Following is an attempt at summarizing and defining the characteristics of enlightenment. It is based on what has been said by and about mystics in different religions, as well as personal conversations with persons who report having had a spiritually transformative experience that resulted in a complete breakthrough into that enigmatic and exalted state called enlightenment, realization, or union with God.
Defining the characteristics of enlightenment
1. Dissolution of the ego or sense of an independent, autonomous, controlling, and enduring self, following which there is no longer any fear of death, and all life is experienced as a manifestation of grace.
2. Realization of the interdependent unity and perfection of all reality, of everybody and everything, of all physical and mental phenomena.
3. Living in the present moment, in the here and now, mindfully attentive to moment-to-moment sensory and cognitive experiences, without judgment, commentary, and unnecessary concern about the past or future.
4. Complete acceptance of and surrender without resistance to the continuously changing flow of creation, whether attributed to God, Allah, ground of being, pure consciousness, or whatever name is given to the mystery.
5. An affective component consisting of profound equanimity, bliss, gratitude, and awe in experiencing life as part of a perfect and unified whole.
These characteristics, I think, are evident in the following essay by Ron Porter from San Diego, CA, who had an enduring transformative enlightenment experience four years ago. His essay is followed by an email exchange between us, comments related to a conversation we had when he was in Des Moines recently, and some further reflections on experiencing enlightenment and defining its characteristics.
In Enlightenment Who Accomplishes What?
by Ron Porter
A writing class instructor told us to write about an accomplishment. I threw the question out to the Universe, “Who am I to write of accomplishments? There were none I had to speak of before his request, and there is no wish for any to come.” This was the response I got:
You are a handful of feathers thrown to the wind, not something you can keep or grasp or hang on to. One feather may land on a flower, even if just for a short time. Smell it, then touch it. Enjoy it for what it is, and know it will not be in your life forever. A breeze will come along and blow this feather here or there. In the meantime know you are all those feathers, some floating up and some down. One may get stuck in a thorn bush or a thistle for awhile. One may land on a flower, maybe for a long time, maybe a short time. It will fly away too.
You are not the thorn, just as you are not the flower. You are the feathers! And the handful of feathers that you are will run into a handful that is another. And it may be wonderful, and it may not be. Maybe your feathers and theirs will write a poem together or sit and love together.
Maybe you will have to deal with insurance companies and disputes, but the breezes come along. The breeze of Allah or God or whatever you choose to call it will come along and blow you up-and-away and scatter your life into sunshine and rain and night and full moon, and sometimes it may feel like all of these at once! And you’ll call this your story, and you will take credit for the triumphs and losses and direction you’re blown in, and that’s OK. But the whole time it is the hand of God, of Consciousness, that has tossed you into the breeze of Love and Light, blowing you about both randomly and all planned at the same time.
Recognize your true nature. What is to regret? What is to miss? What is to have remorse for? Did you choose to and where you may land? I have seen the sorrow, the longing, the incompleteness all felt within, and these hold no reality – they’re what is false. The journey, the wind, the Light and Love - this is what is real. There is no end to this, just as there is no destination. Be flower petals and feathers tossed to the elements.
Accomplish this: Recognize that it’s the breeze who accomplishes. Recognize the hand that tossed you. There is a higher degree and deeper understanding of this. The pot can not exist without the clay, nor can the clay exist without the minerals. Recognize that you are the breeze and the hand that tosses.
You want to accomplish something? Accomplish knowing who the accomplisher is. For now laugh. Be the feathers. Enjoy the ride. This is the only thing to accomplish. (End of essay by Ron Porter)
Describing Ron Porter
Following is an email exchange I had with Ron after he sent me the above essay.
CHARLIE: When I put your essay on the website, Ron, is it all right to describe you as “a meditator and spiritual friend who has had an enduring transformative experience.” I'm searching for terms that are broad enough to be descriptive and contextual without unnecessarily defining or solidifying the ego/self (with a lower case “s”) of either the author or the reader. I simply want to communicate that you've experienced what you talk about. Communication is so difficult when it comes to the inexpressible, but it's important that it be tried in order to encourage others to recognize their enlightenment experiences, their already enlightened nature, and to help them differentiate such experiences from those the illusory ego/self takes credit for.
RON: I understand what you’re saying about searching for terms to describe the inexpressible. No wonder Buddha so often spoke of what it isn't. Ha! In addition to experiences that the ego/mind takes credit for is the Understanding that all experiences have a beginning and an end. The Self (with an upper case “S”) has neither of these and is the only True permanence. The Awakening is more of a beginning, the true beginning, than an end or goal, a beginning into that which no mind can comprehend. In this place is the awe, standing in the face of All, God, Consciousness, Allah, with the humility of a child who knows nothing. Very likely the word "fear" of God was misinterpreted and more accurately means "awe".
Perhaps you could describe me as one who is very lucky to know nothing! It seems to be accurate. I think of “my” story, who “I” am, as reflecting that sometimes God has pity for a fool. Everything I know is what I have come to call being "Led to Understand." What is written is from trying to put into words the indescribable. I can not take credit for what I write. There is no affiliation with any religion or belief system. If you want to describe me as "a meditator and spiritual friend who has had an enduring transformative experience," that’s OK. It's well said. (End of email exchange)
Seeing perfection in all that happens
I asked Ron to send me some of his writings after meeting him when he came to Des Moines to attend the funeral of an older sister. His other sister and her husband live in Des Moines and have been close friends of mine for years, and she had been telling me about Ron’s transformative experience for some time. So, I was eager to meet him. We all had lunch together.
Ron explained that his breakthrough enlightenment experience happened four years ago. His kids were grown and out of the house. He had been laid off from work, was collecting unemployment, and looking forward to a relaxing summer with a few weeks to contemplate the meaning of life in general and the meaning of his life in particular. It was during this time that one afternoon while walking around in his garden, he had an epiphany, an experience where suddenly everything around him and within him was experienced as perfect, and everything that had ever happened to him or would ever happen was also experienced as perfect. He said that all thought and perception stopped. There was only “being.” Everything was one, and that the trees, the sky, the ground were all the same thing, only subtle differences in their energy.
After this experience Ron did some reading in Christian and Eastern spirituality. He discovered that in intentionally reflecting upon the meaning of life during his time off, he had been engaging in the classical process of spiritual inquiry recommended by Sri Ramana Maharshi, a revered India sage who lived in the first half of the 20th century. That process of inquiry involves continually probing the question, “Who am I?,” until intuitively realizing it cannot be answered. The question can be viewed as a Zen koan.
Letting negative thoughts and feelings just rise and fall
I asked Ron if, since his epiphany, he still experiences negative emotions, and if he does, how they differ from before. I asked also about how they might differ from the way I experience negative emotions. I told him that when irritation, sadness, worry and other negative feelings come up in me, I often find myself dwelling upon and justifying them and sometime act them out in words and behaviors that I later regret. He explained that there are times when his mind still experiences negative thoughts and emotions. But when this happens, he just observes them rise and pass away as products of consciousness, remaining aware of their impermanent nature and waiting for them to subside, without any temptation to dwell upon, resist, or react to them verbally or behaviorally.
I interpreted Ron’s response as similar to reports in the literature that after enlightenment, there may remain previously accumulated karma or conditioned reactions that manifest at times in negative thoughts and feelings. But because the ego or sense of self has been dissolved, there is no longer a need to defend or protect “oneself” against spontaneously arising thoughts and feelings by unnecessarily indulging or resisting them. And no new karma is produced.
It’s different for me. I too often intentionally or unconsciously react to negative thoughts and emotions by indulging, resisting, or trying to manipulate and control them. This only perpetuates them and causes more suffering. I may analyze my negative experiences in hopes of learning from them and developing better coping skills, so that they cause less suffering the next time they arise. This can be a useful strategy psychologically, but it is different for Ron who is able to just let negative experiences be, let them rise and pass away without any need to react at all, particularly in a way that might cause further suffering. This does not, however, prevent him from realistically assessing and becoming proactive, rather than reactive, to situations that call for some sort of appropriate and compassionate action.
Living in the present moment
Dissolution of the ego, I think, was also reflected in the way Ron responded to certain of my questions. For example, I asked if he thought he would experience the grief reaction to his older sister’s death in the same way his sister or mom would. His response after a short pause and with a kind of quizzical look on his face was simply, “Maybe.” This, I thought, reflected the fact he lives in and trusts the present moment without any need to be concerned about or anticipate the future. Again, it is the ego that so often needlessly worries about the past and future.
Ron expressed a kind of child-like innocence and delight in our conversation. He said he appreciated my questions and my reflections on the nature of enlightenment as providing a kind of framework for articulating his experiences, while evidencing absolutely no need to articulate, analyze, or understand those experiences. Again, I interpreted this as reflecting the absence of an ego or sense of an independent and controlling self that desires and feels the need to understand and protect itself.
What happened and continues to happen to Ron appears similar to the transformation reported by Eckhart Tolle in “The Power of Now,” as well as by mystics in all religions. My study of their experiences suggests that they share certain characteristics of what I call a sudden and radical transformation, a complete breakthrough into an enduring state called enlightenment. These shared characteristics are summarized at the beginning of this essay.
Ron emphasizes that he did nothing to cause his sudden transformation and that his new Understanding and all subsequent experiences are gifts of grace. His initial full enlightenment experience appears to have resulted in a complete and lasting disidentification, to use Eckhart Tolle’s term, with thoughts, feelings, and experiences. He is no longer identified with an illusory ego, the sense of an enduring and autonomous self, that attaches to or resists them. All experiences are now viewed as products of consciousness, as manifestations of an unfolding universe, accepted, trusted, and spontaneously and appropriately acted upon.
Experiencing our already enlightened nature
We all are capable, like Ron and Tolle and Buddha and the mystics of all religions, of realizing our already enlightened nature. But for most of us, this is a slow and gradual process. We all have glimpses of enlightenment throughout our lives, experiences of awe and grandeur in observing a sunset or listening to a symphony, of unconditional love felt for a partner or newborn baby, of gratitude in surviving an illness or accident, and of pure joy in just being alive. But we fail to recognize these as enlightenment experiences because the illusory ego takes credit for them. I highly recommend that we pay attention to these glimpses, that we cherish them as partial and significant breakthroughs that reflect transcendence of the ego and contribute cumulatively to its eventual dissolution.
When the full breakthrough occurs, the reality within and around us experienced by our mind will not change, but our relationship to it will. There will no longer be identification with an ego that regrets the past and worries about the future. Death will no longer be feared. We will experience equanimity, the peace that surpasses understanding. And we will live predominantly, even continuously, and gratefully in the bliss, beauty, and awe of the perfect present moment.
* Charlie Day is a retired psychologist who teaches meditation and Buddhist philosophy in Des Moines, IA. He can be contacted at (515) 255-8398, firstname.lastname@example.org, and www.desmoinesmeditation.org.