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. His book, Integral Meditation, provides a good overview, along with exercises to help shift your perspective. I also enjoyed One Taste and The Simple Feeling of Being, both of which have many 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 of Tozan 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. I finally entered the Fifth Rank of Tozan after I started doing serious shadow work in 2014.

In 2016, I began experiencing what Ken Wilber calls the non-dual perspective. At first, it felt very strange because it was different from my previous experiences. It wasn't like my kenshos in early 2009 or the prolonged state of non-stop witnessing that occurred during the Third Rank of Tozan. Those were experiences of Oneness from the perspective of the Witness.

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 this 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.

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 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 natual, 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. 

Witnessing is the goal of meditation practice. Mindfulness meditation teaches you how to witness your body, thoughts, emotions, and everything in your environment and your 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.

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 in 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 that opens your mind to Reality. Wow! This is amazing. Your eyes have been opened, and there's so much to see.

Best of all, you are safe here in the bleachers. That person called Diane who is out there on the field is not you. You care about her - just like you care about everyone else. 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 in 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 in the bleachers, minding your own business. And it hurts! That wasn't supposed to happen. You'd gone for so long without feeling pain in the ego that you'd forgotten what pain is. 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 in them for a whole year. You can't deny their existence. But for some reason, you can't seem to 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 worse because you now have a high level of awareness. You see every detail of your egoic dysfunction that 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 any more. You realize that suffering in the relative world is real. And now that you feel the suffering again, you desire to do something about it. This stage is essential for developing compassion.

The Fifth Rank of Tozan

At some point after my transition to the Fifth Rank of Tozan, I began to have a new kind of experience that took me by surprise and felt quite odd at first. Ken Wilber calls it non-dual.

Like enlightenment, non-dual can only be understood by experiencing it. But once you do, you have to admit that it beats pure witnessing. You can still witness, of course. That's a skill you never lose once you integrate it. But non-dual is not witnessing.

In non-dual, the Witness drops away, and you are left face-to-face with reality - with no Witness to provide the subtle sense of separation that gives you a feeling of safety. No, this is real life in your face!

Non-dual is when you are playing the game with gusto. Yes, you were kicked off the bleachers against your will, and you can't go back. But after pouting for some time, you make a conscious choice to play the game. It's not safe here on the playing field. Some days it hurts so badly it's almost unbearable!

But there is profound joy at the same time because the non-dual experience is unblocked. You are one with the experience. Even the desire to step back and just be the Witness in order to protect yourself disappears. This can only happen when you know in the depths of your soul that All is One, and there is nothing to be afraid of. A non-dual experience is like the ultimate orgasm - with no holding back.

In recent years, non-dual experiences have become more common for me. The state of witnessing still happens - especially if I feel threatened or uncomfortable in a situation. I may go into the Witness in order to watch what is happening with intense awareness and objectivity. But I also recognize this as a defense mechanism - a way to put a little distance between me and the experience. The non-dual state is an experience of oneness in which neither the ego nor the Witness interferes. In this state, my sense of being a separate self disappears.

Now we have gone from being cathected (and 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 of Tozan) to integrating both sides and experiencing a new kind of oneness or wholeness (Fifth Rank of Tozan).

Shadow work involves the integration of opposites. One of my favorite ways to do shadow work is with Voice Dialogue. Anyone can learn how to do it. But what you get from Voice Dialogue depends on your level of cognitive development. The more advanced you are, the more you see the value of this process. Hal Stone taught Voice Dialogue to the Dalai Lama, who was very impressed with it.

The Resistance of the Ego

All suffering is caused by resistance. The ego was originally created by you in an attempt to minimize pain. The ego resists the suffering of others because it doesn't want to suffer in the same way. Have you ever noticed the thoughts that go through your mind when someone else gets sick? You try to guess what they did wrong so you can avoid the illness by not making the same mistake.

We all have ways to fool ourselves into thinking that we won't have to suffer like other people. Maybe our spirituality will save us. Or good health habits and positive thinking. Maybe we're counting on good genes or superior intelligence. Whatever we are attached to, that's what we expect will save us.

Meanwhile, we avoid getting too close to suffering people in order to maintain the illusion of separation. The ego is all about separation, and separation is rooted in the fear of suffering and death. What the ego fears more than anything is its own death. Enlightenment threatens the ego, and the non-dual experience threatens it even more.

Resistance appears at every transition to a new stage of development. This can sometimes manifest as a feeling of intense confusion, or even despair, as the old map of reality falls apart and a new map is about to be born. As with any birth, there are labor pains.

The Non-Dual Experience

In a Transcendent experience, you clearly see the Oneness of all things. It's an awesome experience. But in the non-dual, you aren't just witnessing it - you are it. When another person suffers, you suffer. When another person is happy, you are happy. You experience things fully as they arise. You don't observe a beautiful flower - you are the flower. You don't observe the world - you are the world.

From the non-dual perspective, I have the same longing that I had during enlightenment - to tell people about my experience in the hope that they might want the same experience for themselves.

Unfortunately, it's hard to sell people on the idea that they could experience life more fully. It's easier to sell the idea of enlightenment - the idea that there is a way to escape from suffering. Everyone wants to escape. How many people want to live fully?

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that practically everything we do is driven by the desire to escape from suffering. Even our spiritual seeking is an attempt to escape.

Living fully in the Now is the essence of non-dual awareness. It's a courageous choice - to face life without resistance. A good practice for doing this is tonglen meditation. Tonglen is an advanced practice because it goes beyond the mere witnessing of mindfulness meditation.

At earlier stages, I didn't have the same choices. Pre-enlightenment, I just suffered in the ego. Post-enlightenment, I could witness, which greatly reduced the suffering. Now I have another choice. In the non-dual, I can step into the experience and be one with it. These are increasing levels of freedom.

Non-Dual Awareness and Compassion

Why would anyone want to open themselves up like this? Well, you won't know until you experience the non-dual for yourself. There is a bliss in letting go and allowing yourself to be fully human that makes no sense to the ego in its self-defensive posture.

Non-dual means "not two." There isn't me and the experience as two separate things. There is just the experience. There's not the relative world and the Transcendent. There's just One Reality, which encompasses them both simultaneously. Spirit is in all things, all people, and all experiences.

In blissful moments of non-dual experience, I find myself laughing with childlike joy as I am dancing, smelling a flower, or dipping my feet in the ocean waves. In painful moments, I find myself crying whole-heartedly without shame or repression. When you repress pain, you also repress your ability to feel joy. When I was in the Third Rank of Tozan, I didn't suffer, but I wasn't as joyful as I am now. I was just peacefully blissful in the Transcendent.

In the non-dual, every person, object and experience has Buddha nature. Spirit is everywhere, all at once, in everything. There are no separate objects or separate people - only people who believe they are separate because that's their current perspective.

The non-dual experience is one of compassion. The root meaning of the word compassion is "suffering with." How can you have compassion for anyone, including yourself, if you are resisting the full experience of being a human being?

Ken Wilber says, "Absolute truth is emptiness. Relative truth is compassion." After the transcendent experience of emptiness (pure witnessing), we come back into the relative world with the ability to be truly compassionate.

In Soul Shifts, Barbara De Angelis describes love at this level. She says, "This love is not what we think of when we imagine love as happy and joyful. This love contains joy and agony, betrayal and compassion, relinquishment and redemption, humility and triumph all at once. It is completely full because it encompasses everything, leaving nothing that is human out, and then goes beyond that, exploding into what I can only describe as sublime. It is love for the imperfection of humanity that, at the same time, does not disqualify us from our divinity. The imperfect container still holds what is perfect."

This is a Fifth Rank of Tozan perspective. At this stage, the paradoxes of life are solved by integrating the opposites.

Here's a meditation for expanding consciousness.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

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stages of enlightenment