Enlightenment, before, during and after

By Rani Willems

Every seeker wants Enlightenment. Most people perceive that to be a state of ongoing bliss and oneness and believe that after that, life is easy and simple forever after, because of the eternal expansion into the beyond.

While it is true that there is something called “the enlightenment Experience” which has all of these characteristics, the true enlightened life is something quite different. The bliss is not the emotional experience we can know through the ego. It is beyond that. This truth is revealed over time, bit-by-bit as we grow into who we are and lose our ego identity.

Some parts of the learning are guaranteed:
We have to first recognize who we are beyond our mind and body to the point that a shift of perspective, of context occurs, but then we have to crash and come down from the enlightenment high. We need the courage to admit that every experience wears off, even after a few years, that clarity can be lost again and that identification with the mind can come back. That nothing is permanent and that to reach higher peaks we need to pass through different valleys. Failing is an essential part of the path. When we have spiritual success our ego grows side by side, when we fail, it is diminished and is ground down.

The Enlightenment experience is the end of the search but surely the beginning of the path. (Or as I often say, the search moves from the horizontal to the vertical dimension.) Often it takes the loss of that experience, for us to be truly committed to the discipline of the spiritual life. We have seen paradise. We have tasted the natural state and now it is gone. What is left is that we are constantly confronted with our failing, our fears, clinging and despair. We must open, and open deeper into the pain and fear, letting it cook us, break us and pulverize us, so we can truly disappear as a separate self. When we do not have the proper understanding, the proper context, the valleys are very difficult to move through.

What follows is my own experience of this process. May it be of help to other travelers on the path.

By the mid-nineties my life looked like I had made it. At least on the outside. I lived in India in a very beautiful area outside of town. I was a respected member of the ashram that I was a part of. I loved the work I did as a therapist; the relationship I was in was wonderful, rewarding and fun. At least that was what I was telling myself. The house we had built up was splendid; we had several servants, cats, dogs, fishponds etc. We lived the successful life of the neo sannyasin. Daily meditation was comfortable; I had come to settle in the comfort of knowing how to leave the mind behind and experience bliss. I had found a good refuge from pain. What more could I ask for?

I told myself I was fulfilled, denying the fact that I was always feeling inferior to my lover because I brought in a lot less money, denying that I felt deeply insecure about my capacities as a therapist and denying so many other little facts. In fact denial had become my way of life and I can see in retrospect that I vaguely knew it always, but it was too threatening to admit it to myself. Compensation was an art that I had mastered since early childhood.

Then one day my lover left. The hole I fell in was profound; it was as if every time I fell into that hole it became deeper. Determined to finish with it once and for all (ego always thinks in terms of permanent elimination) I dove into it for about a year and did some intense therapy, until I rediscovered the Awareness intensive group. In this group you ask yourself the koan: “Who am I” from very early morning till late at night. The “results” were amazing. For the next year I participated in each and every one of these 3 or 7-day groups. Usually it would take me 24 hours of struggling before I would pop into another dimension; the realm of oneness, clarity and peace. I got addicted to the highs, as they would lift me straight out of all my unresolved pain. I learned how to “do” it. Popping koans became my specialty. For a while I would come down as soon as the group was over but then it started to happen that the highs would not go down anymore. The clarity would not leave me anymore and peace was more or less permanently present. In other words I had accumulated a lot of energy (shakti). Now greater breakthroughs and greater revelations came. I was finally free from all my suffering!! I had found a way out!! I even remember now some thoughts that were immediately dismissed like: “Now I never have to worry about money anymore, I have what everyone wants.” “Now I never have to bother about sex and relating anymore because I am beyond them.”

The ego was always lurking just by the side and in a way I knew it but I was too ignorant about the true mechanics of the mind to fully realize what that meant. I told myself that I was staying clear of ego because I was aware of it. I looked in Osho’s words for a context to understand my precise situation but did not find much. Maybe I did not know how to formulate the question because I thought that I was already enlightened but I found nothing much that was truly helpful. I felt very alone and thought that this is what he meant when he said that in the end you are alone and I decided to trust my experience.

For a while I met with a woman who had declared herself enlightened and she helped me clear away some doubt. On top of it she gave me all the conformation I was looking for! (This is exactly what the mind wants: confirmation, and so unconsciously we look for someone who will give it to us.) However the most dominant experience was one of joy and peace. The shift was dramatic and profound. I wanted to share it immediately with whoever wanted to hear it. There was a very genuine and naive sense of wanting to help others out of their suffering. The intention was clean and innocent as far as I could see. Not knowing that as long as there is ego our intention is never 100% pure.

Someone later described people who declare their enlightenment prematurely as little girls who dress up in their mother’s clothes and wear high heels pretending they are adults. It was a bit like that, now that I look back. I felt like a kid with a bag of candy that I wanted to share. And even though friends avoided me like the plague eventually people showed up who wanted to hear what I had to say. Many seekers today (like I had been myself) want only one thing and that is to be lifted out of their pain with a shortcut, and shortcuts I had!

Of course they were in awe. I was generating a lot of cosmic energy; everyone in the room could feel it and whomever I talked to or looked at, shifted for some time into a state beyond the mind. I was blown away by it as well. I was loved and revered. I finally felt worthy of that love as well. Pride started to slip in. After all this person that had been humiliated so often (me) had made it and was someone. I saw the pride but told myself that because I was seeing it, it did not matter. Everything was anyway all happening in the ONE and therefore temporary. My fame grew fast, more and more people attended the satsangs and had great awakening experiences. They were the proof of my “rightness.” My ego swelled up again a little more.

From time to time the old insecurity knocked on my door but I would not open. I did not want to acknowledge that it was there. You have to understand the very delicate situation one is in. You feel like you have transcended suffering, which had been the motive for the search all along. And then to realize that this is not true is not an easy feat. The ego will fight it. The soul has an imprint of ego protections that is centuries old. It does not give way that easily.

For many years on the path, all we want from the search is freedom from suffering. Only much later is our intention pure and clean enough for us to only want what is, howsoever painful or uncomfortable it may be. So I felt very expanded because the awakening was strong and I could channel huge amounts of energy and did not really know that they were all passing through and were therefore colored by the ego. All the while my ego was expanding beyond its wildest fantasies, without me being very aware of it. It became more and more transparent and smart and spiritual, it told itself it is nobody and it is not there!!! And it succeeded very well at fooling even itself. This ego is very smart. Because I kept sharing every pitfall I saw with my students, I thought that I was free of it. Not seeing that sharing was not enough for the ego to lay low. That it needs absolute dedication and willingness to stay vigilant at all times. That it needs the scalpel of the surgeon all the time!! The thing is through the sharing I believed that I WAS being honest and vigilant. And to some extend of course that was also true.

The enlightenment experience is always a mixture of clear and honest intention and a power hungry ego. If we do not have an alive teacher at the time of awakening, we are in great trouble. We simply cannot travel alone at this point; precisely because we can hardly see the ego by ourselves.

My fame kept growing and tirelessly I traveled the planet, thinking I was doing something very good for humanity. Now I see that it was the old primal story all over again: I needed to help everyone who was in pain otherwise I had no right of existing. Burn out came after two years. I had to stop. The body collapsed and I was shocked to find the first thing that arose when the doctor said I needed to rest was: “Who will love me now?” In a way that was the beginning of the fall. Of course honest as I was, I shared all this with the students in satsang, showing how much ego is still accompanying this awakening experience. I shared my pain and errors and found to my amazement that not many wanted to hear the truth if it did not sound blissful.

Over the four years that I was teaching, I found that rarely someone wanted to hear the truth. Many people come to this type of satsang because they want to be told that there are shortcuts and often they want to adore someone. Not many want to hear about the painstaking work of purifying our minds and healing our pains. In fact, in the satsangs, the jokes about working on yourself are plentiful.

The beauty as well as the difficulty of our time is that spiritual knowledge and secrets are available at the click of a mouse. All the scriptures are public. In the past this was not the case, information was given only in relation to the students/disciples advancing in practice and experience. Now we do not have to practice meditation or do any hard work in order to receive the teaching and so the danger is that we only absorb the teaching in a mental way.

In the meantime I had moved into a relationship (after much initial protest from my side) and this provided another reality check. I was not as beyond as I thought I was. Learning to love and be loved provided and still provides endless lessons. I took a year off and met with a lot of old childhood pain and present loneliness. First only my old friends had despised me but I had been welcomed with open arms into the satsang community, but now also the satsang community threw me out. I was not supposed to feel pain and be honest about it. Finally though, I was being able to welcome it and feel it without further manipulation. I took some months in silence and started to feel again the need to meditate. (Of course in the years of being nobody there had been no one to meditate.) Still all the while I still enjoyed mostly the bliss and peace of being at one.

Then the real hit came. My best friend and working partner was diagnosed with cancer. For some months we kept it up, saying that it was okay. That we felt no fear or pain, that dying was as good as living and that everything that comes must also go again. But then we cracked, both of us. I spent the last weeks at her side, nursing her at home until she died in my arms. That split me right in two. There was simply so much pain. I was overwhelmed by it, consumed by it, helpless with it and bewildered by the fact that I was feeling all this again. My sharing became again more honest, I no longer pretended anything anymore or offered miracles and shortcuts. Of course people came less and less. Slowly I saw that what was left was a handful of sincere seekers whom I actually had not much more to offer than my friendship and limited wisdom and experience.

I realized that I was longing for guidance. I was looking left and right in old and new teachings until I found what I was looking for in my new teacher Aziz. His Zen hits were painful and not always welcomed but over time I understood more and received for the first time a map of reality that resonated with me. My own master had been too wide, too rich for me to see a clear and practical path. He spoke about so many practices and left it to me what to choose. This had brought me were I was. I felt and feel a deep respect and gratitude for him but I needed more. I needed personal guidance from an alive teacher. Now I found this very precise teaching that resonated in my soul as a reflection of reality. He guided me in my practice and taught me a complete new way of meditation. He also told me to stop teaching but I was afraid to stop. It was my only source of income. I believed that I needed the money, I needed the recognition and I needed somehow the position (more for myself than for others). But above all I needed to NOT let myself know THAT IT WAS OVER. That I had had an amazing opening and enlightening experience. One that lasted for years even and that bit-by-bit it had slipped away.

Slowly I have come to understand that corruption lives in all of us and that it is not entirely possible to not be corrupt. After all we do most everything we do for ourselves. By keeping the meetings going I could still tell myself that it was not over. I could continue to dream a bit more and tell myself that it would pick up again. Or worse I would blame it on the low quality motivation of the seekers that it was not happening anymore.

But life is generous when the intention is honest. I prayed daily for truth and sincere prayers are always heard. I moved to the west, to the country I was born in, and found it extremely difficult to adjust to that culture after 16 years in India. There came a time where there was no more money. Friends and family needed to keep us afloat. Now I truly crashed. The entire shadow side of the personality appeared. The ego had grown stronger (it keeps growing side by side with our realizations, the more powerful we become the more powerful the ego also becomes). The super ego came back with a vengeance. The self-torture and self-blame returned with the force of a tornado. The Shadow was here, presenting itself loud and clear. I thought that I had met my shadow a long time ago but never to this depth. Shadow exists in relation to light, the more light, the bigger the shadow I found out.

All of a sudden I was identified again with almost each and every single thought. I was emotional from morning till night, apart from the hours that I meditated. And meditate I did, and pray, and move my body to ward off the depression till it could not be warded off anymore. I was in hell and realized that the healing had to happen right here in hell. The money was finished, I started to take a cleaning job and was ready to take any job still dreaming to some extend that after this all was over a new miracle would happen and I would be magically lifted out of here again. And life would be forever good.

But truth does not live in the presence of hope. Giving up our hopes is one of the many prices we have to pay for the priceless pearl. The ego screamed and screamed. It simply did not want to part with the glorious times. My entire life with all its undigested and denied pains came for another round. Thoughts of suicide were my companions. Without the support of my partner and some dear friends, family and a good healer, it would all have been a lot more difficult. The love that I received was so supportive and healing.

Nevertheless I was really lost and only partly grasped what was going on. I needed help. One thing was clear, that there was no way out but only a way through, my only interest became to stay present in the pain and whatever emotion presented itself. I felt lower than I had ever been, and it started to glimpse that: to go down is to go up. I was grateful that Aziz came to the west for another silent retreat! However, at the end of that one-week he announced that he was going to live in seclusion and would no longer be available as a guide and teacher!

Once again on my own and not fully realizing what was happening I prayed for help. My great luck was that a book fell into my lap called “Halfway Up the Mountain” by Mariana Caplan. It brought all the missing pieces in the understanding. This book was about me. It was my story in detail. Here I read about each and every pitfall I had fallen into. It gave me a positive context and sufficient information about the process I was going through. Reading that book was like being in retreat. It reminded me again and again that there was a healing power in this crisis. My dignity was restored again when I started to understand that this is a mechanical response in the mind and not a personal failure or trip. My suffering became more dignified. I learned that disillusionment is not only necessary on the path but a true gift of the Grace of God. It is like you are being weaned off the breast of God and allowed to walk. Of course you fall left and right like any toddler does but eventually you will find balance and walk.

The fall from paradise seems in truth an integral part of the enlightenment process. In fact some teachers say that you have to earn it to deserve it. When we realize that the path we are on is not at all what we thought it would be, and that reality is something completely different than all our illusions about it, we are shocked. This is not an easy transition to make. It is extremely painful and it feels like being skinned alive. And yet this pain magically opens us deeper to what and who we are. Enlightenment comes to life when we embrace our endarkenment in the very same way. We realize deeply that our human reality will always be here, that pain will always be here, that suffering is an integral part of human life. Either we suffer unconsciously or we do it consciously. We realize that the freedom we thought we had found in the bliss and joy of the Enlightenment high is not the real freedom at all. It is much deeper. It is truly accepting what IS.

By the time I had finished reading the book the let go was complete. I closed down all teaching activities, cancelled my ticket to India and am ready for a new chapter in this adventure called life. This time it can happen right here where I am. And I truly do not know anything about where this is going.

No hope and no plan.
Om shanti.

Presently Rani is back as a spiritual guide / facilitator.