Many people assume that enlightenment is one specific, particular experience that happens the same way for everybody. But this is far from true. Yes, when you wake up, you wake up to the same truth as everybody else. But how you wake up, what specific experience you have, and how you relate to the awakening afterwards varies person-by-person.
It matters a lot what happens before, during and after the enlightenment. And this is only speaking about a sudden enlightenment experience, but when it’s more gradual, things can get even more complicated. So we can say that’s one of the dimensions of enlightenment: how quickly it happens in relative time.
Although everybody sees the same truth, everybody sees it from their own personal perspective. Although enlightenment itself is impersonal, there’s still a personal side to it, which everybody experiences according to his or her personality. Although enlightenment itself is objective, the way you achieve it and the way it affects you afterwards is highly subjective.
You can imagine enlightenment like looking into the Sun. The Sun is the objective truth that underlies all of life, and looking into this truth is what’s called enlightenment. However, most people are blinded by the truth, so they choose to protect themselves inside their egos, their spiritual shelters, not to get burnt.
But even if you hide from it, the Sun is always there. There’s only one Sun, but it has millions of rays, and its rays reach people in millions of ways. Most people are trapped in their shelters, in unconsciousness, in darkness. They are defined by their past, by their patterns, by their karma. So it’s just natural that so many different people react in so many different ways to the sunlight.
Naturally, if you’ve been living in a dark room all your life, you’ll react very intensely when you glimpse the Sun for the very first time. Your reaction will be much different from someone who already knows the light, who already realized some aspects of reality. Your level of suffering, delusion and spiritual maturity before the awakening also makes a huge difference.
One dimension of enlightenment I already mentioned is the speed of the process. Do you open the curtains on your window gradually, or do you tear them open suddenly? Is the truth just dawning on you, or does it hit you with all its intensity? In my case, there was a sudden enlightenment, but like I said, everybody is different.
The second dimension of enlightenment is its depth. How deep do you let the rays enter your dark room? How much of the truth do you actually see? Maybe you recognize only a small fraction of the truth, perhaps just one aspect of how you make yourself unenlightened. Maybe the Sun reaches only the first dark corner, and doesn’t go any further, at least for a while.
Others will let the light burn away their whole personalities, as if they were vampires who could be killed by the Sun. If you go this far, you will experience the no-self: that whetever you thought about yourself so far was only a very believable fiction, like a good novel. Suddenly, you don’t know who you are, and this is the most liberating thing you’ve ever felt.
But this kind of enlightenment is still partial, it’s still not the full truth. Consciousness has still more depths if you allow yourself into it. There’s still duality, because although now you’re just an observer, the world that you observe is still there. But when enlightenment is complete, the observer and the observed melt into one, and only observing is left.
This is the deepest end of enlightenment, the full objective truth, the ultimate reality. Enlightenment has no end, because it’s an empty void, it’s a black hole, it’s a silent vacuum. Only when you reach absolute nothingness can you be certain that there’s nothing beyond that point, because what could be after nothing? If you already feel one with everything, how could you be only something, when everything is already part of everything?
The third dimension of spiritual enlightenment is its lenght. A few rare individuals will experience it once fully, and they will bask in its soothing space until the end of their life. Others will only have a glimpse, but the experience is so out of this world, that they will slowly forget about it or minimize its importance.
Most of us are in-between these two attitudes. Even if we had a full enlightenment experience, we will fall back into our egoic perspectives quite naturally, as our old habits and patterns still have quite the momentum. In this sense, you can be enlightened and not enlightened at the same time.
If you saw the full truth, you cannot unsee it, even if you fall back into your old ways afterwards. In this sense, if you go through an enlightenment experience once, I won’t take away your title claiming that it wasn’t authentic. But what truly matters is the present moment, because that’s the only reality. What stayed with you from the moment of enlightenment? Are you in the same state of consciousness as then? Are you enlightened now? That’s the real question.
Zen masters like to differentiate between flashes of insight and full enlightenment, between abiding and nonabiding awakening, between short moments of clarity and lasting transformation of consciousness. The lenght of enlightenment is perhaps its most crucial measure of quality.
If you take some strong psychedelic drug, you can quickly achieve a state of consciousness that’s very similar to enlightenment. But what good will it do for you in the long run? It won’t transform your normal life, because that state will seem to be so extraordinary and unachievable without the help of the pill. When you become sober, this kind of experience will seem rather like a dream, a hallucination, an illusion.
But when you achieve enlightenment naturally, the aftereffects tend to stay with you much longer, typically for a couple of weeks. The sudden insight you had doesn’t just go away, you feel just as intensely alive in normal life as at the peak of the experience. It feels so real, that compared to it, your old life before enlightenment feels just like a dream.
If there’s one rule of thumb to distinguish an authentic enlightenment from a fake or partial one, it’s this: When you’re looking back at the experience, or better to say realization, does it feel real or illusory? In the moment, both feel very real, but what about in retrospect? If it feels unreal, then it’s fake. If it feels real, then it’s real.
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