Enlightenment: What It Is & Why You Really Should Think About It… (Part 1)

enlightenment1If you’re like most practitioners of yoga, you probably think of enlightenment as a distant ideal that only applies to advanced practitioners. And yet, numerous Yoga masters have encouraged their students – even novices and those with worldly responsibilities – to understand enlightenment and to keep it before them, as distant as it might seem. If this seems hard to understand, I’d like to invite you over the course of our next two articles to take a deeper look at what enlightenment is and why it really does matter to us, even if we are complete beginners on the Yogic path.

The first thing it might be helpful to know about enlightenment is that many of the great masters actually achieved enlightenment in a relatively short period of time. In fact, some of them even achieved this goal without any formal training. But if in spite of that enlightenment still seems impossibly remote, it’s valuable to know that the great masters observed that the more we understand this goal, the more focused we can be in our practice.

In simplest terms, by having a deeper awareness of what enlightenment is and what it can give us, we can enjoy greater dedication and greater clarity as to why we are engaging in our specific practices. For these reasons, in today’s article, we’ll take a more detailed look at the nature of enlightenment, including how it might be both very different from and far closer than you think. We’ll then continue in our next article with why the concept of enlightenment is in fact deeply relevant to even the most humble student of Yoga.

Defining the Undefinable

Because enlightenment is obviously dramatically different from our ordinary way of thinking, it can be very difficult to define. Essentially, any definition of enlightenment is going to be metaphorical, as the state of enlightenment itself lies beyond the ordinary consciousness our words are designed to describe. Further, because we all have different experiences and temperaments, even analogies can be challenging to grasp, as some images may resonate more powerfully with us than others.

For these reasons, the great Yoga sages have invested considerable energy striving to express this elusive ideal a variety of ways in order to help the rest of us realize where we are heading and why that awareness is so profoundly valuable. And, as the temperaments of these sages and the audiences to whom they spoke have all varied widely, so the history of Yoga has given us many ways to think of enlightenment. Let’s take a look at a few of the more common definitions.

Samadhi or One-Mindedness

As discussed in previous articles, our ordinary state of consciousness tends to be highly divided – our attention is constantly drawn to a wide variety of thoughts and stimuli and at best our focus on even the most important aspects of our lives is limited. In addition, we tend to look at life through a dualistic lens – as we experience the events of our lives, we are constantly thinking of things in terms of “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” or simply “better” and “less good.”

On top of all this, even when we are focused on a single thing, we tend to view it from what is referred to as a “subject/object-dichotomous perspective” – that is, we tend to experience people and events from the standpoint of how they relate to us. Instead of simply experiencing, we experience from the perspective of our constructed ego – “How does this relate to me? How does this fit in with my views, my goals, my history?”

For these reasons, in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali frequently describes enlightenment with the term samadhi, which is generally translated as “one-mindedness.” In samadhi, we are moving beyond our ordinary, dualistic ways of thinking into a state of pure and singular awareness.

During this state, we are able to focus completely and wholeheartedly on each moment, each experience – giving ourselves fully without the “divided attention” of ordinary life. Instead of thinking of events and people in terms of comparison – “better” or “worse,” “for” or “against” – we come to see and appreciate them as they are. We are also free of the limiting perspectives of ego, able to experience things in their own nature without the endless process of “relativizing” them to our personal histories that characterizes our normal thoughts.

Atmandarshana or Self-Realization

Another way of understanding enlightenment involves a shift of focus from how we perceive the world around us to how we think about ourselves. Again, for most of us, our idea of self revolves around worldly accomplishments and situations – parts of ourselves that are transient and therefore of limited impact. The yogis realized the more we seek stability and security in these ephemeral parts of ourselves, the more we set ourselves up for future suffering.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. By shifting our focus from the ever-changing parts of ourselves – our bodies, feelings, and thoughts – to the parts of ourselves that never change, which is the pure act of consciousness itself, we can step out of this miss-identification and the suffering it brings.

This in turn leads us to another definition of enlightenment offered by Patanjali, which is atmandarshana, or “realization of the Self.” In Self-realization, we perceive the true essence of our being, the witness consciousness that resides beneath the numerous transient parts of ourselves. This “true Self” or atman is always at peace and always above the waves and drama of life, even when we are fully invested in those situations.

When we identify with this inner self, we no longer experience the suffering and frustration that comes from miss-identification with the superficial parts of our lives. And, as a result, we also become more open to the events and people around us. In addition, when we treat others openly and receptively, they, too, tend to become more open and patient toward others.

Yoga or Union

As discussed in several previous articles, the word yoga literally means “yoke” or “yoked,” which in turn suggests “union” or “oneness.” This definition provides yet another valuable way of understanding enlightenment.

In our ordinary approach to life, again we tend to see events and other people as being outside of us and at times in “opposition” to us. Naturally, this leads to a life of friction and tension. By contrast, when we reach the stage of enlightenment, we are able to see the fundamental oneness of all people and circumstances.

From this perspective of union, we start to realize that even the things we think of as “negative” are ultimately no different from the things we think of as “positive.” We realize that the people whom we think of as being “against” us are ultimately no different from us or from the people who agree with us.

It is important to note that, when we achieve this state awareness, we do not lose our capacity for effort, but we do relinquish all the sources of friction – things like judgment or anger or frustration about things that are beyond our control. The union inherent in enlightenment allows us to embrace all of life, and to maintain our peace and joy in moments that previously would have caused us to lose our inherent happiness.

Satori or the Bliss of Enlightenment

A final aspect of enlightenment that it can be beneficial to understand is what the Zen Buddhists referred to as satori. In succinct terms, satori is the sudden and profound feeling of bliss we experience when we have a moment of samadhi.

As you may imagine, when we finally step outside of our dualistic view of the world and have a moment of pure presence, there is a corresponding feeling of profound bliss – a combination of relief in stepping beyond our usual perspective, as well as the joy of true focus. This experience is so profound that the Buddhists realized it deserves its own name.

Much like samadhi, we have all had at least brief experiences of satori – times where we realized that we were “in the zone” and in turn how good that felt. When we achieve enlightenment, we are not only able to stay in that state of constant presence and oneness, but also in that state of constantly experiencing joy, delight, and ease.

Imagine being able to drop into “the zone” any time you wanted with your favorite activity. Now imagine being able to do that with every activity of your life – even washing the dishes or being stuck in rush hour traffic or doing your income taxes. Imagine what it would be like to feel yourself flowing, efficiently and effortlessly, with every single part of your day. Obviously, that would be not only incredibly productive but also incredibly joyful. This is enlightenment, and it really is available to you right now….

In Our Next Article….

Now that we have a better understanding of what enlightenment is, in our next article we’ll take a look at why understanding and staying aware of enlightenment is such a valuable tool on the Yogic path. In fact, even if we are completely new to Yoga or consider our worldly obligations to be obstacles to this seemingly-lofty goal, enlightenment may in fact be far, far closer than you think. We’ll explore both of these topics next time – until then, as always, wishing you the very best on your path of Living Yoga….


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