Any effort towards enlightenment or self-realization leads to the strengthening of personal identification. There’s no individual person that ever gets enlightened. It is simply the end of “me and my story.”
Ramana Maharishi was all about seeking the SELF. He relentlessly emphasized that SELF is the highest truth. Nisargadatta Maharaj called it the supreme reality, traditional non-duality teachers called it Brahman, and the new age spiritual teachers describe it as pure consciousness or pure awareness.
No matter what you call it, every attempt to describe it reduces it to a concept, and that’s where the problem arises. The moment you try to explain the unexplainable, unimaginable, and indescribable, you reduce it to a state – something desirable and a worthy goal to attain.
The mind begins contemplating tricks and strategies to access a state of pure bliss where no suffering exists – a state of everlasting happiness and peace. But how do you experience lasting happiness with an aging body that is decaying every minute? What do you do about the nonstop chattering mind?
Making the mind in charge of the chattering mind is not a good idea. It’s guaranteed to fail. It’s like employing a thief to protect your valuables or putting an arsonist in charge of the fire engines. And what about the aging and ailing body? It’s not in our control. Though we can make the body resilient with exercise, we can’t prevent aging and death.
When the mind realizes that it can’t do anything about practically everything that happens in life, it comes up with the most cunning idea of enlightenment. Personally, I struggled for years to understand what it means. At some point, I gave up the idea. Different people have different views on what enlightenment is.
What Is Enlightenment Anyway?
I dislike the word enlightenment because when people ask about it, they have a particular perception or idea of what enlightenment should be. Does it mean that one has a flawless personality, entirely in control of their thinking, with the ability to manage emotion wilfully?
Are they vegan? Do they care about animals? Are they into activism? Are they always politically correct? Do they talk about world peace and care for humanity? Do they ever get angry or upset with people? What should be their sexual preference?
If you notice, the questions above are qualities that we like to see in so-called enlightened masters. Therefore, we put them on a pedestal and project our desirable image onto them. We imagine near-perfect human beings that are infallible.
Especially In India, a person wearing a robe with a shaved head and living life like an ascetic is worshipped by people as an Avatar of God. The idea of renouncing the world for higher spiritual attainment – call it moksha, freedom, enlightenment, or whatever you like, is appealing to the masses.
These masters spend decades studying scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads. They flawlessly recite verses from the scriptures with great pride and enthusiasm. They reject all worldly desires in their search for truth, practicing years of rigid discipline.
And all of this appeals to ordinary people cause most of them have a poor self-image. They project their own desirable traits onto these masters and create expectations. When the enlightened masters falter, these people are the first to push them from the pedestal.
There are countless cases of spiritual masters going rogue or engaging in unholy acts behind closed doors. It reminds me of a story that the Advaita teacher Ramesh Balsekar told in one of his Satsangs.
There was a renowned spiritual guru in Mumbai who ran a popular organization. Millions of people visited the guru to seek his blessing. A man was so influenced by the guru’s teachings that he left his corporate job to join the foundation.
After the long day’s discourse, the guru would retire into his room to rest. Only a handful of people were allowed in his room. As this man grew closer to the guru, he got the privilege of entering the guru’s room in case of emergencies.
One day he wanted to discuss an urgent matter with the guru, so he entered the room late in the evening. To his shock, he found the guru in a compromising situation with a young man. He froze for a while as he watched the scene and then quietly went out of the room, closing the door.
He felt disgusted and resigned from his position in the foundation the very next day. He was so upset that he did not even want to see the guru’s face. However, at other people’s insistence, he decided to meet the guru before leaving the foundation.
He and guru sat face-to-face, and there was silence for some time. Then the guru persuaded him to stay, but he refused. The guru’s final words to him were, “You have created the problem, and now you only have to solve it.” After that, he left, never to come back again.
How would you analyze this situation? Was the guru at fault for hiding his affair with a young man and sexual preference? In the Indian conservative culture, spiritual masters are often judged for their personal choices and behaviors.
In another anecdotal account by Jiddu Krishnamurthy, he spoke about a young monk who came to see him. This young fellow in his early twenties got himself operated on through a medical procedure to get rid of his sexual desire.
Through years of conditioning by the religious authorities, he had started to believe that his liberation (another covert word for enlightenment) was marred by his inability to control sexual urges. He was in tears when he met Krishnamurthy but could do nothing as it was too late.
How can a saintly person have worldly material desires? You see, our body is also material, and it doesn’t understand the concept of enlightenment that our mind projects.
I’m not saying that every person in a robe is a rogue. I’ve met some genuine masters who I know have deep spiritual understanding. They don’t live to fulfill other people’s expectations. What I am saying is that we can’t judge a master by their choices and personal preferences.
If the idea of enlightenment is to deny worldly pleasures and subject oneself to torture through sexual restraint for their entire life, then it is a twisted thought.
Spiritual Awakening Leads To Understanding
Spiritual awakening is not achieving a permanently blissful state but the breakdown of illusory structures of the ego-mind. For most people, spiritual awakening is brutal, sometimes causing deep existential crisis and depression. Enlightenment, on the other hand, is just a concept.
I prefer to use the word understanding rather than enlightenment. While the spiritual awakening happens instantaneously, the understanding dawns gradually. As this understanding deepens, the mind settles down, and the individual learns to live in high awareness.
So what is the understanding? It is that we’re not the doer of our actions. In the words of Buddha, actions happen, deeds happen, even the consequences happen, but there is no individual doer thereof.
As this understanding deepens, the dispassion towards the materialistic life naturally occurs as the individual is no more concerned with the results of their actions. The ego realizing that only the cosmic law prevails suspends the sense of doership, resulting in peace, tranquility, and compassion.
Even with the understanding, the mind-body organism continues to live life as before, but there’s a shift. The shift is that the involvement in worldly affairs is gone. The self-realized individual does not deny anything in the world, but at the same time, they don’t get too attached or involved.
Before spiritual awakening, the individual attached to doership puts effort to achieve the desired outcome to enhance its sense of personal self. For example, the person may work hard to fulfill worldly desires like buying a house and conveniences like cars, phones, etc.
For him, things like money, power, position, stature, and prestige matter more than peace of mind. All of these pursuits enhance his sense of personal identification. He derives his sense of self-worth from the value of possessions he accumulates.
He believes that he’s a separate individual living in separation from the rest and has to prove his worthiness to gain other people’s validation and acceptance. Therefore, the idea of achieving wealth and fame through hard work appeals to him.
But the problem is that it further increases the separation, which itself becomes the cause of suffering. In a society deeply entrenched in consumerism, it is commonly seen that most people are always on a chase to better themselves by acquiring external possessions-something to make them whole.
Make no mistake; this can happen even in spiritualism. It is called spiritual materialism. Some time back, a girl approached me with kundalini-related questions. She was experiencing a surge in kundalini energy, so much so that she could not focus on work or family.
As a result, her life was in disarray. She desperately wanted a solution to her Kundalini awakening problem as it was causing discomfort and panic. She was not happy when I suggested that she speak to a counselor or a therapist. The psychological picture of Kundalini rising was so firmly embedded in her mind that she didn’t want to explore an alternative approach.
She wanted instant liberation from pain and suffering. When she approached, she projected an image of a guru onto me. As I did not prove the solution she was hoping for, she immediately pushed me off the pedestal, and I never heard from her again.
Most people have preconceived ideas about spirituality and enlightenment, and it is incredibly challenging to break down these fictitious ego structures. They believe that through enlightenment, they will achieve a permanently blissful state. And hence, enlightenment becomes another desirable object, just like the other material desires.
Enlightenment does not offer a solution to any problem. It is the understanding that the problems created by the obsessively thinking ego-mind have no answers in the world. It is not an experience as all experiences are transient.
The ego-mind identified with an experience will keep chasing it for the rest of its life. You may see Buddha, Jesus, and Krishna in mediation, but they will all go away when you return to work the next day.
After a spiritual awakening, the individual sees the illusory nature of the world. All ideas, beliefs, and concepts lose their grip on him. He no longer chases ideas in order to enhance his personal sense of self.
He clearly sees the futility of the obsessive thinking mind and how it leads to unnecessary involvement that causes pain and suffering. It is the dawn of something beautiful – witnessing. In witnessing, things and events are seen for what they are, and not from the biased perspective of the ego-mind.
However, even at this stage, the individual is not entirely at peace as it is just the beginning of understanding. As the understanding deepens and the individual realizes that he is not the doer, surrender happens.
But what about paying bills, mortgage, student loans, work deadlines, relationships? All of these remain, but the involvement of ego in the drama disappears. A self-realized person continues to work, pay bills, but there’s a greater realization in the background of awareness that all of life is illusory and one is already what they seek.
When the load of doership is gone, peace is the natural outcome. Such people don’t bother much about the outcome of their work.
There’s No “You” That Can Even Get Enlightened
There’s a misconception that it’s the individual entity or person that gets enlightened through effort. The notion of the personal self, in and of itself, is the cause of pain and suffering.
That’s why all great masters say that enlightenment happens when the spiritual seeker stops seeking. As long as the seeking goes on, the personal self or “me” deludes itself, thinking that it can become something more by attaining something that it perceives of higher value.
The seeking itself becomes the cause of suffering as it enhances the sense of personal identification or the ego. I can realize the self if I meditate fifteen hours every day. I can do it by reading books and scriptures. I can do it by dedicating my life to a spiritual master. I can do it by renouncing the world.
You see, this “I” thought itself is the source of all problems. It attaches itself to thoughts, ideas, and beliefs, whereas liberation from suffering lies in the dissolution of this very thought.
Therefore, any effort towards self-realization will lead to the strengthening of personal identification. Ramana Maharishi said that self-realization is the simplest thing. There’s no YOU that gets enlightened. It is simply the end of “me and my story.”
The mind creates the notion of “me” that struggles in the world to achieve greatness. And in that endeavor, it goes through hardships and trials and tribulations of life.
The story includes success and failures. The “me” takes pride in success and achievements and feels guilt and shame in failures. Both pride and shame perpetuate the personal self. Pride leads to arrogance. Guilt and shame lead to dejection. It’s a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering.
Gautama Buddha practiced asceticism through hard concentration and austerities for six years. He tortured himself by eating less to such an extent that his ribs had started showing.
In this ordeal, he gained five companions who practiced rigid discipline alongside. In the end, Buddha realized the futility of such practices and chose to adopt a middle path of moderation.
Seeing this, his companions left as they felt he had diverted from the original path. It is the way of the world. When the sense of doership is strong, we think that everything must come through hard work. That is okay for worldly pursuits, but for self-realization, the effort has to drop.
The word self-realization is a bit of a misnomer cause it implies there’s a separate entity that has to realize something that is apart from it. The problem is that we’re using language to communicate the incommunicable.
The language in and of itself is dualistic, and hence, it’s impossible to describe what wholeness means using language. Even the word non-duality is merely a concept, a feeble attempt to explain that which cannot be explained. There’s no such thing as non-duality or non-dualism.
It’s absurd to see that some modern-day teachers argue on the teachings of Traditional Advaita and Neo-Advaita. They are all concepts. Self-realization is not an intellectual endeavor.
As Ramana Maharishi called it, the SELF cannot be realized by the intellect cause it’s not a product of the illusory mind but the supreme consciousness that illuminates the mind and the world of name and forms.
The intellect at some point gives up after wrestling with thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. When everything fails, the mind settles down. It is then that the heart awakens, and one feels peace.
And when the heart settles down, deep silence descends and the contracted energy called “me” dissipates back into the boundless energy or the eternal SELF.
Therefore, you can’t learn by reading a thousand books what a glimpse of silence can teach – the highest knowing that behind the world of appearances which is seen as separate names and forms, there’s ONE consciousness that pervades everything.
The world exists in your consciousness. It disappears when you’re asleep. But the SELF is the eternal constant that underlies all states: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep.
In the end, peace of mind in daily living is what matters rather than some abstract idea of enlightenment. A peace that remains unaffected by world events and enables us to be in our natural state of serenity and tranquility.