It's easy to throw around terms like enlightenment, cosmic consciousness, illumination and awakening. But what do they really mean? And when do we get there?

Throughout time, mystics, masters and saints have fascinated us with their spiritual adventures. In 1901, Richard Bucke's classic book, Cosmic Consciousness, defined higher states of awareness as a natural expansion from "percepts" (sense impressions) to "recepts" (a group of sense impressions), to concepts which build intelligence and, at some point, expand into the intellectual illumination that fires the brain into cosmic consciousness.

It is a natural expansion, he wrote, from primitive sense consciousness to verbal self-consciousness to intuitive cosmic consciousness.
An Experience of Illumination
Bucke's investigations were driven by a spontaneous awakening to cosmic consciousness. Near the beginning of this thirty-sixth year, he spent an enjoyable evening with two friends, reading the poetry of Shelley, Keats, Browning and especially Whitman, whom he especially admired. Riding home in a hansom cab in an English city, he was calmly and peacefully recalling the ideas and images in the evening's poetry when suddenly, a flame-colored cloud wrapped itself around him.

When he realized that the red cloud was within him, exultation and joyousness filled him with bliss and opened to what he called intellectual illumination. He saw that the cosmos is not made of dead matter, but is a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the benevolent universe serves all things, that the foundational principle is love, and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain.

In the few seconds during which this illumination occurred, this Canadian-born farmboy and Old West adventurer, now a respected medical doctor learned more, he later said, than in his entire previous life, and more than anyone could ever have taught him.

The good doctor spent his professional life working in psychiatric institutions, where he observed and thought about the workings and development of the human brain and mind. He was never the same after his spiritual awakening. Until his death in 1902, he experienced many other "aha" insights and revelations.

Today, we know that these "peak moments" of insight evolved his consciousness by amplifying and increasing the frequencies of his brainwaves, potentially producing the kundalini awakening that builds brain power and opens to the bliss and joy of gamma-induced enlightenment.
Words of Caution
Bucke's book and classics like The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and Play of Consciousness by Swami Muktenanda show that anyone committed to inner growth for self-transcendence can attain these higher states of awareness. That is, if they want to. Not everyone does.

And indeed, as an essay by Bonnie Greenwell points out in an excellent new book, Kundalini Rising, attempting to relive the bliss and joy of transcendence can create a sense of attachment that pulls us into the pride of ego and self-separation.

Although some yogic practices pursue kundalini awakening and cosmic consciousness, only the steady, natural expansion of the mind, supported by brain and nervous system structures, ensures the safe, lasting development of higher states. Spiritual literature is rife with stories of kundalini awakenings in people who were not ready to process these intense energies, as Martin Wuttke points out. The effects range from hallucinations and mental breakdowns to physical pain and injury, mostly due to unresolved psychospiritual issues and ego grasping in the immature individual.
What Is Enlightenment?
Still, it can't hurt to measure our progress along the path, so that we can see how far we have come and how far there is to go, not to mention how to get there and what to expect along the way.

One of the most interesting roadmaps I've seen is an essay that plots the course in detail: "Final Integration in the Adult Personality," by A. Reza Arasteh, a prolific author and formerly a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University who studied the lives of masters in the East and West. The article appears in a little book called Frontiers of Consciousness: The Startling, Mind-Expanding Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Awareness, edited by John White and published in 1974.

Arasteh defines the expanded consciousness of enlightenment as:
"a suprarational, suprasensory level of mentation whose existence, especially in the Orient, has been known since antiquity under a variety of regional and ritual terms: nirvana of Buddhism; satori of Zen; samadhi of yoga; unio mystica of Catholicism; shema of cabbalism; (Richard) Bucke's cosmic consciousness; and existentialism's kairos, to name a few."
These descriptors – not in sequential order – by Bucke and Arasteh may remind you of your own journey or the characteristics of cosmic people you know:

* The radiant joy of the enlightened one touches and uplifts others. This radiance is an electromagnetic force that effortlessly draws to the master what is needed and wanted in any given moment. People are attracted to the master's wisdom, kindness, generosity and warmth, as to the light of the sun.

* Experiencing sensations of light, the enlightened one and his/her followers are bathed in emotions of supreme joy, rapture and ecstasy that extend far beyond the ordinary. While resting in a peaceful, joyous state, an intellectual illumination comes in a lightning flash of identification and merging with creation, the infinite, the immortal: all opening to an understanding of the meaning and drift of the universe. Sensations of oneness and unity open to transcendental love and compassion. Fear of death falls away and physical and mental suffering vanish.

* The illuminist, reappraising the material things in life, considers riches and abundance unimportant now compared to the treasure of the ultraconscious, or superconscious, mind. There is something much greater: a quickening of the intellect, an uncovering of latent genius, an enhancement of mental and physical vigor and activity, and a sense of mission that is so moving, the person wants and needs to tell others about it.

* Finally, the enlightened one experiences an inner and outer radiance, as if charged up by some divine power with a magnetic force. This transfiguration of being causes the enlightened master to love each and every soul and to open for them a path of beauty and light to the Greater Love.
Milestones and Roadsigns
While reading Aresteh's milestones, consider where you are and how far you might want to go.

Stage 1. We become aware of multiple realities and the existence of something greater than anything on Earth. Either your own inner knowing or an external event occurs to awaken you to the superordinary world of the spirit. Perhaps you are physically healed or experience a peak moment while in nature. Perhaps your rational mind expands beyond material reality for no apparent reason at all. Whatever the stimulus, you become aware of multiple realities.

Stage 2. Once we become aware of something greater than the material world, we are guided into a new relationship with reality. Sensing the presence of the divine in the ordinary world, we attune to our own deep intuition, through which we cleanse, purify and reconcile the heart, mind and body. Soon our values, interests and action all submerge into one and behavior becomes spontaneous: the function of insight – sudden awareness – is rooted in the creative force that man's essence shares with the cosmic essence. In this state everything in the world comes anew and a succession of insights illuminates the mind and increases vision. These intuitive flashes cause the separation between subject and object to cease to exist, so that union and full integration take place. By this process we are lifted out of judgment and separation into oneness with all things.

Stage 3. We begin to live in an anxiety-free state of consciousness, able to enjoy positive feelings and express ourselves openly and spontaneously. Looking at life through the non-duality of transcendence, we know that everything is for the best and just as it should be. Trusting this frees us to live authentically and speak our truth.

Stage 4. Our sense of connection within ourselves and with everything else deepens now, and we expand into the infinite. In this advanced state, where all is one, we unite with cosmic consciousness to instantly access all love, joy, wisdom and knowledge. Time and space cease to limit us. As one soul living in no-time, we materialize and dematerialize at will, drawing on divine light to heal ourselves and others.

Stage 5. We become a constant creative attitude, finding joy in deeds that benefit others regardless of hoped-for rewards. We serve others as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Buddha and other enlightened masters (and mistresses) served humanity. No longer do we need to write, record or create in physical form. We live so completely in the present moment that divine energy travels into and through us to radiate outward and heal and transform those who come into our presence.

Final integration also gives the master:

* The insight to read the signs and symbols in nature and life

* The insight to write a detailed life history.

* The presence of enormous energy which enables the enlightened master to carry the burdens of others and the world without pain.

* Insight into human evolution, history and nature.

* The ability to endure solitude without boredom while living in any community.

* Recognition of the value and worth of the nonhuman environment.

* Perception of natural phenomena as symbolic of a universal communication. The master sees natural objects as units resembling life.

Arasteh points out, and you know from your own experience, that what is common to all of these stages is inner awareness, which intuitively points to the guideposts that lead us to each next step.

Wherever we are on this path, of course, is where we need to be. Progress into a new stage can be lasting, or we can slip and slide around while gaining the stability of mind and continuity of consciousness arising out of focused awareness and sustained attention.

Like a holograph, what is in the mind defines consciousness, life and world. Everything is a mirror of everything else – which makes expansion a simple path, at its essence. In the quiet mind, we look, see and correct our course by letting go of what we don't need in favor of what we do.

Each step comes easier, buoyed as it is by the joys of self-mastery and radiant connection with the divine.

Author's Bio: 

Founder Judith Pennington, an internationally published journalist, author, meditation teacher and consciousness trainer, awakens people to their inner wisdom and peace through EEG biofeedback meditation, transpersonal hypnosis, and her life-enhancing books, CDs, downloadable meditations, and free online publications.

Eagle Life Communications, dedicated to personal and planetary transformation, helps people soar into their dreams of life.