This is part of the Compassion in Action series. If you just found this and are wondering what’s going on, click here for chapter 1.
Chapter 9 – What is Enlightenment?
“When by the flood of your tears the inner and the outer have fused into one,
you will find Her whom you sought with such anguish, nearer than the nearest,
the very breath of life, the very core of every heart.” ― Anandamayi Ma
In many books on spirituality, including this one, you’ll find all kinds of references to spiritual enlightenment. There are many names for it: Awakening, Realization, Self-realization, God-realization… The list goes on, and they are all terms that refer to the same thing. But what is that thing? What is Enlightenment, and what does it mean to be Enlightened?
In Western society, especially in America, we have a very bad habit of thinking of everything in black and white. Winners and losers. Right and wrong. Good and evil. Us and them. For whatever reason, we view everything as being in either one of two categories, with very little middle ground.
Because of that predisposition, we also approach spirituality in the same way. Look at Christianity as an example. You are born a sinner, bound for Hell, but then you accept Jesus, your sins are forgiven, and you get to spend an eternity in Heaven. There are two possibilities, and everything pivots around Jesus.
Change the words around a little, and we have a description of the common view of Enlightenment. You live in ignorance, stuck in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, but then you attain your Enlightenment, understand all things, and never have to be born again. Instead of pivoting around Jesus, now we’re pivoting around the Enlightenment experience. Suffering is on one side, Bliss on the other.
Rather than thinking about a concept like Enlightenment, let’s consider something closer to home like education. First you go to Kindergarten, and then elementary school, moving up a grade each year. You graduate and go Middle School and then High School. You graduate again and then may go to College. At what point are you “educated” in this scenario?
Does it happen at the end of Elementary School? Clearly, you have some education at that point. You can read and write, you know geography, and you can solve math problems. But are you done? Not yet, as you still have to go through Middle School and High School.
But after High School, you get a diploma. This is different. You can stop going to school and go to work if you want. Some people do. Are they educated or not? If they are, then why do others continue on with their schooling and go to College? And what about Masters degrees, and PhDs?
At what point along this continuum can we say that a person is officially educated? There are various milestones along the way that someone can use to track their progress, but education isn’t something that you gain in an instant. It’s not black and white, but a spectrum with many shades of color.
Does education ever end? Once you get your PhD, do you know everything there is to know? What would the postdoctoral researchers have to say about that? What about those people who have two, or even three PhDs?
If this is the case with education, why would we expect it to be different with spirituality? Spirituality is an education as well, but instead of acquiring knowledge, we are expanding consciousness. Like education, it’s a full color spectrum. We are all on that spectrum. Some people find themselves towards the dark end of the spectrum, and others find themselves towards the bright side. But no matter where you are, light is still shining through. Everyone has some wisdom to share, some small piece of Enlightenment that they have manifested.
So is there ever an end to it? Many spiritual traditions say that once you attain your Enlightenment, you get to stop riding on the Wheel of birth and rebirth. You’ve escaped. You’ve merged fully with God, and never have to be born again.
Those theories all sound fine from the viewpoint of us as separate beings running around, leading our own independent lives, but as you make your way through that spectrum of Enlightenment, one of the things that drops off is the illusion of separation. And when separation is gone, so does the idea of being able to escape the world. If you aren’t going to come back, then who is? In that formless state when duality disappears and there is only Oneness, where is the other being that can come back instead of you? All those infinite lives, experienced from within infinite kinds of bodies, at infinite levels of awakening. Who has lived those lives, and who is going to continue to live them in the future? The personality you constructed as your identification in this life will surely pass, but the real you, underneath it all, isn’t going to get off this ride. But that’s OK, because it was all your idea anyway.
When we come back to the question of what it is like to be enlightened, it becomes clear why there are so many definitions and ideas. It’s because people can only speak from the perspective of their own level of experience. If you ask a sixth grader to tell you about math, you’re going to get a very different answer compared to if you ask the college student who is studying differential equations. Both answers will be correct, it’s just that they will have come from two different perspectives.
The best way I can answer the question, from the perspective of where I stand on this spectrum, is with a story:
There was a man who lived on the top of a lush mountain with his lover, an astonishingly beautiful woman. The two were madly in love, and with each passing day, that love deepened. To him, she was the personification of Beauty and Love, and even the plants and animals responded to her touch. She was his perfect soulmate, and he was hers, and the depth of their love was such that it bestowed an everlasting youth to their bodies. They had lived together this way for hundreds of years, never bored or tired of their lives, in a state of perfect bliss and contentment. As long as they had each other, they cared for nothing else, and they were blessed.
One day, as this man went out to collect some firewood, he accidentally tripped over a root. He fell down a steep ravine, and violently hit the back of his head on a rock, knocking himself out cold. When he came to, he was stunned, and couldn’t remember who he was, or what had happened. He managed to pull himself together, and stumbled blindly through the woods until he found a path. This path lead him down to a road, which he then followed to a village on the coast.
The people there took him in, and tended to his wounds. They gave him something to eat, and a place to sleep. They taught him how to fish, and he found that he was good at it. He eventually became a very productive member of society. He met someone and got married, and over the course of time they had five children that he was very fond of. His life as a fisherman was not easy, but there were good times as well as bad, and he was no worse off than any of the others in his village. He had friends, and interests, and a full life.
As it happened, a day came when he needed some supplies that could only be purchased from a neighboring village. So he set out on foot, making his way down the quiet road that twisted along the coast.
At a certain point in his journey, he noticed that someone was coming from the other direction. He couldn’t see who it was at first, but as he got closer he began to recognize the outline of a woman’s body. The two walked right up to each other, and then stopped.
He could see that she was impossibly beautiful, and as their eyes met, recognition dawned on him. His amnesia fled, and in a flash he remembered everything. This was his soulmate, his closest friend and companion, the love of his life. His love for her was immense, and it reached back through the centuries they had lived together in perfect harmony and peace. He was overcome with emotion, and could barely speak.
She was the one who broke the silence, and said, “I have been waiting for you. Now you remember. Come back home when you are ready.” And then she left.
That man is you.
The first experience I had of this remembrance didn’t involve a vision of a beautiful woman. Instead it could be described more as a presence. The Divine Lover was suddenly there with me, all around me, and I could finally remember what it was like to be with her. It was a distant memory, a memory from before this body, and before this life. It was a memory from the beginning. All I could say was, “I love you so much! How could I have forgotten?!” over and over, almost babbling. I was back in the arms of someone that had loved me since the beginning of time, that perfect soulmate whose existence somehow I managed to forget. There is no room for the intellect in this situation, and I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.
It’s really an impossible feeling to describe, and I don’t think words can ever do it justice. The only analogy I can come up with is to think of sex. On a scale of one to ten, imagine what the ten must feel like, the best sex that anyone could ever experience. Once-in-a-lifetime sex with a once-in-a-lifetime partner. On that scale, with the most amazing sex being a 10, remembering your Divine Lover and being with her is like a 1,000,000. Nothing can compare. It’s not at a level that is ever experienced in the regular day-to-day affairs of humans. I thought to myself in the moment that if even the richest billionaire could experience that feeling, they’d gladly give their entire fortune just for a few minutes of it.
So after some time I said (or rather thought), “I can’t see you. Where are you?” and she simply responded, “Look.” I was sitting outside at the time, and then she was there. She was the mountain, and the stars, and the night sky, and the light itself. She was everything. There was nothing that wasn’t part of her. She had been all around me this whole time, right in front of my nose. I couldn’t turn my head without seeing her, and yet somehow all this time I had missed it.
Eventually, that presence left, and the veil fell back into place, and I was back to the regular world again. Later I read about the “Friend” in Rumi’s poems, and finally understood what he was talking about. It’s a good way to describe it.
That experience was huge, and changed the course of my life. Once you remember, once you know that your soulmate is sitting up on top of that mountain waiting for you, then you also know what needs to be done. You have to find that path, and figure out how to start scrambling up it to try and get back to her. You also have to deal with your attachment to those five kids you’ve got back in the village. That part is not easy, and we’ll talk more about it in the next chapter.
If I had to define Enlightenment as a singular state of being, I’d say it is when you finally manage to scale that mountain and find your lover, and can be with her again in every moment. But the details of exactly how it all works are a mystery. How long does it take to find the path? Once you find it, how long does it take to get to the top of the mountain? I don’t have answers to those questions. It may take lifetimes. Who can be certain?
What I can say for sure is that your Divine Lover wants to be back with you just as much as you want to be back with her. Probably even more so, because she isn’t the one suffering from amnesia and delusions. She lives up there on that mountain top, but she’ll come down from time to time to check up on you. If you haven’t met her, you just have to have faith and do your best to make progress. Once she’s revealed herself, then you can do away with faith and start courting her properly. This is the Divine Romance. I think it’s the reason for the whole cosmic drama in the first place. It’s a Love Story.