This is really a nasty question. If I say “yes”, then you will think there is nothing to realize and remain stuck in suffering. If I say “no”, that is not correct and limitations on the Self could be inferred.
You see…it is not as simple as saying “the Self has always been free.” While true, the question is do you feel free? Also, are you free from suffering? If you do not feel free and are not free of suffering, then you are not awake and are not free. However, it is a figment of your imagination. An illusion of the mind. You are hypnotized…and hence asleep…within a prison of your own thoughts. As long as the illusion is attached to and believed…it is a delusion of being trapped and that delusion has effects.
In “Meetings with Remarkable Men” by G.I. Gurdjieff, there was a point in his youth when he saw a bunch of fellow children bullying a boy in the center of a circle drawn on the ground. The boy was a Yezidi or Yazidi. If a circle was drawn around a Yezidi, he or she can not of his own volition escape from it. A Yezidi can move freely within the circle, but can not cross the line. This conditioning is so strong, that if you force a Yezidi out of the circle…he or she falls into a state of catalepsy. The group of children were terrorizing a Yezidi boy that they trapped in a circle…poking, prodding, pulling, and trying to get him to cross the line. When Gurdjieff kicked away part of the line, the Yezidi boy ran through the gap and away as fast as he could.
Now I ask you…was the Yezidi boy always free (and could leave the circle any time)? If you say “yes”, you deny how the circle trapped him. If you say “no”, you deny he could easily have physically walked out of the circle (if it were not for the thought). A simple yes or no does not suffice.
It is the thought that keeps us trapped. That is the whole point of awakening…escaping from a mental prison of our own creation. So, is the Self always free? Yes, but when the Self plays you as this body/mind…the mentally self-created prison of thought keeps this body/mind trapped. So, is the Self always awake? The Self is neither awake nor asleep…such dualistic states do not apply to the Self. However, this mind can be awake or asleep.
This is why I say enlightenment comes down to realization. The mind says I have problems, I suffer, I feel trapped. There must be the realization that this “I” is a mental illusion and there is only the Self. Simultaneously, there is a clear seeing that problems and suffering are based on the fictitious “I” and so they fall away. Then you understand and know there are no problems, you cease making your own suffering, and you are free. Of course, you have always have been free…like the Yezidi boy. But now the circle no longer acts as a barrier for this body/mind.
I have said that seeking enlightenment is like looking for the ring you are already wearing. As long as you deny that you already have it and continue looking for it, the delusion persists. You can’t just stop looking, because you have not “found” your ring – you don’t know that you have it already. So, when you see the ring on your hand and realize you already have the ring…you clearly realize you always had it. It was just your own inability to recognize what already is. To still not have realized what already is…is to be asleep. To realize what already is…is to be awake or enlightened.
* The ring is the Self…and the circle is the “me”. *