Is spiritual enlightenment real?
The topic of spiritual enlightenment enchants us like few others. Its mysterious and exotic allure conjures up images of radiant beings at one with the universe, and smiling Buddhas meditating on top of swirling clouds. Any prospect of spiritual enlightenment immediately draws seekers and grieving souls by the thousands curious to know whether or not there is an actual escape to this mundane and ultimately, unsatisfactory existence.
And yet, due to our ignorance and desperation for any kind of respite from this worldly life the subject of enlightenment can easily veer toward wishful thinking and make us vulnerable to charismatic figures who take pleasure in offering up their own unique rendition of freedom. Even when it runs up against common sense, we still keep coming back for more determined to obtain that which has remained elusive to us for so long.
If we have been in the spiritual world for some time, we may have the belief that enlightenment is just around the corner for us and that all we need to do is to keep attending more talks, more retreats, longer retreats, or provide more selfless service to the guru in order for our enlightenment to finally become our new permanent reality.
The enlightenment story
Some of those who entice us with their version of the enlightenment story may simply not know better. They have equated some special event they experienced at one time as a sign of actual attainment. If they are charming enough, eccentric enough, or just look the part, they eventually find a group of people willing to join in on their enlightenment story. Their narrative is often augmented with personal anecdotes about their time spent in a far-away country under extreme hardship, or if they hadn’t the means to travel, how their crushing depression or being locked in their bedroom for several days in deep meditation finally triggered an epiphany that now bestows upon them the authority to share their important message. Some even believe their own guru gave them transmission of enlightenment—the effortless and immediate pouring of spiritual knowledge from one vessel into another. What each has in common is a narrative based on a perceived event rather than actual knowledge. And in this world, that is all that’s needed to keep the faithful coming, hoping to finally learn someday the master’s trick for tapping into non-stop spiritual bliss.
While the first group of guides may not intentionally set out to dupe the spiritually naive, there are others who will deliberately prey on the desperation of people seeking a way out of their suffering. They weave various wisdom teachings together in order to lure their audience along and, hopefully, get some kickbacks in return. They are in the business of enlightenment—which can be a very lucrative one if done with care. They are amazed by the gullibility of people eager to believe whatever is sold to them and get off on the power and prestige that sometimes comes with the guru role. They claim to have their own teachings (as if the truth were just recently discovered), which they mostly cherry-pick from various other sources, always adding in their own artistic flair for good measure. Netflix’s documentary Wild Wild Country about the controversial “Rolls-Royce Guru,” Bhagavan Shree Rajneesh (a.k.a., Osho) exemplifies the epitome of such “holy” spiritual charlatans. Osho had some wise things to say and certainly looked the part (sort of old-biblical-prophet-meets-70’s-guitar-band), but in the end his performance equated to not much more than pure gluttony under the guise of spirituality. Countless other “gurus” have followed suit.
Most self-proclaimed enlightened sages captivate their followers by suggesting that if one just practice hard enough and long enough, he or she can also join the elite club of the recently enlightened. It’s similar to a brand loyalty program where once you have accrued enough points, you get a free ride on a cruise line or perhaps a trip to Vegas.
The guru’s prescribed practice usually involves some kind of experiential yoga where the aspirant is working toward a special enlightenment event. In turn, followers equate their infrequent spiritual epiphanies as smaller steps leading up to a much bigger one. Anything—the kundalini awakening, luminosity witnessed while in meditation, or perhaps simply just a temporary feeling of lightness—can be a “sign” that enlightenment is near. “It will soon be my turn!” seekers tell themselves. Again, the idea is to keep them coming back for more, maintaining the enlightenment carrot within sight but just out of reach. In the end, nobody ever actually gets enlightened, just bamboozled as the guru fills his coffers and struggles to keep appearances. For some seekers, the wild goose chase doesn’t much matter. The guru provides hope and ensures the preservation of the enlightenment story for years to come.
Many seekers who come to Vedanta may already be scarred from decades of spiritual aspirations that never panned out, or worse, left them jaded and despondent about ever finding a way out of their existential crisis. Most likely, they have already experimented with one or more of the following enlightenment myths:
Enlightenment as no-mind
The idea that enlightenment equates to no-mind, empty-mind or a thought-free mind probably comes from a misinterpretation of traditional Yoga and Buddhist styles of meditation that teach that mastery of the mind begins with minimizing our tendency to indulge our thoughts. While such practices might afford temporary respite from an agitated mind and promote clarity, a thought-free mind can never be made permanent for obvious reasons. Neither is it possible to control every thought. A proper meditation instructor will teach aspirants that the idea isn’t to “control” the mind or make it empty of thoughts but instead, to be able to perceive the space between the subject (awareness) and the objects (thoughts) so that thoughts can be known for what they are—impersonal mental phenomena. By doing so, one can begin to ascertain the movie screen-like nature of awareness—the “medium” onto which thoughts are projected. Furthermore, trying to get rid of the mind is like trying to get rid of your shadow. The mind with its thoughts isn’t the problem, our attitude toward it and identification with it is. If enlightenment were about never having a thought, enlightenment would mean being comatose!
Another hypothesis is that the no-mind myth comes from the non-dual teaching about the Self being pure, without thought or desire. While scripture shows this to be true, it’s not suggesting that we pursue an experience of no-mind. It’s simply describing the quality of the Self as pure awareness—that which is free of all attributes.
As with many enlightenment myths, the confusion often comes from not being able to differentiate or discriminate experience from actual knowledge. Spiritual experiences can be very pleasant, hence their allure. However, they don’t last and are often difficult or sometimes impossible to replicate. Sitting in silent meditation for years may or may not make you enlightened. Most likely it won’t because unless you’re a spiritual genius you can’t know what you don’t know, and unless you are able derive direct knowledge from your spiritual experiences, any epiphany won’t have a lasting effect. Even if you were to have a rare spiritual experience, you may not know how to interpret it! So, in general, spiritual experiences are an unreliable means for obtaining enlightenment.
Enlightenment as no-ego
Another myth is that for enlightenment to occur, one must kill the ego. This, of course, is a frightening proposition. Most people would prefer losing a limb to losing their sense of (small) self. One might wonder, “If I kill my ego, what will become of ‘me’?…I will be a zombie!” Furthermore, if ego were the only obstacle to enlightenment, all plants and animals would be enlightened.
There are also other problems associated with this myth. First, we shouldn’t want to kill the ego because we need the ego to navigate and transact in the world. Nobody wants to be a doormat. Second, you can’t kill the ego even if you wanted to. Like the mind and its thoughts, the ego isn’t the problem—it’s our attitude toward and identification with the ego that’s the problem. The ego can’t be me or be killed because it is just beginningless ignorance acting out and a product of conditioning. Furthermore, when looked at closely, the ego is shown to not even be real. Vedanta would ask, how do you kill something that’s not real? It’s like the old anecdote of the person mistaking a coiled rope for a snake. It’s only when the traveler is able to identify that the snake is actually a rope that the “snake” loses all its power.
We can manage the ego by keeping it on a very short leash, but we can never kill it—thus, we needn’t try. We only need to understand it for what it is—a story we tell ourselves in order to interact in the world. Nevertheless, we can still negate the ego with the understanding that we are that which knows it, because the ego is simply an object known by me—awareness. I can never be that which is known by me, just like that which hears can never be that which is heard, or that which tastes can never be that which is tasted, etc. The ego, like all phenomena, turns out to be just another object in awareness.
Enlightenment as nirvana
In popular culture, nirvana is often thought to be a permanent state of experiential bliss or 24/7 happiness. It’s no wonder we are so drawn to it! The word nirvana translates to “without a flame” or “blown out.” “Flame,” in this case, represents fire or passion. Passion, of course, is associated with desire. The idea then, is that enlightenment means being without desire—the subtle or not-so-subtle force that draws us closer to certain objects, people and experiences.
However, similar to the mind and to the ego, we need desire to operate in the world. Otherwise, our most basic needs could never be fulfilled. Furthermore, not all desire is bad. If I’m an engineer, is it wrong to want to construct a building that never falls down? What if I’m a scientist with the knowledge and desire to find a cure for cancer? Every great discovery has been led by a strong desire, whether it was the desire to reach the moon, eradicate polio, understand the molecular structure of DNA, or the desire to understand existence itself. So, desire isn’t the enemy.
That said, there may be some who will protest that nirvana doesn’t mean the absence of all desires, only the binding ones—that is, those desires that create attachment leading to suffering. But even if the absence of all binding desires equates to enlightenment, as many Buddhists believe, the objective shouldn’t be to just eliminate desires like swatting away flies (although, sometimes that is necessary). The goal should be to get to the very source of the problem so that we may understand why we have painful binding desires in the first place.
Vedanta would argue that all attachments, consciously or not, are derived from ignorance regarding the question of who/what we are. If I know myself to already be whole and complete, I have no need to grasp onto objects, people or experiences. If we look closely at our binding likes and dislikes they occur partly due to not being able to manage the conditioned mind. The mind has a tendency to jump at every bright shiny object, and unless we’re vigilant, filter our desires and apply discipline, the mind can get us in a lot of trouble. Most spiritual traditions would agree with this. But if we look closer, the root of our binding desires come from an overall sense of feeling incomplete. If we understand our essence to already be that which is whole, complete and limitless, we needn’t look to objects for temporary fulfillment. We can still enjoy the momentary pleasure they provide, but we needn’t grasp at them or suffer when they are no longer accessible.
Thus, while eliminating the formation of desires may prevent them from becoming something we can no longer manage (like a bad addiction), it doesn’t eliminate the root of the problem—a feeling of lack. The weed of desire may be temporarily squashed, but with roots still intact, it will often grow back. So, ultimately, enlightenment cannot be fully reached simply by countering our binding desires or a “blowing out the flame,” but only through the understanding that the essence of what we are is already whole. Otherwise, it’s just swatting one damn fly after another. As scripture suggests, to roast the seeds of desire, one must burn them in the fire of Self-knowledge.
Enlightenment as “the power of now”
If you have spent any time in the spiritual world you have surely heard the pithy phrase “be here now,” or the more updated version, “the power of now.” Both refer to being fully in the present moment, or what is popularly known as mindfulness. And while mindfulness practice is useful, being in the now is actually a misnomer because you can never not be in the now. The “now” in this case is just awareness, which, according to the teachings of non-duality, is the essence of who/what you are.
If you don’t feel “in the now” it’s because your mind is distracted with racing thoughts, or perhaps because it’s lethargic and doesn’t have the energy to focus. Either way, there is never a time when now/awareness is not operating. Even when the mind is feverish with desire or dull with lethargy, now/awareness is still operating because, as Vedanta shows, it’s the substrate to all experience. Therefore, the key is to identify with awareness and not with the internal forces that seemingly hide one’s true nature (e.g., racing thoughts).
Again, it’s not that I’m not “in the now” and need to be in it, it’s that I am the now and it’s only ignorance that keeps me from knowing it. So, “the power of now” can’t be enlightenment because mostly it’s just focusing the mind on an object—in this case, the present moment. In short, it’s just another form of meditation. And while the power of now may help to stabilize the mind and encourage single-pointed concentration, unfortunately, it doesn’t bring one spiritual attainment.
Enlightenment as the experience of oneness
Another enlightenment myth says all I need to do to reach enlightenment is be one with all that is. This is what may have originally inspired many of the hippies to want to get closer to nature, fly with the birds, swim with the dolphins, or whatever it was they thought would do the trick. But like “the power of now” we already are at one with everything. Not only are these bodies formed and maintained by nutrients from food that come out of the earth and from what Vedanta refers to as the five basic elements (space, air, fire, water, earth), but, as non-duality shows, all experience is just awareness in a particular name and form. So although we may not feel oneness every moment of the day, in actuality we are already at one with all experience and needn’t obtain it. Again, the only obstacle to knowing this fact is ignorance. We can’t obtain something we already have—in this case, oneness with the cosmos.
Enlightenment as the transcendental state
You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking you had reached enlightenment if you ever experienced samadhi or one of the deep meditative states. As humans, we are capable of experiencing a variety of blissful states from the gross sensory states of the physical body to the more subtle ones associated with the mind. An entire culture was formed in the latter part of the last century around the idea that one can experience such subtle states simply by ingesting certain substances.
Deep concentration practices allow us to quiet the mind and make it free of agitation. The conditions of the mind with its racing thoughts are often compared to a jar of swamp water. At first, the contents of the jar will be quite opaque and one won’t be able to see through it, but once the elements in the jar have stopped moving and settle to the bottom, one is able to see the actual substrate of the swamp, which is pure water.
The mind works in a similar way eventually allowing us to see a reflection of that which comes before it—pure awareness. These subtle experiences can be quite pleasant, as if we discovered a part of us that we never knew about. The downside is that we can also become attached to such experiences, suffering when we are no longer able to call them up on demand or access them in quite the same way. So, although a transcendental state, higher state, altered state or “fourth state” may be blissful and feel other-worldly, it’s a fleeting experience that, for the most part, leaves us little the wiser.
Once we fully recover from our blissful transcendental experience—hours, days or possibly months later—we will still be the same person we were before. Furthermore, in the end, there’s nothing to transcend because as the wise like to say, you already are what you seek. You cannot transcend something that you already are, you can only remove the ignorance that keeps you from seeing it.
Enlightenment as eternal bliss
Similar to the myth of enlightenment as the transcendental state, enlightenment as eternal bliss is the myth that through a special experience I will obtain a permanent feeling of happiness and peace. As much as we’d all like this to be true, due to the changing nature of the body and mind it’s just not possible. Furthermore, all experiences are like a depleting time capsule. As a result, as soon as we acquire one mystical experience, we’re already strategizing on how to obtain the next in an attempt to keep the bliss coming. You sometimes see this with people who frequent silent retreats. They are only happy when they are either on retreat or scheduling the next one. Some of them are chasing the myth of eternal bliss. Their mistake is that they are pursuing an experience, rather than knowledge. They are chasing something that is by its very nature fickle, requires certain conditions, and that may or may not be available to them. But hey—there’s nothing wrong with going on retreat to enjoy a little bliss! Just know that like taking a vacation it won’t last.
Enlightenment as never feeling any more pain
This myth suggests that once we reach enlightenment we will never again feel any physical or mental pain. The distinction to be made, here, is between pain and suffering. The wise tell us that in life pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. This isn’t to suggest that all we need to do is have positive thoughts and any suffering will go away. You can’t positive-think yourself out of all suffering—especially the heavy, dark, debilitating, existential kind. Positive thinking is a good practice (especially given the bias we humans have toward the negative kind), but it can also be unrealistic and even dangerous if it means trying to bend reality to our own wishes. Life, as William Blake reminds us, is both joy and pain woven fine, and “when this we rightly know, safely through the world we go.” The enlightened still feel pain, but their attitude toward it (like most everything else) is different because they don’t identify with it. The body’s pain doesn’t ever result in suffering for them because they know their actual Self to be that which is beyond the body and mind. Thus, although the enlightened still feel physical and mental pain, pain is ultimately viewed as just another object that comes and goes on the screen of awareness.
Enlightenment as special status
This myth is associated with the ego and how it likes to claim ownership. Spiritual attainment can take years and even become a burden unto itself as one moves from one tradition and teacher to the next using nothing more than one’s own fortitude and inner compass. As we make our way through our journey we might subconsciously strike a deal with the ego that says (in a hushed voice), “You take the back seat for now, but as soon as I figure out this enlightenment thing, you come back and claim it as your own using it however you see fit.” Thus, the ego waits patiently on the sidelines until its big day arrives. Of course, now it’s payback time for the ego, which gladly takes its perceived enlightenment achievement as a new special status and is more than happy to tell the whole world about it. But it’s absurd to believe that enlightenment should reward any special status because nothing has actually been gained. “Move along. Nothing to see here,” is how one should feel about their newly acquired Self-knowledge, not any kind of special status. Actually, one should feel embarrassed for having been deceived for so long. One might wonder “How could I have been so deluded?”
A simple misunderstanding
Traditionally, there is thought to be two purported means for obtaining liberation. The first one says enlightenment can be acquired by the purification of the mind gained through experience. The assumption is that through spiritual practice climaxing in a special enlightenment event, indirect knowledge is to be gained. The second one says that enlightenment can be reached regardless of experience, provided the right preparation, instruction and a proper guide. The latter, in this case, is referred to as direct knowledge. So far, I’ve tried to show that the first one by itself is insufficient. Purifying and steadying the mind get you to the doorway, but doesn’t take you through it.
In the Bhagavad Gita, if hearing, contemplating and assimilating the teachings on the topic of absolute reality (the Self) is the end, then yoga (the discipline for steadying and purifying the mind) is the means to getting there. This is why the Gita is often referred to as both brahma vidya (“the knowledge of what is”), as well as a yoga shastra (“instruction on discipline”). Combined, they offer the sincere seeker a way to liberation. Thus, you can’t have one without the other because without yoga any obtained Self-knowledge won’t go in no matter how many times it’s shown to you. It will be like a seed without moisture and heat.
The previous analogy of the settling contents of swamp water in a jar only takes us so far, because although we can see that the substrate of the swamp is pure water, in comparison to the mind, we cannot see the substrate of experience as the Self. The reason for this is because the Self cannot be objectified, therefore, it’s not available to the senses. Some people believe that the Self can be witnessed while in samadhi, a deep meditative state, but what is actually witnessed is a reflection of the Self. Just like a reflection of the sun isn’t the sun, neither is a reflection of the Self the Self, which comes more into focus as one quiets the mind. So, the only way to truly see one’s true essence is by acquiring special knowledge of it because unlike pure water, the Self cannot be experienced. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us:
You cannot see that which is the witness of vision. You cannot hear that which is the hearer of hearing. You cannot think of that which is the thinker of thought. You cannot know that which is the knower of knowledge… (3.4.2)
Thus, the misunderstanding about enlightenment being an experience is mostly due to confusing the means with the end. Seekers can spend decades trying to purify the mind in the belief that it will eventually lead to a special enlightenment event (upon which all will be revealed). However, what they’re missing is the last step, that is, once the mind has become pure, obtaining and then assimilating the right knowledge.
Anyone who has explored spirituality has, at one time or another, fallen into the trap of romanticizing enlightenment. However, reality has a tendency to eventually catch up to us and show us that things are much more mundane than we would like to admit. In the end, we must acquiesce to the truth. We cannot “do” our way to enlightenment, as purported by so many in the spiritual world, because any doing is still doing within the framework of duality. Duality is often compared with a dream because all objects in duality are constantly changing and not always present (they come and go into existence). Thus, if I become enlightened in a dream, it’s still just dream enlightenment. In order to actually gain liberation, I must wake up from the dream, not pursue other experiences within it.
The banality of enlightenment
If one interpretation of samsara is the misinterpretation of reality due to ignorance, then knowledge must be the remedy. Even Ramana Maharshi spent years studying scripture and, most likely, consulted other sadhus after having the epiphany that he was the Self. He did so to better understand what he had experienced. 99.9% of us will never have the life-changing experience that Ramana had—and we needn’t have to. We only need to prepare the mind, obtain the right knowledge, and then apply it to every waking moment of our life to the extent we can. Which finally brings us to the question:
Is enlightenment real?
Yes and no. If you define it as a special event that will provide you with a new status and perhaps even special powers, then no. In that case, we can say enlightenment is just a myth; a fairy tale told through the ages perpetuated by individuals who may or may have known what real enlightenment is. However, if you think enlightenment is ultimately removing ignorance so that there is right understanding, then yes, enlightenment is real!…although, the wise wouldn’t call it that.
Nobody actually gets enlightened because, as already mentioned, you can’t obtain something you already have. To learn something new about myself, I needn’t obtain anything. I only need to remove that which was hindering me from knowing the truth about myself in the first place. Thus, enlightenment is nothing more than removing ignorance. The removal of ignorance ultimately leads to the knowledge that our true essence is pure consciousness, which has the double effect of cancelling a sense of doership and releasing one from their binding fears and desires. And while this discovery might not be as riveting as acquiring the ability to walk on water or traveling to celestial abodes, it saves you from chasing such fruitless pursuits in the first place. As ordinary and banal as it is, the truth is the truth—as old as the hills. It’s only our wishful thinking that it be otherwise that keeps us in the dark.
So now that we know that enlightenment is about gaining the right knowledge, we can begin to describe it in more detail. What does it look like? How does it feel? How do I obtain it?
Stages of enlightenment
Vedanta teacher James Swartz refers to the first stage of enlightenment as “endarkenment” because in the first stage the individual realizes they have a problem and that the problem is ignorance. Most seekers arrive at this stage only after recurring defeats at trying to make themselves happy through the pursuit of objects and relationships. They come to realize that life is a zero-sum—for every up, there’s a down. Instead of looking for happiness “outside” they begin to turn within. They might begin to read about eastern philosophy or start a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation. They seek clarity of mind and a better understanding of themselves—warts and all. Along the way, they may also have some non-dual epiphanies without ever really understanding their meaning.
The second stage is about obtaining the knowledge through hearing the teachings and then, clarifying any doubts. The result is a cognitive shift as one begins to negate the doer and instead, identify with the impersonal Self. Tendencies based on strong likes and dislikes that result in suffering, start to weaken and may even disappear at this stage.
Finally, in the last stage, the ego/mind is no longer viewed as the subject. Instead, it is viewed as an object known by me, the Self. Thus, the Self is now viewed as that which it has always been—the true subject. The individual can never be fooled again. The individual’s identity has changed from “me” (the doer as the body-mind-sense complex including the intellect and ego) to “I am” (the impersonal Self; the experiencing witness). As a result, I am no longer tormented with concerns such as the body-mind’s imminent death, because I now know my true nature to be changeless, limitless, attributeless, eternal non-dual awareness.
Seekers often wonder what enlightenment looks or feels like, and exactly, how an enlightened person might appear or act. Enlightenment is actually nothing what popular culture imagines it to be because it all comes down to the fact that enlightenment is really just about having a certain understanding, all the while tending to old conditioned habits. Enlightenment is simply a cognitive shift that reorients the individual and removes a sense of limitation. Thus, any answer to the question “What does an enlightened person looks like?” is simple—the same as you and me. In fact, they may or may not have the outward-facing spiritual demeanor that most assume they would. They may be calm and peaceful or, due to their conditioning, anxious and hurried. They, like us, will have their own preferences for how to dress, interact, and spend their leisure time, etc. as long as it aligns with dharma—universal values. Leading a dharmic life comes natural to the enlightened, as there are no longer any binding desires, fears and ambitions that drive them to carry out unwholesome actions. Knowing the mind and how certain inner forces can corrupt it, they avoid certain activities that bring on the extremes of mania or dullness, and when mania and dullness are unavoidable due to health or other issues outside their control, they find equanimity with the understanding that they are that which is beyond environmental conditions and their apparent psychology.
The Bhagavad Gita provides numerous examples of how the wise behave. However, it’s also important to know that the objective isn’t to gain perfection in the human form (an impossible task in this lifetime and any lifetime due to changing nature of the body and mind). The wise may still get angry or become sad—after all, years (perhaps lifetimes) of conditioning doesn’t just go away with a little knowledge. They may also still be vulnerable from time to time to delusion. Deeply entrenched tendencies called samskaras sometimes appear out of nowhere without any warning. But to be truly free one must be free to be angry, sad, or disappointed as well as happy and peaceful. Again, perfection of the person is not the goal. The goal is freedom from and for the person, which means freedom from identifying with the body-mind and its innate programming.
Like a super power, once Self-knowledge is applied, suffering disappears. People often like to imagine that the enlightened have some kind of magic or special attribute that the rest of us don’t, but the knowledge, once learned and applied, is the magic. And while it doesn’t enable one to move through walls or read people’s minds it does something a whole lot better: remove the suffering associated with ignorance.
In the Gita it is stated:
In the darkness which sleep all beings, the wise one is awake. Where other beings are awake, it’s darkness for the wise one who sees. (2.69)
Does enlightenment still include bliss? Yes, but not the experiential kind already mentioned. It’s more of a subtle satisfaction knowing I am the Self. If I know myself to already be whole, complete and eternal, I needn’t worry myself with trivial concerns other than maintaining my basic needs. So, contentment, more than anything, comes from not carrying the burdens that most of us carry. For example, the enlightened don’t feel it necessary to have a bucket list and fill their schedule with activity every waking moment of the day. There is no need to maintain a large network of “friends,” a social status, or burn themselves out trying to acquire “the latest and greatest.” They live simply and lightly without the friction most of us experience on a daily basis.
How do I obtain enlightenment?
The idea that in order for me to obtain enlightenment I must travel to some exotic land, find a guru and expose myself to severe spiritual exercise is a mistaken one. Wise men surely exist but moving to India in order to obtain enlightenment is no longer a requirement in these days of high-speed internet and access to information our ancestors could only have imagined. And while community and certain settings can inspire one along their journey, such environments are now accessible in most Western countries. So before you quit your job and leave your spouse and kids in order to become a full-time dharma bum, take a look around. Your means for obtaining moksha might be closer than you think.
However, in spite of all the information at our fingertips, what is still needed is discernment or what I like to call a good bullshit detector. Ignorance is persistent and very intelligent and it takes some fortitude to sift through the spiritual marketplace (especially when you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking for). It pays to be skeptical, especially regarding teachers and their motives. Use your familiarity of the enlightenment myths and proceed with caution.
Vedanta, as a tradition, doesn’t evangelize nor does it really promote itself as means for gaining enlightenment. In fact, it prefers to describe itself as a means for removing ignorance. Thus, if it’s spiritual fireworks you are looking for, there is nothing to see. On the other hand, if you have identified ignorance as the root of your problem and have a strong desire to learn the knowledge that will ultimately release you from it, then you’ve come to the right place.
The first thing a Vedanta teacher might inquire about is whether or not you are qualified to hear the teachings in the first place, because if you are not, no matter how many times you hear the teachings, they won’t go in (either that, or they will put you right to sleep!). So, Vedanta first asks that nobody’s time be wasted. Seekers may first need to work on steadying and purifying the mind before jumping into the more subtle teachings of Vedanta. Such practices for steadying the mind include Patanjali’s Yoga or even Vipassana Buddhism (both use a similar eight-limb approach). One might also need to take a close look at their own values and how they conduct themselves in the world, because a mind that constantly seeks out ways to contravene dharma isn’t ready to hear Vedanta. In other words, each of us might have some house cleaning to do before we approach Vedanta. This might take several years, even decades, but Vedanta says there is no rush—we all eventually cross the finish line by the shear momentum of our innate desire to be free.
Another important prerequisite to enlightenment, ironically, is desire. And we’re not talking about a middling or piddling desire but a very strong desire to be free, because it takes fortitude to embark on this journey and stick with it. With any journey there are ups and downs, including doubts about continuing. Enlightenment isn’t for wimps. You have to be fearless when it comes to traveling the psychological terrain of your own conditioning. You have to be ready to challenge your beliefs and the way you interpret your experience. The truth is counterintuitive, so it requires a mind open to seeing things differently. Most people interested in enlightenment have already tried everything and Vedanta is often their last stop.
The following is adapted from my book The Wisdom Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita where I explain how Vedanta maps out the steps to gaining enlightenment, or what it prefers to call “Self-inquiry.” The steps are as follows:
Part I: Preparation
1. Karma yoga (purification of the mind)
2. Upasana yoga (steadiness of the mind)
Part II: Knowledge
3. Shravana (listening)
4. Manana (reflecting)
5. Nididhyasana (assimilating)
The method for realizing and actualizing the Self is often referred to as Self-inquiry. Self-inquiry isn’t about asking “who am I?” This sort of questioning doesn’t work because you cannot know what you don’t know, and unless you’re a spiritual genius, the knowledge probably won’t come to you. Instead, Self-inquiry is to investigate the true nature of reality based on our experience using a valid and objective means of knowledge. The five steps of Self-inquiry represent the process necessary to arrive at moksha (spiritual liberation). The first two steps and the combined last three steps are classified as yogas, or disciplines, and should be done in ordered sequence.
Karma yoga (the yoga of action) focuses on proper attitude and action. It’s an external means for preparing for moksha that is applicable to everyday life, including work and other duties. The benefits of karma yoga is a mind which is less bound by attachment and aversion, as well as any expectations set by the ego. Binding likes and dislikes are a big obstacle to spiritual growth and therefore, require management as part of karma yoga. Karma yoga also helps establish a prayerful attitude toward life, therefore setting up the individual for the next phase—upasana yoga.
Upasana yoga (the yoga of spiritual discipline) is an internal means of preparing for moksha. It’s the practice of gaining mastery of the mind through self-control and steadiness. Upasana yoga includes many of the same elements found in Patanjali’s “Eight-Limb Path” (ashtanga yoga) which culminates in samadhi, or access to subtle meditative states. Other examples of upasana include japa (the repetition of a mantra often leading to meditation), visualization, and devotional meditation. A principle of upasana yoga is measuring self-control by both quality and quantity, in other words, through the practice of moderation. The four disciplines associated with upasana yoga include physical discipline (maintaining good health), verbal discipline (avoiding habits such as argument, gossip or idle speech), sensory discipline (avoiding that which holds sway over the mind or causes attachment) and mental discipline (concentration and mindfulness). In short, upasana yoga is about having an intelligent attitude toward life. It’s what Buddhists describe generally as “mindfulness”—acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts and sensations on a moment-to-moment basis.
The next three steps of Self-inquiry are categorized as jnana yoga (Self-knowledge). Up until this point, the inquirer has been cultivating a pure and steady mind in preparation for knowledge. Without any of the previous steps, the mind will be too agitated and distracted by attachments and aversions to gain Self-knowledge. It’s for this reason that Vedanta doesn’t promote itself or seek followers. Like running a marathon or swimming an open-water race, you’re either ready for it or you’re not. Due to their lack of curiosity or because of their karma, some people who are spiritually inclined never graduate from karma yoga or upasana yoga. But moksha isn’t a race. Even if you don’t accomplish your highest spiritual goal in this lifetime, according to scripture, it just means you’ll be born into another body, picking up from where you left off.
The first phase in the process of learning Self-knowledge is called shravana and involves just listening. Just listening can be a difficult task for most people. We all have beliefs about who we are, about the world and how we got here that we’ve carried with us since childhood (not to mention a certain reluctance to letting them go). Vedanta asks inquirers at this stage to sit down, keep quiet, and ask questions later. Needless to say, it requires an open mind because much of what Vedanta teaches is counterintuitive.
The second phase is manana. During this phase the inquirer reflects on what they have heard and asks questions to clarify what, up until now, might have only been accepted based on faith. Inquirers are encouraged to eliminate every doubt until they see for themselves, the truth of the teachings. Vedanta can be challenging, not because of its seemingly encrypted content, but because ignorance is hard-wired and tenacious.
The last phase of jnana yoga is nididhyasana, or assimilation of the teachings—and yet, it isn’t final. There is no enlightenment certificate of achievement once you have some Self-knowledge, because as the wise like to say—eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Nididhyasana can be summed up as the constant meditation on the teachings until such a time the mind is convinced of its true nature. This phase also includes the removal of any habitual tendencies which may still be blocking one’s spiritual progress. During the nididhyasana phase we continue to neutralize bothersome tendencies, allowing their momentum to dwindle and their influence to gradually weaken or disappear all together.
Regarding how long one should spend on each of the steps of Self-inquiry—that all depends on the individual. For example, some individuals may spend 15 - 20 years practicing karma yoga and upasana yoga before starting with jnana yoga, if ever. This doesn’t suggest a weakness or lack of intelligence on the part of the seeker, it just takes that long or longer to get through all of one’s stuff (i.e. psychological obstacles and attachments), especially after years or perhaps even lifetimes of accumulating karma. It can also take that long to cultivate a dispassion for the world and recognize it’s a zero-sum game, where for every up, there’s a down. There’s a reason most people who get to jnana yoga already have more than a few gray hairs. Throughout our youth and into middle-age, samsara continues to hypnotize us with bright, shiny objects that distract us from looking within. Even when we’re older and a little wiser, by the power of maya, we can still be mislead by the empty promises the world has to offer. In the end, there are no shortcuts to spiritual progress. It, like everything in nature, evolves slowly and in its own sweet time.
The steps of Self-inquiry ultimately, lead the inquirer to moksha—for which there are said to be four qualifications:
Discrimination - Clear vision or the ability to tell the difference between that which is true and that which isn’t.
Dispassion - Seeing things as they are, free of projections. Dispassion isn’t about having an aversion to all sense objects but instead, evaluating them intelligently. Dispassion isn’t a “giving up“ but more a “growing out of.“ It’s the result of having Self-knowledge.
Discipline - The six-fold mastery of the sense organs and mind. The ability to (1) control the mind (2) control the senses (3) withdraw from sense objects (4) have forbearance (5) have faith in the teaching and the teacher and (6) concentrate. We “control” the mind and senses through understanding our relationship with objects, as well as with our thoughts and feelings. Discipline also includes the upkeep of the body-mind (our instrument for achieving spiritual success).
Desire (for liberation) - The individual, frustrated by worldly experience and multiple failed attempts at finding lasting peace and happiness, begins to look for it inwardly. With the gained understanding that true happiness can only to be found within, the desire for moksha becomes strong and the seeker, dedicated.
It is said that if you don’t understand the scriptures it’s not because the scriptures are wrong. It’s because you’re not ready for the teaching and may need to first focus on the qualifications (or even re-qualify). What this implies is that a certain readiness is needed for gaining Self-knowledge. One teacher likes to compare the utility of Vedanta scripture to an information counter in a railway station—it’s there for when you need it and could save you a lot of time. However, Vedanta isn’t going to find you, you find it—usually after much exhaustion reading hundreds of self-help and spiritual books, trying out various practices with moderate results, and going through a handful of teachers (some authentic, some not). For many people, Vedanta is the last stop. They’re at their wits end and no longer afraid to confront the truth and do the work. This is where the last qualification, desire, comes from.
To summarize, the typical course for a seeker is to (1) follow karma yoga for purity of mind, (2) follow upasana for steadiness of mind, (3) find a teacher to gain Self-knowledge and (4) be free.