The Eastern traditions of spiritual enlightenment are now very popular worldwide, but I have found very little description anywhere as to what exactly is the definition of enlightenment, and what the benefits may be. There are articles about how to achieve enlightenment through meditation and other methods, but I feel that without a clear definition of what the meaning of enlightenment is, and indeed why we should bother, the goal will remain elusive. I aim to address this lack in this article. What I write here is of course my own view, based on my own experience of many years.
As with a lot of other esoteric traditions, the “secret” of enlightenment has in the past been deliberately kept obscure, I believe, for a number of reasons. Firstly, enlightenment in the wrong hands has the potential to be dangerous for the world: an enlightened person is potentially far more powerful mentally than the average person: they have much more focus and objectivity. The world today is in such a crisis, however, that we need as many powerful clear-thinking minds as possible to fix it, and it seems we just have to take the risk of letting the knowledge out.
Secondly, I suspect many gurus just like to mystify the subject to improve their control over their students, and these days, to make more money as well. Many gurus hold endless classes, each failing to enlighten anybody. Many writers produce lots of books, each failing to really get to the point or even explain what they are talking about at all with any clarity.
So, let’s get to the point. What is enlightenment? It is the ability to be objective about one’s own thoughts, and more widely, about all of one’s inner experience.
“Huh?” I hear you saying. “Is that it? That doesn’t sound like so much.” Well, put like that it sounds a little dry perhaps, but it turns out to be a stunningly powerful way to improve your life if you can put it into effect conscientiously. The point is, if you can be objective about your thoughts in particular, then you can learn, quite quickly, to use your mind as a much-sharpened tool to enhance your whole life. The enlightened person is more relaxed, more focused, and much more goal-oriented than the average person.
The difficulty with getting this idea across is that most people think that they are already objective about their own thoughts and feelings. However, in the vast majority of cases, this is simply not so. In truth, the majority of most people’s thoughts (including my own when I’m not being enlightened) might as well be made of porridge for all the help they are.
In case you doubt me, I shall describe what I mean and maybe it will begin to become clear. Afterwards I will describe ways of fixing this dire situation.
The key to enlightenment is the mind. By this, I mean the verbal mind: the inner voice that harasses us with its seemingly never-ending stream of verbiage, and which we mistakenly take to be the inner sound of ourselves thinking. In fact, it is most emphatically not thinking at all most of the time in the untrained mind. Instead, it is our brains’ language module repeating things it has learned and producing descriptions of what passes before our awareness from moment-to-moment. This is much the same as the way our visual cortex automatically produces images of what is before our eyes all the time. In the case of the language module, it does it verbally, bringing descriptions and ideas into our head. Automatically. Now of course each person’s thoughts are different, but here are a few general examples of the kinds of automatic thoughts I am talking about:
- “I could never do that.”
- “That wouldn’t be ‘me’.”
- “Why is she giving me that dirty look?”
- “I must be a success (or nobody will love me/I'm worthless).”
- “A quarter-pounder with cheese and regular fries.”
- “I am going to be great and save the world!”
- “I must get a new iPhone or nobody will take me seriously.”
- “These drivers are all idiots.”
- “Nobody likes me.”
- “It’s dog-eat-dog out there. I must be ruthless.”
- “My feelings are an embarrassment.”
And so on... What these thoughts have in common is that they are all a waste of time. Probably the most constructive thought is the one about the quarter-pounder and, you might be surprised to hear, it is entirely possible to order a burger without rehearsing it in your mind several times in advance! (That may take some practise though.) The thoughts are a waste of time because they do not get you anywhere. Furthermore, they are largely automatic in nature - when we think thoughts like these, we have probably had the same thoughts hundreds or even thousands of times before: they are typically habitual and do not improve our current situation at all.
Why do we think such rot? Well, first of all, we are taught it as children! The messages we repeat to ourselves are the messages we picked up from parents, teachers, celebrities, older children and others when we were little and were trying to learn about how to get on in the world. We end up summarizing what we see and hear with little rules for ourselves to live by.
As children, these rules serve to keep us out of trouble, or help us to get what we want from those we are dependent upon. The problem is that by the time we become adults, we have long forgotten that these thoughts are just ideas we had or were told as children. We think they are real and act as if these thoughts are The Truth about reality. The truth is, they are not. They really are nonsensical generalizations that we use to construct our self-image (ego) and nothing more.
As adults, we no longer need such thoughts: we know how to survive in the day-to-day world and there is no need for us to rehearse our rules 50 times an hour to ourselves. And we don’t need to boost our ego-self-image with fictional thoughts about who we are, either. It is all fake and unnecessary. We are who we are. That is all. There is no need to bend who we are to fit some habitual childish nonsense thoughts that no longer apply anyway (if they even did in the first place).
The point about such thoughts is that they are not objectively true, and they are not functioning to improve our lives any more. They may have helped when we were children, but that time is past. As adults, we can do better. How? By training our minds so that instead of repeating out-of-date generalizations and other nonsense, they think constructively and to our real benefit, here and now. It turns out, this isn’t so hard to do, either, although it does seem to require continued practise, much like playing a musical instrument: if you leave it too long, you start to lose your skills again.
If you take a look at the traditional methods of achieving enlightenment - the various forms of meditation (especially the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation) and, for the more physically oriented person, the methods of yoga, they all have the effect of silencing the verbal mind in one way or another - either directly, or by numbing it with a repetitive mantra, or through physical activity, and so on. The idea is, if you can learn to silence those inner thoughts, you will see that they, and “you,” are two different things. You are not doing the thinking. “You” are the one who is listening to all that nonsense, not the one producing it. It is just being produced automatically, as you will see soon enough when you try. You will see that mind or no mind, verbal thoughts or no verbal thoughts, you are still there, and you still know what to do from one moment to the next. You are not your mind.
For most people, when they really get that for the first time, it comes as a profound realization: "satori," the moment of enlightenment. Then, of course, we backslide - that is why practise is necessary because the old habits of thought of years and years don’t just go away in an instant. We need to keep up with the training - but it is worth it. When you realize that you know what to do in your life without the verbal nonsense, then you are acting according to your authentic self, and not according to all the inappropriate inauthentic ideas of others from the years gone by. When you need to use your mind to do some real verbal work, it is still there, and it can think and calculate and plan extremely well. But now, you know that you don’t have to use it for everything, all the time: you can use it when it is appropriate, and ignore it or silence it when it is not. That is enlightenment.