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Indian philosophy says we pass through three states of mind each day: the waking state, the dream state and the deep sleep state. Most people are conscious if at all in the waking stage. The average meditator will get occasional glimpses of the dream state. Only a good yogi, however, will remain fully conscious in the deep sleep state.

This state of deep lucid trance gives birth to the mythology of enlightenment. Trance is a transpersonal state since the sense of the waking self has vanished. It is profoundly still. There is no physical or mental impulse to do anything at all. It is always the same each time you enter it. There are no markers to indicate the passage of time. It is free from the emotions that governs waking life, since fear and desire disappear when awareness of the body vanishes.

This state is indescribably satisfying and beautiful. It is the exact opposite of the pain, longing and confusion of waking life. It seems to be a state of pure consciousness and pure being. It may feel as if you have become one with God, and attained the ultimate spiritual glory. It seems eternal when you’re in it, but it rarely lasts for long.

Unfortunately, the language of Eastern spirituality has an appetite for absolutes. It loves to talk about the eternal, the perfect and the whole, and this is its undoing. In deep trance, the yogi’s consciousness is totally absorbed into itself. Since he is aware of nothing else, he may feel he has experienced the great truth of non-duality, and has become one with the infinite. Of course, this is just a narcissistic illusion: he has simply become one with himself. This state of ‘oneness’ is based on excluding everything that doesn’t fit, virtually the whole outer world in fact.

Valuable as trance is, it doesn’t mean that the yogi has utterly transcended the material world, the ego, time, space and causality. Yet Eastern philosophy defines enlightenment in those impossible terms, and often ignores the more humble, but useful, reality at its core.

People have vastly different views of what enlightenment is. A student asked me recently, “After all your years of meditation, do you feel you’ve become enlightened yet?” I should have been flattered but I instantly felt offended. ‘Am I that cold and heartless?’ I thought.

When I asked her, I realised that my student saw enlightenment as a state of oneness with the universe, accompanied with a desire to help others. This is a lovely vision, but more Christian than Asian. Personally, I prefer my student’s version, but if we are going to use the term at all in the meditation context, it is good to know how the Asian tradition describes it.

The Sanskrit words used to illustrate enlightenment are ‘moksha’, ‘nirvana’ and ‘bodhi’. The first two rely on a belief in reincarnation. Moksha and nirvana mean liberation from the all-but-endless cycle of births and deaths that was regarded with such dread by the ancient Indians. In other words, when you die, you don’t come back. What a relief!

Moksha also means freedom from suffering. The state of lucid trance is blissfully, if temporarily, free of pain, but moksha is supposed to last forever. It is about permanent liberation from all the suffering that accompanies being alive, lifetime after lifetime. No regrets, no hunger, no sadness, no headaches, ever!

In lucid trance, we can briefly enter a state of pure, egoless consciousness. Moksha extrapolates that into the belief that ‘atman is Brahman’ – that the individual soul is identical with the formless, undying, unborn, luminous Ground of all Being. It is said that an enlightened being dwells permanently in this refined mental state. He or she is ‘in the world but not of it’. In extreme cases, the ‘god-intoxicated’ yogis of India are so out of it that they forget to eat or bathe, and only survive at all through the care of their attendants.

Of course, most ‘enlightened’ people you hear of are not like this at all. They are more moderate, balanced, in the world and helpful to others, but this is using the word as a kind of honorific title far removed from its original meaning. The old texts are quite adamant that there is no such thing as ‘moderate’ enlightenment.

The yogic texts say that there are four routes we can take to inner bliss. We can achieve moksha through selfless, dutiful action; or through selfless devotion to God; or through rational analysis to prove that the ego doesn’t exist, or through the experiential path of meditation.

The purpose of each of these paths is to extinguish all emotion and the sense of self. Karma, which is the engine of reincarnation, is fuelled by our millions of subtle, ongoing likes and dislikes. These are the ‘samskaras’ or impulses that endlessly disturb our inner stillness and tempt us back to the world of sex, money and chocolate.

We become enlightened by purging every last shred of desire and aversion from our being. We seek that state of sublime indifference towards life and death that the Stoics called ‘apatheia’ or ‘no-feeling’. This is ‘nirvana’, which literally means ‘the blowing out of a candle’.

To be enlightened in this classical sense means to dissociate as totally as possible from one’s body and from the world. If we followed the Buddha’s prescriptions, we would have to be celibate, live alone in nature or in a monastery, own almost nothing, have no job, no close friends, and never talk to anyone of the opposite sex. We would never listen to music or see a movie or read a newspaper or any non-religious book. And no gossip! No idle talk of kings and sportsmen and entertainers. The Buddha said this is the only way to do it. It can’t be fudged and adapted to the modern world and keep its integrity.

We also find this fanatical aspiration for the otherworldly in the West. St Anthony in 4th century Egypt gave away his wealth, and spent decades in an abandoned tomb in the desert. When he emerged, he simply went further into the desert.

I’m sure enlightenment is possible but is it worth it? Probably not, but that hardly matters. Ever since the time of the Buddha, the concept has been mythologised, sentimentalised and generally adapted to the requirements of the people who use it. For example, Zen takes a very different slant on enlightenment which is far from orthodox but certainly more practical.

The Chinese didn’t take reincarnation anywhere near as seriously as the Indians or the Tibetans. They saw enlightenment as a here-and-now matter, rather than an escape into a featureless eternity. Zen emphasises the ‘bodhi’ aspect of being fully awake, rather than the ‘nirvana’ aspect of oblivion. ‘Bodhi’ means to be fully conscious and clear-sighted, moment-by-moment, throughout the day. By recognising the fluidity of all things, including one’s sense of self, the zen master interacts freely and naturally with the world. He is always ‘in the zone’, intimate with the world, without his ego getting in the way.

In this version of enlightenment, there is no need for countless lifetimes of self-denial. It is more a matter of recognising at a gut-level that we are already there. I’ve often heard gurus say ‘But don’t you get it? It’s so obvious!’ Of course, this is easier said than done. It is not just a matter of turning a switch in the brain.

Awakening still takes a lot of intelligent effort. If we leave the comfort of our sleepwalking habits, the world can seem more awesome, beautiful, frightening and unpredictable than we ever imagined. To be enlightened in this sense is not to withdraw into no-feeling and serenity, but to unerringly find the point of balance, the edge of clear action, in the midst of it all. This is the Zen view of enlightenment as being fully in the world, painful and beautiful as it is, rather than out of it.

© Perth Meditation Centre 2006