Personally I have never been comfortable with the word enlightenment, or quite sure where the line is that makes one person enlightened and another not. It is not that I haven't been in the presence or read the works of many people from many different traditions who have what I consider to have a supreme understanding or "enlightenment". It's just that these days, in the so-called 'new age', enlightenment has become one of those words that is used all too easily. I have never been in a position to pass judgment on someone else's level of awareness, but I have usually shown caution towards those spiritual teachers who proclaim themselves to be enlightened. Still, as an idea, enlightenment or the ability to transcend all personal suffering has to be one of the ultimate goals of any human being. Enlightenment, as I understand it, means to have a conscious reconnection with our deepest sense of self. This is something that we might be able to start to understand intellectually, but intellectual understanding can only take us so far, and where it stops the problems begin. It is only through a direct experience that we can start developing a true sense of self.
So we might seek a great teacher or teachers who may or may not be enlightened, hoping that they can show us the path to our own enlightenment. And we think that they will inevitably have to communicate to us through the intellect. But what the great teachers have shown us is the experience of communion. As opposed to communication, which functions on a mind-to-mind level, communion operates heart-to-heart. It is only when we move away from an intellectual understanding and open ourselves up to a true experience of ourselves by ourselves that we will find our own inner intelligence and power. As Lao Tzu put it, "To know others is intelligence; to know yourself is true wisdom. To master others is strength; to master yourself is true power."
Because there is no intellectual basis or thought process attached, and because it is beyond the realm of time, enlightenment can only be experienced in the now, or on a moment-to-moment basis. Therefore it is an ongoing experience and one that presumably comes and goes, depending how long we can remain present. Since we all have our conditioning and 'issues' that take us away from this state of existence, we are lucky if it stays with us at all. It may be that there is no such overall state, and that each of us only experiences a greater or lesser number of enlightened moments. I have always imagined even the most enlightened beings to have off days. As Ram Dass once said, "If you think you're enlightened, go home to your family for the holidays!" He also reminded us that we never end up getting rid of our issues - we can only grow to recognize them and let them pass through us, rather than reacting to them. It is this recognition or awareness that makes the difference -- after all, the word enlightened means, "to shed light on or illuminate." The mind is great at recognizing many things, but has a hard time going in and coming face to face with ourselves. You can see this with people who spend a lot of time in their thoughts, finding it hard to associate with their bodies and connect with their feelings and emotions. James Joyce seemed to sum it up when he wrote of one of his characters, "Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body . . . "
What's interesting is that although hatha yoga is associated with a number of philosophies, these philosophies all center on transcending the mind. The yogis' intention was to have an experience of the deeper parts of the self, one that by-passed the mind. This is difficult for us in the West to understand, as we tend to have a strong attachment to the mind. Descartes was not the first one in this tradition, but he certainly expressed it most powerfully when he said, "I think therefore I am." This kind of belief naturally leads us to conceive of the mind as central to the self. Of course, the Western mind-centric tradition has produced many great results. But as we see in the modern age, it has also produced a society that is perhaps out of balance. More and more people are recognizing that by placing our emphasis on the rational and material, we have lost touch with the spiritual. At the same time, the mind has been defined as something separate from the body, and we have become distanced from emotions, intuitions and other paths to self-awareness that the body can give us. By focusing on just one side of our being - the mind - we have become numb to our essential self.
In sharp contrast, many Eastern philosophies - yoga among them - don't rely on the mind to define the self. A common technique used in the East is to correct one extreme by moving towards its opposite, with the ultimate aim of arriving at a middle way of unity and balance. The yogis were very aware that having too strong an attachment to the mind is an easy trap to fall into. So instead they looked for spiritual development and a way to reach the deeper parts of the self through the body. Through this experience, the ultimate realization is that neither the mind nor the body takes precedence, for they are not separate. The yogis understood that where there is separation there will inevitably be conflict. So the main aim of yoga is to unite the mind, body and spirit. It is this quest for union that gave the practice it name: yoga, meaning to yoke or unite.
People often wonder what the difference is between all the various types of yoga. Ultimately there should be no difference. Once again it is only the idea of separation that leads people to confusion. It is understandable that there are many different schools and styles - after all, there is more than one book in the library. But it is this exploration of one's deep self through the whole being which unites them all. At the heart of all yoga, no matter what the style, it is possible to experience the unity of body and mind, such that the practice itself becomes a meditation.
This idea of unity of body and mind has nothing to do with the degree of ease with which someone can get their foot behind their head or the angle they reach in a forward bend. Our exploration is as if we become like children playing for the sake of play, with no ambition or goal in sight that would allow the mind to try to assert control over the body once again. Then both body and mind can become light and free. When I see someone in a class like this exploring their own depths, even if its only for a brief moment, I know that they are connecting with something that is boundless and that they are in the process of discovering themselves to be a far greater person than they ever dreamed themselves to be. This is true yoga.