Is (S)he Enlightened? 7 Ways to Tell
It’s a pretty common question to ask of anyone who calls herself or himself a spiritual teacher or a master of meditation: “Is (s)he enlightened?”
By the way, I realize it’s a little weird to use the word “(s)he”. But it’s better than continuing on with the wrong idea that reaching enlightenment means you’re male. Patriarchical thinking has given us that idea, but the truth is that the potential for enlightenment is your birthright, regardless of your gender. Unfortunately, history has forgotten many of the great enlightened women, and remembered many of the enlightened men.
In order to answer the main question, we have to tackle the question, “what is enlightenment, and how do you tell whether or not someone has attained it?”
You might also be asking, “how does meditation lead to enlightenment anyway?”
Let’s multi-task and answer all these questions at once.
1. Enlightenment means understanding the nature of reality.
The point of meditation is to understand yourself, the nature of reality, and the relationship between you and reality.
[Joke interlude: A guy calls up Reality and says, “we need to talk about our relationship.” Reality says, “we have no relationship,” and hangs up. Oh, that’s cold.]
Here’s your crib sheet to the nature of reality: all existence is being-ness, and there is only one being. Of course, it doesn’t much matter if I tell you the answer to one of life’s big questions. You must discover it for yourself, as a real, lived experience for it to make much difference. Experience gives you conviction, and you’ll get a sense of that conviction in everything a person does and says.
When a person says something, regardless of the content, they also communicate their view of reality. When an enlightened person speaks, you get a sense that the underlying point of view is that life is one.
By the way, this is pretty unusual. Most of the time, what people communicate is a sense of duality: there is myself here, and there are others over there; here is good, and over there is evil; when a person comes from a place of separation, that feeling bleeds through everything, and when a person comes from a place of unity, the feeling of oneness pervades.
Though it is necessary to feel this sense of unity in a person’s words, it is not sufficient. One can learn to speak in a language of unity that mimics this sense, even if it doesn’t come from real experience, and this is commonly done in spiritual circles. One learns how to talk the talk.
How meditation helps:
As it says above, the point of meditation is to give you the experience that all things and all beings are one. The experience of unity may not happen right away — it may take a long time to attain it. But eventually you will.
2. An enlightened person has the ability to concentrate.
As you walk the spiritual path, do your meditations, your spiritual practices, and try as best as you can to live your ideals and principles, you will make progress. What progress looks like will be different for each person, but there are some common features.
The first phase of spiritual progress is to develop the mind, which means to develop the ability to concentrate your full attention on something over time. When you concentrate your mind, the object of your focus becomes the entire world. Everything else disappears. Sadly, many people never experience what it means to concentrate, and hence never cultivate the ability to focus, which is like a muscle.
There is a zen saying, “chop wood, carry water.” Though life is full of mundane tasks, you can turn any task into an opportunity for growth by taking the attitude that whatever you are doing, you will give it your full attention.
Perhaps you have experienced this feeling with something that totally absorbed your attention. Maybe it was during sex, or playing music, a great book, or a conversation with a person who blew your mind… everything else faded away and you were completely immersed in your activity.
This is what is known as mindfulness, a practice of returning your full attention to what you are doing in this moment. You might have also become familiar with the opposite of mindfulness: when your mind is doing something very different from what you are doing. During sex you’re thinking about work; you mess up the music you’re trying to play because your thoughts drift; you re-read the same line three times and still don’t get it; your friend is talking and you missed the middle of it and are now lost.
To truly excel at anything, from meditation to woodcarving, you must pay attention to the activity fully, and you must develop a practice where you continue to do so over time.
An enlightened person has developed the ability to concentrate, both in the moment and over time. You can see this in a person when you watch them focus on a task, and you can also see it in a person’s life. You can see if a person has completed a meaningful accomplishment of some sort.
But again, though the ability to concentrate is necessary, it is not sufficient. Many people can concentrate, but few indeed are enlightened.
How meditation helps:
Meditation is a very fundamental practice of learning to concentrate. The best teachers will give you a specific focus to hold your attention on in learning to meditate, such as feeling your breath and your heartbeat.
3. Enlightenment requires understanding your emotions and being able to harness your emotional energy.
Concentration is a good start. But it’s not enough, because you’re more than just a mind. Below your conscious awareness is a sea of emotional energy, of which your mind perceives only a sliver.
In order to truly understand yourself, you must be in touch with your emotions. You must feel your emotions, you must develop a sense that your feelings, though they are vital and compelling, will not overwhelm your sense of self. You can develop the ability to harness your emotional energy.
You can take your negative emotions — anger, betrayal, and disappointment — and channel them to positive ends, re-forging your feelings to give you determination, courage, and patience.
An enlightened person will have great sensitivity to his or her emotions, along with a deep understanding of how to work with and transform emotional energy. This does not mean there will be no ‘negative’ emotions; anger, fear, sadness, and every other emotion, whether we deem it positive or negative, is a part of life. An enlightened person is a human being, experiencing life, and life, thank goodness, contains both the positive and the negative.
How meditation helps:
Meditation can take you deeply into your feelings, giving you self-knowledge and emotional intelligence. Meditation will bring you into your doubts, fears, and anxieties, giving you practice at understanding negative feelings and transforming them.
4. Enlightenment means both listening to and speaking to the universe.
A great Sufi teacher named Sam Lewis once said, “many people have a channel where they can listen to the voice of God. Mine goes both ways.”
The reality of the universe is that there is One Being, no separation, no duality between you and the rest of life. If we come to the truth of this state of unity, then we realize we must be active and passive both. We must listen and we must speak. We cannot give up the responsibility of creating to a God who is ‘out there’ somewhere. We must realize that God works through each one of us. That means your will must be important, along with your ego, and your body. All of you is the sacred Being of the Universe.
To be more specific, listening to the Universe means that you have a reliable way of accessing the state of unity, and that you can use that state to such an extent that you have a real relationship with the One Being.
The paradox is that God is both within you and outside you. By listening deeply to the voice of your heart, you can hear the voice of the One. But you must learn what comes from your individuality and what comes from your universality. This is the work of many years.
How meditation helps:
Meditation can give you the repeated experience of unity that is needed to give you the conviction to follow your inner feelings, even when they seem to make no logical sense. Meditation can also give you the power to manifest energy in the way that you choose, and ultimately, the sense that you are the bearer of the will of the universe, that when you talk, it is the universe speaking.
5. You feel the answer to your question in the spiritual presence of an enlightened being.
Much of what I’ve discussed is open to interpretation, and can be cleverly faked by those that have an interest in deceiving others for their own gain. (Sadly, there have been many such false teachers, which is part of why I wrote this article.)
The one thing that cannot be faked is the feeling you get from being in the presence of an enlightened being. Enlightenment creates a strong feeling of presence that cannot easily be put into words. Our minds rebel at the notion that you can simply feel in a person’s atmosphere all that the person knows, all that they have ahcieved, and all that they are.
Though this is true, it is also the case that the voice of spirit isn’t always audible. We have become so conditioned to listening to our rational minds, our pre-conceived ideas, and the voices of others (even when they are in our own minds), that the voice of spirit, which comes from deep within, is often too faint to detect.
The ability to feel the presence of another person, to take a person’s presence into your heart and feel what energies are there, is a skill that we look to cultivate through meditation.
You walk through life in the overlapping energy fields of many other people, those in your immediate presence, those you care about, those you admire, and those who have taught you and shaped your world view. Yet your illusion is that ‘your’ thoughts and feelings are purely your own, purely individual. This is not the case.
When you are with a fearful person, you feel anxious, doubtful, and afraid. When you are with a confident, accomplished person, you feel a sense of strength and possibility. When you are with an enlightened person, you feel the awesome gravitational pull of the state of unity, which both attractive and terrifying.
You are attracted because you know, on some level, that oneness is the truth. Yet you are terrified because contact with the truth calls all the lies you tell and delusions you carry around into question. So the presence of the enlightened one will be significant of change, and you might feel that change as positive, negative, or some mix.
How meditation helps:
As I mentioned above, an important skill to cultivate in meditation is the feeling of another person’s presence. By meditating with another person, then alone, you learn what energies and qualities are in you, and what was brought by the other person. This exercise is very helpful for learning about yourself.
6. The ultimate proof of enlightenment is being able to bring a student to enlightenment.
If you want to know what a teacher has attained, the ultimate proof will be what are the achievements of their students.
An abusive teacher will ultimately destroy their students, because their authority rests on manipulation, and the easiest way to manipulate people into believing you are above them is to tear them down. For the abusive teacher, the student exists to serve the teacher.
A well-meaning teacher who has not reached enlightenment will not be able to produce enlightened students. No doubt students will make some progress, but at some point, they will be limited by the teacher, because the teacher shapes the students’ understanding of the nature of the path, and the uses of the tools of meditation. Without sufficient understanding, the teacher cannot take a student to enlightenment.
An enlightened teacher will be able to bring a student to enlightenment, though it will take time. Reaching enlightenment takes diligent effort over many years. This means that in the student, you should be able to see the same signs of enlightenment that I have discussed thus far, to some degree, though perhaps not with perfect mastery (something that perhaps none of us can really claim). You should see and feel in the student:
- an understanding of the truth about reality
- the ability to concentrate
- an understanding of emotion and an ability to harness it
- in more advanced students, there will be experiences of unity that lead to being able to both listen to and speak to the universe
- a sense of presence and an atmosphere of peace
How meditation helps:
At a certain point in the journey, teaching meditation to others helps you to understand meditation far more deeply yourself.
7. An enlightened person makes no direct claims on enlightenment.
It seems the easiest way to make others believe that you have attained something is simply to say you have. Sure, with some skills you can simply demonstrate: if you can type 60 words a minute, you can prove it.
But spiritual realization isn’t like that. Though enlightenment often rests on a set of demonstrable skills in meditation, enlightenment is apart from these skills.
The further you go on the spiritual path, the more you see how many mistakes you make, and how painfully limited you are compared to your perfect, unlimited essence. As your power grows, so does your humility. The more you encounter the unlimited perfection within, the more sobered you are by your own limitations as a person. Even if others don’t see your flaws, you know they are there.
The fact is that so many teachers have abused the trust of their students by claiming to be something they are not.
Perhaps in the past it was necessary for some teachers to claim to be enlightened, because the spiritual path is hard; maybe the claim gave some confidence to the students when the going got tough.
But today is different. In the age of mass media, advertising, and public relations, the real teacher must be very, very understated in her or his claims and promises. It seems to me to be at the point where the more real a teacher is, the less (s)he is willing to claim directly.
I think it is interesting that the Dalai Lama follows this idea, and makes no claim to be enlightened.
Now making no direct claims does not mean an enlightened teacher must be invisible. Some people take this too far, thinking that anyone who you’ve heard of is somehow automatically fake. This isn’t true. The world desperately needs authentic, enlightened spiritual teachers. Humanity is going through an amazing experience of unification through the information age. We need to take it to the next level, not merely exchanging data, but sharing our common humanity, our universal drive to unfold our potential.
I hope this article helps answer the question — I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please share a comment below.