By Suma Varughese
What is enlightenment? What do we get from it? How does the quest begin and what are its primary processes? When and how do we get to our goal? Read on for answers to these and other questions about the highest adventure known to humankind.
‘I will obtain the Ultimate Truth and Ultimate Reality. That is the ultimate aim of my life in this world – whether my body may remain with me or go to pieces. My bones and flesh may go into complete annihilation or remain with me… I shall obtain the True Form of the Universe… Calamity may come or go, mountains may break upon my head, but I will not leave my promise to obtain nirvanam.’
- attributed to the Buddha and quoted in the book, Fundamentals of Yoga by Rammurti S. Mishra
Having uttered his mighty oath, Siddhartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree one full moon night, unshakably determined to stay put until Nirvana was won. Through the long, unforgettable night, his mind went deeper and deeper into the very heart of his constructed self, unshackling, pulling down, and devastating, penetrating through every false thought and illusion. Finally at daybreak, he arose as the Buddha (the awakened).
As the realized Buddha consolidated his teaching, he summed it in the one sentence that embodies the great promise and reward of enlightenment: the end of suffering. That’s it. Simply the end of suffering.
No more pain. No more anguish, no more anger, no more hurt, no more regret, no more jealousy, no more hate, no more aversion, no more fear, no more resistance, no more reaction. And since they cannot disappear without their opposites doing so, no more short-lived pleasure, no more excitement, no more craving, no more self-centered love, no hopes, no expectations, no desires. No more mind stuff. In its place – a vast unconditional acceptance of reality. As is, where is. In this zone, stillness and peace reside. Past and future cannot enter. Time and space coalesce into the ever-present here and now. Freedom unfurls its flag. Freedom from bondage to anyone or anything. Freedom from conditioning. Freedom from the self. Freedom from the cycle of birth and death. Liberation, self-realistion, moksha, nirvana, satori, call it what you will.
The enterprise for which the individual made the millennia-long evolution from mineral to man is achieved. She has fulfilled the promise of the human state. For her, there are no more mountains to be climbed or oceans to be crossed. She has graduated from the school of Planet Earth summa cum laude. No doubt, further evolution awaits her in more rarefied schools, but unless, like a bodhisattva, she reins in her liberation in order to help erring mankind to cross the other shore, she will not return to us. But she leaves behind a trail. And the essence of her presence. In the lives of all those she has touched. In the soil, the air and the wind. Her heroic attainment shines like a guiding light even when she is no more, helping all of us who follow in her wake.
No words can do justice to the loftiness of the enterprise. It is quite simply the highest human adventure. No invention, no human feat, can touch it. It calls for more determination, courage, strength, endurance, will, and discipline than any other venture. In addition it calls for selflessness, humility, surrender, acceptance, and love. Intelligence alone is not enough. Goodness is mandatory. This is one area where clout, power, money, connections, and other worldly possessions are powerless. Here, each of us strides nakedly into the arena, with only what is inside us as armor. On this quest the laborer may succeed where his master falls by the wayside. The frail in body might score over the rugged athlete. The simpleton over the genius. Here, the parameters for success are inversions of those that help us succeed in the material world and they recall the mysterious beatitudes of Jesus Christ. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.’ (Bible, Mathew V, 3,5)
So how does it happen that a perfectly ordinary mortal whose concerns were as mundane as wanting to watch Baywatch or the latest Shahrukh Khan film, should get infected with the divine madness and consider it possible to become a victor, an immortal?
It is grace that does the anointing. When the time is ripe, the call beckons.
Count Leo Tolstoy, Russian mystic and one of the greatest novelists the world has seen, was drawn into spirituality when he suddenly found himself questioning the meaning of his life. ‘What will be the outcome of all my life? Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death which awaits me does not undo and destroy?’ Tormented beyond endurance, he yearned to kill himself.
Others are drawn towards the path of enlightenment as a natural progression of their own hitherto unconscious growth. Often, a meditation course, a book or an article can be the harbinger of change. Says graphic artist Nidhi Kapoor (name changed), ‘Around five years ago, I went through a phase of tremendous restlessness. Shortly thereafter, I was taking my daughter to the doctor, when I turned around and went to a doctor closer home. I met a woman there and we became friends. Later, I saw a book in her house with the picture of a guru and the course he conducted. I immediately knew I wanted to meet this guru. Something within compelled me to get his number and soon I became part of his meditation group. I was ready and my guru appeared.’
For myself, the rupture of a relationship was the portal that gave me the temporary experience of being able to transcend my ego volitionally by uttering the following line, ‘It’s the other person’s happiness that matters and not mine.’ When decoded, it meant that I was acknowledging the other’s explicit right to be themselves and taking on the responsibility of adapting to them. I no longer expected the other to change. I was willing to change. In doing so, I grew in strength, endurance, self-control and depth. What’s more, unconditional acceptance of others freed me of bondage, and I learnt to live in absolute harmony with others and life.
I had, it seemed, penetrated an absolute state of happiness that was foolproof, that was certain! For it depended on nothing but my own willingness to align with life. It asked nothing of life.
However, my ability to willfully shift into the egoless stage became more and more labored as time wore on and by the end of one year I decided that I had to find a way to make this happen naturally. Thus began my own journey into the unknown.
The Journey Begins
So, what is the nature of the quest the seeker embarks upon? It is a strange paradoxical circular movement. Indeed, the Vedantists and the Taoists would not call it a journey at all for there’s nowhere to go since we are that already. Writes Nitin Trasi in his book, The Science of Enlightenment, ‘Enlightenment…is the actual perception or realization that one is not a separate entity. Therefore, the very pursuit of this as a goal to be ‘attained’ by ‘me’ will be counterproductive, because the very effort will reinforce the conviction in the existence of ‘me’ as a separate entity.’ If Trasi’s perceptive words stop the seeker in his tracks, be aware that it is not effort he is targeting but the attitude towards it. Meditation, chanting, yoga, self-inquiry – all these are valid, as long as we are clear that our efforts are not directed towards doing, but towards undoing.
The essential task is of elimination and not aggrandisement. We do not have to merge into oneness; simply lose our sense of separateness. We do not attain enlightenment, we simply dissolve all that stops it from shining out. We empty ourselves, bit by bit, of our personality, identity, needs, memories, hopes and fears. The self, as we know it, must vaporise. As Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute and author of several books on Buddhism, says, ‘The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death…’ As the classic texts put it, the prevailing chant is of neti, neti, not this, not this.
The quest, in the most essential way, happens to us. We control nothing, not the initiation, nor the milestones on the way, nor the duration of the journey. We must simply submit and allow what must to unfold. Self-will is the first quality we must drop if we are to survive the yatra. Even as we plunge into these new states of being, and let go of all learned wisdom, we must be content with not knowing, with trusting. Says Eckhart Tolle, ‘As far as inner transformation is concerned, there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot transform yourself and you certainly cannot your partner or anybody else. All you can do is create a space for transformation to happen, for grace and love to enter.’ Dr Jyothi Nagesan, professor of languages at the Vellore Institute of Technology, recalls her own initiation rite. ‘I was deeply unhappy. Even the best things of life failed to move me. One night, I had the experience of slipping deeper and deeper into a void, into total chaos. I experienced tremendous fear. A deep death wish possessed me. I could draw sustenance from nothing, neither friends, home, parties, shopping, or holidays. I was in that state for nearly six years, before I commenced to heal. ‘
The Guru’s Role
A wise guide is of indispensable value. In the Indian tradition, the guru plays the part of the mentor and wayshower. Zen, similarly, has its roshis and zen masters. The guru is one who has walked the path and reached the goal. From her lofty perspective of all-knowingness, she can see where the disciple presently is and the issues that consume her. She can offer perspective, cheer her when she is dejected, prescribe remedial measures and urge her onward when she slackens. Above all, the guru relates to her inner divinity and therefore provides the space for transformation.
Says Jyothi of her guru, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, ‘Sadguru prunes you of your ego. I used to involve myself in all sorts of situations, even those that were not my business and I was at the receiving end of a lot of hostility and anger. Sadguru helped me to understand that the essence of responsibility was to respond, not react.’
Nidhi adds, ‘Shortly after I met the guru, I felt my kundalini wake up in my lower back. Something within me said that for thousands of years this energy that was now awake had been sleeping. Over the next few years, the energy began passing through my chakras. So powerful is this energy flow that I experienced it as a tsunami within. The guru’s presence and protection channelized what could have otherwise wreaked havoc.’
Unless the novice seeker is fortified by the efflorescence of her inner guide that intuitively shows the next step, she could do no better than seek the sanctuary of a guru or a spiritual organization.
The Katha Upanishad expresses this sentiment graphically:
‘Get up! Wake up!
Seek the guidance of an
Illumined teacher and realize the Self.
Sharp like the razor’s edge,
the sages say,
Is the path, difficult to traverse.
(Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads)
The operative word, however, is ‘illumined’. In order to help his students, the guru must have gone the distance. He must have attained enlightenment and be established in it. Only then can he inspire and instruct through his presence. Only then will the student be free of exploitation or manipulation. It is said that there is no worse karma than that which accrues to a spiritual master who misuses his powers. Yet, for every true guru, there are scores of opportunists and exploiters. It is up to the seeker to exercise caution and to test the guru over time before submitting to his care.
However, in all this, the seeker must know that she is, so to speak, guided. All that happens to her on the path is meant to happen, and before long she will discern that life is no longer a meaningless jumble of static events, but has a purposeful trajectory of its own. People who mirror what she wishes to acquire appear to her, clues to the questions that puzzle her show up through insights, books, or the stray remark of a friend. The path is being paved for her by unknown forces and all she has to do is walk on it, and not turn away.
Recalls Jyothi, ‘The first guide to shine a light on my predicament came my way through sheer accident. I was teaching communication to chartered accountants and one of them laid a tattered book on my desk and asked me to help him understand it. It was Wayne Dyer’s Pulling Your Own Strings. The book turned my life around.’
A Magical Land
To enter the path is in truth to open the keys to a magical land; to the fairy tales that we had left behind in childhood. We find ourselves aligned to a friendly universe that works in tandem with us. A sense of being loved and looked after suffuses us and we know without the slightest doubt that God exists and that the universe is far from being a random, indifferent phenomenon. Miracles become commonplace. Nidhi recalls the time when a close relative was to undergo a tricky brain operation and she appealed to her guru to pray for her. The day of the operation, Nidhi woke up at quarter to six to experience a vast wave of love and joy sweep over her. ‘My face was wreathed in a wide smile and for a minute I had a picture of the family, all of whom looked happy. I knew then that the operation would be successful. And sure enough it went like clockwork. Everyone said it was a miracle for it was a perilous operation. Later, the guru said that he had been meditating and thought of us at quarter to six.’
Most of all is the treasure we discover within. As we understand the powers of our own subconscious mind, we discern that the wish-fulfilling cow (Kamadenu) and Alladin’s genie, are all right here, within us! Recalls Jyothi, ‘I was at one point warden of the ladies hostel of TSNA College of Engineering and Technology, Dindigul. I taught my wards some manifestation techniques from Wayne Dyer’s Manifest Your Destiny. One of my students practiced them for three nights and came running excitedly to say that she had wished for a Mirinda drink to be supplied to her room, and behold, she had just come across not one but two! Later, I too began experimenting. We were experiencing a terrible drought in Dindigul. I decided to manifest rain. On the ninth day, it started raining thunderously and continued for a week.’
On a more serious note, the power within can be used to manifest the qualities we look for, which are deep within us and only need to be summoned through affirmations and visualizations.
It is not for nothing that we feel we are living a tale. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, American Mythologist Joseph Campbell talks about how all mythologies and fairy tales have as one of their dominant themes, the hero’s journey. In its processes and movements this journey unerringly echoes the seeker’s own. Both involve a journey into the unknown as well as the endurance of and victory over many hard trials and tests. Usually, there is a descent into the underground, into the realm of death, which for the seeker is penetration into the dark unconscious. At the end of the journey the hero returns, having fulfilled his destiny, becomes who he is meant to be and bearing life-giving gifts for the culture. Whether it is Prometheus who brings fire for mankind, Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece, or the Buddha’s own attainment of Nirvana, the essential movement is the same.
As with the hero, the seeker’s journey is beset with trials and tribulations, none of which she can bypass or turn away from. Once having entered the path returning is unthinkable, for it will imperil her very soul. Recalls Jyothi, ‘The path can be so hard. At times I get fed up. My mother often tells me: ‘Give up spirituality then. Return to your party circuit.’ But I can’t do it. There’s no going back.’
Onward then towards transformation which cannot happen if she does not courageously face and confront all that befalls her. Says Jyothi, ‘I was very attached to my students. I considered them my lifeline. But gradually, through some painful experiences, I have learnt to detach myself from them.’
The seeker must also dauntlessly go out and meet her destiny – the man who she is afraid will break her heart, the job that she thinks is too big for her; the marriage she has been postponing, the move to another country she has been delaying. Nidhi is in the process of changing her line of work. Her interest in her job as a graphic artist in an ad agency has palled. Her dream is to make a living out of fine art. ‘It’s risky to give up a secure job. But my bones are telling me that it’s time to change. My heart is not in my work anymore.’
Life happens and through it the seeker must fluidly remould and remake herself and her destiny. Bankruptcies, illnesses, accidents and deaths of dear ones are all gurus on the path, and if she is wise she will receive their teachings with gratitude and humility.
For pain is the finest teacher in the school of enlightenment. All too often, it is pain that explodes her blocks and shatters her ego. It is pain that signals the level of her illusions and how far she is from the reality she seeks. Says Jyothi, ‘I still experience enormous pain which the Isha programs are dissolving by bringing it to the surface. The experience is hard to bear, but I am committed to transformation.’
Through its ubiquitous presence, pain shows her that her journey is not over. And finally, when pain kisses her goodbye, she knows that she has reached her destination – freedom from suffering.
A Double-Edged Sword
Essentially, the journey is one of increasing awareness and awareness is a double-edged sword. It is here that the seeker needs to draw upon her reserves of courage, honesty and unflinching inner strength. For the dissolution of illusions of self and of the world is the hardest task man is called upon to endure. It requires an iron will and unshakeable self-esteem to see oneself and life as they really are. It is not for nothing that T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, Burnt Norton, ‘Humankind cannot bear much reality.’
Here, for example, is an account of the stark anguish and pain of dissolving illusions. From The Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, it deals with the experience of the French philosopher Jouffrey: ‘I shall never forget that night of December in which the veil that concealed from me my own incredulity was torn…Anxiously I followed my thoughts, as from layer to layer they descended towards the foundation of my consciousness, and, scattering one by one all the illusions which until then had screened its windings from my view, made them every moment more clearly visible… The investigation went on more obstinate and more severe as it drew near its term, and did not stop until the end was reached. I knew then that in the depth of my mind nothing was left that stood erect.
‘This moment was a frightful one;… The days which followed this discovery were the saddest days of my life.’
In my own case, I had to confront up close a nature that lacked discipline, self-control, focus, concentration or sense of organization. Lethargy and indifference had me in their grip. All these made it impossible for me to live my life. Earlier, fear and guilt had kept me moving no matter how notionally. But these motivations no longer worked and I discovered to my horror that I was incapable of action. I was like a stranded whale upon a beach, helplessly watching a world go by that I could no longer be part of. A 16-year-long depression had severely marred my mind and restitution, I knew, would be a long and painful process. It has taken many years for me to face and heal myself both of my disabilities as well as of my resistance to them. What kept me going was an earlier understanding that I was whole and perfect. Besides, although I had virtually no other quality a seeker needs to succeed, I had the one indispensable quality in spades: an unshakeable determination. Sixteen years of misery had gifted me with a compelling determination to wrest the absolute happiness that I had experienced for that one short year. Nothing else mattered. Nothing at all.
The deep and difficult exercise of self-awareness and self-acceptance is one of the spiritual aspirant’s main tasks. As she does this through whatever method she employs, the thinning veils of illusion and conditioning part often enough to afford her inspiring glimpses of the truth.
These little insights, or visions or energy visitations are like little milestones on the path, alerting us that our direction is right and that the ardently sought change is indeed happening. While change happens with tortuous slowness, there comes a time when it culminates in an insight and lo, one ascends into a new domain, a higher level.
Says Nitin Trassi: ‘Enlightenment is more or less a sudden happening… It may not happen at one go. Instead there may be a series of small or big flashes of insight (little satori and great satori) but each of these is sudden.’
Among the most significant of these insights is the understanding that in order to free yourself of pain, you must let go of pleasure. The two are twinned and one comes with the other. Forego pleasure and pain will not beleaguer you. Indeed, transcendence of polarities is the most crucial learning of the path. Going beyond pleasure-pain, craving-aversion, life-death, will alone free you of the mind’s compulsive swings and establish you in equanimity. When we no longer divide reality into good and bad or positive and negative, then we perceive the whole. Writes Tolle, ‘Through allowing the ‘isness’ of all things, a deeper dimension underneath the play of opposites reveals itself to you as an abiding presence, an unchanging deep stillness, an uncaused joy beyond good and bad.’
Taking responsibility for your every state of mind can also bring about a profound shift. It can be disconcerting at first to find that the villain is yourself and not the outside world, but once you internalize it, you will find that it frees you of the power the world holds over you and compels you to go within, to heal yourself of the needs that kept you in thrall. And thus you dissolve your past. Nidhi recalls her troubled relationship with her mother, which she completed only by seeing her own part in it. ‘It was only when I acknowledged that I too had been headstrong and often insolent that I could heal from the relationship. I learnt to forgive myself and through it, her.’
Accepting yourself and others unconditionally follows from this, freeing you of conflicts with life and others. Judgments, expectations and resistance dwindle and ebb.
Surrender happens as you near the pinnacle. Here, you let go of self-will entirely and accept what comes your way with limpid gratitude. Looking back, you discern the hand of God in every tiny step and change and see how each has taught you and shifted you one step up. It has always been God’s will and not yours, you understand, and let go of every concern for the future.
None of this occurs free of the other. You work through all these concurrently, and each supports and strengthens the other.
You are now gradually nearing the zone of the timeless present. Needs demolished, identity disintegrated, past and future of no concern, the ego dissembled. You reach the austere domain of what-is. Here, things appear as they truly are, free of mental interpretations and stories. The false center that was needed to make these up for its own survival, is gone and you are free to see the exact dimensions of each event, be it winning the Nobel prize or being given the death sentence. The sacred centre of your eternal Self now shines out. In silence and love the two meet, merge and become One.
So what can one say of the enlightened stage? Thoughts are honed to their absolute essence. The mind is plunged into silence, save when thought is required to function. Writes Eckhart Tolle in Power of Now, ‘Enlightenment is not only the end of suffering and of continuous conflict within and without, but also the end of the dreadful enslavement to incessant thinking. What an incredible liberation this is!’
It is not that the sage is incapable of thought – that would hardly be much to strive for – but that he holds the buttons to his mind. No longer can it jerk him about and send him careening to Mallika Sherawat in the middle of writing out his income tax report. It is now the meekest and most efficient of servants, implicitly obeying every command, but powerless to bend him to its will.
The sense of separate self is no more. ‘Enlightenment can be defined as the clear and deep intuitive perception or intuitive understanding of the entire situation, that is, of the unity of Consciousness and of the absence of the ‘me’ or ‘I’ as a separate autonomous entity,’ says Trassi. With the false center of the ego dissolved, nothing is taken personally. Abuses, flattery, crises, problems, are dealt with objectively, without internal impact. Says J. Krishnamurti, while advocating his method of watching the movements of the mind with acute attention, ‘From that arises a mind that can never be hurt. Full stop. That is the secret.’
Time comes to an end. Writes Tolle, ‘The whole essence of Zen consists in walking along the razor’s edge of Now – to be so utterly, so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you.’
Emotions continue to appear, but only like ripples on the ocean, of no consequence at all, and of little duration. Writes Trassi, ‘They leave no mark – ‘like a line traced on water”
Love, joy and peace abound. Tolle affirms, ‘Love, joy and peace are deep states of Being or rather three aspects of the state of inner connectedness with Being. As such, they have no opposite.’
Explains Dhruv S. Kazi in his book, Yet Another Book on Vedanta, ‘Ananda is joy because it is a sense of fullness and completeness. Abiding joy is when we need no addition because we are already full. We can be full if nothing can be added to us. Nothing can be added to us only if we include everything or, in other words, if we are limitless. So to be in the nature of full and permanent Ananda, our true self needs to be limitless.’
Action happens effortlessly. Nishkaama karma, (unmotivated action) the great message of the Bhagavad Gita, happens naturally. ‘Unattached to the fruits of actions, he who does what needs to be done, he is the one who has truly renounced, and who is a true yogi, and not he who relinquishes all action.’ B.G VI, l.
Trassi makes an interesting distinction between enlightenment and liberation. Enlightenment is the perception of the whole, and therefore a radical transformation in seeing. However, traces of conditioning may still exist. Liberation, on the other hand, is total freedom from all conditioning and therefore permanent establishment in the enlightened stage.
This distinction explains why enlightened people can often appear imperfect, liable to display anger and fear. Only liberation will free them from all conditioning.
A New Beginning
The journey done, the hero or the sage, in all probability, returns. A few may choose to remain sequestered but even they serve the truth for their presence charges the very air with the life force and converts negativity to positivity. Some take to writing, others to various creative pursuits. A few become mighty reformers and change agents. These are the ones with a world mission and their impact on the world is for keeps. Of such are Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi. Many become teachers and masters, echoing the Buddha’s plaintive cry, ‘Anyone for the other shore?’
Writes Eckhart Tolle of his own transition to teacher, ‘Later, people would occasionally come up to me and say: ‘I want what you have. Can you give it to me, or show me how to get it?’…Before I knew it, I had an external identity again. I had become a spiritual teacher.’
The circle is complete. The seeker is now the guru, in turn guiding others towards the path she has walked.
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