I’d like to preface this post by saying that it’s important to remember to use common sense when approaching any spiritual teachings. Trying to make fast or big changes in the way we lead our lives can have an unbalancing effect. I don’t think we should ever force change but rather be aware that change happens over time and when the opportunity to do so arises we can use the teachings that resonate most strongly with us to nudge that change in the right direction.
In this sense I’m using the term enlightenment to describe the state in which one has realised that the ‘sense of self’ we cling to is nothing more than a mode of consciousness and in doing so realise our true nature or no-self. This is called by various names in different traditions but the result of realising no-self is an end of suffering, freedom from desire and complete equanimity. Well, that’s it in brief anyway…. The question is, how do we know how close we are?
The experience of having such a realisation cannot be triggered directly by following any path or teaching, it is in one sense the complete letting go of what we perceive to be the essence of our being. However, I do think there are conditions that we can create in our life that will make this transformation more accessible. When after that, you ‘step through the looking glass’, so to speak, will depend on you.
The basic principle to get across is to keep life simple. I know we don’t have much control over the complexities and challenges of modern life, but there is a lot we can do to, on the one hand, use that for our practice whilst at the same time not be swept along with it.
Another key factor to note is that we have to get used to fully engaging with life. You’re here and it’s important to take ownership of that fact. All of our myriad tactics for dulling our consciousness, escaping reality or distracting our attention are ultimately just wasting our time. Don’t labour under the illusion you have loads of time and you’ll get enlightened some day but first you have some stuff you have get right or things that you need to sort out. You don’t know how much time you’ve got. Reality is here and now.
For me, perhaps the most important thing is the readiness to let go. When I was young I harboured a dream of running away from it all and living a spiritual life. Of course I didn’t but event as an adult, I thought, ‘Well, if it all goes wrong perhaps I can join a monastery and leave it all behind.’
Then one day I was sitting in the monastery I visit listening to the monks air their views and express their opinions and I realised, like a bolt from the blue that they were just a bunch of guys who, like me, hadn’t got a clue what was going on but were trying to figure it out. The answers I was looking for weren’t hidden away in the monastery. Neither were they embodied in any other person. They couldn’t be found in India or China or Thailand and they weren’t in the pages of some book.
In fact the truth wasn’t anywhere. There was nowhere to go, no place of perfect abiding, no refuge from the challenges of life. The answer didn’t lie in the monastery and it didn’t lie in the world outside it. And when I’d given up looking for it, that’s when I created a very important condition for finding it. As you will quickly realise, the desire for enlightenment is in one sense just another desire, and all desires come from the sense of personal self, usually as a means of helping us to feel more secure.
I’d like to first quickly deal with the outer conditions without making them too complicated. There is an observable law of cause and effect in operation in the manifest universe. Much like when you throw a stone into a pond and the ripples travel out to the edge then they rebound and return to the middle, to their point of origin, so too our actions will bring us a set of results appropriate to each one. It’s therefore important for us to create the right conditions through our actions.
It’s not complicated and the basic principle is about not harming ourselves or others either by thought, word or deed. I know we all think things sometimes we wish we hadn’t. The only effects of such thoughts are that we turn what might be a beautiful inner life into a rubbish dump. Thoughts are also the precursor to actions so if we let them build up negatively we’re more likely to do something we regret. It’s almost impossible to offset or ameliorate the consequences of our actions – the trick is not to do them in the first place. Life is an excellent teacher in this respect.
I would alo recommend that we try to be completely honest in our speech, and that includes accuracy of speech, avoiding gossip or hyperbole.
Try to take only that which is freely given. Look at the examples every day where the temptation is to push in first, grab it early, interject our viewpoint. Just see what happens when you refrain from these actions. You’ll find a beautiful space opening up in your heart. You might realise this is the first sign of freeing yourself from the anthill mentality of the fourth layer (see previous on layers of consciousness).
I think sometimes people wonder how far spiritually advanced you have to be to realise no-self. Actually if your actions mirror those above and more you can work out for yourself, you’ve probably come a lot further than you think. Do you need to meditate every day and achieve higher states of consciousness? Well I do meditate most days but I find it genuinely helpful to do so. I don’t chase after higher states of consciousness. When they happen I accept them as a gift, but they are not necessary for realisation.
Present moment awareness is however important. Try to be just where you are: don’t seek the next moment or chase the last one. If you’re stuck somewhere, be there, just be patient. You might be surprised how little patience there is in life. But it’s a powerful tool, and if you can master it it will bring you great freedom.
As well as being in the moment, take the opportunity to lose yourself in it. Drop the narrative of your life and trust fully in just this moment. Let it be just perfect for you. Let yourself accept it as complete. This won’t or needn’t stop you from carrying out any action, it’s not a passive acceptance of the content of the moment but rather acceptance of the wholeness of the moment as it is. If you can truly understand this, you’re very close.
Finally don’t worry about being perfect. You can’t be, not yet. You won’t control every negative reaction, monitor and eliminate every undesireable thought or feeling, that would be impossible. But you do have to understand yourself and treat yourself with compassion. It’s okay to realise when you’ve made a mistake and why, and then to wipe it from your mind and go forward resolving to do better. You won’t get far if you’re constantly beating yourself up for falling short, after all, that’s not a very enlightened attitude is it? But get the balance right, it’s not about letting yourself off all the time either. Be quietly committed to your practice. Knowing when to be silent, to let others speak, not to be quick to judge, to be humble outwardly and inwardly – these are important steps to take, lessons to learn.
You will get there. You can get there, not in ten lifetimes or a thousand years but right here and now, so don’t believe this is a job for the future. On the contrary, it’s always only in the present.