Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Charles Francis Headshot

What Exactly Is Enlightenment?

Posted: Updated:
Shutterstock / Subbotina Anna

"To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment." ~ Eckhart Tolle

I've recently gotten into two different discussions about the definition of enlightenment. Those of us who are on a spiritual path have some idea of what the term means, but when we're put on the spot to give a clear definition, we find ourselves getting tongue-tied.

I'll be the first to admit that I had a hard time coming up with a good definition. When a friend asked me what enlightenment is, I had to pause and think about it, and I'm still not sure I gave her a good definition. Well, now I've had a little time to think about it.

First, let me say that we often use several different terms to describe the concept of enlightenment. They include spiritual growth, spiritual development, spiritual awakening, mindfulness, etc. I'm sure you can probably come up with a few more.

In essence, we're describing a process of personal realization. That is, we're trying to attain the emergence of who, or what, we truly are -- whatever that may be. Since most of us have no idea of what that is, it is a journey into the unknown.

Some people have been fortunate enough to get a glimpse of their True Nature, through a profound spiritual experience. But even then, what they saw was influenced by their previous spiritual beliefs. I have seen many people struggle to separate reality from belief after such an experience. This is where I think the mindfulness meditation practice can help. The practice will help us let go of our attachments to old views, in favor of objective observations.

Enlightenment as an Evolutionary Process

The best definition of enlightenment that I have come up with at this time, is that it is an increasing ability to see the world as it really is. There seems to be another level of consciousness by which we're able to perceive the world. Part of it is our subconscious. After all, our subconscious mind can process much more information than our conscious mind, without us being fully aware of it. But, there's more to it than that.

During periods of heightened awareness, I've seen that we're all connected on a deeper level, and that our notion of a separate self is simply the outcome of not being able to see beyond our physical manifestation and ego. But once we're able to see beyond this illusion, we can see the world as it really is, and begin making better decisions. That is, we can see how the world works and act in great harmony with it, and this is what leads to the cessation of suffering.

I think that enlightenment is simply the evolution of human consciousness. It is the development of an innate quality of the human species, and quite possibly life in general. It is much like we evolved to walking erect, or developing five fingers on our hands. Enlightenment seems to be an awakening of a new sense by which we're able to perceive the world.

Now that we've evolved enough to see that there's more to being human than just a physical manifestation, we're discovering ways to accelerate this evolutionary process, and that meditation is a powerful tool for helping us discover who we really are.

Scientific vs. Spiritual Inquiry

Many people with academic backgrounds have difficulty with matters of spirituality. You see, with scientific inquiry, we're able to measure activities and outcomes to demonstrate cause and effect relationships in the world. With spirituality, we don't yet have instruments that we can use to measure consciousness to a great degree. We can measure general activity of the brain, but not exactly what the subject perceives.

In scientific research, we generally try to demonstrate to other people the discoveries we've made with data and logical analysis. In spiritual development, we help the subject develop his ability to see the world objectively, so he can see for himself the true nature of his existence. This is why it's so difficult to figure out what happens when we die, or when we have a spiritual awakening.

Enlightenment and Death

Of course, it's quite a challenge to achieve full enlightenment, if there is such a thing, in our own lifetime. So then, the question becomes; what happens to us after we die? Will we return to continue this spiritual journey? I don't really know. And even if I did, I wouldn't be able to prove it to anyone else. This is a challenge for those of us guiding others down the path of enlightenment.

When someone asks me if I worry about dying, I tell them I'm not too concerned. I'm not yet entirely sure what will happen to me, but from what I can tell, there are two possible alternatives: 1) either my consciousness will continue to exist without my physical body, or 2) both my physical body and consciousness will cease to exist.

Either alternative is fine with me. If my consciousness continues without my body, the source of all my pain and suffering, that will be just wonderful. If both my body and consciousness cease to exist, then I won't be around to care. It's a win-win situation.

So, enlightenment seems to be a realization of who we really are consciously. I'm not sure if this is a foolproof definition, but I think it's a good working definition that I can use for now. Maybe when I'm more enlightened, I'll come up with a better one. But, one thing I do know is that mindfulness meditation can help us get there.


Meditation 101
Share this
Current Slide