3.4) Superficial realizations mistaken for Enlightenment
Summing it up: what happens when you remove spiritual practice, purification of the mind, and study of the teachings from a nondual tradition? We end up with superficial experiences, mistaken for enlightenment, based mostly on intellectual conviction, and without a true removal of the illusion caused by ego and vasanas.
Being cognitively enlightened is not enough—the root of one’s identification, perception and functioning in the world has to radically change.
If the seeker mistakes these minor awakenings as the full Liberation, any further progress becomes unlikely. In this context, Ramana Maharshi warned seekers that “there is a false sense of liberation that many experience and very few go beyond”.
There are so many who take the dawn for the noon, a momentary experience for full realization and destroy even the little they gain by excess of pride. Humility and silence are essential for a sadhaka [seeker], however advanced. Only a fully ripened jnani can allow himself complete spontaneity.
– Nisargadatta Maharaj
The problem is that there are no absolute external signs that the person can rely on to determine if someone else is enlightened—unless he himself is. When asked about it, Ramana mentioned that, if in the presence of a teacher your mind spontaneously becomes quiet, and you feel a natural sense of reverence towards that person, this is a good indication that you are in front of a master.
Other than that, although there may be some common signs—such as the absence of pride, equanimity in dealing with all people, lack of ego-based actions, and harmlessness—the aspirant is left with few means to determine who is enlightened and who is still on the way. Special clothes, soft and even speaking, bombastic words, and the length of time one can gaze without blinking are NOT indications.
By their fruits ye shall know them.
Nowadays, the impression we have is that it’s enough to have read and understood a few Advaita sayings, and declare oneself to be awakened, to start giving Satsangs to “awaken” others. This goes in tandem with the common New Age trend of relativizing these ancient concepts. Thus, some relativize Enlightenment to the point that it becomes meaningless.
Is Realization that cheap?
This is not a new phenomenon. Going all the way back to the Upanishads there are criticisms of practitioners who can brilliantly talk the Advaitic lines but lack the realization to really back it up.
On the other hand, there are also sincere seekers who, after an initial awakening experience, honestly felt that they had to drop the search, and that they were enlightened. In this context, borrowing concepts from the traditional Buddhist framework of the Four Levels of Awakening can help clarify some things—both for those people and for the students who follow modern teachers.
- 1. Stream-Entry – the fetters of doubt, personal identity and attachment to rituals completely fall away.
- 2. Once-Returner – sensual desire and aversion are greatly attenuated, but still exist.
- 3. Non-Returner – sensual desire and aversion are extinguished.
- 4. Arahant – all craving is extinguished (including desire for fine material existence and existence in subtler levels), together with pride, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. This is what is rightly called nirvana, Enlightenment (jnana, vidya) or Liberation (moksha, mukti).
Each of these levels are permanent. So if after your awakening experience you had moments of illusion/pride/attachment/confusion, you can judge that it was a powerful insight, but not awakening (much less final Enlightenment).
What is interesting is that the illusion of a personal identity drops at the first level of awakening. Many confuse this state for full Enlightenment, drop all practice, and start teaching. There is often the feeling that the ego is completely gone, with nothing else to do.
The same seems to have happened to me, after intensely practicing spirituality for over 10 years. After a deep awakening experience, the search actually dropped by itself, effortlessly. But I didn’t believe myself to be enlightened and open a satsang shop; instead, there was an intuitive feeling that there are greater depths to be explored (For whom? Nobody). I never stopped my daily meditation practice. In a way, this is just the beginning of real practice.
My hope is that seekers that have had similar experiences don’t declare themselves enlightened, nor take the role of a guru, but present themselves as spiritual friends helping along the way. In this context, they should be most careful about ethics, humility, and service.
- Honesty. Be honest about your experience. Was it a temporary insight (however powerful), or a permanent radical shift? What was dropped and has never returned since then? Is it there shining behind all your interactions with yourself and people, or do you need to “remind yourself” of it?
- Perseverance. Don’t drop off the search. Let the search drop you off. And, even after that, continue with the practice, unless you can honestly say you are now an Arhat.
- Adaptation. Know that after initial awakening experiences, you may feel the need to radically change your approach to practice. It is often the case of “what brought you here, won’t take you there”.
- Reflect on your motives. If you feel in your heart an urge to take up a teaching role, question your motivations. Are you motivated by money, recognition, and power? Or compassionate serving others in their quest? It’s worth remembering that in the Zen tradition one often had to wait 10 to 20 years after Enlightenment before one could guide others – hence the expression, “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation” used by some Zen masters. So perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to resist the impulse and “keep cooking” bit longer.
- Humility. If you do take up a teaching role, be honest about your experience, your state, and your challenges. Presenting oneself as a spiritual friend (kalyana mitra) rather than a guru (dispeller of darkness) sounds like a good idea.
- Discerning openness. On the other hand, if you are participating in satsangs, be open but discerning. What level of awakening do you feel the teacher has attained? What about his older students? What type of help do you wish to get from going to his satsangs? Don’t be afraid to leave and move on to another place, when you see something that doesn’t sit right with you. Hone your spiritual discernment by spending some time with different teachers, and by reading the traditional texts of that particular path.