When we talk about the spiritual path we use the words awakening and enlightenment as metaphors to explain profound shifts in our experience. In this essay I’ll give you one way to understand the difference.
Our common use of the word awakening describes what happens to us each morning – we wake up. One of the ways we can think about what it means to wake up from sleep is that we return to direct contact with who and where we already are.
When we were asleep we were in a dream. Maybe we were a captain of a ship, or a child in school, or a damsel in the middle ages. Suddenly we wake up and we find ourselves lying in bed exactly where we were before we fell asleep. And we remember again who we are and that it’s time to go to work like we’ve done so many times before.
Extending this analogy to spiritual awakening we would say that the life that we are living right now is a dream. The you that is reading these words is a dream version of you. It is not who you ultimately are. The me that I feel myself to be as I type these words is also a dream self. The person in the dream is not the one that is going to wake up, just like the ship captain in the dream did not wake up to find that he or she was really asleep in bed. The ship captain was real in the dream, but isn’t there in the bed in the morning.
I use the word awakening in the spiritual sense to describe events that leave us knowing that we are not ultimately the person who responds to our name and has our history. We are more than that and life is much bigger and more magical than we had imagined.
When I use the word enlightenment (which I seldom do) I want to imply something more significant than awakening because it has to do with our ongoing level of connection to the truth of who we really are.
Awakening implies having had an experience of who we really are. Enlightenment implies having an ongoing connection with the reality of who we really are. You could say that awakening is digital and enlightenment is analog.
We are either awake or not awake. We either know that we are more than we think we are or we don’t. We have either glimpsed the wider reality beyond what we can see or we haven’t. It’s one or the other. And if you are interested in reading this essay, you are probably awake.
Enlightenment is not an either/or. It is an ongoing process of deepening surrender to and embodiment of the truth that we have seen about who we really are. As we surrender to the reality that has revealed itself to us that knowledge becomes consistently available to us in a mysterious way.
Functionally that means we cannot be fooled by the experience of the dream self even if it continues to be our experience most of the time. We know who we are even when we’re experiencing ourselves through the dream of the separate self.
Even when our conscious experience is of only our separate self – the one who was born on our birthday, has our history and responds to our name – we still maintain some mysterious knowing of who we really are. It is not something we can look at and see directly and yet we can feel it just beyond the edge of our conscious experience.
Both the awakened individual and the enlightened individual have periodic and often dramatic experiences of who they really are. The difference is that the awakened person needs these experiences in order to have faith in the truth of who they really are. The enlightened person is certain about who they are without needing any more experiences to prove it.
The journey into deeper enlightenment is the journey into deeper faith and confidence in the truth of who we are. This deep spiritual confidence gives us greater and greater felt access to the mysterious knowing of our infinite Self. If you meet a deeply enlightened person they seem to live always half in this world and half in direct contact with the mystery beyond it.
As a person deepens into enlightened recognition they become a more and more consistent expression of the divine union that lies behind the illusion of separation. That divine union is the union that occurs as we return to direct contact with who and where we already were the whole time.