The experience of enlightenment is many times compared to waking up from sleep. There are some similarities but it is not wholly so. But the metaphor is very good for understanding.
When we are sleeping, we see dreams and in the dreams what we see is experienced as quite real. Sometimes, we are running from some danger, sometimes we see snakes, sometimes we are riding a horse, sometimes we see our friends, sometimes have sex, sometimes eat food and it is experienced as real. We can wake up perspiring from a dream. We can even have conversations with people in our dreams. It all seems so real at the moment and we are immersed in it.
But the moment we wake up, the dream is gone. We cannot deny our experience. The dream was definitely real. It really happened whether it was because of the jiggling of our brain cells or some nerves doing a dance, whatever it was, it did happen. Yet, from the perspective of our waking life, it did not happen. You fell down from a cliff in your dream but you woke up in your bed. So you did not fall down and hurt yourself.
This is a similar to what happens in enlightenment but not entirely. When enlightenment strikes you, you feel like you have woken up from a dream. Whatever is your story in life – where you were born, where you studied, whom you married, and what jobs you did all seem like a dream. They did happen for sure. You can still see your wife or the window and the cars on the road. Yet there is a definite sense in which they are not wife, window, road and cars. They are definitely not that.
The whole story of your life suddenly seems like a dream. Were you really born, did you study, did you get married, did you just come back from office? You can see the evidence surely but question the story, the interpretation.
From the perspective of enlightenment, you can see colors, hear sounds, feel objects but you are not bothered whether people call it a green color or say it is the sound of a plane or say the cushion is soft. It is as it is. It could not be otherwise.
Therefore enlightenment is called waking up. To this extent it is fine. But the difference is in the fact that you are still talking to people, walking around your home, driving your car, drinking coffee and watching TV. People speak to you and you speak to them. So the dream is still on, you are in it yet you realize it is as it is. You don’t get caught in the dream and take it seriously. You see other people sleep walking, sleep talking, living in their dreams and therefore a natural compassion develops towards them.
How to wake up? Watch yourself and see how you are going about in your life – the way you talk, the way you do things, the way your work, your habits, your internal justifications, your thoughts, your reactions to people and things, your likes and dislikes. These are all in your dream. If you are able to see yourself dream-living like this, you will surely wake up.