Last week, a student asked me a great question, “What is enlightenment?” It’s a great question because every approach, maybe even every person seems to have a slightly different idea as to what enlightenment actually is. But, more than that, I thought it was a great because what we hear about most is how to get to enlightenment and how to get there fast. And, while we might talk about how to get there, we don’t particularly talk about where it is that we want to end up. Enlightenment has become a generic term, it seems, for “a better state of being than this one.”
So, what is enlightenment?
My own idea of enlightenment has been culled from many influences over the years – Buddhism, Yoga, Christianity, Hollywood, Dystopian Sci-Fi novels… and probably many sources I’m not even aware of. In a nutshell, the way I see enlightenment is a state of being where you are unaffected by trivial matters, where you are both above it all and completely in tune with it all, everything and nothing, dispassionate yet experiencing everything all at once.
Being the geek that I am, I had to go look up what the “experts” say enlightenment is. So, I pulled out my Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. In there, scholar Georg Feuerstein says that enlightenment is “that condition of the body-mind in which it is perfectly synchronized with the transcendental Reality. It is identical with Self-Realization.” And then he proceeds to tell us to look at a number of other concepts. Well, thanks, Georg, that really isn’t a hard and fast, end-all-be-all definition of enlightenment, is it? It says to me that it is still up to interpretation.
When you look at similar concepts, we see references to “ecstatic realization of transcendental reality” (mmm… that sounds nice!); awakening; and liberation. As well, we find words that we often lazily use as synonyms to enlightenment – words like bliss, transcendence, awareness, samadhi. But are any of these actually enlightenment?
How do I become enlightened?
There are many paths to enlightenment. Just about every spiritual tradition has at least one. Some a dualistic, some non-dualistic. Some have written, codified instructions, some only whisper instructions in secret. But almost all have a code of ethics, an acceptance of things beyond normal perception, a need to prepare the body and mind, and a meditative practice. In yoga, the most well-known is Patanjai’s 8-fold path. We begin by living right (Yamas and Niyamas), then we build our physical strength (Asana), then we build our energetic strength (Pranayama), then we build the strength of the mind (Dharana and Dhyana), then we examine our relationship/perception inside and out (Pratyahara) and then we simply arrive at enlightenment. There is no practice of enlightenment it simply is.
Why would I want to be enlightened?
Because every description makes it seem pretty great, especially if your life is a struggle. If you think back to when the idea of enlightenment first started coming up, you are looking at a few thousand years ago. Life was harder back then… no running water, no supermarkets, fewer choices as to how you might want to live your life. Certainly, life can still be hard and these very circumstances still exist in many places but overall life isn’t the same sort of struggle. But, if life is hard, wouldn’t you want to escape it? Wouldn’t you want to seek a universal, ecstatic truth? Doesn’t that sound better than lugging buckets of water to wash the roots you dug to cook over your cowpatty fire for dinner?
Indeed, struggle is subjective. The many faceted relationships and global world that we westerners exist with can be hard in a different way. More knowledge, more ease, getting beyond this struggle is a real goal, too.
What do I do with all of this?
In the end, how can we really know what enlightenment is til we get there. And, when we get there, will what it is even matter? Is it worth working toward? Oh yeah, I think so. I think what you learn along the way is worth it even if you never get there – constant growth, constant learning, constant better of self and world. The journey may be more important than the destination.
As Patabbi Jois said “Practice and all is coming.” Whatever it is, it is coming. Practice. Trust that you are doing something good for yourself. Practice.
What do you think? What is enlightenment? Is there a “best” way to get there? Do you see a path for yourself?