Comprehension is not all encompassing. There are multiple ways to understand an experience, an idea, an emotion, or a sensation. I believe these can be divided into roughly three sequential tiers.
The common portal to entry is awareness. Awareness by itself is little more than a coarse, sensory perception of new physical or intellectual stimulus. Awareness always leads the way to comprehension, even if cannot define comprehension by itself. Awareness is the way September smells on the first cool Autumn morning. Awareness is the thickening of air in a room when an unexpected beauty catches your eye and smiles. Awareness is easy: we feel it, therefore we understand it.
Awakening takes more. Sometimes a transitional stage, awakening is the process of recognizing the gravity and meaning of experience without having to struggle to keep those thoughts clear and organized. Awakening is being able to understand something fundamentally, like a cook who knows when a sauce needs an unmeasured bit of something else to bring it to life. Awakening may be the result of profound effort but it can never be externally imposed. We awaken only when we’re ready and available. Awakening is the scent of that same cool September morning, but this time with an awareness of its metaphoric implication, that time endlessly evaporates as summer warmth yields to bluer, shorter days.
Awakening does not need to be pleasurable to be real. At the death of someone we love, the hollow vacancy that suddenly replaces the deceased person’s space can make manifest much more than the mere absence of someone who’s always been around. It’s a combination of knowledge and emotion, a sense of relevance that transcends linear explanation. To be awake is to translate sensation into meaningful intuition.
Some people only awaken on rare occasions, proceeding through life with only blunt inputs of awareness to push them around. Awakening prompts connections among ideas and feelings that hadn’t previously occurred. It offers suggestions of ways to influence the future. Awakening is the intangible process of realizing that events have implications, some with variable potentials. It’s knowledge of self mixed with information and implication. Awakening requires thought even as experience floods in unbidden around other thoughts. It’s intimate and personal. You feel it like the deep, rotting mass of embarrassment in your belly when looking someone in the eye to whom you’ve lied. You feel it like the rushing air of free fall brought about by a lover’s caress. You feel it like the purr of a smoothly running engine powering an operatic aria at the edge of a stage.
Beyond awareness and awakening there’s one more level. Enlightenment dances on air. Enlightenment floats at an infinitesimal distance beyond our ability to hold it, but that doesn’t keep it from being real. It’s like the heat from a light source we cannot touch. Once we realize its value, it ceases to be something we long to grasp. It becomes ordinary, almost unnoticed, like breathing. Enlightenment describes a transformation of experience. It’s an intimacy that’s unafraid of being exposed. Enlightenment is like the process where food becomes the intangible force that moves our muscles. It cannot be felt directly, but we can experience its influence. It’s more than deep understanding, although clearly that’s part of it. Enlightenment is the transformation of information into instinct. It’s a fearlessness in the face of reality. Enlightenment requires awareness and awakening to evolve, but most of the time it behaves like our own shadow, right in front of our eyes and completely unable to be touched. Enlightenment can fade and it can grow, but it’s ultimately a function of how we place ourselves in the world. It becomes knowledge that does not require conscious facts. The term itself is a barrier to its arrival. By naming it, we are already standing beside it rather than embodying it. Enlightenment is the moment of understanding that happens when you’re not wondering if you “get it” anymore. You do, deeply.
It moves you unbidden.
It surrounds you like time.