What is Enlightenment?
The Buddha wasn't a God or a saint. He was a man called Siddhartha Gautama, who realized awakening, or enlightenment, through meditation. The word 'Buddha' simply means 'The Awakened One'.
To become awakened means to attain freedom from suffering by completely letting go of desires, craving and attachment. Many people have experienced this, and the bliss that comes along with it.
It may only last for a few seconds at a time, but by maintaining a mindfulness meditation practice and living compassionately, this state can become more and more prolonged and after years of practice, it may eventually become your regular state of being.
The Problem of the Ego
The contradiction here is that if we act with the desire of becoming awakened, we are standing in our own way, because what we really need to do is to let go of our desires. If you find yourself getting caught up in your own desires or attachments, focusing on service to others is a good way to quickly let go of them. This is why bringing together mindful awareness and compassionate living helps to set us on the right path.
So what’s standing in our way? We all have an ego, or sense of individual self. This can be a helpful tool for navigating the world we live in, but the trouble is that it has a tendency to take over and we can become slaves to our own desires and attachments. The ego is always looking out for its own interests, and therefore we can spend a lot of our time worrying about the future or obsessing over and defending our own thoughts.
When we live in this state, we feel anxiety, depression and many other negative states of mind. There is a constant underlying feeling of dissatisfaction, or Dukkha, as it is known in Buddhism.
A sense of spirituality can help the ego to dissolve, allowing us to find lasting peace.
The word spirituality is often associated with religion, but it's possible to be spiritual without having a faith or belief in anything supernatural. In fact, a profound sense of spirituality can be attained through admiration of the natural world. Think about that feeling of awe that you get from looking up at the starry night sky, or from gazing out over a vast lake.
We can nurture this sense of spirituality, through practices that take us beyond the ego. Namely, through mindfulness and through living compassionately.
We can drop the ego at any moment, by becoming fully aware of our experience in the present moment. This is what mindfulness is. We can just pay attention to all aspects of our current situation - sounds, smells, sensations, feelings, thoughts and emotions.
When we do this, we’re no longer distracted by thoughts and we can start to feel the peace that comes with being fully present. This is our first little glimpse of enlightenment. It may only last a few seconds, but we can practice meditation, which will help us to feel this more and more in our everyday lives.
This is what Eckhart Tolle refers to in his book, The Power of Now. He says that ‘incessant mental noise prevents you from finding the realm of inner stillness’ and that you can free yourself from your mind, starting with the simple step of becoming the witness of your thoughts and of your experience.
We can also nurture a sense of spirituality and overcome the ego through focusing on our connection with other people and animals. By treating all living beings with compassion, we can grow spiritually - leading happier lives and finding a sense of purpose in the world.
If we find ourselves caught up in our own desires and attachments, we can instead shift our attention to the problems of others. This means that we act selflessly instead of selfishly, and less self equals less ego.
We can implement compassionate living into our everyday lives by always choosing the option of least-suffering. All of our actions have consequences for others, so when we have a choice to make, we should aim to be fully mindful of the consequences and choose the option that causes the least suffering.
Another way to foster compassion is to practice metta (loving kindness) meditation. This involves directing feelings of warmth and good will firstly towards yourself (as Ru Paul would say, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?) Then, you direct warm feelings towards a person that you have neutral feelings for. Lastly, you direct positive feelings towards somebody that you don’t particularly get on with. By practicing this during meditation, it becomes second nature to think and act more compassionately throughout our lives.
Compassionate living naturally goes hand-in-hand with mindfulness as two components of enlightenment. Without compassionate living, our experience of enlightenment is likely to be restricted to brief moments of mindfulness before our ego pulls us back to our selfish wants. By building a life around service to others and choosing ways of living that cause the least amount of suffering, we can stay on the path of enlightenment.
Through the dissolution of the ego and the attainment of enlightenment, many people have come to profound realizations.
One such realization is the interconnectedness of all things. Followers of Advaita Vedanta would refer to this as ‘Brahman is Atman’ (self is God), while scientists might point to the fact that no thing can be considered separately from its environment, so the whole universe could be described as a single organism. Tom Chi explains some ways in which we are all connected, in an easy to grasp way, in his great TedTalk, Everything is Connected.
When realized, this sense of interconnectedness helps to strengthen the sense of enlightenment, as it helps us to become even more mindful of the world around us, as well as making us more empathetic and compassionate towards other living things.