The most confounding concern for any spiritual seeker is this: “How?” How do we “become enlightened?” How do we realize the Truth? How to we realize the Self? How do we stumble upon that which we really are? How do we become that which is infinite, changeless, and formless in our own consciousnesses, not simply in theory? Usually, for some amount of time, the mind is obsessed with the how, and chases after the moment of awakening like one might chase after anything else.
But if there is anything we can say about Truth, it is that it is paradoxical and does not follow any fixed laws. I will not lie and say there is a predictable way to attain it (nor am I fully comfortable with using words like “attain” for it). At best I can offer some tools that have helped to integrate my awakening, but it would be dishonest to say I was looking for what “I” re-discovered in myself, or that there is any particular method by which it occurred. It came out of nowhere in the midst of a life that felt rather saturated in problems. My entire being was blindsided by it, and this created a big mess. This is why I advocate for gradual, sane awakenings.
There is no logical consistency to it, truly no “path,” and no guarantees about it. Realizing Truth stands in stark contrast to every other “goal” as we are taught to approach it. We are conditioned to believe that anything worth having must be ardently striven for. To experience the Self outside of this conditioning, you even have to let go of the idea that Truth can be “gotten” in such a way.
I have no answer to the “how,” except to say that there is no surefire “how.” I believe anyone who says they do have a definite “how” is either lying or mistaken.
One of my favorite quotes is that “enlightenment always happens by accident, but practice makes us accident-prone.” If you are out of practice, it can still happen; it’s just going to be a lot more intense (and not necessarily in a good way) when you wake up. I invite you to read this piece by Osho on “accidental enlightenment” if you’re interested.
One metaphor I particularly like is that enlightenment is similar to being struck by lightning, and following a conscious spiritual path turns you into a lighting rod. If you take up practices, keep yourself sober and healthy, read books by reliable sources, and follow your heart in life, your being is probably at a place where it is drawing nearer to enlightenment (or vice versa.). You make yourself more likely to “get hit” in this way. Even better, if this lightning strikes, it will be channeled through you in a much better way than if you do nothing to cultivate your consciousness ahead of time.
It is also prudent to view self-realization with just as much respect as we do literal lightning: It can bring with it a sense of pure power. In someone who is spiritually immature (as I was, and am still growing out of), this energy is really not wielded well at all. To continue following this metaphor, we have to imagine someone very strong who has the presence of mind to calmly withstand being struck by lightning. I don’t know if this is possible, but let’s pretend: You could end up running around like a maniac, caught on fire by your realization (without practice), or standing in awe of the totality of this power, allowing it to surge through your being and inform you of what, if anything, to do next (with practice).
When we wake up, it also becomes clear that the Truth has been with us the whole time; it has only been temporarily covered over with various attachments, illusions, and other mental clutter. It is like remembering you have a fortune when you believed you were bankrupt or waking up in the arms of your lover during a dream in which they have died: There’s a wash of relief for sure, and also a great deal of joy upon seeing your own mistake in believing things were not always this way. In the face of Reality, your former ignorance is revealed as a kind of joke.
I have made metaphors like this before, and I will continue to do so: Trying to be enlightened is like “trying” to have a heartbeat. It is always there, and always has been. Still, you can bring more awareness to your heartbeat; then maybe one day it just pops into your conscious mind: The steady, life-affirming rhythm you never could have existed without becomes eternal in your awareness.
When you the see the Truth that lives inside of you, all mysteries and maladies of the human condition become clear and even simple to resolve: “All” we have to do is realize the Truth. A good skeptic will not believe this, nor should they. And even though the words may seem too trite and childish to carry weight—“just realize the Truth”—what I am actually speaking of is completely revolutionary, healing, and hilarious when it is realized. It is not what you think it is.
So what is the Truth? I am not going to define it, in part because it cannot be defined. Truth never changes and yet it never repeats; how could any honest person define such a thing? Every person really does have to look for themselves. Anyone who has encountered the Truth will know they cannot adequately “explain” it to you, nor will they ask you to accept anything they say unquestioningly. This is another issue I take with religious institutions: These organizations often insist that followers “must” accept certain things in order to be known and loved by God. The main problem with all this “you must accept x prophet as The Best Savior” stuff is that it is patently False. God requires nothing of you or anyone else. God is unconditional acceptance, nonjudgmental observance, and pure awareness of All That Is. This space is also within you, and it can be realized. To say otherwise is to trivialize and make a mockery of God: Imagining this God has jealousies, preferences, and plays favorites? What we are thinking of here is an ill-mannered yet popular teenager, not the Almighty.
Secondly, getting people to stop seeking by handing them the “correct” beliefs robs them of their opportunity to truly discover it. To me, this is the most tragic part: Clinging to and/or identifying with fixed mental positions means you have wrapped your purity up in a costume. Truth reveals itself once we give up our identifications, so when we try to goad someone into picking up an identification (as a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc.), we effectively halt their spiritual growth. Anytime we “add” layers to ourselves—of belief or philosophy—we evade abiding in that pure state. Of course, those who dole out the “things that must be accepted” are not aware that they’re actually preventing the true spread of God in this world.
No one who has had this realization will claim they can give it to you. Instead they will ask you to look inside yourself, find your own answers, and never give up. They may suggest that you don’t make “enlightenment” a goal per se—indeed it is not “your” goal to achieve—but keep the thirst for realization close at heart.
In my quite limited wisdom, I would suggest not overthinking it, but seeking clarification from qualified teachers and books. There are many qualified teachers, but finding one requires some amount of spiritual discernment, since anyone can learn to simply say words about “existence” and “Truth.” Behind all this talk, there may be an ego seeking admiration and praise, or even just an ego that now assumes the role of a “spiritual teacher,” as if that means something fixed, with some superior sense of moral righteousness. With your own practice—meditation, reading spiritual books, breath work, journaling, yoga, or anything that truly stills your mind—you will begin to build up this kind of spiritual discernment. Dharma talks and satsangs will resonate in ways they did not before. You will develop “an ear” for those who are telling the Truth, and an equally astute sense for disingenuousness.
It is extremely helpful to find at least one spiritual friend you trust and clarify your knowledge together though conversation. I believe that two intelligent people looking inward can spark plenty of insight, even if neither has been “struck by lightning.” Asking is beautiful because it means we don’t know everything. It is always a humble act to ask questions. We must always accept that we really don’t know, and avoid falling into the trap of thinking we know much of anything at all. At some point accumulated knowledge even starts to feel like baggage—it just takes up space and it doesn’t get you closer to your Self.
Then, in one instant, the Truth arrives subtly and yet blindingly obvious. It is just the Truth.