What Does Enlightenment Feel Like?
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the dark consciousness.
— Carl Jung
Deep meditative states are undoubtedly transformative. While it may seem like a lofty or even completely unobtainable goal at first, enlightenment is the peak of these deep states. It should be strived for by anyone on the path to explore their own consciousness. It truly can be where the darkest places of our lives become conscious.
The question is, what does enlightenment actually feel like, and why is this concept of darkness so important?
As you learned to meditate, you will have started to strengthen your ability to deliberately explore consciousness by practicing various basic attention exercises to become more present. As you meditation practice grows, you’ll be able to navigate around your own consciousness much more easily, perhaps using the three-layer model of mindfulness to help understand it’s structure.
You should be starting to see that improving the way you manage attention can cause shifts in how you feel about yourself and the world around you. You’ll also become better at recognizing that almost all meditation and consciousness practices have some sort of beneficial effect on your wellbeing.
These effects can be subtle, such as simply feeling more relaxed and having a general sense of wellbeing. Or they can be overwhelming, such as the feeling of cracking open a gaping emotional wound, as dramatic as having a near death experience, or euphoric and energizing enough to leave you buzzing for hours or even days.
Many people stop there with meditation.
Once they have achieved some level of relaxation, increased wellbeing, increased emotional management, or improved physical health due to lower stress and increased calm, they call it a day. Whatever your personal goal is, if you are serious about the study of consciousness and the practice or meditation, soon enough you will start to get interested in the ultimate goal of every meditation technique: enlightenment. The problem is there are few terms in any language that are more open to interpretation, confusion, misleading information and outright mysticism as enlightenment.
Humans are instinctive storytellers. We love to make up stories about what we don’t understand. The best of those made-up stories eventually become mysticism — which can be broadly defined as the group of unprovable ideas, legends or practices that have little or no basis in observable reality or repeatable and quantifiable personal experience. Mysticism can be immensely comforting in a world that seems often difficult to understand, especially in recent years.
In all my articles about meditation on Medium, my objective is to take the mysticism out of meditation. The reason is that if you want enlightenment to be a repeatable, quantifiable personal experience, mysticism must have no place in the approach you use. This approach doesn’t suit everybody. For some people, believing in mystical ideas is a big part of exploring their spirituality. That’s fine, you’ll just not get those ideas from me.
Dismantling the Structure of Consciousness
In order to understand enlightenment, we need to have two things in place, and mysticism is neither of the two. The first is an understanding of what it feels like to experience enlightenment. The other is a conceptual understanding of the specific skills that will be required to deliberately alter your own consciousness in such a way that you will actually have a decent chance of experiencing enlightenment.
Essentially, experiencing enlightenment is the end point after we have systematically dismantled the normal structure of waking consciousness in order to reach a deep, transcendental brain state. Researchers that map the brain using ECG machines confirm that brain waves are significantly changing as meditators progress in their meditation expertise and confirm that these skills require significant practice to master. A deep meditative state is simply not something that happens by accident, unless you take hallucinogenic drugs that alter brain chemistry, have a near death experience due to an accident or major surgery, or have a mild stroke in the part of your brain that controls the way the brain experiences its own consciousness.
To dismantle the normal structure of consciousness, you will need to deliberately and sequentially suspend all reference points to your senses. As you do this, your perception of everyday external and internal reality drops away, and you enter a deep, transcendental state. I’m not going to explain exactly how to do that in this article, except to say that it involves the ability to deliberately suspend perception from multiple senses in a very controlled way, and in a particular order.
As you progressively suspend more and more of your sensory perception, you lose your awareness of your physical senses, the physical dimensions of the space you are in, your sense of time, past and future, and even yourself. Effectively, you have ‘switched off’ your perception of all those things. It’s a bit like walking through your house on your way to bed, switching off all the lights as you go. Eventually, you end up in a deep, exquisite silence, a place of infinite yet conscious darkness. This is state Jung was talking about, where there are no longer any sources of light, so you are left with simply darkness, but a darkness in which you are more aware than ever before. This state is known in various traditions as nirvana, zazen, quantum consciousness, the void, or many other names. For simplicity, we’ll just call it enlightenment.
When you out there/up there/in here (it’s often not clear where exactly you are, because you have no perception of ‘where’, or even who ‘you’ are any longer) the weirdest thing happens. The separation between wanting something and experiencing it disappears. As soon as you put your attention on something, you are instantly experiencing it.
You have deliberately suspended your perception of time, so creation is instantaneous. You have deliberately suspended your perception of space, so there is no sense that what you want to create is anywhere different from where you already are. You have deliberately suspended your perception of matter, so there is no sense that what you are creating is not also the reality of what you are currently experiencing. You have deliberately suspended your perception of size and scale, so there is no sense of how big what you are creating even is.
If your intention is to experience being tiny, you are tiny. If your intention is to experience being as large as the entire universe, you are the entire universe. If your intention to feel connection with every being on our planet, you instantly feel that connection.
Whatever you intend, you instantly experience. You’ve already suspended all your reality reference points, so there is nothing to stop your creating and instantly experiencing what you just created. It’s teleportation to instantaneous new realities. It’s thrilling, frightening, powerful, and fundamentally disconcerting, all at the same time. And you can deliberately suspend what all that means, too.
If you intend that you are pure love, you are, just like that, pure love. If you intend that you are pure fear, you are instantly immersed in pure fear in its complete and utter horror. You have deliberately suspended all judgement of what is a negative emotion and what a positive emotion is, so there is no resistance to either love or fear or horror. It’s all the same, just intention instantly creating and immediately experiencing whatever it decided to create.
When I first experienced this state, it was a revelation for me, as it is for anyone persistent and lucky enough to experience it. I realized that this was it. This was enlightenment. This was the holy grail, the end of the journey. I had joined the perhaps 0.0001 percent of humanity that have had a real, tangible, self-directed, experiential, comprehensible moment of pure transcendence, of what it might feel like to exist as quantum consciousness, in an enlightened state.
Then you come back to the light. Shit happens. You come back to your body, back to your sense of time, back to the physical universe, governed by Newtonian laws of physical cause and effect. Back to the experience of being human. Was I lucky to have experienced this, or had I just stepped through a door that made me more alone than ever before in my life? The experience of enlightenment is so distant from any of the concerns of daily life that no will understand what the hell you are talking about. You soon give up trying to explain what just happened, because most of the time you just get a blank stare, or some story about ghosts or other mystical make-believe. Also, you realize that different people have profoundly different and intensely personal experiences after their encounter with enlightenment, because if one thing is certain, it is that this single experience can trigger fundamental recalibration of how you view life, or even what you perceive life even is. Once it has happened to you, you are also instantly able to recognize it if you see it happening to others.
The Butterfly Effect
For some, after an enlightenment experience, an immediate butterfly effect happens. One enlightenment experience is enough to trigger a ripple of other changes throughout their consciousness. They feel like their life will never the same again. I once had a friend who had one of these transformations, after doing the Vipassana meditation program. Vipassana is a meditation technique where you spend nine days in complete silence, with no contact with the outside world. Although you are in a group, you are not allowed to speak with anyone else except for brief controlled question and answer sessions with the teacher. It’s a very powerful yet very tough way to learn to meditate.
My friend came back transformed, light, happy, carefree. Typical behaviors from someone who has come close to or had a transformative enlightenment experience. She even started wearing white flowing clothes to communicate her newfound sense of freedom. But after a week or so of this, she came back to the grinding reality of human existence. The ‘enlightenment effect’ wore off, and her old patterns and habits started running her life again. She happened to have habits that resulted in a lot of drama in her life, particularly in relationships. Pretty soon her life was following the same old script.
You realize slowly that down on the plane of human existence your intentions don’t create reality immediately out of thin air like they do in that state of quantum consciousness. Once of the popular mystical misconceptions that has crept into much of the self-development scene in recent years is that we can ‘manifest’ physical reality into being simply by experiencing it while in a deep transcendental state. This is mystical thinking because the physics of the physical world simply don’t allow matter to create out of nothing. Physical matter has a relationship to energy, and it’s a big one. Manifesting physical objects out of mental energy would require so much energy that we would fry our brains attempting to pull it off.
Mystical thinking also tends to create a strong confirmation bias, leading to people declaring a coincidental event as being something that they deliberately ‘manifested in consciousness’ by some process they executed. It can often be quite challenging to sort out what really did change after your enlightenment experience, and what is simply the result of perceiving the life you already had differently. Changing how we look at things can change our entire life experience. But it doesn’t change physical reality.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not diminishing in any way the power of meditation. Over more than thirty years, my meditation practice was the common element in every major life decision I made, and every success I had. But I didn’t manifest any of those life changes out of thin air, even though to others, it may even have appeared that way. Instead, I used meditation to clarify my goals, identify and remove limiting emotions that limited my willingness to take action, increase my focus and motivation, and become willing to manage the fear involved in taking much bigger risks than many people are comfortable with.
If you are lucky, after you moments in an enlightened state, you did have a usable insight or two that set you on a path to crafting a pathway towards a meaningful, real-life goal or experience you would like to have. Then if you are organized, you can figure out how to start moving stuff around in the physical world of Newtonian physics or your social world of emotions and relationships or your financial world of savings, earnings and investments, in order to bring your intended outcomes in life in line with your actual experience of life.
Deep meditative and transcendental states are undoubtedly transformative. Enlightenment is the peak of these deep transcendental states and should be strived for by anyone on the path to explore their own consciousness. It truly can be where the darkest places of our lives become conscious. We just need to be careful to keep our ‘scientist’ hat on and not exchange it too quickly for our ‘mystic’ one…
This article is adapted from Peter Hill’s upcoming book ‘Reality Check — How Meditation moved from Mysticism to Neuroscience’, which is scheduled for release in 2022.
About the Author
Peter Hill loves to take time to think and feel deeply. Over more than thirty years, he has studied dozens of meditation, self-development and spiritual techniques. Guided by neuroscience rather than mysticism, his mission is to demystify consciousness and teach people to live better lives by using their brains more effectively.