Stages of Enlightenment
by Diane Linsley
Ever since my awakening in 2009, I find myself periodically trying
to explain what happened to me. The experience of what we call
"enlightenment" occurs in an instant. But it takes many years to
integrate the experience, and it's difficult to explain in words.
Of course, words are never adequate to explain an experience. If
you've never tasted a strawberry, it won't matter how accurately
I describe the experience of eating a strawberry. You still won't
know what a strawberry tastes like until you eat one yourself.
Still, every spiritual teacher attempts to describe enlightenment
because it gives the student the idea that there is something called
enlightenment, which is a wonderful thing to pursue. Otherwise,
why would you meditate for so many years?
Stages of Development
Over the years, I have studied several different models of human development. I wrote about the stages of cognitive development in a separate article. Ken Wilber has written extensively about the stages of development. His new book, Integral Meditation, provides a good overview, along with meditation exercises to help shift your perspective. I also enjoyed The Simple Feeling of Being, which has many beautiful passages for contemplation. I just finished reading One Taste, and it inspired me to write about my own experiences of non-dual awareness. But first, I'll give a brief history of my journey before I experienced the non-dual perspective.
Before continuing, you may want to read Bill Harris's articles on the Five Ranks of Tozan so that you'll know what I'm talking about. Here are the links:
I entered the Third Rank of Tozan (commonly called enlightenment) in late 2009. It lasted for one year, and it was everything I hoped for and more. So I was quite distressed when it came to an end, and I found myself in the Fourth Rank of Tozan, which is a "fall from grace," as Genpo Roshi calls it.
Several years of suffering in the Fourth Rank of Tozan was enough to convince me that there was more to enlightenment than blissing out in the Transcendent - although that was clearly my preference. I finally entered the Fifth Rank of Tozan when I started doing serious shadow work in 2014. In 2016, I began experiencing what Ken Wilber calls the non-dual perspective. At first, it was very subtle, but it was different from my previous experiences. It was not like my kenshos in early 2009 or the prolonged state of non-stop witnessing that occurred during my year in the Third Rank of Tozan. Those were experiences of Oneness from the perspective of the Witness.
The Witness Perspective
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. A kensho is a shocking experience of stepping out of your ego for just a moment. It feels like an eternity because it is an experience outside of normal space/time.
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.
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 weird. 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 separate personality.
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 any power to upset me. After all, how can you be upset by something that is not real? From my new perspective, only the Transcendent was real because that's where my sense of self was now cathected.
The Fourth Rank of Tozan
Well, all good things come to an end. Once I integrated the experience of the Transcendent, which firmly established my ability to witness the ego objectively, that stage came to a natual, but rather abrupt and painful end. The Fourth Rank of Tozan has been referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul. No kidding. I once wrote a whole article about suffering from this perspective. The reason it hurts so much is because, having once tasted the Transcendent, going back into hell is doubly hard. No one wants to do it. But go back into hell we must, because that's where we do our shadow work.
After a couple of years in the Fourth Rank of Tozan, I finally let go of the hope that I would ever be able to go back to the Third Rank. But it wasn't easy to let go. I actually left my body in late 2013 and went to my spirit guide and begged him to let me die because I wanted out. Speaking as my soul, I told him that I was frustrated with Diane, and I didn't feel like there was anything left that I could do with her. He told me that I wasn't finished yet - there was more for me to learn. I was disappointed, but I reluctantly went back to my body. After all, I knew that my spirit guide was wiser than me.
It took a few months to integrate that experience. It wasn't the first time I had experienced my soul separate from my body and ego. I'd had many OBE's. But it's not easy to wake up in the morning knowing that your soul is frustrated with you and wants to move on. I was so freaked out that I quit doing spiritual work for 6 months, and I told my spirit guides to leave me alone (which they did, for the most part). Then I turned to material pursuits in an effort to escape.
But karma eventually catches up with you. I'd already done too much work. I'd experienced too much, and I knew too much about who I really was. I couldn't run away from my path for long. One morning, I awoke to my spirit guide's voice in my head, saying, "It's time for you to be a teacher." I argued with him for two weeks. Then I gave up. I said, "Fine. If you want me to be a teacher, then you'll have to help me because I have no idea what to do." Two weeks later, someone showed up on my doorstep and asked me to be his meditation teacher. That was a shocker!
I humbly realized that I was inadequate to the task. But I had been called. So I began my formal training as a certified life coach, and I threw myself whole-heartedly into shadow work, which is the work of the Fifth Rank of Tozan. I could feel myself shifting gradually out of the Fourth Rank and into a new perspective. I will talk about this new perspective in the next article, Non-Dual Awareness.
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