Enlightenment Intensives 2;

"The Connections" Issue 50: April 2008

I suspect most of us presume, in spite of our own better judgement, that an enlightenment experience is going to result in some instant wondrous transformation, some dramatic and permanent shift that results in us or someone else becoming an amazingly superhuman being.

This perception is re-inforced by the numerous descriptions of enlightenment which abound in spiritual literature, with their talk of Love, Glory, Joy and Perfection. Anyone feeling a draw to spirituality cannot help but be fascinated and riveted by this apparent promise of something which can deliver exactly the solution we think we want to the problem of being alive.

It does seem to be a fundamental part of the human condition to just want an answer. We want something that will make sense of life. We want something that just abruptly ends our doubt and confusion and suffering, just like that, leaving us peaceful and resolved and rid of our endless internal conflicts. Add to that a deep human need for love and acknowledgment, a desire to know whether we are alright or not, worth something or not, accepted or not - and it is easy to see what a weighty burden of expectation enlightenment has historically carried. No wonder many of us set off on Enlightenment Intensives and other spiritual retreats with great zeal, determined to get this great prize of the Absolute Truth (or as we really see it, the Absolute Answer) for ourselves.

But as we eventually find out, enlightenment is not an answer. It is just being directly conscious of the Truth of how things actually are. And as I mentioned in my last article, once a person has had a direct experience of the Absolute Truth, a moment of union with that which is always there, regardless of what they think, feel or believe, then their next task is to face the issue of what to do now their awareness of it has increased.

It can be unexpectedly frustrating to become conscious of Absolute Reality, finally reaching our cherished goal, only to realise after all the effort, strife and determination, that we are right back at the starting block once again. We went for what we wanted and found ourselves not with the solution to all our problems, but with the Truth. Only then do we realise they were never the same thing! Instead of finding the perfect answer to life's difficulties, we find ourselves instead with a burning question: how do I live my life, now that I have become conscious of the Truth?

Enlightenment experiences are a real gift. They give us an unparalleled opportunity to make profound changes in the way we are in the world. But there can be a vast difference between what enlightenment experiences actually give us and what we wanted them to provide. This realisation can be daunting and baffling at first. What now? We can think. I have my confusing life and I have the perfection of Truth. What do I do with both?

When I reflect on how this stage has generally unfolded for myself and others over the years, l notice how often the next steps on each person's spiritual path arise naturally in their consciousness following a direct experience of Truth. We may or may not decide to follow these steps but I do believe they are there. It is just that they are usually so simple and human and in some sense so unremarkable that we do not really give them much importance, let alone think of them as transformative. Yet in my experience it is following these very ordinary steps which often results over time in deep positive change in the life of the individual concerned, the key factor being their link with the person's original enlightenment experience.

In 1996, after participating in several three day Enlightenment Intensives, I took my first two week Enlightenment Intensive. I contemplated the question 'Who am I?' steadily for the whole retreat and in the last few days, after many ups and downs, I finally had an enlightenment experience - my first one ever. This banished at last my persistent fears that I was wasting my time and that this elusive goal, the Absolute Truth, was either a fiction, or something that only other people could contact. I had reached my goal and I was ecstatic.

Experiencing the Truth of myself on this occasion left me joyous for months, feeling more happy and carefree than I could ever remembered being. At the time I could not imagine that this state would ever leave me - and yet it did, a state of ordinariness gradually returning to my inner world, with life seeming just as difficult as ever. Something had changed for me though and remains changed to this day.

What affected me so deeply about my first enlightenment experience was actually something quite obvious and straight-forward. At the time I noticed most the pleasant and enjoyable states I was in for a while but looking back more than 10 years after the event, these states seem now to me to be the least important elements of all that happened.

The most powerful and life-changing gift of the experience was getting 'me'. It was realising that I could pay attention to myself, that I could make decisions and choices about how to lead my life from me. The enlightenment experience in itself did not change me. Nor did I have to do anything with the literal 'self-awareness' that I gained from it, I could have just enjoyed the pleasant states until they died away, but the enlightenment experience did give me the choice to keep noticing 'me'.

I pursued this simple choice, and as I began paying attention to my 'self', to what I thought, felt and wanted, my orientation in life altered. I stopped being who I thought other people wanted me to be or conforming to an image from the outside world about how I should be. I started creating a life for myself that was based on an authentic inner direction. In reality this meant things often got more difficult - people in my life were used to me being a certain way and often did not like it when I changed. But over 10 years on I am very clear about the immense positive impact exercising this choice of paying attention to myself has had. It has manifested in feeling fulfilled and inspired in many areas of my life and in a connection to quiet joy within - all from this one enlightenment experience, which appeared on the surface to have faded away fairly fast.

I do not think the way things unfolded for me in this instance is that unusual - the changes I know other people to have made following a direct experience on an Enlightenment Intensive have been as many and varied as the people concerned.

After one friend had his first direct experience, he looked at himself in the mirror and grinned at himself broadly. In the days that followed, he continued this simple act, smiling joyously at himself in the mirror on a daily basis.

"I realised," he told us, by way of explanation, "that I never made eye contact with people. In fact, my whole life I never really made eye contact even with myself when I looked in the mirror." This had come from fear. When he experienced the Truth of himself, he realised he did not actually have anything to be afraid of. This freed him up to literally, meet his own gaze.

As the days progressed and my friend paid attention to what his direct experience of Truth meant to him, the next step which came up was to commit to making eye contact with all the people that he met in his everyday life. That became his daily practice, one coming directly from his own experience of who he was at the Absolute level. Over the months that followed, we all watched as our friend transformed from being a closed, withdrawn, inaccessible person to being someone who was very present and aware - simply through this daily practice.

It was not my friend's personality that changed, for he remained an introvert. Nor did his enlightenment experience result in him becoming a radiantly pure spiritual being. He had not been involved in any kind of spiritual practice before his enlightenment experience and did not take up any formal meditation afterwards. The change was simply that he became 'more himself'. Every time I met him he would look me right in the eye and smile and as he did so I just sensed he was willing for me to know he was there. It was quite a simple thing, but it left me unexpectedly moved by the feeling that I had a genuine connection with another human being, which I found I valued a great deal. It meant that ordinary conversations with him were rewarding for no other reason than just the enjoyment of this human connection between us.

My friend's relationships across the board with family, friends and work colleagues improved immeasurably as a result of this simple gesture he made of making eye contact with them. The step he took to honour his experience of Truth was small and not an obviously 'spiritual' thing to do, but it was clearly right for him personally, and it had a positive effect not just on him but on many of the people around him too.

It is clear that enlightenment experiences do not give us a get out clause from the daily grind of our human existence, which on some level, is what most of us dearly want. But they do give us something else. They show us what we need to do if we want more authenticity in our lives, if we want to be more present in our relationships. Enlightenment does not make the complexity of life go away, but it does show us ways forward. It can, literally, be a light in the darkness, if we let it. And since many of us are only too familiar with the feeling that we are spending much of our life groping blindly along in the dark, that is a very great gift indeed.

(2008) Ellen Dacre