I was already in my late 20’s by the time that I first learned about the idea of enlightenment. Initially, I didn’t really understand what it was, beyond the (false) belief that attaining enlightenment was the only true way to bring me peace and happiness into my life. I therefore made it my ultimate goal.
Many people use the terms “enlightenment” and “awakening” interchangeably, but I think it’s fair to say that there is a difference, and I had confused the two. For the remainder of this article, I will use the term “awakening” to refer to the actual experience of non-dualism (also referred to as the experience of “oneness”). It is clear to me now that the experience of awakening is not something that happens via self-will; it is instead a spontaneous event. However, the experience is a useful tool for those of us who are on the spiritual path; it is therefore helpful to have a clear concept of what awakening is, and what it will or will not affect in our lives.
What awakening will not give us:
Note that this is not about the experience itself; rather, this is about the effects of the experience on one’s life in general. So without further ado:
Awakening will NOT give you peace, bliss, or happiness. It does not automatically mean the end of the reincarnation cycle, or the dissolution of karma. It will not free you from your ego, or alter it in anyway. It does not make you rich. It does not solve A SINGLE of your life’s problems. Instead, your life situation before an awakening experience will not change in the slightest after the experience. You will not be healthier. You will not wiser. You will not be smarter. You will not be happier (I’m repeating myself here, but it’s worth repeating).
What awakening does give us:
The awakening experience gives us basically one thing: a correct perception of reality. It’s an experience that we are not actually separate from anything or anybody. In other words, the experience allows us to know concretely that our identification with our ego selves is simply a mis-identification of who we are. The experience gives us actual proof that when we perceive ourselves as a person separate from others, this is simply a mis-perception of reality. In this respect, awakening gives us a gift: it teaches us that when we do anything to anyone else, we are actually doing that thing to ourselves. And vice versa.
It is also important to note that the awakening experience is not always permanent. Often, an experience is temporary, lasting a few minutes, hours, or days. Joel Goldstein, a famous spiritual healer, recounted that his initial experiences were temporary, but eventually the experience became permanent. Adyashanti, a contemporary spiritual teacher, noted that his first experience was temporary, followed by a permanent experience that occurred only years later. In contrast, author Byron Katie has described an awakening experience that appears to have never “gone away”.
In general, no matter how long one has been in an awakening experience, there is no guarantee that the awakening experience will stay permanent, as the future cannot be predicted. Therefore, I will use the term “continual awakening” instead of permanent awakening to describe an awakening that continues to the present moment, and a “temporary awakening” to describe an experience that ended after a period of time.
Waking up from yourself
One thing to note about awakening is that a desire to be awakened is a desire which comes from the ego. The ego wants to have an experience of awakening in order to prove its self-worth, as well as superiority over others. The irony is that it is impossible for the ego to be awakened. Instead, what is actually happening is that your consciousness is waking up from the fact that you are an ego. So “awakening” is not something that you achieve, it is an experience of no longer identifying with who you thought you were, at which point you are surprised to discover that you are in fact already what you have been trying to be, but just weren’t aware of it.
When we are dreaming, we rarely realize it until the moment we wake up from the dream. Only at that point do we realize that it was just a dream; it wasn’t real. This is not to suggest that life is a dream, but it is to suggest that until you are “awakened”, you have no means for correctly perceiving the reality that you are in.
In general, the awakening experience itself can be likened to a camera that has zoomed all the way out. At this perspective, you can correctly see the full picture. Once the camera zooms in again, you lose that perspective, but you at least now know that the perspective you are viewing is not the whole picture.
Using awakening as a tool
During my early years on the spiritual path, I believed that once I was awakened, I would be “happy every after”, game over. What I failed to realize is that the end-game is more about the dis-identification of the ego, which is a process separate from awakening, and which takes both time and effort.
When Buddha had his awakening experience, he spent the whole night watching his ego thoughts, one by one, as they appeared in his head. By not believing in or negatively reacting to the thoughts, they simply were able to pass through his mind unencumbered. As the Buddha was in a continual awakening experience at that time, he was aided by the real-time experience of correct perception, which allowed him to quickly realize the non-validity of the thoughts flowing through his consciousness.
As recounted in her books, Byron Katie’s experience was also a continual awakening. After the awakening, she went through a process of being aware of each thought that entered her mind, questioning its validity, and then releasing it with the knowledge that it was simply a thought. This process apparently took months.
In contrast, Adyashanti’s initial awakening was temporary. He therefore didn’t have a real-time experience of correct perception, but he did have the memory of it. Perhaps due to this, the process of inquiry took much longer: he would spend an entire evening focusing on just one thought until he was finally able to process through it and release it as “having no substance”. This process of dis-identifying with his thoughts took years.
Although the task of dis-identifying with the ego may seem daunting, the beauty of an awakening experience is that it makes it much easier for those who’ve had the experience to realize that it is our thoughts that are causing us pain, instead of reality itself. For the rest of us, the struggle to disentangle ourselves from our thoughts can be immensely more challenging since all we’ve ever known is the limited experience of the ego.
No matter how spiritual a person becomes, the ego never disappears. Thoughts will always appear in our minds as long as we still have our minds. Therefore, what matters is not that we have an ego or thoughts, but whether or not we can continually recognize our thoughts as simply thoughts, and how fast. For a person who has stopped identifying with the ego, the dismissal of a thought that has appeared is both habitual and practically instantaneous.
Enlightenment, then, can be thought of as the state of continual awakening experience combined with complete non-attachment (dis-identification) of the ego. This is the state that we are all aiming for, which will bring us peace regardless of circumstances, and which each of us will inevitably reach at some point of our respective spiritual journeys.
- Adyashanti. The End of your World: Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment. Sounds True Publishing. 2008.
- Byron Katie. A Thousand Names for Joy. Harmony. 2008.
- Joel Goldsmith. The Art of Spiritual Healing. HarperOne. 1992.