I can't claim to know what enlightenment is but based on the consistencies in the testimonies of Sages, on my own personal experience and intuition as well as that of many others then I can draw a few conclusions.
Yes our ideas of truth are very subjective and variable. However what is the same in each one of us is that there is a quality of awareness without which we couldn't be aware of anything, including our various ideas about truth.
What is also common to everyone is the sense of 'I'. That 'I' exist as an individual being otherwise how can we say 'I like this' or 'I don't like that'. There is an inherent and tacitly assumed feeling-sense that 'I am'.
You say that "I don't doubt there is an all empowering energy field or consciousness that we are all linked to and that we are here for a purpose - to evolve."
Both of the qualities which we all share, of awareness and the feeling-sense of 'I am', are said to be reflections in the human mind from this universal consciousness, much like the moon is reflecting the light of the sun and has no inherent light of its own.
Or you could say that we, as seeming individuals, are integral aspects of that universal consciousness and so share somewhat in its essential qualities of existence and awareness of that existence.
The thing is we generally experience ourselves to be separate individuals who go through life making choices and trying to do the best we can from our own level of understanding and experience (i.e. a crooks idea of doing well may differ from most regular persons).
Our sense of who we are and our sense of security in life are generally defined by our self image, our body, our family, our relationships, our profession, our accomplishments, our material position in life etc. etc.
Nothing wrong in those things in themselves but the problem is that we are generally identified or psychologically and emotionally dependent upon them for our sense of well-being, such that if things went very badly for us in these areas then it could be very devastating and bring with it much suffering (e.g. the loss of loved ones, the loss of material security, the loss of our sense of self esteem if we are not able to function in life as we would want to, etc.).
This is the normal human condition which we can all relate to. This 'thing' called enlightenment is to do with realising experientially our true nature as embodiments of that Universal Consciousness rather than as separate, limited, skin encapsulated ego's.
This Universal Consciousness is said to be inherently whole and complete within itself such that when our sense of experiential identity expands from the limitation of a separate individual 'me' to the true case as integral apects of the whole then we are no longer dependent upon outer circumstances for our well-being.
Our very nature becomes Well-Being and we are no longer seeking to find our happiness in the circumstances of this world. We are inherently happy, peaceful, contented and whole.
In whatever way we then feel drawn to do or be in the world then we will be more effective. Our relationships will be more fulfilling because we no longer have any sort of co-dependency with others. It doesn't mean we don't care, we will be naturally more compassionate, but that we aren't in a position of any kind of neediness for psychological or emotional affirmation or security from others.
So it might sound like this enlightenment is like a good insurance policy in case things go wrong or as a way to become more successful in the world. From one perspective there could be some truth in that but the real thing is that there is a total shift in identity so that we are no longer experiencing ourselves to be separate individuals trying to have a comfortable and happy life, but that we realise ourselves to be expansive conscious beings whose seeming activities and relationships in this world are expressing fulfillment rather than seeking it.
There are said to be three qualites in nature known in Sanskrit as Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. In the human psychological sphere Sattva manifests as clarity and balance, Rajas manifests as restlessness and desire and Tamas manifests as dullness and destructiveness.
The human journey of evolution you mention could be said to comprise of becoming purified of the Tamas and Rajas qualities and thereby becoming a more naturally Sattvic person; one could consider this to be a journey of becoming a progressively more enlightened, balanced and clear individual.
However the step beyond that, beyond the usual human experience, that is referred to as Enlightenment, is where this identification of being an individual is entirely evaporated and one becomes not an individual in relation to Universal Consciousness, but an actual conscious embodiment of this Universal Consciousness itself.
What that experience may be like who can say? But it does seem that one carries on in this human body playing ones role for the duration of this human life, same as everyone else.
So as you say, that might be somewhat beyond what Western thought generally considers to be the normal range of the human experience. However in traditional Eastern thought, the possibility of such Enlightenment is an accepted part of life and beings like the Buddha, who we can only assume must have evolved to this level, are held in deep reverence.
The full depth and true meaning of what such beings represent may not be easily appreciated but we can certainly say that their lives and teachings have had a tremendous guiding impact upon countless millions of people through countless generations and continues to do so.
Cases like the Buddha are very grand and very rare and it may be that many more Enlightened beings pass by, hardly being noticed, and yet having a silent powerful uplifting influence on the collective consciousness. And yet, the history of the east and of India in particular records the lives of many many Enlightened ones, even in recent and contemporary times (such as Ramana Maharishi).
As I quoted Werner as saying in my last blog, there are no stages in (Ultimate) Reality but in the human experience there may be many variations and shades of degree. Ultimately there is a clear distinction; there is either unconscious ego identification with being a separate individual, however subtle, or there is not.
If there is not that identification then Enlightenment could be said to be there, however in what way and to what degree of fullness Universal Consciousness chooses to outwardly express itself through that (human) form is part of the Divine Mystery and we cannot say.
And as I also said in the last blog there is manifold opportunity for delusion at every stage, warned of in every spiritual tradition, where the ego gets some cosmic taste and goes on a power trip in one way or another, perhaps considering ones-self to be Enlightened and deluding others also.
Werner put all of that also in the context of this Play of Consciousness as an integral part of the play. Not to worry about it but instead to rely upon ones own sincereity and inner wisdom to guide one through the spiritual jungle and to the correct teacher (for a reason and for a season) if that is what is required.
For myself, and probably for most people, getting to the stage of having a primarily Sattvic mind (balanced, creative, peaceful and positive) and yet retaining ones sense of individuality seems attractive and the prospect of somehow being annihilated and taken over by some kind of Cosmic Consciousness can seem somewhat dubious!
However the testimony and lives of the Sages reassures us that this is nothing foreign to us but just the dawning of our own true nature. This is the fulfillment of the human journey of evolution and a mystery which will sweep us up when the time is right and not before.
This apparrent seeking of Enlightenment is not really a means to an ends (as it may appear to be at a certain stage) but really a coming back to the centre.
A final transcendance of all seeking into 'The Peace Which Passeth All Understanding' and a complete surrender to 'Thy Will Be Done'.
As to, as you say, "world events (and) the total consciousness of the human race (being) a very long way from reaching utopia" then that is also part of the play. Regardless of the collective consciousness it is always possible for individuals to realise their own true nature as no doubt they have been doing quietly for millenia.
However there does seem to be an ever accelarating upsurge of awakening around the planet running in tandem with the seeming increasing tendency towards conflict and chaos. It makes for an exciting story and lets hope that the good guys win! :)
It is repeatedly affirmed by the Sages that the silent vibrations emanating from the Enlightened Ones, even if they do not outwardly seem to be very active, are extremely powerful in effecting the whole consciousness of mankind. It seems to be a question of balance and only time will tell which way the scales will tip.
Either way, in the grand scheme of things this era in which we live is but the blink of an eye of cosmic time and no doubt the story goes on through peaks and valleys throughout the ages.
The key is to realise that timeless essence herenow.
hope this helps with your question!
P.S. For anyone who wants to see a movie clip of one who was widely considered to be a modern day Enlightened One then check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUyLIYVrd5U
Nisargadatta Maharaj was a rustic uneducated Indian man who was yet considered to be a Great Sage of the Advaita (non-dualistic) teaching. Be warned, if you expect a gentle soft sort of a man then you are in for a shock. Nisargadatta was uncompromising and fiery in the communication of his experience. He was in the body until about 1980.
N.B. 13th March. In this posting I have speculated that 'Enlightenment' may be the merging of individual consciousness with some kind of Cosmic or Universal Consciousness. There may be a stage like that but I would say that the initial thing (IMHO) is the individual Realisation of, and establishment in, Pure Transcendental Consciousness, which is simply the Pure Awareness at our core and the origin of the feeling-sense of 'I am'. Please refer to posting 'towards the end of the road' 12th March.This is usually termed Self-Realisataion, which may be the basis for some ongoing evolution towards Universality, but in itself seems straight forward enough.
In some schools of thought it is considered that both individual consciousness and Universal Consciousness (which is considered to manifest, maintain and dissolve Creation) both have their source in Pure Transcendental Consciousness and that 'Full Enlightenment' encompasses the totality of all of those aspects. Other schools of thought have more of a Personal God centered outlook and others deny that there is anything other than Self-Realisation. But all could agree that all of the rubbish we have accumulated obscures our true nature and that somehow this situation needs to be dealt to. At any rate, until we start to experience these things for ourselves then they remain as theories.