Enlightenment: An Unlearning Process

A Conversation with Marianne Williamson

Recently, Integral Yoga Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Reverend Prem Anjali shared an in-depth conversation on enlightenment with renowned author and spiritual activist, Marianne Williamson. Williamson’s 1996 book, A Return to Love, is considered a must-read in the field of New Spirituality. A paragraph from that book, beginning, ”Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…” became an anthem for a contemporary generation of seekers.


Prem Anjali (PA): In your book, Return to Love, you wrote, “Enlightened people don’t have anything we don’t have. They have perfect love inside, and so do we. The difference is that they don’t have anything else.” Have your views about enlightenment changed over the years?

Marianne Williamson (MW): That’s actually from A Course in Miracles (ACIM) where Jesus says, “The difference between us now is that I have nothing else. This leaves me in a state which is only potential in you.” Light, in ACIM, is defined as understanding. So the enlightened person is someone with total and complete understanding of who they are and why they’re on the earth. It’s as though there is a lock—their level of understanding of who they are has moved into such a level of consistency and constancy that they are now enlightened, whether it’s Jesus or it’s anyone else. So, I don’t think that’s a universal principle that’s going to be changing [laughs].

PA: Thankfully not! You’ve also talked about enlightenment in comparison to romantic love, saying that the feeling of falling in love is like a mini-enlightenment experience.

MW: I don’t even think it’s like one, I think it actually is an enlightenment experience because we have a temporary cessation of judgment, because it’s a temporary cessation of the illusion of separation. It’s one of those things where you’re taken to the top of the mountain and then you have to go back down.

PA: Some of us who first began our spiritual quest back in the 1960s or 70s had a notion of an enlightenment that takes us to the top of the mountain and removes us from worldly life. Today, we’re probably less likely to leave the world for a mountain top!

MW: Ultimate reality, theoretically, is not a sense of being lifted out of this world so much as it is a sense of deep, inner peace, while living in this world. I think a false sense of enlightenment is, “It will get me out of here,” while a real sense of enlightenment is that it will make me at peace here. It will make me feel at home here because I dwell in this body with a knowledge of where my true home is. It’s counter-intuitive that we have more effectiveness and more peace living in the body when we know that we’re not the body. So, enlightenment is not that we leave, but that we become deeply peaceful staying, because we know why we’re here, why we’re staying. And also, we’re clear and at peace with the fact that we won’t be staying forever.

PA: Beautifully put. What about other notions of enlightenment—that it’s some kind of mystical, lights flashing, almost other-worldly experience that’s unattainable for most people?

MW: Well, I think it is mystical and that many of us do see lights. I don’t underestimate the drama of the mystical experience any more than I over-estimate it. For many of us, on many different paths, we are taught that it is attainable. The way ACIM puts it is that we are not perfect or we would not have been born, but it is our mission to become perfect here. I think it’s important that we see it as attainable. It’s also important that we not have any illusions about how difficult it is, but I don’t think it serves us for us to think of it as unattainable.

There would be no purpose in a spiritual journey, a spiritual path, if it was all for naught—you can’t get there anyway, so why even try? The mystical path is one in which we look at a great avatar as a kind of evolutionary elder brother. To where he’s gotten, we too are on our way. The work of an avatar, whether it’s Jesus or another, is to help guide us, as an elder brother guides…

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.