There are many definitions of enlightenment you can find all over the internet, but for the purposes of this blog, we will use a definition associated with monistic religions and philosophy. Enlightenment, quite basically, is the experience that “you” are more than simply your body and mind, and that we are all actually part of a larger consciousness. When people talk about being “one with the universe”, that’s what they’re talking about. From both a scientific and monastic standpoint, you are inseparable from the universe, and everything “you” are is a transient manifestation of the universe itself. Consciousness itself is immeasurable and hard to define itself, but to say you are one with the universe would be scientifically and factually correct.
The difference between what is typically referred to as “enlightenment”, and this knowledge that we are inseparable and transient manifestations within universe, is in the experience. Experiencing enlightenment is largely considered to be more important and and life-changing than the knowledge alone. But it doesn’t need to be. Both paths lead to the same place. One can learn and practice enlightened knowledge and behavior for years and decades, and this should be regarded just as highly as becoming enlightened in an instant. It’s time we let go of the search for enlightenment, in favor of focusing on post-enlightenment behavior.
No one, not even the Dalai Lama himself, is in a constant state of enlightenment. It’s simply not possible to function as a human being in any regard while simultaneously experiencing a higher form of consciousness, regardless of that consciousness being inclusive of your own. So let’s say for instance, a person becomes enlightened. How long ago did their particular enlightenment happen? The human body replaces most of its atoms within approximately 5-7 years. So after 7 years, where is the being who was enlightened? Is it within those atoms, who are now part of other creatures, in the air, the earth, the water? Most people would say “No! It’s in their mind or their spirit, that part that doesn’t go away!” But having a separate and unchanging mind or spirit would be so very contrary to the very idea of enlightenment, once you give it a moment’s thought. You, and the universe itself, is always changing.
The fact is, every enlightened person is already a part of you. Surely some of the atoms that are in your body, right now, were also once a part of some Buddha or Bodhisattva in the past. But this doesn’t make you enlightened, any more than an experience of enlightenment decades ago would make one currently enlightened today.
One also must consider different levels of enlightenment. Our universe goes infinitely “up”, and infinitely “down”. The consciousness of your brain alone (ignoring your body), or your digestive system alone (thinking with your gut), would be considered “down” from the typical human consciousness. Enlightenment is generally considered to be any experience of consciousness “above” that of your own human body. For example, one could experience the consciousness of an entire room of humans. Or an entire building. Or a city. Or a country. Or the world, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, and whatever lies beyond that. The importance being that once you have experienced a consciousness beyond your original body, this allows you to more easily act in an “enlightened” way. But no level of enlightenment is any more important, or valid, than another. And everything you ever were, are, and will be, is already a part of a higher consciousness, whether you are aware of it right now or not.
Instead of thinking of enlightenment as being the goal, consider that your actions, from the point of enlightenment onward, is the true purpose. Enlightenment is the easy way to get there: once you have felt that you are the other beings around you, and it becomes very difficult for you to harm others. But one can also come to the same conclusion through knowledge alone: you can know that all of your atoms that make you “you” have come from others, and will return to the rest of the universe. So why harm what has been you, and what you will be?
There is a trend for people to be kind to their “future self”. Perhaps you have too much to drink one night, so you leave your future self a Gatorade and some ibuprofen by the bedside table, so your future self can get over that hangover more quickly. Or maybe you begin a diet and exercise regimen in the winter, so your future self can look better at the beach next summer. Extend this thinking further. This kindness toward your future self can be toward anything that what is now “you” becomes. Treat others kindly, because they will breathe the air you’ve exhaled, and make their bodies from the atoms that have left you. This includes not only other humans, but all creatures. Once you realize that everything that “separates” you from the rest of the universe is transient and arbitrary, it’s very difficult to act in an unkind or selfish way. Whether that realization comes all at once, or gradually over the years, doesn’t matter.
You have all the knowledge you need to live an enlightened life, right now. Be kind. Reduce suffering. Whatever your reasoning for it, that is all you need to do.