A definition of spiritual enlightenment or spiritual awakening is hard to pin down. This is, in part, because "spiritual enlightenment" and "spiritual awakening" have been used in so many ways to describe so many things, similar to the way in which "love" is used to describe everything from a preference for ice cream to a merging with everything. And it is also because spiritual enlightenment and spiritual awakening are such rich and complex experiences that they are innately hard to define.
Some definitions are very specific and narrow. One such definition for spiritual enlightenment is the complete dissolution of one's identity as a separate self with no trace of the egoic mind remaining. This sets the bar very high and means that very few people qualify as enlightened.
The opposite approach is to say that everyone is enlightened, that there is only awake consciousness. In this view, it's only a question of whether this natural awakeness has been recognized or not. Of course, when a word describes everything or everyone, it loses some of its usefulness. If everyone is enlightened, then why even talk about it?
Combining perspectives on spiritual enlightenment
Perhaps there's a definition that includes both of these perspectives, which recognizes that consciousness is always awake and enlightened, but the amount of awakeness, or aware consciousness, that is present in any moment can vary. This definition acknowledges that there's a difference in the amount of awakeness, or enlightened consciousness, that different people experience or that one person experiences at different times but still suggests that the potential for full awareness or becoming enlightened is the same for everybody. If every apparent individual consciousness is infinite in its potential, then each can also be infinite both in its capacity to expand or awaken and in its capacity to contract or identify with a narrow or limited experience.
If all consciousness is made of the same essential awareness and light, and if everyone has an equal potential for enlightenment, then all expressions of consciousness are equally valid and valuable. Everyone truly is a Buddha or enlightened being, at least in potential. So defining enlightenment in many ways now makes sense, depending on what is being pointed to. One may use the word enlightenment to point to the state of self-realization beyond the ego or to point to the innate potential for this realization in all of us.
As for differentiating between the words enlightenment and awakening, "enlightenment" implies a more finished and constant state of realization, while "awakening" has more of the active quality of a verb and therefore suggests a movement or shift in consciousness. An awakening may be defined as a sudden increase in the overall amount of consciousness an individual is experiencing. There can be small awakenings and bigger awakenings. Not only does consciousness have unlimited potential for the amount of awakeness, but it also has an unlimited potential to shift in any way, at any moment. Consciousness can and sometimes does shift from contracted states of fear, anger, or hurt to expanded states of peace and joy in an instant. Unfortunately, it can also shift in the other direction. Consciousness has no fixed state.
What about the spiritual awakening happening now?
As it is being defined here, a spiritual awakening is a sudden expansion or shift in consciousness, especially a more dramatic one (we don't usually refer to a minor realization as a spiritual awakening). Enlightenment, on the other hand can be used to mark a particular level of realization or awakeness, even if the exact definition varies depending on who is using the word, as it does with every word.
What really matters is what your awareness is doing right now. How is your consciousness appearing or shifting in this moment? Are you realizing more of your experience and Essence right now? Or are you contracting and limiting your awareness with thoughts and identification? Is any shifting happening from reading these words?
Enlightenment or awakening is a profound mystery, and the best definition may be found in the actual experience of your own shifts in consciousness. Just as it's more nourishing to eat an apple than read about one, so it can be more rewarding to explore the movements of your own awareness than to try to understand these things mentally. While definitions of such things can be helpful, it can also be beneficial to not have too many concepts, which could interfere with your actual experience. It's a good thing that language isn't so fixed or defined when it comes to spiritual unfoldment. Maybe the best definition of enlightenment is no definition. Then there is only what is found in your own direct experience of awareness.
(The above is from Nirmala's book: That Is That: Essays About True Nature.)
Read another article about the flower of spiritual awakening here.
About Nirmala: Advaita spiritual teacher, Nirmala has been offering satsang and spiritual mentoring in the U.S. and internationally since 1998. Nirmala offers a unique vision and a gentle, compassionate approach, which adds to the rich tradition of inquiry into our true nature. He is the author of several books, including Nothing Personal: Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self and Living from the Heart. In his books and mentoring sessions, Nirmala points to the wisdom within each of us, and fosters the individual’s own potential for spiritual awakening and enlightenment. A FREE ebook download is available here.
About Spiritual Mentoring with Nirmala
In this world of many distractions, how do you stay aligned with your deepest calling to know and live your inner spiritual truth? Our conditioning has created a tremendous momentum to an outer focus on the physical world and its challenges and limitations. What if you could be practically supported in creating even greater momentum towards resting in and living from your true nature in all of its richness and beauty? Nirmala, offers Nondual Spiritual Mentoring over the phone, zoom or skype to support you in giving attention and awareness to the more subtle and yet more satisfying inner dimensions of your being. Whether it is for a single spiritual mentoring session or for ongoing one-to-one spiritual guidance, this is an opportunity for you to more completely orient your life towards the true source of peace, love, and happiness within you. As a spiritual mentor and teacher, Nirmala has worked with thousands of individuals and groups around the world to bring them into a direct experience of the truth of oneness beyond the illusion of separation. He especially enjoys working with individuals because of the greater depth and intimacy possible. Special Offer: Try your first spiritual mentoring session for a reduced donation of $80: