Stages of Enlightenment
by Diane Linsley

Ever since my awakening in 2009, I periodically find myself trying
to describe my experience. Of course, words are never adequate to
describe an experience. If you've never tasted a strawberry, it won't
matter how accurately I describe what it tastes like. You won't know
until you eat one yourself.

Spiritual teachers attempt to describe enlightenment because it gives students the idea that there is something called "enlightenment," and it's a wonderful thing to pursue. Otherwise, why would you meditate for so many years?

Stages of Development

I previously wrote about cognitive development. I recommend reading that article before this one.

Ken Wilber has written extensively about the stages of development. Integral Meditation provides a good overview, along with exercises to help you shift your perspective. I also enjoyed One Taste and The Simple Feeling of Being, both of which contain beautiful passages for contemplation.

The experience that we call enlightenment begins at the highest stage of cognitive development - the Unitive stage. This stage can be broken down into three more stages, which will be described here.

I will use Bill Harris's terminology, which is based on the teachings of an ancient Zen master named Tozan. Tozan described five stages, known as the Five Ranks of Tozan. The first two stages are pre-enlightenment. So we will begin with stage three - the Third Rank of Tozan.

This is the stage commonly referred to as enlightenment. As you will soon see, enlightenment is not the end of the road. There are two more stages after it. Some people in the Third Rank of Tozan believe they have arrived, and they may actually get stuck there for many years. As with all stages, if you stay there too long, it becomes another place of stuckness and stagnation.

I entered the Third Rank of Tozan in late 2009. It lasted for one year, and it was everything I hoped for and more. There is a certain detachment that comes with being cathected in the Witness position, which makes it very compelling and wonderfully blissful because it separates you from the suffering of the ego. So I was quite distressed when it came to an end. As Zen master Genpo Roshi says, the Fourth Rank of Tozan feels like a fall from grace.

Several years of suffering in the Fourth Rank was enough to convince me that there was more to enlightenment than blissing out in the Transcendent - although that was my preference at the time. Through many years of doing shadow work, I began my transition into the Fifth Rank.

The Witness Perspective

A kensho is a shocking experience of stepping out of your ego for just a moment. It feels like an eternity because the experience is outside of normal space/time. We call this the Transcendent.

A good metaphor is the shutter of a film camera. The shutter opens for a brief moment when you take a picture. At this moment, light enters the camera, exposing the film. A person may have many kenshos or brief flashes of enlightenment before the shutter finally opens and stays open permanently.

From the moment of your first kensho, you become an avid spiritual seeker with a burning desire to have more of these experiences, which ultimately culminate in enlightenment - the permanent state of witnessing, which transcends the ego. The ego is still there, of course, but your perspective is now cathected in the Witness position, so you no longer experience the ego as "I". Ego boundaries have dropped away, and you now experience "I" as the oneness of the universe.

The goal of mindfulness meditation is to witness your body, thoughts, emotions, and everything in your environment and experience of life.

If you meditate long enough - typically for decades - you may experience enlightenment. In other words, you will stop getting sucked into things and going "unconscious," as they say in the spiritual movement. I was able to move quickly through the early post-conventional stages (pre-enlightenment) by using Holosync meditation, which accelerates cognitive development.

When I was in the Third Rank of Tozan, I didn't feel like Diane. I simply witnessed Diane. I really couldn't say anything about myself because using the word "I" didn't make any sense.

The first few weeks were pretty strange. I mostly wandered around aimlessly, seeing Diane and everything around her through new eyes. For the first time in my life, I was completely free of my personality and all the beliefs, judgments, and limited perspectives that come with the ego. This is the same sort of experience that Eckhart Tolle describes in The Power of Now.

I felt like I was living in a different world from everyone else. I saw through the illusion of the relative world and how people suffered over things that no longer had the power to upset me. From my new perspective, only the Transcendent was real because that's where my sense of self was cathected.

Once I integrated the experience of the Third Rank of Tozan, which firmly established my ability to be the Witness, that stage came to a natural, but rather abrupt and painful end.

The Fourth Rank of Tozan has been referred to as the dark night of the soul. The reason it hurts so much is because, having once tasted the Transcendent, going back into the relative world is hell. But go back into hell we must because that's where we do shadow work. 

A Metaphor for Enlightenment

Ken Wilber uses this metaphor for the stages of enlightenment:

Normal life (pre-enlightenment) is like playing a sport (basketball, football, tennis - take your pick) without conscious awareness. This is what you've been doing all your life. You take the game seriously, and you suffer because things don't always go your way. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. You are in competition with other players, and sometimes you get hurt. You try to figure out the rules of the game, but the rules keep changing, and you can't control the game. So you suffer.

In the Third Rank of Tozan (enlightenment), you suddenly find yourself sitting on the bleachers, just observing the game. You get to watch the game and all the players from a safe distance. From the bleachers, you see everything with a new and broader perspective (the Transcendent). Wow! This is amazing. Your eyes have been opened, and there's so much to see.

Best of all, you are safe on the bleachers. That person called You who is out there on the field is not your True Self. You wish you could help those poor people who are suffering in the illusion of the ego. You want to show them that there is a way out of suffering. You want them to join you on the bleachers so you can all enjoy watching the game, instead of taking it so seriously and creating more suffering.

So you try to tell people about the bleachers, but nobody believes you. "Bleachers? What bleachers? I don't see any bleachers." They give you suspicious looks. You know they secretly think you are crazy. Well, that's okay. They are living in illusion. You know better because you have experienced the ulitimate reality - the Transcendent.

Then one day, wham! A ball from the game hits you as you are sitting there innocently on the bleachers, minding your own business. And it hurts! That wasn't supposed to happen. You'd gone for so long without feeling egoic pain that you'd forgotten what it feels like. Next thing you know, you are back on the playing field.

"What? I'm not supposed to be here! What's happening to me?" You try to get back to the bleachers, but you can't. Welcome to the Fourth Rank of Tozan. The main difference between pre-enlightenment and the Fourth Rank is that now you know there are bleachers. You sat on them for a whole year. You can't deny their existence. But for some reason, you can't find your way back.

This is where karma catches up with you. Your ego is really no worse than it was before. In fact, it's better in some ways. But it hurts a lot more because you now have a high level of awareness. You see the dysfunction of your ego like you never saw before, and you have no idea how to fix it.

The Third Rank of Tozan gave you a break from your ego - a nice, long, blissful vacation in the Transcendent. But now you have to do the dirty work. And it's a big pile of you-know-what. You can't just walk away and say, "The ego's not real, so I don't have to deal with it." Until you deal with it, the karma just keeps piling up.

In the Fourth Rank of Tozan, you see all the work that needs to be done, and it feels overwhelming. The temptation is to run away and bliss out like you used to, but for some reason that doesn't work anymore. You realize that suffering in the relative world is real. And since you feel the suffering so intensely, you want to do something about it.

The main purpose and ultimate outcome of this stage is developing compassion.

The Fourth Rank of Tozan

Most of the spiritual teachers in the world are trying to help people get to the Third Rank of Tozan. The assumption seems to be that this is the end goal. There is very little information on further development after enlightenment.

In the Fourth Rank of Tozan, you realize that there is no escape from suffering. Since you have so much awareness, you don't only feel your own suffering, but also the suffering of the whole world.

Bill Harris says that a person wouldn't be able to endure this much suffering if they hadn't developed the ability to witness during their time in the Transcendent. Initially, it's normal to run away from the intense suffering by trying to get back to the bliss state.

Eventually, you give up this tactic - but only when you develop the skills you need to cope with life more resourcefully. The coaching processes I teach are very helpful.

When you have the skills, you stop running away from suffering and run towards it instead - like a paramedic or firefighter. The greatest desire of the person at this stage is to serve others and alleviate suffering in the world. They embody the Bodhisattva or Christ consciousness with great compassion. It's important at this stage to find a way to serve in the world. I did this by becoming a life coach.

I also benefitted from doing Gamma Compassion, which is a binaural beat track made by Centerpointe Research Institute. It contains gamma wave frequencies, which increase one's ability to experience compassion. Other benefits include reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease and increasing the ability to lucid dream and OBE.

The Fourth Rank can last for as little as a decade or as long as forty years. It depends to some extent on how quickly you can integrate the shadow. For more, see the article Non-Dual Perspective.

The Fifth Rank of Tozan

The Fifth Rank is the integration of the ego and the Transcendent. It's like the apex of a triangle where the ego is in one of the lower corners of the triangle, and the Transcendent is in the other lower corner. The apex at the top of the triangle is a new perspective that transcends and includes the others.

You can also think of it this way: The perspective of the Fifth Rank is from the soul, rather than from the ego-personality of your current life. You still have an ego, but you may also remember past lives, and you are able to form a concept of your karma through multiple lifetimes.

This enables you to create a big picture perspective of where you've been and where you are going. You see how the suffering of this life is simply an opportunity for soul growth that is preparing you for your next life. Everything is about your soul's purpose.

You appreciate the value of every experience of life. This gives you great peace, equanimity and wisdom that is not experienced at any previous level. Each day is a new adventure as you live in the Now, while maintaining a perspective that stretches back into past lives and forward into future lives.

You know that there cannot be good without evil or joy without sorrow. This isn't just a concept. It's your everyday experience of life. You see how you create these distinctions in your mind, and you take control of the process. You can create joy or suffering at will. You have the awareness to choose your emotions and other experiences of life.

You communicate freely with your higher self. The old feeling that the higher self is distant or that you can only access it through altered states of consciousness is gone.

You can ask your higher self any question and get an answer. The answer comes as quickly as you drop resistance. You may have gaps in your knowledge, which need to be filled by study or personal experience. In this case, your higher self guides you to the resources and experiences you need.

In the Fifth Rank, you continue integrating opposites and working with the shadow. My favorite way to do this is with Voice Dialogue. Anyone can do it, but what you get from it depends on your level of development. Hal Stone taught Voice Dialogue to the Dalai Lama, who was very impressed with it.

Ego Development

One of my post-enlightenment experiences was falling in love with the ego. It is simple-minded to judge the ego as "bad." The ego is what human beings are working on at this time in history. It's their creation, which needs a lot of work to become healthy and mature. I write about this in Soul Development.

Since I don't make the ego bad, I don't worry about whether or not a person is enlightened. I'm more interested in helping people develop a healthy ego, which is the focus of this website.

You can benefit from having a healthy ego at any stage. An unhealthy ego is hell, which is why people want to escape from it.

As you might imagine, the Fifth Rank perspective is quite rare. The teachers I know who teach from this perspective are Bill Harris, Ken Wilber, Genpo Roshi, Hal & Sidra Stone, and Rudolph Steiner.

In review: We have gone from being cathected (stuck) in the ego (pre-enlightenment) to being cathected in the Witness (Third Rank of Tozan) to coming back to the ego, but with a permanent ability to witness (Fourth Rank) to integrating both sides and experiencing wholeness (Fifth Rank).

Here's a meditation for expanding consciousness.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

As a life coach, I use many different processes to help
people with their personal growth. Click here if you are
interested in coaching with me.


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stages of enlightenment