What is the experience of enlightenment? What does it look or feel like, and how do we know if we’ve hit it? The short answer is: you’ll know! So, if you’re wondering whether you have or not, then you haven’t.
For those who have had this experience, reading this post will probably feel like a waste of time, and rightfully so. In fact, whoever has experienced enlightenment will feel disgusted when hearing about it in the same way that a fully-fed person feels disgusted at the sight of more food. It’s totally natural not to want to hear about it anymore, because all you hear is a pale replica of what you’ve already seen firsthand.
But the question still stands for enthusiastic seekers: what is this so-called experience of enlightenment?
It is almost impossible to answer this question satisfactorily, not at all because enlightenment is a subjective experience with relative content that’s colored by the personality of the subjects. On the contrary, it is rather challenging to articulate it because it is an experience that transcends all individuality, and hence all human subjectivity. The nature of this experience appears inevitably paradoxical from the point of view of the unenlightened, but it is absolutely clear and self-evident for the enlightened. The problem, of course, is language.
Enlightenment is not a human experience. It is rather the human experience that blocks it from view
The true essence of enlightenment is ultimately inexpressible, simply because it pertains to an order of reality that transcends the manifest plane in which language operates. However, there are certain pointers that can allude to some aspects of this experience, mostly in the form of negations or what it’s not. For example, it is important that we do not confuse the experience of enlightenment with human spiritual experiences or states of ecstasy, for it transcends all these phenomenal states of being. Enlightenment is the summit of spiritual ascent; it is the realization, and even more so the recognition, of That Which Is. Enlightenment is not a human experience. It is rather the human experience that blocks it from view. It is recognized in various traditions by various names such as Supreme Identity, Nirvana, Self-Knowledge, Nirvikalpa Samadhi, Fanaa, Liberation, etc.
Firstly, enlightenment is not an achievement or the doing of an individual or its ego because the very moment of enlightenment coincides with the total annihilation of both the individual and its world-experience. If anything, it’s more like ego’s committing a spiritual suicide as a result of which enlightenment is seen without obstruction. In a way, the experience is like sun being viewed when clouds move away, where the human experience, and its existence, is the very cloud that’s blocking the view.
During (I use this word provisionally) the experience of enlightenment, there is no phenomenal awareness; there is neither an awareness-of nor the spatiotemporal world which is the content of awareness, neither subject nor object. Along with the disappearance of the human self, the ordinary, human knowing is instantly replaced with a knowing that is no more apart from the things it knows; it is not a knowing in space or time. It is a knowing of the type present in your knowing yourself as an “I.” You don’t know the “I” as an object; you know it by being it.
We know the I by being the I
It is not that during the experience of enlightenment one loses consciousness of the world. Instead, it is seen that the world was not even there (as a spatiotemporal structure) to begin with. The world is seen as what it is, as a mere appearance and projection, as an acceptance-matrix. In short, the world is seen through for the first time.
This may sound like a change in the state of the human individual, like a transition from the individual to the universal. However, it is a common admission by those who’ve experienced enlightenment that this change of state is itself illusory and ultimately unreal. Enlightenment is a sudden event through which the phenomenality of the world, and that of the individual, is seen as it is, as a being-idea. In such state, it is recognized that enlightenment itself is ultimately an illusion because we are always already seeing this phenomenality but not recognizing it, like a person who is looking at a glass on the table but not really seeing it due to other preoccupations. In short, during this so-called enlightenment experience, it is realized that one was already enlightened.
This sudden nature of enlightenment is in a way the very mark of this experience. Unlike the subjective states of human consciousness which are temporal developments and change only gradually, enlightenment occurs instantaneously, though it may take an aspirant a life time to become prepared for the event.
I will end with some other structural features of this experience that will question some of the vocabulary I used above, and this is just the unavoidable consequences of trying to speak about something that’s by nature unspeakable. For example, the application of the word “experience” is really inappropriate in referring to enlightenment because experience implies duration. Whether one is having an ordinary perceptual experience, the so-called out of body experience, or an ecstatic spiritual experience, all of these are marked by a duration; though the experienced time may feel different in each, but it is a temporal experience nonetheless. It is through the passage of time that human awareness can sustain a meaningful content, and hence give us experience.
Enlightenment just is, and it has always been there is; we only need to realize that it is.
Another missing element is the sense of extension or spatiality. All experiences imply the duality of awareness and content, and the content is in some sense, whether logically or spatially, distinct from the awareness. In the “experience” of enlightenment, there is no sense of space, of separation, of being aware-of something, no distinction between here and there, now and then. It is truly a nondual state of consciousness.
That’s why if asked “how long does this experience last?” one can only smile in response because lasting is a term that applies only to things that begin and end. Enlightenment has never begun and doesn’t end. Enlightenment just is, and it has always been there is; we only need to realize that it is. It is something that is there in front of us; it is not our enlightenment; it is the enlightenment.
Finally, enlightenment is not anyone’s experience; no one possesses it; no one really becomes enlightened, for the person who was seeking enlightenment is totally nonexistence through the revelation of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not our enlightenment; no one can take credit for it, thankfully. If anyone does, then they are not truly enlightened. It may sound like a paradoxical statement, but when I am enlightened, everyone else too is in that enlightenment with me; it is only that they’re not seeing it.
So, to become enlightened is a bit like seeing the rainbow that was there before us; it is beautiful but it’s not ours and doesn’t add anything to us; it’s for everyone and no one; it just is.