Defining Enlightenment

Defining Enlightenment

By Judith Blackstone

A Specific Phase of Maturity

Life has meaning because it has direction. It has a goal. Most of us create meaning in our lives by creating goals for ourselves such as family, wealth, artistic achievement. But life has a goal that we don’t have to create, that is inherent in its nature, in our nature. Our own personal life evolves towards a specific destination that is sometimes called self‑realization, or enlightenment. Just as our created goals are based on our desire for something, we also have a fundamental desire for life’s inherent goal. It is this underlying desire for enlightenment that often causes us to feel unfulfilled even after we have achieved our created goals.

The word “enlightenment” is often used in a general way to describe a variety of experiences. In my definition, which is similar to that of most Eastern religious teachings, enlightenment refers to a specific phase of human maturity, a specific and unmistakable shift in the way one experiences life.

Although enlightenment is the most concrete, actual experience of being alive, describing it always sounds abstract, until you have experienced it yourself.

To understand the relationship of enlightenment and self we need to clearly understand the specific experiences that are meant by the words “enlightenment” and “self” The following definitions are based on my own experience, the experience of friends and students, and the definitions found in the spiritual texts of Buddhism and Hinduism. The point I wish to emphasize is that the definitions offered here are not solely from my subjective experience (for then they could certainly be fantasy) and are also not solely the paraphrasing of long‑dead sages from old books (for they might be naive or metaphorical). Rather, they are descriptions that many people agree on, based on their own experience, that support the validity of the ancient texts.

Realization of Fundamental Consciousness

Enlightenment is the realization, the lived experience, that we are made of pure consciousness; that pure consciousness is our fundamental nature and our ultimate reality; and that everything else in the universe is also made of pure consciousness, so that our own being is fundamentally unified with all of nature. As one fourth-century Chinese sage put it, “Everything in the universe is one and the same root as my own self.” In enlightenment, we experience life from the vantage point of that root.

We experience our own self as unbroken consciousness, pervading our body and our environment. This means that there is a continuity between our inner and outer perception. We have a sense of vast space, as if all our perceptions were one single tapestry of reflections in a single mirror. We feel that we are made of clear, empty space, finer than air, unbounded and motionless. Within this vast space moves the changing progression of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions.

I call this unbroken, pervasive dimension “fundamental consciousness.” Before realizing fundamental consciousness, we identify ourselves as our sensations, feelings, perceptions, ideas, memories. But upon realizing fundamental consciousness, we recognize that these discrete, transitory experiences come and go within the fundamental ground that is our true identity.

Becoming Real

Consciousness is our ultimate reality. In Hindu metaphysics, ultimate reality is called in Sanskrit Brahman and described: “I am the supreme Brahman which is pure consciousness, always clearly manifest, unborn, one only, imperishable, unattached and all‑pervading and non‑dual.” Although this description, from the ninth‑century Indian philosopher Shankara, may sound exotic or abstract, every word is soberly meant as a description of the fundamental reality of every human being. Reality is the opposite of abstract. It is real [concrete].

In enlightenment, we experience that we are becoming real; not something new, but something we have always been yet only barely know. This is what Shankara means by unborn: the unified, pervasive, pure consciousness has always been there, pervading our every cell. It is the true, whole “I” that is our inherent, fundamental nature, hidden behind the partial, fragmented, abstract “I”’s that we tolerate before we know of our wholeness. We do not have to create reality; it has always been there. But the ability to recognize reality is also inherent in us. All our lives we have been guided by our ability to tell truth from deception, harmony from disharmony. As we realize fundamental consciousness, we recognize that our underlying reality has been the goal of our lifelong navigation and desire.

Enlightenment is an experience unlike any other we have had because there is no duality in it. We do not have an experience of fundamental consciousness. Although the limits of language make it necessary to use the preposition “of,” fundamental consciousness is actually realizing itself. It is self‑reflecting. The knower and the known are the same. Fundamental consciousness is our own ordinary consciousness, but directly, purely experienced, without the usual veils of habit, confusions, and defense. Enlightenment is the phase of human maturity in which the mind comes to know itself.


Enlightenment is much easier to experience than most people think. I’ve watched people stomp angrily out of workshops because I was asking them to experience what revered masters have experienced, as if the attempt were futile and even sacrilegious.

There is also a tendency for us to impose the sense of sanctity that some of us were taught in Judeo-Chris­tian tradition onto these principles of en­lightenment. Much of Western religion teaches an attitude of reverence and humility towards a distant god, an image of patriarchal authority that we can petition but never truly know. Religious students are treated as children who can sit in the protective, vigilant presence of God, but who have only the responsibility of obedience. In the more ritualistic forms of Eastern religion, as well, there is a hushed, hallowed quality when discussing the ultimate, and certainly there is great respect shown for the spiritual masters.

But the more advanced the teaching and the students become, the more the ultimate is presented as something belonging to us, as a wonderful but entirely usual part of our own nature that can be neither taken away nor given to us by any external presence. I have found that many people who are ready for enlightenment are not achieving it because they assume it is some far‑distant, ex­alted state. The work that so many of us have been doing to become more real, more open to life, has been leading towards the realization of our fundamental dimension of consciousness. It is crucial to our personal growth that we recognize our essential reality and demystify our understanding of enlightenment.

Another related misconception about enlightenment is that it is an “altered” state of consciousness. Enlightenment often is confused with the peak experiences that many people have, for example, while looking up at the stars or witnessing the birth of a baby. But a peak experience is by definition a momentary event, often accompanied by intense emotions such as awe or ecstasy. Enlightenment is not a momentary alteration of consciousness that one goes to and returns from. For this same reason, it also differs from the state of being hypnotized and the trance state. Enlightenment is a clear, alert perception of the present moment that represents a lasting refinement of consciousness.

Some people do have their first entry into enlightenment as a peak experience, a satori, during which they are dazzled by the sudden shift into the unity of fundamental consciousness. And some have had sudden deepenings of enlightenment as well, in which they abruptly experience much more of the space of fundamental consciousness than before. But enlightenment itself is not a temporary nor a particularly charged emotional state. It is a lasting transformation of our being, involving our ongoing relation to ourselves and our environment.

Sometimes enlightenment is said to be instantaneous because there is a sharp difference between being in the dimension of fundamental consciousness and being out of it. Some people notice this difference suddenly, while others, once they do notice it, feel they have been there for a while without registering or naming it. One may lose the realization of fundamental consciousness and get it back several times before it stabilizes. But once we do become stable in our realization, we continue to live there, while our realization very gradually matures and expands.

This means that our experience of fundamental consciousness gradually pervades more of our body, increasing our sense of inner depth and wholeness and opening new realms of sensitivity and insight. Also, it gradually increases our sense of oneness with other people, with nature, and with the cosmos. The most advanced spiritual masters, those rare few who are completely enlightened, are said to be omniscient and omnipresent. They have realized the entire ground of fundamental consciousness pervading the whole universe.

One thing is clear. We are not born enlightened. Children, although undefended, are not experiencing the whole of the dimension of fundamental consciousness. There is a vast difference between the openness and unguarded love of an infant and the far-reaching clarity and intense but detached love of a spiritual master. As adults, we must grow towards enlightenment as well as release the psychological defenses that impede this growth. Although there is much literature on what separates us from fundamental consciousness, the question of why we must work to realize what has been there all along remains unanswered.

Enlightenment is Unity

To become enlightened is to move from a fragmented experience of life to a unified experience. Before we become enlightened, our focus shifts from self to object, or from one modality of experience to another. We may experience another person quite fully but be only barely aware of ourselves. In another moment, we know our own feelings but our perception of the outside world is diminished. Or we may know our thoughts but not be conscious of our feelings or sensations.

When we become enlightened, we realize the continuity, the unity, of inner and outer consciousness without any shift of focus. This means there is no longer any schism between subject and object or between thought, feeling, and sensation. For example, at this moment, sitting at my typewriter, I am aware of the objects around me (their form and texture), including the window in front of my desk and the bit of earth and tree trunk I can see while looking down at my work. I am aware of the sensation of being in my body, of the emotional content of the moment (even though there is no particular emotional charge at the moment, there is still an emotional tone that is always present), and of the intensity of my mental activity. All these perceptions are unmistakably a whole; they exist in a single unbounded space, and the space itself has a luminous, vibrant quality. I and other become one whole in the one pervasive field of fundamental consciousness.

This wholeness of “I” and other does not negate the integrity of the individual wholeness of each person or object. In fact, our individual boundaries are more defined in the dimension of fundamental consciousness. Once we experience our own inner life at the same time as we experience the outer world, it becomes very clear where we leave off and the world begins.

The dimension of fundamental consciousness never changes. When we realize this most subtle dimension of ourselves, we experience a vast, unchanging stillness pervading our body and our environment. We feel that we ourselves are fundamentally timeless and changeless. Zen Buddhism expresses this with the phrase, “I have never moved from the beginning.”

Once we are secure in our realization of fundamental consciousness, we can open without fear to our own energy and the energy around us. We are like an empty vessel. Whatever is in the vessel is temporary and does not alter our fundamental nature. No matter how powerful the movement of life becomes, it does not change the absolute stillness of fundamental consciousness.

This is the paradox of enlightenment. We receive the stimulation of our environment even more fully than before we were enlightened. Because we have more access to the depths of ourselves, we feel every joy and pain more deeply than before. But at the same time, we experience ourselves as whole and steady, as the unchanging ground of fundamental consciousness. One of my teachers once likened this state to the biblical burning bush. “We burn,” he said, “but we are not consumed.”

Our emotional pain is secondary to our fundamental nature. No matter what we lose or suffer in our life, this core of our being, our true reality, cannot be damaged. It has not moved from the beginning, and it will never move. Thus, as we become enlightened, it is easier to be at peace with even the worst of circumstances. We can allow ourselves to mourn or rage, to risk new relationships and situations, because we know that our fundamental nature will not be affected.


In summary, enlightenment is the realization of one’s own nature as ultimate reality. It is a radical shift from the fragmentation of subject‑object duality to the unity of our fundamental dimension of pure consciousness. This fundamental dimension is experienced as vast, clear, unbreakable, unbounded space, pervading both our body and our environment. Once we realize fundamental consciousness, our realization continues to deepen and expand throughout our lifetime. When we become enlightened, our own mind is continuous with the consciousness that is the basis of all existence, which has been its true nature all along. Our dimension of fundamental consciousness is always with us, at the root of our self and the universe, and all are capable of realizing it.

Judith Blackstone is co-director of the Realization Center in Woodstock, New York.

From Finding A Way: Essays on Spiritual Practice © 1996 by Lorette Zirker.

Reprinted in The Inner Directions Journal Winter 1997.


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