What is 'Spiritual' Enlightenment? — A Clear Guide to the Astonishing Miracle of Existence
My best attempt to spell out non-dual awakening as clearly as possible, in everyday, non-woo language
“In order to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
— Carl Sagan
I often find myself speaking about non-dual awakening, also known as the path of enlightenment, or liberation.
This is one of my favorite subjects to discuss, because it’s such a game-changer to even begin to glimpse what is being referred to.
Enlightenment is sometimes described as “the simplest possible thing,” yet ironically and hilariously, the cosmic joke is that it’s one of the most challenging things to convey in language.
As such, I often wish that when people are asking me fundamental questions about awakening, I could refer them to a guide in which I make my best attempt to spell it out as clearly as possible, in everyday, (mostly) non-woo language.
So, that is what I am going to attempt to do here.
Please note that I don’t claim to be ‘fully enlightened,’ (except in the sense that everything is already fully enlightened).
Ahem, this is already getting too esoteric! Let’s dive into the basics.
Opening Yourself to the Reality of Enlightenment
Enlightenment has been described by innumerable sages across the ages, from Buddha, Lao Tzu, Jesus, and Krishna, all the way up to Nisargadatta, Ramana Maharshi, Peter Brown, Jed McKenna, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie.
For thousands of years, there have been remarkably consistent, coherent accounts of it.
I say this to encourage you to open yourself to the idea that, far from a deluded pipe-dream, enlightenment is very real—more real, perhaps, than everything you presently take to be reality.
It is good to question everything in search of truth; this is very useful on the path, if done sincerely. Yet, beware the cynical skeptic whose ‘skepticism’ is simply an excuse to rapidly dismiss anything that doesn’t align with their calcified views.
Open yourself to the possibility of enlightenment. If you feel drawn to do so, deepen your conviction that “enlightenment” would not have been widely discussed by thousands of the wisest humans who ever lived, if it were not pointing toward a real possibility.
Open yourself to the notion that, rather than a far-off fantasy, enlightenment is actually close at hand—closer than your very skin.
Open yourself to the idea that, rather than a near-impossible attainment reserved for rare buddhas, enlightenment is right here, right now, available to all—and you yourself, if you wish, can discover it.
Defining Enlightenment As Clearly As I Can
All right, now, let’s get into the meat-and-potatoes of this whole thing:
What is enlightenment?
Enlightenment is not a permanent shift into a mystical peak experience.
It is not the ability to permanently focus on the present moment.
It is not dependent on any state that comes and goes.
Enlightenment is that which does not come and go.
It’s always, already the case.
“Consciousness is already enlightened,” as the Buddhists say.
What we refer to as “enlightenment” is simply the actual condition of…
Nameless __________ itself.
On a related-yet-slightly-different level, we can say that enlightenment is…
Reality noticing its actual condition.
Reality noticing itself as an indivisible, indefinable, intelligent field of infinite potentiality.
Enlightenment is: Reality noticing itself as an indivisible, indefinable, intelligent field of infinite potentiality.
Let’s unpack this a little more, shall we?
Reality: Nature, Being, the All—all that exists considered as a whole
Noticing itself (as an): Recognizing itself as; becoming aware of itself as an…
Indivisible: Unable to be divided or separated; non-dual; not-two; unitary; all-embracing; all-accepting; loving; one
Indefinable: Un-pin-down-able; uninterpretable; mysterious; unable to be captured or contained in any definition, concept, map, or model; free
Intelligent: Inherently aware/awake/conscious and creatively ingenious
Field (of): An imperturbable, timeless, deathless, space-less space consisting of…
Infinite: Unbounded; open-ended; limitless; unquantifiable; immeasurable; endless; birthless & deathless
Potentiality: Possibility; power
Hopefully this is useful.
I do not presently know how to say it in a clearer way.
This may seem arcane and complicated, yet interestingly, when you actually begin to see it, it’s utterly simple, and you wonder how you didn’t see it before.
Another way to summarize it is:
Enlightenment is simply reality, minus all our concepts, beliefs, identities, and definitions.
When all concepts, beliefs, identities, and definitions are dropped, reality shines forth—i.e. reality notices itself in the way I have described.
One then realizes that words like “Spirit” and “God” simply refer to reality itself, to Nature itself. These are terms of reverence for the astonishing, self-awake mysterious Miracle of Existence.
The Human Experience of Awakening
When reality begins to notice itself in this way via what we call a ‘human being,’ we say the human has begun to ‘awaken.’
Yet it is not actually the human who is awakening. It is not personal at all.
Through awakening, the human discovers that they do not exist in the way they think they do. There is no independently-existing human.
There is simply reality expressing itself as an apparent human—reality pretending to be a human.
Again, this can be discovered in your direct experience. Through meditation, conviction, non-dual inquiry, wise entheogen use, non-conceptual engagement with the ‘textures’ of experience, and other modalities, one can experience an ‘opening’ in which this reality is at least glimpsed. What has been seen cannot be unseen; once this is glimpsed, one will always carry a certain subtle knowing of it.
With additional practice, further glimpses and full-on absorptions can occur, and this knowing can deepen, becoming increasingly accessible, conscious, immediate, direct, automatic, convincing, embodied. This integration process appears to unending; it can simply deepen and deepen. As this occurs, one’s life will tend to reshape itself to reflect this knowing.
This process is called enlightenment because reality is illuminated in an entirely novel, astonishing, previously-undreamt-of way. It also almost invariably allows humans to feel vastly lighter.
It turns out that a tremendous amount of suffering and heaviness is created through our attachment to limited concepts, beliefs, definitions, identities. The more one drops these, the lighter one feels. One increasingly feels a deep sense of trust, relaxation, surrender, unity with all that is, and unconditional love of all, for there is the growing realization that “you are me and I am you and we are IT.”
An Inquiry to Help You Glimpse This For Yourself
Remember the quote with which I opened this piece?
“In order to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
— Carl Sagan
I love this quote and see it as a beautiful riddle for unlocking a deeper seeing into the nature of reality.
We can create our own version of this and say:
In order to explain any object you’ve ever experienced, you must first explain existence itself.
Think about it.
Where did your computer come from? Your clothes? The chair you’re sitting on? You? The room you’re in?
Ah, it came from the Earth? Where did the Earth come from? How about the galaxy? The universe? Where did the universe come from?
If you attempt to explain what anything actually is or where it most fundamentally comes from, and if you drill down deeply enough, you eventually get back to:
Existence itself. The All. Reality.
Reality itself is then revealed to be the source and necessary precursor of everything you’ve ever experienced.
Another way to say this: Nothing exists independently. Everything is dependent on reality itself.
And if “reality” is another term for “the All,” then we can see that, “All is dependent on All. All is interdependent.”
Once you see this, you can begin to notice that all of language is a lie.
All of language functions by naming ‘things’—by pretending we can actually isolate objects, separate them out from the rest of reality as if they have an independent existence.
But they don’t, as we’ve just seen.
If a water bottle’s true nature can only be explained in terms of the entirety of existence, then a ‘water bottle’ is not a water bottle at all: It’s the whole of existence, expressing itself in a form we label ‘water bottle.’
When you start to see this, you suddenly realize you don’t know what anything is.
You thought you were in a room with a chair and computer, but now you start to see that existence-expressing-itself-as-you seems to be in existence-expressing-itself-as-a-room, which seems to contain existence-expressing-itself-as-a-chair, as well as existence-expressing-itself-as-a-computer, and so on.
Again: You can’t say what anything actually is without explaining the whole of existence.
And can you explain the whole of existence—what it is and where it came from?
No one can.
Not even the most enlightened sages. Here is legendary master Lao Tzu admitting he doesn’t know where Tao—reality—came from:
“The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.”
Or as he puts it here:
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.”
Reality is a mystery. A living mystery.
No one knows what anything actually is.
Hah-hah! Funny, right?
Pragmatically, you know a banana is something you can eat for sustenance, but can you say what a banana actually is or where it comes from?
Nope, you can’t. No one can. Same with everything else.
Becoming as intimate as possible with this innate, omnipresent mysteriousness is one portal to awakening.
This can especially help you start to grok the “indivisible, indefinable” portion of our earlier statement that enlightenment is “reality noticing itself as an indivisible, indefinable, intelligent field of infinite potentiality.”
You can start to see that nothing can be separated out from reality itself, and that reality itself is an indefinable, incomprehensible mystery!
I recommend playing with this. Let it slurp you up and bowl you over. Remind yourself of it often. Stare at a plant or cat or cloud or your hand without the labels “plant,” “cat,” “cloud,” “hand,” and realize you are noticing the indivisible mystery of reality. Notice how nothing can truly be separated out from anything else because it’s all dependent on the same mysterious source: Reality. Existence. Tao. __________. Call it whatever you like—it’s beyond any word.
In the same vein, it can also be helpful to believe nothing; admit to yourself that you know nothing. See that all conceptual maps can never contain the Territory of Being itself. Be, as Robert Anton Wilson said, “agnostic about everything.”
Paradoxically, non-believing and non-knowing can gradually lead you into profound, direct contact with the wordless intelligence of the Mystery. If you empty yourself of beliefs, concepts, and preconceptions, the Mystery itself will begin to reveal itself to you. Consciousness—another word for “reality”—will become your teacher.
As you empty yourself, you become “transparent to transcendence,” as Joseph Campbell put it. As you become increasingly transparent—as you relinquish the clouds of conditioning, beliefs, concepts—the ever-present Sun of Being can shine forth, revealing the indivisible, indefinable, intelligent majesty of Creation.
A deeper, truer, wordless knowing then begins to reveal itself to you. This is the direct knowing, the direct being, the direct seeing, of awakening, of enlightenment—of reality noticing its actual condition.
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And On and On, to Infinity and Beyond
And so it goes.
Again, an initial noticing is just the beginning.
From there, the adventure continues, and this noticing can endlessly deepen, integrate, become embodied.
My sense is that the process of enlightenment continues far beyond this human form.
“Infinite intelligence has no finish line,” I once wrote, after an extraordinary Bufo experience.
The All—consciousness—seems to wish to endlessly explore its infinite possibilities.
It seems to ‘enjoy’ forgetting what it is, then remembering, then forgetting, then remembering, and so on and so forth, with each new chapter adding additional depth and dimensionality to its own knowing of itself.
From the All’s perspective, this entire process is not happening in a linear fashion, but rather all possibilities are being explored/experienced simultaneously.
God is exploring God via infinite ‘eyes’ simultaneously.
This game of consciousness-forgetting-and-then-remembering-itself turns out to be the ‘only game in town’…
Most people simply don’t know they’re playing yet.
And yet as you start to notice—or as you become empty enough for reality to notice itself through ‘you’—you realize that every single experience is an opportunity to further awaken, notice, remember.
Every single experience is a perfect mirror showing you to yourself—showing you exactly who you are and what you are being.
Every situation is an opportunity to “see as God sees,” as Mystery sees—to view all things with unconditional acceptance, with perfect love; to allow all to be exactly as it is.
You realize that the more you are able to “see as God sees,” the less you suffer.
As such, you realize that suffering is actually a great friend and teacher. It was always simply trying to tell you, “No, you’re not seeing as God sees, you’re not seeing what is true, so I am going to pinch you until you wake up.”
The more you see reality as reality sees itself, the less you suffer. There will still be pain at times, but you won’t mind so much.
You will increasingly see each ‘scene in the movie,’ even the dark ones, as perfect, once-in-existence art-works—essential portions of the Divine Tapestry.
You will see that each piece on the multi-dimensional chessboard is always ‘right where it needs to be’ in relation to all the other pieces. And so you will let it all be.
You will see that everything in life is downstream of what you are being, and thus if you get the being ‘right,’ all else flows.
You will see that you are truth.
You are freedom.
You are peace.
You are radiance.
You are love.
This, at least, is how it seems to ‘me.’
But what the hell do I know? 🤣
I love you. :)
Being What I Cannot Not Be,