The Bane of Enlightenment

When it comes to discussing the quest for spiritual understanding, you probably know by now that the parable of Jesus that I find most helpful is that of the treasure hidden in the field.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).

One reason I think this simple presentation is important is that it sheds a healthy light on a subject that has become a stumbling block to many. The subject is spiritual enlightenment. The term signifies a state of consciousness that, when reached, promises to give us the ability to see through all the many material distractions that stand between where we are and where we think we need to be. Attaining this state of consciousness represents the fulfillment of the promise of peace and security that we seek.

The mistake most of us make is that we attach the label of spiritual enlightenment to the treasure, the end we seek. When I’m enlightened, I’ll be happy. In the parable, enlightenment does not occur when the man comes into possession of the field. Enlightenment occurs the moment he stumbles upon the treasure. What changes when he does this? He now knows where the treasure is. He knows where to find it. His value system changes instantly. This change is not based on speculation or on the well-intended or highly educated opinions of others. It is based on his own first-hand experience. He now understands that the value of this treasure exceeds the value of everything else he owns. This is his moment of true knowing, his moment of enlightenment. His life shifts from a quest for joy to a joyful quest, one that begins, not with acquisition of yet another thing, but with a letting go of current possessions.

Spiritual enlightenment is not a thing to be acquired. It is the understanding of knowing where to focus our awareness. The moment you truly get this is the moment you achieve spiritual enlightenment. The mistake most of us make is that we cling to and add to our possessions rather than sell them.

If you are interested in reading this post, it is probably because you subscribe to the idea that the answers you seek in life are found within you. But what does this mean? What is the basis of your acceptance of this idea? Does it appeal to your logic? Is this idea supported by other authors whose writings make you feel good? Is it now your quest to accumulate as many books and hang out with others that support the idea? Is it merely a strong worldview that you now hold or is it actually the basis of your world experience? Is it a belief you hold as you wander through life hoping to one day stumble upon a level of inner meaning that is sure to change everything?

If you take a hard look at your so-called quest for truth, you will likely find that you are doing the exact opposite of the principle illustrated in the parable. Instead of selling possessions, you are frantically seeking more. You learned of this “kingdom” within, you love the idea, and now you set out to gain more knowledge about it so you may come into possession of it. The books you read to do not bring you closer to the experience you desire. They actually take you away from it. The wisdom espoused by your favorite authors only highlights and emphasizes what you believe you lack. You love what they say while affirming you have a long way to go before you actually get it. You do not translate this inspiration into actionable knowledge that closes that eternal gap between where you think you are and where you think you should be.

I recently read a short message intended to inspire hope: Every day is a new opportunity to change my life. Far from inspiring hope, such statements actually perpetuate the problem we’d like to solve. If every day is an opportunity to change my life, then this means that every day I must wake up to a life that I dislike so much that I need opportunities to escape it. So I look for new bits of information, new possessions that add to my escape route.

A good item to sell is this belief that every day is a new opportunity to change my life. When we even vaguely grasp the truth of omnipresence, we see that days and their passage have nothing to do with the opportunity to change anything. We like the sound of the idea that the answers we seek in life are already within us. So what ideas do we hold now that are blocking a meaningful experience of this truth? We say we want change, but we don’t want to change. We do not want to sell the possessions that provide justification for our continued suffering. We want to maintain that finding that soul mate or getting that better job or hitting some jackpot is going to furnish us with the kind of sign that proves we’re getting closer to enlightenment.

Take an honest look at your spiritual quest. Are you any closer to your perceived treasure today than you were five or ten years ago? Is it still just out of reach? From my observation, most will agree that their treasure is still as much a distant hope now as it ever has been. But let’s not stop here. Do you know where your treasure is? My guess is that you do. You understand that the treasure you seek is you, your very essence, your soul. If you can agree that you know this is true, you are spiritually enlightened. You know where to look. So now what? You know where your treasure is but you don’t feel it, you don’t possess it. What un-truths about yourself need to go? What do you need to sell to bring you into an actual experience of what you know is true?

The need is not to change life. The need is to live your life from what you know is true. If you truly believe that unearthing your soul is the answer you seek, then make this the focus of your life right now. Nothing can be added to your already complete soul. If you know this and you are acting from this knowledge, you are enlightened. And you will find this very day the proof that this is true.

Rising Above the Fog of Uncertainty

Not long ago I was talking with a woman about spiritual guidance. She complained that she was at a crossroad in her life and that the spiritual principles that had worked in the past seemed to have no impact. “I’m looking for guidance, but all I see is fog.” Because I too have stood at a similar crossroad and stared into that same bank of fog, I shared a truth that I have come to know: It is often when your world is shrouded in fog that you gain your clearest vision.

In thinking of spiritual principles, our tendency is to see them as tools that will help lift the fog. Our fulfillment is somewhere out there in the distance but we are unable to see it. We cannot see it because some distracting condition has occurred. So we reach into our spiritual bag of tricks—positive attitude, denials, affirmations, forgiveness, tithing, random acts of kindness—and we make a renewed effort to apply one or all of these until the fog of uncertainty lifts.

The problem with this approach is that it does little to either lift the fog or to advance our spiritual understanding. Whether or not you do anything about it, fog, in its many forms, comes and goes. Things go well for a time, then they seem to fall apart. The deeper spiritual issue has less to do with the fog and more to do with understanding the one who is peering into it.

The self-image that we drop into the world every day is full of specific dreams and desires meant to enhance and protect its stature and increase its peace of mind. The soul, however, is not tied to the needs of the self-image. To the contrary, the soul issues a perpetual reminder that we are much more than we think.

The self-image is like a glass jar into which we have tried to stuff the soul. From within the confines of this jar, we have tried to live a free life. What many are calling spiritual development and self-improvement is nothing more than a scramble for a bigger jar. Our spiritual arsenal is a bag of tricks intended to protect and bring stability to this inherently fragile structure. Rather than understand the vulnerability of the jar, our mission becomes one of protecting it from the possibility of breakage. Thus, our aversion to fog. We might crack our jar bumping into something we cannot see.

What if we understood that the fog is not a thing out there, but a film on our glass jar? What if we realized, as Paul suggested, that we are merely seeing through a glass darkly? Would we not stop battling the fog and turn our attention instead to climbing out of the jar? In its second noble truth, Buddhism attributes the cause of suffering to the act of clinging. In our analogy, this implies something much more than the tendency to cling to the needs of the jar. We are to examine our need to cling to the jar itself.

Can you, for a moment, imagine shedding the image of the person you think you are, to rise from the confines of your jar and simply let yourself be? In the few moments it takes to accomplish this, you see you are not the least bit threatened by those glass-breaking people and things you encounter in your life. The stones they cast pass right through you. You no longer have to wait for the vision-impairing fog to lift. You yourself rise above it. And it’s not because you have suddenly become something more than you were just moments ago. You are simply experiencing the truth of who you are and who you have always been.

Safe Spaces and the Soul You Seek

Question: In your book, The Complete Soul, you draw a contrast between the self-image and the soul. I’m not sure I understand the difference. Can you help?

My first response to this question was to compile things I have written about the self-image and present it as a summary. Lots of words give us a helpful definition of the ideas we’re trying to convey through them, but they always fall short of conveying the experience they are intended to describe. If you want to gain understanding of your self-image through experience, simply follow that knot in the pit of your stomach. Here you find that part of you that is scrambling to protect and sustain a world built around the person you think you are supposed to be. Your self-image is the wizard of Wizard of Oz fame, the one hidden behind the curtain busy pulling the levers, twisting the knobs and pushing the buttons required to give the appearance of reality to a world that cannot exist on its own.

Because we have spent a lifetime developing our self-image, we accept it as our true identity. We pray for its comfort, peace, health, success and prosperity without even giving a thought as to why it experiences the kind of lack that sustains that abdominal knot. We have defined our soul from the perspective of the self-image, attributing the inadequacies we feel to the false notion that it, the soul, is spiritually incomplete. In our thinking, we have subjected the soul to time and space. We believe it will attain completeness in another time and in some other place. The self-image, not the soul, is subject to time and space. It changes over time and it feels better, at least momentarily, adding things to its stature that it does not currently have.

I have come to believe that 99.9% of our spiritual studies are done from the perspective of trying to improve the self-image. I believe Emilie Cady understood this as well, which is why she cautioned against continuing reading many books on the subject of spiritual development. As most of you know, Jesus’ parable of the buried treasure is among my favorites on this subject because it depicts the treasure (the soul) as complete. At the point of discovery, the man ceases his studies on treasure hunting and begins taking appropriate action toward treasure recovery, a shift that occurred the instant the man experienced the treasure.

We are so fully engaged in treasure hunting that we have become unwilling to even consider the truth that we currently stand in the field that contains the very treasure that we long for. We cannot experience it with our noses buried in books. We can sharpen our expertise on treasure hunting. We can increase our spiritual vocabulary and give others the impression we know all about the spiritual quest. But this is not what we truly seek. I will never find the I that I hope to become. I can only find the I that I am.

Most seem to be baffled by the notion that their soul is complete now. From the perspective of the self-image, the evidence against this idea is overwhelming. I don’t feel complete. I struggle. I need more understanding. My thoughts are not consistently positive. I don’t have enough. I have not connected with my soul mate. I do not love my neighbor as I should. I look the other way when I see the beggar on the corner. I experience anger and I am still judgmental. I obviously have a long way to go.

The thing is, you will never perfect your self-image to the point where it meets these false standards of completion. These standards are not based on actual exposure to the soul. They are based on the pop culture that has grown up within the so-called spiritual community. Better known as race consciousness, this culture is driven by the shallow trends of appearance, belief and supposition rather than by direct exposure to the changeless reality of the soul. Under the guise of the spiritual quest, we are attempting to build a safe space for the self-image. We believe we will reach our nirvana when we cushion the self-image with enough material goods and spiritual self-esteem to protect against the threat of change—a false hope that can never be fulfilled.

Everyone must find for themselves that narrow gate that opens to the soul. The wide gate to the self-image is easy to spot and pass through. Just follow the crowd. Learn the language of the popular culture. Look the part. Build the proper library. Do the cruise. Don the designer yoga tights and assume the correct posture. When you do all these things and still find that the knot in the pit of your stomach persists, then perhaps you will break away and discover the true treasure, the soul you seek, has been present and calling to you all along.

Why Am I Here?

Who hasn’t experienced moments when things seem to be drifting no place in particular and our efforts to establish a firm direction seem in vain? At such times we may turn our attention to life’s meaning and our purpose for being here. There is no shortage of explanations designed to address these questions. Some think of our experience on earth as a test to see if we deserve the keys to our own mansion in the sky. Though I admit early on having accepted a version of this, I struggled trying to reconcile the disposition required of one who would devise and administer such a test. It’s like a person creeped out by spiders drops one into the toilet bowl to see if it can escape. If it makes it to the rim, it earns passage to the great outdoors. If not, it gets the big flush.

I passed through a longer period holding the view of the soul evolutionist who insists the earth is a school and we are here to learn lessons designed to advance our soul’s condition. But then what lessons could a soul learn through a body that shuts down 90% of its capacity? We’re stuffed into one body after another for as long as it takes to remember what our soul already knows?

I consider it to my credit that I was never drawn to the offering of orthodox science who assumes we are here as an accidental byproduct of the laws of physics. From this point of view, our primary purpose is to perpetuate the species. Once we’ve fulfilled our biological duty, we spend our remaining years drifting toward oblivion while seeking the upside of growing old.

If we start with what we actually know, we can reach a couple of practical conclusions concerning our purpose. First, we are here because we can’t be anyplace else. Most of us have tried to escape from here, but no one has succeeded. Try as you may, you have an eternal arrow pointed at you with the caption that reads, You Are Here. No one has an arrow with a caption saying, Finally, You Are There. Regardless of where you might want to be, you are here. Walk across the room and you’re still here. Fly around the world and you’re still here. Walk on Pluto and call your mom. You: Mom, I’m just calling to say hi. Mom: Where are you? You: I’m here on Pluto. Mom: What’s the weather like? Did you bring your coat?

The next thing we consider is what we mean by the word here. For most of us, here is our body and our physical surroundings. Why am I here in this body surrounded by this particular set of circumstances? A little thought reveals that here is more an attitude than a physical location. Let’s say your here is a deserted tropical island in the Pacific. If you’re vacationing on this island it will mean one thing. If your plane crashed in the ocean and you, the lone survivor, finally drifted to this same island, it will mean something different. One mindset sees the island as a wonderful escape: I can’t believe I’m here! The other sees it as a prison: I can’t believe I’m here!

If we conclude that here is more an attitude than a set of circumstances, we are confronted with a choice. Thinking of our island example, we pose the question: Am I here because my plane crashed, or am I here by choice? There is no right and wrong answer, there are only consequences to the choice we make. I am either a victim of circumstance or I am the adventurous vacationer. The fact is, I am here. Now what do I do with it?

Let’s add a few other items to our list of things we can say we know. Without a body, we cannot talk to another person. We can’t enjoy a cup of coffee or make a pina colada from all those coconuts on our island. We can’t even pick up a paper clip.

To my list I add another item of things I can say I know. You may or may not agree. I know that the existence of my soul is not dependent on my body. To the contrary, the existence of my body is dependent on my soul. My body is a perfectly designed vehicle that allows my soul to interface with the material world. My soul was not forced into this body. I took it on because I wanted to have this earthly experience. There is no better way to do it than through a body. Which earthly experience did I come for? All of them—the conversations, the coffee, the pina coladas, the paper clips and all the other things that make up life. My purpose on this earth is not found in any specific mission or goal. My purpose is to experience here through the vehicle of a body. When this body drops dead, I’ll still be here, and I’ll still have the power to choose what I want to do with it.

As a castaway on our island, we spend our days focused on survival and scanning that endless horizon for rescue. Our purpose is to signal that tiny dot that may be the ship that will finally take us to that magic somewhere over there. If, on the other hand, we are on our island by choice, we spend our days exploring the wonders of our world and let those tiny dots pass unnoticed.

Our fulfillment of purpose, then, is not found someplace on this earth. Being here on earth is our purpose.

Waking From the Dream

Question: If I understand you right, you are saying the self-image is something separate from the soul. The soul, which is already complete, is the real of us. If this is true, how do I reclaim the soul as my true identity?

Let’s say someone gives you tickets to the Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz. As a member of the audience, you seat yourself before a stage. The house lights are still up, the curtain is drawn and the audience murmurs in quiet anticipation of the drama about to unfold before them. At this point, there are two worlds. There is the world of the audience and the anticipated world yet to unfold on the stage. The music begins, the lights go down, and a hush falls over the audience. At this moment, a transition occurs. Two worlds merge into one. As a member of the audience, your world is dimmed while the world on the stage before you is brightened.

To make this arrangement work, you must suspend your disbelief and agree that the world you live in is no longer the real world. The world that is taking place on the stage is now the real world. Your problems are of no concern. It is now the problems of the protagonist, in this case Dorothy, that become the full focus of your attention.

Think of Dorothy in Oz as your self-image and you, the observer in the audience, as your soul. Dorothy and her problems are really not your problems. You and your house have never been caught up in a Kansas tornado and dropped into a strange new world populated by munchkins, flying monkeys and good and evil witches. But you momentarily allow yourself to be caught up in this world as if it were real.

The self-image is a character that you and I create and drop into this play we call our life. The mistake many make with this analogy, however, is that you, the audience member, have written the play, set the stage and created the cast. They suggest that you are the actor, the self-image. This is not true. Regardless of how convincing this play is, there is always a part of you that remembers that you are you and this play and its actors are something else entirely. You have simply agreed to give your attention to this world, but you never fully enter it. You remain an observer.

Those who suggest that you are the actor in the play will advise that if you don’t like the play you are experiencing, simply write a new one. In other words, if you don’t like your life the way it is, get your creative imagination flowing, break out the vision board (story board), visualize and create a new set, a new story line and a whole new cast that is more to your liking.

But you are not the actor or the producer of this play. You are a member of the audience, an observer. The observer neither creates nor acts in the play. When the play is over, you, the observer, get up and return to a different world. Get your self-image to write all the plays it wants but you, the observer, will never participate in a single one.

The breakdown in this illustration occurs with the realization that your soul never attempts to escape its reality. It will never buy a ticket to a play produced by your self-image. It never enters the world of the self-image as anything more than a distant observer. At the soul level, you know you are not the self-image or the world of problems it has created. Your soul always knows it is sitting in a theater observing a play that is being acted out by the self-image.

So, who is this observer? And what is the true nature of this stage you call your daily life? Can you leave this theater created by your self-image and step into a world that requires no acting, no suspension of disbelief, no role playing, no convincing others you are something you are not? Can you enter this world with no makeup, no costume, no techniques or acting skills that require much effort to sustain?

The beauty of The Wizard of Oz is in its portrayal of a story within a story. Dorothy’s adventure in Oz was a dream brought on by a severe blow to the head. In truth, she never left her home. She became the actor fraught with the problems of a world that did not exist. In this sense we can think of the Dorothy who resided in Kansas as the soul. The Dorothy who found herself in Oz is the self-image. The remedy to all her Oz-based problems was not found following the yellow brick road. These problems were solved the moment she woke up. The real Dorothy exited the theater.

As you think of your life and all of its many issues, it will help to focus on yourself as the observer who is looking at all of this. Your soul is not suffering from physical illness or limitations. Your soul does not experience financial challenges, hunger or fear of the unknown. Your soul has never been chased by flying monkeys. Your soul is that part of you that looks upon all of these things with the understanding that they are projections of the self-image.

While you do not want to ignore this play and pretend like it is not going on, you do want to make the conscious distinction between the onlooking soul and that actor that is your adopted self-image. The problems of the self-image are not the problems of the soul. You are in that world as the observer, but you are not of this world you are observing.

Think of the events of your day from this perspective. Who knows, you may join Dorothy in her great relief of waking from this very strange dream.

Is This Desire Right?

In a spiritual context, an issue often raised is one that revolves around desire. Is this thing I desire for my highest good, or is it born out of greed and selfishness? On one hand, there are those who approach God as a great genie standing ready to grant them any wish they make. On the other hand, there are those who feel deprivation is good for the soul, that any desire we may have is a temptation that should be kept in check.

The perspective offered by an understanding of the complete soul can be helpful here. Does this desire advance a strength, or is its purpose to protect a weakness? In a broader sense, does this desire rise from my soul, or does it rise from my self-image? A soul-based desire involves the greater expression of life, love, power and intelligence. Desires that rise from the self-image are usually a reaction to some deep-seated fear generated by feelings of inadequacy.

You may recall Jesus stating that he came that others may have life and have it abundantly. He was interested in helping people become free of the shackles of spiritual ignorance. He desired to share the joy of his own inner freedom with others, that their joy may be as full as his. He empowered those who would listen with the understanding that the same innate intelligence that cared for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field would also care for them. Fulfilled from within, the bird erupts in the sweetness of song. The lily expresses itself as beauty and fragrance. As we draw closer in awareness to the freeing truth of God as our own spiritual source, we too become a conduit of inspiration to others. A true, soul-based desire will reflect this.

In contrast, a desire that rises from the self-image is usually fear-based. Fear of failure, fear of lack, fear of the future, fear of losing our health are but a few of the many ways fear manifests.

I once knew a woman who covered her refrigerator with affirmations for healing. As a child, she suffered from severe health challenges and she was deathly afraid of going back there. The weakness she was trying to protect was her fear of disease. Her affirmations were actually a reinforcement of this fear. Another man, who grew up in dire poverty, became a millionaire who was plagued with the fear of losing everything. His affirmations, while appearing to be centered on prosperity, were actually centered on his fear of poverty. The irony is that no amount of material wealth could eliminate the weakness of his fear-based self-image.

The motive behind our desires may not be so pronounced. We can, however, check our motive with a few simple questions: Am I looking for a way out of the life I am now experiencing? Do I see the fulfillment of this desire as a means of escape? If the answer is yes, I am probably trying to protect a weakness. If I understand that my life, just as it is, is the perfect environment through which I may let the light of my soul shine, then I am seeking to express a strength. Conditions that seem unacceptable at one level can become opportunities to express spiritual assets we did not know we had.

A cup held under running water will fill and overflow. A cup of water standing alone will eventually evaporate. When our desires rise from the soul, we are like the cup held under running water. If we are the stand-alone cup, our desires are centered around the fear of evaporation. The soul-based understanding of ourselves includes the continual flow of water. The self-image defines itself only by the water it has in the cup. To become something more, it must go out in search of more water. More money, stronger credentials, more friends, more control over others all become the means of addressing our fear of evaporation. Our treasure is in what we can acquire and where our treasure is, there our heart is as well. And because we can never get enough, our heart perpetually aches for more.

In most cases, it is not the thing we desire that matters; it is our reason for desiring it that makes the difference. We are either looking for ways to direct our overflow, or we are looking for ways to compensate for our fear of evaporation. It really doesn’t take a lot of thought to figure out which of these two we are doing. Like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, we too have a body with material needs. Why is the bird and the flower taken care of and we are not? It is because they do not have the ability to create a self-image perceived as separate from its spiritual source. Because we humans do have this ability, we have created a self-image that feels all alone. To compensate for this feeling, we obviously need to escape from where we are. In this quest to escape, we desire things we believe will help us get away from the life we are experiencing.

Though the inadequate self-image would love to have the wings of the bird, the bird does not use its wings to escape its life. And the lily does not use its beauty to trick others into taking it away from its boring circumstances. It blooms right where it is planted.

If we are confused about the nature or validity of our desires, it may be best to spend time releasing them all and exposing ourselves to that inner fountain of life that is our true source of fulfillment. When you can truly look at your life just as it is and see it as your perfect place for expressing the strengths and the beauty of your soul, your need to compensate for a spiritually weak self-image will vanish. This single desire to bloom where you are planted will put all your desires in harmony with the life that is now bubbling up from the depths of your being.

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.