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Enlightenment

Realization is nothing to be gained anew....Realization consists of getting rid of the false idea that one is not realized.

--Ramana Maharshi

That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.

--Huang Po

This is the one and only race you will win by going absolutely nowhere!

--Mooji


If you need time to achieve something, it must be false. The real is always with you; you need not wait to be what you are. Only you must not allow your mind to go out of yourself in search.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj


No matter how much we keep looking for liberation, for enlightenment, we will never find it as long as we are going somewhere to find it, because actually it is here. Life is enlightenment. Life is the sacredness. Life is emptiness and emptiness is life...Manifested is in the unmanifested and unmanifested is in the manifested. This is the great unity.

--Anam Thubten

Enlightenment is devastatingly simple....Enlightenment is what we are. There is nothing to gain, only its recognition....Awakening to enlightenment is a journey from here to here, not from here to there. There is nowhere to go and nothing to be attained. Enlightenment is simply an awakening to what has always been the case. There is only the seeing through of our own ignorance.

--Gary Crowley

You are already enlightened, but you can never conceptually know what enlightenment is because when you think of it you create a gap between yourself and enlightenment.

--Dainin Katagiri

Enlightenment? How lethal it is to attach a label. Then you become somebody. At the moment of labeling, aliveness freezes into a concept. ‘My enlightenment experience!’ To be alive, fully alive, means flowing without hindrance—a vulnerable flow of aliveness with no resistance. Without any sense of passing time. Without needing to think about ‘myself’—what I am, what I will be. Our experience mongering is a form of resistance in time. Our craving for experiences is a resistance to simply being here, now. It’s the hum of the airplane. The fog. The wind blowing gently, the rain dripping, breathing, humming, pulsating, opening, closing, nothing at all…It’s such a relief to realize we don’t have to be anything.

--Toni Packer

Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.

--Dogen

The discovery of truth is in the discernment of the false. You can know what is not. What is -- you can only be.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something.

--Charlotte Joko Beck

There is no 'I' to get enlightened. That’s illusion. There’s only being here with what’s here without division.

--Toni Packer

Enlightenment isn’t much more than remembering something long forgotten that’s been with you all along….And while it’s been said that after moments of ecstasy there will still be laundry to do, this is not true about enlightenment. This is because there is no ‘after enlightenment.’ Enlightenment lies beyond any idea of time. Any temporal notions we have about enlightenment come from our dualistic understanding. Like everything else that we can name or describe or conceptualize, [ecstatic moments and blissful states] don’t last…Something else takes place with enlightenment, however, that’s got nothing to do with ecstasy, and from which you don’t emerge. This is because what is finally realized is that there was no ‘you’ to go into enlightenment in the first place…If there’s some particular thing you can name, pick up, single out, or point to, it’s not enlightenment…It’s not true liberation or freedom of mind….Whatever it is, if it’s separated out from the Whole, it will wither and die…We think there is a particular, enduring person here, and then we wonder, ‘Is this person enlightened?’ or ‘Will I ever become enlightened?’ But there is no particular person who becomes enlightened—or who remains deluded. All such questions are off the mark…in each moment, all is fresh and new…

--Steve Hagen

There is no such thing as an awakened person; that’s a contradiction in terms…So let’s say there is just being and ‘me’-ing…If those so-called enlightened people were honest, they would probably say to you that…there can still be a contraction into ‘me’-ing, but the final liberation is that anything is accepted and everything is accepted; nothing is denied. So both are now seen as one…There is being, but contraction can happen. It happens within the perception of the whole. Anything can happen because this is liberation…Liberation includes the total acceptance of all that is….There's nowhere to go. There's no goal. There's no carrot. There's no prize. All there is is this. But the difference between there just being what's happening and the sense that it's happening to you is immeasurable.

--Tony Parsons

Awakening doesn’t mean that you awaken. It means that there is only awakening. There is no you who is awake, there is only awakeness. As long as you identify with a ‘you’ who either is or is not awake, you are still dreaming. Awakening is awakening from the dream of a separate you to simply Being Awakeness….The word enlightenment points to who you are. Who you are is not a state that can be gained or lost. It is not a spiritual experience. All states and experiences come and go. Who you are is the permanence existing right now regardless of states and experiences.

--Adyashanti

Whatever happens, there is only Being. You can't put a foot wrong, because nothing and no one is going anywhere. 'You' are not a character on a journey to self-realisation. It's all a play of appearances.

--Nathan Gill

The Self is ever realized, and whoever claims to be realized for sure is a bogus fraud....Whatever needs change is a thought, an idea, a phantom...Even though you're full of desire to improve or change, really see that there is not now, nor will there ever be, a way out of what you are. You can never become what you already are! The next sip of coffee is not worth less than the highest experience of enlightenment.

--Karl Renz

The hope for spiritual enlightenment is usually the hope of avoiding what we are, the hope of avoiding the pains and confusions of existence, but enlightenment is the realization we can't avoid them.

--Darryl Bailey


Being nailed to a cross just isn’t a whole lot of fun no matter how much enlightenment there is.

--Joan Tollfson


Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed; after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. You don't make a goal out of relaxation and sensitivity. Have you ever heard of people who get tense trying to relax? If one is tense, one simply observes one's tension. You will never understand yourself if you seek to change yourself. The harder you try to change yourself the worse it gets.

--Anthony deMello

There is absolutely nothing real in the way. What appears to be in the way is that you imagine yourself on the way somewhere.

--Scott Morrison

Spiritual awakening doesn't require a new experience; it's simply seeing clearly what's already happening.

--Darryl Bailey

Enlightenment is not like a sudden realization of something mysterious. Enlightenment is nothing but awakening from illusions and returning to the reality of life.

--Uchiyama

Awakening in its essence is simply being here.

--Jon Bernie

Enlightenment is not a goal to achieve or an idea to grasp. It is the timeless presence that you already are.

--Scott Kiloby

Maybe we have some big spiritual experience, maybe we dissolve and merge into the One, maybe our consciousness expands infinitely across the universe and beyond, maybe we have a kundalini light show. Each time the tendency is to think, ‘This is it.’ Of course, truth is that which does not come (which should have been a big clue—it only took me fifteen years to catch on) and does not go. All of those experiences came, had a life span, and went away. The tendency of mind is to think, ‘If I could just grasp on to that experience, extend it infinitely through time, then that must be what enlightenment is.’ Of course, the truth is so compassionately ruthless it keeps saying, ‘No, no, no my dear, that’s not it.’

--Adyashanti

Enlightenment is not something removed from you, a particular thing you have to get. It’s not something to get an idea of or to figure out. In fact, it can’t be figured out. Nor is enlightenment something hard to experience. You’re experiencing it right now, though you may be ignoring the experience.

--Steve Hagen

To conceive realization as an event in time is an obstacle to enlightenment.

--Francis Lucille

Awakening is simply the direct perception of reality without any filters getting in the way — no projections, no beliefs, no interpretations. Even the one that perceives drops away. So there’s just perception, just awakeness; just aliveness…Awakening is the process of recognizing that reality, over and over and over again. So awakening is not a one-time discovery, but rather an endless re-discovery — a continual deepening into this radiant aliveness that we are, and always have been.

--Jon Bernie

Truth or reality cannot be stored, cannot be amassed - it does not accumulate. The value of any insight, understanding, or realisation can only be in the ever-fresh presence of the moment. Yesterday's realisation is not a bit of good – it is dead, it has lost its vitality. It is useless to try and cling to or hold onto an insight, understanding, or realisation, for only in its movement can ever-fresh and new insights of truth or reality appear. The idea of enlightenment or self-realisation as a onetime event or a lasting and permanent state or experience is an erroneous concept. Understand-ING or know-ING is alive in the immediacy which can never be negated. The emphasis is on the activity of know-ING which is going on as the immediacy now - not the dead concept I understand or I know.

--Sailor Bob Adamson

Waking up is a continuing process. No one wakes up once and for all. There is no limit to wakefulness, just as there is no limit to aliveness....The surprise within the surprise of every new discovery is that there is ever more to be discovered.

--Brother David Steindl-Rast


There is an eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death. Many people use the word God to describe it; I often call it Being....To regain awareness of Being and to abide in that state of 'feeling-realization' is enlightenment.

--Eckhart Tolle

Enlightenment, liberation, is totally, utterly ordinary. It is not wonderful. It's not blissful, it is not the answer to everything. Life goes on. It goes on just as it did before. But the difference in liberation is the dropping away of any sense that there is anyone that life is happening to.

--Tony Parsons


There is no reaching the Self.  If the Self were to be reached, it would mean that the Self is not here and now, but that it has yet to be obtained. What is got afresh will also be lost….You
are the Self; you are already That.

--Ramana Maharshi

I truly attained nothing from complete, unexcelled Enlightenment.

--The Buddha

Many people who come to this website are searching for an awakening or trying hard to become enlightened. Stories abound about who is and isn't awake and how so-and-so went from being an ordinary person to being no self at all. We love to imagine that "enlightenment" or "awakening" is some magical event that will permanently erase all our problems and leave us forever after living in a state of bliss. We love to believe in the mythology of Perfect People.

If we believe that someone else is enlightened, will we then believe that anything and everything that person says is true? Are we looking for an authority figure who can give us all the right answers…or a Magical Guru who will gaze into our eyes, zap us energetically, and leave us utterly transformed…or maybe some Divine Parent figure who will love us unconditionally? What are we really looking for? And what do we imagine will happen to us or change in us so that we can finally know with confidence and certainty that we have reached the goal, that we are now enlightened?

Is enlightenment a destination or an acquisition?  Is it a special state of consciousness? Is it some secret knowledge about how the universe works? What is it?

It's very helpful to remember that “enlightenment” and “awakening” are both words. They are sounds, vibrations, symbols that get used in many different ways. Some say enlightenment is the absence of suffering, some say it is the absence of non-functional thinking, some say it is the end of identification with the thinking mind, some say it is the death of the ego or the dissolution of the separate self, some say it is the absence of any sense of agency or the falling away of the belief that we are the author of the thoughts and actions that arise. Some say it is the realization of Oneness, others describe it as the merging of difference and unity. Some compare enlightenment to lucid dreaming in the waking state and say that it is the abiding realization that all of consciousness is a dream-like appearance, including the entire movie of waking life and the whole spiritual search and the one who is searching. Some say enlightenment or awakening is an energetic shift, some call it a felt-sense, others say it is about seeing clearly, some describe it as an understanding or an apperception, some say it is the embodiment or actualization of the truth, others insist it is always already the case and is never not here.  

Some imagine enlightenment to be a state of perpetual bliss, while others say it includes and transcends every state. Some insist that awakening manifests only as “positive” or saintly behavior, while others insist you can be enlightened and still be an alcoholic, a womanizer, an embezzler, someone prone to angry outbursts, or even a child molester.  Some say enlightenment happens suddenly and irrevocably at a particular time on a particular day—that it is a permanent, decisive, final shift. Others describe it as a gradual unfolding, like a photograph slowly appearing in the developing tray, or like getting gradually wet while walking in a mist, or like a puddle slowly evaporating or an ice cube gradually melting until nothing is left. Some say that enlightenment comes and goes, others insist that it only happens Now, and some say that nothing ever happens and there is no such "thing" as enlightenment. Some distinguish between “enlightenment,” “awakening,” “liberation,” “kensho,” “satori,” “mukti,” and host of other terms, while others use all these words more or less synonymously and interchangeably. Who has it right? Who is really enlightened and how do we know? 

Are there “enlightened people” whose every moment is entirely free from suffering, or from delusion, or from the sense of separation and encapsulation, or from the sense of agency and authorship, or from all egoic thoughts and behaviors? Are there “unenlightened people” whose every moment is totally consumed by these delusions and sufferings? Or is this very idea of “enlightened people” and “unenlightened people” (or of solid, discrete, persisting “people” of any kind) perhaps an example of unenlightened (or deluded) thinking? Who (or what) is it, exactly, that would be enlightened or unenlightened?

We talk glibly about enlightenment without really knowing what we're even talking about. We seek it without ever stopping to really examine closely what it is we think we're seeking. Could the sense that something is lacking here and now, and the notion that there is somebody who needs to be transformed, be the very illusions that awakening wakes up from?

I would not say that I am enlightened, nor would I say that I am not enlightened.  I don't find any solid, persisting, independent entity here to be one way or the other. Here / Now is ever-present and all-inclusive. Sometimes there are clear skies and sometimes it is cloudy and overcast. Sometimes there is the movie of waking life and sometimes there is the nothingness of deep sleep. There is no owner of these various experiences – none of them are personal – all of them come and go. Boundless unicity includes both enlightenment and delusion. Enlightenment sees unicity; delusion imagines separation. Enlightenment sees unicity even in delusion. Delusion is always seeking enlightenment. Delusion imagines that enlightenment is “out there” somewhere in the future. Enlightenment recognizes that there is only now.

Thinking in terms of “permanently enlightened people” just might be the biggest and most widespread delusion. Enlightenment might be described as the falling away of this entire misconception, leaving only what is always already Here / Now. And this is not a personal achievement, for it is the recognition that no such owner or author of experience actually exists.

The whole subject of enlightenment is very tricky because it signifies both a shift and no shift at all (the gateless gate). Clearly, many shifts in perception and many different states of consciousness are possible. The sun comes out on a cloudy day, you drink a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, you make love with someone, you stand before the ocean, you sit in silence for seven days, your child dies in a car crash, you go through menopause – endless shifts and endlessly different states. Is there something that remains the same in every state, like the ocean in every wave? Some might say that enlightenment is the realization that all these shifts and ever-changing experiences are the movement of One Life, that they have no owner, that they are all equally empty of substance, solidity, permanence, inherent reality or enduring form. And importantly, this realization isn't "something" that "somebody" attains at a certain moment in time and then "has" forever after. It is the falling away right NOW (not yesterday or someday or forever after) of that very illusion of "something" and "somebody" and "forever after." It is a recognition of the timeless eternity Here / Now, the stateless state, the placeless place, the boundless and seamless Totality that belongs to no one.

This Totality is equally present in the expanded and impersonal experience of spacious openness and in the contracted experience of apparently being a separate person. There is no way to avoid unicity, for it is all there is, and it is always 100% present and 100% fully realized Here / Now. Even the denial of it is nothing other than this same Totality showing up as denial. But it often seems that there is "me" trapped in delusion, in need of liberation, and it is this "divine hypnosis" (as one teacher aptly calls it) that prompts the search for enlightenment. Enlightenment is simply the recognition that the problem and the one who seems to have it are both imaginary.

But the very concept of enlightenment is dangerous. It can seem like something: a permanent state of consciousness, a finish-line that we cross, a personal attainment--and what it truly points to is nothing of the sort.

All experiences, including any experience of awakening or enlightenment, are all within the dream-like appearance, the movie of waking life. Within the context of the dream, relatively speaking, we can certainly say that Ramana Maharshi was an enlightened sage and that Adolph Hitler was a deluded madman. But enlightenment sees Ramana and Hitler as two sides of a single coin, different in appearance but inseparable and completely interdependent. Enlightenment is not about “me” getting from one side of the imaginary coin to the other side and then staying there forever. That is delusion. Enlightenment is not some kind of personal perfection, but rather, enlightenment is the absence of the one who cares about being enlightened.

Enlightenment can appear gradual or sudden only in the story, where it seems (in retrospect) that awakening was either a shift that unfolded slowly over time or else a sudden and decisive event with a totally different before and after. But neither of these imaginations really captures that to which words such as “enlightenment” or “awakening” are pointing.

There is no “someone” who is evaporating or disappearing or getting clearer, no "someone" who is enlightened or not enlightened – this “someone” is always only a mirage – an optical illusion produced by thoughts, sensations, memory and imagination. No separate, persisting "someone" ever really forms to be enlightened or unenlightened or to evaporate or transform. And in that realization, the shifting experiences in the movie of waking life no longer seem personally owned. The search for enlightenment falls away. There is simply life as it is, the ever-changing, ever-present reality of Here / Now.

When we're no longer seeking something else, the aliveness and depth of the present moment becomes more vivid and more obvious: the sounds of rain and traffic, the rise and fall of breathing, the smell of coffee, the gratuitous beauty of a flower, the horror and sorrow of a bombing attack, the thoughts and stories that appear and disappear, the awareness beholding it all. We realize that the thought-sense-story of separation and encapsulation is only another momentary face of emptiness. No one is actually trapped in delusion, and delusion has no real substance or inherent reality.

When the mirage of being a separate somebody encapsulated in a bodymind seems real, we long for a way out. But the one who seems to be trapped is always only a mirage. The manifestation will always include both light and dark, expansion and contraction. They go together. In struggling to escape from suffering and delusion, we confirm the apparent reality of both the imaginary problem and the one who seems to have this problem. The popular notion that there are “permanently enlightened people” who are totally beyond all suffering and delusion only fuels the imaginary treadmill of dissatisfaction and seeking. This ever-present, ever-changing, boundlessness is not something that “I” can possess or experience or lack. Boundlessness is the openness that includes contraction, the wholeness that includes division, the oneness that includes multiplicity, the absolute that includes the relative, the seamless totality that includes the sense of being a separate person, the enlightenment that includes delusion.

There's a well-known old Zen story about the pathless path to enlightenment. It says that before I took up Zen, there were mountains and valleys. And then after I began the practice of Zen, there were no mountains and no valleys. And then with enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys.

The first “stage” is ordinary relative consciousness – the world as we think it is, a collection of separate things, including “me” who is “in here” looking out an external world “out there.”

The second “stage” of no mountains and valleys is the discovery that there is no actual boundary between “in here” and “out there,” that everything is one inseparable and seamless whole, that there is no “me.” This is the realization of what is the same in every different experience. It is the discovery of the Absolute, the ever-present, the ever-changing. But this is still not enlightenment, although it is often mistaken for enlightenment.

But in clinging to the absolute, there is still a subtle dualism. With true enlightenment, there are mountains and valleys again. Good and evil are aspects of one inseparable whole and we can discern a difference between them. There is only the timeless, ever-present Now and there is history, evolution, and planning for the future. I am boundless awareness and I am Joan. Both sides of the coin are true. Zen masters have called this "leaping clear of the many and the One" or “the merging of difference and unity.” It is clearly seen that mountains and valleys are “not one, not two.”  There is no need to grasp life with a concept, and in fact, it is realized that life is ungraspable. There is no longer a need to push away the experience of being Joan or to make sure that “I” am continually identified as “impersonal awareness” and not as the character in the story. There is no separate “I” to be identified as either one, for the True “I” beholds it all without separation.

Many teachers are in love with the story that they are enlightened, and they love to tell the story again and again. We hear about their walk across the park or the magical moment in their kitchen when their self dropped away forever. Enlightenment is portrayed as a personal experience, an achievement, a permanent state. But any such experience or achievement is only a moment in a dream. Yes, in the dream-like movie of waking life, some characters do report sudden and dramatic transformations, and some characters are exceptionally clear and free of delusion, but there is no one to be permanently enlightened or permanently deluded. There is no one who is a caterpillar in one moment and then a butterfly in the next. There is no caterpillar and no butterfly. There is only unbroken unicity from which nothing stands apart. A true teacher will not be encouraging you to idolize or idealize them, but rather, they will be deflecting all your attempts to make them special and put them up on pedestals. A true teacher pulls every rug you try to stand on out from under you -- they don't keep handing you more and more rugs. Enlightenment has no beginning and no ending. It is not a state you enter or leave. There is no finish line in waking up. It is always Now. And there is no end to this unfolding discovery and Self-realization.

Even after the thought-sense of separation, solidification or individual agency has dissolved, it can reappear. Even after the rope is clearly seen to be a rope and not a snake, it can—in another moment—be mistaken again for a snake, and when that happens, the body responds automatically with fear, contraction and recoil. The snake is never real, but it can momentarily seem real, just as the separate “I” is never real but can momentarily seem real. Does there come a time when this mistake has been so fully exposed that it can never again occur in any way, ever? For whom does this question and this concern arise? Is there someone who makes this mistake and who longs to stop being a fool? Isn’t it only from the perspective of the mirage-like "me" that it seems to matter whether or not "I" mistake a rope for a snake? We don't know what the next moment may bring. In any given moment, the mirage of separation may occur. But what can perhaps fall away is the need for this never to happen again.

If boundlessness is momentarily forgotten and overlaid with a sense of “me” as a separate somebody, who cares? Who is not enlightened? Find this one!

There are certainly many characters in the movie of waking life who experience or manifest more or less stormy weather – more or less anger, more or less depression, more or less compulsive behavior, more or less upset. Such differences may have little to do with enlightenment and everything to do with genetics, neurochemistry, brain function, hormone levels, and conditioning. Some bodyminds have stormier weather just as some cities have stormier weather. It's not personal. When I look for where this person called “Joan Tollifson” begins and ends, I find no beginning and no ending. When I try to grasp or pin down this “person,” I find only continuous change. So what exactly is this supposed entity who would be enlightened or unenlightened?

Sometimes teachers speak as boundless unicity, the One Self, the impersonal presence to which we all refer when we say "I am," and sometimes teachers speak as apparent individuals. When Ramana was dying, he told his followers, "I am always here, where could I go?" He wasn't speaking as the apparent individual, who was obviously dying, but rather as the One Self that is ever-present. Sometimes when a teacher says "I," they refer to this One Self. Other times when a teacher says "I," they refer to the person. "I" as unicity have no problem with anything, but "I" as Joan have opinions and preferences about all kinds of things. Needless to say, using the word "I" in these different ways can easily create confusion and misunderstanding. A teacher, speaking as unicity, will say something like, “I am always awake,” or they will say that “enlightenment is permanent,” pointing to boundlessness, the ever-present Here / Now that never comes or goes. But such statements are easily misunderstood to mean that the teacher as a person is always in some special expanded state of consciousness, or that the person is completely and permanently beyond delusion.

In the dream-like movie of waking life, Joan is no longer seeking enlightenment, but there seems to be a natural interest here in clarifying confusion, seeing through delusion, and being awake. There is no longer the sense that “being aware” or “being in the Now” is some task that "I" must do. It's very clear that all experiences and states of consciousness, by their very nature, come and go. A sense of separation can still arise—being angry, defensive, worried or hurt. That kind of self-contraction can certainly still arise. It happens out of infinite causes and conditions. It isn't personal even when it sometimes feels like it is. A natural interest in seeing through this self-contraction also seems to arise here, and that inquiry and exploration can take various forms. All of that also happens out of infinite causes and conditions. No one is doing any of it. There is no owner, no author, no separate and persisting somebody to whom all of this is happening or not happening—not because "enlightened people" have transcended or eliminated all of that, but because all of that never existed in the first place! The separate self is never anything but a mirage. Life is one whole undivided movement.  

Being enlightened is not about being perfect and special and having all the answers. It is about recognizing the perfection in imperfection and abiding in the cluelessness that is our true nature. The only reality is Here / Now, the infinite present moment. There is no end to this boundlessness, and no end to this unfolding Self-realization.

Rather than trying to figure out if you are enlightened or if someone else is enlightened, rather than idealizing people or putting them up on pedestals and turning them into infallible authorities, rather than trying to duplicate anyone else's supposed enlightenment experience, I would suggest investigating what it is you are looking for, and whether it is actually absent here and now, and who or what would find it, possess it or lack it. You may find that nothing is missing, nothing is broken, nothing is needed. There is simply this, as it is.

And if you find yourself feeling a sense of discomfort, lack or unease, perhaps in that moment, you might ask yourself, is this sense of discomfort, lack or unease really a problem? Is anything really broken? And if you are about to reach for something to fill up the emptiness, perhaps in that moment, the question will arise, what am I seeking? And where and when do I expect to find it?

Enlightenment is now or never.

----copyright Joan Tollifson 2011, 2013----

You are welcome to link to this article or to quote brief passages as fair use, but if you wish to re-post whole articles or long excerpts from this web site on other sites or blogs, please give appropriate copyright credit to Joan and be sure to include a link to this website with your posting. Thank you!

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