3.3 Common Myths About Enlightenment

This sub-module is based on the teachings of James Swartz.
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After reading the last sub-module, we hope you have much more clarity on the distinction between Knowledge vs Experience view of enlightenment. The feeling of limitation, the reason for suffering, is due to lack of Self-Knowledge. Once you understand this, you’ll be more open to expose yourself to a means of Self-Knowledge like Vedanta.

In this sub-module we’ll look at some of the more popular enlightenment teachings which confuse many spiritual seekers, and cause them to chase an impossible goal.

However, we also need to add that even though we say these teachings are not the most effective means to enlightenment, that does not mean they have no value. There is some truth in all of them, and some practices might be useful in preparing the mind for Self-Knowledge.

If you believe in some of these teachings, it would be good to examine them from a non-dual perspective.

1. No Mind – Empty Mind

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Probably the reason for this idea that enlightenment means an empty mind is because many scriptures, and people who have had non-dual epiphanies, describe the Self as thought-free.

The theory of “no mind” enlightenment implies a duality between Awareness and thought.

Now assume for a moment that you are awake and your mind is stopped. Are you not the one who’s aware that your mind is stopped?

Now your mind is thinking. Again, are you not the one who’s aware that your mind is thinking?

So, in both cases, with or without thought, I, Awareness, am present. If I am aware when it is stopped and when it is thinking, I am not hidden by thoughts, nor am I revealed by no thought.

Whether thoughts are present or not, you, the Self, can always be known directly.

Awareness, the Self, is always present. It is self evident. It reveals itself. It is self experiencing. There is nothing you can do about it except know what it is and look for it. Nothing hides you from you, except ignorance. Action, removing thoughts, will not remove ignorance because action is not opposed to ignorance. It is ignorance of who I am that causes me to believe that I am hidden from myself and attempt the actions that I believe will stop my mind.

James Swartz

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2. No Ego – Ego Death

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Along with the no mind teaching, ego death is one of the most popular enlightenment myths in the spiritual word.

One way of looking at Ego is as an identity that a person takes on. Human beings are capable of taking up multiple identities for e.g rich, poor, father, mother, son, daughter, politician, businessman, employee etc. We can call this identity the “I” notion.

The Ego death theory says that when this “I” notion is destroyed, one becomes enlightened.

If this were true then all plants and animals would be enlightened because they don’t have an “I” notion. For enlightenment you need the hard and fast knowledge of who you are in the waking state. Hard and fast meaning that the knowledge is 100-percent assimilated and available at all times.

Another reason why the Ego cannot kill itself is because it’s not conscious. There’s only one conscious entity, and that is Awareness. This may sound confusing to you right now but it will be cleared up when we come to “The 3 Bodies” sub-module later in the course.

In actuality, enlightenment is the shifting of the “I notion” from “I am a limited, suffering individual” to “I am whole, complete, unchanging Awareness”.

What is Self knowledge in relation to the Ego?

It is the understanding that the Ego is me, but I am not the Ego. This is identical to Ego death because it moves the Ego from the center of consciousness to the periphery. Self-Knowledge is best of both worlds, because it allows you to live freely as the Ego without suffering the results of actions.

At this point we would like to add a caveat.

The process of Self-Inquiry and the assimilation of Self-Knowledge, slowly over a period of time, neutralizes one’s likes and dislikes. An enlightened person is one in whom likes and dislikes have been rendered non-binding.

Such a person no longer makes decisions based solely on fears and desires. So even though there’s no Ego death, it does not mean the Ego does not undergo changes… for the better.

Ahamkara (Ego) is nothing but a notion, the “I” notion. When the reality is “I am everything”, there is no ego. Ego is only when you compare yourself with another person. “He does not have as much as I have” is ego. But there is no other person at all. All that is there is me. There is no ego, no doer; there is only aham, I. That “I am doer” is a notion, whereas “I” is the self. For one who has no “I” or “mine” sense because everything is himself or herself, where is the question of having a desire? Knowing this, then, the wise person has no binding desires.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati

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3. Nirvana

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Nir means not or without, and Vana means flame. Fire stands for passion or desire, so Nirvana means a desireless state. So this idea of Nirvana as enlightenment means a person without desires. The emotion of fear is also closely linked to desire. Desire for something means a fear of not getting it. Desire to keep something means a fear of losing it.

The view is based on the idea that desire means suffering. If you want something; it means you are not happy with what you have.

Is a desireless mind possible?

When, except during sleep, do you not want something?

On some level this idea does make sense. If a desire is self-caused, eliminating it should end the suffering.

But what if desire was the result of ignorance? Eliminate one desire, and another one pops up in it place. Ignorance is the cause, and desire the effect. Instead of trying to get rid of the effect, why not try to eliminate the root cause, ignorance?

Does having a desire equate to suffering? Is it not possible to have a desire, and not be agitated by it?

Do all desires need to be bad? If I desire to find a cure for cancer, is it a bad desire to have?

As long as my desires do not violate universal values (Dharma), why should they be a problem?

One has a variety of desires depending on the object for which one has affection and attachment. Desire is not a problem, but once a well-shaped desire has been formed, once it is no longer in the fancy state, one has to deal with it. One has to fulfill the desire and this causes one to take action. If one can fulfill the desire, there is no problem. More often than not, however, the desire is not fulfilled. When the desire is unfulfilled it turns into anger. Thus desire is the cause for anger. If there is no expectation with reference to desire, there will be no anger if the desire is not fulfilled. The point is not to avoid anger by avoiding desire. Rather, one has to remove the sting from one’s desires, for which a proper attitude is very important. That everything should happen as one wants it is not a realistic expectation. The Raga-Dvesas, one’s likes and dislikes, have to be neutralized.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati

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4. The Now

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The basic idea of the Now teaching is that if I am “present”, then I am enlightened. If I am living in the past or the future then I am unenlightened.

From a non-dual perspective this theory proves false since there is no time in a non-dual reality.

Let’s investigate whether we are ever out of the Now?

Experience happens only in the present. How can I experience the past? I can experience a memory, but it happens only in the present. The memory appears in awareness and it is experienced now.

Similarly, we can’t live in the future. We imagine certain things about the future, but those thoughts are also experienced in the present.

You can’t be “in” or “out” of now, you’re always in the now. If you say you’re not “in” the now, all it means is that “at present” you’re paying attention to a thought which represents either the past or future.

When I am “out” and want to be “in”, effort is required. Awareness cannot be gained by any action, so being in the now is not a valid means of enlightenment.

However, we need not dismiss this teaching entirely. Mindfulness training is very useful for gaining mastery over the mind. A relatively calm mind is one of the qualifications for Vedanta (explained in the next module), and this teaching can help one prepare their mind for Self-Inquiry.

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5. Experience of Oneness

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Vedanta says there is no need to experience oneness with yourself, because you’re already experiencing oneness with yourself and everything. This is because reality is non-dual.

You are Awareness and the objects are awareness. It’s all you, Awareness.

Can you separate a wave from an ocean? Can you separate a gold ring from gold? Can you separate a pot from clay?

All objects are just Awareness with a particular name and form.

I suffer because I have identified with the thought of separation. Instead of trying to get rid of my limitation/wanting by experiencing a particular situation, I should inquire into the thought of separation, and see if it’s true.

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6. Transcendental State

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The mind is an interface through which the Self interacts with itself in the form of gross elements.

The mind is capable of a wide variety of states; from the gross feelings related to the physical body to the very blissful states of Samadhis. All states are in the mind, and they change because they are in the dream of duality (Maya).

The Self is non-dual. It is out of time and does not change. It is the one that witnesses the different states of mind.

When a mind reaches a state far removed from the gross level, and closer to the Self, it is capable of reflecting the Self so purely that an intense bliss is experienced. At such times, its easy to mistake enlightenment for a state of never ending experiential bliss.

Experience belongs neither to the Self, nor to the mind. Experience happens when Awareness shines on the mind.

The reason it’s important to differentiate between the Self and pure states of mind is because it’s easy to get attached to these blissful mystical states. Attachment to bliss is a problem because the mind, the instrument of experience keeps on changing. You can’t control your mental state because the factors that govern it are beyond your control.

So enlightenment is not a transcendental state, a higher state, an altered state, a “fourth state” (Turiya) or any other kind of state. It is simply the hard and fast knowledge that “I am whole, complete, ordinary, unchanging Awareness”.

The Self cannot be directly experienced as an object because it is subtler that the mind, the means of my perception.

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7. Enlightenment as Eternal Bliss

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When an average person experiences the non-dual state of a Samadhi for the first time, the experience is a very positive one. When the blissful state ends – as all states of mind do – agitation and dullness once again enter the mind.

The feeling of peace and bliss is brought about because of the absence of suffering, and not because it belongs to Awareness. When you’ve had a toothache for some time, and the tooth is extracted, the absence of pain is what feels good, not the tooth extraction.

Enlightenment does not feel like anything. It is just the hard and fast knowledge that “I am limitless Awareness”. When this knowledge is firm, it does not produce a permanently blissful mind.

However this knowledge produces a sense of rock solid confidence in the person. The person knows that henceforth they can handle any situation in life.

A more or less constant state of feel good happiness is also possible by the consistent application of Self-Knowledge and the practice of Yogas discussed later in the course.

All experiences of bliss, whether it be sensory bliss, or the bliss of love, or the bliss of meditation, is just pure limitless Awareness reflecting in the body-mind. The bliss belongs neither to the Self nor to the body-mind; it belongs to the relationship between them.

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8. Fulfillment of All Desires

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Many who pursue the spiritual path, pursue it with the notion that enlightenment will make it possible for them to fulfill all their desires. If this idea exists in some small corner of your mind, if would be best to get rid of it. Enlightenment does not mean fulfillment of all your desires.

In the last sub-module, we made it clear that Enlightenment is not an experience. Enlightenment will not lead to some special experience in Samsara.

This is not mean to discourage you, but to remove false expectations which can hinder Self-Inquiry.

Unexamined experience keeps us stuck in Samsara. Experience backed by Self-Inquiry through a proven means of knowledge like Vedanta can lead us out of Samsara.

Although enlightenment is not experiential it does vastly improve one’s experience. On an absolute level what you experience after you know you’re Awareness is no different that what you experienced before.

Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water.

Zen Saying

What does change is your interpretation of experience. After Self-Realization, your likes and dislikes (Raga-Dvesha) no longer interpret your experience. You start to interpret experience from the point of view of the Self.

Interpreting experience from the point of view of the Self allows you to still enjoy pleasant experiences, and also to appreciate unpleasant experiences.

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This sub-module has presented different modern spiritual teachings and approaches to enlightenment. Our explanation of these teachings is based on the Vedantic view of non-dual reality and we encourage you to make you own conclusions through your own inquiry.

All these modern practices do have some value in preparing a student’s mind. A qualified mind is a prerequisite for Self Inquiry; to understand and assimilate Self-Knowledge. But to gain this knowledge, and to understand the nature of reality, the spiritual seeker must rely on Vedanta.