How to Make Enlightenment Work in Everyday Life


by Catherine Dowling

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Many of us experience moments of enlightenment—41% of us in fact, or so a 2002 Gallup poll tells us. Enlightenment is that state of radically expanded awareness where the boundaries of our individual self melt into a blissful union with the life force. We are at one with the cosmos and feel a sense connection, love, and peace that's beyond rational understanding. Some people, the Gallup organization for example, call it a religious experience. Others call it mystical, an awakening, an altered or peak state, or (in the 1960s) a trip. But no matter how wonderful our period of radical awareness is or how long it lasts, it passes. We may be transformed by it in some way, but the life we return to is not. So how do we put radical awareness—enlightenment—into practice in our daily lives?

We arrive at radical awareness through whatever practice helps us transcend ourselves; it's different for everybody. Meditation, prayer, breathwork, dance, sex, and psychotropic drugs are just a few of the ways we go beyond the limits of our normal waking state consciousness. But we don't have to engage in a "practice;" the experience can and often does occur spontaneously. So, the method we use to enter a mystical state is not important. What is important is that the state itself gives us the road map for transforming the way we engage with life on a day to day basis. And even if we've never experienced radical awareness, this road map still works.

  1. It begins with Becoming Present. Mystical experiences always take place when we enter the present moment–not a second in the past, not a second in the future. In the present moment there is no turmoil. Life can roil around us, but we are in a place of stillness. From that place of stillness we can gain perspective as well as recharge ourselves. It's similar to the way a good vacation gives us fresh perspective and renewed energy to deal with the day to day content of our lives. We may get ourselves into the present moment without realizing it, but it is also possible to train ourselves to be here now, if only for a few seconds. Here's a starter exercise:

    Set an alarm for thirty seconds. Then, get yourself into a comfortable, upright position with spine supported. Either close your eyes or stare at an object that will not distract you into thinking about it. Feel the breath going into and out of your lungs. Focus on the breath as it moves through your body, and focus only on that. Feel every sensation of inhale and exhale. Stop when your alarm rings. If that was easy, try it for longer periods.

The first benefit is rest: a vacation from thinking, planning, worrying or just ordinary mind clutter. Scientists around the world have researched and documented the physical as well as mental benefits of spending time in the present moment on a regular basis. Over time sojourns in the present moment offer perspectives on life we generally can't see through the fog of thoughts, feelings, and activities that makes up our days. For many more exercises on present moment awareness, see my book Radical Awareness: Five Practices for a Fully Engaged Life.

  • The second thing radical awareness teaches us is to Look Beyond the Visible. Mystical states give us glimpses into a wider world of infinite possibility. They teach us to look behind the screen of what we accept as reality to find deeper and wider perspectives. There is more to every situation, everyone's story, every dead end and blocked path than we perceive with our normal day-to-day level of awareness. If we can let go of what we think we know and open to possibilities we don't yet see, the deeper levels of reality become visible.

If we're not satisfied with some aspect of our life or relationships, feel stuck, caught up in the same old pattern, the radical awareness road map teaches us how to break the cycle. It teaches us to go beneath our habitual reactions, our hurt feelings, our fear or anger to uncover what's really troubling us, what's really keeping us stuck. If we're waiting for things or people to change, we could be waiting a long time. But radical awareness teaches us that we can change the way we engage with life and with other people. In changing the way we engage with life, we empower ourselves to live more fully and effectively.

One simple way to do this is to pick relationship that is currently a little difficult, a relationship in which we focus a lot on what the other person says or does. Bring the most recent encounter with that person to mind and take time to be really present to it and to your own physical and emotional sensations. As you visualize, focus not on the other person but on yourself with compassion and acceptance. Let what you're really feeling emerge. Anger is often a secondary emotion; if you're angry, go beneath that feeling to whatever the anger masks. When you've reached the source of your emotions and behavior, you will have the foundation for changing your responses in that relationship.

  • Radical awareness also teaches us that there is Profit in Pain, that darkness incubates new life. In our society we are accustomed to pushing away emotional pain—we ignore it, medicate it, and look outside ourselves for relief from suffering. Sometimes suffering is so great that this is our only wise option. But all the major spiritual and religious traditions teach us that life is made up of darkness and light, and that the dark is as valuable as the light. If we can hold steady in our emotional pain, we often come out of painful experiences transformed. There's no quick fix for this. We simply (although not always easily) have to be present to our own suffering. Then, in the strange ways of the mystical, we find new sources of strength and life within ourselves. Out of the darkness come new perspectives on our future, perspectives we would have missed had we pushed away the pain.
  • Radical awareness also teaches us Trust. It's tempting to think we can control all aspects of life, but often life pushes us into liminal space. Liminal space is where we have lost our markers, our trusted road maps for navigating life. It's like the time after a bereavement when nothing seems as it used to be. In liminal space we learn that we really don't know as much as we think we know. And what we know is not necessarily solid, reliable, or even true. We are at sea and we have no choice but to trust life/god/higher power/the cosmos, or scramble around frantically searching for a relationship, a belief system, a purpose to hang onto. This is the dark night of the soul St. John of the Cross wrote about. The enlightenment experience teaches us to trust in liminal space. It teaches us to cling less tightly to our old ways, our comforts, our possessions, and even to our relationships. In clinging less tightly, we are freed to grow, to embrace the new, and to engage with life more fully. We can make uncomfortable decisions—changing jobs for example, or moving to another city—more easily if we do it with trust.
  • Most of all, radical awareness teaches us that Love is All Around. The experience of profound, unconditional love combined with the gift of fresh perspective probably accounts for the claim by participants in the Gallup poll that spiritual awakening changed the direction of their life. During a mystical state we experience life as benevolent and infinitely loving. Life/god/the cosmos cocoons us in love, wants the best for us, and is willing to support us through the toughest of situations. This is love as a state of being rather than something that is given and received between people. It's spiritual love, and in moments of enlightenment we realized that we are cradled in it.

Most people don't feel that level of spiritual love every day. But even if we don't feel it, in any given situation we can act as if we are loved. If we could be aware throughout our day that we are loved unconditionally, all the time, and so is everyone else, how would that influence the way we feel and behave? Like gratitude, feeling loved changes our attitudes and our perspectives on both self and others. It quietens self-criticism and leaves us more compassionate and understanding of both ourselves and others. Feeling loved changes the way we behave, which, in turn, can change the reactions of the people around us. As a result, we can find new doors opening and the world really does become a more benevolent place. We discover the reality of the well-documented spiritual paradox: the more we let go of control in trust and love, the more we are able to actually influence and shape the course of our lives.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2014. All rights reserved.