What is enlightenment? Why does it matter?

According to the NIH, about 20 million adults in the United States alone meditate. Millions more do yoga. Meditation and yoga are now household words. Why have they become so popular?

Meditation and yoga, when done properly, give us a glimpse of our natural state of awareness. This is different from the state of awareness we have during the course of a typical day. Usually, our awareness takes the form of being an individual, being happy, or being frustrated. Meditation goes beyond these states of being to being itself, beyond mental states.

This natural being is what has been labeled "enlightenment" or self-realization.

Enlightenment is associated with many misconceptions:

  1. Enlightenment means the mind doesn't exist anymore. False. The mind still functions in enlightenment. It functions differently because the previous sense of individuality is not there nearly as strongly. The individual "me" is seen as a superimposition on consciousness, rather than as an independently real entity.

  2. Enlightened people don't feel angry or sad. False. Remember that the mind still exists in enlightenment. The mind can feel sad or angry, or any other emotion. However, it won't get bogged down in that emotion because there is no core sense of individuality or self-judgement to anchor it. States of mind will come and go, like clouds passing in the sky. This doesn't mean that we will visibly appreciate all enlightened people exhibiting a range of moods. They may or may not. Their attention may be on the mind or it may not be. There is no single rule on display.

  3. Enlightenment will solve all my problems. False. What enlightenment does is shift the identity of "me" out of the individual. Where does identity go? It doesn't go into anything. It is merely released from the limitation of individuality. If it goes into something, like an expansive, subtle state, recognize that to be a mental state. That too has to be released.

  4. Enlightenment is a mystical experience. False. Enlightenment can seem mysterious from the perspective of the mind. The mind cannot imagine enlightenment, simply because enlightenment is not a state of mind. However, mystical experiences, intuitions, peak experiences, and states of ecstasy by themselves are not enlightenment. These too are passing states of mind. They are neither to be shunned, nor tightly held on to.

So then, what will I get out of enlightenment?

What the mind "gets" from enlightenment is the freedom to be itself without judgement. Over the course of our lives, we have modified our behavior innumerable times to fit the shoulds and should nots of our communities. We have created a dream-like state (often nightmare-like) to live in. We are told that if we do not behave like others and accept what others accept, then we won't fit in, or we'll act irresponsibly. When the walls of individuality fall off the mind, all such controlling ideas and self-judgements fall away. Notice the mind isn't really getting some thing, or even an experience. By dropping all things, the mind abides in freedom.

Who gets enlightened?

There are three answers to this question.

  1. Whoever honestly and diligently investigates their own identity through any form of introspection is on the path of enlightenment. Honesty means you are true to your own quest. You cannot fully accept (or reject) somebody else's words, no matter who they are, until they are true (or false) for you. This means you must be able to investigate any hypothesis you encounter, no matter how outlandish it may seem, using your experience as data. Diligence means you continue with your investigation until all questions either disappear or become irrelevant, and freedom becomes your nature. Honesty and diligence are indispensable.

    The investigation of identity does not have to be highly philosophical. You don't have to inquire "Who am I?" over and over again. You may simply have the insight "This world is like a movie!" or "What a crazy world!" When you dive (introspect) into that subjective experience, you are in fact investigating your identity. Your investigation may or may not feel intellectual. The biggest questions in life, such as Who am I? What is the nature of this world? What happens at birth and death?, are not to be answered by books or concepts, although these can help point the way. Such questions are internal, experiential investigations.

  2. It is also true that some people appear to spontaneously realize their true nature, without much investigation. This is like saying the first snowfall of the winter is a spontaneous occurrence. It is true that at one moment there is no snow, and in the next moment there is snow falling. But it is also true that the entire range of seasons from spring to summer to fall to winter was necessary to create the first snowflake. When we look at enlightenment as an event, it can appear spontaneous. But the subjective unfolding of the mind had been in process long before, unrecognized to the external observer and possibly even to the mind that does not remember previous events…

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Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership from McGill University. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the book Michelangelo’s Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. Follow him @DrAnoopKumar.