Spiritual Enlightenment: What Is It
By Stephen Knapp
There are many explanations of what is enlightenment out there on the internet, or youtube.com, and many are rather unclear or nebulous or even misleading, often appearing to come from someone who is not truly or deeply experienced. Because of this, I have been motivated to try and offer something that is more apparent and direct. Of course, this topic could fill a book for a more elaborate explanation.
First of all, the thing we need to understand is there are different levels of enlightenment. There is the enlightenment concerning our spiritual position or identity known as the Jiva or spirit soul. That is enlightenment of our self. Then there is the higher enlightenment of God, of which there are three aspects. There is enlightenment of the all-pervading spiritual force, or the effulgence known as the Brahman. This is also the spiritual atmosphere that is beyond all material influence.
Then there is realization or enlightenment of the Paramatma or Supersoul. Most forms of yoga focus on the eventual or ultimate realization of the soul and Supersoul and their connection. Then there is enlightenment of Bhagavan, the ultimate God realization of the Supreme Personality who displays His real characteristics, qualities, and pastimes to His most confidential devotees.
Great sages have explained that for one to be completely enlightened, he or she must be realized in all three aspects of God (Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan) if their enlightenment is to be complete. However, before reaching this stage, a spiritual sadhaka or practitioner is likely to go through other preliminary stages of understanding and realization that, without proper experience or training, may lead one to think they are fully realized or enlightened.
This leads us to understand that there are different levels of enlightenment that can be on the mental level, or the intellectual level with the use of cultivated knowledge, known as jnana. Then there is realization of such knowledge or vijnana, and then direct spiritual perception. One has to proceed through all the steps or one’s progress may become encumbered by misjudgment and lack of understanding and proper training.
For example, the mental level of enlightenment is when something makes sense or resonates with you, and makes you want to know more. You can relate with it, and it may even be something that you somehow recall from a previous existence. It is like peaking through the door and seeing something attractive, and then realizing that this may be something you have been looking and waiting for. But this is not enlightenment.
The intellectual level of realization is based on cultivated knowledge when you study and gather information so you understand the subject better, or comprehend it and even explain it to others. You may develop full faith and accept the reality of its existence, but haven’t quite seen it directly yet.
Actual realization is beyond theory or cultivated information alone, but is when you see the knowledge in action. It is when you can begin to see how the concepts of spiritual knowledge work around you. You begin to see what others cannot when they have no spiritual insights or training. However, even realizations can be on various levels. For example, you may have the realization of how temporary everything is in this material world. You may realize the need to learn the process for attaining freedom from this world. You may realize the need to regain your spiritual position and identity. On a higher level you may realize how you are not this temporary body and how you are a spirit soul, and how everyone is essentially spiritual in nature. Then you may also realize or recognize the Supersoul or Paramatma within all beings.
Higher than this kind of realization is direct perception or experience. The experience must be as clear as when you see the sun rise in the east. This takes place after what can be years of spiritual practice, when you begin to directly perceive the different aspects of the spiritual dimension. It is by constant and serious practice that your consciousness becomes purified or spiritualized so that the spiritual strata begins to reveal itself to you, or you begin to attain the spiritual dimension.
Perception or experience is like eating a nice meal after being hungry and experiencing the relief from hunger. You can analyze how to cure your hunger in so many ways, but the experience is in eating a nice meal. The experience is universal. You may take different types of food, such as Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, or whatever, but the experience of feeling the relief from hunger, or the satisfaction of a full stomach, is the same for everyone, after which there are no more arguments about what it takes to relieve one’s hunger. This is similar to spiritual enlightenment.
Enlightenment is also the freedom from our karma, or the reactions of one’s past deeds. The more spiritual you become, the more you become free from the base tendencies or sensual addictions that often linger because of one’s karma. This is explained in the Bhagavad-gita. With freedom from one’s past karma, one can reach enlightenment. But it also works both ways. In other words, the purification one acquires by spiritual practice which gradually paves the way to enlightenment also nullifies one’s past karma. The practice of the yoga system, particularly bhakti-yoga, purifies one’s consciousness, which also evaporates one’s subtle body of mind, intelligence and false ego. These are all considered material elements according to the Vedic philosophy, and where one’s material desires reside. Freedom from such material desires is also a part of becoming free from one’s past karma.
Therefore, if one is truly becoming enlightened, that person will also become free from the sensual desires that are widespread amongst materialists or common men. However, if someone who poses as a spiritual authority, teacher or guru continues to exhibit the same desires for sensual pleasures that should have been surpassed, then it is obvious that he has not attained enlightenment or mastered the art of spiritual practice.
We need to remember that the yamas and niyamas, or the dos and don’ts and the regulative principles of the yoga system are not rules to stifle our style or limit our activities from those things we would otherwise like to do. Nor are they meant to force us to adopt habits that are artificial or abnormal to us. But they are actually a natural state of being for those who are realized spiritually. Once a person becomes enlightened, he or she will rise to the level of awareness in which these qualities automatically manifest in the content of one’s character. If they do not, then it shows the degree to which that person has remained attached to sensual pleasure or absorbed in materialistic consciousness.
Spiritual awakening means to awaken from the illusion, and, thus, to see the spiritual essence and the Absolute or Supreme Creator within and behind every aspect of the creation. In such a consciousness and awareness, there is no time when we forget God. That is the essence of Krishna or God consciousness. Thus, you see everything as a display of the energy of God. Then you become one with the universal Self, and seeing your self as one or the same as all others. In this unity, we find peace, calmness, acceptance, and bliss.
In this way, spiritual enlightenment is perceiving and honoring the inner sacredness of ourselves and all other beings, in fact all of creation. It is knowing we are all divine emanations from the same source. It is through this perception that allows us to undergo the challenge of constant changes in this material existence, or to weather the storm, so to speak, with balance, equilibrium, and grace, knowing that all problems or reversals in life are but temporary illusions.
At the spiritual level, the soul has no evil. When it is free of the externalities, the various changing emotions, or the dualities that are seen and engaged in on the mental state in our material existence, it is eternally balanced in sudha sattva, ultimate pure goodness. This is our natural state of being that becomes clear and is perceived in the state of self-realization or actual enlightenment. And this flows from us on a continual basis to the degree in which we are spiritually awakened.
Self-realization or enlightenment is also surrendering our false identity, our material attachments into the ocean of nectar that is our devotion and love for God. This rasa or taste in the relationship we have with the Supreme can outweigh all other desires or cravings, and is that for which we all are ultimately searching. That is our home, and the basis for all our other longings. Once you attain that awakening, you are complete, as explained in the Sri Isopanishad.
So, how do we get there? How do we attain this level of enlightenment and spiritual awakening? Through sadhana, regulated spiritual practice. To purify our consciousness starts with purifying or spiritualizing our activities. For example, if you have a cup and you want to fill it with nectar, but it is filled with dirt, you first have to start taking out the dirt. Similarly, you have to start changing your activities to those which are based on spiritual progress which then changes your consciousness. When our activities are purified, then our mind becomes purified or spiritualized. Thus, our desires are purified. When that happens, our consciousness becomes spiritualized. When that happens, material existence has nothing more to offer us. It is neither attractive nor repulsive to us—we are simply indifferent. No longer interested.
In this way, spiritual realization, awakening, or enlightenment is the aim, goal, and success of human life. Only human existence offers the facility for the living entity to become spiritually enlightened. Therefore, we should not waste this life on mere animal or trivial base pursuits.
Actual enlightenment is the stage when one’s realizations have matured into a way of life, not glimpses of the truth, but a constant reality that directs one’s every action. This is when you know exactly what is to be done, the purpose of life, and can do nothing else but what takes you toward that goal. Others may or may not always understand such actions, but an enlightened person has complete singleness of purpose in all of his or her endeavors.
Spiritual enlightenment does not mean that you are always in a state of being blissed-out, and otherwise dysfunctional to being able to do anything else. But it means you now clearly see what is to be done in this life. When you have such clarity and you sincerely try to arrange your life to do what is essential, then the universe or even the Divine will give you the opportunity to act in such a way, or the means to perform such activities. In such a state, when there is unity between one’s soul and the Supreme within, then the Divine may even work through such a person for the benefit of others.
With this kind of clarity you will know your true purpose and what you are meant to give to the world. Then you will also know there is no time to waste and will work diligently to accomplish what you are meant to do in this life.
Death is not the experience that automatically gives enlightenment or provides all the answers. The consciousness you develop in this life is carried over into the next for you to continue your search or quest for spiritual awakening. That is why it is important to attain the highest level of enlightenment now, in this life, to attain the best possible situation in your next life.
Once you have attained pure spiritual consciousness, there is no need for further births in the cycle of samsara, or life and death. You achieve the ultimate success by entering directly into the spiritual dimension and eternal life. This is real freedom and the attainment of real life, our natural spiritual state which is above and beyond this temporary material existence. Such a jivanmukta or a liberated soul has attained his or her status of enlightenment based on sadhana or spiritual practice, then realization, illumination, perception, and freedom, and then full awareness and absorption in the spiritual dimension. That is enlightenment.