(I am republishing an answer that I wrote in Quora)
The word ‘Enlightenment’ can be defined in many different ways. We have so many words in different traditions which are synonymous with the word ‘enlightenment’.
The list of words are endless and the definitions are endless too. Some people exaggerate it, some people understate it, some people say that there is no such thing called enlightenment while the majority of the world’s population haven’t even heard of it.
First, let me describe enlightenment in terms of what disappears. Deep down in people’s minds, there is an underlying dissatisfaction with the way things are. People want many things to be different from the way they actually are. There is a craving for becoming something that one is not and there is a resistance to the way things are. Everyone is moving towards a goal, a destination that is in the future. The hopes of arriving at that destination seem to give some solace and if those hopes and dreams are threatened, we tend to suffer. This burning uneasiness and dissatisfaction can be likened to a fire that is burning. The extinction of this fire is enlightenment. The word ‘Nirvana’ means extinction.
There are also two other words ‘moksha’ and ‘mukthi’, which literally mean ‘liberation’. These words refer to how enlightenment feels like.
A typical human being is bound by various things. He is bound by his own past intentions. He is bound by his beliefs. He is bound by the opinions of other people.
But deep inside the heart of every human being, there is a longing to become boundless and expansive. We try to accomplish this by accumulation; we accumulate knowledge, possession, and experiences hoping that these accumulations will make us boundless.
But these very accumulations cause further bondage. Now you have to protect them because losing them will essentially mean losing yourself; because you derive a sense of identity from these accumulations. A typical human being is actually in a self-made prison. But the saddest part is that majority of the population don’t realize that they are in such a prison.
I have heard a quote by some anonymous person which goes like this:
“One of the greatest mental freedoms is truly not caring what anyone else thinks of you”..
Imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you no longer worry about what other people think about you. And, also imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you are no longer afraid of losing anything. Imagine the kind of freedom you will get when you no longer worry about future and past! What is usually called as enlightenment is the greatest freedom ever. It is not only a combination of all kinds of freedoms that I just talked about but it is also a freedom from the sense of a separate self. It is a permanent freedom from the story you have about you. Once a person is enlightened, he feels like a huge load has been taken off of his shoulders. There is a sense of an immense freedom which is priceless. It literally feels like escaping from a prison.
Once J. Krishnamurti asked his audience if they wanted to know what his secret was. Then he revealed his secret in just one sentence. He said, “I don’t care what happens”…
Simply put, this is enlightenment. Nothing ultimately matters and the whole life becomes a play or a game.
When we play a game with our friends, we play it without any seriousness. Even though we make sure that the rules of the games are followed and that we do what we are supposed to do in the game, we don’t lose our sleep over it (unless we are playing in a tournament). Playing your role in life as if you are just playing a game is the greatest sense of freedom. Enlightenment naturally makes you to not to care about the end result of whatever you are doing. At the end of the day, nothing ever matters. That doesn’t mean you will be irresponsible. You will just enjoy what you are doing rather than being focused on results. Your actions will be driven by intrinsic motivation.
Whatever I have said so far, sounds quite logical. But I haven’t touched the core yet. The core and the essence of enlightenment is realizing that you as a separate person or entity is an illusion. You create a solid sense of self inside your mind and you define the boundaries of that self physically by your body and mentally by your story.
But science and spirituality tell us that there is no such solid, consistent self. This doesn’t mean that your body and your mind doesn’t exist. But a sense of self that you derive from your body and mind is just a deep-rooted belief. Since you have this belief for such a long time, you don’t even recognize that it is a belief. This may even sound absurd or unacceptable to you simply because you have lived with this belief so long. We have built layer upon layer on this belief which makes us very difficult to see through this belief.
Someone asked a question in Quora before. The question was “Can an atheist believe in spiritual enlightenment? “. The word ‘believe’ here is a bit odd.But this question comes from an assumption that spiritual enlightenment is somehow related or tied to religious beliefs. But in reality, an enlightened person is an upgraded atheist.
Let me elaborate. The only thing that an atheist doesn’t believe in is the existence of a personal deity, a creator God who answers your prayers. But an atheist may still believe that his next door neighbor is a jerk and his boss is an a**h**e.
An enlightened person, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t even believe that he is separate from the existence. Once the sense of a separate-self dissolves, you realize that you are existence itself. All the boundaries between you and the world simply disappear. You cease to exist as a person but you continue to exist as the existence.Realizing that you are not an entity separate from existence is enlightenment. It is not just realizing this as a fact but realizing it in your actual moment to moment experience.
This is not to say that enlightenment is a special experience or an altered state of consciousness. When you are living a life as a liberated person, you simply experience the reality without any duality. The reality is felt in its purity without any distortions. Your life then becomes free-flowing, conflict-less, guilt-free, fearless, peaceful and fulfilled. Nothing is lacking anymore at the absolute level. There is a sense of innocence and genuineness in your moment to moment experience. It is quite ordinary then how enlightenment is described or thought of.
So, what causes this illusion of separate self or duality? Left-brain interpreter is the culprit.
The left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before. The left brain interpreter attempts to rationalize, reason and generalize new information it receives in order to relate the past to the present. The concept was first introduced by Michael Gazzaniga while he performed research on split-brain patients during the early 1970s with Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology.] Sperry eventually received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions to split-brain research
If you just look at the above picture, one thing is clear. You left brain engages in things which require categorization. Your right brain specializes in helping you to see everything as a whole.
Dr. Chris Niebauer, a neuroscientist writes in his book ‘The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment: How the Left-brain Plays Unending Games of Self-improvement’ about the left brain interpreter.
Let me quote a few lines from his book:
“The left-brain interpreter is categorical, it creates division outwardly and inwardly, so let it do its job, let it do its thing. “
“Again, there is the interpreter created category of “me as I am” vs. “me as I want to be” which are both just thoughts bouncing around in the skull. So, ironically, if you are trying to improve yourself, you can’t. The notion that your self needs improving is an interpretation and we are going around interpretations. There is an irony in most bookstores called the “self help” section. I might suggest renaming this as “Books that reinforce the illusion that the left-brain interpreter can be what it isn’t free of itself.”
“The interpreter also creates and sustains our collection of categorical thoughts called our beliefs.”
It is this left brain interpreter which also creates the duality. It categories your body and your story as a ‘me’ that is separate from the existence.
You can read more about it here: Shanmugam P’s answer to Is spiritual awakening a myth?
Spiritual enlightenment is going beyond all the dualities. It leads one to resolve all the internal conflicts and to feel one with everything. It removes the idea that there is a separate entity inside which has to enhance itself for fulfillment. The left brain may still continue to categorize things, but they are not solidified in our consciousness and we are not urged to protect those solidified entities.