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4 Spiritual Teachers Share Their Search for Enlightenment

Traditionally, the goal of a spiritual practice has been to attain enlightenment, but is that what today's seekers are really after?

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Anna Ashby wears a headset and looks warmly into the camera to include the thousands of Siddha yogis watching around the world as she guides us into the aisles of the cavernous Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. Ashby, a yoga teacher in the Hatha Yoga Department of the Siddha Yoga organization, then leads us in 20 minutes of breath-centered stretches—doing her small part to prepare us for the journey to spiritual awakening.

As we return to our seats for meditation, Ashby reminds us to connect to the ground through our sitting bones as best we can in the uncomfortable red-velvet chairs. By the time the 10-hour intensive is drawing to a close—after Ashby’s brief hatha yoga sessions, meditations, talks, and more than two straight hours of ecstatic chanting with Siddha Yoga’s spiritual leader, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda—many attendees have drifted into the aisles again. They raise their arms and open them wide to their teacher, inviting a direct transmission of bliss, love, and higher consciousness.

I have never been in the presence of a person believed to be enlightened, as Gurumayi is. I don’t know what I expect exactly, but something like a priest—restrained, paternal, and heavy with the weight of knowledge and spiritual duty.But Gurumayi seems to me light, not heavy, in her being. She sits in the center of the stage and sings her heart out. She is warm, funny, joyful, radiant. She is also remarkably at ease and generous with her love.

Siddha yogis believe that Gurumayi, as a guru in the Siddha Yoga lineage, has the ability to awaken her followers to their own inherent potential for enlightenment, a transmission called shaktipat. Ashby herself has had direct experience of the “guru’s grace”: When she was 20-years-old, she got shaktipat from a Siddha Yoga intensive led by Gurumayi, and she has been living in the ashram ever since.

Before the intensive, I was counseled that I would receive shaktipat. I am not drawn to study with one teacher or to follow one way, but I am struck by the heart-opening experience of harmony and connection fostered by Gurumayi’s disarming presence and the ecstatic group chanting. I feel a swelling of the heart, a breaking down of borders that will last well into the evening, and a rising awareness of the possibility for transformation. And this is what Siddha Yoga promises—not that you are instantly enlightened, but that shaktipat can awaken you to the path. It can open the door, but how far you go after entering will depend on your choices, on how intently you practice and study and serve the teachings.

Siddha yogis are committed to yoga as a path to radical transformation—to the awakening or enlightenment that is traditionally considered the “goal” of yoga and meditation practice. 

However, if polls are true indicators, the greater yoga world is not so aligned with tradition: Only 16 percent of 1,555 yoga practitioners who took a survey on indicated that the goal of their yoga practice was to pursue the path to enlightenment, when the other choices were to stay fit and toned (30 percent), to reduce stress (21 percent), to remedy a health problem (18 percent), and to engage in spiritual practice (15 percent).

YJ’s poll seems to reveal that the goals of today’s yoga practitioners are exceedingly practical, even unspiritual. As yoga enters the mainstream, what we think of as “higher” intentions for practice may be losing ground to the more immediate, graspable goals of firmer abs and lower blood pressure

Of course, there is a positive side to having modest, focused aims: Clear, practical goals can provide the essential foundation of sound body and mind. (Gurumayi quotes her guru, Muktananda: “First the stomach, then God”—first, meet people’s basic needs, then you can offer spiritual teaching.) And when we have goals that are not overly idealistic, we may be less likely to cling to what we want or become deluded about our achievements.

Many devoted hatha yogis—whose primary focus is the physical practice of yoga—attempt to fully integrate yoga philosophy into their lives, but for how many is the pursuit of enlightenment a living, breathing mission? As yoga is translated into a culture of mostly lay practitioners, we have to ask ourselves: Are modern yogis missing the full potential of this practice? Or are we making genuine efforts to define enlightenment in a way that works in a modern context and makes sense to the Western mind?

See also Practice Enlightenment Meditation

What is Enlightenment?

The poll results may also reflect a deep confusion about what enlightenment is—after all, sages and scholars have been debating the definition for millennia. 

Depending on whom you talk to, enlightenment is a sudden, permanent awakening to the absolute unity of all beings or a gradual, back-and-forth process of liberation from the tyranny of the mind. Or both. It is freedom from feelings or the freedom to feel fully without identifying with those feelings. It is unconditional bliss and love, or it is a state devoid of feelings as we know them. It is a shattering of the sense of a separate self, a transcendent experience of unity, a radical freedom available only to the few who are ready to give up everything and surrender the ego to pure awareness.

Buddhists and yogis tend to agree that in a sense we are already enlightened; we are already there. “Enlightenment is really just a deep, basic trust in yourself and your life,” says Zen priest Ed Brown. 

The work that awaits us is stripping away the layers of delusion that we have accumulated through our karma, so that our natural state of peace and wholeness can be revealed. “Enlightenment is not a new state that is in any way obtained or achieved,” says Richard Miller, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, “but rather, it entails the uncovering of our original nature that has always been, and always is, present.” Or as Robert Svoboda, the first Westerner to graduate from a college of Ayurveda in India, says, “The enlightenment process is much more about getting rid of stuff than grabbing hold of it.”

To understand how the concept of enlightenment is framed by today’s Western ambassadors of the yoga tradition, YJ interviewed five prominent teachers whose practices in yoga and meditation collectively total 125 years and span many traditions. When we asked them whether we must aim for enlightenment to practice authentically, the conversations often turned to intention—a word that comfortably carries the weight of hopes yet doesn’t sink under our expectations.

 The teachers agreed, and their own stories reflect, that our intentions often start with ourselves—we want to soften our stiffness, dampen our anger, quell our fear—but widen and deepen organically in the alchemy of practice. And this is a good thing.

When asked how they hold the goal of enlightenment in their own spiritual practices, not surprisingly, they each had unique ways of relating to liberation. But whether they view awakening as rarefied, permanent, and sacrosanct or hard-won, human, and imperfect, they all spoke of enlightenment as coming home to our deepest truths and aspirations—a gift a teacher gives or one that emerges from the depths of solitary practice. And like most precious gifts, it remains a mystery until we receive it, until our hearts open and do not close.

See also 9 Top Yoga Teachers Share How They ‘Talk’ to the Universe

4 Spiritual Teachers Share Their Search for Enlightenment

Stephen Cope: Enlightenment Is Spiritual Maturity

Senior kripalu yoga teacher Stephen Cope is a psychotherapist and author of The Great Work of Your Life, The Wisdom of Yoga, and Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.

Cope measures his progress on the path by how well his practice attenuates greed, hatred, and delusion—the three defilements in Buddhism that are reflected in the five kleshas of the yoga tradition: ignorance, egotism, attraction, aversion, and clinging to life. “You can always ask yourself, “Is this softening my clinging, craving, and holding on? Is it softening hatred and delusion? If it’s not, you’ve probably gone off track somewhere.

“As human beings we have just the right balance of suffering and awareness to awaken our determination to practice,” says Cope, paraphrasing yoga scriptures. However, as he continues on, we tend to experience the world in pairs of opposites, choosing one experience (the pleasure or gain) and shoving the other (the loss or pain) away. Whether or not we seek enlightenment, yoga practice can take us beyond pairs of opposites to acceptance of all that is. “The solution to the problem of suffering is to expose the roots of suffering and be present. That’s why I talk about spiritual maturity instead of enlightenment—because it’s a really mature and difficult thing to drop our romantic ideas and just be with what is.”

Cope does believe that yoga is a path of liberation. “But I think the liberation I’m talking about is quieter and less dramatic than the highfalutin goals that are often projected. The goal of freedom from clinging to greed, hatred, and delusion is a very ambitious goal. And any moment in which the mind is not craving or pushing experience away, when we’re capable of being fully present, that’s a moment of liberation.”

Looking around at his peers in the Buddhist and yoga communities, Cope acknowledges that no one he knows would claim to be enlightened, including himself. Encounters with practitioners who are “really transformed” are inspiring and rare. “I have a mentor,a Zen practitioner, who is as transformed by this practice as anyone I know. He lives a quiet, scholarly life. Has a girlfriend, drives a car. He does not have disciples. He’s just like the rest of us, except that his mind is less driven by greed, hatred, and delusion. Being in his presence helps me to soften, and I’m sure that’s the closest I’m going to get to enlightenment.”

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4 Spiritual Teachers Share Their Search for Enlightenment

Sally Kempton: Enlightenment Is Radical Transformation

Formerly known as Swami Durgananda, Sally Kempton has been a senior teacher at Siddha Yoga ashrams in California, New York, and India. In June of 2002, she moved out of the ashram in South Fallsburg, New York, and reclaimed her original name because she felt “the need to test [her] practice and teaching in the context of life as most people experience it” and because she wanted to work with students who might not be drawn to an ashram. She continues to teach Siddha Yoga meditation and is the author of Awakening Shakti, Meditation for the Love of It, and The Heart of Meditation.

“My first teacher, Swami Muktananda, completely dedicated his life to yoga. When I met Muktananda, I was blown away by his expansion, freedom, love, mastery, and joy. He just generated electricity and made spiritual life incredibly attractive, as does Gurumayi. It was understood that of course you were on the path to enlightenment…What else would you be doing? I don’t know what it’s like to study with someone who doesn’t hold enlightenment as the implicit goal.” 

For Kempton, students’ relationships to enlightenment have everything to do with their teachers. “If your teacher is enlightened or in a lineage of enlightened teachers, that state will be much more tangible for you than if your teacher is in the second generation of Western students of possibly enlightened teachers who might not even consider themselves enlightened.”

Kempton comes from a generation of spiritual seekers who threw themselves into the romance of renunciation. “There was a point of view that I certainly subscribed to that you could give up everything and throw yourself into your relationship with your guru or ashram, and with intense practice, you could attain some state of enlightenment in a very short time. Of course that view was somewhat illusory, but it was certainly inspiring.” She speculates that unfortunately we may be living in a time when “understanding that attaining enlightenment is not easy might have led people to lose sight of enlightenment and radical transformation as a goal.”

When Kempton first started studying with Swami Muktananda, she knew fairly quickly that she would commit her life to practice. Spiritual maturation for her has entailed realizing that the journey is long and it’s “not about getting somewhere or winning something. It involves a deep cellular transformation that takes time—often the rest of your life.” 

Change can be incremental, and it can also come in great leaps, says Kempton, and though it is important to keep enlightenment as an intention in spiritual practice, it’s equally important to avoid going at it with the ambition and striving typical of twenty-first-century America. “Our tendency is often to go too far one way or another.”

Kempton has known teachers in states of enlightenment, described in her tradition as siddhahood, a mode of being characterized by complete mastery of the mind and senses, a steady experience of unity, and “a kind of ecstatic, all-embracing love.” 

That state of ultimate enlightenment is permanent, but, says Kempton, there are also “stations” along the way—moments available to most of us when we “no longer identify with ourselves as a body-mind and experience ourselves instead as free awareness”; when we are not separate from others; when the dichotomy between form and emptiness dissolves; when we are capable of “free, unselfish, loving action” because we are no longer at the mercy of the ego, with its thoughts and feelings.

Though in Kempton’s lineage “a true state of enlightenment comes through grace,” it is also true that “practice is utterly necessary.” Kempton meditates two times a day for at least an hour. She does hatha yoga. She recites mantras and chants. “I do what I do in a spirit of offering,” she says. Kempton notes that even Ramana Maharshi, who was spontaneously enlightened at the age of 16, argued for the importance of practice.

Though having teachers is critical, she emphasizes that it’s not necessary to leave home, quit your job, and abandon all earthly pursuits to have a spiritual practice. “I think it’s really important at this particular moment in history that we learn how to do our sadhana [practice] in the midst of daily life. Practice ultimately has to be done inside the context of your life and your karma. And if you re doing your practice with some consistency, there is inevitably going to be transformation. When you have a strong practice, there is no moment in life that is not juicy.”

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4 Spiritual Teachers Share Their Search for Enlightenment

Patricia Walden: Enlightenment Is Action and Sacrifice

Yoga teacher Patricia Walden is well known internationally for her Practice for Beginners video and her focus on yoga for women and for depression. She studies annually with B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta, in India, and is one of only two teachers awarded the title of advanced senior teacher by Iyengar. Walden is the author of A Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness, coauthored with Linda Sparrowe.

“Sages and seekers have been trying to define enlightenment for thousands of years. The Hindus say it’s fullness, and then the Buddhists say it’s emptiness,” says Walden. “it’s difficult to talk about things one hasn’t experienced, but I would say it’s our unconditioned state. it’s a state of innocence and purity. Maybe we’re born with it, but as we grow older, we have more experiences, and it’s obscured. By the time we become seriously interested or aspire to enlightenment, there’s this veil of avidya [ignorance , the root of suffering]—and a lot of work to do to peel away the layers.”

Walden began her yoga practice in her 20s. She thought if she practiced asana and meditated daily, she would be enlightened in no time. “When I met B.K.S. Iyengar, he dealt with more practical things, and I let go of that aspiration,” she says. It wasn’t that Iyengar didn’t esteem liberation as the goal of practice, notes Walden: “He reinforced that you have to have tremendous strength, concentration, and willpower to get there. From his point of view, we go from the skin to the soul. And that has worked beautifully for me, since I was so disembodied and scattered and wanting instant gratification.”

In Walden s experience, newcomers to yoga and younger students tend to have practical goals—they want to be free of anxiety, anger, or pain. Seasoned practitioners may not use the word enlightenment to describe their intentions, but they definitely want transformation. 

“There’s a period when you really want to excel at asana and you work very hard. That’s an important stage because it builds will and discipline. It teaches you how to concentrate and relax deeply. But as you move out of your adolescence, you ripen, and you understand that you need perseverance to use your body as a vehicle to a deeper state of consciousness.”

Though enlightenment, or freedom, is our birthright, says Walden, whether we reach it or not depends on our karma, our discipline, and how burning our desire is. The various forces in our lives that compete for our energy can pull us off track, so commitment and clarity of intention are essential, whatever level of transformation you desire. “If you want to reach enlightenment or attain freedom, all your energy needs to be directed toward that aspiration” says Walden, who recently let go of her successful Boston-area studio to focus more exclusively on her practice. No matter how fierce our commitment or clear our intention, however, we all experience setbacks on the path, explains Walden: “Alabdha bhumikatva, failure to maintain the ground achieved, is one of the nine obstacles Patanjali talks about in the Yoga Sutra [1.30].” But inevitable lapses into negative thinking or doubt need not be heartbreaking. For Walden, they are reminders to be humble and to continually approach the practice anew.

These days, especially after the traumatic events of 2001, Walden is more focused than ever on her intention—”Patanjali says we’re here for experience and liberation; I am 56, and I don’t want to fool around”—but she also recognizes the importance of nonattachment to any goal or aspiration she might have for her practice, or any definition of enlightenment. “Whether or not I reach enlightenment in this life—and according to the Hindus it takes many—it doesn’t matter, because there s such tremendous benefit in the journey toward it. I can ask myself ‘Who am I?’ forever, and the same goes for ‘What is enlightenment?’ The question is the teaching, and just asking it can bring on transformation.”

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4 Spiritual Teachers Share Their Search for Enlightenment

Sylvia Boorstein: Enlightenment Is Unconditional Kindness

Sylvia Boorstein is an author and cofounding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. She is the author of It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, and Solid Ground: Buddhist Wisdom for Difficult Times, among many others.

When Sylvia Boorstein began her mindfulness practice in the 70s, meditation and yoga were interesting to her for their mind-altering potential. “I don’t know whether or not I thought about enlightenment, but I had the notion that I’d get good enough at altering my mind-states that I would not be so affected by suffering in the world, that the pain in my life would disappear.”

These days, many new yogis and meditators enter their practice with a similar expectation—that they will find abundant and perpetual peace, a sort of plastic bubble of tranquility that suffering cannot penetrate. What they find if they stay with the practice, says Boorstein, is that it’s not about abolishing pain and suffering, but rather, honing the heart’s response to it. “Regardless of what I thought previously about a sustained state of enlightenment, I know now that my capacity to be openhearted, expansive, kind, and forgiving—the state in which I think we are meant to live—doesn’t remain implacably in place. The point of spiritual practice for me is to get back to that state.”

Boorstein says that if someone had told her when she started that her practice would make her more kind, she would have said, “Listen, that’s not my main problem—I’m reasonably kind—I’m tense though!” She now says that kindness is her main intention. In her book, Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake, she tells the story of an early dharma talk she heard wherein the teacher explained the path as a journey from attention and mindfulness to insight and wisdom and an enlightened understanding of suffering, leading finally to complete compassion. “I wrote this down in the form of an equation with arrows. But in chemistry there are equations where the arrows go both ways,” says Boorstein, “so I thought to myself, We could just start on the other side: Practicing compassion can also lead to enlightened understanding, and that in turn can lead to a greater capacity to pay attention.”

Boorstein keeps a composite of the Five Precepts taped to her computer and takes them every day before turning it on: “Do no harm to anyone; Take nothing that is not freely given; Speak truthfully and helpfully; Use sexual energy wisely; and Keep your mind clear.” 

She teaches that the goal of practice is not to escape our humanness but to be more genuinely engaged in our lives. “I don’t want to be more than a human being,” says Boorstein. “I want to be able to forgive myself.” Perhaps because she was raised in a family where “voting was a religious act,” Boorstein has felt the influence of her practice broaden over time: “I don’t think people have as an entering motive the well-being of all beings. But it has become more and more obvious to me that my own ability to live with a certain amount of freedom and clarity is directly a condition of my own ability to not create more suffering in the world.” 

When asked to define enlightenment, Boorstein comments that her years of practice have left her with “less of a need to know. There is a kind of humility I have now that I’m both surprised and happy about. I don’t feel like I know nearly as much as I used to think I knew.” She speaks, in Pay Attention and in person, of “enlightened moments, instances in which I see clearly and choose wisely,” more often than she speaks of “total understanding forever.” After all, “Each moment is new, and you respond to it anew. It is the first time that moment’s ever happened.”