This essay is in response to many discussions I have had with students over the years. Its purpose is to help clarify certain aspects of the awakening process. In this essay, I am not going to be overly concerned with the politically correct semantics of “enlightenment” or “advaita,” but simply point out some things that may be useful to know about.
As awakening happens, there seem to be several stages that many people go through. These stages can be a little confusing because they are not delineated anywhere on the maps of our day-to-day consensus reality, nor on most religious or spiritual maps. Please remember, these guidelines are descriptions of what may happen, not prescriptions for what must happen. The process is different for everyone.
The first stage is the apparent separation between “me” and “everyone and everything else.” We click into this stage around two or three years old. In this stage, we become very aware of the phenomena and people out there at the other end of our senses. We learn that the way to survive and thrive in this world of appearance is through the effective control and manipulation of the “me-in-here” and the “everything else-out-there.” For instance, we may be taught that life is easier if we have a pleasing personality so we learn to smile a lot and say please and thank you. We notice this usually has a positive effect on “them-out-there.”
We are taught that life works better if we do things like get good grades, empty the garbage, work hard, remember appointments, follow through, make money, and have all of the right thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are considered “good,” “healthy,” and “successful” by our society. We learn to “fit in” with the rest of herd and follow the consensus map of reality without ever really questioning it. Questioning the accepted maps of reality tends to confuse and upset the herd as they believe their maps are reality.
In a nutshell, we learn to manipulate “in here” and “out there” to conform with what we have been conditioned to “believe” is best. We discover there are lots of things “in here” and “out there” to manipulate, control, and keep track of. And they all seem to keep changing all of the time, no matter what we do! This is due to the relative and transitory nature of phenomenal reality. It is hard to keep all of our ducks lined up in a row. Reality just continues to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, whether we think it should or not!
It is important to realize that almost everything that falls in the categories of religion, spirituality, psychology, metaphysics, and philosophy is in this stage of separation. When you enter a religious/spiritual/psychological belief system, you are being taught to translate and manipulate your experience, inwardly and outwardly, according to the system’s map. All maps are an overlay on reality. As Alfred Korzybski pointed out, “The map is not the territory.”
If one pursues a spiritual/religious path and learns to translate and manipulate the mystical process well enough, or sometimes quite by accident or grace, one may fall into the Absolute. In the unqualified Absolute all separation, and thus all phenomenal existence, disappears. There is only the unborn — vast, timeless, deathless, and free. If there were still a separate someone able to talk or think about it, they would say in amazement, as great realizers have, “From the first, not a thing is!” or, “Nothing has ever happened!” or, “There is only vast emptiness, no holiness about it!” But since there is no “one” and no “thing,” nothing is said or expounded. There is only vast emptiness, still and silent. And herein lies the peace of God! No spiritual teachers or preachers saying anything! Thank you, Jesus!
Once the initial terror of self dissolving into Nothingness wears off, this stage is quite addicting. It is a great hiding place. The bliss and peace of absolute samadhi seems infinite. It is like deep sleep wide awake. The relative world is an old dream that never happened. In some systems, this stage may be mistaken for enlightenment, but it is really just a half-baked state. The trouble with the Absolute is it is relative experience. But it sure can knock your socks off!
THE RELATIVE IN THE ABSOLUTE
Sooner or later, if the human instrument continues to live, there is a coming out of the Absolute as this merging is actually just a relative experience. The upside of this experience is that free awareness may now be recognized as always already being present. This is good! The downside is that the “enlightenment” experience can easily be hijacked by the conceptual mind, and an “enlightened ego” is born. Not so good. This is where spiritual aspirants often become spiritual teachers, leap on their high horses and ride off in all directions proclaiming, “There is no one! Just One! And I am That!” And this is true. Sort of. Side ways. But not if you think about it or believe it.
Inspired to share their “enlightenment” with others, “No One” now changes their name from “Suzy” to “Ma Avidyananda,” starts having satsang, sits up front in the guru seat, and always has a dedicated student scurry off to pick up the big fat “donations” check at the end of their “I Am, There Is No Me” retreat.
The trouble with the bliss of samadhi is that eventually you have to go to the bathroom, eat breakfast, change the baby, or yell at the neighbors to shut up their stupid barking dog! That darn Relative has such poor boundaries! It just keeps intruding on the bliss of our enlightened state. If the whole universe would just realize how enlightened we are, it might start behaving appropriately. This can be a difficult time as something truly profound has obviously happened to us, but the universe doesn’t seem to care or notice. Enlightened egos just hate this! They can’t get any respect.
What often does begin to happen in this stage is that awareness becomes increasingly aware of itself as the ground of being and becomes less involved in seeking any identity in phenomenal reality. The drive to control and manipulate both ourselves and others begins to shift and fall away. It becomes more and more apparent, even to an ego, that “I” am not the doer, “I” am being “done.” Things happen, including “me.”
THE ABSOLUTE IN THE RELATIVE
Do shadows exist? Of course they do. I can see one very clearly right at this moment. There it is! Shadows appear in all different shapes, sizes, and shades. Without a doubt, shadows do exists!
And so do you!
But shadows do not exist by themselves. There are no independent shadows. They are totally dependent on something else for their existence. A shadow is a shadow of something else. Without that something else, shadows don’t exist. A shadow has no separate and independent existence. And neither do you. A shadow is totally dependent on something else for its existence. And so are you.
You, as a separate and independent entity, do not exist.
You! You are being used! You are being used by the infinite creative intelligence of the universe as the interdependent go-between of the Relative and Absolute! You are the timeless, nondimensional point where the Absolute expresses the Relative and the Relative returns to the Absolute. Behind you, vast emptiness. In front of you, the ten thousand things. No boundary, except you. Without you, nothing exists!
No wonder you are so confused and dysfunctional! Just like Alice, in ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND:
“WHO ARE YOU?” said the caterpillar. (This is the ultimate spiritual question!)
… Alice replied, rather shyly, “ I-I hardly know, Sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.”
“What do you mean by that?” said the caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”
Yes, Alice, we do see.
An apparent “someone” in the apparent “Absolute in the Relative” knows exactly how Alice feels! “I can’t explain myself because I’m not myself” is the truth.
It is in this stage that friends and family may become very concerned about you. Things that may have been of profound interest to you throughout your life may lose all significance. You are no longer trying to find yourself or any meaning and significance in the transitory dance of the phenomenal world. You may suddenly leave a long relationship that has never really worked. You may drop out of a successful career. A doctor may suddenly become a gardener. A lawyer may open a bed and breakfast. If you have been a spiritual or religious person all your life, seeking suddenly stops. You stop going to church, reading books, running off to retreats, or attending the guru of the month club.
You are losing your human form as consensus reality no longer defines you. You are no longer identified with beliefs or maps. Conceptual reality is clearly seen for what it is — a bunch of concepts with no basis in reality. Thought seems to happen less and less as there is no longer a separate “me” story to prop up with obsessive thinking. There is just present awareness, this as it is. Life lives you as it always has.
This is where “compassionate folly” may begin to happen. Be very clear that the “compassionate folly” is not something someone does or practices as an elite “enlightened one.” It is not a position one takes in life. It is something that spontaneously arises when all of one’s interest in what human beings do or believe to avoid the void falls away. There is then no longer any identification with most of the “doings” or “beliefs” of humans beings, as they are seen to be based on a false assumption. Yet at the same time, the love and compassion for humans seems to increase as there is no longer any sense of fear or separation. This means joyful participation with other humans may continue (although not always) without there being any identification or involvement in whatever they are doing or believing to avoid the void. So you may go out to play golf with your friends even though you couldn’t care less if you ever saw another golf club in your life. You may enjoy the game more than ever, but it is not because of golf, it is because you are “being” with your friends. The context of doing is being.
Friends and family may start to say things like, “Something has happened to you. You’ve changed. You are just not yourself anymore.”
You’re not yourself anymore.
HOTEI RETURNS TO THE MARKETPLACE
There is the simplicity of being- this as it is.
The knot of resistance dissolves.
A deep surrender or relaxing into life happens.
A deep acceptance of and openness to all people and situations occurs.
If fear arises, fear arises. If laughter happens, laughter happens. Get up, go to work. Eat lunch. Enjoy the weather. Everything happens by itself.
The play of compassionate folly arises spontaneously.
Relative and Absolute — what? Where?
Wisdom, compassion, and skillful action arise spontaneously from the ground of being.
There is only this now.
The search has ended.
The seeker is gone.
Hotei has returned to the marketplace, laughing himself silly, pointing to the hazy moon of enlightenment.
What else could he possibly do?
Where else could he possibly be?