Ten Myths about Enlightenment by Jenny Beal

jenny beal Jul 09, 2024
Ten Myths about Enlightenment by Jenny Beal

What do we mean by ‘enlightenment’? In the non-dual teaching, it refers to the recognition of the non-dual reality of ourselves and the world. In other words, it is the understanding that there is only one reality, and I am that one reality. It is a profound change in the way we see ourselves and the world and ultimately can affect every aspect of our lives. But there are many myths about enlightenment and how it arises.

Myth #1: Enlightenment requires purification of the body-mind.

Progressive paths towards enlightenment start with practices to improve the body-mind. These might include meditation, watching our thoughts, trying to replace negative thoughts with ‘good’ thoughts, study and contemplation of spiritual texts, body-work etc. These self-improvement practices can be effective in changing the conditioning of the body-mind. But they don’t bring about enlightenment. Enlightenment is a change in our understanding, and that change requires giving up our existing beliefs about the nature of ourselves and the world, to allow space for considering other possibilities.

Myth #2: There are enlightened sages who are all-wise and never fall into ignorance.

Non-duality is the understanding that there is only one being. We could call it ‘reality’ or ‘consciousness’. So there cannot be ‘enlightened beings’ or ‘enlightened sages’. For that reason, Atmananda used to say there is only one sage. Whenever truth is spoken, the sage is present, when the words spoken come from a sense of separation, the sage is absent.
Enlightenment is not an attribute of any body-mind. There are no enlightened sages who are all-wise and can never fall into ignorance. But there are body-minds through which the One Sage is more often present.

From the perspective of a body-mind, when it receives a liberating glimpse of our true nature, its conditioning is changed. That change becomes more and more substantial as this new understanding starts to be applied in our lives. Gradually old habits of thinking, feeling, perceiving and relating from the perspective of a separate entity are eroded and arise less and less often. But we can never be sure they have been completely eliminated – not in Ramana Maharshi, not in the Buddha, not in Jesus Christ, not in any human body-mind.

Myth #3: Enlightenment is a gradual process and is the end-goal of the spiritual path

Understanding arises outside of mind and is therefore outside of time, since time is created by mind. So enlightenment, which is the understanding of our true nature, is instantaneous and outside of time. It is not a gradual process. It is the start of the spiritual path, not the end-goal.

The spiritual path consists of using the circumstances and events of our everyday life to bring our body-minds more and more into alignment with our non-dual understanding. There is no goal other than to live in truth and happiness. This happens through investigating the implications of our understanding, and noticing when our thoughts, decisions, feelings, and actions seem to come from residues of the sense of separation.

Myth #4: Enlightenment is difficult and requires effort.

No effort is required for understanding. It happens by itself. It is natural to ask questions such as: ‘What am I? What is this world? Where did I come from? What is my purpose?’. Those questions come automatically from our natural curiosity and interest. Investigating them is not difficult and doesn’t require effort. If we find we are making an effort, that effort is coming from a sense of separation. We just need to let go of that effort and follow our natural interest and love of truth. That is the route towards enlightenment.

If we are making efforts, then it implies that we believe there is ‘someone’ making efforts and we are that ‘someone’, a separate entity. That belief is a block to enlightenment.

Myth #5: Self-inquiry involves asking yourself ‘who am I?’ over and over again.

This is a misunderstanding of Ramana Maharshi’s teaching. We just need to ask the question once — the question ‘what am I?’ is better than ‘who am I?’ — and then using higher reasoning, follow the trail of investigation to its conclusion, which is beyond the mind. At some point, if this inquiry becomes sufficiently important for us, a glimpse of our true nature will arise.

Myth #6: The thinking mind is an obstacle to enlightenment.

The mind is an important tool in self-inquiry. Through contemplation which involves a combination of reasoning and silent reflection, the mind brings itself to a stop and our true nature is revealed. Another important role of the mind is the use of reason to deconstruct fixed beliefs which are the real obstacles to enlightenment.

We discover pure consciousness — our essential self — in the absence of thoughts and perceptions. But once discovered, we see that consciousness doesn’t disappear when thoughts and perceptions reappear. It only seems to disappear when old habits of thinking and feeling ourselves to be a separate entity come to the surface.


Myth #7: Enlightenment requires the destruction of ego.

What we usually mean by ego is the separate consciousness that we believe ourselves to be. We have no evidence to suggest there is more than one consciousness. On that basis, there can be no ego, and therefore nothing to destroy. What needs to be destroyed is the belief to be a separate entity. That belief is destroyed very easily by examining carefully any possible evidence we may have that this belief is true. We find that all such evidence is easily debunked.

We don’t need to replace the belief ‘I am a separate consciousness’ with the belief ‘there is only one consciousness, and I am that’. We cannot find any absolute proof that there is only one consciousness. But through our inquiry and experiments, we can be 100% certain that we could never find any absolute proof. It’s the difference between believing non-dual dogma and living in not-knowing that paves the way for a liberating glimpse of our true nature.

Habits of believing ourself to be a separate consciousness become entrenched in the conditioning of our body-mind during early life. Once we have had a glimpse of our true nature, the non-dual understanding begins to infiltrate the body-mind’s conditioning and these habits become progressively weaker. Our thoughts, decisions, actions and relationships become more and more aligned with our understanding.

Myth #8: There are different levels of consciousness.

This myth arises from conflating consciousness and mind. If we want to understand non-duality, we need to make a distinction between these two concepts. Experientially, ‘mind’ is simply a flow of thoughts, sense perceptions and bodily sensations. That flow is not constant; there are gaps in it. If we ask ourselves ‘what does that flow of experience occur in?’, then we see there is a kind of neutral, unchanging field that is the constant backdrop within which this intermittent flow of changing experience arises. That unmoving, unchanging backdrop is what we mean by ‘consciousness’.

Using this clear distinction, it becomes obvious that there can be many different possible states of mind or types of experience, which can be conceptually divided into levels. Deep sleep, dreaming, waking are obvious examples of levels. But consciousness is entirely neutral and unchanging, so it cannot have different levels.

So when people talk about different levels of consciousness they are usually referring to different states of mind. In particular, a flow of experience which is not filtered through the belief to be a separate entity is regarded as being at a higher spiritual level.

Myth #9: Mainstream science is incompatible with non-duality.

Science is the study of the phenomena of manifestation. The aim of the physical sciences is to create mathematical models of how phenomena in the physical world arise and change. In other words, it’s the study of patterns in how things move and change in the world. But scientists who really understand the foundations of science, recognize the models developed and accepted by mainstream science to be nothing more than models. They are not absolute truth. The map is not the territory.

Science cannot tell us anything about ultimate reality or consciousness as both those concepts represent the non-phenomenal. So real science cannot be incompatible with non-duality. Materialist scientists who make the mistake of believing science to be absolute truth, are following a religion — not true science.

Myth #10: Genuine non-dual teachers come from an established lineage and will have been asked to teach by their teacher.

The understanding of non-duality has arisen in different ways in different cultures across the millennia of recorded history. But truth is not owned by any culture, religion, institution or teacher. It is available to everyone at any time. When it arises, there is a natural impulse to share it. And that’s how the spiritual traditions emerged. In each case, new approaches and methods for teaching it were developed that came from and were appropriate to the prevailing culture and the nature of society at that time and place. Some of these approaches and methods have wider applicability. But all are just skillful means of leading people towards truth. There are not some that are right and others that are wrong. That which comes from truth has the possibility of leading people to truth.

It is up to each of us to find a teacher or teaching which resonates deeply with us. Because that resonance will be the echo of truth within ourself. We may find it within an established tradition, or we may find it elsewhere. Most of the spiritual traditions have been turned into belief systems and religions. So following a teacher from an established lineage and approved by a leader within that lineage is no guarantee that what he or she teaches comes directly from a deep non-dual understanding. We need to learn to trust our own intelligence and explore our experience for ourselves. As my teacher, Francis Lucille said:

‘My teaching is about you, all of you, trusting your experience, becoming autonomous, spiritually self-sufficient, without any need for popes, priests, and gurus like me to tell you what to think and what to do.’