Enlightenment: A Controversial Psycho-Spiritual Experience
Exploring psychological and spiritual aspects of enlightenment.
Posted June 10, 2016 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Enlightenment. The E word. The state of consciousness all spiritual seekers hope for. And yet wishing for enlightenment is a wonderfully paradoxical experience: craving the state of non-craving, trying for effortlessness. There is something fascinating about this conflict between “wanting” and the way it nullifies the state of enlightenment. And yet enlightenment is achievable, and it is much closer to us than we might imagine.
To realise how we could achieve it, we need to begin with an understanding of what is enlightenment. The concept of spiritual enlightenment is among the spiritual concepts that are most frequently contemplated, and often awakens controversy. An enlightened way of being represents the essence of spiritual transcendence. It means living a life in which analysis by the mind is continuously transcended, evading any interference. An enlightened existence means oneness with experiences, devoid of any duality, where the self is known to be an illusion, and life is experienced completely independently of it.
This state has been given different names. It is referred to, for example, as the state of Nirvana, Unity Consciousness, Samadhi, Awakening, and Enlightenment. Whatever name is used, what matters is that it is regarded as a state of freedom from the tyranny of the mind and the illusion of the self.
Do you remember yourself as a child? You were basically fearless, intrinsically willing to say “yes” to the adventure of life. At that time you had an incredible ability to let go of any difficulty, you were able to move smoothly from one experience to another because you never identified yourself with any of them. We often see two children fight as if they were the worst enemies on earth, and a minute later they play together as if they were the greatest friends. This demonstrates the ability of children to switch effortlessly from one moment to the next without emotional response. Each moment is tackled separately and completely as a whole. This is a wonderful manifestation of the state of enlightenment.
We are all born enlightened; as years go by we keep accumulating self-concepts, and slowly move away from that primary innocence, from the deep feeling that life could be anything and everything. With every bit of conditioning our experience of life, which originally embraced whatever came its way, slowly shrinks to accommodate the limitations of our own mind and self. For some of us, this may begin earlier than for others, and the rate of accumulation and conditioning is individual. But this learning process is inescapable, and we unavoidably move away from our original state of enlightenment and enter a state of illusion.
I say that this process is inescapable as it is truly impossible to avoid this conditioning at a very young age. In many ways, the entire spiritual journey is based upon that learning and conditioning — because at a certain point along the way, you begin the process of unlearning. This may happen at different points in life, at different ages, and for a variety of reasons, but the connecting thread is the deep feeling that “I am not experiencing life’s gifts in full”. This is a nagging feeling that tells you that you have lost what you once had as a young child. You have awakened to the fact that your life has been incomplete. Something within you is inviting you to recall your awareness and return home, to let go of illusion and pretense, and regain your original state. This is when the journey of unlearning begins; the journey whereby you strip yourself of the layers in which you have been wrapped, like an onion, to reveal, in the end, your authentic self, the state of enlightenment.
This idea is tremendously challenging. You might be thinking: “Nothing? I am nothing? How could that be?” And yet remember that this nothingness was the foundation of freedom during childhood. Back then, free of definitions and expectations, you experienced life as an adventure. By engaging with spirituality, meditation, and self-awareness, you will have begun your process of unlearning, whether you recognise it or not. And this is our path towards freedom — this is enlightenment.
How Does Enlightenment Feel?
At certain moments you experience transcendence and catch a glimpse of life as it is. These moments occur when, for some reason, there is a break in the ongoing activity of your mind. When this activity stops, for a brief moment you experience something completely different. This could occur under various circumstances: Deep meditation, extreme shock, an orgasm, the influence of a drug, or an amazingly beautiful natural phenomenon. All these moments have one thing in common: They bring your mind’s activity to a halt, they press the “pause” button for a while.
What do you feel when this happens? Imagine that underneath the never-ending commentary of the mind, underneath all the layers of the Ego Formed Self, runs an undercurrent. This undercurrent is filled with feelings of unconditional love, peace, compassion, and joy. And this undercurrent is constantly calling you, with every breath you take. It is vibrating inside you, because it is who you really are. It is an inner call to return home, to the point where you started and where you will end.
Your Ego Formed Self and its ego concepts form a thick layer that makes it very difficult for you to experience that undercurrent under regular circumstances. To break through the thick layer of the mind and dip in these waters you actually need those rare moments. Have you ever found yourself filled with love or joy or peace that was so immense you almost could not contain it? That was a moment of connection to the source, to the undercurrent, to your Authentic Self; a moment of enlightenment. And the beauty of it is that it may happen suddenly and unexpectedly. You could be standing on the top of a mountain, watching the horizon, or standing on the beach watching the waves, and suddenly something clicks; you stop thinking and come in touch with your Authentic Self. You become one with this amazing, deep, acceptance and joy, knowing deep within that everything is perfectly fine, has always been, and will always be.
A few heartbeats later, the mental noise that gave in for a moment regains control over your awareness and tears your awareness away from the connection to the undercurrent.
Enlightenment Is Impermanent
One of the myths around enlightenment is that it is a durable experience that never changes. In reality, our awareness fluctuates; it is as impermanent as anything else. Note that the experience of enlightenment as a way of being does not change; it is always there, waiting for your awareness. As you practice meditation and keep growing, your awareness will extend and grow more consistent, yet it will continue to fluctuate. This means that your connection with the enlightened space, the Authentic Self, will also be subject to change.
During my years of traveling and spiritual practice, I have met many individuals who have experienced enlightenment to varying extents. Some of the spiritual teachers I have met could even maintain that connection for long periods of time. And yet, I have never met individuals who experienced a steady, never-ending, enlightened state, where analysis by the mind never interferes at any point. We are human; it is no coincidence that we are born into the challenges of a body and a mind. Had we been meant to be pure spirits or entities of energy, we would have surely been embodied differently, and not be continuously challenged by our mind and body.
We all contend with difficulties implanted within us: anger, frustration, jealousy, pain, sometimes even joy brings discomfort. Spirituality does not resolve these difficulties. Frequently, the spiritual journey will take you even deeper into these feelings of discomfort. This is the meaning of being human. On your path towards enlightenment, you will have to engage with such experiences. These challenges, which some might see as limitations, are the reason we are here.
Our lives revolve around learning to live with, accept and relate to all that we are, including what we perceive as our personal limitations. We are not here to be perfect (whatever that means for you); we are here to deal with what we define as our imperfections and briefly touch the enlightened undercurrent as we transform. This transformation cannot be labeled. When we try to label it we fall into the trap of expectations and ego concepts. If you make enlightenment your benchmark, frustration will be your constant companion. Let go of seeking that enlightenment and you will feel great relief and freedom. It is the celebration of your liberation from ego concepts and expectations.
I frequently observe spiritual seekers get deeply frustrated because they are not enlightened after many years of hard work. They are unable to recognise how entrapped they are in their own needs and concepts. Imagine the enlightened space as a road sign that indicates you have come in touch with your Authentic Self, and have been blessed with a glimpse of the experience of it. It does not matter if you reconnect to it next in a moment or in another lifetime. All you can do is continue your spiritual work here and now. And the freer this work is of expectations for enlightenment, the simpler you will find it to transform and grow.
Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return. You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering. But unconditional love? Stop telling that story. Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives. It doesn’t require modifiers. It doesn’t require the condition of perfection. It only asks that you show up. And do your best. That you stay present and feel fully. That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU. It’s enough. It’s Plenty. ~ Courtney A. Walsh
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a positive psychologist, professor at Naropa University, and the director of the School of Positive Transformation.