After busting some enlightenment myths, I thought I should look at what enlightenment actually is, with the rather obvious disclaimer: I’m not enlightened, although I am working on it… maybe in the next life!
The first thing to say is that it isn’t possible to say what enlightenment reveals. The true nature of reality is beyond concepts and language, so cannot be expressed. It can only be lived as Being.
In the simplest terms, enlightenment means seeing through the illusion of separateness, and it happens in stages. It usually starts with a glimpse – a tiny peek behind the curtain – often called ‘stream entry’ or kensho. In the Ox Herding Pictures, this is the moment when the ox is spotted lurking in the bushes.
With practise, the understanding of emptiness, or No Self, will grow, and the first real, mind-shattering satori will arrive. This is awakening proper – the moment where you first realise you are not you and are not separate from everything else. This realisation takes time to fully integrate and ground in your daily life. In the Ox Herding Pictures, satori is the moment when both ox and herder disappear.
Integrating this vision of unity consciousness takes time and may involve a descent into the darker sides of your self in a Dark Night of the Soul. This can be a difficult time but is necessary in order to integrate the shadow. Enlightenment means taking responsibility for your life and how your consciousness interacts with Source, so it is important to be honest with yourself and allow the healing to occur.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – C.G. Jung
Enlightenment doesn’t mean living permanently in the light. It is about wholeness and the balance of the opposites. The shadow is embraced, understood and healed, not obliterated. It is helpful to remember that the more light you have, the darker the shadow you cast. Being enlightened doesn’t mean being perfect and always having the answers. It means being who you are. Being human with equanimity and compassion. Being present with what is without getting attached or having any expectations.
In short, it’s nothing like you imagine it will be.
Shinzen Young says that people both overestimate and underestimate how good enlightenment is. You may think you want to be free, but you should be careful what you wish for. He describes enlightenment as being “like falling off a cliff that never ends and you’ve acclimatised to it.” You are permanently removed from your comfort zone.
In Zen, they say it’s like riding the ox backwards. The ox is Buddha Nature, your True Self (or rather No Self), and you are carried along. The ox knows where it’s going (perhaps!) but you don’t. You have no idea what’s going on. You are taken where the ox goes and you are not in control. Can you live with that level of faith?
Watch this great short video of Shinzen Young discussing some of the myths and downsides of enlightenment:
Enlightenment is Destructive
All the positive qualities that arise due to enlightenment do not get added to you. Awakening isn’t about being a better version of yourself. Who you think you are is destroyed by this process, not perfected. There will be more awareness, more clarity, more joy, success, and so on. But it’s not about you.
Enlightenment is not about having a self that has those qualities. The perfection, the positive qualities, are always there, hiding underneath the confusion of the ego – you just have to step out of the way. If you want to be free and enlightened, then you must pay the price. What is that price?
To attain enlightenment you must surrender everything you ever believed in and everything you thought you were. You must even surrender enlightenment.