The East holds the longest tradition of enlightenment and in going beyond the brain. Here teachings on enlightenment have been passed on for thousands of years. The Bhagavadagita explains about enlightenment, and building on this tradition, the Buddha is known as the greatest teacher of enlightenment of all time.
In Buddhism, enlightenment can be explained as the liberation from our thoughts. Instead of being our thoughts, we shift perspective to watching our thought—we are observing our thoughts without identifying with our thoughts.
Enlightenment is the liberation from thought identification to thought observation, and this is what it means for the brain to get out of its own way. Beyond the brain and its thoughts we experience that we are still there, and this experience is liberation—the experience of our true nature.
To explain this, a mirror is often used as a metaphor for the mind, or consciousness. Our mind is an empty mirror in which thoughts occur as reflections. We are the mirror. Our thoughts, as reflections in the mirror, are our subjective self, or ego. By observing our thoughts we can see that these reflections come and go in the mirror, but when we watch closely we find something behind these reflections that is clear and stable. This is the mirror—our true nature.
Knowing our true identity, we can observe the reflections as they change from pleasant to unpleasant thoughts and back again, but since we no longer identify with the reflections we have now become liberated from them. This simply means that we are no longer controlled by our thoughts.
We now control our thoughts, and can select positive and happy thoughts, instead of negative and unhappy thoughts. This is enlightenment and freedom from our thoughts, which leads us to the essence of our nature. This was what the Buddha taught, and all his 84,000 teachings can all be condensed into one line: Recognize your essence.[i]
As we learn to control our mind and practice mindfulness, we discover our true identity more and more fully. We find that our true nature is positive and loving as the mirror is clear and bright. The Buddhists say that the mirror is empty—not in the Western understanding of nothingness, but empty of thoughts. As quantum physics tell us that space is full of energy, so too, is the true nature of the mind full of unborn and unlimited possibility. We could call this unborn and un-manifested reality quantum superposition in which everything is possible.
A movie projector is also used as a metaphor for the empty mind. The empty mind is the light of the projector in which the film (our thoughts) is projected. In other words the empty mind projects awareness onto the thoughts within our mind. By going really deep within the mind, we can discover that all we truly are is the clear light of the projector, and we can observe that the film is not created by us, but by the outside world as reflections in our mirror. Thereby, we can see how all the reflections are really impersonal—the only thing personal is the light behind the reflections. The reflections are karmic patterns in the world outside, but here inside, we are free to see beyond this game of life and let the light of our mind shine through it all.
To arrive at this realization, meditation is used as a tool to calm the mind. It is clear that in a hectic and busy day, it is all too easy to get caught up in the game of life. For our Western mind that operates by logic and is always busy analyzing, meditation can seem quite foreign. Personally, I know this to sometimes be a problem. But what is even a bigger problem for our Western mind is our either/or logic.
This thinking in black and white, which constantly seeks the negation, can be a damaging element in critical rationalism. Most of us know (or try to escape) people who are always negative and always criticizing. These are not bad people; they are simply prisoners of our Western black and white logic that constantly seeks the negation.
The Buddhist tradition tells us that negation lacks the oneness with the parts, and therefore, we should abandon “the poison of contradictions.” Being able to discriminate is an important function of the mind, but a dualistic mind ruled by negation is not a happy mind because it is disconnected from its own true nature. Our true identity is beyond conceptual thinking, and it is by redrawing this conceptualization that we can experience the true nature of the mind.
This is a very subtle process of the mind as the energy vibration of our true nature is extremely soft. One way to experience the subtlety of this energy is through conversation. By following the flow of energy in a conversation, we can learn a lot about the subtlety of our mind. We can see that to be completely clear and open in the mind requires considerable effort. The slightest aversion or attachment changes the energy of a conversation instantaneously. By observing the causes of the changes in the flow of energy, we can see our unconscious patterns of behavior. And if we look even closer by being very mindful, we can see that the energy actually speaks. We can read the energy of other people as they can read the energy we send out. The energy does not lie—it speaks the Truth—about our intensions and who we really are.
Thus, by being fully present we can see the true nature of other people, while being mindful of ourselves and what we reflect on to the world. This can then transform our own interaction with the world towards being more truthful, while at the same time help us to see the true nature of others. Underneath the manifested reality beyond the patterns of behavior, we can see the eternal and true nature of all of humanity. By holding on to the true nature of ourselves and others we can see the lie without becoming the lie. This is the element of enlightenment that transforms our world by letting in the light from the true nature of reality.
To calm and fine-tune the mind to these subtle energies, Buddhism uses meditation to practice mindfulness and reach enlightenment. Meditation is basically a technique of stilling the mind’s “business” to reach a mindful or empty state. Many people are mindful naturally, while others have never had the experience of the true nature of mind. If you have not experienced meditation and feel that you would like to be more mindful, then I highly recommend meditation. There are many places to do meditation, and for me, the deepest and best meditation is experienced through Vippassana meditation. This is usually a ten day retreat of silent meditation that helps you go very deep within the mind and clear many layers of confusion.
To explain how meditation works, I will briefly explain the three steps in the meditation practice that I personally use. The first step is to sit comfortably in a silent room with the back straight and upright. You close your eyes and begin to calm the mind. To help calm the mind, you can focus on your breathing: in, out, in, out, etc. In the first step as you try to calm the mind, you will experience that your thoughts are many and random.
In the second step, as your mind calms, you will notice the thoughts starting to slow down. You can observe a thought coming into your mind, and then leaving again. This is perfectly all right. The practice of the second step is to not feed the thoughts energy. If a thought arises and you feed it energy by going into the thought, this thought will take you away from your center, just as a simple thought of a small thing can run far away with you.
When you stop feeding your thoughts energy, you will experience that they come and go while you are still there. This is the essential part of the second step—the change from being your thoughts to observing your thoughts. This is also the liberating step in meditation where you gain control of your own mind through being mindful.
In the third step, you now become a witness to your thoughts by observing them instead of entering them. At this stage you will find that when you stop feeding the thoughts energy, they will slow down and your mind begins to become still. By going deep into the stillness you can also see how your thoughts completely stop and you will have the experience that time stops as well. This is deep meditation and what the Buddhists call the experience of emptiness. The self you experience when the mind is empty of thoughts is your true nature.
Step three reveals to us our true and enlightened nature, and through the practice of meditation this can serve as our rock foundation. However, even though we cannot, or do not always, arrive at the third step—step two is enough to help us in our personal transformation. Through mindfulness and being able to observe our thoughts, we can see what some Buddhists call “the hook,” which we bite when we let ourselves fall into our negative patterns.
Through the mindful observation of the root cause that makes us fall into patterns, we make the subconscious conscious. The subconscious is also connected to our feelings, since besides being controlled by the way we think, as animals we are also controlled by the way we feel. Probably the biggest misconception about Buddhism is that we are not supposed to feel at all. The aim is only to control our negative emotions that cause negative actions and bad karma.
It is really about who is in the driver’s seat of your life: you, or the negative patterns of your past. When we are in control of ourselves and this identity is based on our true nature, then we can cultivate positive actions and good karma. In the large context, it is really about not adding to the negative karma already in the world. I believe that when we look at the amount of conflict and war in our world, then surely we need to tame this anger. As a man, I know this is an important step in our evolution.
This is why the Buddha also thought our actions are connected to our sensations. The mind and body are deeply connected as our biology affects our mind and vice versa. The free mind comes from taking control over our biology so that the mind controls the body instead of the body controlling the mind—the body becomes servant of the mind.
To see how the two interact and affect each other is the key to transforming our negative behavior because biology is at the root of our actions. Many of our actions start as a reaction to a sensation, either pleasant or unpleasant. When we experience something pleasant we have a pleasant sensation; when we experience something unpleasant, we have an unpleasant sensation. These sensations turn into either craving or aversion, as a reaction to pleasant and unpleasant. When we recognize that the body has a memory, then we realize that we are now actually at the root of our patterns.
Sometimes we are not aware of our reactions—why we react the way we do. Childhood experiences or trauma are part of our subconscious behavioral patterns. Take fear as an example. If we observe our body reactions during the fear-inducing event, we can see that the fear is connected to a sensation. If we in this moment become aware of the sensation, and remember that we are the mirror and not the images reflected in it, then we can stay mindful without reacting to the sensation. We can now start to liberate ourselves from this pattern of fear by being mindful of the body’s sensation of fear without reaction to it in the mind.
Anger works the same way. It starts with a tense or unpleasant body sensation and then angry thoughts arise. If we become aware of the sensation before it turns into anger, then we can start to change our reaction to it and our consciousness will evolve as we grow out of our negative patterns. By becoming conscious of our subconscious patterns of behavior, we can break the chain at its root level and start to transform ourselves and the world around us.
This is how, through mindfulness, we can begin to see the world as it really is beyond patterns and illusions. By being mindful of our true nature we can stop the karmic inflation of reality and begin to see what is actually there. The true nature of mind becomes the rock upon which we see through the false concepts of the mind. Thereby, we arrive at the right view on reality and this right view becomes the foundation of our right actions.
Karmic patterns are not part of our true nature—they are part of the manifest world. To be real and to experience who we are, we need to move beyond into the un-manifest and unlimited world of our true nature. Just the same, when we die and leave the body, we also leave this karmic world of delusion to enter the ultimate nature of reality.
The true nature of mind is the door through which we enter into the ultimate reality of existence. The Buddhists teach us that to leave the karmic world behind; we cannot be attached to it. Non-attachment is a mind in equilibrium without craving or aversion. Again, non-attachment is not the nihilistic perception of nothingness, but the abandoning of conceptual thinking, which leaves the mind calm to experience itself. The true nature of the mind is naturally full of light and unlimited love. This is very similar to the experience of the light in the near-death experience. In fact, “The light experienced in meditation has many of the qualities of the light of the NDE.”[ii]
Buddhism teaches that when we die, we encounter this light—the Luminous Bardo of Dharmata, Dharmata meaning true nature and luminosity referring to the light that is naturally present.[iii] As the near-death experience gives evidence to, this ultimate reality is beyond our human understanding, and in Buddhism it is bright and unimaginably positive. Since Buddhism has the most in-depth explanation of how we enter this light, in the next chapter I will use the Buddhist insights as a guide to leaving the body when we die.
[i] Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, 139.
[ii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 57.
[iii] Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, 137, 131.