What Is Enlightenment and How Can It Be Achieved?

Enlightenment is like graduation from the method of the spiritual school, so what enlightenment means experientially depends on what the school is teaching.

The Sufis, like Hazrat Inayat Khan, define enlightenment as unity consciousness, Step 7 out of 9. See The Nine Steps of the Path of the Heart

Furthermore, the Sufis recognize a difference between (1) an infrequent peak experience, and (2) the reliable, dependable, applicable experience that happens every time you meditate. When unity consciousness can be attained reliably, at will, we call that “enlightenment.” Enlightenment does not require being in unity consciousness 24/7. Duality is useful too.

Here’s how it looks to us:

“The hallmark of enlightenment is that this state of meditation becomes reliable: Upon closing your eyes and breathing consciously, you become conscious of an infinite ocean of consciousness that is conscious of you as a wave. The wave that is you exists in this oceanic experience, and that wave is nothing but ocean. As the whole ocean rises as a wave, so the universe rises as yourself. Throughout, you are aware of your heartbeat, re-broadcasting locally the rhythm of the cosmos. No aspect of reality is denied in this universal meditation. Neither does your self disappear, nor does the universe disappear. Spirit is present, and matter is present, yet spirit and matter are not separate; matter is the frozen state of spirit, like ice to water.”

The experience is life changing, because you lose that personal sense of being a self-willed actor on the stage of life. Instead, you see yourself as an expression of the One and Only Being. The individual self is not gone, but it is subsummed in the universal self. Therefor, one’s sense of identity is changed and vastly expanded, while retaining a center, in the heart.

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” — Jalaluddin Rumi

This is not a concept any more; it has become a direct, personal experience that is repeated daily.

How is enlightenment, according to the Sufis, attained? It is “remembered.” This is very seldom achieved alone; you need someone to remind you of what you haven’t quite forgotten. Methods vary, but first will be the opening of the heart, and then later, the surrender of one’s own heart to the Universal Heart, through unconditional love.

Many teachers have described the path to enlightenment and beyond. For an up-to-date summary and detailed description, see Follow Your Heart: The Map To Illumination by the author, which shows a map of the nine steps, corresponding to the 11-ring labyrinth.


Puran Bair 
Chancellor, University of the Heart


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