include a disinterest in and sometimes extreme distaste for the realm of material creation and life therein. This path (as opposed to the later tantric/hatha/alchemical paths of embodied enlightenment – more later on that too) is one of TRANSCENDENCE over the realms of material space-time existence and an ultimate re-uniting with, depending on your belief system, either a transcendent being or the ground of all- being: all-consciousness, all-delight in its pristine, divine realm from whence we all “came” (or “fell” from).

Early Buddhist terminology describe same wheel -cycle of birth and death (Samsāra) transcendence, but that given the ephemeral and ever changing nature of Samsāra and belief in the ultimate connectivity of reality, no separate, real individual Ātma could truly exist. Practices are goaled to “get-off-the wheel” and awaken to what is really REAL: that which is empty of stuff such as our dramas, our desires, our fears, and our separateness.  Waking up to your true nature is to be fully awake, resting in the state of “emptiness” where full mindfulness exists.

Western traditions have their mystical, transcendent paths looking to ultimately unite with the divine, empty-of-form yet creator-of-form “God-head” too.  Judeo-Christians believe in an intermediary messiah or Master Human with Whom we can commune with on this mystical path leading to our ultimate salvation or enlightenment. Eastern Īshvara teachings also posit a Lord Human through which redemption by devotion and surrender can be attained.

All transcendent directed traditions believe that the world of nature, whether mapped out as Samsāra and its bardo realms, or as Maya of false illusion to what is real, or as back to Eden-longing descriptions of our non-paradisal existence, or Sānkhya emanations of the tattvas of Prakriti interpreted as antagonistic to Puruṣa; ALL are viewed as  maps of  the “prison floor” so to speak, and must be escaped in order to find enlightenment.

Additional confusion about enlightenment terms is simply that the various metaphysical traditions are distinct traditions and schools; each designed in their time periods and for groups of individuals trained in their methodology. These days, Vedanta, Buddhist, Yoga and Western New Age terminology are used interchangeably. Due to the work of the Theosophical Society and their off-shoot members (albeit great work indeed) as well as the tremendously brilliant efforts of Swami Vivekananda there is huge conflation of the contemplative teachings of eastern schools and the western esoteric traditions. This is really not such a negative thing, as in essence their truths are universal, but may add in obscuring further the specific functionality of the various traditions leading to confusion as to what enlightenment actually is.

Nonetheless, enlightenment has always been intimately linked with the Yoga school and its mind training, contemplative and mental absorption techniques. Sometimes the word Yoga is even used synonymously with its ultimate aim: Samādhi, aka “enlightenment”. The Samādhi state of consciousness has at its apex a result or apprehension known as Kaivalya, translated as “aloneness”. Again, we may ask: alone from who or what or where? It’s another trip-up for the non-metaphysicians. In order to apprehend this ideal of “aloneness”, i.e. a witnessing, genuine subject of pure unconditioned awareness, the true “I” of the “I”, students need to have been trained that not only is mind an object like the body (albeit subtle and invisible) but that it consists of three great relative states:

  1. Our conscious/waking state aware of physical objects perceived by the sensory organs and contingent and limited by time constraints and spatial boundaries
  2. Our subconscious/dreaming state aware of pictorial and sound energies and emotional and feeling sensations represented as color, shapes and sounds not limited by time nor of spatial dimensions or distances but still operating within those fields once waking state regains
  3. Our unconscious/picture- less state aware only of intuited, trans-verbal, trans-conceptual experience (both collective and individual), operating in a field of time and space incomprehensible to the incarnating personality and which holds the seeds of memory for the re-incarnating, evolutionary personality

And, in order to truly awaken to who we ultimately are we need to “blow out the mind” in order to transcend this limited body-mind-memory complex self that identifies and lives within the three great states in order to have The Ultimate Witness (to these states) “Self” only, “alone”, remain.

This blowing out of mind or a dampening down (Nirodha) on our everyday, normal function, earth-survival states or moods of consciousness reveals a mind-blowing realization: the source of all being, this true, authentic Witness “Self” is IS-NESS itself. Pure awareness! To paraphrase St. Augustine, it seems that the one that you were looking for is the one that is actually doing the looking. As Moses was told by God in the bush burning beyond the confines of time/space continuum: “I” am that AM! Contemplative practices, study of the wisdom traditions and a willingness to surrender to the Master intelligences lead to absorption and realization of our truest essence: unconditioned awareness alone. This expansion of consciousness into awareness itself brings great insight as consciousness expands beyond the borders of limited three-dimensional object, time and space- bound existence, and is certainly a blissful trip. And once realized that you are not the body, not the states of mind but share in the divine cosmic reality of “aliveness” itself, you are free – nothing can hurt you because no thing is actually outside of you!

But still: if we do “wake up” to who we really are can we still potentially by-pass reaching our fullest potential today, now?

Are these blissful states of consciousness and awareness guaranteed to be translated into traits of good-will towards all sentient beings? Does the ability to focus the mind with clarity automatically lead to emotional maturity and moral forthrightness?

Does it necessarily change the way we treat animals and the environment?  I will grant that feeling free may possibly go a way towards compassion but will declare this: if waking up consciousness guaranteed that the world and its inhabitants would be looked upon with dignity and “oneness”, why do all the teachings of how to wake-up have to include ethical codes of do’s and don’ts when it comes to relationships with others and the world of “things”  and personal proscriptions and actions for the individual’s behavioral development?

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 Jill Camera

Jill Camera

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