“There is a safe place in view of all, but difficult of approach,
where there is no old age nor death, no pain nor disease.
It is what is called nirvāṇa, or freedom from pain, or perfection;
it is the safe, happy, and quiet place which the great sages reach.
That is the eternal place, in view of all, but difficult of approach.”
~ Uttaradhyana Sutra, 81-4 (Buddhism)
Nothing much, really. Something just like peeking out of the window. But let’s not be overly disdainful, for this can bend the course of a life and change it in a profound way. To have a spiritual experience is a blessing, a call, maybe a rehearsal for the final dissolution. It leaves you puzzled, wanting to understand, and above all, searching to have it again in the future. It can be just a flavour suddenly lingering at the back of your mind, or a spectacular awakening, or anything in between. In all cases, you meet something new, that is outside any known experience, and yet has a familiar flame, like an old forgotten memory. Above all, peace, love, and happiness are attached to it. It is the DNA of any genuine experience, its vital core, and what makes it so desirable. After all, do we want anything in life but a lasting happiness? It can last for seconds, minutes, or days. It comes as a grace, unexpected, uninvited. One important characteristic is that it fades away, finally disappears. Otherwise we wouldn’t call it an ‘experience’. A spiritual experience is an awakening that failed.
I had one such experience long ago, with no prior knowledge of spirituality. It felt I had entered a new world full of light, was given a new body full of energy. It felt as if something had been given to me from the outside. More importantly, I remember that it could have been permanent, if only I had been ready. It clearly appeared that I had to pay a price, the price of my own ‘death’, like in the story of the moth and the flame. Other moths had tried to investigate about the light of the candle, but it took a really courageous one to actually go close enough and merge into the flame. To know the truth of light, you have to offer your own illusory self to the flame. It is a sacrifice. I didn’t dare to.
So what happened? Why did I shy away from the thing I most wanted in life? Of course, it had deep implications that I wasn’t aware of. I had to offer myself. The one who was ‘having’ the experience had to give way, and this I couldn’t do. So I kept my self, I kept my little miseries, I kept my story to which I could now add a new element: ‘I had an experience’, which gave it some glow. I wanted something that I could ‘bring back’, as an object, something that could be handed over to the me that I thought I was. Like a prize! Something that I could bring back home and that would add value to my life. I preferred the beautiful story attached to it, not the thing itself. I wanted to have the benefits and the glory, not the dissolution. I wanted the fun, like a child would. The whole thing was flawed from the start.
So let’s give it a word. What we are speaking of here, what it all refers to, really, is this ‘bigger thing’ called enlightenment, or awakening. It has been given many names: liberation, revolution, self-recognition, or the more exotic moksha, satori, nirvana. This experience gave me a divine glance into awakening. It left a trace, like a perfume, for weeks, for months. And what happened next is that I wanted to get it back, to experience it again, not knowing in what way to proceed, what to search for, which only makes sense since it isn’t something objective. But this I hadn’t understood yet, so I kept looking for it in the objective world, which is too far. Much too far.
“A mind that is awake, intelligent, free, why should it need,
why should it have, any “experience” at all?
Light is light; it does not ask for more Light.”
~ J. Krishnamurti
So, enlightenment is not something I could ‘have’, or experience. Nirvana means ‘blown out’, extinguished, to which Rabindranath Tagore makes a beautiful correction: “Nirvana is not the blowing out of the candle. It is the extinguishing of the flame because day is come.” Nothing positive here. No doer either. It is more like a dawning, a realisation. The light that I am is extinguishing my little, separate self, is overwhelming it. There is nobody here who can ‘have’ enlightenment. The light comes unexpected, uninvited, and is enlightening itself. You can prepare the ground, but it comes as a grace. All you can do is “to keep the room in order” as Krishnamurti said, “To be sane, rational, orderly. Then perhaps, if you are lucky, the window will open and the breeze will come in. Or it may not.”
Liberation is not something that can be found, or lost, that can disappear or fade away. I cannot lose what is already here, what is my true and unshakable reality. I remember that there was a moment just before my so-called experience when I realised that I would never find what I was looking for. As a result, I fell into a deep, unfathomable sadness, I let go of that hope, that burden, made present an absence. In that giving up, a space, an opening was created for something new. I didn’t find anything, it just appeared as my own, unconditional reality. And I didn’t lose anything when it left, I was just back in my old illusory identity! This very identifying prevents me to realise my true identity. At this point, the best thing I can do is to look at this false identity and see that it is not who I am through a neti neti process, ‘I am not this, I am not this…’ In that way, my own fake mask can drop away and let the free space for my true identity to reveal itself. It is like sending an invitation, this is all I can do.
“As a flame blown by a mighty wind
goes to rest and can not be defined,
so the sage who is freed from the body and spirit
goes to rest and can not be defined.
For him, there is no longer any measure to describe him.”
~ Sutta Nipāta (Jainism)
Awakening is not something I find at the end of a search. On the contrary, it is here at the beginning, it is here eternally, and is expressing itself as an intimation, an invitation to know the true self that I am. Not knowing better, I leave in search of it by moving forward in a particular direction, progressing in a time bound frame, with an aim in mind. Until a revolution takes place: the searching is the very thing that prevents me from knowing my true and only self. I see that I’m heading in the wrong direction, stand still and turn around, give way to a new possibility. The new possibility being: I am looking. I am going inward. No searching is needed, there is so much to see here and now.
Enlightenment is not something I can be proud of having or can keep for myself. On the contrary, I have to free it from myself. It’s a liberation. Liberation is also from the point of view of the light, of the pure consciousness that I am. I, as a small, separate entity, as a belief into being a person, have to leave the show, tiptoe behind the scene, dissolve into the wings of non-existence, and leave the stage to the light enlightening itself.
“To be free from the idea of being someone – that is illumination.”
~ Jean Klein
Enlightenment is not something I have to die for, or make a sacrifice for. It is more like the realisation of my non existence, and consequently, the upgrading from the I of my little, separate, illusory self to the I of the true self. It is a shifting from seeing myself to be just a bundle of thoughts and beliefs to being pure presence. Nobody dies that was there. It is realising that who I thought I was, that is not it. I discard it. And nothing positive, the discarding is – belongs to – the activity of the true self.
Nirvana is not an old memory, although it has a familiar flame. Nirvana means freshness. It’s a new dawn. It is not returning to something known, to be experienced again. I don’t go back in time, it’s not something forgotten. I remember it because I am experiencing it eternally now. I remember or intimate it through the veiling mist of my confusion and belief in separation. The presence is remembering itself in spite of me, or through this illusory wall of time that is the old me. Only light can enlighten itself.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
~ T. S. Eliot
Satori means ‘comprehension, understanding’. It is a call, a blessing, an invitation to reach, beyond the frame of my little, petty, limited life, a presence that is eternal and infinite. It is an invitation to see and dismantle the falseness of my old identity, and contemplate its illusory fabric, or structure. It is an invitation to explore and understand the nature of this presence that I am. It is an invitation to dissolve the remaining feelings and sensations in the body so that it too can be fully enlightened. The body wants to shine equally: “Enlightenment is the end of one process, the process of thinking and feeling ourselves to be a separate and limited inside self, but the beginning of another. It is the beginning of the realignment of the body, mind and world with this new experiential understanding.” This reminder from Rupert Spira is essential. Enlightenment is a never ending process, it wants to bring light in every little corner of our experience, it wants to pour out ever more light to itself. And this can never end.
Last but not least, enlightenment is not a big, extraordinary event, as it is usually thought or imagined to be. It contradicts my experience which certainly felt like a major happening. Why? Maybe because at the time, I got interested only in the fancy consequences of my new realisation. I was dazzled by all the side effects that presented themselves to me as a result of this new apprehension of the world. Being dazzled I could not see the utter simplicity of it. I was blind to the implications of this apparent event. I failed to understand its real nature and meaning. I missed the point. And the point is, enlightenment is a shift, a soft but implacable one, and it is important to see and understand the nature of this shift, of this new realisation. Otherwise we stay on the phenomenal level and miss the utter beauty and inescapability of it all: you are just being introduced to your true self, to who you really are, always, eternally. You are, and always were, that. That’s all. Or rather that is all. And everything that is not that, leaves.
I am not an extraordinary sensation.
I am the one who is experiencing the sensation.
And this one, that, I have been always.
Text by Alain Joly
Photos and mandalas by Elsebet Barner
Guests on this page:
– J. Krishnamurti
– Rabindranath Tagore
– Jean Klein
– T. S. Eliot
– Rupert Spira
– ‘The First and Last Freedom’ – by J. krishnamurti – (Rider Book)
– ‘Sadhana’: The Realization of Life – by Rabindranath Tagore – (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
– ‘Who Am I‘ – by Jean Klein – (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘Presence‘, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira (Non-Duality Press)