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What Is Enlightenment?

Posted: 02/24/11 08:53 AM ET

"There is no enlightenment outside of daily life." -- Thic Nhat Hanh

What is this enigmatic and exalted state called "enlightenment"? Why is everyone so enamored by this word? Why is everyone so eager to attain it? Does anyone really understand the essence of it? Many speak of it as if they do, and while others use it to enhance their status. I have been in the presence of such people, and I am always astounded at the level of ignorance guiding their behavior. Such people are nowhere near awakened, let alone enlightened, and this includes both teacher and student. It is like the blind leading the blind. The irony is that the effort they expend on becoming enlightened only impedes the realization that they already are. Enlightenment is not something you do; it is about being.

This beingness seems to be the hardest lesson to master, for it involves a gradual, developmental and cumulative process of growth through steps and stages. It emerges as a natural consequence of allowing, rather than by any egoic effort to attain it, because it involves surrendering and the ultimate dissolution of the ego in order to realize it. You can read the world's greatest mystical and spiritual literature, become very knowledgeable on techniques, rites and rituals, and yet remain completely unchanged. Accumulation of knowledge is not enlightenment, and neither is the prowess of mystical vocabulary the proof.

What we need is a new definition of what enlightenment means within the context of modern existence. The popular version is depicted as a sudden state of rapture and ecstasy, accompanied by luminous light and visions, an end of suffering and the dawning of bliss, thus permanently enlightening the aspirant. All this may very well be true, but does this depiction really explain what enlightenment is?

This state of beingness is easy to attain or maintain in an ashram, monastery or somewhere up in the mountains far removed from the challenges of modern life. There's nothing wrong with pursuing a monastic life or dedicating your life to simplicity and seclusion; this has its time and value on the journey. But how much of that pursuit is authentic, versus escaping the demands of the world? When you live in seclusion, you bet it's easier to maintain a consciousness of love and compassion.

So what is enlightenment? How about coming down from that mountain and putting your unity consciousness to the test amidst mortgage payments and credit card debt, divorce lawyers and aging parents, nasty bosses and health problems, wars and poverty? Such conditions, as the alchemist knows, burns away the dross to reveal who we are not. Yes, in the midst of the madness we awaken, grow comfortable with our dualistic nature and develop mystical stamina so that we can handle our sobriety. Illusions are like drugs and enlightenment is like rehab.

An enlightened person neither seeks the light, nor remains inactive in the darkness. Their goal is not enlightenment, but of conduct toward self, life and others. When you're in the presence of such a person, no verbal exchange is necessary to know who you are dealing with. Such people can serve in monasteries or stock markets, run corporations or run for office, walk the desert or walk to work. They have the ability to see things as they really are, to accept what is and remain open to all of life. This is done not out of naiveté or denial, but out of profound understanding of how life really works.

"After enlightenment, the laundry." -- a Zen proverb