By Deepak Chopra, MD
To be enlightened has many positive connotations and no negative ones. Therefore, you’d think that more people would pursue it—but they don’t. The first obstacle is the lack of a clear definition. What does it actually mean to be enlightened? The simplest definition, which would clear away a lot of confusion is “waking up.” To become enlightened is to move out of a state of confusion and conflict, anxiety and depression, or simply dull routine—whatever you associate with “being asleep.”
Waking up is a metaphor, since most people already consider themselves awake in the ordinary sense of not being asleep in bed. But it’s a powerful metaphor, pointing toward a state of awareness better than what we usually experience. Also, the metaphor is simple. It implies that you don’t have to be a monk sitting in a Himalayan cave practicing intense spiritual practices. Waking up sounds a lot like enlightenment for all. This in fact is true.
Or potentially true. What stands in the way is the second obstacle, which can be called your story. Everyone has their own story, and a huge amount of time, effort, emotion, and commitment is spent defending it. Your story is the foundation of “I,” your identity. Since you were born, “I” has been acquiring all kinds of qualities and characteristics. Call them tags just to keep things simple. In my own case, the tags include the following; Indian, male, husband, father, grandfather, doctor, financially secure, writer, and so on.
These tags belong to my story and to my identity. By defending my story, I keep my identity intact. Take away some part of my story, and if it matters enough, my identity will be attacked or undermined. People fear this more than almost anything in their lives. When a story is disrupted by a major event such as divorce, serious illness, or bankruptcy, an inner crisis usually occurs. Because they fear disruption, people don’t look beyond their story, even when they know they should and deeply want to. A wife trapped in domestic violence, a kid being bullied, a worker terminally bored in a bad job. None is happy with how their story is going, but quite often it’s easier to play out a story than to attempt to disrupt and change it.
Enlightenment lies outside your story; it consists of waking up to new possibilities, including the possibility of an “I” that isn’t defined by your story. This sounds at once enticing and fearful. Think of the image of a wandering Buddhist monk begging for food and sleeping at night in a temple. Would you exchange your life for his if you were promised enlightenment? Very few westerners would, even if their personal story made them totally miserable. On the face of it, fearing enlightenment is totally irrational. It’s like being offered freedom and refusing because you are used to being in jail.
Yet in one way or another, almost everyone prefers defending their story in place of seeking a higher state of consciousness. They’d rather be trapped, burdened, unfulfilled, maybe anxious and depressed—all the marks of being asleep. Yet the world’s wisdom traditions teach that waking up is natural and nothing to fear. The process isn’t mystical. To be awake is simply to be real, to look around and accept reality as it is, and to trust that reality is better than illusion. So how does a person trigger the waking up process?
The path to enlightenment is so personal that there’s no fixed template. You can follow a map to Arizona or even a map to getting into college, becoming a success on Wall Street, or learning to win friends and influence people. But every map keeps you inside your story. At best you can upgrade your story, but ironically, the upgrade will only solidify the “I” defined by success on Wall Street or having a lot of friends. This tells us that enlightenment doesn’t’ consist of anything about your present story. Nothing you do to make your story better or worse matters in the end, not as it relates to waking up.
Instead, you shift your identity by aligning with the reality that shows the way to a new inner life, for “I” is being defended on the inside. What does reality say that will alter how you see the world, and yourself, from the inside? Here “reality” means the waking state as described by those who are already awake. For short, we can define “those who are awake” as the tradition of saints, sages, and spiritual guides, including poets and writers of scripture, in every culture. Winnow out the essence of what they say, and here’s how waking up worked for them.
- You discover that there is more to life than your limited story.
- You realize that stories are simply human constructs. As such, they are arbitrary, flimsy, insecure, and disconnected from reality.
- If you examine your story and allow its false constructs to fall away, you automatically become more real. When every manmade illusion is gone, you are completely real.
- To dismantle a story is the same as dismantling the “I” who is defending the story with all its might and main. Therefore, the dismantling must be accompanied by something that “I” considers better. Giving up something precious only happens if you are getting something more precious in return.
- There is nothing outward in the physical world that is precious enough to replace your story and the “I” that defends it. Only something “in here” could be more precious, not to mention permanent, since external things, people, and events all come and go. They are temporary and transient.
- At first glance, the inner world is even more temporary and transient, because the restless mind is continually filled with the rise and fall of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. The mind, in fact, would seem to be a worse place to find security than in externals like money, career, status, a happy family life, etc. This attitude helps to keep people trapped in their stories, hoping all the time that by upgrading the story, security and happiness will be achieved.
- Yet waking up doesn’t consist of conquering the restless mind, trying to force it into peace and quiet. Nothing about the restless mind or the movie of your life that emerges from your mental activity, makes a difference in the end. What makes a difference is to find a level of awareness that is already awake.
- Having found this level, you only need to identify with it, because you discover that the “I” of being awake is actually more enjoyable, secure, peaceful, fulfilled, creative, loving, and evolved than the “I” which is struggling to defend its story year after year, a story it knows is jerry-rigged to begin with and not all that great to experience.
- To begin to identify with a deeper level of the mind, you must experience it. We all have, but on an irregular basis. Whenever you feel love, fulfillment, contentment, beauty, inspiration, or an expanded sense of self, you have stepped into a new identity by stepping into a new state of awareness. To maintain these moments of being awake isn’t possible—they come and go.
- However, it is possible to practice meditation, which takes you to the level of wakefulness without any distractions. In one way or another, the waking state and the meditative state must be the same. This is the only path to being awake all the time, completely free from your story and yet also free from the fearful need that without your story, you will wind up in deep trouble.
These steps indicate how to create your own enlightenment, and if they seem reasonable and clear to you, the last step, being awake and in a meditative state all the time, is possible to achieve. It may come as a shock to realize that you can only meditate by being awake 24 hours a day, but that’s the inevitable conclusion. In the next post we’ll discuss how to get there from here, which is the essence of the spiritual journey.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing and Jiyo.com, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and Clinical Professor at UCSD School of Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers along with You Are the Universe (February 2017, Harmony) co-written with leading physicist, Menas Kafatos. Other recent books include Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com