what is enlightenment?

being happy and contributing

”˜Yoga is the unlinking of the link with pain” –  (Bhagavad Gita – chapter 6 verse 23) 

 ”˜Yoga is when we want for nothing” – Brahmananada Saraswati

I think there’s a lot of terminology around yoga practice that’s really not that helpful because people don’t resonate with it. If we talk about ‘God Realization’ it doesn’t mean that much to most people in our culture. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning feeling excited about ‘God Realization’. Enlightenment is a similar term. We can say the goal of yoga practice is enlightenment and yes on some levels it is but it’s very difficult to get passionate about that. It doesn’t really feel like a practical application to me.

So for me the lowest denominator if you like is if we think of enlightenment as happiness; if we think of it as a very pure, very sustained form of happiness. Not, ‘I’m happy because I’ve just eaten a chocolate ice-cream’ or ”˜I’m happy because I’ve just fallen in love’ or ”˜I’m sad because my husband’s left me’ or ”˜I have a broken heart’. Not happiness that’s based on the ups and downs of the roller-coaster of life, which we all experience, but a happiness that is deeper than that, and that’s really what enlightenment is. It’s being able to be comfortable in your own skin and be content with who you are as a human being; and more than that, to feel that you’re able to make a contribution to the world.

The ”˜Bhagavad Gita’ talks about this idea of making a contribution or being of service a great deal, that its better to live your own dharma with authenticity, to live the life path that you were meant to live authentically even if that doesn’t come with fame and fortune and riches. That will bring you to great happiness. And that’s what yoga’s about. It’s not about anything more than living a comfortable happy life and serving others. We get very caught up in materialism; very caught up in relationships, others as healing us rather than feeling complete within ourselves; very caught up in the ego-identity that comes with a great job or a fast car or the way my hair looks today or whatever it might be. And yoga says, well ultimately those things will never really make you happy. There’s another way.  Being of service is the ultimate way to sew seeds that will sprout into good karmas for you and others.  All twelve step programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous) also offer similar advice, namely if you help others who have suffered as you have it will benefit your own healing.  

The Buddha also had some very helpful and very practical advice to give on the subject of enlightenment.  He said that we should focus on the practices and improving our states of mind rather than the end goal.  In the ”˜Bhagavad Gita’ Arjuna begs Lord Krishna to reveal himself.  In other words human beings long to know God; to see the marvel and the mystery for our own eyes.  But once Krishna did reveal himself Arjuna was completely overwhelmed and asked Krishna to cover himself again.  The luminosity of the truth of the beauty and majesty of awakening was too much to bear for a mere mortal.  The Buddha knew this, and when he first attained enlightenment was even hesitant to offer the teachings to those who asked.  He feared that at best he would blow people’s minds with what he had seen and come to understand and at worst he would be accused of being totally crazy.  His closest disciples implored him to share some teachings stating the so many had ”˜but little dust’ covering their eyelids, and that if this dust could be blown away with the Buddha’s wisdom many would benefit inordinately.  So share the teachings he did but with one caveat – his focus was on the journey, on the methods and practices that made up the path and not on the goal.  Rather than emphasis enlightenment he emphasized the end of suffering and the opening of the heart to compassion. 

We are told time and time again by teachers of many spiritual lineages that the journey itself is the goal.  In such a society as results driven as ours this is a difficult practice to embrace and may leave us feeling a little like ”˜what’s the point?’.  However in my own practice I have found the point is apparent moment by moment in the increase of patience I have for my children or the clarity I have in my work or the appreciation I have of nature.  These practices make me happier and holier and that, for me right now, is a precious gift.


Katie Manitsas writes a regular newsletter which contains yoga insights, reflections, teachings and lots of inspirational links. Sign up at jivamuktiyoga.com.au