Practicing Enlightenment

When I began the spiritual journey, it never occurred to me that I was looking for enlightenment. If you had asked me why I had become interested in meditation, I would have said, "To get some peace, to have some control over my thoughts." If you had pressed me, I would probably have admitted that I wanted to be happier. Press me a little further and I might have confided that I'd had some experiences of feeling lovingly connected to everyone and everything, that this state of connectedness felt better than anything else, and that I wanted to find some way to live there.

Still, it would have surprised me to hear that my search for happiness, peace, and connection was actually a search for enlightenment. I thought of enlightenment—if I thought of it at all—as an exotic state accessible only to mystics and similarly otherworldly creatures. It was years before it occurred to me that my longing actually amounted to a longing for enlightenment—the only state in which happiness and peace do not go away.

I invite you to consider, as you read this, if perhaps the same thing isn't true for you. Perhaps you might also consider whether the glimpses you've had of something 'more' than the ordinary are actually glimpses of a state that the sages would call enlightened.

Why Aren't More of Us Enlightened?
A few years ago, I got a letter from a man who claimed to have done more than glimpse that state. He'd been practicing a technique where you focus your attention on the energy in your body, in order to experience the inner 'presence' that lies beyond thought. Rather suddenly, his vision shifted, and he 'saw' that everything around him and everything he could think of was part of one fabric, and that the fabric of the universe was the fabric of his own consciousness. This shift in vision was accompanied by a sense of total relaxation and peace, a feeling of "Oh yes, this is how things really are." This new vision, he wrote, hadn't gone away.

"My question," he wrote, "is this. If this could happen to me, after a few years of practicing techniques that anyone can pick up at an airport bookstore, it must mean that enlightenment is a lot more accessible than people think. So, why aren't more people talking about it? In fact, why aren't more people enlightened?"

I often wonder the same thing. While this man's experience may sound dramatic, most of us, especially in the yoga community, have glimpsed facets of the enlightened state. If you've stood aside from your own mind and became the witness of your experience, or felt loving toward someone you ordinarily don't like, or stood in nature and felt the interconnectedness of everything, you've touched one of the flavors of the enlightened state. If you've ever lost yourself completely in a task, in sexual ecstasy or dancing or music, or felt pure happiness or compassion well up for no reason, you've touched enlightenment.

Of course, such experiences have been happening to human beings forever. Moreover, 'full' enlightenment—which I'd define as the permanent experience of oneness, the realization that there is just one energy in the universe and that all of us are part of it—is not something that descends on us casually. It requires effort, commitment, and something more, something that we would have to call grace. Yet surely, ours is the first moment in history when massive numbers of "ordinary" people have been given a context within which to understand their experiences of deeper connectedness, and access to the practices that can help make them a regular part of life. Consider the fact that you can buy books by the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle in airports, and receive transmission into esoteric enlightenment practices on CD. Consider the fact that you can watch PBS programs about how string theory points to an underlying spaciousness at the core of our apparently solid universe. Consider all this, and this man's question makes a lot of sense. Why don't more people consider enlightenment a possibility? Why don't more people make it a goal?

Not the Enlightened Type
The obvious answer is that most of us don't realize that the state of enlightenment is either possible or desirable. First, we often believe it requires a level of heroism and sacrifice that is far beyond us. After all, the stories we read of enlightened beings tend to be tales of people who, like Buddha, renounced everything, leaving job, home, and family to spend years practicing fearsome austerities, meditating for long hours, cutting themselves off entirely from ordinary life.

This all-or-nothing idea about enlightenment is deeply rooted, and insidious. I often get questions from students who experience an expansion of consciousness and then worry, "But if I keep doing this, will I have to give up my family? Will, I lose my personality?" Obviously, if you think that pursuing high states of consciousness requires you to give up the other aspects of your life, it won't seem like an attractive option. On the flip side, we may be attracted to the idea of enlightenment because we think of it as a way to escape the ordinary challenges and irritations of life—and get discouraged when, after a few months of practice, we haven't experienced some mystical transformation, or been lifted miraculously beyond the need to deal with work and family relationships.