What is Enlightenment?

Wisdom 1The term ‘enlightenment’ is an often used one, but carries a great many associations. Unfortunately, it is also a term that can evoke such strong reactions that it makes it difficult for a much-needed discussion to take place. To some people, it is just a mundane term referring to the act of discovering something new, though that’s not the way we’re using it here. The term is used here in the way mystics, yogis, Zen masters, have used it. But it also applies to people who have simply stumbled onto an unusual experience in the course of their life which they may not be able to understand and for which they have no terminology. What is really meant by the term ‘enlightenment?’ Can it be defined or is it something that is supposed to remain illusive and undefined? I’ve noticed that for some people, it is an extremely intimidating word evoking feelings of inadequacy and a sense that ‘enlightenment’ is for other, more spiritual people, but not for me. Thus the question – What is enlightenment? – is a loaded term that we would do well to examine closely.

My First Experiences

Those who become involved in such questions are almost always ‘driven’ by a yearning that lies deep within them. I am no different. Before diving into the question of what enlightenment is or might be, it would be helpful to describe my own experiences that have informed and motivated me to create this School and the Contemplation Intensives. It only seems right to briefly describe how I approached the subject of ‘enlightenment’ and the nature of the ‘drive’ which at times consumed me. How did it start? I truly don’t know. I only knew that I wanted to find something out about life and who I really was. I didn’t know it any more than that. I could not have known that what I was experiencing and looking for was actually very common to those who desire to know the truth of who they are. My first memory was when I was around 8 yrs. old and was lying on my back in my yard, gazing at the clouds. I wondered where I was before I was born and where would I go after I died. These seemed like the most natural and obvious of questions. Naturally, I shared these questions with my parents, who were a bit puzzled by the seriousness of my desire to know the answers. I somehow felt I had the right and even the responsibility to know or discover the answers to such a basic question. At first I asked my friends and even Hebrew teachers about these things, and was either looked at as crazy or told not to concern myself with questions that could not be answered. After all, no one could know such things. That response seemed so odd to me. Shouldn’t we know, aren’t we supposed to know, and if so, then don’t we have to work hard to get the answers? What question could be more important than this one? Why should I assume that no one can ever know about these things?

The question(s) never went away and, as I got older, I felt the need to leave Judaism to find the answers so I began to investigate another religion, thinking that the answers could be found there. That led my parents to urge me to go to a psychiatrist. I figured they might be right, as I had begun to see that most people didn’t concern themselves with what I was. So I went, endured quite a few psychological tests and was finally called into the Doctor’s office. In a somber voice, he asked me to sit down and slowly informed me that I had a clinical problem which he could summarize as being ‘obsessed with death’. I looked at him, relieved, and told him that in my opinion, everyone should be ‘obsessed with death,’ as he put it, since life was short and we had the right to figure out who we really are, since death might not be the end. I got up from the chair and left, convinced the psychiatrist was nuts. If I needed therapy, this clearly was not my guy.

When trying a different religion didn’t work out, I started to give up. I didn’t know where to go, who to ask, and was becoming convinced that everyone must be right, that no one could find the answers and it was stupid to try. I would have to wait until I died, and then it either wouldn’t matter, or the answer would be revealed. Years went by, but the question just continued to gnaw at me, until I was coming up on what in astrology is called the Saturn return. Between age 28-30, all of us go through this time period where we begin to realize we are adults, responsible for our own decisions. The question began to return, but this time bigger than it had been before. It was now a true obsession. At that time I was reading everything I could get my hands on written by Alan Watts, Carlos Castaneda, and Baba Ram Das. Nothing else concerned me and in fact, I was worried that time would go by and I wouldn’t find out. It’s hard to describe the intensity of my need to know. Perhaps that very intensity is part of how answers come to us (in all areas of inquiry, not just metaphysics) because finally there were several breakthroughs.

The Enlightenment Experience

AlchemyThe first experience was at a Kansas City Royals baseball game. I mention the place because I had, possibly like most of us, certain expectations about when and where such experiences were ‘supposed’ to take place. Perhaps it is a great thing that it can happen in the most ordinary of places. In my childhood I had played baseball for many years and found that the game required a high degree of alertness. As a fan I often was able to ‘feel the game’ even though I was only an observer, just as if I was playing in it. On this day, suddenly, everything changed, and I could feel more than just the game. I could feel everyone in the stadium. I knew what was going to happen next, and when it did, I became more than amazed. I began to spiral up and up, like my body was being lifted to heights that were both strange and somehow familiar. Over a period of an hour or so, I began to experience myself as ME. That’s the simplest and most accurate way to describe it. I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing ‘enlightenment’. I didn’t need to have a term for it in order to have the experience. I also was beginning to learn how this illusive experience could be defined. I was experiencing myself as a ‘something’ or perhaps a ‘nothing’ that isn’t a body, and yet is much more. It was just a glimpse, but a real one and it irrevocably changed my life. It led me to a life of seeking, finding, more seeking, followed by more finding… a path that may never end.

Where Could I Go Now

The next challenges were just as confounding as the ones that held me when I was young. Now I began to wonder what I was supposed to do with this and in particular, how could I remain constantly in a state where I was aware of myself the way I was at that game and on many other occasions. I am still on that path, and part of that path is to assist others to experience themselves as Who and What they are, their true nature. This type of answer is not an intellectual one, but a direct, conscious experience. It is a knowing that leaves the ‘mind’ behind, a glimpse of the Sun that has been hiding behind the thick and sometimes very dark clouds.

This experience is transcendent in that it is beyond not only our body, but our life problems, our thoughts, and our ideas of ourselves. Whatever you ‘think’ you are, you are not. And yet, it has tremendous practical effects, carrying over into every area of our existence. In this respect, it is immanent in that the experience resides within us. We feel a sense of well-being and a confidence that we can meet the challenges of our everyday lives. We also may develop a greater ability to face and creatively deal with the inevitable problems all of us must contend with, for we find ourselves more able to see life situations as they are and then able to know what the best way to deal with them is. It is like having a door to our own consciousness open that we didn’t even know existed.

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