East Meets West: Two Perspectives on Meditative Experiences

Dissolving the Mystery Behind Spiritual Enlightenment and Awakening

Posted Sep 22, 2011

Awakening & Enlightenment Viewed from a Scientific Lens

Abraham Maslow, academic, author, and creator of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, was a meditation pioneer. He coined the term "peak experiences" to describe the mystical, consciousness-expanding experiences of being completely engaged with the present moment. Peak experiences are part of what he called self-actualization, which is the pinnacle of his hierarchy of needs pyramid. Peak experiences are synonymous with Awakening and Enlightenment. They entail the phenomena of being fully alive and so present that you feel and sense everything around and inside of you.

How the Spiritual Traditions of Asia View Enlightenment

The Buddha is quoted as saying, "There is no self." My interpretation of this simple, yet profound truth is that when we are completely in touch with all that is around us, that we lose the identity of "me" and "mine," also called our egoic-selves. When we dissolve the separation between us and them, we expand our identities beyond the egoic-self, we manifest more love, and we're more engaged with the world around us.

East & West Intersect

In Western spiritual traditions Awakening is sometimes described as "via negativa," a Latin term that basically means, "It's not what you think it is." On the other hand, "neti, neti" describes a concept that has influenced major spiritual traditions throughout Asia. This term translates to "not this, not that." Both "via negativa" and "neti, neti" point to the fact that peak experiences are beyond description.

Enlightenment: You Must Experience It to Know It

There are many different definitions of Enlightenment or Awakening, whole books have been written about it, and countless websites are devoted to it. The bottom line is that it has to be experienced to be known, much like an avocado has to be tasted to be understood--however intricately the fruit may be described, we really have no idea what it is until it's in our mouth for the first time.

Despite their mysterious origins, one thing is for sure: around the world, countless people are pursuing peak experiences. Some people become monks or nuns to experience it. Others participate in retreats and special programs. Sometimes people even resort to drugs--but here are certainly healthier alternatives. For example, meditation provides the same results, but with no side effects.

Personality Profile of an Enlightened Being

Enlightened, Awakened people are very quiet. I don't mean they don't talk. Rather, they "stay still inside." In other words, they allow their minds 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.

How to Begin the Journey

If you're interested in having your own peak experience, the first step is to be still, be quiet, and quiet the mind. In that vacuum, you will find a huge emptiness of nothingness, which 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 Bibles, there is a beautiful verse that says, "Be still and know that I am God." In other words, become still, and the whole 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. It's easier said than done, but it's worth it to reach the point where you find that inner calm and the peace that surpasses understanding.

One of the best ways to develop one's inner silence is to go on a retreat, but if this is not possible, keep following my blog or listen to my meditation 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.