Japanese calligraphy (Shodo): Ensō by Zen Master Sengai Gibon (1750–1837).

Understanding Enlightenment and Awakening

For many, the terms enlightenment and awakening evoke the promise of extraordinary experiences. Referring to a concept that has intrigued and captivated truth seekers throughout history, these terms are often associated with exotic Eastern cultures. As such, they are frequently misunderstood.

In this brief article, toward shedding light on the essence of these terms and dispelling misconceptions, we will explore just what is enlightenment. And we will examine the true meaning of awakening.

Even before The Beatles famously made their way to study Transcendental Meditation in Rishikesh, people have been venturing consistently to the East, drawn by the allure and liberation of spiritual enlightenment. Hence, we have come to believe that extraordinary and exotic environments – cultures such as India, Japan, China, Thailand and Tibet – hold the key to awakening. But such beliefs are founded on an innocent misunderstanding. For, in fact, when we seek to answer the question ‘What is enlightenment?’, we find that what we are referring to is not an experience at all.

The Way of Recognition

Enlightenment is what might be termed the ‘way of recognition.’ Recognition meaning ‘to know again something we have always known but overlooked, ignored or forgotten.’ So, what is it we have overlooked as we’ve pursued our awakening? It is our essential Self, the very core of who we are.

The essential nature of anything is the aspect that cannot be removed or separated from it. When everything removable is stripped away, what remains is our essential Self. Our essential Self, who we truly are, then, must be that which has always been, and forever remains when everything else comes and goes. What is it that comes and goes? All of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, activities, etc. – the entire ever-changing content of our experience. All the components of the content are temporary appearances within that which forever remains – our essential being, who we truly are.

 Concealing the Knowing of Our Being

For most of us, most of the time, however, the content of experience overshadows our knowing of our essential being. The content becomes the focal point, consuming our attention. Consequently, we forget or overlook the simple fact of being, which lies eternally behind and permeates all experience without exception.

The way of recognition is an approach in which we mentally set aside everything that is not essential to us – thoughts, feelings, activities, etc. Just as we undress before going to bed, discarding layers of clothing, we must mentally shed the ‘clothing of experience’ in order to uncover our essential Self.

Awakening is not a process of becoming something new, it is a return to our permanent, essential being, the presence of awareness in which the entire content of our experience continually appears, lingers and transforms, and ultimately dissolves.

As our essential being becomes divested of the qualities acquired from the content of experience, our thoughts lose their agitation, and our afflictive emotions no longer create a sense of lack.

We come to know the innate peace and joy that pre-exist content. We discover that, rather than dependent on external circumstances, causeless peace and joy are the inherent nature of our being, ‘the peace that passeth understanding.’

 A New Habit of Returning to The Essential Self

We may, through various means, routinely trace our way back to our essential Self. But inevitably, through force of habit, we tend to find simply being once again eclipsed by the captivating content of experience.

This stark reality should strongly encourage us to consider that enlightenment is not something to be pursued as a one-time event. In fact, there is no pursuit at all, because there is no path to enlightenment. Rather, we would do well to create a new habit of intentionally shifting our focus from the content of experience to the essence of being.

We’re likely to find, then, that each time we embark on the way of recognition, the power of our experiences to take us away from ourselves diminishes. Gradually, without no path involved, we establish ourselves in simply being, in our true nature.

Over time, divested of the qualities acquired from our experiences, we feel that our being extends far beyond our personal self, that our being is not really our being as a person.

And we sense that the same reality we are on the inside is shared by all people, animals, and things. This recognition gives birth to love in relation to people and animals and an appreciation of beauty in objects and nature. Our being becomes intimate, yet impersonal and unlimited.

Continual Rediscovery of The True Self

To sum up, enlightenment and awakening are not extraordinary or elusive experiences; they are the recognition of our essential nature. A profound shift from our focus on the content of experience to our underlying being.

The answer, then, to the question, ‘What is enlightenment?’, can be found, not in an activity, but in the here and now. It can be found in the way of recognition – a continual uncovering and rediscovering of our true Self and a peace and joy that transcend all circumstances.

~This article, used with kind permission of Rupert Spira, is based on the transcript from this video on Rupert Spira’s YouTube channel.