There is no path…there are no steps. How long does it take – that is a question assuming a path and steps. It assumes a process and progress. Enlightenment is not a process…it is realization…Self-realization. A realization regarding who/what you really are and seeing through the misidentification and illusions of the mind (especially those that create division). Enlightened can be described as seeing through the illusion of ego. Therefore, you can not willfully do anything to become enlightened. What can the ego do to see through itself? Any willful action (which is ego) only reinforces the apparent reality of the illusion. This is why some have called enlightenment a grace…it happens to you.
The realization is sudden and complete…an “aha moment” that reframes everything (or perhaps deframes is a better word). You have either seen or you have not seen…there is no such thing as partial seeing. An old Zen saying goes – when the bottom of the bucket drops out, all the water goes with it. So when enlightenment happens – you clearly see through the “I” that you have taken to be who you are. With this seeing through the “I”, suffering based on the “I” goes with it. If you don’t clearly see and so there is doubt (i.e. not really saw)…the “I” remains believed and suffering continues.
Seeing (i.e. sensing) is not a willed action. As long as we are conscious, we hear what is around us…we see what is in front of us…etc. You could call it awareness…I just say seeing. Seeing can be gently led; like your breath it can be led, but happens of itself when not led. If you wanted to truly see an orange, you would just hold it and look at it. The longer you looked, the more you would come to understand about the orange. Seeing brings understanding. Science knows this…they observe…that is how they come to know.
We don’t know who we are. And so we could just look at ourselves. You could just look at the “I”. What is it? Is it really who you are? What is the source of the “I”? Just by looking you may come to understand what you are not…just look at the “I” and also look for the source of the “I”. Understanding what you are not may make it easier to realize what you are.
Also a help, is just being present. What I mean by being present is not taking away from the experience of now by thinking about the past or thinking about the future or purely imagining things (for example, daydreaming). If you were just sitting and being present, this would be called meditation. Periods of “just sitting” is of value. But do not get stuck with only being present when you are sitting. Being present is the normal state of being…regardless of activity or inactivity. Also, do not sit with ego and pride at how long you sit and expecting to gain something from how much meditation you have done…again you would be creating your own obstacle.
We do not wake up partly because we are lost in thought. Enlightenment can only be realized here and now…any thought distracts you from seeing what is here and now. If you are 100% devoted to the experience of this moment…you still could not be aware of everything because there is just too much data for our senses and brain to handle. But if we are 100% devoted to the experience of this moment…experiencing as much as we can experience, there is no room left for thought. Thought would cease. Thoughts are only about the past and future (or imaginations). Thought is never about now, when the mind tries to think about now it is already thinking about the past or trying to anticipate the future. Thought is never about the now…experience is about the now.
When you are totally present, thought ceases…and in that silence of mind…then ask yourself but once – “who am I” or “what am I”…and then don’t think about it or make any efforts to answer the question. Just send out the question…and in silence just be aware. If you are lucky, you will gain nothing…but lose much.
In the end, be present and look at oneself/”I & me” is all I can recommend. Neither is really a doing. Thought is a doing…and so not being present is a doing. If we did nothing, we would automatically be present. Also, we can’t help but to be aware…to see…and so just look at yourself out of curiosity. Don’t you wonder who you really are?