Enlightenment Intensives 1;

"The Connections", Issue 49: Dec 2007

There is really no telling how a person will react to union with Absolute Truth. Sometimes people laugh hysterically, falling about spluttering in their chair with an amusement that is so profound, so genuine and so utterly infectious that it is practically impossible not to be affected by it. Other people become very still, silenced by what has just occurred, and beyond the tears that fall quietly down, communicate very little in the way of words about what has happened. Other people emanate deep calmness and acceptance. But what is common to everyone who has had contact with Absolute Truth is that they have been deeply and fundamentally affected in a way that cannot be replicated by any other experience. These moments of union with the Absolute, when the usual filter of thoughts, feelings and beliefs briefly cracks and one momentarily becomes conscious of reality in an entirely different way, are commonly known in spiritual literature as enlightenment experiences and referred to on Enlightenment Intensives as 'direct experience of Truth'. Their value cannot be underestimated. They give rise to gifts such as that rare human quality we recognise as 'being true to oneself', to a deep sense of meaning that informs how one understands one's place in the world, and to a sense of inner peace that comes from being profoundly reconciled to the way things are. Blessings like these fade away over time if left unattended, but if a person chooses instead to work at allowing them to unfold fully, the effects on one's life can be nothing short of transformational, compared to how things were before. It is this degree of choice offered by enlightenment experiences which makes them so valuable.

On an Enlightenment Intensive, which is a three day residential group retreat, each participant is there with the sole aim of going for an experience of Absolute Truth. The emphasis is always on finding out the Truth for oneself. No belief system is offered to say what Truth is, or what it is that a person will experience as being True. Instead a simple contemplation technique is taught requiring deep personal enquiry into one of four fundamental questions, 'Who am I?' 'What am I?' 'What is Life?' or 'What is another?' with the intention of discovering the Absolute Truth of the question one is working on - regardless of what one thinks it is or would like it to be. Participants can choose which of the four questions they want to work on, unless they are taking their first Enlightenment Intensive, in which case they must work on 'Who am I?'

It takes courage to go ahead with an Enlightenment Intensive, in any number of ways. It can be a big step to acknowledge that Absolute Truth is what one really wants, first of all. After that, consideration must be given to the fact that the three days of an Enlightenment Intensive can be quite arduous. Participants contemplate as steadily as they can, using the technique taught, for around 16 hours a day. Whilst much of this is silent contemplation, a large part of each day also involves participating in 40 minute paired communication exercises known as 'dyads'. During these exercises, participants alternate being in the role of silent listening partner with that of contemplating their question and communicating to their partner what is arising in their contemplation - almost like meditating out loud. The communication aspect of an Enlightenment Intensive is very rewarding in one sense, since it has the effect of taking people quite quickly into a deeper contemplative state, but it is also challenging because of the honesty that is required. Finally, one must accept that there is no guarantee of success. Not everyone who participates on an Enlightenment Intensive will have a direct experience of Truth. It is only within a person's power to be open to Truth; direct experience of it cannot be acquired by will. In fact the average proportion of participants who do experience the Truth within the three days of an Enlightenment Intensive is about one third. On one level this statistic does not appear particularly encouraging, since it effectively suggests that the majority of participants risk paying their money and leaving empty handed. Yet the fact is that many people willingly return again and again to take another Enlightenment Intensive, whether they succeed in contacting Truth each time or not.

The key to understanding why people put themselves through the challenging process of an Enlightenment Intensive or similar spiritual group lies in the power of the possibility that there might actually be an Absolute Truth to discover. The draw towards wanting to know and experience for oneself whether there is anything at all that is absolutely, fundamentally, unalterably true has been a profound motivating force for countless people throughout human history. The drive to find out for sure can be so strong that it may remain no matter how many attempts to find out end in failure, a fact of spiritual life documented vividly in any number of spiritual traditions. One woman I know participated in numerous three day Enlightenment Intensives over a ten year period without ever having a direct experience. Something kept drawing her back and then finally she did experience union with the Absolute - which caused the three of us running that Enlightenment Intensive to cry our eyes out. Partly what was so beautiful was getting her knowledge that it had been worth it, that it had been worth persisting in going for contact with Absolute Truth even though in her case this had meant ten years of always belonging to that percentage of participants who leave the Intensive empty handed.

The irony of this story is that to have contact with Absolute Truth within three days is unusually quick compared to conventional meditative or contemplative practices aimed at achieving enlightenment. What is so surprising about the Enlightenment Intensive format in this sense is not that two thirds of participants fail to have an enlightenment experience, or that the odd person persists for ten years before their first experience of Truth, but that around a third of participants do in fact succeed in having enlightenment experiences within the three day time frame. Nor is it necessary for any of them to have had any previous familiarity with spiritual practice, nor even hold any particular religious beliefs at all in order for this to happen. Tens of thousands of people, including those with little prior religious or spiritual orientation, have had experiences of Absolute Truth on Enlightenment Intensives since their inception in the late 1960s. The essential factors giving one the best possible chance of success are really very simple. What matters most are a genuine desire to experience the Truth, regardless of how it turns out to be and to a willingness to persist in doing the very simple contemplation technique that is taught on the Intensive itself, for the entire duration of the three day retreat.

In my own case, I was driven to take my first Enlightenment Intensive after falling in love with a very beautiful man whom I would sit in intense conversation with for hours about what love was and what it meant to be genuine (and whom I later had the good sense to marry). I had never met anyone who talked about that sort of thing before and when I enquired as to why he was so passionately concerned with these issues, I discovered that he had experienced the Truth of himself while working on the question 'What am I?' on an Enlightenment Intensive several months earlier, and that he was still processing what this experience meant to him. Seeing how deeply he had been touched by what had happened, I resolved to find out for myself what one of these Enlightenment Intensives was like and, naturally, have an enlightenment experience for myself. This didn't happen. I found the Intensive alternately fantastic and gruelling and had to face all sorts of barriers and blocks to being open to Truth within myself. Ultimately, in spite of my best efforts, I finished the Intensive without experiencing Truth directly. Yet I also left the Intensive more inspired and committed to the quest for Truth than I had been before. It had opened my eyes in a way no amount of talking or thinking about enlightenment ever had done.

Half way through the last day of the Enlightenment Intensive a woman sat down opposite to start a dyad exercise with me. Having partnered her several times before on the Intensive I quickly noticed that something about her was different this time. I have never forgotten what I saw in her eyes as the dyad exercise progressed. I have seen it many times since and it is always the same - the look of someone who has just become conscious of the Truth. I will never forget her words either. "It is so simple" she said, after she had got across to me who she had directly experienced herself to be, "Anyone can have it".

During the walking meditation period which followed the dyad exercises I just sat on a rock and cried endlessly. Without anyone telling me what had just happened, I knew in my heart of hearts I had just had confirmation that Absolute Truth was real. I had looked into the eyes of this otherwise quiet, ordinary person and recognised that whatever it was I saw there was what I most dearly wanted in the whole of the world and always had done, only I had not known that until I saw it.

I did not know at this point that the communication aspect of the dyad exercises on an Enlightenment Intensive becomes extremely powerful when one of the participants has had an enlightenment experience. Any other participants who partner them in the dyad exercises are likely to be very affected by the person's recent contact with Absolute Truth. This can even provide the catalyst, when combined with the profound openness established through steady contemplation, for enlightenment experiences to occur in other participants.

Although I did not have an enlightenment experience as a result of my contact with this participant, that initial recognition of Truth in her marked the start of my own conscious lifelong commitment to Truth - which was no small step on my spiritual path. It took several more Intensives and facing down more of my barriers and resistances before I did finally have my first direct experience of Truth. But I, too, considered it worth everything I had gone through and still do, and I am eternally thankful that I persisted.

Of course, as I was soon to discover, what comes after contact with Truth may be just as hard as getting there in the first place. Those who participate on Enlightenment Intensives need in some sense to be able to take on a high degree of personal responsibility for their own spiritual path. Since Enlightenment Intensives are not part of any religious or spiritual institution, and since they do not offer any construct through which spiritual experience can be translated, this means there is no obvious step for a person to take once they have completed an Enlightenment Intensive. Each participant must pay close attention to their own experience of Truth and their own process in order to decide how to proceed afterwards in their spiritual journey. Whilst the lack of support of a ready made path can be frustrating, the advantage this offers is the total freedom each participant has to decide for themselves what is right for them. Whether they choose to subscribe to any particular belief system or existing spiritual tradition after the Intensive or not is entirely their own choice. My own experience is that a spiritual path can and does emerge - from personal reflection upon the deep self-enquiry one has been immersed in for three days and, if one has had contact with the Absolute, from trusting whatever direction comes from that source.

Having progressed over the years from participating on Enlightenment Intensives to running them so that others can benefit from the opportunity to go for Truth in the way that I did, I find myself still valuing now the same key factors about Enlightenment Intensives that I cherished at the beginning. I value a format and a technique that encourages us all to find out for ourselves what is True and not take anyone else's word for it. I love the accessibility and egalitarian ethos of a spiritual retreat which has as its premise that it is possible for ordinary individuals to have enlightenment experiences in a matter of days. And I continue to be moved by the evidence of my own eyes as well as my personal experience, which have both constantly and powerfully reminded me over the years that enlightenment is not the province of the special, the advanced, or the spiritual beings among us, but is genuinely within reach of us all.

(2007) Ellen Dacre