Awakening before Enlightenment

We hear the term ‘awakening’ thrown about today like a rag doll. And as is the case with almost all spiritual terminology, there seem to be levels and levels of meaning for the word ‘awakening.’ It is important to first recognize that we are not necessarily using a common language. When I see what the word ‘awakening’ is being used to point at, from the plethora of spiritual teachers that exists today, it is evident that it is being used to denote many different things.

And it is not just the spiritual teachers who use ‘awakening’ with different meanings; you can find references from the Enlightened Masters as well. There are times in the many books of Osho where he refers to ‘awakening’ as the final enlightenment, and sometimes he is pointing to a step that precedes enlightenment. I find the same situation in the works of J. Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ramana Maharshi, and Meher Baba. Although if one looks carefully at the context in which the words are being used, it is not as confusing as it seems.

However, in writing this I am not interested in repeating the words of those remarkable Enlightened Ones, but rather this understanding that I wish to share, is one that has been taking shape over the last twenty years and has only now become sufficiently stabilized that I feel willing to express openly.

Before we even begin to look at the different meanings we might ascribe to ‘awakening,’ let us first acknowledge that all individuals are moving through their awakening at a different pace. It is clear that we did not all begin at the same point. This is illustrated when we see that a sage like Ramana Maharshi realizes his enlightenment at the age of sixteen seemingly without effort. In contrast is the experience of Nisargadatta Maharaj in whom enlightenment happened much later in life. Some were prepared from their very childhood for such an event, and some worked through their own efforts at removing the obstacles to the ‘natural state.’ Some of us have lived a life centered in meditation from a young age, and some of us stumbled upon it much later in life perhaps after some major crisis turned our world upside down. So it is important to understand that just because we have not had a certain understanding does not mean that one of our fellow travelers has not. It is equally important to note that if we have experienced some insight or transformation, it is not likely that many will understand what we are talking about.

So let us begin with what each of us (at least anyone who is reading this) has probably experienced. For some of us it might have come like a bolt of lightning, for others it may have always been intuited as truth. And that is that life, the world, is appreciably different from what we were conditioned to believe. Many may describe this realization as an awakening and indeed it is. This awakening would demark the beginning of the journey. It would denote a tremendously important change of direction and priorities in one’s life.

Having changed direction in life, we embark on searching out information, knowledge, understanding, and perhaps a teacher to help guide us along the way. We may be fortunate and come across that guide early on or for some it may take many years. And some may not find the guide in whom trust is a natural and spontaneous flowering and so may just wander from teacher to teacher. Regardless, even without a guide, and certainly with one, it is possible, after an introduction to meditation, after reading the words of those who have known the greatest mystery, after the necessary inner work, to come to an “intellectual understanding” of the lay of the spiritual land. Jean Klein refers to it as a “geometric understanding.” One can almost visualize the obstacles that lie before. This understanding often can come as a flash and could certainly be described as an ‘awakening.’ But here, it is important to note that this intellectual understanding is not the same as being understanding, is not the same as knowingness; it is more like knowledge.

Next, we come to what seems to me to be more worthy of such a moniker as ‘awakening.’ This is when one realizes oneself to be out of the mind’s conditioning. The “goose is out.” Here one is being out of the mind and is able to see the mind clearly as an object of perception. It is not that the mind has disappeared, no, but one is not living within the mind. And it is here that witnessing really emerges. In fact, this is the witness. The mind is still present but one is not captive to its many grips. But it is important at this stage to allow witnessing its full force through meditation. It is here that the “emptying of consciousness” must take place. If one is not mindful, it is extremely easy to slip back into the clutches of the mind. But one is also able to see the horizon. One knows what needs to happen. One cannot make ‘it’ happen, but one does need to create the opportunity. With this awakening the taste is known and so it is natural that real earnestness arises.

For what follows, we will have to take the words and expressions of those who have known as a hypothesis. We accept the hypothesis and in our laboratory of meditation discover for ourselves if it is indeed true. The Enlightened Masters have all said that there does come a complete annihilation of the separate ego-mind, one that is irreversible, and surely it is ‘this’ that deserves the name “Enlightenment.”

So here we come to the point that has been the fuel for this inquiry all these years. Without exposure to the presence of an Enlightened Master, and unfortunately for some even with, it is very easy to believe that the “awakening of the witness” is the end of the journey, is itself enlightenment. Some fellow travelers might very well believe that there is no ending of the mind because that is the limitation of their own experience. They become teachers and this then becomes part of their teaching, thus misdirecting their students. Just as importantly their unfolding stagnates, believing that they have reached the end thus not allowing the space for the “emptying of consciousness” to take place. This is where the exposure to a fully enlightened master should prove extremely helpful. The master does not allow us to make our house in the sand. He continually goads us to keep on to the very end. May we all continue to the very end, Charaiveti, charaiveti (go on, go on to the very end).


This is from the collection of stories, essays, poems and insights that is compiled to form the book From Lemurs to Lamas: Confessions of a Bodhisattva. Order the book Here.

Here is a follow up post After Awakening Before Enlightenment.

See a related post The Seeing I.

Below I am including some links to a few postings that illustrate, much more deeply, what is being said.

A Geometrical Understanding-Jean Klein

Minor Explosions-Osho

The Stages of the Path-Meher Baba

Spiritual Snakes and Ladders-Osho

Attainment-Ramana Maharshi

The Emptying of Consciousness-J. Krishnamurti

Flowering, Awakening, Self-Realization and Enlightenment-Osho

Charaiveti, Charaiveti-Osho


11 thoughts on “Awakening before Enlightenment”

  1. I like this post very much, as it addresses something I’ve said many times to people who usually seem to think I’m splitting hairs; and it’s nice to see someone else saying it, too (At least, I think that this is what you’re saying.): the words “awakening”, “enlightenment” and “liberation” often function like signposts placed randomly to mislead tourists down defunct roadways. They appear in dialog with vague and contradictory implications, often used in completely different ways by the same teacher. In the absence of clear definitions, which need to be continually reiterated in response to each misstatement (by students trying to grasp their meaning, for instance), using these words can mislead people into believing they understand something which they don’t, just because they can repeat them in a grammatically correct sentence.

    One of the interesting complications which arises from the inconsistent use of these words, and is generally not consciously recognized, is that there are two different ideas being commingled. One idea is that of a sudden change in the quality of one’s perception of the essence of being (I’ll call it “idea #1”); the other is of a change, either sudden or gradual, in the qualities expressed through a being or person (“idea #2”). One of my friends and I, who have discussed this topic at some length, have agreed upon definitions to use in our conversations with each other. We use “liberation” in a way which he quoted from a teacher (Jean Klein, I think – I can’t point out the instance), which is that one is liberated FROM the FELT SENSE of a separate self (I wish I could use italics on this page, but it won’t let me, so I used caps. Sorry…I don’t mean to yell ☺) (idea #1); and when one is “enlightened”, one’s entire being (including the personality and its actions) is suffused with the “light” of truth (the actuality of what is) so that no action arises from conditioning (which includes instincts like fear), and all action arises as an authentic response, in and to the actual circumstances in the present (idea #2) (In order for idea #2 to be the case, #1 must also be the case, but not the other way around.) I would use “awakening” in the same way I use “liberation”; but I think people sometimes use it to mean a high experience which ends when they return to their normal state (as in “She had an awakening at the retreat.”)

    Sometimes, people take a stab at differentiating ideas #1 and #2 by referring to “full enlightenment”, as opposed to (lesser) “enlightenment”, which makes me think that there is at least an intuitive suspicion that there are really two different things being considered.

    Liberation (again, as we use the term) is something which either is or isn’t the case, like pregnancy. It isn’t gradual or partial (although, one’s life, when regarded as a path traversing time, can be seen as approaching or retreating from certain milestones; and so, in retrospect, one could say that, on a particular day, one was “almost” liberated, knowing that one became so on the following day. That wouldn’t be the same as there being a condition in which one is partially or mostly liberated.) When people insist that they were once temporarily liberated or enlightened, I ask, “During that time or experience, did there seem to be a person who was liberated?”. If they say “Yes.”, then I remark that, according to my understanding, that was not liberation or enlightenment (liberation being the absence of the FELT SENSE of separate selfhood, and since the sense of separate selfhood is false, then it has to go in order for one to be enlightened, aka: filled with only truth. ; so it has to be absent for either idea #1 or #2 to be the case.

    There can be states which seem very “high” or advanced, like the one you mentioned which people often refer to as “the witness state”, which are not liberation. (Liberation, as we use the term, isn’t a “state”, but that’s a whole conversation in itself.) Sometimes people experience these high states prior to liberation, sometimes they don’t. I don’t know if there’s a causal relationship, or if it’s just coincidental (Maybe a majority of people who get liberated tried to end their spiritual suffering by doing things which led to the states in question, but the states themselves might not lead to liberation or mark it’s advent.) However, for there to be a “witness” and a thing “witnessed”, there have to be two objects – the “witness” is still a person apart from the thing witnessed (experience); one object is acting upon the other by observing it. The experience (felt sense) of a separation between EXISTENTIAL objects disappears upon liberation. Within the undifferentiated consciousness which is felt to be the essence of existence, after liberation, arises the perception of phenomenal objects. These objects exist in manifestation and are ontologically different from purely mental objects such as “self” and “everything else”.

    While I have noticed many examples of someone using the word “enlightenment” to mean what my friend and I call “liberation”, I think that, mostly, people also have an expectation that enlightenment will be evident in a person’s behavior. Recognizing this expectation is key to understanding the difference between ideas #1 and #2. If that difference is not understood, a phrase like “the cessation of suffering” can become convoluted, so that it means that the cessation of personal suffering equals the cessation of the tendency to cause suffering in others, or, as one friend of mine believed: that all suffering becomes the suffering of the enlightened one (since the existential oneness indicated in idea #1 is transferred to the notion of idea #2 and it is then supposed that the oneness is, in fact, phenomenal, rather than existential oneness, which is absurd.

    Not recognizing the difference between these two ideas can lead to discounting the occurrence of, or significance of, liberation, because one has been lead to believe that eradicating personal suffering is of no account by tales of people such as Mother Theresa. In fact, the eradication of the suffering of the sense of separate selfhood results from falling into harmony with what actually is (Truth), and leaving behind falsehood, which should be understood to be a good thing, even by those who would prefer to fulfill an expectation of personal “perfection”.

    Liberation is purely subjective, being only that one loses one’s SENSE of separate selfhood; it is a matter of perception. One’s personality is not necessarily outwardly or objectively affected by that change. It can be, especially over time, as in the example of a fan being turned off. Liberation turns off the fan (it cuts the power feeding the creation and maintenance of conditioned reactions), but the blades continue to turn until the movement dies down. The personality after liberation continues to move according to its construction; “full enlightenment” would occur when the movement of the fan stopped and any prior constructs and conditioning ceased to function in the individual’s actions in the world, which could be objectively observed.

    Liberation, being a subjective, inner experience, can’t be observed in behavior. I like to say that liberation is a “private grace” and that enlightenment is a “public grace”. Another way I put it is that, post liberation, I am untroubled by my own personality, but others can still be as annoyed as they were, before (obviously, being a joke, it’s not very exact, but it points in the right direction). Liberation isn’t going to make everyone else around happy; but it does one thing which contributes to the lessening of overall or aggregate suffering: it ceases the immense suffering caused to the individual by the false sense of separate selfhood, which is so excruciating that one can’t properly describe it, compared with not suffering from it. In my experience, no circumstantial suffering compares, not physical injury, emotional suffering, illness, or anything else one can name (and, I’m no stranger to broken bones, torn ligaments, persistent ailments, dealing with mental illness in the family, terminal illness of friends and family, and long surgeries). And, since so many great teachers and traditions focus so much energy on helping people to reach this level of freedom, I think we can say that many wiser than I agree with this assessment and want to help eradicate the suffering of self-identity. So, to those who belittle a purely subjective grace (mostly because of cultural conditioning, not out of pure compassion or empathy, even for themselves), I say that less suffering in the universe is better, period.

    I have heard it said that one can’t be “fully” enlightened and live in the material world, since even the physical body carries its own conditioning, in the form of instincts and genetic predispositions, and since, by simply living, one develops habits and learned behaviors. This illustrates the extent to which the idea of enlightenment as being equal to the perfection of the personality is along the lines of a mythical ideal, and indicates that perhaps the process of enlightenment should be regarded as, for all practical purposes, unending.

    I can provide a reference for this last idea, which is Kalu Rinpoche describing bodhisattvahood in a book which I have around the house somewhere. When I find it, I can provide the title and page number, if anyone likes. He states that one crosses the line into bodhisattvahood when one gets free from the sense of separate selfhood. After that, one proceeds upon the very long path to being “fully realized” or something like that. He says that there are 10 major stages, which are each divided into lots (like 100 or 10k or something, each) of minor stages. That is analogous to my understanding that one gets liberated and then proceeds along the path of enlightenment until one gets fully enlightened, which is many stages, or a long time, down the line, and so one shouldn’t hold one’s breath. Another good reference is Swami Nithyananda saying, “After enlightenment one has the same personality one had before.” [using “enlightenment” in the sense of my “liberation” (idea #1), described above, I presume]. If one has been following my line of thought, one will realize that the presence or absence of scandal in one’s life is not necessarily a good indicator of whether or not one understands such things.

    That point about enlightenment being a process, as far as our human experience is concerned, is the reason I think all of this is important for people to consider, and why talking about it isn’t useless pedantry.

    Liberation, as I said, according to my understanding, either is or isn’t. There either seems to be a separate person experiencing, or there doesn’t. Enlightenment, on the other hand, is a matter of shades, or of degree; it takes time to come to fruition. Being clear about this is important because when one merges the two ideas, the mishmash tends to come out like this: One becomes enlightened in an instant (taking the “instant, or finite, on/off” aspect of the idea of liberation), which is to say one’s personality goes from imperfect to perfect in an instant (because one has merged that prior idea with the idea of “full enlightenment”). People really do think that, like a flash of lightening, an ordinary person becomes magically transformed into, not just someone whose perceptions are more clear, but who suddenly displays various attributes association in the student’s mind with enlightenment (the most extreme of these being various “siddhis”, or unusual powers, but the notion is very insidious in its more subtle forms because, there, it’s not so obviously unrealistic.) Holding to this notion can cause a self-identified person to become even more identified with and invested in their self-identity, because they expect a future moment when the perfection of the personality will bring about the cessation of suffering. Rather than realizing that freedom from suffering comes from shifting focus away from the personality, and that any subsequent “perfection” follows from that freedom, they redouble their efforts to work on the personality, itself. Even in traditions in which the focus is fairly obviously on disengaging from ego-identification, talk about the radical transformation of liberation is generally sidelined in favor of cultivating characteristics which emulate the attributes expected in enlightenment.

    When one is on fire, one’s first desire is usually to put out the fire, not be sure one’s charitable contributions got out in the mail. Similarly, a self-identified person, whether they realize it or not, is trying to escape the suffering caused by self-identity. Often this effort takes the form of seeking to fulfill worldly desires (for temporary distraction from the inner unrest). When one’s perfectly natural desire to escape unnecessary existential suffering is discounted because of a misunderstanding about the nature of realization leading to unreachable ideals, that suffering can continue for much longer than necessary, and even be worsened by the self-criticism which arises in relation to an imaginary and unrealistic goal. Projecting the desire for the safety and comfort of resting in the True Self into an expectation of a future event pulls the seeker out of the way to freedom (just being), and the widespread tendency to do this is why many effective techniques (meditation, contemplation) lead the seeker back into the present, away from imaginary future outcomes.

    It is common for people to think that one has to achieve perfection of the personality in order to become enlightened (in this case of black and white thinking they are implicitly assuming “full” enlightenment). It’s not totally unlike a Christian thinking that one has to stop being a sinner in order to get saved. In fact, that’s a bit backwards, as “(full) enlightenment” refers to the state of already having achieved that perfection. In this way, one becomes invested in circular reasoning, and unless something happens to break its hold, one can chase one’s own tail, endlessly.

    This results in attempting to do the impossible: perfect the human personality, which in turn, results in unnecessary pain and frustration, and sometimes, giving up one’s attempt to stop suffering, spiritually. People often “leave the path” because of frustration. At least part of that might be due to this unnecessary outward focus, when inner focus might be more efficacious. Some of the symptoms of this are:
    a) judging others as to their level of “enlightenment”, in what is really a perverted attempt to understand what enlightenment or liberation is by analyzing the behavior and outer appearance of others (especially teachers) (by this, I don’t mean to say that judging or analyzing is wrong; only that doing it in a certain way is sometimes a symptom of this misunderstanding);
    b) feeling that enlightenment is not possible, either in general, or in one’s own case;
    c) expecting enlightenment to have the earmarks of “perfection” (whatever one thinks that might be like): a high feeling, having the appearance of great personal power or intelligence, having various occult powers, being liked by everyone, being likeable according to one’s own preferences, etc.

    Generally, trying to get out from under bondage to a false sense of self created by the mind is tricky business, and one can’t normally do it with the mind, directly. However, one can use one’s reason to discern what the goal(s) of spiritual practice might be, how one might most effectively work towards them, and how to remain aware that ideas about anything are just ideas, not reality, itself. What one is told or thinks one is told should simply be a guide, never a barrier, to solitary inner work. Direct inner experience gives one the perspective to evaluate ideas, and should be considered paramount by seekers of truth. Deep, clear thought and contemplation, though not the complete solution for most, can help students to avoid serious pitfalls on the path. And, that’s why I believe that giving some time to noticing things like I’ve pointed out might be useful to seekers. Someone (one out of about 20 people who read the same piece) once said I sounded preachy. That’s not my intent; it just takes some time and effort to explain these kinds of ideas.


  2. Oops. When I wrote, “Liberation, being a subjective, inner experience, can’t be observed in behavior.”, I was being sloppy. Liberation refers to either a condition of being liberated or a shift into that condition, not an experience, so to speak.


  3. “The master does not allow us to make our house in the sand. He continually goads us to keep on to the very end. May we all continue to the very end, charaiveti, charaiveti (go on, go on to the very end).”

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, whether or not there is an “end”, I’m Happy to rest in Endless Enlightening.


    Is one “enlightened” with the cessation of identification with manifest form –
    Body, mind, emotions, and the felt sensation of personal identity?

    Is one “enlightened” when one feels one’s self expanded as all that is?

    Is one “enlightened” when one feels one’s Self to be only “That” within which all arises?

    Is one “enlightened” with the cessation of identification even as “That”?

    Is one “enlightened” when one feels one’s self to be neither all that arises,
    Nor “That” within which all arises?

    Is one “enlightened” with the advent of ever-present, effortlessly arising Bliss?

    Is one “enlightened” with the cessation of all grasping?

    Liberation is liberation from “enlightenment”.

    There is no “enlightenment”; only Endless Enlightening.

    Only a fool plants a flag, and declares the summit.


  4. Hi. Thanks for inviting me into this discussion.
    I agree on your description of the process. (I may use the terminology different, but I dont know the common use so, please dont cling to words but read in bettween them, that is the only way to describe truth with words, by pointing at what is NOT being said)
    For me enlightenment was sudden.
    Like a flash from the sky.
    Later I could see that I had many of the insights that followed enlightenment, already before. Ten years before. Twenty years before I had some of them. I had periods of awakening I guess. The awakening I am not so interested in since it for me describes an opening up and seeing through the world.
    I saw through it but didnt believe emotionally that I was right. I felt I was an UFO, wanted just to be happy or normal. I got depressed by that, and got emotionally instable. My conditioning was not very hard ever, but I wanted to build it up, and did so for many years until I was fully caught up in mind, like the rest of the human race.
    Then: Life gave me the experiences I needed. Severe pain and agony for many years. Terrible, it was. I can remember that but now I am happy for every moment of my life, since it led me to see through… see through, my own mind.
    Many people want us to return to the mind state. I havent done that yet. I think as you say, it is important to transcend every conscept, before returning into the play.
    I have transcended almost every conscept. I did it in a period of seven weeks after enlightenment happened.
    Seven weeks of pure bliss. Then bliss also went away.
    My last concepts that gave up last, was patience, and “a belief that I could do something”.
    I saw through them but emotionally, they were remdining me about their existence. Maybe the last belief I had was a quite invisible one, namely, that I could not enjoy the play again and that a feeling of joy had to be denied. Sunshine is in a way more comfortable then coldness i think. I mean it. And also joy is comfortable. We can enjoy cold and pain etc aswell, but the body protests in the long run.
    So after everything is transcended, we may surrender to our “conditioning of exsiting” or to the conditioning itself.. I guess I didnt really let that happen until the rest was cleared out.
    For me, it is probably time to return to the play now.
    Enlightenment is used as a word by me to describe this process. It may take 40 days or the whole life. But then the process is probably paused, if it takes more then a year or two.
    If you want me to describe any part of this process, let me know.
    Thank you!


  5. An important thing I failed to mention was that I was never a non-dualist or buddhist or anything, before enlightenment. After and during it I could recognice enlightened teachings though. Dhamma padda is a great buddhist book for example describing these things. Ghospel of Thomas is entartaining. And older texts from Nag Hammadi, but they use a terminology that we cant alway be sure of the meaning with. Hermes Trimegistus wrote interesting stuff. So, after it happened I did some research to find out what had happened. I didnt know it was the “big one” until after a while. Slowly I accepted this word “enlightenment” , and I dont reject it. That is just belief. People talk and move different from each other and there is no rule, no right, no wrong. There is only moral that comes from within. Similar to the ten commendments but not a copy. It is lived and you cant go against it when enlightened, well, its possible if fairly enlightened, but putting creation and negativity is not something we want to do after enlightenment.
    We are just the non reactive spot in universe through which negativity (carma) disappears. Thats what it is.
    There is no greater purpose, even if we use belief to claim there is a purpose at all.
    Negativity disappears through us, and we mirror every one. I am now mirroring you, but it works better in real life. Not in text.


  6. Enlightenment is a happening. After enlightenment there is no happenings. Levels, as well as enlightenment does not exist to the enlightened ones. Only to the believers.
    Proof of real elightenment is the ending of tjoughts. No thougts. Not even as objects.
    And the ending of all suffering, agresdion, dreams at Day or night.
    Death of all but the body and the perceptions possible for the body to recall.
    Talk without meaning is going to continue happening.
    And the talk Will be intetpreted and cause reactions by the believers That compare.
    The need to compare comes Our of a belief.
    The beliefe that one is not complete As One is.
    A need to argue for ones existens arise from That.
    Thus, the comparing and reacting.
    You Will find it when you stop searching, and start finding.


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