Buddhism, Yoga philosophy

Everyday enlightenment

“Enlightenment can be experienced every day by every person, not only by gurus”

Today I had a conversation with Anwar van Naerssen, a colleague yoga teacher who studied Tibetan Buddhism for several years. We discussed the eight limbs of yoga, in which the ultimate purpose is to achieve enlightenment (which is also true for the eight-fold path of Buddhism). Anwar gave me a completely new perspective on the concept of enlightenment. He believes that enlightenment is not something far away, but can be experienced every day.

“The term ‘enlightenment’ is often seen as beyond our reach, something you can only experience when you are highly advanced and devoted in your yoga practice. But in reality, enlightenment is just a moment in which everything is allright. Everyone can get there, in a range of different ways, and the eight-fold path is one of those ways.”

The eight limbs of yoga can also be seen in different ways. They can be approached as stages that you should pass, which implies you should master one stage before proceeding to the next. But you can also think of the limbs as aspects of a process that go hand in hand, which you can practice in every single moment in daily life.  The first two limbs (yamas and niyamas) are basic principles and living rules that you can apply in general, such as devotion an non-violence. The next steps are the practice of postures (asana) and control over breath (pranayama). So when you are performing and feeling the postures during a yoga class with awareness, and focusing on your breath, you are making progress toward enlightenment. Next is turning your attention inward, by refraining from sensory input (pratyahara). Subsequently you can practice your concentration, for example by focusing on a point in front of you or on an image in your mind (dharana). This is a preparation for meditation, the observance of body, breath and mind (dhyana). And when you experience a moment in which everything feels good, a calm and peaceful state of being, then you are in a moment of enlightenment (samadhi). In other words, it is possible feel enlightened in every yoga class!

That’s a completely different idea than what most people imagine when they think of enlightenment. It can also seem elusive because it is strongly associated with a continuous state of inner peace (but this would be moksha, which is different from samadhi), as well as with spiritual leaders such as the Buddha. “But Buddha was a human being like you and me; just like others, he had to go to the toilet regularly.” This makes me smile; it’s true, of course! “That’s a very good and simple example, actually: if you have to go to the toilet, this is what you focus on, and just doing it is the only thing that makes you feel relieved, or ‘enlightened’. You can see this in very young children, who will scream and fidget and only calm down if they get rid of it.” Well, if toddlers can experience enlightenment (assuming they would be aware of it), then you and I can do it too!

“Yoga or Buddhism isn’t the only way, of course. If you consciously experience in daily life how everything can suddenly feel alright if you have eaten when you feel hungry or wear something warm when you are feeling cold, you also know what enlightenment is. Even the Buddha needed such things.”

Anwar studied Tibetan Buddhism for several years, which is how he developed his down-to-earth wisdom. “During this period I had interesting discussions with the monks. They believe in reincarnation, so they think they have many lives ahead of them to achieve enlightenment. For them, this idea makes them think enlightenment is far away, which is actually an obstacle in their mind that stops them from doing what they could do right now to experience it.” If we think about what we could do here and now, we get to mindfulness: living in the moment, being aware of your experiences right now, accepting what is there, helps you to feel that everything is just fine. In this way, mindfulness is a great tool to discover how enlightenment feels. If you practice every day, you will get closer step by step.

“Buddha himself said: if you see a buddha [enlightened person], then kill him. Of course he didn’t mean you should literally murder this person, but he tried to convey the message that I would like to pass to other people: try to forget the idea that enlightenment is unattainable, that you cannot do it. It’s just your thoughts that stop you. Do not compare yourself to others or to an image in your mind. Stick to your own process. Then it’s suddenly pretty easy.”

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