How to Reach Enlightenment Just Like the Buddha Did

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mind Illuminated" by Culadasa, Matthew Immergut, and Jeremy Graves. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What happens when you gain spiritual wisdom? How do you reach enlightenment?

According to The Mind Illuminated, the foundation for achieving enlightenment is strong mindfulness. Once you’ve mastered mindfulness, it prompts five realizations that trigger an enlightened state of mind.

Find out how to reach enlightenment and become your superior self.

Achieve Enlightenment

The authors say that you’ll eventually learn how to reach enlightenment as you continue practicing mindfulness. Recall that realizations reveal the truth of reality—since mindfulness is about observing what’s really happening in the present, it primes the mind to experience these realizations:

1) Interconnection (paticcasamuppāda): Everything is interconnected. All of the world’s matter and energy, such as the matter in our bodies, came from something else. The saying “We’re all made from stardust” gets at this idea. 

2) Impermanence (anicca): Nothing lasts. This means that there are no things, only events—much like in the saying “You never step in the same river twice.” A river is the event of water flowing, not a collection of unchanging things such as water droplets. 

3) Suffering (dukkhā, also known as the First Noble Truth): We suffer because everything is impermanent. For instance, you might suffer when your experience of temporary fame ends or when you notice your body aging. 

4) Emptiness (suññatā): Your mind creates your reality, and you therefore can’t know what the world is actually like. In other words, the world is empty (lacking inherent meaning), and we fill it with meaning. For instance, having children isn’t inherently meaningful—but some people choose to fill their life with meaning by becoming parents

5) Selflessness (anattā): The ideas of interconnection, impermanence, and emptiness apply to you, too. You’re an impermanent event dependent on other events and you therefore have no persistent, inherent self. 

The authors elaborate that you can’t consciously bring about these realizations, but strong mindfulness makes them more likely to occur. For instance, closely following your breath or watching your mind may lead you to realize that every sensation and emotion is constantly changing. This may prompt the realization of impermanence.

(Shortform note: The idea that you can’t consciously bring about realizations may make meditation feel challenging: Perhaps you’ll feel impatient to experience these realizations. It may help to recall the authors’ earlier assertion that strong concentration and mindfulness are themselves beneficial. Therefore, you can enjoy the journey to enlightenment—even if it’s long. Remember that strong concentration strengthens your ability to be in the present, and strong mindfulness allows you to behave intentionally. One meditator who documented their journey implementing the advice in TMI corroborates some of these benefits: They say that practicing strong concentration made their daily life beyond meditation feel noticeably more peaceful.)

The Realization That Prompts Enlightenment

While all five realizations are necessary for enlightenment, the fifth realization, selflessness, prompts it. You realize there’s no “you” to suffer, so you experience freedom from suffering
Because you can’t control exactly when any realizations (including the fifth realization) occur, you can’t control exactly when enlightenment happens. However, the authors insist that you can make enlightenment likely to happen. Do this by persevering in your practice, learning new strategies, and making meditation as enjoyable as possible.

Enlightenment and the Ego Illusion

The authors of TMI aren’t the only people to discuss the benefits of accepting selflessness. In The Book, philosopher Alan Watts similarly explores the upsides of abandoning the idea of a separate “I,” which he calls the ego illusion. Watts notes that this illusion is a pervasive idea in Western society, specifically.

Watts suggests that Western society will improve if more people overcome the ego illusion (through achieving enlightenment, for instance). He argues that the illusion has disastrous consequences for Westerners, Western society, and beyond. It makes Westerners feel lonely and separate from nature, makes them perpetually unsatisfied, and leads to conflict with others. Applying Watt’s ideas to those found in TMI, a Westerner who experiences the fifth realization and reaches enlightenment will arguably feel more connected and satisfied, and they’ll be less likely to perpetuate harm.

Furthermore, Watt’s suggestions for overcoming the ego illusion could make enlightenment more likely, since enlightenment requires the dissolution of the ego. For instance, Watts says that prioritizing enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment helps dissolve the ego. When you do things to experience happiness, rather than to advance selfish goals (such as being “the best”), your ego begins fading. This could make experiencing the fifth realization more likely, in turn making enlightenment more likely.

How to Reach Enlightenment Just Like the Buddha Did

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  • That the true goal of meditation is to reach enlightenment
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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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