A reader recently asked me some very astute questions about enlightenment. The following is based on our exchange:
Daniel Barash: I have heard a definition of enlightenment as a shift from conditioned mind to unconditioned consciousness, from seeing things through the filters of one’s mind to seeing things as they really are. How does this compare with your definition of enlightenment: a shift of identity from that which is bound by time and space to that which is eternal?
Jeffrey Chappell: Both definitions are talking about a shift, so there is that similarity. The tiny sliver of difference between the two might be the use of the word “identity” to indicate exactly what it is that makes the shift.
In the definition that you quoted, there is an important distinction that is drawn between mind and pure (“unconditioned”) consciousness.
Mind is the apparatus that is full of thoughts. Pure consciousness is nothing except consciousness.
Before the shift, you experience consciousness as being in your mind. After the shift, you experience your mind as being in consciousness.
Answers From Silence says, “I have gone outside of my mind.”
The place outside of the mind is pure consciousness. And it does have a quality of being eternal.
D: Is becoming enlightened really as simple as shifting in a single moment, or does it happen over time?
J: Preparation for the moment of shift happens over time, possibly lifetimes, and the shift takes a moment.
D: Do you think there’s a gradient to enlightenment? Could one have moments of enlightenment, or be partially enlightened?
J: A metaphor comes to mind: swimming in the ocean. The swimmers in the shallows near the shore are as much in the water as are the swimmers in the deeper parts farther out. But if you’re in, you’re in. Someone walking along the beach, or wading, or standing in the water, has not yet yielded to the water. So perhaps there are gradients of enlightenment, but someone who is in enlightenment is in, no matter what.
Answers From Silence says that a temporary experience of transcending to pure consciousness is not the same as being enlightened. So you could have moments of transcendence and perhaps even call it partial enlightenment, but enlightenment itself means that you’re in all the way and that you operate from that place all the time.
D: Spiritual awakening and functioning in this culture seem to oppose each other. When you live in a world that constantly values and reinforces experiencing things through the mind, almost as if it were set up for that purpose, does that create an impediment to enlightenment?
J: No, the entire outer world at any time is equally an impediment to enlightenment, whether you are in Times Square or on a beautiful deserted island. No matter where you look, regardless of location or circumstance, positive or negative, the environment can be a distraction that causes consciousness to forget consciousness.
Answers From Silence says, “The illusion leads to its own demise. It is just a path to awakening from the illusion.” Those who awaken will do it anywhere that they are, even under the most resistant circumstances.
Besides that, the person making the shift can bring their own impediments to it as well. Most people do; otherwise there would be a lot more enlightened persons walking around. I know from personal experience that someone can even be on the very utmost edge of making the shift and come up with reasons not to do it. “Who needs it? What good is it?” was what I said at the time (Answers From Silence, page 208).
Even a spiritual experience can be an impediment to enlightenment.
D: Could enlightened people all be having a different experience of enlightenment?
J: What you are enlightened to is the experience of the sameness that underlies infinitely changing diversity. So all enlightened beings would be experiencing this sameness. But as I have said elsewhere, enlightenment doesn’t stop you from being human. The finite person remains, and so the expression of enlightened experience into the bounds of time and space would reflect the style of the individual. That’s why one definition of enlightenment can differ from another definition of enlightenment.
D: There is a part of me that watches my mind, my thoughts, and my experience as they are, from a disidentified vantage point, as if they are simply arising, and without the extra judgment, praise, evaluation, etc. Wouldn’t that be seeing things the way they really are?
J: Yes, that is called witnessing. Witnessing occurs when the self is separate from action. The self is separate from action when it is established in being. Therefore, when you are witnessing, you are experiencing higher consciousness. One marker of enlightenment is that witnessing is happening all the time.
But since you mention “without judgement” etc., it is worth pointing out that some people artificially enforce an attitude of neutrality in order to imitate what they think is an enlightened viewpoint. In that case, it is only something that is being layered on from the outside instead of being a spontaneous and natural quality.
It would also demonstrate a misunderstanding of the enlightened experience. To function in everyday life, the enlightened person still uses the mind and its tools of judgment and evaluation. It’s just that she doesn’t identify with them. And the enlightened experience is not neutral. It is positive. Positive, in the sense of wholeness.
The way things really are is that existence is whole.
Readers, a good way to start seeing things from unconditioned consciousness instead of through the filters of the mind would be to look at your mind. That means that you look at it from outside of your mind. In order to do that, you have to relocate to pure consciousness.
I have heard of a good way to do this, which is to ask yourself, “I wonder what my next thought will be?”
Now you are outside your mind looking at it.