More people than ever have undertaken a spiritual path of their own, independently of organized religion. “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” has become a common expression, and I count myself among those who struck out on their own as a seeker. My search has covered a lot of ground over the years, from mind-body medicine to quantum physics, higher consciousness, the future of God, and personal transformation.
What all of these disparate topics have in common is reality, in the sense that everyday reality is hiding from view the “real” reality that needs to be unveiled. (Readers might want to look at last week’s post, “Unveiling Reality,” which details what it means to unveil reality.) There’s no question that the five senses detect the world in a very limited way, since they give no clue that molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles exist, not to mention genes and DNA. But unveiling a deeper physical reality is far from the whole story.
The physical sciences are about the external world, while another hidden reality, which is crucial to spiritual seeking, takes place “in here,” where the mind is the explorer and the territory being explored. This sounds like a contradiction, and so does the traditional way of reaching higher consciousness, which is called “the pathless path.” How can you unveil reality “in here” when the explorer—the mind—isn’t separate from the territory it wants to explore. The difficulty emerges clearly if you ask a question like “What do I think about thinking?” or “Am I aware of awareness?”
At best these questions sound circular, like a snake biting its tail. But the contradiction is straightened out, and the pathless path makes sense, when you realize one simple thing: The active mind isn’t the same as the still, quiet mind. Every method of spiritual seeking, if it is successful, goes beyond the active mind and its restless baggage of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts, with the aim of settling down into pure, undisturbed awareness. By analogy, one dives below the churning surface of a raging river, moving through deeper waters where the currents are slower, until one reaches the bottom, where the river is almost motionless.
Here, however, the analogy breaks down, because meditation, which is like an inner dive, can reach the zero point of no motion or activity of any kind. At the source of your awareness you can encounter pure awareness. Why is this experience worthwhile? Because the field of pure awareness is the origin of traits that are innate in us: Intelligence, creativity, evolution, love, and self-awareness are chief among these.
The pathless path makes sense for that reason; it leads you, without going anywhere, to a deeper level of awareness. Once you experience the deeper level, you find that there’s a shift. You identify less with your everyday self, which is totally dependent on the active mind (along with the desires, hopes, wishes, and dreams it generates), and you start to identify more with the field of pure awareness.
In this way higher consciousness gets assimilated into who you are and how you live your life. The word “spiritual” isn’t mandatory to describe this shift; I prefer to describe the whole process in terms of awareness, which is a more neutral term. What baffles people is that the whole project of seeking gets tangled up in misguided ideas. Let me list the pitfalls one is most likely to encounter.
- Mistaking the goal for some kind of self-improvement.
- Assuming that you already know what the goal is.
- Hoping that higher consciousness will solve all your problems.
- Struggling and striving to get somewhere.
- Following a cut-and-dried method, usually a method backed by some spiritual authority or other.
- Hoping to be looked upon with respect, reverence, or devotion as a higher being.
- Being tossed around by the ups and downs of momentary successes and failures.
I doubt that anyone who has honestly undertaken an inner journey is immune to some or all of these pitfalls. There is an enormous gap between where you find yourself today (totally dependent on the active mind) and the reality yet to be unveiled. Nothing less than an all-encompassing illusion surrounds us, a construct of the human mind that conditions everything we think and feel.
When it is put that way, the pathless path seems impossible or at the very least difficult and probably painful. But what’s difficult and painful are the pitfalls I’ve listed. The illusion creates all the problems. It’s crucial to see this. The actual path is effortless and pain-free. The mind by its own nature can know its source in pure awareness. By analogy, you can go through troubles, worries, everyday crises, and arguments with your children, but without a doubt you know you love them. Love goes beyond the other stuff—that’s how transcendence, or going beyond, works.
The same holds true in the process of unveiling reality, which also goes by the simple name of waking up. The ancient Vedas declare that everyone is defined by their deepest desires. Desire leads to thoughts, thoughts to words and actions, actions to the fulfillment of desire. So in a very basic way, the pathless path is a path of desire. If your deepest desire is to wake up, to escape the illusion, to unveil reality, and in the end to know who you really are, the message gets through. Your deepest desire activates a level of awareness that will lead you to the goal.
As with raising kids, the everyday stuff rises and falls, but love, caring, attention, and devotion steadily work their way. The same is true of you the seeker, even though you are both parent and child to yourself, both teacher and student, healer and healed.Because these dual roles merge into one, the pathless path makes sense, and it works.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission