This is a very important question! Because, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding spiritual enlightenment, and an answer to this question will clarify this…
Disclaimer: Everything written here is based on my own experience…
Is spiritual enlightenment known or experienced?
First, let me give you a short answer: It is both!
But I have to clarify what I mean by ‘knowledge’ and what I mean by ‘experience’ in this context…
Knowledge in general sense means anything that you know using your five senses. You know there is a tree by seeing it; you know there is a dog near you by hearing its barking and so on…
Knowledge also means conceptual and factual knowledge. You may know the capital of Japan, you may know what photosynthesis is; you may know the descriptions of 7 chakras; you may know the life history of Buddha and ideology of Buddhism.
But what you know after enlightenment cannot be really classified under the above categories. Spiritual enlightenment is a realization of something very significant.
Once you wake up from a nightmare, you know that it was just a dream… Can this knowledge really be called as a factual knowledge or some knowledge gathered through five senses? There is actually a profound realization that happens when you wake up from the dream. Now you know that after all, it is just a dream.
A typical human being is identified with his body and his mind… He is deeply identified with his thoughts, emotions, concepts, ideas, beliefs etc. He is also identified with everything that he calls as ‘his’: His family, his clothes, his house, his nation, his community, his values etc…All this is centered around the idea or notion of a ‘personal self’… When someone asks you who you are, whatever your answer may be, your typical reply usually describes everything you are identified with.
After enlightenment, a person realizes once and for all, that none of this is ‘me’ or ‘mine’.. He realizes that the whole idea of a separate personal self is an illusion. He realizes that he is never ever separate from the existence…He realizes that there is no ‘me’ and there is no ‘other’… He realizes that the whole idea of ‘me’ is a dream! This realization also removes the idea that he is the doer of the actions.. If there is no personal self, who is there to do anything? Actions happen, and they still happen out of conscious choice, but not with a sense of doer-ship…
But this is not an intellectual understanding; this is not a verbal assertion; this is not a temporary glimpse; this is a permanent and irreversible knowledge.
There is a word called ‘self-knowledge’ or ‘atma-jnana’.. But this word can be easily misunderstood.. For knowing anything, there has to be a knower, knowing and the object of knowledge.. But this self-knowledge is not an object of knowledge; it is not something that you gain. It is actually a merger of the knower, known and knowledge…It is the dissolution of all the psychological distinctions including the idea that ‘I am the knower and I am separate from this object of knowledge’’…
In other words, you don’t know the real Self, You are that! You just realize this without a doubt.. This ‘real self’ is not something to be pointed out as this or that… It in itself doesn’t have such attributes..
An excerpt from” I am That” by Nisargadatta Maharaj:
“Q: What am I?
M: It is enough to know what you are not. You need not know what you are. For as long as knowledge means description in terms of what is already known, perceptual, or conceptual, there can be no such thing as self-knowledge, for what you are cannot be described, except as except as total negation. All you can say is: ‘I am not this, I am not that’. You cannot meaningfully say ‘this is what I am’. It just makes no sense. What you can point out as ‘this’ or ‘that’ cannot be yourself. Surely, you cannot be ‘something’ else.
You are nothing perceivable, or imaginable. Yet, without you, there can be neither perception nor imagination. You observe the heart feeling, the mind thinking, the body acting; the very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive. Can there be perception, experience without you? An experience must ‘belong’. Somebody must come and declare it as his own. Without an experiencer, the experience is not real. It is the experiencer that imparts reality to experience. An experience which you cannot have, of what value is it to you?”
But don’t over-complicate it, don’t over-intellectualize it.. That is the main pitfall.. You can’t really think about it or imagine how it feels like to not have a sense of a ‘separate personal self’… When people speculate about it, they start to speak or write about it without knowing what they are talking about and cause misunderstanding to themselves and others…
All you can do is to inquire your every thought, every emotion and every sensation and see if there is really a ‘me’ in it. This inquiry is done only by witnessing your moment to moment experience including thoughts, emotions, and sensations as a passive non-judgmental observer… As you step back from your mental process and witness it, there is a recognition that you are not what you witness or observe as every thought passes by..
What is the Relationship between Experience and Spiritual Enlightenment?
Now I am going to address the other aspect, which has also caused a lot of misconceptions…
When I talk about the experiential aspect of enlightenment, I am not talking about distinct experiences that come and go… I am not talking about a special experience or an altered state of consciousness..
Most importantly, spiritual enlightenment is not spiritual experience..Both are different.. You may go through tons of spiritual experiences and just return to the duality..
I am talking about experiencing the reality without the distinctions of a ‘me’ and the ‘other’…
Every person experiences life or ‘the feeling of being alive’ each and every moment. But this experience is not pure. It is clouded by duality. You see and experience everything through a filter called a ‘separate personal self’.. This is the reason why you feel a difference between being alone and being with a person.
Just imagine how it feels like to be in a room alone and how it feels like to be in a room where there is already another person. It may be someone you know or a stranger. That doesn’t matter. There is a difference. Apart from the fact that you are mentally aware that there is another person there, you also have a distinct feeling that someone is there with you… But you absolutely won’t have such a feeling when the experience of reality is pure and devoid of any duality.
Also, the absence of duality removes all the conflicts, suffering and craving associated with a limited personal self. The reality is felt in its purity without any distortions. Your life then becomes free-flowing, conflict-less, guilt-free, fearless, peaceful and fulfilled.
Enlightenment also changes the way you sense the psychological time. Your existence doesn’t feel like it is time-bound. It almost feels like there is no dimension called ‘time’..
For more, about Spiritual enlightenment, read: What is Spiritual Enlightenment?
You can also get this book for more clarity: The Truth About Spiritual Enlightenment: Bridging Science, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Shanmugam P: 9781973364542: Amazon.com: Books
(originally posted as an answer to a question in Quora)