So far I’ve spoken pretty much exclusively about having, surviving and integrating radical spiritual experiences and not so much about enlightenment. Let’s talk a little about the difference between the two.
Enlightenment is not an experience. It is a state of being. It is a radical state of clarity. It is a continuous state of clear awareness. It’s not something you attain, for in the moment of “achieving” this state of clarity, your fundamental belief in the personality self—your hypnotic fixation on personhood—is obliterated.
You, as you have known yourself, do not cease to exist…you simply see that you never existed in the first place. There is no “you” to attain enlightenment. In that moment any reality of a “you” who could succeed or fail, attain or not attain, is understood to the very core to be unreal. It’s not an intellectual understanding. It does not involve the mind or thinking or evaluating or believing. You just see it.
It’s like seeing a shadow at night and it looks like it’s moving. You think it’s a dog or a monster or a ghost. The mind fills in the blanks, fills it in and makes it very real for you. Then you turn on the light and you see it is a shadow cast by something that is being blown around by a breeze. You don’t need to think about it, or believe it or anything. You just see it. When you turn off the light, you see the shadow again, but you know what it is and that’s that.
Only, it’s kind of a big deal, especially at first, because every activity, motivation and aspiration is organized around this basic, unexamined bedrock belief in the self. It’s so fundamental that you don’t even know it’s just a belief, an assumption. Not only is your personal world built around this organizing principle, but so is our entire society. When you wake permanently from the dream of self, the human world—culture, society, human interactions—may not make much sense to you. And you may not make much sense to others.
Waking permanently is different than waking for a moment and then going back to sleep. When you wake fully, that moment of waking may seem like an experience, but what follows is a state of being…being awake. That is what the threshold of enlightenment is. When you cross it, you are in a totally different terrain. It’s not a static state, like you “reach” enlightenment and that’s it. But this is the fundamental threshold of living in a state of basic clarity that is not mental, theoretical or academic.
People who are still sleeping, but waking up from time to time, can be very concerned that no one ever should claim to be enlightened. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t bother people who are fast asleep as much, but it does seem to really get the hackles up for some people who are popping in and out of direct clarity. What I mean by direct clarity is clarity you are living in this very moment, not clarity you refer back to…referring back to your experiences of momentary wakefulness. People who pop in and out of clarity can often sit in their dream state referring to the experience of clarity that they had, but are not having in the moment.
There are all kinds of strange beliefs floating around. “One who claims to be enlightened is surely not, because an enlightened person would never say so.” Or some such nonsense. There are lots of reasons not to walk around telling people you are enlightened, but false humility is not one of them.
Enlightenment is something I don’t speak much about. Partly because it is not subject to the discursive mind. It doesn’t lend itself to words.
Those who live in this awareness know exactly what I’m talking about. Even if I used the most inadequate terms to describe it or the weakest analogies, they would recognize it immediately. I could also be talking to someone so learned in topics such as non-duality or advaita—and while they could go on at length talking eloquently around it, debating the finer points of it using impeccable spiritual lingo—the living of it, the true direct understanding of it eludes them. It’s hollow. It’s intellectual. It’s ashes.
Then there are spiritual experiences. They can range from the mild to the spectacular: feelings of oneness to the emergence of rare abilities. This is what I talk about mostly on this site. How to deal with these changes, how they might affect your life, and how to integrate them. Spiritual experiences and enlightenment are not the same thing. Some enlightened people have these crazy spiritual experiences. It’s also possible that some don’t. Many people have all manner of intense spiritual experiences and have not crossed the threshold of enlightenment.
I always encourage people not to get too swept away by the spiritual experiences. They can be crazy and intense and reorganize your life, but they come and go. They may leave you with a whole new set of “powers” to deal with and integrate, but a person can get so focused on chasing the experiences, raising their frequency, activating their DNA or whatever, that they lose themselves. It may seem counter intuitive, but spiritual “evolution” as we know and practice it today is not the same as enlightenment. We can be living without food, running more energy, working with angels, or whatever, but that is not the same as enlightenment.
My point is not to value one experience over another, but to bring into focus the difference between the state of enlightenment and the various kinds of spiritual experiences, including the path of spiritual evolution as we are re-defining it in modern new age culture. This site is written from the perspective of a person who suddenly became enlightened and then started having unexpected and sometimes challenging spiritual experiences.
Spiritual experiences are very flashy, we can talk about them for days and never tire. We can revel in our abilities or the “places” we go. Enlightenment, or awakening, is not like this at all. To say it is humbling is a comical understatement, as it wipes out the inner personhood to whom pride or shame or accomplishment could accrue. Everything in the whole universe changes, and yet it is at the same time, completely anti-climactic and very ordinary.