Research Paper: A Journey to Enlightenment

Research Paper By Holly Deanna Thede
(Leadership and Life Coach, CANADA)

Similar to the term “coaching”, the word enlightenment holds many misconceptions and has endless amounts of interpretations spreading throughout our globe. These misconceptions can become limiting beliefs that place an enormous obstacle for people in our society to engage in enlightenment.The most common limiting belief is that we think enlightenment can only be experienced bya select few; yogis, Buddhist monks, and others who dedicate their lives to spiritual and religious practice. Another limiting belief of enlightenment is that it is something most people cannot attain; it is superficial, unreachable and maybe even unconventional. When in reality, anyone can experience enlightenment, and it doesn’t have to be spiritual or religious.

The philosophy of coaching, the practice of self-discovery generates self-awareness, and self-awareness triggers enlightenment. By surrendering to our truths in the practice of self-awareness, we are opening ourselves up to the experience of enlightenment. Those who remain unaware or fearful and reject the idea of enlightenment are those who have a much less chance of ever experiencing it. People who hold these limiting beliefs usually tend to be much more difficult to coach, maybe even “un coachable”.As believers of enlightenment, we can create opportunities and offer both believers and non-believers the experience. We can engage in practices that will not only improve ourselves, but also better those around us, particularly those we coach.

What exactly is enlightenment?

The word enlightenment generates ambiguity, and this creates yet another barrier. You can find over 20,000 results on Amazon if you search for books about enlightenment. There is a wealth of information on the internet, all containing in depth explanations on the history, and often conflicting points of view on the meaning and process of enlightenment. The definitions are endless. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus more on the interpretation of the Western culture, as we are most familiar with the history, language, culture and ideas.

Even though the meaning of enlightenment is defined differently across the globe, the idea of enlightenment holds many similarities. In Western culture, enlightenment was influenced by a movement in the 18th century, and was defined as a movement of new beliefs and ideas. In Buddhism, enlightenment is finding the truth of life. Now in the present, the meaning has evolved and has been opened up to interpretation. Through my own studies of enlightenment, I have come up with a definition that I find simple,encompassing and powerful;

To better understand the process of enlightenment, research was conducted by interviewing many different people from many different backgrounds, and it was clear that everyone had a unique story. The more interesting finding was that in these stories, there was a major discovery-there were four common events that happened during every person’s experience:[1]

  1. Intensity-people experienced something that could not be ignored
  2. Clarity-people had a new understanding of life and one’s purpose
  3. Unity-people had an increased feeling of connection to the universe
  4. Surrender-people felt the freedom of letting go of self

These four common elements are evident in the process of coaching. When asking powerful questions that reveal new thoughts or ideas, all four elements are involved.We may even label these moments of intensity, clarity, unity and surrender as “aha moments”. These powerful moments of enlightenment can produce different outcomes, and we distinguish these experiences by calling them “Big e’s” or “Little e’s”.2

What is a Big e?

A Big e experience will have a permanent effect on someone’s life. A person will be challenged to change their sense of self, their entire belief system. As a result, this experience changes the perceptions that a person holds about himself or herself, affecting their relationships and many other areas of their life (in a positive way.)This experience of enlightenment happens when people become invested in a deep practice, such as meditation, chanting or prayer. It has also been known to occur when a person self-administers certain mind-altering drugs, which also have the ability to set the stage for enlightenment.

What is a Little e?

In most cases, Little e experiences do not have a permanent effect of people’s lives. The effects are usually immediate and prolonged and will still challenge the person, but not necessarily have permanent effects that change their sense of self longer than a few moments or days.Although this is most often triggered by events in ones’ life, it can also happen in spiritual practice The experience of enlightenment can occur in moments of heightened awareness, when people are simply just thinking deeply on their own or speaking to a trusted friend or coach.

Coaching is a practice in enlightenment

In Newberg’s book, it has been confirmed that we can increase the amount of little e’s through deep reflection. This is great news, as the process of coaching provides this space and is designed to bring about truth, clarity and change. The more people experience little e’s, the more likely people are to experience the big ones. However, even if we don’t reach a “Big one”, it is still a rewarding experience that provides us with ongoing learning and personal growth.

It is evident that this is a large reason why people become coaches. Coaches are change makers, awareness seekers, perspective shifters, and use the coaching process to provide this space for those who are willing to open up to change. Coaches have the opportunity to introduce their clients to little e’s, moments that will heighten awareness and create change on how the client is viewing the situation.In little e’s, brain scans show that there is rapid movement in neural activity during enlightenment. This is where we make a shift-we see things differently, we get curious and what we knew before about ourselves has now changed.

Understanding the six levels of awareness

To further investigate where enlightenment happens in our minds and how we may know when it is the prime time to experience it, the following six levels of awareness provide us with some insight.3

  1. Instinctual awareness

Survival awareness, voluntarily responding to our needs (unconscious)

  1. Habitual responsiveness

Behaviors to achieve most of our goals formed from habit (unconscious)

  1. Intentional decision

Using logic and reason to problem solve (everyday consciousness)

  1. Creative imagination

Resting state, free thinking

  1. Self-reflective awareness

Mindfulness, intuitive, observing your own consciousness

  1. Transformational awareness

Life changing insights

By examining these stages, we can conclude that we spend most of our life in the first three levels; we act on instinct, we are creatures of habit and we do most things without ever really thinking about it. Real transformation occurs in the last three stages.A process such as coaching is a great example of how we can provide opportunities to achieve transformation (the last three levels). Coaches provide a silent space embroidered by trust, and in this offers a client psychological air. This is important for two reasons; it slows down the thought process so that a person can decipher and analyze the story in their head, and it holds that person accountable to the words they speak. This may sometimes be all that they need to experience enlightenment. Other times, a series of powerful questions are necessary to move a client into a different perspective. No matter what state of enlightenment you are in, you are shifting perspective to provide deeper meaning and purpose for your client. There is no doubt that when this shift takes place,there is a feeling of liberation and peace.

3“How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman” 2016, P.97

How can we get to enlightenment?

As you will discover, getting to enlightenment is not “rocket science”. What is most challenging about getting to enlightenment is simply taking the take the time out of your day to sit down and be with yourself.


Are you willing to challenge or suspend your own beliefs?

By creating a visualization in coaching, we can believe in the power of our decisions to produce our best future, and the power of belief is beyond measure. To have the desire for insight and change, we must first believe. When we open up to the concept of change, we can enter it much more often.It is also necessary to discover your desire to change, and a great way to ask yourself is to write down why you would like to have enlightenment and what it means to you.You can also practice a more in depth exercise and journal all of the life changing moments you have had. This will elicit insight on why it is important for you to experience enlightenment.

The simple practice of self-awareness creates opportunity for external awareness, such as viewing events in your life with meaning and opportunity. As someone who has a desire and is open to enlightenment, I can share a great example of how I can attach meaning to everyday events: Upon my decision to join ICA to become a PCC, my family decided to order out Chinese food for dinner. Later that night as I was contemplating the decision I just made, and I opened this fortune cookie:

The meaning behind this? Not only was I engaging in my curious nature to learn more about coaching, but I also knew that one of the most important attributes of a coach was to be curious. A coincidence? I don’t’ believe so. Being open and having the desire to experience meaning, has left me vulnerable to find it in the simplest things.

You are provided with exercises to provoke enlightenment, but you need not do anything else to seek it, when you naturally believe in its power, and knowing that it exists-you won’t find it, it will find you. These small yet significant experiences offer us a new sense of meaning, helping us to identify with our purpose, and connect us with this inner knowing that we are part of something much bigger.


Are you ready to take this seriously?

It is encouraged that prior to relaxation, engaging in a creative activity such as art, dance, music is beneficial, as it increases the activity in the brain, so that when you get to surrender, there is a sudden drop in activity.

4“How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman” 2016, P.194

Historically, people have engaged in many interesting exercises to induce enlightenment; enhancing drugs, magnetic stimulation, deep prayer, famines and sleep apnea. As you can expect, many of these exercises have been subject to criticism, as they can be labeled as “artificial experiences”. However, in reality, whether you are drug induced or in a meditative state, it has been proven that your brain is triggered to change perception in the same way.

Some alternative self-awareness exercises to promote enlightened thinking can be; meditation, mindfulness practice (breathing or yawning), yoga, journaling. An exercise that can be practiced prior to engaging in enlightenment can be easily executed in a coaching relationship. This exercise, or any other should always be a mindful practice; whatever exercise you choose it should be in a rested state. Below is an effective self-reflective exercise that was shared by author Andrew Newberg.5

  1. Identify your own beliefs and recognize they are biased
  2. Become proficient in developing alternative points of view
  3. Do not assume that the other person will think or act like you
  4. Imagine that the belief you are currently holding is wrong, and then develop a scenario to explain how that could be true. This helps you to see the limitations of your own beliefs.
  5. Try out the other person’s beliefs by actually acting out the role
  6. Play devil’s advocate by taking the minority point of view. This helps you see how alternative assumptions make the world look different.
  7. Interact with people of different backgrounds and beliefs.

Upon completion of this exercise, you may observe that our brains are not wired to accept or even welcome opposing views. The reason for this? We are holding our values and beliefs so tightly that we become rigid.


Are you ready to be vulnerable?

Participate in a ritual that best serves you, whether this is chanting, breathing, guided or un-guided meditation or prayer. As soon as you surf the internet, you will find a long list of rituals to choose from. Choose one that you will like so that you will not only enjoy it, but it will leave you vulnerable to surrender.


Are you ready to release judgement and expectations?

In order to achieve surrender, you must fully immerse yourself in the practice and let go of any control over the experience-just let it happen. The more you relax, the more you give up control, the more you detach from your thoughts and the external world. You must not think about what you look like, sound like, what you will achieve, and what this all means. Separate from the external distractions and thoughts and just be with YOU in the present moment.


Are you ready to place meaning?

Just like a coaching session, it is beneficial to spend some time after the exercise to deeply reflect on the experience that just occurred in the altered state. This step is just as important, if not more, than any of the others. By giving yourself time to reflect, you can focus on what you just learned, how this new information will affect your life, and what the next step is in creating this change.

5“How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman” 2016, P.181

What happens to our brain during enlightenment?

During the active stages of enlightenment, scans detect that there are rapid shifts of neural activity in the key areas of our brain, mainly the limbic system. This is what we would refer to as the emotional area of our brain. When in enlightenment, these areas light up and become more active. We also write our memories in this area of the brain, hence this is why we remember intense moments of enlightenment. Another area of our brain, the parietal lobe, is less active in enlightenment. This is the sensory area of our brain-where we create our sense of self and our sense of how we relate to everything outside of us. Here, we lose the sense of self, and as a result, there are permanent changes to our brain. Our thalamus (what we refer to as our seed of consciousness),helps different areas of the brain communicate with each other. The activity in the thalamus during enlightenment dramatically changes, which changes our perception of reality; the way we think about reality, sense reality and the way the brain interacts with that reality.


The results of an enlightenment experience can affect us in the very moment, the moments after, or even years after, depending on the deepness of the experience. It has been confirmed by science that whether these moments are short or long, the brain returns to its habitual thinking, but it’s not the same brain. Small and permanent changes indeed do take place;this means that we all have the capacity to change how we see ourselves and how we see the world around us.

We have learned that from the moment we form a belief, we become biased against any belief that contradicts ours. Therefore, for every belief we have, there is a negative belief. This places so much importance on why we should be continuously challenging our beliefs! By challenging our beliefs, we learn that there are always options to change our lenses and to experience life from a different perspective. We also know that limiting beliefs are the cause of our fears; fears to be vulnerable, fear of change, fear of knowing oneself, fear of losing oneself, fear of the unknown, fear of not being ready.It is difficult to see how damaging our limiting beliefs can be until we are challenged to step back. And who will challenge our beliefs?

Stephen Covey put it beautifully in his book of the 7 Habits:

[1] “How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman” 2016, P.51

2“How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman” 2016, P.3

The post Research Paper: A Journey to Enlightenment appeared first on International Coach Academy.