What is “Enlightenment” and Do Your Ideas of It Affect You?

Charles T. Tart

[Clarifications: As some people have drawn some conclusions about this relatively raw data that I didn’t intend it to be relevant for, let me add some clarifications.  The basic way people were questioned about enlightenment was about their personal hopes and expectations, including ones that were illogical, irrational, childish, etc., to get an idea of what kinds of things may affect our approach to understanding spiritual growth in general.  The survey was not intended to test how sophisticated people could be in their thinking, although this ITP group certainly could have been, nor was it intended to see how well people ideas would fit into any particular spiritual belief system.  So don’t read these findings as examples of what “enlightenment” should be in terms of The Teachings of MahaX or any existing system, but simply as an illustration of the range of attitudes and beliefs around this area.

I’ll append the original letter at the end.]

In August of 2010, I emailed many former students of mine, as well as the faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP).  I noted that our expectations, implicit as well as explicit, of what was possible for human beings in terms of “enlightenment,” or “spiritual growth” probably affected how we worked and what was likely to result from such efforts.  To illustrate, I mentioned that Daniel Ingram, in his provocative Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book, had found 21 different models of what “enlightenment” was in early and contemporary Buddhist writings, each significantly different and often contradictory to one another.  Since we put a high value on self-knowledge at ITP and in Transpersonal Psychology generally, it would be valuable to have some idea of the range and nature of students’ and faculty’s ideas of what enlightenment, the peak of spiritual growth, meant, and I asked for several examples from each person.

I emailed several dozen – I’m deliberately being vague here, lest someone make too much of the numbers below – people, although, since it was the middle of summer, this was not a good time to get responses from people in the academic world.  As it was, in a month I got responses from 19 people, including myself, and this was enough to classify and tabulate to get some idea of range.

Looking through the responses, I was able to put them in 22 major categories.  Several examples in the form of quotes and/or subcategories of each main property or domain of “enlightenment” are given in the second column of the table.  This is an initial and rough, tentative grouping, good enough to illustrate range, but don’t make too much of it.

My thanks to those who contributed, and my hope that all of you may find this of some value.  I’ll present the ITP student and faculty responses in the first table, and, for contrast, Ingram’s 21 Buddhist categories in a second table.  It’s an interesting comparison of the wide range on interests and experiences in the ITP and Transpersonal Psychology world versus the much more focused range of the Buddhist world.  I won’t venture any comments on what it all might mean at this time, but perhaps some of you will have some interesting ideas…..

Table 1, ITP Sample, Nature of “Enlightenment”

Property/Domain Examples and sub-categories
Non-Attachment Letting go of false identity
Letting go of some attachments
Spiritual Worlds Ability to consciously communicate and interact with beings from other dimensions and planets
Ability to travel through those dimensions
without getting overwhelmed by too much information
Ability to integrate the information into this Earth dimension
in order to help this dimension evolve into a state of greater peace, harmony, bliss, and loving compassion.
Fearlessness, Worrylessness No fear nor negative mind chatter consumes or even enters one’s thoughts.
I would not be hurt if someone did not like me
Physical Needs Be in a state of flow with the universe so that all survival needs are met
Have a natural immunity to disease.
An infinite amount of energy and vitality where the body functions
Physical self invulnerable to harm and pain
Mental and Perceptual Functioning Continuous awareness
Mind is constantly clear with heightened perception
Clear mind to read, write, and verbalize things very fast
Complete presence
Complete perceptual awareness and visual sight of all dimensions occurring simultaneously and all beings and entities within these dimensions
Perception of the Truth of reality (seeing through the nature of ordinary reality.)
Ecstasy To be in a state of ecstasy (like the MDMA-induced state) at all times
A sense of lightness and permanent bliss
“The gift to me is that now I can always close my eyes and the infinite flow is right there, always, and I can step in and out of it.”
Enlightenment is associated with joy, liberation
Continuous experiential inner awareness of settledness, peacefulness
Superior Death One does not die out of the blue and unprepared
One is able to consciously die or leave this Earth dimension at will, when one has a knowing that the time is right.
Openness Open and willing to learn from inner and outer experience
Service Creatively shape our world
Radiating light from within, ceaselessly.. . so that I can reflect, invoke, activate the light within another human being instantaneously…
in this way, the other person can recognize his/her true nature and purification naturally starts
To be available to be of service to God when called
Spiritual goal of having God greet me at the pearly gates with a “Well done, good and faithful servant”
Relationships Physically sensing a kinship with all living matter (and that doesn’t necessarily mean being a vegetarian).
Patience!! –finding patience in myself but most importantly with others who annoy me
Honesty, integrity
Others will instantly recognize how wonderful I am and respect and befriend me!
Devotion to What is Important Letting go of some attachments but hanging on to what I feel is important.
Power and Violence If Appropriate I like my anger and wanting to smite my enemies. I do work not to act on it and respond with lovingkindness. But if someone comes after me or my kids or anyone really, I want to be fierce in my response.
Having God punish my enemies
Control Over “Enlightenment” I like to pick and choose when to be enlightened and open. I want to live in multiple realities and hang onto that ‘me’ in me and let it go according to circumstance
Radiating Light Radiating light from within, ceaselessly
Powers Magical power to manipulate forces in the universe
Use some of that power for personal use to take care of my family and live a luxury life myself
Able to deepen others’ meditation and spiritual level by my presence/action
Ability to hold multiple perspectives at the same time and know which action is the best.
Read minds and see the future
I would be so light I could fly!
Appropriateness I would love to be able to express myself completely and then keep quiet, to be like the forces of nature.
Certainty I would always be sure of myself
God Be best friends with God
To be available to be of service to God when called
Equanimity No hopes
No striving, only letting go, allowing what is i.e. a state of BEING
To let go of outcomes
I’ve never thought of striving after, or towards something.  I just keep showing up for the journey and amazing things happen
Embracing this dark side of us, of life (instead of denying or repressing it or fixating on it)
Trying not to rush through life as much…remembering to take it day by day
Mystical To become more Christ-like
Deep understanding of and living Love as Universal Principle
Self-Acceptance Complete self acceptance
Patience!! –finding patience in myself but most importantly with others who annoy me
Ego, Sense of Self A process of deconstruction of ego (loss of ego with functional ego remaining.)
Loss of identity
Integration and embodiment at all stages of spiritual development
Living and being oneness, nonduality, God, Brahma, Self, or whatever you may choose to call it

Here’s my summary of Ingram’s categories.  They are dealt with much more richly in his provocative, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.

Table 2, Ingram’s Models of Enlightenment

Name/Type Basic Qualities
1 Non-duality Seeing thru sense of separation, thru illusion of separate self
2 Fundamental Perceptual Directly perceiving fundamentals, e.g., emptiness, luminosity, impermanence, suffering
3 Specific Perceptual Deeper & deeper perception of specifics, concentration, panoramic perception
4 Emotional Perfecting or eliminating emotional range
5 Action Perfecting or limiting what we can and can’t do.  Morality, altruism, always doing the Right Thing
6 Powers Gaining ordinary or extraordinary (psychic) powers
7 Energetic All subtle energies flowing correctly
8 Specific Knowledge Facts & details re specifics of reality of fundamental importance in Buddhism
9 Psychological Psychological perfection, no “stuff” to deal with
10 Thought Limiting/eliminating bad, enhancing good, stopping thought altogether
11 God Becoming one with God or becoming a god
12 Physical Perfected physical body
13 Radiance Remarkable presence, radiating love, light
14 Karma Free of negative karma, life perfect
15 Perpetual Bliss Continuous happiness, bliss, joy.  Jhanaic absorption, e.g.
16 Immortality Living forever, perhaps in special place, perhaps as magician
17 Transcendence Free from or above travails of the world
18 Extinction Getting off the Wheel of Suffering, no more rebirths
19 Love Loving everyone and/or everyone loving us
20 Unitive Become one with everything
21 Social Accepted for what you have attained


Text of the Email sent out:

Request to my former students,
now mostly Transpersonal Psychologists,
and the ITP faculty


As you know from classes with me, I’m always concerned with the assumptions we make as we approach life, especially the implicit and unconscious assumptions that we don’t even know we make, but which influence our perception, thinking and action.  Those who were in my Altered States class particularly remember how in discussing the induction of altered states, you need disrupting forces to decrease the stability of the state of consensus consciousness you start from, but then once the starting state had broken down, what I called patterning forces strongly influenced what kind of altered state you would end up in and what its characteristics would be.

So we all want to get “enlightened” or “wake up” or “be saved” or something grandly transpersonal and spiritual.  But what kind of implicit, as well as explicit expectations, hopes and fears do we bring to the process that may powerfully shape where we get to, if we get anywhere?  Could some of these implicit and explicit factors actually be contradictory and keep us from changing?

I started thinking deeply about this recently on reading a very challenging book by Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. Among many hard questions posed that have me thinking a lot, he noted that he had read the early as well as modern Buddhist texts about the nature of enlightenment, and found he could discriminate 21 distinct models.  Some of the characteristics that enlightenment would bring seem pretty strange to a modern ear.  For example when you made it to the first level of enlightenment, it would be impossible for you to get an erection.  Men only, of course, early Buddhism was quite sexist.  Or that you would never again express a negative emotion, an idea certainly contradicted by many Buddhist teachers who were supposed to be enlightened. And every model had characteristics that contradicted those of other models!  How is that going to mess up the spiritual growth process, with part of you implicitly going one way, part of you going a second, opposite way, part of you just confused, etc.???

I’d like to make an initial start of finding out what ITP students and faculty think the enlightenment (or whatever you want to personally call it) they are personally striving for is, what it’s like.

So if you can think about it and then email me, what would have been (or still is) the three top qualities you would hope to develop if/when you got enlightened?  Does thinking about this make you aware of qualities you weren’t aware of before? For example, I’ve always thought of myself as wanting nothing but love and peace for all beings, but in my 30s, when I saw the Ten Commandments film, I really loved it when Moses got pissed off and broke the tablets, causing fear and mayhem, and I realized, whether I liked it or not, that one of my reasons for wanting to become more spiritual was so I could have God punish my enemies…..

So what does enlightenment mean to you in specific qualities, rather than just vague spiritual terms like moksha?  Give me as honest answers as possible, even if you discover some of those goals are embarrassing, like my wanting God to smite my enemies….

When I get a collection of these I’ll see what patterns I can get out of them and circulate the results back by email.  I can’t promise to individually answer each email you send in before that, sadly, too many other demands on me.

This could increase our transpersonal knowledge, getting an idea how our hopes, fears and goals are affecting what we do. Meanwhile, however you and I think of it, I wish you the best progress toward real enlightenment!

Thanking you in advance,


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