What springs to mind when you hear the word ‘enlightenment’? Most of us probably think of Buddhist monks, spending decades meditating for 10 hours a day until they finally reach an enlightened state. We see enlightenment as something which very few people will ever come close to, and we are far too preoccupied with our busy lives to even spare it any thought. It just doesn’t seem attainable.
More to the point, enlightenment as a concept doesn’t seem relevant to our lives. We may feel we’re doing just fine, or if we’re not so fine then we don’t think attaining some mystical state is a realistic way to improve our situation. In fact, we may not even believe enlightenment exists.
Until recently, these were largely my thoughts about enlightenment too. But that recently changed when I reread The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I first read this book about two and a half years ago, whilst at university. At the time, I didn’t feel I gained much from it. I wasn’t ready to hear its message. But after doing a ton of work on myself in the intervening time, the book resonated much more powerfully with me the second time around.
Before we delve into the relevance of enlightenment to our daily lives, there’s a question which is likely to be on some people the lips. It is…
What is enlightenment?
Many of us don’t really understand what is meant by enlightenment. We only have a vague idea of what it is, and would probably struggle to explain it. A better understanding is necessary for the concept to become relevant to our lives.
Enlightenment, according to Eckhart Tolle, simply means intense presence. It is completely letting go of past regrets and worries about the future, and living in the present moment. In a nutshell, we become free of our destructive mental patterns, which are the source of virtually all our negative emotions. As a result, we attain a deep state of peace, joy, love and tranquillity which is virtually unshakable. If this seems unconvincing to you, I would urge you to read the book, because it’s impossible to effectively summarise it here.
How can we attain enlightenment?
Before I start, I want to make it clear that I have not achieved enlightenment and I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject! But due to my reading on the topic, I feel I at least have a good understanding of it.
If enlightenment is about presence, then what we need to do is learn to live in the moment. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Our destructive thoughts and fears have a sneaky habit of creeping back in through the back door whenever we try to clear our minds.
The important thing is awareness; we have to start noticing when we get caught in these destructive cycles of negative thoughts and emotions. Rather than trying to suppress them, we take a step back and watch them. We then begin to realise that these thoughts are not us. Rather, we are the conscious presence which is doing the watching. Once we realise this, it becomes easier to stop identifying with those thoughts.
Tolle believes we are all expressions of the same consciousness. So when we become present, we connect to our true selves, which in turn are connected to the source of all consciousness and every other being in the universe.
When we connect in this way, we become conscious of a deep-seated sense of peace and joy, which is our true nature. We know that everything will always be okay, and are able to stop living in fear.
Of course, for most of us this will take a lot of practice. But there are various techniques we can use to become more present, which are discussed in the book.
It may be relatively easy to be present when we feel calm and relaxed, but it can be hard to imagine how to do so in situations where things don’t go according to plan. And this, of course, is exactly when it matters the most.
Like most things, being present will come more naturally with practice. It will help us to realise that the things we think of as problems very rarely are. Either we can change the situation (in which case we should do so) or we can’t (in which case we should accept it and stop resisting reality).
The concept of enlightenment is largely about getting letting go. We let go of unhealthy attachments to situations, people and objects. We let go of our resistance to the present moment, our thoughts of wishing that we were somewhere else or that our situation was different. In essence, we let go of all the baggage that isn’t serving us. And in the process, we learn to go with the flow of life, rather than always trying to battle our way upstream.
This does not mean we should blindly accept situations which are harmful to us. Rather, it means we should take whatever action we can to improve things, without feeling trapped or powerless. And if there really is nothing we can do right now, we accept that, as resisting it will only bring us more pain and sorrow.
Why seek enlightenment?
Spiritual growth is hard work! There are times when it just seems too daunting. But all aspects of our lives are inevitably improved when we become more present. For example…
Stress and anxiety
Especially in the modern world, most of us are under a lot of stress. Presence allows us to let go of those emotions, even if our underlying situation doesn’t change.
Coping with difficult situations
Similarly, being present allows us to take decisive action to improve our situations, without being paralysed by our worries or feelings of powerlessness.
Achieving our goals
When we think about all the things we need to do in order to achieve our goals, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with fear, anxiety and self-doubt. These feelings are caused by worries about a future that hasn’t even happened yet. Presence can help us to realise how irrational this is and keep us grounded in the moment.
Many of us experience a lot of conflict in our relationships. We struggle to communicate with those around us in a way that doesn’t lead to defensiveness and arguments. This is often because we are holding onto negative emotions which sometimes have nothing to do with the relationship in question. We are coming from a place of stress, anger or fear instead of a place of love. By being present, we can allow these to fall away. Then we can connect with those around us on a deeper level.
This is just a sample – you can probably think of more.
Again, I personally am still a long way from achieving a continuous state of presence. But the point is, you don’t need to go all the way before you begin to reap the benefits. I’ve recently found myself experiencing little glimpses of what it’s like to be fully present. When I feel stressed, I’ve found myself able to take a deep breath and let calm wash over me. It’s difficult, but it gets easier with practice.
Once we have more of these moments in our lives, change starts to happen. We’re able to go with the flow of life, and things seem to be going our way more often. There is less conflict, and our relationships tend to become more harmonious. Even for those of us who don’t identify as spiritual, who could fail to benefit from this?