1. Enlightenment is a long journey that takes many years, decades, or even lifetimes to achieve.
Enlightenment is realizing that what you are, have always been, and in fact cannot help but be is pure Consciousness. That you are not the “self-image” you have of yourself, nor your thoughts or even your body. Rather, your original nature, your unconditioned essence, is timeless Awareness.
Because it’s fully what you already are, you cannot “do” anything to get there. Thus, the journey to enlightenment is one of no distance. An analogy would be: How far does the ocean need to go to find water? The answer is no distance. It just needs to clearly recognize what it already is.
The reason it is so challenging to awaken to our original infinite nature is because we have been told/conditioned since birth that we are our body and/or the image we have of ourselves in our mind, i.e., our “self-image.” We are not. What are we? We are THAT which silently observes or is AWARE of everything we experience. This includes all thoughts, feelings, sensations, images and perceptions that arise within, as well as “the outside world” (in fact, we could say that we are not in the world, the world is in us!). For example, how do you know you have a body? You know because you are aware of it. How do you know you have thoughts? You know because you are aware of them. Simply put, your nature is AWARENESS itself.
2. I will be enlightened as soon as I learn how to stop my thoughts.
This is a common misconception. The reality is that you don’t need for your thoughts to stop to awaken; you just need to stop identifying with them. But this is not so easy because most of us have spent a lifetime doing just that. The key is to observe them; to silently watch them. Get some space between you and the arising thought and notice that you are present before the thought, during the thought, and after the thought, so the thought cannot be you. In fact, are you not fully present even when no thought is arising?
3. Enlightenment means I will be free of the ego.
The ego is necessary for the body’s survival and is what tells us when to run from danger or defend ourselves. However, although we rarely find ourselves in actual physical life or death situations, the ego approaches our psychological disturbances with this same fight or flight response. If someone insults us or cuts us off in traffic, the ego kicks in and feels threatened.
The key is to see that we are not our ego. By observing it as it gets triggered we can start to get some space between us and it. The more space, the less pull it has over us. Pretty soon the ego begins to feel like a spoiled child who is always whining and complaining because it wants what it wants when it wants it. The ego’s mantra is, “Me, me, me!”
Rather than get angry at “the child,” we can begin to love it and assure it that it’s safe. By not taking our ego so seriously, we literally begin to lighten up. Again, no need to get rid of the ego—clearly seeing it is not you is enough.
4. Once I am enlightened my life will be free of problems.
When one is awakened, it’s not that only “positive” things come your way, rather it’s that you stop labeling things as positive or negative because all is seen as Life unfolding exactly however it unfolds. You realize you are not in control of Life, Life is; and you are not separate from Life. (Even if we feel separate, that doesn’t make it so. A wave can feel separate from the ocean all it wants; that doesn’t make it so.) And so you learn to trust Life fully and completely. You learn to “go with the flow” and enjoy the journey. A roller coaster has both UPS and DOWNS. You cannot have a roller coaster with only UPS!
As you get older you realize that Life goes by very quickly, and so the urge to whine and complain about every little thing suddenly becomes a waste of energy—energy that you no longer take for granted.
Remember, everyone is a good captain when the seas are calm… so let us not shy away from storms. We can view a storm as an insurmountable problem or as a challenge to go deeper and find out what we are truly made of. As the saying goes, ships were not designed to stay in the harbor. Regardless of the outcome of the situation, you will learn something about yourself that you didn’t know. And when you awaken, you realize that what you are at your core can never be harmed. As the Bhagavad Gita says regarding your true nature:
“A sword cannot cut It, nor can fire burn It; water cannot wet It, nor can wind dry It.”
5. I will know that I am enlightened because I will be in Bliss 24/7.
While bliss or supreme happiness is wonderful experience, like all experiences it will come and go. The idea that being enlightened means being blissed-out all the time is simply not true. To be awakened means to be fully authentic with the present moment, HOWEVER it appears.
Because the enlightened being is not living in the past or future, they fully embrace whatever thoughts, feelings, sensations or emotions are presently arising. So, for example, if they see an animal being abused by a human, they may indeed cry at seeing such an unconscious act. What we discover is that what we are is the SPACE for whatever experience is presently happening.
It’s important to realize that you cannot locate Consciousness, you can only BE it. Just like an eye can see everything but itself, whatever Consciousness is aware of is not IT. For the moment you say “this” is Consciousness, you then have to ask, what is aware of this? See the dilemma?
And so in Advaita Vedanta the Sanskrit term, “neti neti,” meaning “not this, not this” is often used as practice to finding your way back home. For example, you would look at a tree and ask, “Am I the tree or what is aware of it?” Since you are aware of the tree you know that you cannot be the tree. And you do this with every object your eyes land on, including your body.
At first the mind will try to say, “But ‘I’ am aware of this!” But then you have to ask, “And what knows or is aware of this ‘I’ that claims to know the tree?” And the mind says, “me!” And you ask, “And what is aware of this “me”? If you keep asking, “And what is aware of this?” to whatever answer the mind comes up with, eventually the mind quiets down as it sees that it has run out of answers. And so, you end up in silence.
The key is you have to actually do this exercise so that the understanding goes from being intellectual to experiential. It is known not by believing what someone else says, but is confirmed by your own direct experience. And you keep doing it over and over until it becomes obvious that whatever you are aware of cannot be you. And suddenly, it can dawn on you that what you have always been looking for is THAT which is looking… and you rest in/as this.