Is Enlightenment an Experience or Knowledge?

“Who am I?”

Though we rarely, if ever, give it deep consideration – each situation, encounter, and experience calls upon us to articulate a satisfactory response to this fundamental question.

At first glance, its simplicity and seemingly obvious answer makes most dismiss this question as absurd.

It is obvious who I am.  I’m the guy or gal you see before you, the one listed on my birth certificate. The one pictured on my driver’s license. The one I see when I look in the mirror. The one who perceives what I perceive, feels what I feel, thinks what I think. The one who has experienced all the things I’ve experienced. The one who will one day grow old and die.

This world is a virtual supermarket of identities…

Some biologically determined. Such as: I’m white, black, yellow, brown, male, female, tall, short, big, small, coordinated, clumsy, intelligent, stupid, a son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin, uncle, or aunt.

Some volitionally. Such as: I’m liberal, conservative, rebellious, agreeable, social, shy, courageous, cowardly, knowledgeable, ignorant, married, single, a parent, punker, hipster, Goth, geek, gangster, or jock.

Others, a more ambiguous combination of both. For instance: I’m gay, straight, strong, weak, healthy, sick, an American, European, African, Indian, or Asian, a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew.

Though I certainly possess the characteristics of any number of available identities — do any or all of these characteristics and their identities comprehensively define me? 

In other words, am I simply what I appear to be?

Adding another layer of complexity to this issue is the fact that identity is not an entirely fixed phenomenon.   

In relation to my parents, I am a child. To my husband or wife, a spouse. To my child, a parent. To my boss, a subordinate. To my favorite charity, a benefactor. To the creditor, someone in debt. 

Moreover, my moods change.  One moment I am glad, the next sad, at yet another mad. 

Similarly, my thoughts, beliefs, opinions, likes, dislikes, desires, fears, attachments, aversions, intentions, agendas, and dreams are in a continual state of flux.

This shows that “Who am I?” question is not as determinable as one believes it to be. 

Because I seem to be a collection of myriad components that have congealed into a singular mind-body-sense complex. 

Furthermore, we identify ourselves with the experiences we enjoy in-and-through our mind-body-sense complex. Whether they be sensations of the body or subtle experiences of the emotions and thoughts. Eitherway, we unwittingly come to define ourselves in terms of the experiences our mind-body complex generates.  In other words, we basically take ourselves to be the sum total of a series of happenings.

While defining ourselves in terms of our experience is only natural, it does present a problem with regard to discerning our fundamental identity. 

Intuitively, each of us knows himself or herself to be a singular entity.  That is, I know that I am myself and not anyone else. I know there is not more then one “me”. Whereas experiences presented to me, are countless and diverse.  So it's clear that “me” and experience are two different things.

Conversely, if I maintain that I am my experience, then I find myself faced with the irrational conclusion that there exist many me's, and then having to determine which one of these myriad me's constitutes my true identity.

I am not any experience, no matter how sublime or beautiful

Suppose, however, that I am not my experience.  What else could I possibly be?

According to Vedanta, which is the oldest and most effective means for answering the “Who am I?” question — I am something which is actually not a “thing”.

According to Vedanta, I am pure awareness — the whole and complete, limitless, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual, witnessing consciousness out of which all experience arises, in which all experience abides, and back into which all experience subsides.

The fundamental “premise” of Vedanta is that the nature of reality is non-dual.  In other words, awareness is all that is. There's nothing other then awareness. 

While objects and experiences appear within awareness, they are completely dependent upon awareness for their existence – for no object or experience can be said to exist unless it appears in your awareness.

This assertion is not mere intellectual conjecture, but can be irrefutably verified through various methods of inquiry that are employed by a qualified Vedantic teacher to guide one through an analysis of one’s own previously unexamined experience. It's an analysis that ultimately leads one beyond experience altogether.

The fact that the nature of reality is non-dual has profound implications regarding your true identity.

In non-dual reality, the individual whose awareness seems to be confined to your body-mind, and the total awareness, are one and the same. 

Just as the space inside your tea or coffee cup seems to be confined in reference to the walls of the cup. Suppose you break the cup, is there any real merger between the space that was inside the cup, and the total space? No. There's no merger, because there wasn't any real separation between the cup space and total space.

This being the case, it means that neither action nor experience can attain awareness, for nothing can give me what I’ve already got. I'm aware right now! I don't need to wait tomorrow to be aware. 

The only way to realize my identity is not by experience, but by knowledge

The only means by which I can realize my true identity, therefore, is not experience but knowledge.  Through an experience I can get something I don’t already have — but only knowledge can “give” me what I already am.

Ironically, the quest for “spiritual experience” is the focus of 99% of the seekers hoping to attain enlightenment or realize the self. 

The reality is, one is already experiencing the awareful self 24/7 since there is nothing other than the self to experience.

When all experiences pass, what remains? I. Self. That you can't negate. Whereas all experiences come and go.

Yet almost everyone remains hypnotized by the belief that enlightenment or self-realization is characterized by a mind-blowing epiphany or cosmic vision that results in a permanent state of transcendental bliss — and perhaps the acquisition of one or more super powers.

Such notions, when rationally analyzed in the light of non-dual wisdom, are the very cause that produces another mind-body complex after death to experience yet more “cosmic visions” and “mind-blowing epiphanies”. The problem or rebirth remains!

Seeing an enlightenment experience is a trap

Taking ourselves as apparent individuals to be incomplete and inadequate and finding ourselves inhabiting a vast field fraught with alluring things — we expend our energy pursuing objects, encounters, situations, circumstances, and experiences — hoping it'll bring lasting peace and happiness.

Moreover, because the world is an apparently dualistic field in which we must put forth effort in order to obtain anything we want, and because what we fundamentally want is some kind of experience, and because what we soon discover is that all experiences have only a temporary shelf-life — we find ourselves caught in a continuous and repetitive cycle of desire-action-experience.

Hoping that we will one day secure that ultimate experience which fulfills us completely and finally and puts an end to our tenure on the hamster wheel of constant becoming.

Hence, when we at long last find ourselves enticed by the luscious fruit of enlightenment, we invariably tend to view it as yet another object – a subjective state of experience, in this case – that we must do something to attain.

Then one zealously undertake “spiritual practices” in the hope that they will eventually produce that idealized experiential state of eternal peace and happiness.

Reason why interpreting enlightenment to be an experience – is so popular…

Ironically, the dualistic approach of subject seeking an object that is different and separate from itself – is not only the consequence of our worldly conditioning, but is seemingly reinforced by scriptures as well.

Given that language is conceptually limited and, therefore, incapable of adequately describing the limitless and formless consciousness — the rishis who sought to articulate the nature of reality, found themselves drawn to a poetic style of expression that employed two potentially misleading methods of description:  the language of experience and the language of hyperbole.

The language of experience describes the spiritual path in terms of a journey toward some destination that can eventually be reached or object that can be obtained through disciplined effort and relentless action.  Once having attained or acquired the goal, the individual will thereafter revel in a permanent state of sensorial pleasure and emotional ecstasy.

The language of hyperbole describes the self, which is simply ordinary awareness. The “light” that lights up all your experiences.

The fundamental problem with both the language of experience and the language of hyperbole is that they objectify the goal of the spiritual search, which results in two erroneous notions concerning it. 

First, awareness, which is simply one’s own essential and ever-present self, is thought to be something other than oneself that can be acquired, attained, achieved, or otherwise obtained through action

Second, the self, which is your ordinary awareness – is thought to be something far superior to oneself.

A teacher is needed to carefully articulate both language or experience and language of hyperbole…

When their figurative or metaphorical meaning is not properly unfolded by a qualified teacher, these two methods of expression serve only to confound the student and set him or her forth on an endlessly frustrating and ultimately fruitless journey toward an idealized destination that is no more real than a dream.

The idea that enlightenment is characterized by some particular type of experience and that self-actualization will be characterized by some permanent state of experiential bliss or saintly behavior — is one of the most difficult obstacles for one to overcome in order to “attain enlightenment,” which is simply the realization or understanding or knowledge of the true nature of the self.

As long as one keeps seeking objects or thinking that a particular experience will bring permanent happiness or believing that enlightenment is characterized by a special state of being — one will remain ignorant of one’s true identity as the pure awareness.

Because all experiences, no matter how sublime, are subject to arrival and departure. Since no experience lasts forever, no permanent state of bliss is possible.  Therefore enlightenment is nothing other than knowledge that I am already free right now, despite it seeming like I'm confined by this mind-body complex.

Purpose of spiritual experiences

This is not to say that experience is bad or worthless.  Indeed, experience can potentially benefit one’s sadhana – i.e. the spiritual practice one undertakes in order to purify the mind and prepare it for the assimilation of self-knowledge – in several ways.

First, it can awaken one to the fact that there is more to reality than meets the eye. That there is something transcendent to one’s dualistic interpretation of the world.

Second, it can inspire one to continue seeking for this transcendent or underlying reality.

Third, it can reveal knowledge, provided that while in the midst of the experience one remains alert or “grounded” enough to inquire into the nature of the experience as well as that of the one to whom the experience is appearing.

Essentially, experience is the container of knowledge, and the only real value of any and all experience is the understanding that one gleans from it. 

Most often, however, due to one’s conditioning and/or because one is too carried away by the experience itself to inquire into it — one fails to properly interpret its meaning.

Drawback for spiritual experiences

The major drawback of spiritual experiences is that they have a tendency, if not appropriately interpreted and dispassionately understood, to leave one with a powerful vasana or desire for more of the same. 

Consequently, one continues to seek more, better, and/or different spiritual experiences or to try to replicate and sustain particular experiences that one deems a sign of enlightenment. 

Thus, in essentially the same way as does worldly pursuit, such spiritual materialism binds one to the wheel of samsara, ironically trapping one by means of the very spiritual experiences one had hoped would set him or her free.

Trap of those who think they've assimilated the knowledge of self…

Even more ironic is the predicament of those who have at least intellectually assimilated the knowledge that can set them free — the knowledge that they are already are the ever-free self — yet fail to take a firm stance in this understanding.

In other words, fail to actualize the knowledge because they continue to believe they need or are supposed to have some celestial encounter or out-of-body experience that will confirm that knowledge, sanction their self-realization, and establish them in a permanent state of superhuman perfection and unending delight.

Right attitude towards spiritual experiences

Bearing these pitfalls in mind, it is best that one take a detached attitude toward spiritual experiences.  Their appearance should be viewed as an opportunity for inquiry.  Their absence should be taken as a sign from Isvara that none are necessary for one’s spiritual growth.

Ultimately, spiritual experiences don’t matter.  Since this is a non-dual reality and one is already the self one is seeking — it is impossible for any experience to enhance, diminish, or otherwise change one’s essential nature. 

There is nothing more, better, or different to become.  It is only necessary that one realize, understand, or know what one already is.

Rather than a matter of experience, enlightenment is a matter of knowledge.


  1. One of the best and most concise perspectives on enlightenment I have ever come across!!
    If I am forced to pick up only one point from this perspective it would be this: The notion that “enlightenment or self-realization is characterized by a mind-blowing epiphany or cosmic vision” is a false notion!

  2. Hari Om Andre,
    Enlightenment is an understanding of a reality using the mind. Once understood one delights in the experience of that knowledge . Life takes on a new perspective. But lately all I see is suffering in the world. Everywhere I look, I see suffering and I feel sad, very sad so much so that I see this world we live in as a bad joke created by Ishwara and maya.
    I try to gain some solace looking at nature , hoping to find something positive to uplift me and all I see is suffering. Plants cry out for water or drown in too much water,or burn if fire.Animals and creatures go hungry and kill one another for food.
    Man the most beautiful of Ishwara’s creation is hell bent on destroying everything . I sometimes feel like Arjuna, I dont want to see Krishna;s perspective of the universal man

    I know deep down that all this is maya and all is like a bad dream hopefully we will wake up from. Just my thinking I thought i’ll share. I think the final detachment will come with death, until then its all in the mind. Your thought will be much appreciated.

    1. Hello Sir. I’d appreciate you for having the courage to speak your mind honestly. It’s the first step in our inner transformation.

      At the same time, I think you’d agree the point is not to remain in Arjuna’s initial state of despair and helplessness, but to come out of it. Coming out is a process, it needs courage and hard, hard work. You alone uplift yourself by yourself. Noone does it for you. (BG CH6.5)

      What you say is true from one standpoint. There is pain, suffering. And it’s not only “lately” but always. Your statement applies in past, present and future. However along with that, there is equally acts of kindness, reaching out, doing what is to be done.

      Remember, evil is loud. While Goodness is silent. It takes a silent mind to recognize goodness all around.

      Therefore, 95% of this journey is working on your mind. Ishvara/maya and the final truth is the easiest to understand, yet remains the most elusive, and has no direct impact on one’s life, if one hasn’t even begun to look at one’s own subjectivities, biases, prejudices.

      Everyone starts out operating mostly from subjectivity (the snake), still not seeing the rope (the empirical world which is governed by an infallible intelligence that makes no mistakes).

      All conspiracies, false ideas, attack on religion, teachers, teachings… are born of subjectivity.

      Long as I’m at the snake, the universe gives me feedback in form of overwhelm, grief, contraction, isolation from the world. I have to start looking into my patterns and undo them one by one.

      I invite you to ask yourself: How much effort of yours is going into taking care of your needs, your unresolved resentment and bitterness towards those who hurt you in the past, prejudices, releasing jealously, having an honest conversation with God, inner psychology? Do you pray, do you meditate, do you self-reflect every day?

      These are not my ideas. But of the scriptures. The very ideas that help you come out of your subjectivity (snake), that’s overshadowing God’s world (rope), which as I see it, is just fine.

      Remember, our feelings don’t lie. You can convince yourself you know all this, you are brahman, etc. But do you feel it? Do you feel cheerful, free, alive, content? Feelings don’t lie. They are your feedback from Ishvara how in touch are you with Ishvara.

      And to come in touch with God, first step is to release the subjectivity, the stories you’re adding onto the empirical world.

  3. Thank you Andre. Perhaps I do need to do more meditation, prayer and self reflect. Reminds me of Jesus, we all have a cross to carry. Hari om.

    Ps good article on enlightenment and experience and knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *