The paradox

Enlightenment is a big thing... and not a big thing. To attain a state in which you are perpetually happy, at peace, unconditionally loving and carefree is certainly a big thing. But on the other hand, all these internal conditions are intrinsic to your real nature as a spiritual being. So you might also say that to re-awaken to what you already are is, in reality, not a big thing. When enlightenment dawns, it is often accompanied by the thought, "It's so simple! It was always right here but I just didn't see it!"

Is enlightenment really attainable for the average person?

Given that so relatively few have reached this state, it may appear out of reach for "everyday people." And a look at the most highly visible individuals who have attained it only adds to its mystique as something reserved for only a select few. Most of these individuals were steeped in a particular religious tradition, and the majority lived at least part of their lives as renunciates. Most of them studied with a spiritual mentor and logged many hours of meditation and other spiritual practices. Most have been elevated, in the eyes of society, to positions with labels such as "saint," "guru," "initiate," "master," or even "messiah" or "avatar." How can we hope to come anywhere near that level of attainment? The good news is... we don't have to.

What's holy got to do with it?

Nothing. Enlightenment and "holiness" do not in any way have to be equated. Enlightenment is a natural state, simply the culmination of our evolution, and really has nothing to do with holiness... at least not holiness as it is generally defined: A person, place or object that is "sacred." The only real connection between enlightenment and holy is that the term "holy" actually stems from the German, "heilig," which means "whole," and wholeness is indeed an aspect of the enlightened state. But enlightenment does not make you holy or sacred, and to attain the state of enlightenment, you surely do not have to have a pre-existing condition of holiness.

Levels of enlightenment

It may be helpful to understand that there are various levels of enlightenment. Most of the high profile examples we have, are individuals who have attained relatively high levels of awakening. Although these higher levels are ultimately attainable by anyone, they should not be held up as the bar to which you have to rise in order to reach an enlightened state. The fundamental level of enlightenment - what we will call "level 1" - is within our reach, and comes with a fairly complete "benefits package." Let's have a look at the various aspects of level 1.

• Attaining level 1
 ~ Your essence is pure consciousness... the calm, silent, unchanging awareness that underlies your body, mind and emotions. It has been given various names by various spiritual traditions... your "Inner Self," "True Self," "Essential Self," "Atman," "Buddha Nature," or just "The Self."

As a result of meditation and other spiritual practices, your identity shifts - either gradually or suddenly - from your outer personality - body, mind and emotions - to your Inner Self. With this identity shift you realize, beyond a mere intellectual understanding, that you are not your outer personality, but you are the serene awareness at the core of your being.

If you have been meditating for awhile, chances are you have at least glimpsed this pure consciousness within you and will have a sense of what I am referring to. If you have not yet experienced this, you will as you continue to meditate, as it is very accessible. It is, after all, your essence... your True Self.

Because the nature of this pure consciousness is peace, happiness, love and freedom, all the positive conditions that you will experience at the first level of enlightenment stem from becoming identified with, or established in, this consciousness.

Now let's have a closer look at each of these positive inner conditions. As we go through them, our focus will be on how you have most likely experienced some degree of these conditions at various times in your life, and imagining what life might be like when they become a permanent part of your day-to-day reality.

• Perpetual peace ~ 
Think of a time when you felt totally at peace... completely at ease. There must have been at least one time in your life when you felt absolutely peaceful, even if it was for just a few moments.

Maybe it was a tranquil dawn watching the sun quietly appear over the horizon. Maybe you were lazing at the beach feeling totally relaxed, watching the seagulls floating in the peaceful sky. Perhaps you were sitting by a mountain stream, listening to its gentle gurgling... or kicking back on your couch late at night when the world had gone quiet. Whatever the conditions, whatever the duration, imagine that experience of peace being your permanent state of mind.

At the first level of enlightenment, the state of peace is unshakeable... no matter what occurs in your life, it cannot overshadow or disturb your inner peace.

• Inner happiness or joy not dependent on outer conditions
 ~ This has been called "unreasonable happiness" because in the enlightened state you do not need a particular reason to be happy... you just are. Think of a time when you felt total joy. Even if it was just for a few moments, at that time, joy was your reality.

Most likely it was triggered by an external situation or event, such as a perfect afternoon with someone you love, the thrill of victory from winning a tough competition, completing a big project or attaining a major goal, hearing how much someone has been helped by something you've done, getting out of school for summer break. The possible causes are endless, but the point is that even though your joy may have been triggered by something external, the feeling was within you. That is because, to quote the Dalai Lama and a slew of other wise men and women, "happiness is your true nature." Thus, the event that triggered the joy was merely acting as a bridge, connecting you with what was already inside you.

Now imagine that happiness being a constant part of your inner reality. It's not necessarily an intense feeling, although it can spike at times into exuberance or ecstasy. More often however, it's a steady happiness... a calm contentment. Whatever the degree, persistent happiness is an intrinsic part of the level 1 enlightenment experience.

• Freedom from worry
 ~ Think of a time when you felt care free. Even if you are the world's biggest worrier, there must have been a moment or two over the course of your life in which your concerns took a break and you felt that everything was all right. If you can't remember such a time, imagine it. Now imagine freedom from cares and worries being your constant state. That freedom is a major feature of the enlightenment package.

There are essentially three reasons why experiencing freedom from worry is an intrinsic part of the enlightened state. The first is that when you are fully identified with your tranquil Inner Self, no circumstance or thought can overshadow that quiet awareness. The second is that at the core of your being, you know that no external event can actually harm the real you... your eternal Self. And third, enlightenment attunes you to your higher wisdom, which elicits a calm assurance that everything is unfolding in perfect order and all your true needs are being taken care of.

• Unconditional love
 ~ Think of someone you love and accept no matter what they do. It may be a person or it may be a pet. Sure, maybe they irritate you at times, but whatever their faults and annoying quirks, your connection is so strong that you love them anyway. Now think of a time when you were with this person or pet and clearly felt that connection... just a simple quiet connectedness, pure love without conditions.

Now imagine feeling that unconditional love for everyone. Imagine feeling a similar kinship with all beings. If you can feel it for one individual, you can extend it to all, because love is part of your nature and because you are, in essence, all part of the same fabric. This unconditional love - this feeling of connectedness with all beings - is the meaning of "compassion" in Buddhist teachings.
Here's what Albert Einstein has to say about this...

"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe -- a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

• Coming home
 ~ Think of a time when you had just returned home, tired from a long trip or a hard day at work or school. Remember the sense of relief... how great it felt to drop everything and relax completely in the undemanding shelter of your home. When you are home, you are free to let it all go... free to drop the persona you present to the world and just be yourself.

Enlightenment can feel like this because it is, in a very real sense, coming home to your authentic self... the ground of your being... your spiritual origin. It is letting go of who you thought you were and returning to who you really are.

If you take all of these conditions we've just discussed, and blend them together into a comprehensive state of being, you will have a sense of what enlightenment is... at least the first level.

So the answer is yes... enlightenment is attainable for the average person.

Provided, of course, he or she is willing to put forth a bit of effort to attain it. Rather than being some remote Himalayan peak, scalable by only a few skilled climbers, enlightenment may be more realistically compared to a good sized mountain that can be climbed by anyone with a sufficient degree of preparation, perseverance and commitment to reaching the top.

There will come a time on Planet Earth when what we now call "enlightenment" will be considered our normal state of consciousness. Although we are still in the process of evolving to that level, that process is currently in a greatly accelerated phase. Hence, if you choose to step up your efforts to attain enlightenment, you will discover a tremendous amount of support available to you. There are various paths to the top of the mountain. Whichever path you choose, I hope you will take advantage of this golden opportunity.

Author's Bio: 

Jim Malloy was trained as a meditation teacher in 1973 by the International Meditation Society, and has been teaching meditation for 37 years and spiritual development classes for 30 years. He has taught classes throughout the western and south-western U.S. and in the U.K., and now teaches locally in north-central Florida and globally via The World Wide Online Meditation Center.

To deepen his practice and further his teaching skills, he has studied with some of the world's foremost experts on meditation from India, Japan and Tibet, including Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Zen Masters Joshu Sasaki Roshi and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and the 16th Karmapa.

Jim began his daily meditation practice in 1966, and from that time on, his passion for the spiritual journey has led him to an in-depth study of the dynamics of the path to enlightenment.