Practicing Enlightenment

from “Practicing Enlightenment (Seeing is Believing)”, Yoga Journal, 2005

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 months ago, I got a letter from a man who’d 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 him, 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 towards 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 the popularity of films like “The Matrix” and “What the Bleep Do We Know?” 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.

Another misapprehension we have about enlightenment is that it is only for people with special enlightenment genes–otherworldly, saintly types. We look at ourselves and say, “Well, I could never be enlightened because I still 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 its hard for me to spend a lot of time alone, and besides, I think I might be addicted to shopping.” We recognize our human qualities, our human foibles, our human desires, and we say, “I can’t have this and be enlightened.”

The truth is, we can. In fact, we should. Enlightenment, according to the yogic traditions, is one of the legitimate goals of human life, and despite centuries of propaganda to the contrary, it is something that can be sought–and practiced–by a regular person in the context of a so-called normal life. (See Box 1) Moreover, when we begin to consider enlightenment a possibility, and to practice some of the attitudes that are classically considered to be enlightened, these attitudes create a spaciousness in our minds and in our lives that is powerfully positive. To put it bluntly, practicing enlightened attitudes will probably make you feel better.

Imagine That!

For me, it was fairly radical to realize that I could actually practice enlightenment. Like most people, when I first encountered the idea it seemed impossibly far away and unrealistic. Two things changed my viewpoint. One was being around my teacher, who gave every indication of being enlightened, and who–along with radiating electrical currents of love and compassion–seemed to be having an extremely good time.

But equally important was my discovery of one of the core practices of the yoga-tantra tradition called bhavana, or active imagination. Bhavana is a practice in which you use your mind and imagination to create an inner experience of Oneness, or to identify yourself with an enlightened quality, or contemplate how an enlightened person would react to the presence of an object of desire, say, or an enemy. The idea behind such a practice is that by using your mind to hold enlightened ideas, and using your imagination to “pretend” enlightenment, you actually 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. “Everything inside and outside is an aspect of the divine,” I would think. “All this (the computer, the rug, the sound of the TV in the next room) are manifestations of my own consciousness” or “Everything is my own Self.”

I soon discovered that these practices made a palpable difference in my moment to moment state of mind. My 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, it also seemed to shift other people’s behavior.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of this happened one Monday in my office. I was anticipating a wrangle with a colleague at work, who was doing everything possible to nix one of my projects. I walked into the office determined to keep up my mantra “All this is my self.”

My “enemy” was the first person I saw. 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 that she had had no intention of sharing her idea with me, but that when our eyes met she had felt an unexpected wave of affection for me, and just had to tell me her idea.

Since I’ve been doing these practices, this sort of experience has arisen over and over again. When I remember to remember oneness, knots and difficulties tend to disappear. The stroppy 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 is a highly practical method for shifting my experience. It dispels negativity like almost nothing else. And then there are the times–sometimes for hours or even days–when the practice of remembering oneness stops being a practice, and becomes a natural awareness that infuses my days.

Dispel Your Happiness Enemies

The way you keep your mind determines the way you experience the world. On one level this is very obvious–we know that when we’re angry we tend to attract annoying people and situations, that when we’re afraid, we’ll run, terrified, from a tree trunk that we’re convinced is a menacing mugger. If you follow this insight to its logical conclusion, you can take advantage of the mind’s amazing creativity to imagine yourself into states of freedom and joy.

Thinking ourselves into an enlightened state is a particularly clever way of countering the negative tendencies of the mind; it cuts right to the root of our contracted feelings. The real cause of fear, of anger, of addiction, is the feeling of being alone and separate from everything. Any moment that we can shift that viewpoint, we eliminate a layer or two of fear and anger. The more we can do that, the more we shift the neuronal pathways that create anger, fear and all the other “enemies” of our happiness.

Practicing enlightenment, thinking “as if” you were an enlightened sage, is one of the world’s most sophisticated exercises in “fake it till you make it.” Of course, it only works when we do it for its own sake, not because we’re trying to impress people, not because we’re pretending to be something we’re not, and definitely not in order to claim mastery we don’t possess. We do it the way kids pretend to do grown-up things–because it habituates us to the mature self we will one day become. The truth is, we all hold inside us a template for enlightenment. Whether we call it the Self, or Buddha Nature, there is at the core of us something that is, effortlessly, happy, peaceful, and utterly connected to all-that-is. Every time we remember oneness, we bring ourselves one step closer to experiencing that core self. It’s a bit like calling forth the enlightened sage who lives inside us. The sage is really there, along with all the other sub-personalities–the whiner, the charmer, the worrier, the one who stays up nights watching TV, the kick-butt yogi. The more you can align myself with the sage, the more the ease and freedom that your inner sage possesses will color your life.

All This and Enlightenment Too!

In the Indian tradition, human life is said to have four aims, pleasure, wealth goodness, and enlightenment. Far from being mutually exclusive, these for goals are meant to be held in balance. What do you think your life would be like if you were to cultivate each of these areas equally?

The Four Aims

* Wealth–the resources by which you sustain life in the physical world, including skills, education, money, housing, food, clothing, along with your job or profession.

* Pleasure–every form of healthy enjoyment: from sports to sex, from enjoying theater, literature, music and art to practicing your own form of creative expression.

* Ethical conduct–earning your living honestly, taking care of your responsibilities, acting morally and according to your highest values, helping others

* Enlightenment–the realization of your deepest nature, and of the oneness of everything, the practices such as yoga, meditation and spiritual study that you do to make this possible

What You Need to Start Experiencing Enlightenment

If you want to begin practicing to experience your own natural enlightened self, three factors are especially important.

Motivation: the understanding that being enlightened would make you feel about 10,000 times better than you do now, and that rather than waiting for it to strike like lightening you’ll there would be immediate and long term benefit in practicing are going to see what would happen itherefore it’s worth putting effort into.

Faith: The recognition that you actually have enlightenment inside you.

Effort: The willingness to keep trying to hold an enlightened viewpoint, as well as some time-tested practices that help shift your awareness into an enlightenment-friendly state.

Do It Yourself Guide to Enlightenment Practice

2 Practices

A Single Awareness: Sit quietly, and align your attention with the breath. Let yourself become centered and quiet. Begin to become aware of that part of you that is aware, that is conscious. Something in you knows that you are alive, that you are breathing, that you are thinking. It is subtle and hidden, but that witnessing part of you is the basis of everything you experience.

Now bring to mind someone that you feel close to. Have the thought, “The same consciousness, the same sentiency that powers my life, is also in that other person. With all our differences of personality and history, we both share consciousness. At the most fundamental level, the level of awareness, we are one.” If that seems too abstract, you might think, “Like me, this person seeks happiness. This person too feels pain.” But the more you can identify yourself with awareness, and recognize the awareness in the other person, the more deeply you will feel your kinship.

Now bring to mind someone you feel neutral about, and have the same recognition, that there is one consciousness in both of you.

Finally, bring to mind someone you dislike, perhaps a personal “enemy,” or a public figure you hold in low esteem. Remind yourself, “Different as we may be, the same consciousness dwells in that person as in me. On the level of awareness, we are one.”

A Single Energy: On the quantum level, the level of subatomic particles, everything you see and feel is part of one great energy soup. One single energy flows through everything in this universe. With that in mind, look around and say to yourself, “All that I see, all that I touch, all that I imagine, is at bottom made of one single conscious energy. The page, the cat on the bed, my brain, are all made of this single consciousness.”

Questions will come up–and they are questions worth exploring. However, there is great power in simply holding this thought, “All this is one consciousness” as a mantra, and then trying to “see” the world that way.

Notice how the thought of oneness softens the edges of your judging mind, how it eases feelings of frustration, anxiety, and fear. Notice how it tends to bring up feelings of peace.

The Next Step

After you’ve done this contemplation a few times, try taking it into the street.  You might look at the angry driver in the lane next to you, or the sad woman on the bus, and think, “The same consciousness is in that person as in me.” Or you might see someone on TV whose politics you disagree with and think, “The same consciousness is in that person as in me.”

As these practices become part of your life, look for different ways to recognize that kinship of consciousness–by recognizing the light in the eyes of an animal, or the living sap in a tree. As you do, keep observing the effect on your own mind, on your own feelings, and on how the world treats you.  And when you notice that you are feeling more connected, or more open, or more clear, honor those feelings. Know that you are experiencing some of the qualities of the enlightened state of being.

Both of these practices are adapted from the Vijnana Bhairava, an ancient and very powerful Sanskrit meditation text. S.K.

© Copyright 2003-2006. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Date Last Modified: 8/3/06

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