As human beings we have an incredible capacity for peak experiences that alter our state of consciousness, our perspective, and our way of seeing the world. We can have peak experiences that last for seconds or that last for days, but the defining quality of a peak experience is its “peakness.” It is the peak of the wave that is our daily experience, not the ocean itself. It is a peak in terms of intensity, clarity, fullness, emptiness, richness, or the dissolution of boundaries and certainty. It is also a peak in the sense that it allows us to see over or see beyond what has been limiting us. But, just like bouncing on a trampoline might provide glimpses of the territory beyond a high wall, seeing over that wall is not the same thing as being on the other side of that wall. Seeing over is awakening. Being over is enlightenment.
We can have peak experiences or alter our consciousness in a great variety of ways. We can shift our consciousness by ingesting substances that alter the chemistry of the brain. We can place ourselves in dramatically different environments like enforced silence, darkness, heat, cold, or isolation. We can engage in behaviors that run counter to our desire for safety and security. We can chant, pray, meditate, dance ecstatically, make love, make art, listen to repetitive rhythms, drone sounds, or alternating wave frequencies that entrain the brain to specific states. Sometime the energy of a group, like the quality of a tidal wave, is strong enough to carry us into a peak experience. We often find peak experiences in the presence of energetically charismatic teachers or leaders who hurl Shaktipat or argue and browbeat us into some new awareness or get us to break old habitual patterns or entrain us with their loving presence in ways that lead to altered states of consciousness.
But the bottom line is that these peak experiences always fade. In the Zen aphorism “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The “then there is no mountain” moment is the peak experience. It is the awakening moment and it can feel incredibly profound, but the mountain will come back, and that’s where actual enlightenment begins. Enlightenment may or may not follow an awakening based on what you do or do not do with whatever realization persists beyond the peak experience and the awakening moment. Enlightenment is not the “aha” moment, but, rather it is the integration of an “aha” moment that allows one to live a truth that has been glimpsed or revealed.
The problem with not recognizing the difference between the peak experience that is awakening and actual enlightenment is most evident in the argument between different schools or traditions or teachers offering a path to awakening or enlightenment. There is the “light switch” school that views enlightenment as an on/off switch that is instant, permanent and irrevocable and a “rheostat” school that views enlightenment as a gradual process that unfolds over time. Both have aspects of correctness about them. While changes in our state of consciousness are often instantaneous and seldom predictably arrived at, they are not permanent and irrevocable no matter how much we may want to cling to them. They’re states, by definition they are things that are meant to change. The gradual school of awakening is correct in that the embodiment of an awareness that allows suffering to subside does take time, though sometimes it feels instantaneous because we can spend a long time trying to embody the truth of an awakening and one day wake up to the fact that we have.
If you come from the “light switch” school the focus will be on having that peak experience of awakening and once you’ve had it, the expectation will be that you are “done,” “fully awakened,” and “enlightened.” This has happened countless times to individuals who all too often then hang up their “enlightened” shingle and start proselytizing online, teaching in person, or forming cults of enlightened personality. Of course, to do this they have to deny and suppress the fact that the peak experience has subsided and that challenges with ego and identity and old habitual patterns of clench and closure still remain. To maintain students and credibility (not to mention an income), they often cover this fact up by re-languaging their old habitual behaviors as new enlightened behaviors. They redefine common words to mean what they want them to mean. I’ve heard “enlightened” teachers explaining that whatever a student is expressing is just a thought, while whatever the teacher is expressing is an “unthought,” whatever that might be. The point being that if the teacher claims that enlightenment is the end of thoughts, then they have to redefine their own thoughts to align with their teaching. This just leads to real confusion for students and actually makes real enlightenment less likely for everyone.
For people who have that peak experience and hold it closer (not instantly wanting to become teachers and gurus), the confusion can be in the dearth of information coming out of the “light switch” school about how to embody and integrate the profound truth of the peak experiences or awakening and live in a world where the mountain has come back. They’ve been told that they are done—they are enlightened. But what happens when suffering still persists? They either have to push it away from themselves as shadow, denying that they are suffering or repress it in some way. When we push suffering away like that, we begin to see others as the cause of our suffering. We break with friends and loved ones because they don’t get that we are enlightened and they bring us down and cause us to suffer.
In addition, we can tend to chase altered states of consciousness (because we believe that the altered state is what enlightenment should be like all of the time). We pursue more peak experiences through meditation or inquiry or sanghas and actually get distracted from the real process of enlightenment, which is cultivating the ability to allow life to arise in all it’s chaos and order, beauty and ugliness, fear and love, sadness and happiness without clinging to any of it—without suffering.
So when you have your moment of awakening, no matter how it comes, treat it as the precious thing that it is. Allow it to penetrate the cracks of your habitual closure and egoic clinging as a realization. But also welcome the return of the mountain, the crucible that living a life actually is, for it is in living that life that you may actually find a way beyond suffering.