For most people, enlightenment, if it exists at all, remains a distant prospect that they never think of. It belongs to other people in other countries, with no relevance to the here and now. In the past few postings I've tried to dispel this notion, arguing that enlightenment is actually the most normal state of awareness. Therefore, it belongs here and now, in everyone's life. But how would you even know if you're enlightened?
As unfamiliar as the whole topic of higher consciousness may be, it comes down to resembling the common cold. Getting a cold involves a collection of symptoms -- stuffy nose, sore throat, chest cough, etc. -- that could belong to a number of other disorders. The only sure way to detect if someone has a cold isn't to look at any of the symptoms but to determine if they have contracted the cold virus. Likewise, the literature about enlightenment is filled with a bewildering array of experiences, including:
-- quiet mind
-- a sense of peace
-- absence of fear
-- blurring of where the body begins and ends
-- a feeling of timelessness
-- the dawn of compassion and unconditional love
-- a sense of being closer to God
-- a realization of unbounded Being
-- continual bliss and ecstasy
As a collection of "symptoms," these are merely the beginning, and as intriguing as they sound, the same experiences can be had under other conditions. They can be drug-induced, for example, or arise because of falling in love. They can be so temporary and fleeting that ordinary life isn't affected, or at another extreme they can be markers of hallucination and psychosis. Strangely, being enlightened isn't a case of "I'll know it when I see it."
Is there a way to escape this muddle, a single factor that, like the cold virus, makes detection certain? (Not that I'm implying any resemblance between enlightenment and a disorder, either mental of physical. The skeptical argument that higher consciousness is always a delusion amounts to naked prejudice, not a scientific conclusion.) I believe there is a single, critical marker, sometimes called "choiceless awareness." Not only does it define what enlightenment is but also how it feels.
We all use our minds to make choices. Deciding between A or B is a constant in daily life, whether the choices are as minor as picking what to eat for lunch or as major as deciding on a profession. Therefore, choiceless awareness seems like a contradiction. It implies a state where your mind chooses for you. Instead of saying "I want this. I don't want that," someone in choiceless awareness becomes the silent witness to all the choices being made. What would be the good of such a state?
The good is hidden from view, because it involves a shift of focus. Instead of paying attention to "I, me, and mine," your awareness has settled into an impersonal region that is the source of all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images. From this source the active mind arises, but in itself there is no action. The simplest way to understand this hidden domain of the mind is by analogy. In quantum physics, the entire visible universe arises from the quantum vacuum, which appears to be nothing, in that it contains no specific activity of any kind -- no matter, energy, time, or space. Having none of these things isn't ordinary emptiness, however. Instead, the vacuum state is point zero in creation, the very source of all matter, energy, time, and space. There is infinite fullness here, once you realize that the fullness consists of pure potential.
In the same way, your mind has always depended on its own point zero, a state of possibility that is infinitely full even though you can't point to any single quality or activity. Consider how you use language. In your lifetime there are all the sentences you have ever spoken. No one bothers to count how many these amount to, but theoretically you could. Then there are all the sentences you could ever possibly speak. These cannot be counted, because the possibilities are infinite, quite literally -- the number of things that human beings will say in the future constantly expands as new words and situations arise.
The difference between everything that exists and everything that could exist marks the boundary of enlightenment. On one side is physical evidence; on the other is infinite potential. Both states are real. If you identify with the things in your life that already exist, you will be immersed in countless individual experiences from the moment you were born. If you identify with the domain of pure potential, you will experience yourself as the field. (In fact, the clearest statement of enlightenment in the Indian tradition comes from a single statement that Lord Krishna makes in the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am the field and the knower of the field.")
This puts choiceless awareness in a new light. When enlightenment was couched in spiritual or religious terms, the appeal of choiceless awareness came from it being a state of surrender to God's higher power, where fear and suffering disappears as divine grace suffuses you. This saintly condition sounds beautiful but not exactly reachable in everyday life. By speaking instead about field awareness, all religious overtones are unnecessary (even though some people may experience that classic saintly transformation). Field awareness comes down to an expanded sense of self.
When people report that their awareness has shifted, the "I" that they identify with has also shifted. It's no longer a pinpoint focus of desire, fear, dreams, wishes, ambitions, memories, and old conditioning. Those are the apparatus of an "I" that looks upon itself as the outcome of being born and going through limited experiences as time passes. In field awareness, the "I" is unburdened of the whole apparatus. Life unfolds with more ease and effortlessness, simply by eliminating so much baggage. At the same time, now that your vision has cleared, you can rest into existence, as it were. You simply are. Your being takes care of you.
Far from being passive or aloof, field awareness is dynamic, because everything that anyone has ever achieved began at the source. Therefore, the closer you are to it, the more fulfilled your life becomes. The reason you give up choices isn't because you want your life to be empty -- quite the opposite. Choices are no longer necessary because what you need is continually provided. The amount of action that other people see you perform is irrelevant. If you enter a marathon, you will be seen running as hard as anyone else. But on the inside you will relate to every action as if it is unfolding of its own accord, without interference, worry, confusion, or doubt on your part.
To accept that choiceless awareness is real, you must experience it for yourself, which requires a journey. You move out of ego-based awareness and the whole apparatus it entails. Nothing else is really required. You can't aim or aspire to choiceless awareness, because that's a contradiction, like saying "I aspire to exist." As a hidden state, choiceless awareness already exists; every mind comes from the same unbounded source. So as you distance yourself from the apparatus of the ego's constricted state of awareness, the new state that appears happens automatically. Once you become the self that has always existed, you are enlightened.
Traditionally this is known as self-realization and likened to waking up. But as the muddled history of human spirituality abundantly shows, words are a trap. They mislead us into the same mistake over and over, which is that higher consciousness can be known in advance and compared to the experiences we're already familiar with. It can't, not in the final analysis. The experiences we're familiar with were produced by the mental apparatus that has to be unloaded. The process takes time. For some people, it may be so gradual that only after many years do they see how much transformation has occurred. There may be flashy episodes along the way, or not.
No single "symptom" or set of symptoms defines enlightenment. The only requirement is to arrive at a state of expanded awareness that can be identified as choiceless, or if that term feels too paradoxical, then we can call it field awareness. In either case, the journey is clear cut and has been mapped out over centuries of meditation, contemplative practice, worship, surrender, and the inward gaze. As hectic as modern life is, nothing bars us from reaching enlightenment. It's the most natural state of awareness just because it takes us to the very source of the mind itself.
DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Super Genes co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD will be available on November 10th, 2015 www.deepakchopra.com