“The word enlightenment conjures up the idea of some super human accomplishment, and the ego likes to keep it that way, but enlightenment is simply your natural state of felt oneness with the Divine. It is essentially you and yet is much greater than you.” -Eckhart Tolle
The final limb of the 8-Limbed Yogic Path set forth in the Yoga Sutra is “Samadhi” or “enlightenment.” Enlightenment is the experience of non-duality. “Sama” means even or same, and “Dhi” means intellect. Samadhi builds on the limbs before it. With Dharana, we concentrated on one thing. Dhyana, or meditation, is when this concentration becomes effortless and continual. Samadhi is when we merge not only with the object of our meditation, but with all things. For example if I keep looking at you, it is concentration, but when I am completely absorbed in looking at you it is meditation. If I go deeper, these three (I-looking-you) become one, that is Samadhi. Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, describes enlightenment as the cessation of fluctuations of the mind. Buddha simply describes it as the “end of suffering.” It is when we get still, quiet our minds, and reconnect with the divine in us and all things, that we will find serenity. That is enlightenment.
We have all had glimpses of enlightenment -- moments of non-duality-- when we felt at one with everything, when our minds were still. Perhaps it was during a hike in nature, or while doing something creative that we love, or in the presence of a spiritual teacher. Zen masters use the word “Satori” to describe a flash of insight, a moment of no-mind and total presence. Although Satori is not a lasting transformation, be grateful when it comes, for it gives you a taste of enlightenment. Enlightenment is only available when you are fully present in the moment. You only need a few glimpses of this to begin to recognize when you are present in the moment and when you are not. The cool thing is that when you realize you are not in the moment, you are instantly transported back to the moment! And the more time you spend there, the more often you will return! (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now).
Enlightenment is accessible, and I know this because it is already here. Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off. It’s a process of gradually uncovering something that is already there. That’s why relaxation and letting go are so important. You can't uncover something by harshness or uptightness. (Pema Chodron) Pema Chodron tells the story of a beggar sitting on a box and begging for 30 years without ever looking in the box. A stranger asked what was inside the box, and the beggar said “nothing,” although he admitted that he had never looked inside. The stranger finally convinced him to look, and it was filled with gold! Pema Chodron points out that we spend most of our time in a box of our own making. The box is built from all the obstructions, all the habitual patterns and conditioning that we have created in our life. The box feels very, very, real to us, but it doesn’t exist. When we begin to see past and through these obstructions, the box becomes thinner and less able to contain us. So enlightenment really is about the peeling back of layers… but even that metaphor is too active… it is about letting go and allowing the layers to fall off.
We cannot achieve enlightenment through intellectual understanding. Grasping the concept does not lead us there. We come to know it through feeling. That is why glimpses of enlightenment are so helpful! We have a point of reference to transport us back to that place. Rather than labeling that experience, and putting it on a box and locking it away in an effort to hold onto that feeling, we can trust that the feeling of connection is our natural state and we will find our way back. “A belief may be comforting, but only through your own experience does it become liberating.” (Ekhart Tolle, The Power of Now)
One of the biggest hindrances to this space of knowing is “the thinker”-- the voice inside your head. Eckhart Tolle describes the thinker as the voice that comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes and dislikes. The voice isn’t necessarily relevant to the situation you find yourself in at the time; it is likely going over events from the past or worrying about future events that may or may not happen.
Our thinking mind is a powerful tool. Even in an enlightened state, we still use it for practical purposes-- to plan and problem solve. However, in an enlightened state the chatter quiets down. When you do need a creative solution, you will move back and forth between thinking and stepping back and taking a break, which has been shown to be the process of innovation. Einstein and other great scientists have reported that their creative breakthroughs came at a time of mental stillness. This is a great argument in favor of taking breaks and doing nothing!
How to quiet our overactive minds is the crux of the issue. In the Power of Now, Tolle suggests a few pathways to a quiet mind. The first is to “watch the thinker.” You can free yourself from your mind, by simply listening to the voice in your head as often as you can. Don’t judge it, because the judgment is your voice coming in through the back door. As you observe your voice, you will begin to identify with the one listening to it, rather than the voice itself. You will no longer “feed” the voice, and there will be small moments of stillness, and gradually they will get longer.
Another way to stop your monkey-mind is to bring all your attention into the “Now.” This is the process of meditation. You can practice this any time, no matter what you’re doing, by simply doing one thing at a time, and giving it your full attention. “Any interloping thoughts may cause you to smile… like you would smile at the antics of a child. This means you no longer take the content of your mind all that seriously, as your sense of self does not depend on it.” (Eckhart Tolle)
One other way to distinguish your true self from your mind chatter is to stay connected to the “Inner Body.” Try not to overanalyze what the inner body is-- just draw your attention to your body’s internal energy field. Even when other things are going on around and within you, if you can keep part of your attention on your inner body, you will maintain a broader perspective and release your identification with your mind. Eckhart Tolle enumerates the benefits of operating from inner-body awareness. He says, “Your immune system will be strengthened, you will have a protective bubble from other people’s negative energy, you will heighten your creative problem solving, and you will be able to more fully connect with other people because you will be listening with your whole person, not just with your mind”. (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now). Inner Body awareness is a simple practice with a profound effect!
Enlightenment is often described as a state of “emptiness,” which to some can be disconcerting to some people. It might be scary to break the habit of identifying with our ego and thinking mind. If we surrender to the “oneness” of everything, do we lose our unique selves? Pema Chodron points out that to some “shunyata” or “emptiness” sounds like a big hole that somebody pushes you into kicking and screaming. To others, emptiness feels like boredom or stillness. But when you fully accept it, it feels like lightness. We can acquaint ourselves with emptiness by noticing the space between things-- between thoughts, between sounds, around objects, the silence between words. You cannot pay attention to silence without becoming still within.
I used to feel uneasy about “emptiness”-- dying to the illusion of myself that keeps me separate. I was unclear what would be left of my unique self if I shed all my identifications and allowed unity and enlightenment. The fear of this “small” death echoes the fear that many have of the body’s physical death. However, I had an “ah-ha moment” when I was re-reading the Power of Now. “Your radiant true nature remains, but not the personality. In any case, whatever is real or of true value in your personality is your true nature shining through. This is never lost. Nothing that is of value, nothing that is real, is ever lost.” So when you die to your old self or your physical body, you are still there - the divine presence that you are… radiant and fully awake. Nothing that was real ever died, only names and illusions.
My other fear of finding this inner peace and neutrality was that I wouldn’t feel as strong of a connection to the people in my life. Eventually I realized that when I am relating from a peaceful, centered state-- when I am relating from my true self-- I am able to be more fully present with another. I can relate without being reactionary. I can hear more clearly and see beyond my own and another’s layers of conditioning and baggage. I am then able to recognize and honor the other’s pure radiant being. This is a true connection and will dispense with the drama that keeps us separate and apart.
The path to enlightenment is not a straight line. It would be very rare to shed our cloak of conditioning and separateness and never pick it up again. The “honeymoon” period of growth and openness that one feels when one embarks on a spiritual quest is sure to be followed by a period of struggle and disillusionment. Rather than be discouraged by this-- buying into the belief that something is wrong-- remember to look at whatever comes as a call to go deeper. It is a chance to accept life as it is, even the unpleasant feelings of life. Everything is a means for awakening.
“In order for us to be fully present, we need to acknowledge and accept all our emotions and all parts of ourselves - the embarrassing parts as well as our anger, our jealousy, our self-pity, and all the chaotic emotions that sweep us away. Buddha nature includes opening up to all these things. Acceptance does not mean the pain will end… there will be pain in your life. Although pain is non-negotiable, suffering is not. If you begin to connect with the fact that you have this good heart, and that it can be nurtured and woken up, then everything becomes the means for awakening. “Your life is it. There’s no other place to practice.” (Pema Chodron).
* (For further reading, check out “The Power of Now”, Eckhart Tolle, “How to Meditate” and “Start Where you Are” by Pema Chodron, “The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization” by Stephen Sturgess and “The Yoga Mind” by Rina Jakubowicz. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)