A definition of spiritual enlightenment or spiritual awakening is hard to pin down.
This is, in part, because “spiritual enlightenment” and “spiritual awakening” have been used in so many ways to describe so many things, similar to the way in which “love” is used to describe everything from a preference for ice cream to a merging with everything.
And it is also because spiritual enlightenment and spiritual awakening are such rich and complex experiences that they are innately hard to define.
Some definitions are very specific and narrow. One such definition for spiritual enlightenment is the complete dissolution of one’s identity as a separate self with no trace of the egoic mind remaining.
This sets the bar very high and means that very few people qualify as enlightened.
The opposite approach is to say that everyone is enlightened, that there is only awake consciousness. In this view, it’s only a question of whether this natural awakeness has been recognized or not.
Of course, when a word describes everything or everyone, it loses some of its usefulness. If everyone is enlightened, then why even talk about it?
Combining perspectives on spiritual enlightenment
Perhaps there’s a definition that includes both of these perspectives, which recognizes that consciousness is always awake and enlightened, but the amount of awakeness, or aware consciousness, that is present in any moment can vary.
This definition acknowledges that there’s a difference in the amount of awakeness, or enlightened consciousness, that different people experience or that one person experiences at different times but still suggests that the potential for full awareness or becoming enlightened is the same for everybody.
If every apparent individual consciousness is infinite in its potential, then each can also be infinite both in its capacity to expand or awaken and in its capacity to contract or identify with a narrow or limited experience.
If all consciousness is made of the same essential awareness and light, and if everyone has an equal potential for enlightenment, then all expressions of consciousness are equally valid and valuable.
Everyone truly is a Buddha or enlightened being, at least in potential. So defining enlightenment in many ways now makes sense, depending on what is being pointed to. One may use the word enlightenment to point to the state of self-realization beyond the ego or to point to the innate potential for this realization in all of us.
As for differentiating between the words enlightenment and awakening, “enlightenment” implies a more finished and constant state of realization, while “awakening” has more of the active quality of a verb and therefore suggests a movement or shift in consciousness.