I recently finished reading a little book called, Special Karma, by Merry White Benezra. I have no acquaintance with this author, but both she and I did Rinzai Zen in our twenties. Rinzai is the kind of Zen in which students are given progressively more difficult koans---word puzzles for which there is no logical answer---and have to discover a response that comes from their whole being, not just their mind. I never passed a koan myself, but I well remember the naïve belief that if I worked very hard, I would pass all the koans and attain enlightenment in no time!
Of course, more sophisticated meditators will be quick to point out that enlightenment is not in the future and that such thinking is therefore erroneous. In Soto, the other main branch of Zen, one just sits with, as Suzuki Roshi put it, “beginner's mind.” Becoming one with sitting itself, in the present, one feels no need to attain something called “enlightenment” in the imaginary future.
Yet sometimes this way of approaching meditation can also result in missing the most essential thing. Most people think of the “present” as an instant sandwiched between past and future. But the “eternal present” is something quite different: not a moment in time but beyond time (and yet encompassing all time). And so, although we may sit on a cushion and feel peaceful because, after all, few demands are being made on us in this situation, we don't necessarily discover the outside-of-time, deeper dimension of consciousness through this kind of practice.
At this point, someone may say, “But there is no enlightenment anyway: it's just a thought, an illusory goal to keep the mind engaged.” And yes, as a thought, a belief in a future event, enlightenment is a fiction.
Still, there is that moment when the bottom falls out of consciousness. (At least, that's one way to put it.) You thought your consciousness had a certain depth, a certain limit---and what a surprise to find out that it's infinite! That moment when we discover that we are both nothing and everything at the same time needs a name. Some call it “enlightenment”; others might opt for “awakening.” The word doesn't much matter. But to the extent that we are thinking in time, this “event” happens to us. Only when the mind ceases for a moment and we discover that the “real” world is beyond the mind do we see that the idea we had of enlightenment, like all other ideas, is a creation of thought.