What is Enlightenment? Self-Realization + Self-Actualization


Enlightenment is being true to who you are in every moment. To do this, we must first discover who we are, gaining insight into enlightened perspectives (self-realization,) then align ourselves with these perspectives through enlightened habits (self-actualization.)

Who we are is ultimately consciousness. We are life. We are God, and we are all made from the same nothingness. We are also deeply interconnected and interdependent. These and many other perspectives help us to choose values and goals for our lives, and these values and goals determine our decisions, which become our habits.

Enlightened habits include first and foremost mindfulness. Mindfulness is the guiding light, the awareness that helps us see what we are choosing so we can deliberately choose all other habits. There are many other habits which ultimately make up our personalities, including our thoughts, how we make decisions, manage emotions, and build relationships. Enlightened habits mean, in alignment with enlightened perspectives, we choose habits that serve our highest good, and thus the world’s highest good.

This perspective on enlightenment is important because it de-mystifies enlightenment, so that rather than some magical one-time experience, it is a gradual building of a way of life that leads to happiness for ourselves, and ultimately for the world.

Full Text

Enlightenment is simple. It means being true to who you are, in every moment. I sometimes like to call it “Genuineness.”

In eastern mystical traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta, enlightenment is referred to as “self-realization.” The focus of this attainment is primarily on knowing “who you are.” The assumption of these traditions is that this introverted knowledge is the true ultimate and proper goal of humanity.

In the western psychological tradition, we have quite the opposite problem. “Self-actualization,” means always being the best version of yourself. This is a very active, extraverted approach to reality. Unfortunately, self-actualization seems to leave the question “Who are you?” unanswered.

So enlightenment, then, is not knowing who we are without acting on it, nor is it being our best self without knowing who we are. You might say that the first stereotype is the recluse nun, who sits and meditates on her navel all day, perfectly content and self-absorbed, but doing little to actively serve the world. The other is the corrupt, big business-man, who succeeds overwhelmingly in life without knowing what he’s succeeding toward.

My conception of enlightenment is a hybrid between these two. First, it is a deep understanding of yourself, which means also a deep understanding of the universe. It is being able to deconstruct yourself, seeing that you are ultimately the same impersonal consciousness that is expressing itself through every form. You are life itself. It is also seeing that you are connected to every being in the universe, that the ecosystem of life is integrally entwined and interdependent.

On the active side, enlightenment means building your life around this knowing, with every decision you make. Knowing that you are one with all life, is this action you are taking in this moment serving the highest good of all being everywhere? Are your goals aligned with that deeper truth of your connection to the world? This of course includes acting in your own personal best interest as well. If your habits, relationships, and environment don’t help you to be happy, energized, and motivated toward your goals, how can you hope to remain true to yourself? Enlightenment means that you will shift any actions or circumstances in your life so they are in alignment with your highest, deepest, widest, truest self.

So then, in accordance with this dichotomy, you might say there are two main requirements to achieve enlightenment. They are your perspectives, and your habits. Perspectives are how you see yourself and see the world. Habits are the internal and external ways that you align yourself with that vision.

Enlightened perspectives require deep insight into the nature of self and reality. We are all ultimately made of the same nothingness, source, or the causal realm. We are all from God, of God, returning to God. Our essence is awareness or consciousness, and we are profoundly interconnected and interdependent. These are just a few of what I consider enlightened perspectives. There are many, many more, and there are different takes on ultimate truth. The important point here is that enlightened perspectives are deep understandings of what we are and how that relates to the world.

These perspectives must come not only through rote learning, but through deep contemplation and personal insight. They must be fully integrated into one’s being, so that it feels natural and right to act from them. In that way, you might say that perspectives are just another form of habit, a preliminary sort of mental habit that allows us to discern which habits we want to cultivate. Enlightened perspectives help us understand who we are, and implicitly what the world is, as we are both an integral part of it and inextricably dependent upon it. When enlightened perspectives are fully integrated, our clear understanding of things helps us choose enlightened goals for our lives, and make enlightened choices toward those goals moment-to-moment.

Enlightened habits are those actions we assume so repeatedly that they become a part of our being. They are our personality and they determine our futures. Habits are not only external behaviors, but also internal habits of mind and attention.

One enlightened habit is so crucial to enlightenment, that in some eastern traditions attainment of it continually is considered synonymous with enlightenment. This is the habit of mindfulness. I believe the best definition of mindfulness is a subtle, relaxed, deliberate awareness of awareness. A meta-awareness if you will.

Mindfulness is important for several reasons. When we are mindful, we have a continual awareness of our awareness, of our consciousness, of our experience, which is the essence of who we are. Awareness of awareness is also awareness of self. Therefore, mindfulness is by definition a most core component of enlightenment, which is about being aware of and true to yourself. Furthermore, by being constantly aware of what is occurring in our awareness, we are then able to notice when we may be in danger of falling into some unenlightened habit. Mindfulness is the internal light of consciousness that helps us see where we are going and what other habits and perspectives we are choosing, thus it is perhaps the most essential habit of enlightenment.

Another crucial enlightened habit is decision-making. Often when we make decisions, the tendency is to make them on auto-pilot. Enlightened decision-making takes into consideration all the understandings of enlightened perspectives, and through a habitual, practiced process makes decisions aligned with those perspectives. Enlightened decision-making means always choosing the decision that will lead to the highest possible good, based on current knowledge.

Enlightened decision-making is closely related to another set of enlightened habits I like to call attentional set-point and automatic reference point. When we go throughout our day, is our attention in our body, is it on our thoughts, is it on the space underneath everything, is it on mindfulness? Wherever our attention is most of the time, that is the attentional set-point. And to which of these does our attention go when we make decisions? That is our automatic reference point. In the enlightened state, we have deliberately chosen these points until they have become habit, so that we are consciously and joyfully experiencing our lives and intelligently consulting our experience when we make decisions. These points may be much more nuanced, rich, and complex than I describe here, alas this is simply meant to be an overview of these ideas.

Again, as with enlightened perspectives, there are many more enlightened habits that could be included here. Many of these habits are also things you DON’T do, such as not being violent, not using addictive substances or too much social media, as well as other common habits like eating healthy, personal hygiene, and finding synergistic potentials and win-win solutions.

Habits also include all the things that make good relationships, and things that drive you to career success and a purposeful life. Habits include patterns of thinking, such as planning effectively, not worrying or dwelling, and making goals. They also include how we process our emotions. Habits are the many little actions that determine what we make of every little bit of our life; our habits make us who we are. This is why enlightenment must include habits, guided by enlightened perspectives.

I feel my writing has gotten increasingly lazy as I have written this post. I hope I have clarified my current ideas on enlightenment a little bit for the reader, at least I think I have for myself. I used to believe enlightenment was some state magically reached where a sudden permanent shift in perspective totally obliterated all the old habits and maladaptive patterns of thought and behavior. Perhaps this—or some version of it—does happen to some people.

But I have come to the point of realizing that if someone’s enlightenment does not include enlightened habit, then that is not what I am looking for. Similarly, I have realized that really seeing reality clearly moment-to-moment with an illumined mind and intelligent perspective is critical. I don’t want to live a life of blind achievement. I believe the greatest value in seeing enlightenment this way is that it takes some of the mystical overture out of it. To achieve it, it takes long, slow patient work and persistent effort to develop definite habits based on definite perspectives. I have a strong sense when actions are taking me toward it, and when they are taking me away. I know that habits like meditation and consuming inspiring material and putting myself around inspiring people and having inspiring goals are all crucial elements. Hopefully this post will help inspire some others to move closer to enlightenment. For me at least, enlightenment is the highest goal I can aim for, as it means me doing my best to make the world a better place.

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