Asking someone to describe an enlightened state can conjure up visions of idealistic paradises and conversations with all-knowing entities. Others may react to the request with skepticism and refute the very idea as being mystical, mythical or both. These unfortunately common outlooks are likely fueled by the way enlightenment has been portrayed in the media. The truth, as usual, is much more complicated.
Before we go any further, I’m going to ask that you drop any preconceived notions you may have about enlightenment. Pretend you’ve never heard of the term before, just to be safe. It’s not that I don’t trust your judgement or that I think my interpretation is better than any others, I just think it’s easier to follow when starting from a clean slate.
In its basic academic form, the term enlightenment means to gain understanding. An entire era of Western cultural history is referred to by the term due to the many leaps in intellectual comprehension that occurred during the period. This kind of enlightenment is not the type we are usually referring to when we discuss it as a state of mind, but the ideas are closely related.
The state of enlightenment is perhaps best described as a timeless moment supported by the pure and complete understanding of reality as a whole. That’s a pretty big picture to paint, so we’ll try to break it down into four elements that might be more relatable: timelessness, being in the moment, comprehension and an increased focus on the whole.
The timeless nature of the enlightened state is a necessity, because it eliminates the influence of our notions of the past and future. Memories and predictions cannot be used to connect with the parts of reality that exist outside of our own psychological experiences, and so they become a serious barrier to the experience of enlightenment. Methods like mindful meditation are designed to help us overcome the impact of time on our present perceptions.
Enlightenment is a momentary experience for a couple of reasons. As mentioned above, the necessity of timelessness forces us into the present, where we experience a continuous but dynamic moment rather than continuing to perceive existence as a timeline with before and after designations. The second reason that the state is momentary, and this is a rather important one, is that we are not physically capable of interacting with our “usual” reality when engaged with enlightenment. We can retain an enlightened outlook in our day to day lives, and indeed that should be our goal, but interacting with reality via the enlightened state is a dissociative experience. Hence the trance-like behaviors of monks in deep meditation and practitioners of similar techniques, like intense ritualistic prayer in some religions.
Gaining a pure and complete understanding of anything sounds like an impossible task, but we’re not talking about the accumulation of knowledge here. Enlightenment isn’t something that is achieved by cramming a bunch of information into your brain, though some obviously helps (otherwise there would be no point in my writing this). The most vital information provides us with succinct guidelines about how to interpret things in a pure and complete manner, rather than a giant list of prejudged items. It’s all about quality over quantity.
Some of the better sources of guidelines for the attainment of an enlightened state include philosophical contemplations, Buddhist literature and scientific studies. The first two may seem like more intuitive choices, but I have come to find that some of the most enlightening personal discoveries can be made with help from the supposedly impersonal scientific world. In retrospect it makes total sense. Biology, chemistry and especially physics (just wait until we get into the quantum stuff) are just a few of the fields that help us to understand the nature of our everyday realities.
A serious problem occurs when people insist on applying the scientific method to non-scientific matters. The method contains a number of rules, but the most important take-away for our purposes is that science can only be used to study things that are repeatable and observable by any able bodied person (with access to any needed equipment). For some reason it is commonly misinterpreted that the only “real” things are those that you can study scientifically.
Psychology provides a good middle-ground because it utilizes the traditional scientific method while making allowances for mental constructs that cannot be directly observed by others. It definitely helped me transition to a more open perspective and could do the same for you. The field also provides us with a good way to explain another characteristic of the enlightened state. Gestalt psychology is a theoretical perspective that focuses on the entirety of a target to be studied, rather than the parts. A popular saying in gestalt theory (that is often misquoted) is that the whole is different (not greater) than the sum of its parts. This is exactly how we must approach the journey to enlightenment.
The enlightened state can be understood as a gestalt experience. Unfortunately, the trouble with describing anything in the gestalt format is that, by definition, you can’t just list its components and expect to comprehend the concept as a whole. This actually fits pretty well with the idea that a person is incapable of describing the experience of an enlightened state, which is held by more than a few scholars. Of course, I’ll still give it a shot.
As best as I can describe it (I’m not claiming that I’ve achieved enlightenment, I’m just saying that this is the best I can explain it based on I’ve learned about it), the enlightened state is one of complete contentment, comprehension and belonging. It’s like the walls between your mind and the rest of the universe fall away, allowing you to simultaneously experience and understand the interdependent nature of reality. The concept of separation completely vanishes and the “meaning” of existence manifests as an intuition that is heavily felt but may never really be explained.
I’ll be the first to admit that the information I’ve provided here is vastly oversimplified. This is simply the nature of the topic. It would take a library worth of books to cover the various interpretations of enlightenment, and even then it may be true that the only way to comprehend it is to experience the enlightened state yourself. The complexity of the topic may be daunting, but I strongly feel that this is a journey worth taking, if for no other reason than that it presents the opportunity to experience mindfulness in its most potent form.