One of the primary messages I hope to convey through this blog is that spiritual enlightenment is a real, natural and normal human experience. To that end I will be sharing my own thoughts on the subject as well as commenting on and sharing those of others.
There will be as many answers to this question as there are individual souls, for to each person this light comes in its very own special way. An overview of different people’s descriptions reveals common features of the experience that can be shared as a general concept of spiritual enlightenment.
What is Enlightenment?
Enlightenment is the awakening of the individual to his or her essential nature as pure, awake consciousness.
The experience has been described and defined in a myriad of ways over the ages by those who have experienced it. It is described as absolute bliss consciousness by the ancient Vedic culture of India. It is nirvana in Buddhism, redemption in Christianity and dreamtime to the Aborigines. Though the names differ from culture to culture, the experience is remarkably consistent.
The characteristics of the experience of enlightenment are:
1. A sense that one’s true self is separate and far beyond the activity of one’s daily life.
2. A comprehension that all the phenomenal experiences of life are projections of pure consciousness taking place within the theater of pure consciousness.
3. A deep satisfaction and inner peace that continues through every moment of life, including sleep.
4. A knowledge that this inner consciousness is all that ever was or will be, and that the idea that one’s individual self is limited in time and space (as was perceived before enlightenment) was a delusion.
Progression of Experiences
Perhaps the best way to gain an understanding of the experience of enlightenment is to examine the common progression of experiences one has leading to and developing within enlightenment. The Vedic system of knowledge has made a science of comprehending and engendering the experience of enlightenment, and they describe these experiences in terms of seven states of consciousness. These states of consciousness, from the least conscious to the most conscious are:
1. Deep Sleep – A state of no awareness of body, mind or environment.
2. Dream – A fluid and illusory experience of projected images experienced in the context of sleep.
3. Waking – The experience we call our life. Awareness of one’s body, mind and environment as stable, yet ever changing. One’s sense of self is defined by the shape and character of one’s body, one’s personal history and one’s possessions.
Higher States of Consciousness
These first three states of consciousness are the ones we are all familiar with and they are what modern science, until recently, considered the totality of human experience. More recently the practice of deep meditation has been studied, and further states of consciousness have been defined, both in subjective experiences and through empirical physiological measurements.
4. Pure Consciousness – An experience, typically during deep meditation, in which consciousness is experienced as awake within itself, without the experience of thought, feelings or sensations. This experience is accompanied by a deep state of rest in the body and heightened orderliness in the brain. Much research has been performed on this state of consciousness.
With continued practice of mediation one’s nervous system becomes habituated to functioning with pure consciousness coexisting with the activity of waking, dream or sleep. At first this is an intermittent experience, coming at first during the quiet moments of meditation, then growing to include moments of more dynamic activity.
This experience is described by many as “witnessing” because one senses that one’s inner consciousness is separate from one’s activity and is watching, innocently observing, life as it unfolds. These experiences are the precursor to the next state of consciousness.
5. Cosmic Consciousness – The first stage of enlightenment.
This term has been used to describe the condition in which the experience of pure, silent awareness is permanently stabilized as a foundation for all active experiences. In this state of consciousness, one knows ones true nature to be liberated, formless consciousness and all ones phenomenal experiences are seen as separate from the inner self.
This is the first stage of the realization of the true self. Before this realization, one understood the world to be the primary reality and ones consciousness to be a small part, or observer, of the world. When one awakens to the inner truth of self-awareness, one sees that the world is subordinate to this greater consciousness and that pure consciousness is the most immediate reality.
6. God Consciousness – the maturation of enlightenment.
The experience of the inner self being separate from the changing outer experiences of life, as experienced in the fifth state of consciousness, poses a philosophical paradox to the intellect. How can this pure, silent inner self coexist with the ever-changing world one formerly considered to be all there is?
In order to resolve this question, the inner awareness learns to investigate and comprehend the subtle structures of the world. As this process takes place, one becomes more and more connected with the outer world which appeared foreign at the onset of the fifth state of consciousness. A bridge forms between the inner silence and the outer world such that one can observe the delicate impulses of the process of creation. A golden glow of love flows to bring these two opposites together.
One eventually comes to comprehend the great intelligence that is operating in the creation and maintenance of the observed universe. One appreciates the beauty and power that is embedded in every particle of life, and that is described as awareness of God.
Along with this appreciation can come perception of the subtle forms and life energies that work to uphold our experience. This is termed “celestial perception” and is described in terms of a world suffused with blissful light and divine presence.
7. Unity Consciousness – the resolution of enlightenment.
The irreconcilable paradox of a changing world coexisting with an unbounded field of pure consciousness can only be resolved when the unmovable absolute finds itself embedded in the essential nature of the relative world. This comprehension is described as Unity Consciousness because one cognizes all of creation as well as the absolute consciousness as being one continuous phenomenon, “All is one.”
At this level of consciousness one may perceive the entire universe of experience as being dreamlike and lacking the sense of substance that had previously dominated awareness, thus it is a state of liberation. What is most real is the wholeness that is the unity of formless consciousness both beyond and within the ever-changing forms of life.
There are many illogical or contradictory phrases used to describe this experience, and it seems to be a shortcoming of language itself to capture this experience clearly. Those who live this reality know it to be as concrete as anything in this world…or more so…yet its transcendent nature eludes verbal description.
This outline of the seven states of consciousness should serve as a framework for understanding the major steps in the evolution of human consciousness. Certainly there are as many variations and gradations within these experiences as there are people experiencing them.
Modern science has begun to study the physical and psychological characteristics of these states of consciousness and there are many interesting studies on the subject. I’ll be discussing these throughout this blog. This is a very exciting frontier of cognitive science.
To get a deeper understanding of enlightenment one should study the works of those who have experienced these awakenings, as well as working directly with awakened teachers. You may also wish to study the scientific literature on the subject. Also, engage in a simple, honest spiritual inquiry, as well as a wholesome spiritual practice such as meditation or yoga, in order to experience the blossoming of your own consciousness.
I hope this overview helps your understanding of the potential of human maturation. Throughout this website I will be discussing various aspects of the experience and I hope you will enjoy those posts. If you have any unanswered questions, please feel free to add a comment and I’ll answer as soon as I can.