The word “enlightenment” has become a part of our everyday language, yet its meaning seems to be obscured by the everydayness.
What exactly does this word “enlightenment” mean? Etymologically speaking, this word “enlightenment” has been used in the English language since at least as far back as the 14th century when it began to be used to refer to the figurative removal of dimness or blindness from one’s eyes or heart. As the word became more common, it also began to carry with it the connotations of “intellectual light.” However, when we speak of enlightenment today, we tend to think not just of a mental clarity but also one of our spirit, and this manner of enlightenment has its origins well before the 14th century.
What is perhaps the most well-known account of enlightenment is that of Siddhārtha Gautama, the man whom the world would come to know as the Buddha. Siddhārtha is said to have achieved enlightenment on the day that he “woke up.” Literally, this is all that the word “Buddha” means, “to be awakened,” and Siddhārtha certainly did not refer to himself as the Buddha in order to distinguish himself from others. Rather, he taught that he had awakened through discovery of his innate Buddha-nature, something which each and every one of us possesses naturally.
This potential is one that is waiting to be discovered through spiritual practice, one that has been forgotten or obscured by turning away from ourselves and towards the busyness of life. Our awakening then is one of uncovering what has been lying dormant in the shadows of our hearts, minds and souls.
This is why the Buddha famously encouraged his disciples to become “lamps unto themselves,” cautioning them that true awakening or illumination cannot be found by searching outside of one’s self.
This idea is certainly not exclusive to Buddhism. Christianity, of course, looks to Jesus Christ as an exemplar of spiritual awakening. He is referred to in the Gospel of John “as the light of the world.” Nevertheless, Jesus teaches his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew they too are this “light of world” and in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches that salvation is not something to be discovered externally. Instead, Jesus teaches us that the “kingdom of God is within.”
Looking across the world’s great Wisdom traditions, we find similar presentations of enlightenment. Judaism speaks of uncovering the Divine Spark within us, Quaker practice encourages one to discern their Inner Light, and Hinduism encourages one to uncover their innate Krishna-Consciousness through yoga and other acts of spiritual devotion.
Perhaps, then, it is not by coincidence that we celebrate so many holidays at this time of the year when the days are short and the nights are long. Soon, Christians will celebrate the birth of the “light of the world,” Jews will celebrate the Festival of Lights and Buddhists will recognize the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment all at a time when we are most surrounded by darkness.
So in the midst of the inherent busyness of the holiday season, let us make use of these reminders to turn inwards and rediscover that an illumination is with us at all times, one that might just shine brightest in these darkest of days.