Spiritual Enlightenment – Truths, Distortions, and Paths

Buddhist monks, Hindu yogis, modern spiritual teachers, and Burning Man enthusiasts may all use the term spiritual enlightenment – but are they speaking about the same thing?

In this article I will explore what spiritual enlightenment is, both the traditional definition as well as the modern changes to it. There is no consensus around this topic, and it’s an area of intense metaphysical debate. My purpose here is to eliminate some misconceptions, and to discuss what are the optimal attitudes to develop in relation to this lofty goal.

Why is this important? Because the right attitude will empower you to live a deep and fulfilling life, while the wrong attitude will make you feel frustrated, inferior, or indifferent.

[As mentioned here, in this blog I cover the topics of meditation, personal growth, and spirituality. Most of my writing is secular in nature, but some of it is spiritual. I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. Just keep in mind that this particular article is intended for those who have a spiritual practice and are interested in the wisdom traditions of the East.

[The first part of this post was also published, with variation, as a post the Contemplative Journal.]

Spiritual Enlightenment – Traditional and Modern Definitions

Original Definitions

The traditional concept of enlightenment comes from the spiritual traditions of India – notably the various schools of Yoga, Vedanta and Buddhism – and denotes the highest state of spiritual attainment. The end of the path.

Some of the synonymous for enlightenment, given by different schools of thought, are:

  • Buddhism —  Nirvana, Liberation, Awakening, Cessation
  • Yoga — Liberation (moksha, mukti), Realization, Release, Aloneness (kaivalya), Union (yoga), Perfection (poorna)
  • Vedanta — Self-realization, Self-knowledge, Jnana

All these traditions have several points of disagreement when it comes to defining the “metaphysical nature” of enlightenment. However, at their root they all seem to agree on at least three points:

  1. It is permanent (cannot be lost once attained)
  2. It involves transcending the ego
  3. It is the end of all forms of suffering

As you can see, the bar is high.

There are similarities between this concept and what is called Salvation or the “Kingdom of God” in Christian Mysticism, and “union with God” in Sufism, but exploring those is beyond the scope of this article.

Modern Conceptions

According to the Bhagavad Gita, only one in a billion people “knows the Truth”, that is, is Enlightened. Yet, nowadays there are many people who judge themselves to be enlightened.

For 99% of those people, one of the following is true:

  • (a) They believe to be more advanced on the path than they actually are.
  • (b) They postulate different levels of enlightenment, calling the traditional definition “full enlightenment”, and place themselves somewhere in that scale.
  • (c) They consider the traditional definition of enlightenment to be mythical, exaggerated, or impossible. Unable to fathom even how to reach it, they redefine liberation according to their level of experience.

There will always be people in category “a”, and I’m not so worried about that. The ego is a master of deceit, and it can clock itself in spirituality too.

I also have no problem with category “b”, although I find it potentially confusing and misleading to name certain stages of the way as “enlightenment” when they don’t actually meet the traditional standards defined for this state (as per Hindu and Buddhist references).

“There are levels of experience. There are no levels of Realization.” – Ramana Maharshi (paraphrased)

There are many milestones on the way, after which deep and permanent transformations happen, and a lot of the possibility of future suffering simply drops away. I speak of this from having observed several teachers, and also from my own personal experience. These milestones are better called “awakening” – and there are many awakenings before final enlightenment/liberation.

Moving on, the real problem is people in category “c”. They are distorting the essential meaning of enlightenment. Perhaps they confuse certain awakenings along the way with full liberation, judging themselves to be enlightened.

In order to “make that work” for themselves, they need to redefine enlightenment in softer terms, so that it matches their level. And then, because there is obviously a lot of work still ahead for them, they either say that “enlightenment is a step in the journey and not the end of it” or they pretend that all which is still lacking is not important (like most neo-advatins).

I don’t mean to say that everyone that claims to be enlightened is being deceitful – nor does it mean that they are not effective spiritual teachers. But, if they do not meet the “traditional requirements”, it seems to me they are either lacking humility or self-awareness. Or else they should use another word to describe their experience/state.

Looking on the bright side, however, even such watering down of enlightenment is beneficial for some people, since it makes it feel more achievable. With that comes increased motivation and dedication to spiritual practice.

Still, one can get that benefit without distorting the initial teaching. I’ll explore how towards the end of this post.

Gradual and Sudden

spiritual-path

Many of the traditions mentioned above agree that enlightenment is already here and now, and that it is our true nature – or the true nature of reality. It is not that we have to achieve it or become it, but rather we need to remove the obstacles to its expression.

Some teachings regard liberation as a goal, something to be consciously and methodically worked towards. They emphasize the need to transform and purify the mind – or even transcend it altogether – through practices such as meditation, spiritual study, ethics, devotion, etc. We can call this the gradual approach.

Other traditions prefer to emphasize the “already present” aspect of enlightenment, and then center the teachings more around inquiring into your true nature and simply living in the present with non-attachment. We can call this the sudden approach.

In my own spiritual journey I have practiced for years under both of these frameworks. There are subtle differences in the type of language they use, the practices they recommend, and the people they attract.

Below is a list of “pros and cons” based on my own experience and observation.

Gradual Approach (example: Theravada Buddhism, Raja Yoga, etc.)

  • Strenghts
    • Gives you a more systematic approach to spiritual growth
    • More visible results, including for other areas of your life
    • More tools and practices
    • Easier to visualize your progress
  • Traps
    • Can trigger feelings of incompleteness, striving, and self-criticism
    • Can increase a sense of spiritual ego

Sudden Approach (Zen, Dzogchen, etc.)

  • Strengths
    • Allows you to be more at ease in the present moment
    • Simpler instructions and practices
    • Easier to integrate into daily life
  • Traps
    • The lack of goals can lead to “spiritual lethargy”, and decrease motivation for practice
    • It can be used as an excuse not to transform negative mental and behavioral patterns
    • It can be confusing as to whether you are making progress or not, “doing it right” or not
    • Can lead to a false sense of satisfaction and enlightenment

These approaches are both traditional, true and tested, and I respect them greatly. It is common to see seekers moving from one to another in different stages of their journey.

A combination of practices seems more desirable. Or at least being aware of the traps of your particular approach. The seeker in a gradual path can also cultivate the feeling that everything is perfect here and now, and that the true nature is always accessible. Conversely, the seeker on a sudden path can cultivate the practices and mental qualities of the “slow approach”, and contemplate the truth of sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.

A Direction, Not A Goal

Full enlightenment is possible, and is not only for monks. However, it is extremely rare. I believe that at any time in the world there are probably less than a hundred people in that peak of achievement.

The Two Attitudes

When this truth becomes clear about how elusive and rare full enlightenment is, many people feel discouraged, frustrated, or demotivated. The amount of effort involved is so great, and the time requirements are so considerable, that many just conclude that “enlightenment is not for me; I could never practice like those masters”. For most people, seeking it obsessively is actually a source of suffering.

All of these issues happen when we take enlightenment as a hard goal, and cling to it. And these problems all disappear the moment we make a small tweak in our mindset.

What is this tweak? To look at enlightenment as a direction, rather than a goal.

A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim at. – Bruce Lee

This attitude also prevents the following problems: (a) feeling that you are not good enough, or worthy; (b) feeling frustrated with the slowness of your progress or the size of the road ahead; (c) wanting to give up; (d) watering down the original concept of enlightenment.

Once you regard it as a direction, you are much softer about it. You are able to better enjoy the path itself, without anxiety, and to grow towards liberation in a more organic way. It also becomes less likely that your spiritual search will negatively interfere with other aspects of your life.

Putting Things In Perspective

In many traditions, the teachings are quite binary: you are either ignorant, or enlightened. However, since enlightenment is so rare and elevated, this way of seeing things can often be unhelpful. There are like a thousand important milestones that can happen before full enlightenment, and many of these are life-changing. Acknowledging these “mini-awakenings” can help keep the seeker motivated and on track.

The advanced Yogis, monks and masters that we may compare ourselves to are in the peak of their path. They are like the Olympic athletes of meditation. Many of us are only serious amateurs, aficionados, or semi-professionals. Very few people will practice like those masters. But everyone – you included – can practice a little, and with time enjoy a much happier, more peaceful, and more meaningful life.

Of course, we can and ought to look up to those that completely embody the state of liberation, for the purpose of being inspired to walk in that direction. But this ceases to be helpful once it turns into a self-degrading comparison.

If the spiritual search is likened to the search for wealth, then the enlightened ones are the deca-billionaires. It takes a tremendous amount of effort combined with favorable conditions to arrive at that point.

But how many of us want to go that high? While very few people are ready to put in the effort and sacrifice to build that amount of wealth, most people can benefit from putting in some effort and arriving at a point of financial freedom. For the great majority of seekers, going from financial struggle to a million dollars in the bank is good enough. Which takes me to my next point.

Enjoying the Path and Growing Organically

growing-organically-in-the-spiritual-path

The spiritual path exists so we can free ourselves from suffering. So we can find true peace, love, wisdom, meaning. So we can live a deep life, a life of truth. So let us learn to follow this path and grow in it in a gentle way – without violence towards ourselves (or others), for it defeats the purpose.

Let us learn to enjoy the path itself. Then there will be no sacrifice. No struggle. Only the natural expansion of consciousness.

If you force a child to grow up quickly and abandon all her toys, this will not be effective. Even if she grows up quicker than usual, she will resent this growth, and hold secret attachments to the toys that were given up prematurely.

If instead you simply facilitate her growth, a moment comes when the child feels like giving up those toys of her own accord. This is organic growth – painless, natural, and timely.

This type of growth is hindered when we try to compare ourselves to others on the spiritual path, pretend to be ahead of where we actually are, or cling hard to the ultimate goal. So let us avoid that trap and focus on the journey right now, where we actually are, one step at a time.

With time, as our practice deepens, there will be a sense of joy, peace, and freedom that comes from your spiritual practice that is unlike anything you can experience elsewhere. When that starts to happen… then whether it still takes you 5 months, 5 decades, or 5 lifetimes to achieve enlightenment, it won’t matter much. You are happy and well, in your unique place in the universe, and nothing else matters.

“The first signs of progress on the path of Yoga are perfect health, physical lightness, a luminous face, a beautiful voice, and freedom from craving.” – Swetasvatara Upanishad

Not bad, I’d say.

For my side of things, I don’t practice 16 hours a day like monks do, nor do I follow the teachings perfectly. I meditate 2 hours per day, and try to follow the principles and practices during the day to the best of my ability. And I can tell you, from personal experience, that the fruits of the first steps in the path of Liberation are more valuable than anything the world can ever offer me!

Keeping this in mind, and Enlightenment as a north (rather than an obsessive goal), I keep on the path happily, knowing I’m doing the best thing I could do with my life. Whether enlightenment exists or not, whether it is possible for me or not – seeking it seems to lead to a good life.

In a way, enlightenment and spiritual service is the goal and purpose of all my efforts. But from a more pragmatic perspective, I simply practice because I practice. I practice because it is the best way to live. 

Parting Thoughts

Let us spiritual seekers take enlightenment seriously, without changing the original meaning of this state – lest we diverge into sidetracks that only take us half-way up.

Let us take enlightenment as a direction, a North – and not a hard goal to cling on to. If enlightenment happens, that’s great. If not, let us walk with the conviction that even the first true steps in the path of liberation already bring more life benefits and superpowers than anything we can find in this world. Simply practicing the spiritual techniques can change your life for the better – here is how it changed mine.

Spirituality, in the end, is about finding the best way to live. Passionately explore your spiritual path; but also enjoy it.

When I started writing this article, I had a lot to say, and no idea how it would end. There is blood, sweat, and tears behind each of the lessons expressed in this post. My heart was pushing me to share this with all fellow seekers out there, and now my mind has finally caught up with these learnings and gave them form. May this be beneficial for your journey.

[You can download the PDF version of this article here.]
  • Aaruni Goel

    Great Article……
    But now a days quite difficult for married people and necessary association with turbulent guys due to work. The Matrix is smoothie. It is quite difficult to conquer it as it always fools you…..

    • Yes, it can be quite challenging at times. That is why we need a strong commitment to our principles, and constant remembrance of them.

  • Buddy Fichera

    I enjoyed this very much Gio… spoken skillfully and helpful. Take care my friend.

  • Andreas Krasser

    As always very well written Giovanni. I think this helps many people lessen their stress about acomplishing certain things with their practise, and perhaps judge their effort/progress a bit more gentle. Atleast for me it helps to think about the direction in my meditation when i have lots in my mind and the thoughts wander alot. Instead of beating down onmyself for unconcentrated meditation i can think “every practise is better then no practise” and as long as i praktice im on the right path.
    Once again im so greatful for you taking the time to share your wisdom
    Best regards
    Andreas Krasser

  • Thanks for the great article! I very much appreciate your clarity on this topic. Truth is always such a paradox. Enlightenment can even feel like a “catch 22” at times. To abide in that state, we must deeply see that this present moment is the only reality. And yet for most of us, enlightenment is a concept existing somewhere in the imaginary future. I agree with you, Giovanni. I content myself with the many awakenings along the way and do my best to remember to be grateful as often as I can. Namaste 🙂

  • JR

    To begin, many thanks Giovanni for pouring your heart into this article. As you mentioned, this is certainly a touchy subject, albeit important spiritual path – whatever that may be for everyone reading this. Chances are, each reader is carefully investigating their own thoughts and feelings of what enlightenment, realization, liberation or awakening is for them. I’m glad you touched upon the “mini-awakenings” subject; primarily because I believe this dovetails into the personal organic growth thought you highlighted. I honestly believe a sudden realization combined with steady progress is certainly obtainable and perhaps even resonates with many readers. For example, one day you might be clinging to endless pursuit of wealth and stuff, such as luxury cars, homes, and wearable articles, and after beginning to investigate the true nature of reality during practice (e.g., meditation, martial arts, yoga, tai-chi, qigong, etc.), this sudden miracle mini-awakening happens and the state of dissolution is finally dropped and freedom is experienced.

    One may come to think, “Wow – there’s more to life than accumulation of things, power and being better than everyone? Cool – let’s stay on this path and see where it takes us.” I love how you replaced goal with direction in your article, as this reminds me of the saying – “It is not the destination, but the journey”. Personally, I do not meditate for 2hrs per day, or 1hr for that matter, but I do make it a commitment to meditate daily – either in lump sum form (e.g., 20min in a single sitting in the morning before work) or mini-meditations throughout the day (e.g., 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there, etc.). I suppose I’m indifferent on the subject of enlightenment, though fascinated with the whole spiritual theory and books behind it. Either way, I can tell you a few things my personal practice has taught me – 1. Never thought I would look forward to sitting and counting my breath (smile); and 2. The truth can set you free!

    Thanks again and keep these great articles coming!

    • Thank you for sharing, JR.
      “The truth will set you free” – well said!

  • Lyle Olson

    Well put Giovanni, and needed. With regard to “Gradual and Sudden,” Paul Brunton does a thorough job (in “The Short Path”) of explaining how the “long” path is needed before the “short” path can be undertaken.

  • jose luis Quintero

    Muchas Gracias. Excelente artículo. Ayuda mucho, es claro simple bien escrito y sincero. Felicitaciones y aludes de bienaventuranzas.

  • Muditha Champika

    Great Overview!!!

    Yes. I also think currently in the human world there may be around hundred Arahants. But, it can be many thousand if we could count all those who are in the stages of Stream-enterer, Once-returner or Non-returner. Those great humans don’t have any reason to show their metal status to the world. There are lots of forest monasteries in Sri Lanka, I know some monks who don’t come to the society much and peacefully meditate. Also, I have read still in the Himalaya in India there are lot of meditators live peacefully. (I don’t think as it is a necessary requirement to be practice in forest monasteries. In the Buddha’s time there are many who reach the enlightenment while living in the society. But it is easy to practice in a forest monastery.)

    I have read in Ven. Nagasena’s time (as in the ‘The Debate of King Milinda’) there were hundred thousand Arahants in Himalaya. Also, Sri Lanka’s written history proves that, when construction great Stupa Ruwanwelisaya, there were many Arahants going in the sky always, so villagers claim that they could not dry up rice seeds from the sunlight. It seems there were many hundred thousand Arahants at that time.

    It will be great, if you can answer bellow questions?

    #1) What do you think about soul concept? Do you think there is a soul in our body?
    #2) Who do you treat yourself as a teacher? Or let me know if you don’t treat any one as the teacher?
    #3) What kind of path should we follow to reach enlightenment?

    I Wish You All the Best!
    Muditha Champika

    • Hi Muditha,
      Yes, I think there are many Arahants in the Himalayas, thought most of them not accessible at all.

      Answering your questions:
      (1) I believe we are a soul, and that soul is simply pure consciousness. It existed before the birth of this body, and will survive its death.
      (2) Please see this page about my masters: http://liveanddare.com/my-masters/
      (3) There are many good paths. You should learn, experiment, and find out which is better for you.

    • Thank You Giovanni! I think ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ is the best for me. I will contact you later. May the blessings of Lord Buddha be with you!!!

    • Hi Giovanni, Here are some more comments about enlightenment from the Buddhism. This may help to some readers.

      As far as anyone’s thinking is compatible with following, then I can think he as one of great human who has realized enlightenment in some level (who have experienced ‘Sotapatti Magga Citta’ and ‘Sotapatti Phala Citta’ in his sequence of consciousness) as described in Buddhism even he don’t follow Buddhism deeply.

      What he thinks as a soul should be something which is not permanent and also there should be no part which can treat as a being in it (without Sakkayaditti). And he should believe path to the enlightenment should be something (Without Silabbata-paramasa), such as have some kind of virtuous moral conduct (Sila) and develop concentration (Samadhi or Meditation) , then gain of wisdom with the developed concentration (Panna) to realize the Nirvana. And he shouldn’t have any doubt about these things (Without Vici-ichcha). Then his thinking is compatible with according to the Lord Buddha’s and other Arahant’s teachings as in the Buddhism. If so, he will have a great moral conduct such that he will free from all hell worlds in his few next lives before perfectly realize Nirvana or become fully enlightened.

      If you want to check someone has enlighten, don’t ask directly ‘Are you enlightened?’. Instead ask questions about his thinking on above things. Buddhism teaches, some advanced meditators, sometimes get it wrong with higher level of Jhana, I am already enlightened but actually he is not enlightened and free from hell worlds. Also please note that higher level of mediation and enlightenment is two different things. Someone may reach enlightenment without higher levels of mediation but I think in these days higher levels of mediation should be a necessary requirement to reach enlightenment.

  • Felipe Bellard

    Thank you for this marvelous article, Giovanni! This is by far the best piece of information I’ve come to get in touch with when relating its content to a western way of expressing the meaning of Self-Realization. Here in Rio de Janeiro I had a very disappointing approach about it. As I have mentioned in an e-mail message, I was part of a spiritual center that had Ramana Maharshi’s philosophy as a north on seeking this state. Sadly, most people within that place began to look up to the guru as a messiah. I don’t even have to tell you that the understanding about Liberation got completely misled. Some time after leaving the place (due to this kind of perception, among other problems), I started practicing Yoga (and therefore shifting from the sudden approach to the gradual approach). During one of my practices, I heard one of my teachers say that going out to the beach to watch the sunset was the same as achieving Liberation, just as much as having some açaí during a snack time… This comment felt like a knife twisting on my back by the time it was heard. Other students got negatively surprised as well. Even because that teacher was a disciple from Swami Dayananda – who lately I found out as someone who didn’t consider Ramana’s state of moksha and focused exclusively on the formal study of Vedanta. So, I would relate this way of thinking as the distortion you precisely pointed out when describing the third kind of people whose conception about Liberation stands for telling their peers it’s a mythical and exaggerated kind of perception.

    • It’s precisely because of these types of misconceptions that I felt the urge to write this article. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Lai

    Beautiful, honest and heartening article! Thank you yet again for another inspiring post.
    “Spirituality, in the end, is about finding the best way to live. Passionately explore your spiritual path; but also enjoy it.” Those words resonate like a mantra reminding us to not get caught up in an endless rat race of craving. Well written Gio, and thank you!

  • Rachel Johnson

    Might be a off putting topic but can one that’s on the path to full enlightenment and one who is not have a fulfilling long lasting relationship? I tell doubt and fear to leave my thoughts but times like this, reading such an eye opener and telling her about it yet she looks at me puzzled. Not knowing what I’m saying or talking about. It’s not in any way going to stop my path or walk because I’ve made it up that nothing or anything will. Just wondering because I have no friends on this path to talk to

    • Hi Rachel,
      I think it can work, providing there is some understanding and respect.
      And, in any case, you need to form some friendship with people on this path. If not your partner, then friends or teachers. It is very important.

  • As usual, an excellent article, Giovanni. I agree with the points you’ve made here. My ego has tried to trick me many a time into thinking either that I should be further along, or that I am further along than I actually am! Either way – pure illusion – and doesn’t really matter. 🙂 Take care and thank you for all the time and effort you put into your writing.

    • Thank you for the candid comment, Sonia! As long as we are walking in the right direction, it’s all good.

  • rajesh Pant

    thanks for the beautiful words of wisdom Giovanni. You are blessed that you show light to so many wanderers in search of path to liberation. Most beautiful is that you do it simply……

  • Stephen Manning

    Very encouraging! It is so easy (for me, at least) to feel disheartened or discouraged when starting on this path. Your words help.

  • A seeker

    Thank you 🙂

  • Noam Yagil

    I love it, written so beautifully in a clear and concise way.

  • Joseph Manuel Olavarria

    I really liked your article. It is true that it is better not to look at enlightenment as a goal. This idea seems as if you had to hope that you are going to achieve something and there is nothing to be achieved, it is your natural way of being. I have also evalued the number of people who could be fully enlightened and for me this number is a bit greater, about 20000. This means you can be in the Light of God (or called it Nirvana if you prefer it) not only when your are meditating but also when you are practicing your daily activities. This last step is called Nirvikalpa Samadhi in Kriya Yoga, the kind of yoga I practice, and it happens after having attained Savikalpa Samadhi (feeling the Light of God in meditation but not when you are moving in the world) little by little. The first times you feel enlightened a few minutes, then a few hours… To be in the Light, twenty four hours daily it is very difficult because living in great cities with all the noise, problems and activities there are in these places is a bit complicated. Perhaps there can be people who can feel fully enlightened round the clock but this is difficult in the modern environments we live in. But this is enough to know for certain that your life has a sense, a true meaning…What I really don’t like is what happens with religions when they tell you that perhaps you are not enlightened because you are not a follower to their tradition or religion.