Myths About Enlightenment

What comes to mind when you think of enlightenment? Saints glowing with divine radiance? Gurus with unfeasibly long beards chanting incomprehensible mantras? Endless do-gooding and lots of smiling? Floating on a cloud of bliss while dispensing otherworldly wisdom?

Enlightenment is often seen as a one-off event that changes your life forever. Darkness is banished and you spend the rest of your days bathed in light and goodness.

Well, no.

Many people chase enlightenment thinking it will solve all their problems and make them a better person, or a more powerful person. But this is a fantasy, a typical ego trip and a perfect example of the kind of self-deception that must be overcome if you want to awaken. Let’s bust a few myths…

The very thing that we call the realization is that there is nothing to be realized. The realization itself is of nothing. Literally, it is nothing. Nothing is attained, nothing is realized, nothing is gained. This is absolutely true. You gain absolutely nothing from such a realization. What is the realization? The realization is that there is no self that can realize anything. There is no self. The delusion is that there is a self.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei


Ten Myths about Enlightenment

1. Enlightenment is a Peak Experience

A peak experience is when your consciousness suddenly flashes up to a higher level. You get a glimpse of beauty, joy or unity and all is right in the world. They are wonderful, liberating moments and you can train yourself to have more of them. But a peak experience is not enlightenment. The clue is in the name.

Enlightenment is not an ‘experience’. Enlightenment is Being.

2. Enlightenment means No Thoughts

There is a great debate over whether you must stop thinking in order to attain enlightenment. Many believe that to be Awake means to be in a permanent absorption state called Samadhi, and never think ever again – not even to write your shopping list. Some claim to have no thoughts, but this is hard to believe when they seem to have no trouble talking and using language. While satori or awakening may involve a period of cessation of thoughts, that doesn’t mean you will never think again.

Thoughts are not the problem. Your attachment to thought is.

3. Enlightenment is Self Mastery

Some forms of meditation involve visualising things to clear the chakras or shower the body with a cleansing light. Or they use the breath to manipulate energy and forcefully raise the Kundalini. There is much focus on self-improvement, healing and mastery, and an avoidance of darkness and negativity. While some of these practices may be beneficial, they can become a hindrance. After all, who is the self you are trying to improve?

You will never master your self. You have no self.

4. Enlightenment is Instant

Technically, when awakening happens, it can only happen NOW, in this moment. So in that sense, it is instant. But to fully integrate the truth which is revealed in that instant, much work must be done. Many people believe that when they have experienced an initial awakening – called kensho or stream entry – they have become enlightened. They have not. The real thing, while instant from a certain perspective, unfolds as a process.

Enlightenment happens NOW, but integration takes time.

5. Enlightenment means No Problems

This is the ultimate fantasy – that if you attain enlightenment you will have no more problems. All your dreams will come true. You will live out your days wrapped in bliss and unending happiness, like the Dalai Lama on ecstasy. You will glow with health and vitality, and never get sick or suffer physically – not even a paper cut. Do you really think you can live forever? More importantly, would you want to?

The end of suffering doesn’t mean the end of problems or pain.

6. Enlightenment means being Spiritual

This one causes a lot of confusion. Many people believe that to be enlightened means becoming a ‘spiritual person’ – in other words, a nicer version of yourself. You will smile a lot, do spiritual things and wear spiritual clothes (whatever they might be). You will never get angry, never swear, and never upset anyone. You may even believe you should be celibate (overrated, if you ask me 😉 ). It’s true that negative traits will tend to fade over time, and you may become calmer and ‘nicer’ as some of the rougher edges are sanded down. But you will not become a bland nobody (unless you already are!).

Enlightenment is more about wholeness than piousness.

7. Enlightenment is the End of Personality

Following on from the last myth, many people believe that if they attain enlightenment they will lose their personal identity. Upon awakening you realise there is no such ‘thing’ as a self, but there is still a collection of traits and habits that express themselves through the body in time and space. Shinzen Young says there is an ‘activity called a personality.’ But it is not the personality that becomes enlightened. The ‘I’ doesn’t awaken; the self is seen through.

The deeper the realisation of No Self, the freer the personality becomes.

8. Enlightenment means Becoming a Guru

Another ego trip. After awakening many people believe they must now become a teacher and share their new found wisdom and insight. There’s nothing wrong in spreading the truth around, and the more the merrier, but there are other paths. You don’t have to be a guru, or a Seer, or some kind of Christ-like martyr or saint. Most of us have incomplete knowledge and are not fully enlightened anyway – even gurus.

Enlightenment means accepting what you are.

There are no enlightened people, there are no enlightened teachers. No one. There are only those who have realized this and those who have not.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei

9. Enlightenment must be Transmitted

This is a carry-over from the days of respect for authority and power, when the only way to gain access to the teachings was via an institution, tradition or lineage. Many still believe that awakening can only be conferred on a disciple by a Master, or that you must have a guru who will demonstrate your True Self. Many still travel to India or Tibet, as if enlightenment were impossible anywhere else.

Teachers are important as guides but they do not give you the Truth.

10. Enlightenment gives you Superpowers

This is my favourite. How I wish I had superpowers! But alas, the extraordinary powers – called siddhi – are beside the point. There are those who have displayed abilities that go beyond what we might call ‘normal.’ The Bodhisattva vows include admonitions against using any powers that may manifest, such as telepathy or remote viewing. But they also warn that failure to use the powers to prevent evil doings by another will result in karmic penalty. Needless to say, most of us probably won’t have to worry about this. I can certainly live without that level of responsibility.

There is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about enlightenment. It is who you are.

The Way itself keeps moving. That is what the Tao is, movement, change, flux like a river. You have to move with it. You cannot stop and build your little pool some place alongside the river. That is where you get stuck and you become stagnant, dead and lifeless. When you really throw yourself into that river, there is no control, no safety and no security. You are flowing down the fast river. You have to really let go. It does not help to try to grasp or clutch at every branch or at every stone. Then, you are truly alive and truly free. You are the Way itself.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei

Next: What is Enlightenment?


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16 thoughts on “Myths About Enlightenment

  1. as you have written – “There are no enlightened people, there are no enlightened teachers. No one. There are only those who have realized this and those who have not.” – Dennis Genpo Merzel Sensei


  2. I agree with what you wrote in the last reply. We are individuals and yet we are one. We exist in time and eternity. Which means we are a self and a no-self. I can’t see the self as an illusion, it is the necessary interface for your experiences in the world. I think the point is not to transcend or abolish the self, but to re-parent it and teach it to free itself of all the bad conditioning it received, unconsciously, from the family, the schools and in society.

    If peak experiences in which we feel wholeness and joy and peace are not enlightenment, if learning to interact with others with love and generosity rather than out of lack and greediness is not enlightenment, if improving the self to be able to live a fulfilling life has nothing to do with enlightenment, then … honestly, I would rather choose to have all of those experiences than to be enlightened.


    1. Hi Annanimm. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything wrong with peak experiences or improving yourself, etc. It’s just that there’s a difference between experiencing those things as a self and as a ‘no self’ – in other words, in enlightenment there’s the realisation that there isn’t a self having an experience. There’s just the experience. Life lives itself through you. It seems that you are having experiences but that’s part of the illusion. And to say it’s an illusion, doesn’t mean it’s not real, or not important. Very tricky to describe. It can only be lived!


      1. Agreed, Jessica.
        I would add that when life is being lived through us, then the boundaries on experience fall away and much more profound things can arise. Further, the lived experience creates refinement that allows a blossoming of heart values far more profound that what we were capable of experiencing prior. In India they call awakening sat chit ananda – absolute bliss consciousness. It is suggested that if bliss is not yet at least a background tone, then it’s not yet fully established. (the mental and emotional koshas are still masking the bliss body) The Upanishads describe 10 levels of bliss, each 100x the previous.

        However, if we try to get such experiences, we will fail. They are effects of enlightenment, not the goal. So you have to go for enlightenment first, beyond experiences. Then, as Jesus said, all else will be added unto you. 😉


        1. Hard to comprehend that kind of bliss, but that’s probably the point!

          Who would’ve thought waking up was so hard? But then again, it probably isn’t. We just get in our own way, as you say – if we try to get it, we’ll fail.


        2. Yes, it’s a funny thing about waking up. It can be apparently very hard to get to the gate. But then it’s very common with the shift for people to remark – Tha’s it?? That’s all it was? How could have have missed that?

          This comes down to the me trying to do something which will always fail as it’s not the me that wakes up.


      2. Thank you for the quick reply. I didn’t think you were implying there was something wrong with peak experiences, only that they weren’t synonymous with enlightenment. I did get a sense that there was an implicit hierarchy in the language you used.

        Maybe it’s not a question of enlightenment being tricky to describe. Some people will resonate with what you’re saying because they’ve experienced it (or lived it, since it’s also not an experience) and others won’t. I confess I’ve never understood what is meant by no-self because I haven’t lived it. Even in the higher Jhanas of meditation, when I feel out of space and time and no longer perceive my body, and even when I feel a sense of cosmic unity when gazing at the stars or upon my lover’s face … I am still aware that it’s my consciousness and my self and my personality that is experiencing a unique moment of transcendence (or immanence).

        I do think that words are important, and that even if language is limited and can never capture the sublimity of lived experience, there is a point in trying to communicate that sublimity to others. The metaphor of “illusion” is often used to refer to the self, or the duality of the world, followed by disclaimers that it doesn’t mean the illusion is not real or that is not important. Perhaps it might be wiser to give up that word, and choose another that can better convey the nuances of that meaning. Ideologies are often dualistic, but language doesn’t need to be. It is a living organism that breathes in different colors and has the magical powers to invent new worlds.


        1. Different traditions will use different language, largely based on the experience of their founders. Terms like no-self and emptiness and world as illusion are direct experiences for some. But another will use Self, fullness and world as lila to describe the same thing.

          The key is in understanding the fundamentals. Then the varieties of experience will make sense. For example, Shankara describes Maya (the world) not as illusion but as dependent on the dominant guna. Covering, illusion, and ladder home are the respective effects of the three.

          It also illustrates why experience is not awakening.


  3. Of all the myths listed, one does contain an essential prerequisite to ‘enlightenment’: You will never get angry.

    Not being angry means acceptance of what the moment, any moment, presents us – no matter how hard that moment pushes our buttons.

    Not getting angry = no attachment to any particular outcome – no resentment = no fear of being overlooked, of being appreciated conditionally, according to performance and dread being found lacking = fear of not being LOVED.

    Managing THAT, in my book … surely would get one a few rungs off the ground on the ladder of enlightenment, no?


    1. It’s true that personal anger because your ego feels threatened would need to be overcome for enlightenment. But I think there’s a place for impersonal anger, a kind of divine fury in the face of injustice, etc. Perhaps that wouldn’t look like anger as we would normally see it, but the emotion would be there – channelled into constructive and compassionate service.


      1. Agreed – Eckhart Tolle gives the example of seeing someone kick a dog. You will still get angry about that. But the difference is the anger won’t stay, won’t be held. It will just be experienced naturally, then resolve quickly.

        I’d also note that enlightenment has nothing to do with your book or anyone elses book. There is an old Vedic saying – knowledge in books remains in books. Teachings serve as pointers but have no reality in themselves.

        And that leads to another myth. That enlightenment is something you accomplish, that there is a ladder to be climbed and this person is thus “higher” than that person, etc. That’s all a minds story about accomplishing something. Enlightenment has nothing to do with the field of action. It is going beyond that to discover it’s underpinnings. But that “beyond” is nowhere else. It is just being right here, completely.


  4. Out of all of these myths, one does contain 1 essential way of responding spiritually to what the moment presents: You will never get angry.
    Not being angry means no attachment, no resentment – no fear of having been overlooked/not being appreciated enough i.e. no fear of being loved conditionally and being found deficient.
    Managing ‘that’ should certainly count for a few rungs up the ladder :-))


  5. Good summary. I wrote a similar article a few months ago with many of the same points.
    Another one – “I will become enlightened” It’s not the me that is enlightened.

    I might quibble slightly with the conclusion of #3. There is value in self improvement. But that is indeed nothing to do with enlightenment. As #7 notes, the personality continues so there is some value in fine-tuning it. But not in confusing that with “spiritual progress”.


    1. Some good points there, thanks Davidya. It’s tricky talking (or writing) about this subject because reality is paradoxical. We are individuals and yet we are one. We exist in time and eternity. Reality and the truth are always somewhere in between and words just get in the way…


      1. Yes, it’s tricky to describe because language is dualistic and reality is not. So descriptions come off as paradoxical when reality is much simpler than that. Often teachers use analogies.or parables. For example, to suggest we are a wave on an ocean. We are non-separate from the ocean but appear distinct when our awareness is focused on the wave.

        Time is one of the most paradoxical because it’s created by the process of experience itself. Thus, how time is experienced depends on how we’re experiencing. In the past or future, in the now, in eternity, all time in the now, timeless, and so forth.


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