Over the years, people have created many myths and false ideas as to what leads to enlightenment. As the co-host of the podcast, Awareness Explorers, I have interviewed everyone from the Dalai Lama to Deepak Chopra. In interviewing over 100 awakened teachers, I have learned much about people’s misconceptions about enlightenment. In my opinion, these common misconceptions actually make it harder for people to awaken. Therefore, in this article I have listed ten faulty ideas about the conditions that lead to enlightenment.
In my book, The Enlightenment Project, I describe in more detail why these misconceptions are not accurate, as well as the methods and ideas that consistently lead to brief or permanent enlightenment experiences. I hope that by knowing this information, it will help you be more open to glimpses of awakening in your own life.
Myths Around What Leads to Enlightenment
1. Enlightenment is a rare or special condition. There are only very few enlightened people.
First of all, enlightenment is not an all-or-nothing event. There are differing levels of enlightenment. Some (earlier) levels of enlightenment can be somewhat common—especially for brief periods of time. Most people have had at least a few moments of being "enlightened," even though few people stay in that experience for life. Recent research suggests that even persistent states of enlightenment are much more common than was previously believed.
2. Enlightenment happens spontaneously. You can't wake up through personal effort.
Researchers who have studied people who seem to be enlightened have found that the vast majority of them have done some kind of spiritual practice for many years. However, it is true that some people do seem to enter into this experience without any effort, and many people who make a prolonged effort for decades don't ever become enlightened.
3. There is one true path to enlightenment. Enlightenment happens only through one particular lineage.
Enlightenment can happen to people studying any path or even no particular path. While some spiritual disciplines—such as certain Buddhist-inspired methods—seem to have a greater track record of success, there are no guarantees on any path. Of course, almost every path and religion proclaim that they're the best path, but that's just a product of how the human mind and ego operate.
4. The moment of enlightenment (if there is one) always involves a specific and very noticeable shift—often accompanied by bliss or very positive emotions.
Research indicates that very few people have a "moment" of enlightenment that persists over time. Most people who have an experience of persistent awakening get there gradually, and some barely notice that a significant shift has occurred over time. In addition, people who have dramatic awakenings don't always experience bliss or other positive emotions. While they do tend to experience a lot more inner peace, different types of awakenings can lead to very different internal experiences.
5. You have to get rid of something or become psychologically healed before enlightenment can occur.
In actuality, anyone can awaken at any time. Nothing necessarily needs to change before you can awaken. It is always available to anyone since it is one's true nature. However, people who have done a lot of meditation, spiritual practices, and/or psychological work are probably more likely to awaken than folks who have not done such inner work.
6. To claim to be awakened, you must have solid evidence.
There is no foolproof "test" as to who is enlightened and who is not. Even people who are close to a newly awakened person may not realize that something has shifted in them. However, awakened people often exhibit understandings and experiences that are similar to other folks in higher consciousness and usually report very deep feelings of peace and well-being.
7. To become enlightened, you need a spiritual teacher or guru.
Many people awaken without the guidance of a spiritual teacher or guru. In the past, it was probably much more necessary for a person to have an association with a spiritual teacher. However, in recent years the best methods and concepts that have historically increased the chances of experiencing enlightenment are now much more accessible to everyone than ever before.
8. You have to be a good person, do good deeds, or build up positive karma before you can become enlightened.
Interviews with hundreds of awakened people suggest that you do not need to be a good person, do good deeds, or have any particular karma to become enlightened. While such characteristics may improve your odds of awakening, they certainly do not guarantee enlightenment.
9. Becoming enlightened requires luck or Divine Grace. You must be "chosen" by God to fully awaken.
There are many enlightened people who don't even believe in God or Grace, and yet somehow, they seem to be fully awakened. Instead, they feel that enlightenment is simply the result of a set of practices that help to shift one's identity to a new part of their being.
10. Getting to enlightenment takes a long time.
While clearing old conditioned habits usually takes many years of effort, awakening can occur even for spiritual novices. Since pure awareness is always in the background of our experience, it need not take a long time to become aware of one's true nature and experience enlightenment. On the other hand, such glimpses of the awakened state rarely persist unless a person engages in ongoing spiritual practice.