BY SALLY KEMPTON | originally posted here in Yoga Journal
When I began my spiritual journey, I never thought I was looking for enlightenment. If you’d asked me what I was looking for, I probably would’ve said, “To get some peace, to have some control over my thoughts.” If pressed further, I might have admitted I wanted to be happier. Or I might have confided that I’d had some experiences of feeling 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.
Perhaps the same thing is true for you. Perhaps you’ve had glimpses of something more than ordinary that are really glimpses of a state the sages would call enlightened.
Still, it was years before it occurred to me that my search for peace, happiness, and connection actually amounted to a search for enlightenment—the only state in which happiness, peace, and the feeling of being connected do not go away. I thought of enlightenment, if I thought of it at all, as an exotic state accessible only to mystics and similar otherworldly creatures.
Live and Be Enlightened
In the Indian tradition, life is said to have four aims—wealth, pleasure, ethical conduct, or goodness, and enlightenment—and they are meant to be held in balance. What would your life be like if you were to cultivate each of:
- Wealth: Resources that sustain your life: skills, education, job, money, housing, food, clothing
- Pleasure: Every form of healthy enjoyment: sports; sex; theater, literature, music, and art; practicing your own form of creative expression
- Ethical Conduct: Earning a living honestly, taking care of responsibilities, acting morally and according to your highest values, helping others
- Enlightenment: Realizing your deepest nature; recognizing the oneness of everything; pursuing practices such as yoga, meditation, and spiritual study to make this possible
Shift Your Vision
A few months ago, I received a letter from someone who claimed to have done more than glimpse enlightenment. 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. 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. This new vision, he wrote, hadn’t gone away.
His question was, if this could happen to him after a few years of practicing techniques that anyone can pick up from a paperback at an airport bookstore, it must mean that enlightenment is a lot more accessible than people think. So, he wondered, why aren’t more people enlightened?
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 become the witness of your experience, or felt loving toward someone you ordinarily don’t like, or stood in nature and sensed 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, human beings have had such experiences forever. And full enlightenment—which I’d define as the realization that there is one energy in the universe and that all of us are part of it—is not something that comes easily. It requires effort, commitment, and grace.
Yet surely ours is the first moment in history when massive numbers of ordinary people have a context in which to understand their experiences of deeper connectedness and have access to practices that can help make them a regular part of life: You can buy books by the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle on the Web; you can listen to esoteric enlightenment practices on CD; you can rent popular films like The Matrix and What the Bleep Do We Know!? Consider all of this, and this man’s question makes a lot of sense. Why don’t more people make enlightenment a goal?
Open Up to Enlightenment
The most obvious answer is that most of us don’t realize the state of enlightenment is either possible or desirable. You may believe it requires a level of heroism and sacrifice that is beyond you, that it’s reserved for people, who, like the Buddha, renounce everything, who leave job, home, and family to spend years practicing fearsome austerities, meditating for long hours, cutting themselves off from ordinary life.
This all-or-nothing notion of 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?” If we think pursuing high states of consciousness means giving up other aspects of life, it won’t seem like an attractive option. On the flip side, we may be attracted to the idea of enlightenment yet imagine it to be a way of bypassing ordinary challenges and irritations, and then we may get discouraged if we don’t experience an immediate transformation, or get frustrated when we aren’t lifted miraculously beyond the everyday demands of work and family relationships.
Another misconception about enlightenment is that it’s only for saintly types. We look at ourselves and say, “Well, I could never be enlightened because I turn into a psychotic mess before my period, and even though I’m 30 years old I can’t get along with my mother and I really like to party and it’s hard for me to spend a lot of time alone, and besides, I think I might be addicted to shopping.” We can’t imagine how someone like ourselves, with all our foibles, aversions, and desires, could ever enter such an exalted state.
The truth is, we can—and we should. Enlightenment, according to the yogic traditions, is one of the four legitimate goals of human existence, and despite centuries of propaganda to the contrary, it’s something that can be sought—and practiced—in the context of a so-called normal life. Moreover, when you consider becoming enlightened a possibility, and practice enlightened attitudes, you create a spaciousness in your mind and life that’s powerfully positive. In short, practicing enlightened attitudes will probably make you feel better.
Use Your Imagination
For me, it was fairly radical to realize that I could actually practice enlightenment. Like most other people, I found the idea impossibly far away and unrealistic when I first encountered it. Two things changed my viewpoint. One was being around my teacher, who gave every indication of being enlightened, and who—along with radiating electric currents of love and compassion—seemed to be having an extremely good time.
But equally important was my discovery of the yoga-Tantra tradition called bhavana—a practice in which you use your mind and imagination to create an inner experience of oneness, or to contemplate an enlightened reaction to an object of desire, say, or to an enemy. The idea is that by using your mind to hold enlightened ideas, and using your imagination to “pretend” enlightenment, you begin to create an inner experience of these states.
I used a series of affirmations based on the Vijnana Bhairava, a Sanskrit meditation text popularized in the West in a book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps (Shambala, 1994). “Everything inside and outside is an aspect of the divine,” I would think. “All this—the computer, the rug, the sound of the TV next door—is a manifestation of my own consciousness” or “Everything is my own Self.”
These practices, I soon discovered, made a palpable difference in my state of mind. The best antidote to feeling bored, insecure, or unhappy was to spend a few minutes actively thinking, “Everyone is an aspect of my own consciousness.” Not only did this smooth out my internal environment, but it also seemed to shift other people’s behavior.
Perhaps the most dramatic experience of this happened one day at work. I was anticipating a wrangle with a colleague who was doing everything possible to nix one of my projects. She was the first person I saw when I walked into the office. I looked at her, noticed my automatic negative reaction, and countered it with the thought, “This person is part of my own consciousness. She is an aspect of my own Self. We are one.”
As I held the thought, I felt an inner softening. Suddenly, our eyes locked, and we both smiled. Then she said, “I thought of something that could make your project work.” Later, she told me she’d had no intention of sharing her idea with me, but when our eyes met she’d felt an unexpected wave of affection for me and had to tell me her idea.
Since I’ve been doing these practices, I’ve had this experience again and again. When I pause to remember oneness, knots and difficulties tend to disappear. The recalcitrant computer and the short-tempered store clerk become more helpful when I remember that they are part of my Self. People are nicer. I’m nicer. This simple application of enlightened consciousness dispels negativity like almost nothing else. And then there are the times—sometimes for hours or even days—when remembering oneness stops being a practice and becomes a natural awareness that infuses my life.
Call Forth Your Sage
The way you keep your mind determines the way you experience the world. On one level this is very obvious—you almost certainly have experienced getting into a bad mood and attracting annoying people and situations. If you follow this insight to its logical conclusion, you can take advantage of your mind’s amazing creativity and imagine yourself into consistent states of freedom and joy.
Thinking yourself into an enlightened state is a particularly clever way of countering the negative tendencies of the mind; pretending enlightenment cuts right to the core of your contracted feelings. The root cause of fear or anger or addiction is the feeling of being alone or isolated and separate from everything else. Any moment you can shift that viewpoint, you eliminate a layer or two of fear and anger. The more you can do that, the more you shift the neuronal pathways that create all the “enemies” of your happiness.
Practicing enlightenment is a sophisticated exercise in “fake it till you make it.” Of course, it works only when you do it for its own sake, not because you’re trying to impress people, and definitely not to claim a mastery you don’t possess. You do it for the same reason kids pretend to do grown-up things—because it habituates you to the mature self you will one day become.
The truth is, you hold within yourself a template for enlightenment. Whether you call it the Self or Buddha-nature, there is at your core something, an essence, that is effortlessly joyous, free, and utterly connected to all that is.
Every time you remember oneness, you bring yourself one step closer to experiencing that core Self. It’s a bit like calling forth the enlightened sage who lives inside you. The sage is really there, along with all the other subpersonalities—the charmer, the worrier, the kick-butt yogi. The more you align yourself with the sage, the more the ease and freedom your inner sage possesses will color your life.