Ahh, spiritual enlightenment, the mecca, the pinnacle, the holy crown, the orgasmic moment of completion … the secret wish of every serious spiritual seeker, and the lifelong quest of thousands before us.
Yet there’s a reason why I don’t write much about spiritual enlightenment and instead focus on spiritual awakening:
Spiritual enlightenment is, quite simply, mind f*ckery, my friends.
In other words, the more you write, the more you think, the more you search and try to understand it, the more it paradoxically evades you – and for a good reason.
Spiritual enlightenment is not meant to be figured out, put into a neat bullet point list, divided into 7-actionable-steps, checked off your to-do list, hung up as a badge of honor on your wall, and hey presto, you’re done!
If you’re seeking to know what spiritual enlightenment is, how to achieve it, or what it feels like, you’ve come to the wrong article.
But if you’re wanting an incisive, cut-to-the-bone, potentially paradigm-shifting examination of this topic, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ll be exploring everything from the dark side of the enlightenment quest, to what mystics and sages say about it, to the path of “dying before you die.”
First, let’s keep things simple and get back to basics:
Table of contents
- What is Spiritual Enlightenment?
- Spiritual Enlightenment vs. Spiritual Awakening
- So You Think You Want Spiritual Enlightenment (Aka. The Dark Side of Illumination)
- “Yes, I Would Like to Die” (aka. The Philosophy of Non-Duality)
- Final Words
What is Spiritual Enlightenment?
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; not will they say ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is’, because the kingdom of God is within you.
– Jesus Christ
Also known by names such as Nirvana, Oneness, Heaven, Self-Realization, Moksha, and Satori, spiritual enlightenment is essentially a shift from identification with the illusory ego-self to expansion into the wider, primordial, eternal Self.
The experience of spiritual enlightenment itself is described by mystics, sages, and holy people throughout the ages as boundless love, profound inner peace, total freedom, and liberation from the fear of death.
Spiritual Enlightenment vs. Spiritual Awakening
The reason why I prefer to write and talk about spiritual awakening is that it’s a process, a journey, an archetypal movement of growth and transformation.
There’s a lot to be said about the awakening journey, and much of it can be drawn from my own experience.
Spiritual enlightenment, on the other hand, is like the lightning bolt that suddenly cracks across the sky.
In other words, we have no idea when it will come or even honestly if it will come – it’s a wild and unpredictable force. And it’s a permanent shift in consciousness.
So as you can see … there’s not much to work with there! I can neither predict nor promise spiritual enlightenment. And I sure as hell can’t summarize it through relative and fictional words which are the product of the mind anyway.
Indeed, spiritual enlightenment signifies both the beginning and the end of the spiritual journey (if that confuses you, it’s because of a tricksy little glitch in the Matrix called ‘paradox’) – it is ultimately indefinable and can only ever be pointed to with the most fallible of fingers.
So You Think You Want Spiritual Enlightenment (Aka. The Dark Side of Illumination)
The mind has a tendency to get hooked into spiritual concepts like enlightenment, presence, awareness, no self, and non-duality. It’s a lot like a heroin junkie with a needle in his arm. It feels good for a while, but in order to be free, he must wean himself off the drug.– Scott Kiloby, Reflections of the One Life (1)
Many people who begin the spiritual journey quickly become enamored with the idea of spiritual enlightenment.
Perhaps they’ve had a glimpse of Ultimate Reality during meditation, had a mystical experience while on psychedelics, or keep listening to Eckhart Tolle talks on the ‘power of now’ that produce shifts in consciousness.
While all of these experiences may be beautiful, meaningful, and sacred, they tend to inevitably lead us to something I call the Spiritual Hamster Wheel or Metaphysical Rabbit Hole.
Like naive and innocent Alice, we run after the White Rabbit (‘enlightenment’) and tumble down into a dark hole that leads us through a magical and mysterious world. The reality is that this fantastical dreamland is just that, a dream – but we don’t realize it until much later.
Don’t get me wrong, there is most certainly a state of boundless freedom out there – just look at figures like Buddha, Jesus, Anandamayi Ma, and so on. Many ordinary individuals like you and I have also glimpsed this state during brief mystical experiences.
But the image we have of enlightenment in our minds is something we need to stop, step back from, and examine carefully.
Going back to the lightning analogy, wanting spiritual enlightenment is like wanting a lightning bolt to hit you:
- It’s gosh darn painful (but undeniably exhilarating)
- You never know when it’s going to happen because ‘you’ don’t control it
We’ll explore what various writers, philosophers, mystics, and sages have said about the experience of enlightenment a little later. But first, let’s explore the next ‘hard truth’ to do with spiritual enlightenment:
Are You Using The Idea of Enlightenment to Try and Escape From Something?
It’s a hard truth to swallow, but many people who seek to become enlightened do so because they’re trying to avoid or escape something, for instance:
- Running away from a sense of unworthiness
- Escaping the hard realities of life
- Avoiding the pain of being vulnerable and intimate with others
- Over-compensating for some other perceived deficiency inside
By achieving spiritual enlightenment, such people believe that they will be finally free from their insecurities, their vulnerabilities, and the pain of existence.
As M. Caplan writes:
If we know we are seeking enlightenment because reality is so hard to bear, we at least have an intuitive sense of what we are fleeing from: a reality that has already begun to surface in our consciousness—a reality that our very seeking will eventually cause us to face.
13th Century Japanese Buddhist poet and philosopher Dōgen writes,
To be enlightened is to be intimate with all things.
Enlightenment is the opposite of what reality-runners want – it is turning towards, not turning away from the pain of life.
And so the question remains, do you really want enlightenment? (There’s no right or wrong answer, but there’s an honest and dishonest one.)
The Spiritual Ego
Another issue to consider is the fact that spiritual enlightenment is often seen by the spiritual seeker as the ‘ultimate achievement’ in life.
In other words, enlightenment is such a majestical, magnificent, and mammoth idea that it’s the perfect bait to lure the inner spiritual ego or spiritual narcissist out.
The thought of being perfect, fully liberated, beyond pain, infinitely wise – and let’s face it, basically God – (all ideas we’re sold about enlightenment) are so tasty and succulent that they’re quite literally the very fodder that fuels the antics of the spiritual ego.
If you’re not familiar with what the ‘spiritual ego’ is, let me summarize: it’s the most dangerous type of ego of all. Or, as I write in my article entitled Spiritual Ego: 15 Signs of a Spiritual Narcissist:
The spiritual ego builds on top of this fundamental ego that we carry around. It is the ego on crack, the ego on steroids, the ego inflated beyond its usual garden-variety size.
It is the spiritual ego that fuels predatory gurus like Bikram Choudhury, the minds behind mass cult suicides like Jim Jones (Peoples Temple) and Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate), pedophilic priests, and religious extremist suicide bombers.
On a more garden-variety level, spiritual egotism appears as self-righteousness, the inability to relate to others or form healthy relationships, spiritual bypassing, arrogance, resistance to being ‘called out,’ pretension, and so on.
Spiritual enlightenment seems all crystal-white-light on the surface, but if we aren’t careful, it can lead to great darkness, suffering, and ensnarement.
So again, the question remains, do you really want enlightenment?
Do You Realize That Spiritual Enlightenment is About Death and Disillusionment?
In mainstream ‘pop culture spirituality’ and the new age world, in particular, we’re sold the idea that spiritual enlightenment is about love, light, bliss, cosmic ascension, and even (according to Instagram) manifesting your ideal reality.
Regardless of what circle of spiritual folks you gravitate toward, enlightenment is seen as something you can eventually ‘achieve’ and ‘get’ with hard-earned practice and resolve.
And yet, such modern notions go against the direct experiences of philosophers, mystics, and wise wo/men out there.
Spiritual enlightenment is not something you get, but an experience of loss, disillusionment, and the death of identification with the false ego self. It’s about rediscovering what’s always and forever been here below the surface – and it happens without your bidding.
Perhaps one of my favorite quotes that mirrors this intriguing yet disturbing reality is from awakened teacher Adyashanti who writes,
Enlightenment is a destructive process. … Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.
Tim Farrington in his book A Hell of Mercy quotes zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck who comments:
The problem with talking about enlightenment is that our talk tends to create a picture of what it is … Yet enlightenment is not a picture but the shattering of all our pictures. And a shattered life isn’t what we were hoping for.
Well-known spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes:
The secret to life is to die before you die – and realize there is no death.
So as you can see, there is a theme running here; that of destruction, dying, and losing something – that is, the many illusions that obscure our access to reality and consciousness.
Even the word ‘Nirvana’ which is a synonym of spiritual enlightenment, is a Sanskrit word that means ‘extinction, disappearance.’
In this case, we are the fire.
Spiritual enlightenment is the wind that snuffs that out.
The end result is freedom, or ‘dying before you die.’
“Yes, I Would Like to Die” (aka. The Philosophy of Non-Duality)
If, after reading everything I’ve previously written, you’re still drawn to seeking out spiritual enlightenment, kudos to you.
If you’ve decided that “yes, I would like to die” in the sense of your identification and attachment to the false ego dying, my hat goes off to you.
Spiritual enlightenment is a pathless path, one that can never be taught but can only be pointed to.
My job here is to point you toward those who point to enlightenment. And the most potent philosophy I’ve found in my journeys is something called non-duality.
Non-duality is a term that comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Advaita’ which means ‘not-two.’
While non-duality deserves a whole article to itself, it is a philosophy of spiritual integration: of recognizing the underlying oneness and unity of the dance of opposites within life (male/female, light/dark, nice/nasty, sex/spirit, etc.).
Non-duality teacher Rupert Spira defines non-duality in the following way:
Non-duality is the recognition that underlying the multiplicity and diversity of experience there is a single, infinite and indivisible reality, whose nature is pure consciousness, from which all objects and selves derive their apparently independent existence. The recognition of this reality is not only the source of lasting happiness within all people; it is the foundation of peace between individuals, communities and nations.
Spiritual author and teacher Jeff Foster goes on to define non-duality in the following way:
‘Non-duality’ … points to the essential oneness (wholeness, completeness, unity) of life, a wholeness which exists here and now, prior to any apparent separation. It’s a word that points to an intimacy, a love beyond words, right at the heart of present moment experience. It’s a word that points us back Home.
But although non-duality is a beautiful philosophy, I must caution you to approach it carefully and mindfully. Many people have got lost in spiritual bypassing, spiritual egotism, and other spiritual traps due to following the non-dual path. Please never abandon your sacred wild humanity.
Ultimately, Love is what underlies the quest for spiritual enlightenment and underpins philosophies such as non-duality. As sage Nisargadatta Maharaj writes:
The consciousness in you and the consciousness in me, apparently two, really one, seek unity and that is love.
You can’t earn spiritual enlightenment.
You can’t find spiritual enlightenment.
You can’t avoid spiritual enlightenment.
Spiritual enlightenment will blossom when it blossoms, find you when it finds you, and dismantle you when the time is right and not a moment before or after.
I truly hope this article has offered you something valuable and different from the ‘norm’ when it comes to the topic of enlightenment.
What thoughts, feelings, or perspectives do you have to share about spiritual enlightenment? I’d be grateful if you shared them below – let’s all learn from each other and stay humble!