What exactly is enlightenment, and should you even care?

Enlightenment refers to knowing who you are, from where you have come, why you are here, what is to be done, and where you will go after death. Without this spiritual knowledge or insight, we remain enslaved to unconscious habit patterns that can bring pain, misery and bondage. Once we truly know the answers to these questions, enlightenment dawns; we awaken to experience unbounded peace, happiness and security. One of the most time-tested and reliable means for experiencing enlightenment is the daily practice of meditation.

The great value of this human life is that it provides both the capacity and the mechanism to end our suffering. Right now we have a human body, mind and discriminative faculty (conscience)––the prime requisites for making the transition to a higher consciousness. Because enlightenment is already our Essential Nature, rather than something to be acquired, each of us has the potential to  realize this state of being. We can transform our habits and purify our personalities by employing the tools and the clarity we receive in meditation. Providence has granted us this rare opportunity to receive our full inheritance. Our primary purpose as human beings is to accept this challenge and to experience its rewards.

Although the natural involution toward enlightenment is a major theme in the library of every religious tradition, our modern fascination with technology and materialism has hypnotized us and closed our eyes to its significance. One of the most straight forward stories about enlightenment comes from the yogic tradition. In his book, Sacred Journey: Living Purposefully and Dying Gracefully, Swami Rama of the Himalayas shares the essence of this ancient Indian myth. “After the heavens, all the stars, the earth, the air, the waters, the sky, and all the creatures on land and in the sea were made, God created humankind. When the first human awoke and became conscious of worldly life for the first time, he looked around at the lakes and rivers, the mountains and forests, at the leaping fish, the flying birds, and the great herds of animals. He was silent. He looked to the heavens and the sun and moon and the great blackness of space with its millions of stars. He was silent. He looked then at God. He was silent. When he had taken in everything around him, including the Lord himself, the first human on earth looked finally at himself and asked, ‘Who am I?’

“This first human did not look at the animals or stars and say, ‘What are they?’ He did not ask, ‘Where am I?’ He did not even ask of God, ‘Who are you?’ His first words, his first wondering thoughts and first curiosity were to know his own identity.”

Everything we do in life can be benefited when we are able to answer the question, “Who am I?” Instinctively, each of us knows that our true fulfillment as human beings can only be experienced by answering this primary question.

If you are one of those who are called to discover the answer to this life-affirming question––if you want to be free from all limitation and to fulfill the purpose of your life––you must learn how to awaken to the Perfection of your true Self and rely on Its wisdom within you to guide your actions in the world.

Here’s How to Start

The desire that motivated you to read this essay can be fulfilled if you earnestly contemplate the question “Who am I?” This inquiry, called vichara in ancient yogic texts, has been esteemed for thousands of years as a reliable method of knowing the true Self. If you are sincere and persistent in posing this question to yourself, the answer will come. And, as the truth of that answer motivates you to steward the energy of your innumerable desires, large and small, you will begin to experience freedom from your fear, anger, anxiety and dis-ease.

This process occurs differently for each human being. Guided by a sincere meditation practice, you will begin to follow your own distinct path to enlightenment and freedom. Each of us has been born with a unique body-mind-sense complex, and through this specialized vehicle each of us experiences a different reality. Yet, through the filter of that transitory individuality, each human being also has the capacity to know union with our core of Perfection.

Enlightenment, absolute peace and contentment, is the fruit of earnestly seeking the answer to the profound question, “Who am I?” The contemplation of this question begins the systematic, step-by-step procedure to focus your mind. With this focus, you can transcend the indiscriminate call of the senses and the ego’s fascination with the past or future. Then, as your mind becomes ever more focused, you will enter a timeless state as you become present to the joyful and creative oneness of your own true nature.

Begin this practice by repeatedly asking yourself the question: Who am I? During the contemplation, remember this:

I have a body. I am aware of the body, but I am not the body.

I have a mind. I am aware of the mind, but I am not the mind.

I have thoughts. I am aware of thoughts, but I am not the thoughts.

I have desires. I am aware of desires, but I am not the desires.

I have emotions. I am aware of emotions, but I am not the emotions.

Who, then, is aware of the body?

Who is aware of the mind?

Who is aware of the thoughts, desires and emotions?

Who is the thinker of every thought?

Who is the experiencer of every experience?

Who am I?

Beginning today, and for the rest of your life, contemplate the question “Who am I?” If your mind is one-pointed in that effort––without the distraction of thoughts or feelings––the answer will appear, because the question and the answer are two sides of the same coin.

Whenever there is consternation in the mind, we are reacting from the limited perspective of the personality. It’s a clear indication that the ego––and not the real You––has its hands on the wheel of the bus. When thoughts, desires and emotions arise in your awareness, do not automatically pursue them with your attention, but rather, inquire: “To whom did this thought arise?” It doesn’t matter how many thoughts arise. As each thought arises, inquire with diligence: “To whom has this thought arisen?” The answer that will emerge is: “To me.” If you earnestly inquire, “Who am I?” at this point, the mind will go deeper to consider its Source, and the thought that arose will become less seductive. Seeking the answer to the question “Who am I?” will eventually give rise to the realization that within you dwells an Eternal Witness which is the Divine Reality.

This dialogue requires attentive introspection. Be sensitive and patient as you consider your feelings and thoughts. Be gentle with yourself, as you would with any good friend. Don’t condemn yourself or be judgmental, and you will begin to trust your inner Self and realize that a constantly faithful companion and guide resides within.

Enlightenment is Your Birthright

You may use the personal pronoun “I” hundreds or even thousands of times a day, but who is it that you are actually referring to? When you think or speak of “me,” which me are you referring to? The physical body? Your thoughts, desires, emotions? Who exactly is this “me”? Who am I?

As the profound truth begins to unfold, you will find that everything you need in order to fulfill your life’s purpose will spontaneously appear, and the objects and relationships that do not serve your highest good will begin to fall away. This means that your life will gradually become uncluttered, unstressed, vibrant, productive and creative. As old habits drop away, you will increasingly be free to explore new possibilities.

Yoga Science defines the human being as three separate selves: the mortal self, the semi-immortal self and the immortal Self.

Emanating from the eternal ocean of consciousness, wisdom and bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda or God), a bubble––having exactly the same intrinsic qualities as the ocean––rises from the deep. This is the immortal Self, or soul. The soul issues forth an energy called adi prana (the first unit of life) that is essential to the creation and maintenance of the mind-body-sense complex.

The mind in its totality, consisting of both the conscious and unconscious portions, evolves from the adi prana. The mind then projects the body, breath and senses as a vehicle for action. The breath is the bridge between mind and body, and facilitates the ongoing infusion of new prana required to maintain the city of life.

According to Yoga Science, death is not annihilation. It is merely the separation of the mortal self from the semi-immortal self and the immortal Self. At death, the body, breath, senses and conscious mind separate from the unconscious mind (chitta) and soul (Sat-Chit-Ananda).

Following physical death, as in sleep, the unconscious mind and individual soul remain linked in a resting state. Eventually, as latent impressions in the chitta begin to activate, a vehicle, or body, becomes necessary to resolve and fulfill remaining karmas stored in the unconscious mind, and the process begins again with a new birth.

In Eastern traditions, to be human is considered the greatest of gifts. Right now you have a body, breath, senses and a mind blessed with a discriminative faculty known as buddhi. You already have everything you need to dissolve your attachments, exhaust your karmas and free yourself from pain and bondage. By practicing meditation every day, the animal nature can evolve––through your humanity––to unite with the Divine.

Understanding the relationship between the mortal self, semi-immortal self and immortal Self helps clarify how decisions are to be made in this lifetime. Every time we take an action, a consequence follows, and each consequence leads us closer to enlightenment or farther away. Once we appreciate the mechanics of the law of karma (that thought precedes action and action precedes consequence), an enlightened consciousness provides us the detachment, discrimination and will power to act in accord with the Perfection that is our Essential Nature (Christ-consciousness, Buddha Nature). Our enlightenment disempowers every would-be sorrow and impediment and helps transform the world in which we live.

About the author


Leonard Perlmutter (Ram Lev)

Leonard is an American spiritual teacher, a direct disciple of medical pioneer Swami Rama of the Himalayas, and a living link to the world’s oldest health and wisdom spiritual tradition. A noted educator, philosopher and Yoga Scientist, Leonard is the founder of the American Meditation Institute, developer the AMI Foundation Course curriculum, and originator of National Conscience Month. He is the author of the award-winning books The Heart and Science of Yoga and YOUR CONSCIENCE, and the Mind/Body/Spirit Journal, Transformation. A rare and gifted teacher, Leonard’s writings and classes are enlivened by his inspiring enthusiasm, vast experience, wisdom, humor and a clear, practical teaching style. Leonard has presented courses at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, numerous medical colleges, Kaiser Permanente, the Commonwealth Club of California, the U. S. Military Academy at West Point and The New York Times Yoga Forum with Dean Ornish MD.