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

Stop thinking of achievement of any kind. You are complete here and now, you need absolutely nothing.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

There is nothing 'beyond' being just this moment...Enlightenment is precisely the thorough abandonment of any notion of enlightenment.

--Zen teacher Barry Magid

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


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

If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where do you expect to find it?


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

You can only reach something in the dream. And what you can reach, you have to lose again. And the loser you can lose, will pop up again….Nothing has to go, nothing has to come. You are still in that idea that something has to change for you to be what-you-are….Inspite of all the happenings, inspite of all the presence and absence, whatever can be or not be, you are That.

--Karl Renz

What you can seek and find is not the real thing. Find what you have never lost, find the inalienable.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

True liberation is being liberated from needing to be liberated... The actuality of this is not some ongoing condition of anything in particular. The only thing that could be accurately described as realization or enlightenment is the discovery that it never departs from itself no matter what state it presents as.

--Peter Brown

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.


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

Enlightenment is a demolition project.


We build these elaborate stories in imagination and then we identify with them, we think we’re IN these stories, and then we think we’re STUCK in those stories. Once you see that all the elements that your story is made of don’t actually exist as objective realities in the way you think they do, then your whole story collapses; and where does that leave you? You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what you are; but then there’s nothing to trap you, and no you to be trapped. THIS is liberation. THIS is enlightenment; simply seeing that there is in actuality nothing that can possibly trap you, and no separable you that could be trapped.

--Peter Brown

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

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

--Toni Packer

If any and all divisions on the Cosmic Screen are only illusory, then how is any individual enlightenment even possible? In other words, what separate being is really ‘there’ to be ‘enlightened’ (or, for that matter, to be un-enlightened) in the first place?

--Chuck Hillig

The freedom that’s discovered isn’t, ‘I have attained enlightenment.’ The freedom is, ‘My God, there is nobody here to be enlightened. Therefore, there is nobody there to be unenlightened.’ That’s the light. Only the concept ‘me’ thinks it needs enlightenment, freedom, liberation, and emancipation….This whole thing has been a fiction.


There is absolutely nothing to attain except the realisation that there is absolutely nothing to attain.

--Tony Parsons

There is no such thing as enlightenment. The appreciation of this fact is itself enlightenment.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

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

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.


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.


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

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

Seeking to duplicate the so-called enlightened condition of other characters in the play is a distraction from your true nature…You are already completely wide awake and aware right now.

--Nathan Gill

With some realization comes imperceptibly, but somehow they need convincing. They have changed, but they do not notice it. Such non-spectacular cases are often the most reliable.

--Nisargadatta Maharaj

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

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 Tollifson

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.’


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

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

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

Enlightenment is simply being awake to this moment, however it is. There is no finish-line in the living reality Here / Now, and there is no beginning and no end to awakening—it is always unfolding now.

--Joan Tollifson

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 or finish-line that will permanently erase all our problems, resolve all our uncertainties, and leave us forever after living in a state of bliss. We love to believe in the mythology of Perfect People, and we want to be an Awakened One. Creating and catering to our curative fantasies and our seemingly bottomless desire for self-improvement has become a major industry, and "the pursuit of happiness" is even enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence as one of our "unalienable rights." We are deeply convinced that we are deficient, that something is lacking, and that what is, is not okay.

We long for an authority who can give us the answers and tell us what to do. If we believe that someone else is enlightened, will we then believe that anything that person says on every imaginable subject is true? Are we looking for 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 finish-line we cross? Is it a special state of consciousness that a person abides in permanently, forever after? Is it some secret knowledge about how the universe works? What is it? And is there even any such thing as an enlightened person?

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?

Could it be that enlightenment is not something we attain or get, but that the word refers more accurately to seeing through or waking up from a number of misunderstandings, such as, "I'm not there yet,” or “This isn't it,” or “So-and-so has it and I don't,” or “I'm a loser," or "Maybe I'll get there tomorrow," or "I had it last year on that retreat, but I lost it," and so on? Perhaps it's these misunderstandings or false ideas and beliefs that get in the way of fully appreciating and enjoying what is, just as it is (including our natural actions to change some of it).

And could it also be that this seeing or waking up happens not once-upon-a-time or once-and-for-all, not in the past or future, but literally only NOW?

Life includes pain and sorrow. Living organisms are vulnerable to pain, disability, illness, misfortune and death. Insecurity and uncertainty are part of life. So whatever enlightenment is, it's not about always being happy and blissful. It’s not being in some permanently spacious state, or having all the answers, or never feeling afraid or sad. So what is it?

It's very helpful to remember that “enlightenment,” “awakening,” “liberation,” “realization,” and so on are all words. They are abstract conceptual symbols that get used in many different ways, and ultimately, they are simply sounds or vibrations or little black squiggles on a page to which meaning is attached. Some say enlightenment 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 say it is groundlessness or nothing to grasp. Some 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 it is an energetic shift, some call it a felt-sense, others describe it as seeing clearly, some say it is an understanding or an apperception, some describe it as the embodiment or actualization or realization (or making real) of certain insights into the nature of reality, and others insist it is always already the case and is never not here. Some say awakening is the first step, the initial popping of the imaginary bubble of encapsulation and separation, and that enlightenment refers to the full and complete, permanent embodiment of what has been realized in this initial awakening. Some define enlightenment entirely in negative terms as the absence of the thought-sense of being a separate self, or the absence of grasping and fixating, or the absence of seeking and resisting, or the absence of fear and desire, or the absence of the belief in free will and choice. Some say enlightenment is the realization that there is no enlightenment and no one to be enlightened, that there is simply present experiencing, as it is, impossible to grasp.

Some imagine enlightenment to be a state of perpetual bliss, while others say it includes and transcends every state. Some argue 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 at a particular moment in time, others insist that it only happens Now, some say that nothing ever happens. Some say enlightenment is a permanent, decisive, final shift from which there is no going back. 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, and that anything that comes will go, while others say that enlightenment points to the permanence that never comes and never goes—the unborn, uncreated, deathless reality. Some insist that enlightenment is the realization that there is no one to get enlightened and 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? 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? 

There are abundant examples of widely revered, apparently deeply realized, enlightened teachers, gurus and sages being addicted to alcohol or other substances, and/or behaving in abusive and harmful ways toward their students or devotees. There has been no shortage of scandals and horror stories. Were these teachers enlightened some of the time but not all of the time? Or can enlightenment include addictive and/or abusive behavior? Or is the abusive or addictive behavior of an enlightened teacher always beneficial, no matter how horrific it may seem? Is it a kind of “crazy wisdom” designed to shake us loose and set us free? A number of these teachers and/or their devotees have tried very hard to sell that explanation. Or is it perhaps not the person (the bodymind) that realizes enlightenment, but rather, that in which body, mind and world appear, and thus the person may continue to manifest old and sometimes harmful conditioning? Or is it simply the case that there is no abiding person to be in any permanently enlightened state “all the time"?  

Thinking in terms of “permanently enlightened people” just might be the biggest and most widespread delusion. It presumes that “a person” is a persisting entity, and that this entity is what "gets" enlightened, and it also presumes the reality of linear time. Enlightenment might be described as the falling away of this entire misconception, leaving only what is always already Here / Now. This is not a personal achievement, for it is the recognition that no such owner or author of experience actually exists. And it does not “last forever” because it is the recognition that there is nothing after (or before) Now. Enlightenment is "for the time-being," as Zen Master Dogen put it. Dogen saw enlightenment not as the goal of practice, but as synonomous with practice, so that practice is simply the expression of enlightenment.

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 (boundless awareness, impersonal presence, present experiencing) is ever-present and all-inclusive. It has no inside or outside. It is all-inclusive. What shows up Here / Now is ever-changing. 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. Even the thought-sense-idea of being a separate individual comes and goes. Boundless unicity includes both enlightenment and delusion. Sometimes this all-inclusive wholeness is the felt-reality and sometimes it seems to be only a memory, a belief or a nice idea. Sometimes the felt-sense is one of separation and conflict.

The whole subject of enlightenment is very tricky because it signifies both a shift and no shift at all (the gateless gate). When enlightenment arrives, it is realized that it was never not here. Nothing actually “arrived.” But at the same time, we cannot deny that there is a difference between being lost in delusion and being awake and living out of that awakeness. So clearly, in one sense, there is shift, but it’s very paradoxical and tricky to talk about because what is realized is never not here.

When we think that we are not enlightened, we usually imagine that enlightenment is something big and flashy—a decisive finish-line that we cross, a huge experience, a permanently blissful and spacious state of consciousness. We’ve all heard so many enlightenment stories, and our tendency is to compare our experiences to these stories and to chase what has been described, or to chase after some experience we had in the past. This is one of the best ways to avoid enlightenment.

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 and experiences. Is there something that is equally present in every different experience, like the ocean (or the water) in every wave? What is aware of all these changing appearances and experiences? Is awareness “something” in particular (some "thing") that can be seen or grasped or parsed out from the changing content? Does enlightenment mean being identified as boundless awareness and not as a person? Or is enlightenment the ability to include it all and to not get stuck in any one view?

Some might say that enlightenment is the recognition of the timeless eternity Here / Now, the stateless state, the placeless place, the boundless and seamless Totality that belongs to no one—the realization that all these shifts and ever-changing experiences are the movement of One living reality, that they have no owner, that they are all equally empty of substance, solidity, permanence, inherent reality or enduring form. They are all appearances in and of consciousness. And importantly, any discussion of what happens "after enlightenment" is as misconceived as talking about what happens "after Now."

Here / Now is equally present in (and as) the expanded and impersonal experience of spacious openness and in (and as) the contracted experience of apparently being a separate person. There is no way to avoid boundless unicity, for it is all there is, and it is always 100% present Here / Now. It is what Here / Now is. Even the denial of it is nothing other than this same unbound, interdependent, undivided emptiness (aka Here / Now) 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 that recognition is not a matter of merely getting this intellectually, and it's definitely not a matter of believing it. It's about seeing it directly, feeling it intimately, embodying it, being it, living it.

And even to name this recognition or call it something ("enlightenment") immediately reifies it, and is thus inherently misleading. It suggests that enlightenment is something that can be pinned down, defined, grasped, packaged, known—and yet, what the word truly points to is nothing of the sort. It is more like the recognition that the more closely we look at any apparent thing, the more it dissolves or opens up into vastness and infinity. The self and its apparent boundaries cannot actually be found. Nor can we actually find any "enlightenment" apart from "delusion."

All experiences, including so-called awakening experiences or enlightenment experiences, are within the dream-like appearance that I often call the movie of waking life. Within the context of this movie, relatively speaking, we can certainly say that Ramana Maharshi was an enlightened sage and that Adolph Hitler was a deluded madman. But enlightenment sees that more deeply, Ramana and Hitler are notional abstractions, two sides of a single coin, different in appearance but inseparable and completely interdependent, each empty of any inherent or objective reality. 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 in large part simply the absence of the one who cares about being enlightened.

Enlightenment sees unicity even in diversity; delusion imagines separation. Enlightenment recognizes that non-duality includes duality; delusion gets stuck on one side. Enlightenment is the unconditional love and awareness that welcomes delusion; delusion fights delusion and is always seeking enlightenment somewhere else. Delusion imagines that enlightenment is “out there” somewhere in the future; enlightenment recognizes that enlightenment is only here and now. Enlightenment includes both the relative and the absolute—the world of apparent multiplicity and the seamless unicity that includes it all—the symbolic, frozen map-world drawn by thought and the living reality of sensing, perceiving and awaring that never holds still—the undeniable sense of being a particular person and the equally undeniable sense (once it has been noticed) of being the whole universe and the boundless awareness beholding it all. Truth isn’t one-sided. Nothing is left out. Enlightenment recognizes that polarities arise together as inseparable wholes, whereas delusion imagines that one half can and should triumph over the other half. Delusion fixates dualistically on one side of these conceptual polarities and tries to ignore, eliminate or deny the other side. Enlightenment doesn't fixate anywhere or get stuck in any view. (Dogmatic nondualism, stuck in the absolute, is a form of delusion).

Enlightenment can appear gradual or sudden only in the story, where it seems (in retrospect, by drawing on thought, memory and imagination) that there 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 conceptual abstractions after-the-fact really captures this to which words such as “enlightenment” or “awakening” are pointing. Time itself is a mode of consciousness; the living reality is timeless, always Now.

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, and they no longer seem to mean something "about me." The search for enlightenment falls away. There is simply life as it is, the ever-changing, ever-present living reality of Here / Now.

When we're no longer seeking something else, the aliveness and depth of Now 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 expression of Unicity, a cloud passing through the empty sky.. 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 – ever-changing weather. Polarities go together. Pain is an unavoidable part of life, but suffering, which is how we respond to pain and painful circumstances, may be what falls away with enlightenment. In resisting and struggling to escape from pain and delusion, we strengthen it, make it more substantial. By embracing our pain and delusion, it dissolves or opens into infinity. But the popular notion that “enlightened people” are totally beyond all forms of suffering and delusion 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 ever-present 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. Without the mud, there is no lotus.

There's a well-known old Zen story about the pathless path to enlightenment, otherwise known as the pathless path from Here to Here. The story 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. Is the first stage identical to the last? You can't say yes, and you can't say no.

The way I hear the story, the first “stage” is ordinary relative consciousness, the state of duality – the world as we think it is, a collection of separate things, including “me” who is supposedly encapsulated “in here” in this separate bodymind, looking out an external world that is “out there.” Mountains and valleys (me and you, enlightenment and delusion, nirvana and samsara, good and evil, subject and object) are definitely two distinct and separate things.

The second “stage” of no mountains and valleys is the initial awakening – 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” at the center of present experiencing, that everything is one whole undivided, interdependent happening. This is the realization of what is the same, what is equally present, in every different experience--the Here-Now-ness, the present-ness or presence, the absolute immediacy and intimacy of everything. It is also the discovery that you can't really pin down where mountains end and valleys begin. This is the realization of Absolute Truth. But this is still not enlightenment, although it is often mistaken for enlightenment, and many people get "stuck in the absolute" for a while along the way.

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 the all-inclusive, boundless totality 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. We can use concepts, but we don't mistake them for the reality they describe. 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, and there never has been! There is no longer an effort to attain or maintain any particular experiential state of consciousness, to get rid of thinking or be mindful or anything else. The weather of this moment is no longer given meaning or taken personally.

These "stages" are only pointers, of course, to a "journey" that can't really be divided up, and that doesn't actually occur in time. These "stages" don't necessarily happen in a linear way, and usually, there is a circling or spiraling around between them. So, take the story lightly. The story can also be interpreted in different ways.

Another way to understand this old Zen story would be in terms of how we care about the world. The first stage is our usual confusion and suffering—taking everything we think and perceive to be real, thinking that the world is “out there” separate from “me,” and all that follows from this kind of delusion—a sense of lack, grasping, resisting, attachment, neediness, greed, hate, guilt, blame, and so on. The second stage is detachment, transcendence, neti neti—the realization that the world and the “me” who seems to have been born into it are both a kind of dream. At this stage, there may be a kind of aloofness or distance, a sense of not caring or not being involved. Everything is seen to be whole and complete as it is, and all of it is realized to be no-thing at all, just a passing appearance. In the final stage, we move back into embodiment and inclusion—this is unconditional love, dissolving the last duality—being everything. Once again, there is care, but it is a caring that is rooted in and informed by the transcendent realization of stage two. So it is a caring that isn’t attached to results, a caring that is not needy or grasping, a caring that accepts everything and resists nothing, a caring that no longer assumes that I know what’s best for the universe. True enlightenment is this process of transcending and including (otherwise known as wisdom and love).

Sometimes the old Zen story says first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. And based on this version, yet another interpretation sees the first stage as the state of a baby or a non-human animal, the unitive state of mind prior to thought and conceptualization, prior to language, in which consciousness is absorbed in pure sensing. To the baby, everything is one seamless whole: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, moving, sensing, breathing. In this interpretation, the second stage is when we separate from this pure experiencing and develop the thought-sense-idea of being a separate self in a divided world made up of separate things. This is a necessary step, allowing us to function and navigate, use tools, travel to the moon, create great art, and all the things that distinguish humans from other animals. We wouldn't want to get rid of this discriminating consciousness, because in many ways, it serves us. But when we mistake our conceptual maps for reality, when we believe our thoughts, when we get lost in our stories, then we suffer. So, the final stage is where the dualistic and divided appearance is transcended and absorbed into undivided awareness. We once again experience everything as a seamless unicity—undivided, boundless, awaring presence. But we have not regressed back to the level before thinking where the baby and other animals live, but rather, we have transcended (and included) thinking and the ability to draw distinctions and discern differences. We can still think and tell stories, but we are no longer trapped in our thought-stories.

In one way or another, all these different ways of interpreting this old Zen story are about the way consciousness evolves from the unitive state of the baby, to the divided, dualistic, confused state of the average adult, and then into a spiritual awakening that in some way begins with transcendence (the ability to step back, waking up from the story of our life) and finally moves back into inclusion (no division between subject and object, nothing rejected, everything included).

It's worth noting that there are various things in human life that can masquerade as enlightenment, such as getting drunk. When we get drunk, we fall back into the pre-cognitive, unitive state. It feels immensely freeing and joyous because the thinking mind, the sense of separation, and the burden of being "me" with all my problems are all temporarily subdued or wiped out, and the sensory world comes alive. The heavy foot of conditioning has been lifted off the brake pedal and we are no longer inhibited by self-consciousness or self-doubt. There is a sense of peace and freedom. But obviously, this is not true freedom, true peace, true joy, true love or true enlightenment. And it comes with a bad hangover.

Many teachers are in love with the idea that they are enlightened, and they love to tell the story of their "enlightenment event" again and again. We hear about their walk across the park or the magical moment in their kitchen or at a bus stop when their self dropped away forever. Enlightenment is portrayed as a personal achievement, a permanent state. But any such experience 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 yes, some characters are undeniably clearer and freer of delusion than most, and in a conventional sense, it is functionally useful to recognize and discern such differences. If we're looking for a teacher, not everyone is equally qualified. But at a deeper level, if we look more closely, we will find that 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.

A true teacher will not be endlessly tooting their own horn and 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 is not afraid to acknowledge their humanness, their fallibility, and their imperfections. A true teacher is always still a student, open to new discoveries. 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 and individual agency has been seen through, it can (and probably will) 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 not real, but it 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. It's not personal, even if it seems to be!

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

Of course, this doesn't mean there is no enlightenment, or that it doesn't matter whether we are awake or lost in delusion. Of course it matters! But it's not personal. "I am enlightened" is sheer delusion!

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 or anxiety, more or less compulsive or addictive behavior, more or less upset. Such differences may have little to do with enlightenment and everything to do with genetics, neurochemistry, brain conditions, hormone levels, past trauma, sleep apnea and a host of yet undiscovered variables that go into the infinite conditioning of nature and nurture. 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 permanently enlightened or unenlightened?

Sometimes teachers speak as boundless unicity, as the One Self, as the impersonal presence to which we all refer when we say "I Am" (prior to all the things we learn to add on later, such as "I am Joan," "I am a woman," "I am a genderqueer bi-sexual lesbian," "I am a writer," "I am getting older," snd so on). 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 (Here / Now, Totality, Unbroken Wholeness, emptiness) 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 boundless 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, may say something like, "I am beyond conditioning and always free," or, “Enlightenment is always present,” pointing to the ever-present and uncontained Here / Now. But such statements are easily misunderstood to mean that the teacher as a person is totally free of conditioning and always in some special expanded state of consciousness, 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. 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—feeling angry or 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 open not-knowing of groundlessness. The only reality is Here / Now—infinite and immediate. There is no end to this boundlessness, and no end to this unfolding Self-realization or awakening.

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 comparing yourself to others or 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 exactly 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, just as it is. You already are what you are seeking.

And if that seems unbelievable, or if you find yourself feeling a sense of discomfort, lack or unease, that can be an invitation to stop, look and listen--to explore and investigate--to see if the one who has this problem can actually be found, to feel the unease as bare sensation in the body, to see through the thoughts and stories, to notice the awareness beholding all of this. You might ask yourself, is this sense of discomfort, lack or unease really a problem? Does it actually even exist when you dive right into it with awareness? And if you notice that you are about to go off in search of truth or enlightenment or happiness or freedom, perhaps in that moment, the question will arise, what exactly am I seeking? And where and when do I expect to find it?

Enlightenment is now or never.

----copyright Joan Tollifson 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018----

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