The search for what is true is the “spiritual search”: the quest for awakening or enlightenment. Today, there seems to be so much talk about “awakening”. Never before – at least in the known history of humankind – has there been so much interest in spiritual matters. What was once reserved for mystics has become commonplace. And what once required years of seclusion in a cave at the top of the Himalayas has not become available to us in the everyday context. To many of us interested in the path of awakening, “enlightenment” is no longer a mysterious word. But it is still an apparently mysterious process!
I think it’s important to bust some myths around this. Like many other people on the path, I used to think that this was something that happened when you became “spiritual enough” or when you had “meditated enough”. But I’ve discovered that it really isn’t about what you do, about how many spiritual practices you perform, or how many spiritual teachers you’ve been around. Nor is it some cosmic state in which you exhibit super-natural powers. And neither is it an endless bubble of bliss!
Awakening is about recognizing that your true nature is already enlightened. It’s about shifting your attention from who you think you are to who you really are. It’s what happens when you have the willingness to step out of the tyranny of your thinking mind and into the abyss of being.
This willingness arises when you’ve truly had enough of suffering, when the background of unhappiness is no longer an option and you desire liberation above and beyond all else. This burning desire for liberation is the spark that ignites the flame. Although once it has been lit, you cannot control when and how it will happen … or even whether it will happen. That is an act of grace.
What’s important in all this, is that the spiritual search itself is a block to awakening. Looking for something outside of yourself puts the thing you are looking for into the future. And the truth of who you are can only be found right here in the present. Your true nature is revealed when you drop the search and take a vertical leap from your head to your heart.
This vertical direction is exactly the opposite of what the conditioned mind does. The mind runs forwards and backwards from past to future in a horizontal direction. Awakening requires that we turn around and turn within. It’s a challenging requirement amidst the demands of everyday life.
But the call for awakening today is exactly this … to bring enlightenment right into our everyday lives. It means staying present with all the difficult and painful situations that we may find ourselves in. Not turning away, but turning towards each situation in gentle openness.
This is the ability to be here now … whatever our circumstances. The more deeply we can rest in the presence of being, the more we awaken to the truth of who we are beyond all story-lines of “this shouldn’t be happening” or “I’ve done something wrong”.
What happens as we exercise this muscle of awareness that keeps us rooted in the now instead of running away scared, is that the ego shifts its focus of attention. One of the myths on the spiritual path is that the ego has to die. But I think it is more like the ego has to transmute. In other words, it becomes an “aware ego”.
An aware ego is no longer obsessed with a primitive self-survival instinct, rather it has the capacity to become a witness to what is happening. When the aware ego comes together with the awakened self – the part of you that has recognized it’s eternal and unchanging nature – then there is the capacity for conscious choice. This is the choice to respond to life rather than to react to life. Another way of saying this is, we now have the ability to take awakened action.
In today’s world, doing and being need not be in opposition to each other. It does not serve us or the world to turn our backs on life and simply gaze our navels. What is relevant today is for right doing to arise out of right being. This is a new kind of “integrated enlightenment” in which our actions are congruent with our awakened awareness.
So often on the spiritual path, I’ve come across people who claim to be awakened – and indeed they have recognized that part of themselves – but they are still playing out old habitual patterns that do not contribute to the awakening of the world. I’m not saying that we should be “perfect”. Perfection of our personalities does not necessarily go hand in hand with awakening.
The personal development arena is full of people who have worked on themselves so that they are positive, happy, living their purpose and manifesting their dreams. But this does not necessarily mean that they inhabit the wide-open spaciousness of their unchanging consciousness. They have not awakened to their deepest nature. But the converse – of being awakened and not having done some work on how to integrate that awakening into the vehicle of the personality – is also not the whole story.
Integrated enlightenment means we bring our awakening into the everyday arena so that we become conscious of what we think, feel, say and do. And we make choices that serve not only our own fulfilment but also the fulfilment of those people whose lives we touch. This is a shift from being motivated by self-serving gain and immediate gratification to being motivated by the desire to be of service to the bigger picture.
This shift is one that I believe can fast-forward our personal and collective evolution. It’s a shift that our modern times is calling for … we can resist it and fight the flow of life or we can do it willingly and relax into divine plan.