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spiritual enlightenment is a concept mostly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, but it also has unrecognized connections into most other religions as well. Enlightenment implies complete understanding of life and the universe, which usually is accompanied by a detachment of all things impermanent and a complete awareness of everything that is, at the moment that it is. The spiritual belief purports that non-enlightened life is full of suffering produced by desire and other emotions that attach the mind to worldly things; suffering is the inevitable result of attachment to these necessarily transitory things. A person thus becomes enlightened when they remain in the world yet becomes free of attachment to it. Enlightenment is considered the end of a being’s spiritual journey, be it within one life or across many.
In Buddhism, enlightenment is called nirvana. Nirvana is believed to be a state of peace and unity with the cosmos. Different forms of Buddhism teach different techniques for achieving nirvana. Orthodox Buddhists, for example, try to directly follow Buddha’s teachings: in particular, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Others, such as Zen Buddhists, may use challenging mental exercises, such as koans, which are solutionless riddles designed to jerk one’s mind out of conscious thought into enlightenment. Most forms of Buddhism also use regular meditation as a central element of the path to spiritual enlightenment.
Hinduism also uses the concept of nirvana, called moksha, considering it a representation of freedom from desire and other worldly passions. Spiritual enlightenment is also part of the conclusion to the Hindu cycle of reincarnation. In this belief, souls enter many different bodies through the course of their existence. In each of the lives they lead, they develop spiritually. The ultimate goal of this spiritual development is moksha, a liberation from the system of earthly suffering, which includes the idea of spiritual enlightenment.
Christians who have passed through the portal of enlightenment have historically been deemed by the church to be mystics; one who through direct communication with God commands a mystical understanding of God and all things spiritual; one who has a mystical understanding beyond those who have spent a lifetime in religious study and servitude to God. But the two other major Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam have enlightened congregants as well. In fact, both religions have subset sects who focus on the attainment of enlightenment as their primary goal. Judaism has Kabballah. In Islam, the Sufis chase the mystical experience. It is because of this non-denominational foundation that enlightenment is generally considered a mystical concept. That is, it contains the promise of a spiritual clarity lying beyond description by words and attainment by action, regardless of religion. For example, one cannot become enlightened by reading, even if one can recite the words of every religious sage. Enlightenment is a potentially universal experience, but each being comes to it through a unique path. Teachers may provide assistance and provocation along the way, but they cannot impose enlightenment on their pupils; one becomes enlightened alone.
The concept of spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism and Hinduism is related to but distinct from ideas such as salvation and transcendence associated with Christianity. Whereas most versions of Christianity emphasize love of Jesus Christ as a prerequisite to spiritual completeness, enlightenment usually implies liberation from teachers and doctrine—one famous Zen koan suggests: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” Enlightenment also does not involve the existence of a heaven distinct from earth, although it is also noted that even Jesus mentioned there may not be a separation of the two in the Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic gospels. It places more emphasis on a transformation of the soul’s relationship to the world of objects. The enlightened being continues a corporeal existence after having gained awareness of the illusory nature of reality. There is no separate space to which one ascends.
As a person who has passed through the portal of enlightenment, I can say that there is a huge difference between simply deciding to reject worldly suffering and attachments… trying intentionally to be enlightened… compared to actually passing through the experience of spiritual awakening that is most commonly called enlightenment. There is an actual experience where you tap into the universal intelligence and energy that transcends our own lives and individual existences. It grants spiritual knowledge, wisdom, and ultimately inner peace. It grants immediate universal understanding of God, the Universe, the meaning of your own existence. Most importantly, it answers the question “why”.
To answer the question of HOW one achieves enlightenment. the answer is to simply stop all conscious thought in your mind, while listening for God. I say the word “simply” very tongue in cheek, because frankly, it is not a simple task to accomplish at all. But it is the process of stopping conscious thought that allows for the process of enlightenment to occur. You must cease the voice in your head to hear the voice that comes without sound. You must stop thinking about today, tomorrow, yesterday, what you’re going to watch on TV, that you’re hungry right now, or thirsty, or that there’s a dog barking, or that you thought this answer to this question was too ambiguous, or too simple to be plausible. Stop all thoughts of color, of noise, of the fact that you’re trying to clear the thoughts in your head. It is only when you silence the sights and sounds within your mind that you will see and hear what exists just beyond your mind’s grasp. The Energy, the Intelligence, God.
Let me clarify further:
Numerous people globally have found enlightenment in many various ways throughout history… many spontaneously without even searching for the phenomenon. But the one common denominator that has not been noticed (until recently) is that every instance of enlightenment almost always come from a place where the mind has been stilled within the person who has experienced it.
Numerous methods have been the catalyst for the engagement of the enlightenment experience. Meditation, Yoga, Contemplative Prayer, Martial Arts Katas, Pilgrimages, Fasting, Dancing, Quaking/Shaking (ref: Quaker and Shaker religions), Exhaustion, Sweat Lodges, Psychadelics (Psilocybin Mushrooms, Peyote, LSD, DMT), Deep Emotional Despair, Near Death Experiences, etc. And in all of these, and all of the others not mentioned, there comes a point when the conscious mind is silenced.
In meditation, the point of the exercise itself is to silence the mind. In Yoga, you focus on the movements and the breathing, which quiets the mind down to thinking about just a couple things (close to a point of thinking of nothing). In contemplative prayer (Google it), you silence yourself, and listen for God. Through martial arts katas, you learn them so well, you don’t have to think about them (reducing conscious thought). In fasting, you deprive your body of nourishment that helps the brain function at a higher level, which clears your mind. Through exhaustion or sweat lodges, you physically stress your mind into shutting down (not recommended). The same is true with the drug induced experiences… they inhibit your brain’s ability to operate normally, ceasing conscious thought (however they also inhibit your ability to process and understand the experience when it actually happens – not a preferred method). The latest studies on psilocybin that include live fMRI and PET scans prove this is more than just theory. Some people have found enlightenment through experiencing depression or deep emotional despair… where their mind is so filled with pain, that it snuffs out other conscious thought. Near death of course narrows brain and thought activity. All these have been common catalysts for people attaining enlightenment.
So whatever path you choose, choose one that ceases your mind’s activity, and God will then touch you directly, and it is then that you will understand everything there is to know. And you will know it when enlightenment happens, because it will change your life forever. If you think you’ve had a universal-type “everything is one” experience previously, but aren’t sure if you experienced enlightenment, you have NOT passed through the enlightenment portal. You have experienced what is called an “awakening”, which is a less dramatic and less profound experience, but one that gives you a peek into the secrets of divinity and the truth about God and all existence.
In comparison to having an awakening experience, to attain a full enlightenment experience you must clear your mind of all conscious thought, reach out and LISTEN for God without thinking ANYTHING. Then if you’re lucky, and can maintain a TOTAL thought void, God will touch you with a drinking-from-a-fire-hydrant experience of pure love, pure spirit, pure intelligence and pure knowledge… that you will never, ever forget. And then you will know everything there is to know.
Where do people find enlightened teachers? The most popular answer to that question is India. There are tons of Gurus there. But there are also many false Gurus who believe they know the path but don’t, or who know they don’t know the path and who are intentionally pulling the wool over your eyes for monetary gain. Outside India, more and more of us human beings are becoming enlightened, and some of us are selecting the path to become spiritual guides. In our communication age, you should be able to find an enlightened teacher whom you can connect with intellectually rather easily without leaving your desk.
For instance my free video podcast series answers many questions like these and the others connected to the topic of enlightenment (IAMSpirituality.com). I’ve tried to make it a no-BS format that speaks plain answers without the typical enigmatic riddles that spiritual guides usually use.
So how do you know when someone is enlightened? Tough one. But I think you will know it when you hear it. But as a warning, you will NOT know how to identify the unenlightened until you hear the messages from one whom is truly enlightened, so I suggest listening to people who are widely accepted as enlightened, such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Eckhart Tolle, and to a lesser extent, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, etc. There are also some very good Indian Gurus on YouTube now. Keep searching until you find someone you can connect with who’s approach keeps you interested.
Stay away from anyone who wants to charge you money for spiritual assistance. I like to keep all my stuff free, except where there are production costs (like with apps, books, etc.). We may accept donations for bandwidth, but beyond that, information on how to connect with God directly to get your own answer (I think) should be free whenever possible.