A while ago, a monk told me confidently that a spiritual guru who was well respected in my community, was definitely not enlightened.
After this I got interested in what people meant when they were talking about enlightenment, so I asked anyone who reported being enlightened to talk to me.
I didn’t only use the E-word; I also asked for people who were awakened, or hit stream-entry, or any sort of intense equivalent spiritual shift. In this post I’m going to use the “enlightenment” word, but keep in mind I’m using this as a word that broadly refers to the “big thing” that people were calling by different names. Most people had a strong aversion or weird reactions to self-claiming enlightenment.
I had in-depth interviews with 20 people; 18 of whom came to me and 2 well-established practitioners who I chased down. I focused on asking questions that teased at the edges of how they understood the state they’d achieved – e.g., “if someone claimed to be enlightened, what would make you doubt them?” I also read several long emails describing their experiences, and did a large survey.
This blog post is very personal – it’s my unique lens on the patterns I heard reported among these people. You might disagree with the way I’ve drawn boundaries around things; if so, I welcome you to do your own interviews and draw your own boundaries! My information is also limited – I pulled a lot of people from the west (though a few did come from eastern traditions). They were also mostly male.
So: What the hell are people talking about?
I made a list of spectrums that summarizes the variance in experience I heard reported:
The Bliss Spectrum: characterized by nirvana, ecstasy, constant happiness. They claimed they had reached a state where they were shivering with delight at all times.
The Mental Health Spectrum: of clearness, purpose-drivenness, fulfillment, being aware of what they wanted at all times, being motivated, healthy, whole. For them, ‘enlightenment’ was working all their personal shit out and having a hyper-functional life.
The Science Spectrum: Intense, awesome scientific epiphany. An awareness of their smallness, the universe’s largeness, deep realizations about being walking matter, of the intricate beauty of evolution.
The Superpower Spectrum: The possession of magic abilities, including being able to talk to beings from other dimensions, telepathy, and receiving sacred knowledge imparted to them from divine creatures.
The Concentration Tricks Spectrum: Intense concentration and mental abilities. They were able to alter their perception, slow time, change the space around them, see the refresh rate on monitors.
No-self spectrum: Altered senses of self; they included inanimate objects or other people in their sense of self, or had no sense of self at all. This includes ego death.
Understanding Spectrum: A general spiritual epiphany; people reported a sense of completion, of having ‘no more questions’, of finally comprehending what’s going on, of nonduality, of wholeness.
Wordless Spectrum: An altered or unusual relationship to words, typically distrustful or disconnected; playing with words, going meta with words, not using words, not-claiming, claiming contradiction and paradox.
Perception Spectrum: Seeing your experience as your own; experiencing yourself as inherent and integral to the experience; a realization that your brain is constructing things, often associated with dreamlikeness.
Morality Spectrum: An intense sense of an ethical direction; describes a ‘right’ or ‘moral’ direction, uses goodness as a consistent guiding description of their insights.
Love spectrum: A sense of love and compassion for all living beings
Tradition spectrum: How much they adhere to classic wisdom and beliefs; tends to believe in reincarnation and karma, places authority in the Buddha’s teachings
Disassociation spectrum: Stoicism; the ability to carefully control emotions, independence from environment, remaining unaffected by whims or pain or pleasure.
Peace: A sense of being deeply okay, at ease with the current moment, settled, present, like everything is all right.
The spectrums are probably the most detailed way of summarizing the variance, but if I’m gonna get a little more sloppy, I also binned them into loose groups based on recurring patterns I noticed.
- Material enlightenment – mostly characterized by a lack of spiritual terminology; materially enlightened people did not stray outside of what was explainable by science and didn’t develop any excess beliefs around consciousness. They mostly were high on mental health, concentration tricks, and science spectrums. Some but not all heavy meditators were here; stories of hitting ‘rock bottom’ before their enlightenment were common. Interviews with these people tended to be very clear, and reminded me of an inspirational talk given by a competent CEO at a dinner party.
- Skill Enlightenment – most heavy meditators seemed to group here, and were more analytical and verbally precise. These people tended to have spent a huge amount of time focused on their own minds, and were high on perception and concentration tricks, but also bled a little bit into understanding and no-self too. They were more likely to have distinct vocabularies, and tended to report their states as more episodic as opposed to constant. They generally did not have the sense of wordless self-inclusion that was prevalent in:
- Standard Enlightenment – the most commonly reported type. standard enlightened people reported psychedelic or meditation use. They seemed to be high on the peace, wordlessness, no-self, and understanding spectrums. They’re contrasted to Skill Enlightened people in that they had a chronically difficult time explaining things. There was a lot of stopping and restarting in conversations, and the vibe felt more like fingerpainting to me. They tended to report enlightenment as very mundane and nothing special at all.
- Traditional enlightenment – the least commonly reported type, traditionally enlightened people placed a much stronger emphasis on action and belief than the other types. While there was a greater tendency to be wordless, they also expressed the highest sense of love and morality spectrums. This was the most difficult type for me to understand, and I got the sense I needed more background knowledge to make sense of what they were trying to say; there was a confusing combination of Standard Enlightenment, but built around references to strong and clear belief systems.
Also for all of these spectrums I got a faint sense of there being levels of advancement; e.g., some people reported much weaker sensations around material enlightenment-y things than others did. No one bin seemed to have a more clustered level of advancement than the others; as in, I didn’t notice a distinct cluster where everyone reported similar things and also seemed to be at the same level.
Now, to be clear you shouldn’t take these bins as definitive; for one they’re as much a reflection of me as they are of the people I talked to. Also, the more people I talked to the more I began to realize that there was a lot of variance; someone might agree almost entirely with something I’d heard someone else say, and then have a completely bizarre and unusual thing to follow up.
I also mostly paid attention to the kinds of things people chose to talk about. It’s very likely that e.g., traditionally enlightened people might agree strongly with the no-self spectrum, but in my interviews they talked about it less than the others.
There’s also a few spectrums I didn’t put in bins; either because the sample size was too low, they were outliers, or they were roughly reported equally by everyone.
Most people did seem to overlap bins a little bit. If I had to make this a fun personality quiz, I’d assign one ‘dominant’ bin and one ‘secondary’ bin.
So – how many people were ‘really enlightened?’ The answer is I don’t know, and I don’t care. I interviewed everyone who claimed to be enlightened or some rough equivalent without filtering at all their qualifications. My goal is not to provide a correct definition of enlightenment, it’s to help map out the landscape of the kinds of experiences people are talking about, and maybe provide some more concrete terms for what’s going on.