What is enlightenment? Discover the five layers of awareness
Deep within every tradition is the idea that each human being has a capacity to meet their highest potential. Many people report that when you get close to experiencing this state subjectively, it feels like infinite radiant light.
The aim of yoga is to unify consciousness with this light so you may live a life of full potential. Yogis have been striving for this state for thousands of years, so for those of us who live in the modern world this may seem an unachievable goal. However, everyone has the capability to enhance their connection with the light and achieve their own enlightened state.
What is enlightenment?
American psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term “self-actualisation” to refer to that state where one reaches one’s life potential — what could be called modern-day enlightenment. There are gradations to this experience, of course, from the uplifting feeling you get when you have a bright idea or an “aha! moment” right up to mystical union with God.
But what is important to consider is that this is something you can strive for in every moment. That doesn’t mean walking around in a star-struck daze, incapable of relating to the world, but rather being in a state where there is a constant background radiance in your emotions, mind and how you feel about yourself.
Even a little of this makes life a lot more pleasant. So, whether you are completely committed to your spirituality, wanting to dive into that light, or whether you just want to be a bit happier, advancing to this state is a desirable outcome. When we view enlightenment like this, it becomes an ever-increasing state of lightness that is integrated into everyday life.
On a practical level, this lightness, or infinite potential, can be played out in very unmystical ways. For example, a stressed-out marketing executive travels overseas and uses the heightened state she reaches in her yoga practice to achieve her new career goals. Or a middle-aged man becomes so peaceful from touching this state in meditation that his relationships with his family become more harmonious.
On its most practical level, entering into this state of lightness can even make doing the dishes easier. Try washing each dish as if you were uncovering the light of your own radiant self or that of someone you truly love and see how much lighter you feel.
Enlightenment is a state where there is a constant background radiance in your emotions, mind and how you feel about yourself.
How yoga uses light
Yoga is one of the traditions that have made in-depth discoveries about the science of light. Yoga is based on the awareness that we live in a universe that is alive, conscious and reachable. The word “yoga” means “union” and this includes unifying individual consciousness with the living, caring consciousness of a universe of light.
According to dru yoga teacher Andrew Wells, “In yoga, the spine is seen as a living pillar of light with three interweaving channels of luminous energy. We progress towards enlightenment or our own greatest inner radiance as our natural state of energy moves up the middle pillar of light, called the shashumna.
“This happens when we balance the two outer luminous flows of energy, or nadis. These are similar to meridians in Oriental healing and philosophy. These two nadis, called ida and pingdala, represent two different aspects of the natural light spectrum: the sun and moon. They also have opposite qualities, such as male and female, introvert and extrovert, and they represent the left and right sides of the brain. Yoga aims to bring these channels into balance so they have a perfect synergy with each other, inducing a current up the middle. This is the rising of kundalini up the shashumna channel.”
Wells continues, “Even the tiniest lift of your energy up that middle pillar makes you feel inexpressively brighter and more radiant, and just about all of us have had experiences like this, although we probably were not aware of them at the time.”
Have you ever stood on top of a mountain, moved beyond words at the view before you? When you had that experience, your energy climbed a few notches. If you have ever held your beloved in your arms and known you would do anything for them, your energy lifted a few notches. If you have been in a concert hall thrilled by the sound of a great choir or orchestra, your consciousness rose a little higher and became lighter.
Increasing your light quotient
Kundalini experiences aren’t just about spiritual highs of light shooting up the spine. Many people have indeed described amazing sensations of light in the body, but these experiences don’t always have a lot to do with connecting with the full radiance of your inner connectedness.
The outcome of a true kundalini experience is that you feel more radiant, forgiving and tolerant and are a more compassionate person. This is because these are the qualities of oneness. Enlightenment becomes more achievable when we think of it not as an energetic kundalini experience but as an open-hearted state in which we exhibit greater feelings of kindness, compassion and unity.
Yoga has a unique understanding of how to create this balance. Yoga sees the body/mind system of the human being as a dynamic set of currents of mental, emotional and physical energy that behave very much like rivers of light. If there is turbulence or obstruction in any of these channels of light, dis-ease results. Your energy cannot rise up the spectrum of consciousness and it is stuck at a lower level than it needs to be. Yoga’s approach gives people practical tools to unblock their stuck mental/emotional energy. These blockages aren’t just based on the past but also occur because of your current thinking, as all negative thought forms can block your ability to flow with the natural tide of your life’s currents.
Bodies of light
You can consciously transform yourself if you observe the flow of mental, emotional and physical energy in your body/mind system. For more than 5000 years, yoga has called this system the koshas, or bodies of light, and it explains the workings of the body and the personality. Using this model, you can predict the appropriate therapies for healing to an astonishing degree by analysing the body and personality.
Yoga starts with the very simple insight that we exist on five layers of awareness, which are five bodies of light, the first being our physical bodies — muscles, bones, cells and all that makes up our physical structure. The second layer is known as a body of subtle energy that houses our life force and determines how life energy flows through the body. The Chinese call this life force qi and the yogis call it prana.
The third layer is the realm of our emotions, which are both empowering and disempowering. Empowering emotions help you to feel happy and they inspire you. With disempowering emotions, you have reactive thoughts and you usually feel bad about yourself or others. If someone shouts at you and you find yourself reacting and shouting back, you are having a disempowering emotional experience.
The fourth layer is the sphere of discriminative beliefs and attitudes held in the mind. This layer is in balance when your beliefs about yourself and others arise from appreciation and respect. You feel supported by the universe and engage in activities that help others to realise this, too. When out of balance, this layer can wreak untold havoc in your life. For example, when you think “I’m no good” or “I am a victim of life”, you tend to have experiences that bear out those negative thoughts.
The fifth layer is the place of connectedness and oneness. It is sometimes called the layer of bliss and is closer to the original state of maximum potential mentioned earlier. Spending just a tiny bit of time in this state can leave you uplifted and buoyant for days or even weeks afterwards.
An enlightened being is not necessarily someone who has opted out of the world. It can be someone who is balanced, clear and living life in all its fullness, adventure and potency.
By examining each of these layers of awareness, you can find the places of turbulence and obstruction, then transform them using yoga. Yoga in the West is often aimed at enhancing the physical body or balancing the flow of prana in the body. However, yoga as it was conceived in India aims to balance all the layers of awareness.
If you are focused in body consciousness, you are only interested in the things of the body. If you are stuck in emotional consciousness, you will be immersed in a whirl of unpredictable reactive thoughts. If you are balanced at the level of discriminative wisdom, you find yourself making good decisions based on a higher level of knowledge and discrimination.
And if your awareness is anywhere near the level of true connectedness, you find yourself moving through life with a core inner knowing that you are doing the right things at the right time with the right people, in a harmony and flow that leads you from one effective experience to the next.
However, all of these layers are important. When you aren’t functioning well on any one of these layers, you are crippled to a degree in your life. If you don’t have access to emotional passion, you have no motivation to transform things. An example of passionate action is Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which emotion was used to the greatest effect. His passion was capable of uplifting the souls of millions and it changed American society.
An enlightened being is not necessarily someone who has opted out of the world. It can be someone who is balanced, clear and living life in all its fullness, adventure and potency. In yoga, the aim is to reach a place where you have full access to all these layers simultaneously.
The chakras — wheels of light
In the philosophy of yoga, the level of awareness you have and how you relate to the world around you are expressed through the concept of wheels of energy, or light, that yogis call chakras. Chakras lie along the spine and the qualities and issues associated with each are stored in the adjacent part of the body. You may be able to identify which chakra you operate from through the descriptions below.
The Mooladhara chakra, located at the base of the spine, is where we are preoccupied with physical survival and wealth. When this chakra is balanced, you have access to the same raw life force that enables a mighty redwood to soar skywards or a teenager to grow and develop so quickly.
People who have issues at this level of consciousness are prone to a barrage of ill health or financial or housing woes. When people balance this level with yoga asanas (poses), pranayama (breath work) and other practices, their health improves and they are more able to live a life of abundance.
Swadhistana, the sacral chakra, focuses on relationships in all forms, from intimate to social, and it even extends to how you feel about the objects around you. When it is in balance, you experience a universe that cares and supports you and you feel as if you have a valued part to play in it.
When this chakra is out of balance, though, you find yourself emotionally up and down, anxious and clinging to things or people for external support. When you rebalance this chakra, your relationships improve and you become more able to give and to empower others because you feel more empowered and supported.
The third chakra, Manipura, influences your ability to create your world. In balance, it allows goal setting and manifestation. Out of balance, it brings anger, frustration and irritation, which arise when you have more life energy than you have the means of expressing it.
At the level of Anahata, the heart chakra, you experience your ability to truly love unconditionally with the kind of passion that made Martin Luther King Jr capable of changing a whole nation.
At the throat is Vishuddhi, which influences communication and understanding of what is the right thing to do at the right time. In balance, it pilots you effortlessly within the flow of the universe towards the achievement of your goals. Out of balance, it leads to confusion, a life that’s full of red lights and chaotic experiences of criticism, mistrust and judgment.
At the Ajna chakra, located between the brows, you find how you relate to your core goals in life. When this layer is in balance, you know your core goals and you move enthusiastically towards them. When it’s out of balance, you have no idea why you are doing what you are doing. Your job and your relationships probably feel quite meaningless and life seems to have no sense of connectedness, belonging or purpose.
When you are completely balanced in your seventh chakra, Sahasra, found at the crown, you have reached enlightenment, the life goal of infinite potential. Yoga’s main tool for reaching this region of consciousness is meditation. In yoga, meditation becomes possible when all the turbulence in all the layers of your body and all the bandwidths of your experience settle into a smooth, even flow of body/mind consciousness.
You can use yoga asanas, sequences and breath work as lenses to transform turbulence in the regions of your unconscious that you might never otherwise control. As the traumas settle, the fixations and attachments to the outside world subside and you discover that everything you could ever need already lies within you.
This discovery blossoms into a mature understanding of your place in this universe and the rightness of your position in this beautiful world. That’s when you finally achieve the state of en-light-enment.
Five layers of awareness
- Physical body
- Prana or qi
- Attitudes of the mind
- Connectedness (oneness)
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