enlightenment

What does enlightenment look like?

 

Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends very much on whom you ask.

For a long time I assumed that everyone had the same understanding of what it means to be enlightened. It’s talked about so much, that it never really occurred to me to investigate what I actually imagined it to be. It turns out, there is no consistent agreement on what an enlightened or realized person is. Different traditions, generally grouped by geography, teach, and aspire to, vastly different things.

The outcome of the Western mystic tradition is strikingly different than the Eastern variety. (I’m not equipped to get into a proper comparison here. I just mention it so we have some starting point). Essentially, it is whatever you believe it to be.

So what do you envision when you think of enlightenment? What does it actually look like? And where do your beliefs come from?

I’m going to leave those questions for now, and we’ll come back around to them.

Remember how I wrote a few months ago that evolved beings don’t act like saints? The point of my post was that the concepts of goodness, virtue, and self-sacrifice are improper standards against which to judge our spiritual advancement. Holding ourselves to those standards hinders us from actual growth, because those images and concepts do not reflect the truth of the journey. Authenticity and self-love are not always in alignment with saintly ideals. Being kind is not the same thing as being nice.

When I wrote the original post, my image of a saint was someone pious, ever-peaceful, above reproach, humble to the point of being meek, quiet, virtuous, self-sacrificing, righteous, and proper. Just to make sure my perception wasn’t skewed, I looked up some synonyms for the word “saintly,” and that’s pretty much what I found. Well, in the last few weeks I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Christian mystics (who were later canonized), and my image of a saint was turned on its head.

The temperaments of these mystics do not fit the description of a saint at all. These are not gentle, passive, conflict-avoiders. They are not meek, nor virtuous, nor above reproach, in their respective historical contexts. These are fierce, rebellious, non-conformists, fighting for justice in very disagreeable circumstances, dedicated to their inner guidance from the divine authority within.

They are evolved beings. One would say ultimately so, having completed their mystical journeys and attained permanent unitive states with the divine. But they don’t fit the definition of a saint.

And yet they are, technically, saints…

How do we make sense of that? Are our images of saints misinformed?

Reading one account after another, I was shocked to discover that a more accurate description would sound kind of like this: infinitely courageous, driven, and determined. Strong-willed, self-assured, supremely confident in their missions, even when everything appears to be going wrong. Not quiet, nor meek, nor peaceful; they are fighters, and leaders, and forceful reformers, and self-less servants of the divine will.

Self-less here doesn’t mean self-sacrificing; and it does not mean without a self. Rather, that the egoic will is replaced with the divine will. All desire arising from the ego is dissolved, and a new source of desire arises from the spiritual forces at work. (It feels within like a weird foreign desire. It’s very confusing at first, because it is inconsistent with the you that you know yourself to be. There is no sense of sacrifice at all in the heart or mind, because nothing is being actively given up.)

Here are some quick examples of what these mystics are like: St. Catherine of Siena, at the helm of Italian politics, lobbied continuously and ferociously, sending angry letters to the Pope, pressing for that which the divine will demanded. She was later nearly assassinated in religious riots over power. St. Teresa of Avila left her career in the convent, and following her inner guidance, took on reforming the corruption of the religious orders throughout Spain; instituting new fiercely ascetic protocols which no one supported. St. John of the Cross was imprisoned and tortured for unflinchingly pushing his unpopular reforms; he later escaped from prison. Meister Eckhart (not a saint, but a prominent religious leader and certainly a mystic) was brought up on charges of heresy for his writings.

There are many many examples like this (probably better examples than the ones I’ve chosen here). But the point is that this is not the profile of a tender, obedient, soft spoken, holy person, above the human fray. These are portraits of passionate warriors.

When they aren’t working, the accounts portray them as laughing, and singing, and joyfully, sometimes ecstatically, composing poetry and other forms of art. They aren’t morose or serious. They are playful, and silly, and childlike in their daily lives. And those that aren’t bound by religious language, describe their love of God and union with God in very sensual, erotic ways. (Because their love and piety is not just a religious concept of faith or reverence. It’s an actual feeling of love, real love, with energetic experiences that are deeply sexual in nature.)

This is a very different image of enlightenment, and saintliness, than what we’ve been conditioned to believe. This isn’t the Eastern version of enlightenment. And it’s not the religious standard of a saint (even though they are technically saints).

It is another way… (a way that is rarely taught or talked about in modern spiritual circles).

There is a prevailing notion in popular spirituality that enlightenment, or spiritual evolution, looks and sounds a particular way. It is deeply influenced by the Eastern concepts (perhaps through the import of yoga, or Buddhism, into the West. I don’t know). It envisions a sort of complete annihilation of the person: no self, no personality, no feelings, no emotions, no thoughts, nothing at all. Consciousness united with the divine, divorced from the body, which sits motionless in a cave somewhere…

The breaking down of that concept is important, because the mystical journey does not necessarily follow Eastern trajectories. (Mine certainly doesn’t). And it doesn’t conform to Western religious ideals or standards either (the mystics don’t conform to saintly standards).

Evelyn Underhill makes the argument that the Eastern notions of realization, culminating in a passive life, is actually an incomplete mystical journey. The Eastern mystics attained transcendence, she says, but then got stuck there. The Western mystics, on the other hand, attained realization and the permanent unitive state, but then went further, bringing that will and energy into action in the world. It is an active life (post-realization), not a passive one. It is the living breathing expression of the divine will (through the union with the higher self) in the most intensely human way.

The tendency of Indian mysticism to regard the Unitive Life wholly in its passive aspect, as a total self-annihilation, a disappearance into the substance of the Godhead, results, I believe, from … a distortion of truth. The Oriental mystic “presses on to lose his life upon the heights”; but he does not come back and bring to his fellow-men the life-giving news that he has transcended mortality in the interests of the race. The temperamental bias of Western mystics towards activity has saved them as a rule from such one-sided achievement as this; and hence it is in them that the Unitive Life, with its “dual character of activity and rest,” has assumed its richest and noblest forms. Underhill, Mysticism p.398

According to Underhill, the Western mystics, with their extraordinary lives of real service, are the pinnacle of the mystical journey. They are what real enlightenment looks like.

You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa of Avila in The Interior Castle, “that the soul in this state [of union with God] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.

Hmmm. I’m not a fan of arguing about which tradition or school is more advanced or right (it’s sort of a pointless argument). But all of this resonates very deeply for me. Throughout the last year or so, I kept getting the inner sensation of passionate warrior, thinking there was something wrong with me. What an incredible relief to find a concept of spirituality that fits with my experience.

There have been times when I’ve been guided, by my higher self, to do and say things that didn’t conform to my images and judgments of how a spiritual person is supposed to be. I’ve been asked to send angry emails (when I wasn’t angry), or to confront someone about their behavior (when it didn’t personally affect me). These directions were contrary to my own sense of what I should do in the situation, and how I ought to act in general. And I couldn’t understand why I was being led in a seemingly opposite direction.

Even my spiritual friends (who didn’t fully appreciate what was happening within me) judged me for not conforming to this ever-peaceful Eastern standard. It took a long time for me to learn to trust this inner guidance. To understand that these were lessons for me, and lessons for the recipient. I had to become aware that my images and concepts of who I should be were limited and limiting. I was judging myself against these Eastern ideals, which needed to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. Finding these Western mystics, and an entirely new concept for realization, has been really comforting for me.

Holding oneself to false concepts and standards (spiritual or not) isn’t helpful. It only creates more inner self-judgment and turmoil. That’s why it’s important to become aware of these inner standards, and dismantle them. Each person’s journey unfolds before him outside of his conscious control. It’s not something he designs or chooses. Real spirituality is about finding and living in accordance with that path of truth, not conforming to standards of what one ought to be. As long as I held myself to these Eastern concepts, I was stifling the truth that was asking to be expressed. Reading about the zeal and action of the Christian mystics, I feel a lot more comfortable with what I’m being guided to do.

Let’s go one step further. In my view, the Eastern notion of a “no-self,” as the path and goal of spiritual practice for Western practitioners is a detrimental mistake. The Western psyche is not the same as the Eastern one. We are not raised or conditioned the same way. We don’t have the fundamental foundations of basic goodness inherent in the East; we all carry around loads of unworthiness and psychological trauma. (There is a famous story about Western Buddhist teachers asking the Dalai Lama how to combat this inherent unworthiness. And the Dalai Lama couldn’t understand the question because he had no framework or conception of self-loathing. He was shocked to learn that we hate ourselves…).

And so adopting Eastern standards and practices, when the underlying self is terribly fragile and wounded, can be psychologically dangerous. Lots of spiritual seekers (with deeply broken inner foundations) are on a mission to annihilate themselves completely, believing that this is what enlightenment means. They have no other concepts to hold as their role models for spiritual growth.

In the Western tradition, the path is different. It is a perfection of the self through and with God. In non-Christian language, it is the healing and liberation of the authentic self, the authentic personality free from ego, such that the higher self can be expressed and actually serve humanity at large. When the higher self is not being expressed, the human underneath is a joyous, strong, psychologically healthy, confident person of great integrity and courage. In this tradition, the annihilation of the ego self is not the annihilation of the personality. One can become self-less, by losing his ego, without losing his authentic self. The end goal is not a total annihilation, with consciousness separate from the body, living in a cave. It is an intensely active life, directed wholly and completely by the divine will.

“The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a Dark, a Self-loss.” Underhill, Mysticism p.159

It is through the self, by healing the wounding, dissolving the ego (not the personality), strengthening the authentic self, and balancing out its polarities, that the person is transformed and remade into the divine state. This must be done in accordance with psychological health, never in the suppression, bypass, or invalidation of emotional pain (as most Eastern practices teach). It is when this healing and transformation happen genuinely and organically, that the higher self can begin to move through, and permanent union can be achieved.

The big liberation is the liberation of the authentic self, from fear, and ego, and all the things that keep it confined. Ultimately, it is about learning how to be loving and kind, and real, empathetic and vulnerable, and intensely sensitive to the suffering of others. It is the inner courage and fortitude to be the person you actually are, in truth and with love. And then from that solid and stable foundation, to carry out the mandates of the divine will.

Back to my original query – what do your images of enlightenment look like? And where did you get those images?

I think looking closely at our internal standards of what enlightenment or realization means is very important. It informs our entire understanding of the spiritual process. What sort of expectations are we placing on ourselves and those around us? What are we trying to become? And how might holding on to those concepts limit the true expression of what we really are?

With this awareness, we can free ourselves of trying to fit into concepts, and choose our role models carefully and consciously, in alignment with our own experience. Reading these mystics properly (without all the religious dogma), they are excellent alternative role models for those whose journey doesn’t fit with Eastern traditions. My own preferences aside, it seems to me that the Western models are vastly safer and more effective that their Eastern counterparts.

 

PS. A small side note on saints not acting like saints – there is a period of time in each mystic journey of shadow integration. Its most severe expression happens during the purgative phases, when it feels as though all love is lost. I wrote briefly about this before. Each of the mystics writes about this very unsettling experience in their respective descriptions of the dark night. It’s a temporary condition where saints really don’t act like saints at all. They are turned into their polar opposite (forced to surrender to “sin”) for a period of time, until those aspects are wrestled with and integrated into a balanced whole. It is a complete undoing of all that pretends to be pious and holy, such that the spiritual or religious ego is dismantled.

 

 

But they will think I’m crazy…

They say that in order to become enlightened you have to be willing to lose your mind.

This is usually understood as a humorous double entendre. Because enlightenment is something that transcends the mind. The mind can’t grasp or rationally comprehend enlightenment experiences. And in order to get there you have to let go of the mind (or ego) – the mental landscape in your head. And also because enlightened people are kind of loopy, and their experiences are outside “normal” mental function. They are by definition crazy. Get it?

It’s not that funny…

Walking this path is very complicated and destabilizing. And talking about spiritual experiences is scary. Really really scary. Even today, in our seemingly progressive era, many who have profound experiences often keep them a secret. They don’t tell their friends or family. They don’t tell their boyfriends or girlfriends. They create fake profiles on facebook, and anonymously join support groups online, so no one in their real life finds out.

It can be extremely isolating, lonely, and stressful to live this way. These experiences become so fundamental to who you are as a person, that hiding them feels like hiding huge essential aspects of yourself.

The reason for all the secrecy is almost always the same – “They will think I’m crazy. They won’t believe me. They will leave me. They will divorce me. I’ll lose my job. They will lock me up in a mental hospital.”  This sounds alarmist, but until you’ve actually experienced supernatural things, and tried to talk about them with those that haven’t, you don’t really understand the depth of this fear. It’s very real and quite paralyzing. It is not yet socially acceptable to talk about mystical experiences without being considered crazy. And that label, to most people, still carries tremendous stigma.

Yes. They will think you are crazy (until these experiences become more normalized). But so what?

What’s really being revealed deep inside the fear is something different. It sounds like this: “I’m afraid that if I tell them the truth I won’t be loved or accepted. I’m afraid that being crazy makes me unacceptable.” The root fear is rejection and abandonment. The root fear is  “the people in my life only love me conditionally. They will only stick around if I fit their definition of what’s normal and acceptable. They will judge me, shame me, and leave me if I’m not normal; if I don’t fit the image of what they want me to be. I have to be what they all expect me to be, otherwise I’ll end up alone.”

This belief, this fear (which may bear out in reality; the people in your life may, in fact, only love you conditionally) forces genuine spiritual experiences underground. It forces people who have them to live a lie. To create a socially acceptable false mask, pretending to be “normal.” And to keep their experiences buried in secrecy.

With all the stuff available online, all the television shows. and all the mainstream spirituality, still, in their private lives, in their interpersonal relationships, these people are terrified. I know I was as well. It took me a long time to work through all of my fears, and to begin talking about what’s happening to me. 

When I tell others that they have to be more honest, more forthright about what’s happening to them, they panic. They tell me that they aren’t strong enough. They don’t want to upset the apple cart. They don’t want to disturb the (illusion of) peace in their lives. “He’ll never accept this” or “she’ll never believe me.” Instead of taking a risk with the truth, they hide the truth. They don’t take ownership of what’s happening to them. They relegate it to some weird shameful thing that no one really needs to know about. They are embarrassed by it. They are afraid of being found out and labeled.

In my view, this runs counter to all spiritual mandates. Spirit doesn’t support hiding your truth. You came into this life to be exactly what you are (with all your weirdness). Pretending to be something else, to be normal, to be acceptable isn’t in alignment. You can’t claim to be evolved or spiritual when you are afraid to live your truth; when you don’t act in your integrity. When you are afraid that the truth will hurt others. Or that you won’t be accepted for it. You can’t be in service if you are living a lie. You can’t be the full expression of your beautiful talents and gifts, if fear and self-judgment keep you from being authentic.

I advise people that they ought to try telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. (This doesn’t mean you need to come out guns blazing; you can find a careful gentle way to deliver the truth). But relationships built on conditional love have to be challenged with the truth. That’s the point. The truth comes to burn things away; to reveal that which is not sustainable or in the highest alignment. By keeping the truth a secret, you interfere with the spiritual lessons you are being asked to learn. Safety, security, and peace cannot exist when there is deep seated fear.

Take a risk, tell the truth, and then see what stays and what goes.

I spoke to a woman not too long ago who has been experiencing various kundalini symptoms for over a year.* Her awakening so far has been relatively mild, and not specifically destructive to her way of life. She is able to continue working and socializing without much interruption.

She told me about her boyfriend, whom she’s been seeing for several years. They were thinking about moving in together, and she wasn’t sure if she should tell him about what’s been happening to her, or her growing spiritual life. When I asked her why she hadn’t told him right away, she said that he is an atheist, deeply skeptical and very committed to his beliefs. He’d never accept what was happening to her. She was afraid to lose him, by telling him the truth. “We’re so great together. We’re such good friends, and our relationship is so full of love. I don’t want to lose that.

Then she mentioned that she tried once to bring it up, to tell him what’s happening to her, but “we were having such a lovely relaxing time together, I didn’t want to ruin it.

But the appearance of a relaxing time, in reality, was not relaxing at all. She wasn’t relaxed. She was internally in discomfort – going back and forth in her mind over all the various scary consequences. Thinking about what would happen to their relationship in the future when she wouldn’t be able to hide her symptoms anymore. It only appears to be relaxing on the surface, but when your mind is not at rest you can’t feel relaxed.

What I’m going to say next may sound callous, but it’s the essential truth.

If someone doesn’t know the real you; they can’t possibly love you. If they don’t know the truth, then what they love is the person you are pretending to be. If the truth of what’s going on in your life is kept a secret, then the person you’re with never has a chance to love you. They don’t know you. And you aren’t giving them an opportunity to decide whether they really accept you or not. If you tell them the truth and they don’t accept it, then they don’t love you. Without acceptance there is no love, there are only attachments and transactions. In a relationship without acceptance there is only conflict and warfare, anxieties and power-plays for control.

In reality, if the people in your life don’t support you, don’t believe in you, don’t accept you as you really are, then do they deserve to be in your life at all? You have to ask yourself “what am I really holding on to here?” Do you have to pretend to be someone you’re not, in order to continue receiving love and approval? Or are you free to be your full and complete self, with all the weird stuff, knowing that the people in your life adore you just as you are? Wouldn’t you rather live your life around people that respect and admire the very things that you fear might be weird and shameful?

It begins with you. If you don’t take a risk to accept yourself fully and live your own truth, you’ll never know. Find the courage to let what is built on ego and conditions fall away. And let those that love and accept you unconditionally demonstrate that to you.

Keeping secrets create disconnection and separation from those you love. Allow the truth to bring you closer together. It may be scary in the moment, but there is so much love available on the other side. Allow those that really love you to be there for you. If you neutralize your own fears (by working thru them), it will not be such a terrifying situation. Then you can talk to the people in your life in a peaceful and confident way.

It is ignorance that creates fear, so use this opportunity to educate the people in your life. Show them that there is nothing crazy about spiritual experiences. Part of the reason that it’s viewed as crazy is that the people that came before were also too afraid to talk about it. They kept their experiences a secret. They stayed in the shadows because they too were afraid.

If you really want to be of service to humanity, start within your own life. Find the courage to live your own truths. Life has a way of surprising you. And when you approach something with the right energy within, people you thought would never accept it, somehow manage to surprise you as well. It won’t be as bad as you think. 

I leave you with this quote from John Irving

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”

 

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* Details have been amended to protect privacy.

On becoming a mystic…

I have something to tell you. It’s not going to be easy, but I will do my best.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been undergoing a profound (at times unbelievable) personal, spiritual, and psychological transformation. It is something that spontaneously began happening to me, not something I chose or initiated. I’ve kept the details of this process extremely private; only sharing discretely with close friends and family. Sharing this intensely personal and sacred experience publicly is very vulnerable for me. In my estimation, openly disclosing this will open me to judgment, concern, criticism, and disbelief. Despite all of that, the time has come for me to begin owning this aspect of myself in a public forum.

(more…)

You are not your mind

The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the thinker. 4182umpEPfL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought. That thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter: beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.

Eckhart Tolle, Practicing the Power of Now