Viewpoint: The Journey to Enlightenment

Printed in the  Winter 2021  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Hebert, Barbara"The Journey to Enlightenment" Quest 109:1, pg 10-11

Barbara Hebert
National President

Theosophical Society - Barbara B. Hebert, Ph.D., currently serves as president of the Theosophical Society in America. A third-generation Theosophist, Barbara has been involved in local, regional, and national offices throughout her years of membership. In addition to her years of service with the Theosophical Society, she has been a mental health practitioner and educator for many years.The theme for this issue is Enlightenment, a pertinent topic for our times.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines to enlighten as “to furnish knowledge; give spiritual insight to.” The prefix en- means in or into. Combining it with light, we come up with the definition of leading into the light

According to some traditions, the Buddha gained enlightenment overnight. It is unlikely that most of us will reach it in this way, so it makes sense to talk about enlightenment as a journey, a process of increasing awareness and understanding of the reality of the world around us.

Enlightenment implies moving from darkness into the light. Much of humanity seems to be living in darkness, unaware of the Ultimate Reality and the unity of all beings. This state of nonknowing is called avidya. Living in this state, many experience fear and uncertainty. These feelings are then overlaid by anger. At this time in history, much of humanity seems to be experiencing anger, which is evident in divisive behavior and on occasion even erupts into violence. Therefore exploring the process that leads from avidya to enlightenment may provide understanding for us during difficult times.

A child who falls asleep may wake up in the night with the room shrouded in darkness. In this darkness, the child may see shadows and perceive scary things. The child cries out in distress. The parent enters the room and turns on the light. The light allows the child to see clearly and understand that those scary things were simply toys or stuffed animals. 

As we move into the light, we also gain perspective about what we originally perceived as frightening or overwhelming. As Paramahansa Yogananda says: “If you are in a dark room, don’t beat at the darkness with a stick, but rather try to turn on the light.” The example is simple, the statement is simple, and they make the entire process sound simple, but of course it’s not.

When we talk about enlightenment from a spiritual perspective, it is helpful to read the words of the Filipino Theosophist Vic Hao Chin on the website He says that enlightenment is “the experience of illumination of the consciousness, accompanied by transcendent insights or realization. The experience of enlightenment is universally recognized in all major religious traditions, and in non-religious literature as well.”

A transcendent insight or realization does not mean that we have attained complete enlightenment such as was attained by the Buddha, but it does indicate that we are increasing our awareness and understanding. We are moving into the light.

Chin goes on to say:

 All the spiritual traditions are unanimous regarding the need for preliminary preparations before such a state of enlightenment can be attained. It requires the initial awakening of one’s intuition which leads to what in Christian literature is called the “divine discontent.” Then one goes through a process of search for the wisdom and the Path. When the Path is found, there is a need for purification or purgation of the lower self or personality which has been the subject of conditioning from the past and from society. Only after these are successfully done can the aspirant hope to enter into the gates of illumination and union. 

This journey will likely be somewhat different for each one of us. Clarifying and expanding upon our belief system is one way of turning on the light. This expansion brings about personal transformation. In his article in this issue, Ravi Ravindra writes about this work of moving toward the light, saying: “One common lesson of all the scriptures and teachings of the sages is that if I remain the way I am, I cannot come to the Truth or the Real or God. A radical transformation of the whole of my being is required.” 

Many people begin this transformative process through open-minded inquiry, exploration, and study, which provide a basis for expanding our awareness and understanding. We begin to look beyond what we think we know. This portion of our journey toward enlightenment is an exciting and stimulating time. We can almost feel our minds expand as we strive to grasp amazing new concepts and ideas.

The Voice of the Silence tells us that this portion of our journey encompasses movement through the Second Hall, the Hall of Learning. It is an essential part of our movement toward enlightenment; however, it is only part of the journey—not the end! Voice of the Silence warns us not to spend too much time in the Hall of Learning. “In it thy Soul will find the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled . . . stop not the fragrance of its stupefying blossoms to inhale.” 

The Buddha shared the following parable about dependence upon structured ways of learning. He talked to his disciples about using a boat to cross a river. The boat is a metaphor for the learning that we believe will bring us to enlightenment. He reminds us that, like the boat, learning is a tool. It helps us for a portion of our journey, but once we have reached the other side of the river, it is no longer useful. We must leave the boat on the shore: this tool has taken us as far as it can. If we continue to carry it once we reach shore, it becomes an obstacle. It slows us down and becomes a burden as we continue on our journey. 

Learning is essential, but it can only take us so far. We study with an open mind. Through our study, the change begins. Not only do we purposefully begin to change the ways in which we live, think, and interact with others, but we also unconsciously change as our intuitive understanding grows. We begin to grasp the difference between the temporal and the permanent, between the Real and the unreal. Transformation begins to take place as we make these changes. 

What specific changes occur? They are probably different for each one of us and are likely to change through time. Some people may change the way they care for their physical bodies, making conscious decisions about eating, exercise, and so on. Others may realize that their emotions have been in charge for too long, while others may begin to recognize the conditioning that has affected their thought processes. We may realize that we have been acting, feeling, and thinking from a place of conditioning. We may begin to listen to the intuitive aspect of ourselves, relying on the inner voice from within. In other words, we are transforming all of the various aspects of ourselves. 

We are becoming aware that there is no need to seek the light, because we carry the light within us. We are becoming aware that each one of us is rooted in the All, the ground of being. From this perspective, we are never alone, never trapped, never shrouded in darkness. These are all aspects of avidya, the state of nonknowing, which is not a part of the Real.

We must travel from the state of avidya to an understanding and awareness that we are the light. This movement is a journey into ourselves. 

As Rumi said, “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear thinking. The entrance door to the sanctuary is inside you.”

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