Self-Realization: How Long Does It Take?

posted Dec 16, 2012, 6:01 PM by Interfaith WS

                Twenty-three-year-old Sandy wanted enlightenment, and she wanted it fast. For the past two years while working in a printing press, she spent all of her spare time and thought on Tibetan Buddhist practices. Nothing else interested her.

                “I want to know how long enlightenment takes,” she said. “I asked several people, and I got different answers from all of them”


Darshani:  Eastern scriptures say that it takes as long to become enlightened as it does to blink an eye or to see a fruit in the palm of one’s hand. Enlightenment actually means “waking up,” which takes an instant. But you probably are asking how long the preparation takes. Three primary factors determine that. The first one is clarity of goal and method. It is like going on a journey. You have to know exactly where you are headed and how you are going to get there. A second factor is the starting point. Suppose both of us want to go to Rome. You start out from Milan; I start from Miami. Almost certainly, you will reach Rome fast.

                The third factor is intensity of yearning. Let’s say that both of us start taking piano lessons. I just want to learn to play, so I practice 20 minutes a day. But you want to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in Carnegie Hall next year. On some days, when my friends ask me to go mountain climbing or bowling, I don’t practice at all. On the other hand, you practice five hours every day. You never miss. You refuse social invitations and dates that take you away from the piano. Even on your morning walks, you memorize phrases of the concerto. The goal never leaves you. With such intensity of yearning, your period of preparation will be short.


Sandy: That is what I wanted to hear. You see, I haven’t got much time. I’m scared that my karma might start coming down on my head before I’m ready, before I get enlightenment.

                Sandy burst into tears and cried for several minutes.  She told us that when she turned eighteen she got a job tending a bar. During her three years as a bartender, she became addicted to cocaine and heroin and peddled them for awhile. One Sunday afternoon, her boyfriend brought her to a university auditorium to hear a visiting Tibetan Buddhist monk from Nepal.

                “The moment he started talking, something happened to me,” she said. “I got scared. He was talking about karma. Nobody had to tell me he was right. I knew it. He talked about how you can’t change what you’ve done. You’ve got to pay for it, every bit of it, the way you have to pay your debts. He also said that we have an obligation to free ourselves from the prison of body and mind.

                “I sat there thinking of the terrible things I did. I got scared as hell. I was still into drugs then, and some of the stuff I was doing was base. My God, I thought, what will happen to me?

                “When the talk was over, I rushed down to talk to him. Instead of asking him anything, I burst into tears. Somebody ushered me into a room behind the stage while the monk talked with people there. When he finished he came back to me. No words came out of me. In his presence, I felt like I was Home. I was still scared. But I knew that he had or that he was something I could hold onto. I told him just a little, that I did terrible things. But I gave him no details.

                “He gave me explicit instructions for spiritual practices and said I must start that very night. He also gave me a mantra to repeat. When I got home, I turned over a new leaf. Since then, I’ve been out of the drug scene. I got a job with a printing press, and I don’t hang out with the drug crowd any more. I sleep from 10:00 to 4:00 as he told me to do. I don’t eat at night, and I don’t eat flesh food. My meditation and other practices are regular. I wish I could see him or write, but I don’t know where he is. All I want to tell him is that I’m still scared, just like I was from day one.”


D.  Ordinary fears are harmful. Your fear is not ordinary. Mystical traditions call the fear of God or of God’s Law “the first great gift.” In the Philokalia, we read that those who quail with such fear are inexpressibly contrite in soul: “For the Lord has established this as the basic commandment knowing that without this even heaven is profitless,” and, “No one can love God (or the highest state of Consciousness, the goal of your practices) unless he has first feared with all his heart. Through the action of fear, the soul is purified and…awakens to the action of love.”

                Your fear functions as an extraordinary fillip to your practices. That fear motivates you. It is driving you forward to levels of spirituality you could never reach without it.

                Please read the story of Milarepa, a Tibetan Buddhist who had practiced black magic before he met his guru. Like you, he became terrified by what he had done. Overwhelming fear of the results of his actions drove him into perfect discipleship, and finally to enlightenment.

                Once you become established in your practices, the fear will leave you. In other words, your fear will remain with you only as long as you need it.

                Rome may not be far off.