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

wisdom-enlightenmentIn our previous article, we explored some of the ways enlightenment has been described in order to help those of us on the Yogic path better understand the goal toward which we are heading.  In today’s article, I’d like to share some thoughts on why this understanding is so valuable – even for those of us who are new to Yoga, or who feel that our worldly obligations might prevent us from getting anywhere near that goal.

In fact, for reasons we’ll discuss, many great sages of the Yoga tradition have expressed the belief that a clear understanding of enlightenment is every bit as important for lay practitioners as it is for swamis.  To understand why, let’s take a look at what enlightenment can mean to you and me, and why it may be far closer than you think – especially if you believe it is….

What Enlightenment Brings 

To recap, the benefits of enlightenment are many and profound.  For example, we all know the frustration of important moments we have missed due to distraction of preoccupation – significant events that have passed us by because our worries or simple mental wanderings have kept us from being present, moments that we cannot simply “rewind.”

We also know what it’s like to hurt someone, or to be hurt, due to lack of awareness.  We’ve all experienced moments when our judgmental opinions or those of a loved one have prevented communication, and we all know the frustration we feel when we realize we cannot simply “back up” and try again.

As discussed last article, one of the many benefits of enlightenment is samadhi, or one-mindedness.  Samadhi gives us the capacity to experience each moment with full attention, full awareness, and full receptivity.  This means no more missed experiences, no more periods of distraction, no more partial important things that really deserve our full attention.

On top of this, enlightenment also means no more falling into unconscious patterns – in other words, we will no longer slip into assumption and the judgmental thoughts it can lead to.  Further, when the people around us fall into their unconscious patterns, through our greater awareness, we are able to stay in a place of compassion rather than becoming reactive and perpetuating the challenge.

Finally, through our example, our own awareness helps others to gradually build the same in their lives.  In other words, our growth not only helps us to experience greater presence and peace, but it also helps our loved ones and even strangers to move toward this invaluable goal.

Why Enlightenment is Actually the Most Practical Goal You Could Have 

As discussed in our previous article, most of us think of enlightenment as an abstract or lofty ideal, but in actuality, it is the most practical goal you could choose.  In fact, you could say that enlightenment is the single most practical goal toward which we could ever aspire.  To understand why, there are a couple aspects of enlightenment it is worth reiterating, starting with its universality.

We all know that most areas of growth have limited application – for example, skills that make us better at our jobs don’t necessarily make us better parents or partners, and vice-versa.  But enlightenment is different: it means greater concentration, greater presence, greater clarity, and greater compassion in every single area of our lives.

Imagine enjoying these benefits at work – staying more focused on the job and less reactive when interpersonal challenges arise.  Imagine being more present with friends – fully enjoying time with them, and also being fully available whenever they are in need.  Imagine navigating family interactions without falling into old patterns that don’t serve and being more compassionate when others do.  Finally, imagine time with your partner and children in which you fully enjoy each moment without being distracted by issues from other areas of your life.

Clearly, whatever our occupation, whatever our family situation, whatever our current relationship, enlightenment can dramatically improve every single area of our lives….

“Enlightenment for Beginners” 

This profoundly practical aspect of enlightenment is part of why even novices and lay-practitioners should keep this goal in mind.  In fact, arguably those of us still at an earlier stage on the path stand to benefit the most – simply put, the more filled our lives are by drama and distractions, the more we can benefit from working toward this goal.

In this sense, you could even say that those of us who are removed from the serenity and support of an ashram are the ones who can benefit most powerfully from this goal.  In this sense, aspiring toward enlightenment not only does not take us away from the world but in fact helps prepare us to participate more fully and productively in it.

The Power of Keeping Your “Eyes on the Prize…”

In spite of these reassurances, we might still be inclined to think of enlightenment as so distant that it is hardly worth thinking about.  If you tend to think of it this way, it can be valuable to realize that even working toward enlightenment profoundly increases each and every one of the attributes mentioned above.  In other words, even if the goal itself is distant, the process is still powerful.  Further, the more removed we are from the goal, the more profound the benefits will be.  To understand this, consider the following parallel.

We all know that, with athletic training, even if we are far from our goal, every day of proper exercise and nutrition brings us closer to our objective as well as making us more skilled.  The same is true for enlightenment: every day of self-study, meditation, and other aspects of our program brings us closer to our goal.  Of course, until we reach the goal, we will still have ups and downs, but the ratio will shift – each day we will be more mindful, more self-aware, more caring, and a little less bogged down in unhealthy emotions.

In addition, we also know that the benefits of training actually develop more rapidly when we are new – for example, if we’ve never trained for strength or speed or flexibility, we will experience far more dramatic improvements than experienced athletes, who generally have to train quite hard for even minor gains.  The same is true on the spiritual path: the newer we are to the process, the more readily we will observe benefits, as long as we stay focused and invested in the process.

This brings us back to a simple truth that is as valid on the spiritual path as any other discipline, and that is the more aware we can stay in terms of our goals, the more motivated we will be.  When we want worldly things, we dwell on them, and that fuels our efforts.  And in turn, we have all worked very hard for such goals – a nicer car, or a vacation, or a fitter body.

Given that, how hard should we be prepared to work for such a wonderful and rewarding goal as constant joy and peace?  As Swami Satchidananda used to say: “Why strive for just a little happiness, a little joy, when you can instead strive for endless, unlimited bliss … a bliss you can, in turn, share with everyone around you?”

Why Enlightenment is Far Closer Thank You Think

Beyond all these elements, perhaps the single greatest truth about enlightenment – and in turn the most important thing you could take from this article – is the fact that enlightenment is actually far closer than you think.  In fact, we don’t even need to “seek” enlightenment because in reality we are already enlightened right now.  In slightly different words, it’s not something we need to strive for because the wisdom, insight, and compassion inherent in enlightenment are already there inside of us, we just don’t realize it.

The Buddhist philosopher Keiji Nishitani emphasized the fact that there are two equally important uses of the word realize.  Obviously, the primary form is “apprehension” – to grasp or perceive something in front of us.  But to realize can also mean “bring to life” – that is, to make something a reality by seeing and embodying a truth we have been missing.  Of all the aspects of life to which this insight applies, enlightenment is perhaps the single greatest example.

Understood through this deeper awareness of the term, enlightenment is not something we need to achieve or acquire, but rather something to comprehend – something that already exists, and that we only need to understand in order to bring it to life.  This means that we not only don’t need to go anywhere or do anything to become enlightened, but in fact don’t even need to learn anything – we simply need to stop misidentifying with the limited parts of ourselves.

As Ramana Maharishi put it: “You must get rid of the idea that you are ajnani (i.e., unenlightened) and have yet to realize the Self.  You are the Self.  Was there ever a time when you were not aware of that Self?”  This is especially relevant to those of us who think we are too far from enlightenment for it to matter: obviously, if enlightenment is not a distant goal, but in fact a very immediate thing – something that exists here and now, and that can be experienced as soon as we release our false beliefs – then it is powerfully relevant to all of us, no matter where we perceive ourselves to be on the path.

Our only challenge is in our misperception.  As Nisargadatta puts it: “Having never left the house, you are asking for the way home….”  All we really need to do is let go of our mistaken thoughts about self and life, and we will realize that we already are exactly where we want to be.  To summarize once again in the words of Nisargadatta: “You need not get at it for you are it.  It will get at you, if you give it a chance.  Let go of attachment to the unreal, and the real will swiftly and smoothly step into its own….”

In Our Next Article… 

We hope these last two articles have given you a better understanding of what enlightenment is and just how powerful a concept it is for all of us, even if quite new on the path.  In our next article, we’ll switch topics to explore what are referred to as “the Four Ashramas,” or the four stages of life in classic Yogic thought – a principle we think you’ll find surprisingly relevant and powerful even today.  Until then, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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