The Quest for Enlightenment

I used to think of spiritual enlightenment as a state of mind one accomplished at the end of a very long journey. Over the years my understanding has changed dramatically. Enlightenment is not about achieving a level of development that transcends our soul’s current condition. Enlightenment is experiencing this journey from the awareness of our soul’s completeness. There is no place on earth we can go to get more of who and what we are at the soul level. No amount of study will increase the force or constitution of the soul. No amount of study will actually bring us closer to the omnipresence of God.

The standard model of the quest for spiritual understanding is based on a negative. I am currently something less than I will be in the future. To be spiritually enlightened is to understand that I am already everything that I will ever be. This does not mean that the limited self-image I have adopted is adequate just as it is. The self-image will never be adequate. Nor does it mean that I am finished aspiring, dreaming and achieving. It means that I recognize myself now as something much more than this body-based facade that I have called me. Any spiritual lack that I may feel is not remedied by the consumption of more information of a spiritual nature. The remedy is removing the blinders of the self-image that block the truth of who and what I am at the soul level.

The concept of soul development or soul growth is a spiritually debilitating myth. Instead of embracing what we are, this concept directs our focus to what we are not. If I live with the hope of one day becoming something more than I am right now, I do not allow myself to even consider what is here already. It sounds arrogant, even blasphemous to say I am complete. Only a rare handful of humans, after all, have attained spiritual enlightenment. How can I claim that I am even close to having what they had?

The problem here is that we do not know what they had. We only assume we know. What we assume we know is based on the negative conclusion that whatever they had was obviously something more than we have. But if this were true, why would these enlightened souls bother to tell those who would listen that the things they were doing, others could do as well, and greater things? Why would they devote their lives to opening the spiritual eyes of others if those others were destined to remain blind? Of what value is a spiritual teaching that promises fulfillment in a future state we are not likely to reach?

The soul is not a thing to be developed. The soul is complete. Being unaware of this truth does not make it less true. Spiritual enlightenment occurs the moment we know it is true. That we do not always live from this truth does not pull us back over the threshold of understanding we have crossed. We can never return to our former conviction that we are something less today than we will be tomorrow. The omnipresence of God can never be more present than it is right now.

Because of the connotations we place on the notion of spiritual enlightenment, it is probably best to purge this term from our vocabulary. It stirs an emotional distance between where we think we are and where we think we should be. The hard work of eliminating this perceived gap is misplaced effort. In meditation, we close our eyes and search for something foreign, something we believe the great masters could see but we do not. We do not see it because that which we are seeking does not exist. We are chasing the phantom of false perception.

What we are looking for can be found with our eyes open or closed. It can be experienced in quiet and busy moments. We can know it in the peaceful rush of the surf or in the rush of the busy city. We will never find what we hope to become. We can only find what we are already. This is where our quest for enlightenment ends.

Well Intentioned

Much is made of the “power” of intention. Intention that does not rise from the authenticity of the soul is the hamster who gets off the exercise wheel in the same cage.

I think most would agree that the motivation behind the bulk of our desires is to change for the better the quality of our experience. Where we will find disagreement is in our definition of the word experience. 

Experience is usually associated with what happens to us. I experienced a road trip. I experienced an hour at the supermarket. I experienced a visit to the dentist. A day consists of many such events, some pleasant, some not. From this perspective, the secret of improving the quality of my life is to have more good experiences than bad. If the interview was successful and I get the job, the increase in pay will allow me to have more good experiences than bad. So I set my power of intention on getting that job.

All of us have changed a circumstance that made us feel better. This feeling is common enough to dub it the honeymoon phase, a reference to that carefree period spent by newlyweds before they get down to the business of living their lives together. We also know what it means when someone announces, the honeymoon is over. This is that stark realization that there is actually a marriage attached to the wedding. Ask someone how their wedding went and they might say, It was fantastic! If you ask that same person how their marriage is going, they may say, Do you have a few hours?

There are many who set their intention on finding their soul mate, getting married and living happily ever after. There are also many who end up saying, I took you for better or for worse, but you’re a lot worse than I took you for. This can be translated into just about everything we do. There’s the wedding and then there’s the marriage that follows. Much of the rhetoric around intention is focused on the wedding rather than on the implications of what it means to be married.

I have observed that while much is made of the “power” of intention, intention that does not rise from the authenticity of the soul is the hamster who gets off the exercise wheel in the same cage. Because we are under the impression that we are really getting someplace, we set our sights on running a bit further every day. If we regularly run 1 mile, we set our intention on doing 5. Yet we still get off in the same cage. Free of this cage, our exercise routine becomes something much different.

The Complete Soul points to the way out of this cage. Our experience has less to do with events and more to do with what we believe to be true of the self engaging them. If you intend to seek out only those events that make your self-image happy, you’ll do well to remember the marriage attached to the wedding. I’m not throwing cold water on weddings or marriage. I’m calling our attention to the truth that the soul is the happiness we seek. The attempt to draw it from anything less is always temporal and usually fraught with disappointment.

The most productive focus of our intention is toward the understanding that the soul is already complete, that no external accomplishment will bring us closer to this universally desired realization. This does not mean that we purge ourselves of all desires and shun goals that would ease the difficulties associated with feeding, clothing, sheltering and transporting the body. It means that we examine the motive behind our intention. Are we seeking to protect a weakness of the self-image, or are we seeking to express the strength of the soul? If we conclude that it is the former, then what can we do now to release the unnatural barrier that is negatively impacting our experience?

In his book, From Science to God, physicist Peter Russell makes this interesting observation: “The ancient Greek word for forgiveness is aphesis, meaning “to let go”. If we apply this meaning to our spiritual quest, we can see the act of forgiveness as coming down to a single point: Forgiveness is a letting go of our attempts to satisfy the endless demands of an inadequate self-image and turn our intention instead on experiencing the soul’s completeness. I believe this is what the writer of Proverbs had in mind when he wrote:  “With all thy getting, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7).

Understanding the motive behind our intentions will answer the question of whether we are attempting to protect a weakness of the self-image or seeking to express the strength of the soul. The first will forever go unfilled. The second is the actual fulfillment we crave.


The Breeze I Feel

When my world begins to crumble, I know it is time to stand on the edge of this once comforting nest, stretch my wings, and prove to myself that the breeze I feel, but cannot see, will carry me into a broader new world.

We find a measure of comfort in the acknowledgment that change is the single most consistent element of our external life. We know from experience that Heraclitus was correct when he observed that one cannot step twice into the same river. As we think of those times in our life when a change we feared turned out to be a wonderful growth opportunity, we can inspire others going through something similar.

Yet when change knocks on our door today, we may find ourselves struggling to reinvent the wheel of faith. It is easier to take an optimistic view of change from a distance than when it is staring us in the face. While many artists feel their best piece is their last, it is easy to believe our present crisis is our worst.

When my world begins to crumble, I know it is time to stand on the edge of this once comforting nest, stretch my wings, and prove to myself that the breeze I feel, but cannot see, will carry me into a broader new world.

I am not what I do. I am not the circumstances that surround me. I am not the people I know. I am not the one others have turned their backs on. I am not this body I inhabit or this career through which I express. I am more than all of these. And as Walt Whitman wrote in his Song to Myself:

There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage, If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run, We should surely bring up again where we now stand, And surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther.

When Your Life Falls Apart

While I am reluctant to offer any firm definitions of God, I am perfectly comfortable describing four characteristics of God that I, and many before me, have come to recognize. These characteristics, or fundamentals, are life, love, power and intelligence. Of these four, I have had the greatest difficulty understanding the role or function of love.

I had no trouble stating that God is love and, therefore, loving, but this imagery always suggested the big parent in the sky caring for and watching over his children. It is relatively easy to draw some comfort from such an image, especially in those moments when life seems to be falling apart. The feeling that God loves and cares enough for me to guide me safely through my trying times was assuring. Still, it left me wondering why a loving God would allow me have such experiences in the first place.

I have since come to the understanding of love as that aspect of God that paves the way for the soul’s freer expression through the material plane. Its work is two-fold. Love dissolves all hindrances to the expression of the soul and it attracts those conditions that allow for the freest expression of the soul, our true self. This dissolving and attracting action is internal, but its effects ripple through every aspect of our material experience.

To understand this, we have to take our attention away from external conditions and focus on the internal process that influences the way our life seems to be going. The soul, though presently in a complete and unhindered state of freedom, is not expressing this freedom through much of our daily experience. Most people could furnish a lengthy list of reasons why this is true, all of which would have to do with flawed conditions. I would be happier if I could get out of this job or this unsatisfying relationship or if I could just make more money.

It is this act of externalizing the source of our problems that has given rise to an increased interest in the so-called law of attraction. If you visualize the better job, the perfect soul mate or the boatload of money that will make you happy, you will surely draw these things and your life will be wonderful. In truth, this practice does little more than feed our addiction to a low-level form of spiritual alchemy. With a slight change in our thinking, a restatement of intention or an easy shift into an attitude of allowing, we hope to magically turn the base-metal of our experience into the gold of happiness, peace and abundance. From the basis of spiritual development, this practice would be better described as the law of distraction.

The fatal flaw in this practice is its attempt to protect and bolster the self-image. All fear and all feelings of lack originate at the level of this manufactured self-image, this senses-based self-portrait that Paul referred to as the carnal mind or mind of the flesh. The dissolving work of love does not focus on the bad relationship, the unsatisfying job or the shortage of cash. It focuses on the self-image that is responsible for casting these negative shadows over the landscape of our external experience. Likewise, the attracting work of love does not take place in the realm of people, places and things but at the soul level. The soul is the fulfillment we seek. The more of the soul’s light that shines in and through us, the more attractive we are to conditions best suited for our soul’s expression. In other words, our life becomes on earth as it is in heaven.

When our life appears to be falling apart, our knee-jerk response is to do everything within our power to pull it all back together. What we cannot do on our own, we call upon God to do for us. This usually involves a kind of spiritual bartering of promises to do things for God if God will just get us through this mess. But here’s the thing. The very mess we are are experiencing can likely be traced to the inadequate self-image. The answers we seek are actually our attempts to protect the many weaknesses of this straw man that we have created. We are not calling upon God to actually help us. We are calling upon God to help protect the weakness of this self that is responsible for generating the problem.

Love, therefore, does not work to dissolve the many problems of this self. Love works to dissolve the very self that is praying for help. Its attracting aspect is to broaden our awareness to the truth of the soul, to prompt us to the revelation that I am not this frightened self-image, I am this eternal, God-sustained soul.

Our fears provide a spotlight on the self-image. If we follow them to their core, we find they always represent our attempts to protect the weakness of the self-image. When you understand your soul as light, you can see that your self-image is an unnatural object that blocks this light and casts that shadow you see stretching through your life. Try as you may, you find there is nothing outside of yourself that will fill in the darkness created by this shadow. Only the removal of its cause—the self-image—will remove the shadow.

Follow the spotlight of your fear and you will find the self-image cowering in prayer, begging God to remove the thing that is upsetting its little kingdom and making it miserable. When you call upon love, you must be willing to let love do its perfect work. It will not focus on dissolving the many things you fear. It will focus on the self-image that is doing the fearing, that very one you are striving to protect. As this shadow-casting self-image weakens and dissolves, the attracting light of your soul’s authenticity shines through.

This is what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the need to be born again. The ritual of baptism is the symbol for this new birth. One goes down into the water as one thing and emerges as another. This describes a shift in our awareness from a frail self-image to an eternal soul.

Think of the problems you now face as a kind of baptism. You enter them as one thing and you emerge from them another. If approached in this way, your troubles become a kind of holy water that will cleanse you, not of the things you fear, but of fear itself. Love is the baptizer. In its safe embrace you surrender to its submerging you beyond the realm of your worst nightmares and to bring you safely up into a world made new.

Your life may indeed be falling apart, but only because it is falling together. Let the negative appearance remind you that love is doing its perfect work in you now.

Getting Over There

A man on a walking journey comes to a river and there appears to be no way to cross. He walks up and down the river looking for a bridge or a ferry but he finds neither. As he sits down to ponder his problem, he notices another man approaching the river on the other side. When this man reaches the river’s bank, the first man shouts out, “How do I get over there?” After a long pause, the second man shouts back, “You are already over there.”

I believe it is fair to say that most people approach the spiritual path in a way similar to this story. I am here, I need to be there but there is an obstacle between where I am and where I need to be. This obstacle takes many forms. It can be a feeling that one is not demonstrating the riches of health, wealth and friendship that should be theirs once they reach spiritual enlightenment. It can be the inner turmoil of purposelessness, the aimless wandering of not knowing why they are here and why they have come. Their life on this side of the river appears to be crumbling but on the other side, things will surely be different.

Here is an experiment you can perform. Go out into a natural setting and choose a place to stand for a few moments. Look around and carefully take in your surroundings. Think too of the air you breathe and the temperature. Spend a few moments observing your internal experience, what you are thinking and how you are feeling as you inhabit this place. Now pick a spot about a hundred yards from where you stand and walk to this place. Again, take a few moments to study your new surroundings, notice the temperature of the air you breathe and the thoughts and feelings you are having in this new location. Look back at the place you were standing.

Is your experience in this new location all that much different from your experience in the first? Yes, your surroundings are different. But how different is your actual experience? If you had some problem from home that was bothering you in the first location, did you not carry this same problem to the new? Did moving from one location to another change the way you think of yourself? Do you feel more peaceful and empowered at one point than you do another?

You may conclude that there is little difference in the way you feel regardless of where you stand in this natural setting. You feel good everyplace because you are momentarily free from all the little rubs and problems connected with your daily and weekly routine. There is obviously more peace in this natural setting and this peace allows your attention to move into an expanded view of your life. If you could just stay in this place, your spirit would be free to soar to new heights.

Really? Let’s suppose you become lost in this natural setting. You hike through a stretch of forest and you come out into a meadow that is different from the one you expected. You retrace your steps only to discover that nothing looks familiar. For the rest of the day you continue your frantic search for the way out, but you do not find it. Night begins to fall. Are you still inspired by this place or does the safety, warmth and shelter of your home now seem to offer more freedom? Is it not easier to dream and aspire when you are not preoccupied with survival?

Crossing the river, in whatever form the river takes, cannot be the goal of our spiritual endeavor. If we affirm and accept that God is omnipresent, then we are confronted with these questions: Why am I not experiencing God right here and right now, on this side of the river? Can God possibly be more present there than here? If we are honest, we will admit that we are not actually seeking God. We are seeking a way to feel better about ourselves. We want more peace and freedom. And we are associating peace and freedom with something on the other side of our river.

The irony is that God is the peace and freedom that we seek, and we are immersed in God. Just as a fish will be no wetter a hundred yards from where it now swims, so we will be no closer to God on one or the other side of our river. Our spiritual quest for a greater abundance is, in practice, an affirmation of lack that can never be fulfilled on this side of the river. Like the proverbial carrot dangling from the stick, we take a step toward it and the elusive carrot takes an equal step away from us. We redefine omnipresence as everywhere but where we stand. Regardless of where we are, we never truly stand in God. There is always some perceived lack, some reason we cannot experience peace and freedom, some thing we need to acquire or resolve before we are entitled to declare our life a spiritual success.

I recently listened as a very wise man was asked what we should do to alleviate the suffering of the poor. My paraphrase of his response: Why would we assume that only the poor suffer? Doesn’t the evidence show that the wealthy suffer just as readily and as easily as the poor? He was right. The impassible river that seems to stand between us and our peace and freedom makes no class distinction. Both wealthy and poor flock to teachings that promise relief from the bondage they experience in their present life. The wealthy may, in fact, travel ten times the distance, shelling out great sums of time and money to find that perfect guru that will get them across their river. Yet they never find a satisfying resolution to their unrest.

Each life, with all its unique circumstances, is the perfect place to find the peace and freedom we seek. Is there some pending disaster looming on your horizon? Use it to prove to yourself that that which is in you is greater than that which is in the world. Release the mental and emotional turmoil you are creating and move into a place of peace and freedom. Do not make your inner experience dependent on the resolution of this condition. You are on the right side of the river to accomplish this. Bring your peace and freedom to your life as it is, and I believe you will find your life responds accordingly.

Decisions, Shimmering Lakes and Shovels

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It was at a moment of uncertainty that this quote from Emerson was again brought to my attention. As I read the commentary that followed the quote, I could see quickly that the message was centered around the acquisition of success and wealth. I make the decision to be successful and wealthy, and the universe conspires to make it happen. The assumption is that in the past, I have unconsciously made the decision for failure and lack, so the universe conspired to make that happen as well.

What is so often missing from this type of teaching is the who of who is making the decision. If the who is the self-image, the meaning of decision will be one thing. If the who is the soul, the meaning of decision will be something entirely different. The goals of the self-image manifest in many forms, but the main motive is always to shore up, protect and advance against an inherent sense of inadequacy. The self-image is forever inadequate because it lacks the true foundation of the soul. The soul is a believed-in abstraction rather than the firm foundation upon which the house of consciousness is built.

A specific decision is not the kind of decision that will cause the universe to conspire to make it happen. Why? Because it is not a decision. You cannot wake up one day in your misery of lack and say, “Today, I decide to be wealthy.” We use the term worldview to indicate one’s understanding of the world in which they live. A more important term would be selfview. A decision made from the need to protect and advance the self-image does nothing to change one’s selfview. The decision to hold a particular selfview is the only decision that the universe conspires to make happen. This is the decision you and I are making at all times. This is why our life looks as it does.

If you are issuing decisions designed to protect a weakness, the universe will conspire to help keep you weak. If you are attempting to run away from something, the universe will furnish you with endless reasons to keep running. In your thirst, you will see the shimmering lake in the desert ahead. You will make the decision to go to this lake. When you arrive at the place where the waters appeared, you find the landscape looks exactly like the one you fled. You also find that another enticing lake shimmering in the distance and your selfview prompts you to set out again, this time certain the waters are real.

To think that the universe will create a lake in the desert because you decide you want it is a good definition for spiritual insanity. Spiritual soundness takes the approach of asking why you are in the desert in the first place. Why have you adopted the selfview that keeps you thirsty and surrounded by illusions of water you can never reach?

Jesus referred to the water of which we can drink and never thirst again. This water was not found in the wells of the world. He was speaking of the soul, that eternal spiritual foundation from which our being arises. The decision to know this core of being is the only one the “universe” will get excited about, for it is the only decision you can make that advances the universe’s cause.

Take a moment to observe all the shimmering lakes that clamor for your attention. These usually involve greater health, material success, wealth, happiness and peace of mind. Whether or not we actually set goals to acquire them, even longing for them is a decision to pursue them. We have made the decision to believe that the acquisition of any one of these shimmering lakes will make us something more than we are now.

While it is true that we all want these things and we should not deny our experience of them, our more productive approach is to consciously connect with that self, the soul, that is already adequate, that is already whole, successful, without need, happy and at peace. With our thirst quenched from within, those shimmering lakes that surround us take on new meaning. We discover that a few feet beneath the surface of the ground upon which we stand, there is an inexhaustible aquifer that has gone unnoticed by the world in pursuit of the shimmering lakes.

Watch. The universe will gleefully furnish your shovel.

A Bowl of Water and a Maze

I have said on a number of occasions that there are no natural barriers between where we are currently in our spiritual understanding and where we could be in our experience of the soul. There are, however, plenty of unnatural barriers, all of which have to do with erroneous perception. As I point out, the most prominent of these is the generally accepted belief in the concept of the evolving soul. A major contributor to this belief is the statement popularized by the well-known metaphysical writer, Emmet Fox: Life is consciousness.

Fox’s use of the term consciousness is different from the nondualist’s use of the same word. Within the framework of nonduality, consciousness is the changeless, underlying reality behind all that is seen. Think of it as the ocean water that engulfs and permeates the sponge. In our spiritual vocabulary, we would call this God or Divine Mind. In this context, life and consciousness are indeed synonymous. But Fox is not referring to life or consciousness as ultimate reality. Life, in his formula, is a reference to our quality of experience. Consciousness is considered the sum of our beliefs which, as I have mentioned previously, is actually my preferred use of the term.

Rather than saying life is consciousness, it would be more accurate to say the quality of our experience is influenced by the sum of our beliefs. Simply changing our beliefs, however, does not assure a change in the quality of our experience. Imagine you are blindfolded and someone sets a bowl of water on the table before you. They tell you the water is scalding hot and you believe them. Another person comes in and explains that the first person was wrong. The water is actually freezing cold. They sound so convincing you now believe them. Does either belief have anything to do with the actual temperature of the water?

Now imagine that you reach out and dip your fingers in the water. You instantly know the truth about its temperature. The water, you find, is cool. Now if someone comes forward and tells you the water is scalding hot or freezing cold, you know the truth. This truth sets you free from all ignorance about the water’s temperature.

In the spiritual context, let’s say you are feeling frustrated with your seeming lack of progress. Someone explains to you that you are frustrated because you have much to learn. They give you book after book, which you eagerly consume. The problem is, the more you read, the less you feel you know. You encounter a situation that sends you on an emotional roller coaster, you remember the wise words of the author who explained that appearances are surface anomalies that have no power. But you obviously allow this appearance to overpower you. You conclude that you lack much in the department of spiritual understanding. So you go back to your book where you hope to draw more strength and comfort.

While the author may not be giving you false information, it is not your information, your experience. He or she is telling you the water is cool but to you it appears to be hot. You like what they are telling you, but it goes against your belief system. Your head is filled with their information, but your heart is full of yours. In theory, their words are inspiring. In practice, they seem impractical. Why? Because you obviously have much to learn. So back to your library you go!

Life itself is not what you believe it is. Your experience of life is influenced by what you believe it is. Life is a cool bowl of water whose temperature never fluctuates. Your experience of life is you wearing a blindfold projecting the beliefs of others onto this bowl.

Let’s shift to another metaphor. You have come to believe that life is a maze full of unpredictable twists and turns that only the most enlightened spiritual master can successfully navigate. You were dropped into the middle of this maze, either by choice or against your will, and it is now up to you to figure out how to get out of it. You resign to wandering through it for as many lifetimes as it takes. You experience one dead end after another. You are told that you can be happy and free right where you are, so you conclude that happiness is found in making peace with dead ends.

Have you ever noticed that when you were young you encountered dead ends? Now that you are older you are still encountering dead ends. Will the day come when there will be no more dead ends?

Suppose you stumble upon a ladder that allows you to climb above the walls of the maze. As you look about, you see something very interesting. You see the exit. From this point you trace the path that leads to your position and you quickly find your way out of the maze. The maze has nothing to teach you about life outside of its borders. The power of the maze, in fact, is nothing more than your belief system that is void of the vision offered by the ladder.

In the examples of the bowl of water and the maze, the game changer is actual experience. The experience of dipping your own fingers in the water instantly tells you the truth. The experience of climbing the ladder and seeing the exit from the maze also instantly tells you the truth. Likewise, the way to solve the mystery of the water’s temperature and the way out of the maze is through direct experience with the truth of life. To achieve this, you stop associating life with your erroneous perception of the world around you. Your false understanding of the water and your groping through the maze is not life. Life is the truth of the actual water temperature and the freedom outside the maze. The truth of life–life itself–is as accessible to you as the bowl of water and the world outside the confusing maze. How do you access life?

The value of embracing the truth that your soul is now complete is found in the acceptance that the thing you are seeking is present in its fullness. You do not have to wander through the maze for another four months. You can lift up your eyes by climbing the ladder and seeing for yourself that the way out is present and has always been present.

Here is an important key: The way out has nothing to do with learning all about dead ends, which is all the maze will teach you. Who wants to be the master of dead ends? You will not gain the insight you are looking for by studying your problems. Think back to the illustration in a previous posting of the sponge immersed in the ocean. Where is the ocean in relation to the sponge? It is everywhere, inside and outside. The sponge lives and moves and has its being in the ocean. It does not go somewhere else to get it. It does not study hard to make the ocean more accessible.

The peace we seek is not found in resolving issues and solving the riddles of dead ends or water temperatures. Our peace is found in the actual experience of the energy of divine life that courses through our being. If you turn your attention away from solving the problems of your life and focus instead on experiencing the truth of who and what you now are, your entire consciousness will change. It will shift from the uncertainty and fallibility of belief to the actual experience of the truth that you are now free. You may spend times in quiet reflection of this truth but you may also consciously bring it into the broad daylight of your daily experience.

Life is not your consciousness. Life is your very essence. God is life, love, power and intelligence expressing as you. Accept your completeness. Remove the blindfold. Climb the ladder of knowing that you are not destined to wander in this silly maze. You will find the energy of life rising into your awareness in ways that clear your vision and your understanding. You are now free to live life beginning right where you are.