Milestones on the Spiritual Path to Enlightenment
By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo
Actually there is no real teaching at all for you to chew on or squat over. But not believing in yourself, you pick up the baggage and go around to other people’s houses looking for Zen, looking for Tao, looking for mysteries, looking for awakenings, looking for Buddhas, looking for masters, looking for teachers. You think this is searching for the ultimate and you make this into your religion. But this is like running blindly. The more you run, the farther away you are. You just tire yourself, to what benefit at the end? Zen Master Foyan
Before we embark on the subject, let us pause to consider what is the spiritual path? Spiritual is not religious. Spirituality is open to everybody irrespective of his or her religion and this includes those with no religion. Spirituality can be defined as a movement away from the external world and it is a journey in wards towards the soul. It is usually heralded by the ‘small little voice’ within us, whether we practice meditation or not. Quite often it is triggered by some tragic event or emotional trauma. Most times it is initiated by feelings of disillusionment. A person might have accomplished his life ambition as a musician or a surgeon. Or he might even have become a millionaire as a businessman. These successful individuals could very well be at the peak of their careers! And yet the ennui is there. These individuals usually would have passed their middle ages, say between 40 to 50 years. There must also be a lack of satisfaction with what they have achieved. ‘Is that all?’ is the usual question. Some may even end up with disgust. Beginning with disillusionment, disgust, disengagement, detachment, desireless and dispassion will follow if the individual embarks on a spiritual path. This article is to outline the course of events starting from the spiritual call to enlightenment.
When does one embark on the spiritual path?
Normally one does not think of these things until one has lived through adolescence and adulthood. Quite often the feeling of dissatisfaction comes only after one has achieved the peak of one’s profession or trade. A family would have been raised successfully, and every aspect of one’s life is in tiptop condition. But where is the paradise or heaven that has been promised? The reason for this disillusionment is because this is only the success of the personality but not the soul. The little small voice of the soul has not been heeded at all. To reach the soul one’s journey must be inwards. In some, the undercurrent of ‘dis-ease’ has always been there since adulthood, although there is no precipitating crisis to make it surface. A death of a very dear one can also bring our awareness towards the soul, and the question of ‘why am I here’ keeps on cropping up. The person himself might have been through an illness or a near-death experience. Having recovered from the harrowing episode, he questions the futility of one’s successful external life. All his achievements have not brought the promised ‘heaven on earth’. However, a near-fatal accident may shake up the complacency of the individual, as he discovers suddenly that life is indeed tenuous!
A rather common precedence is through a bout of depression. Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle, Tolstoy and John Bunyan are some examples of depression sufferers before they embarked on the path. Count Leo Tolstoy had everything. He had fame, money and a wonderful family and yet there was only emptiness in his life. Then he did a U-turn, and became a simple peasant helping people that came his way daily. He serviced them and meditated everyday. He forsook all his courtly duties and station as a count. Then he found peace.
Some people are luckier. The wakeup call comes in the form of a book or a lecture from a guru. Sometimes it is their love for a certain kind of music, e.g. Mahler, and the music seems to herald a call. Or their appreciation for art or nature may suddenly turn them on to a spiritual path. Falling in love with the right person, who is already on the path is one of the strongest motive or inducement to walk the path.
But then, not all of us take heed of these numerous wakeup calls. We keep on saying that it is the wrong number and the call is not for us. The time is just not ripe for them. Some have survived a mortal illness plus a close call with a motor accident and yet they carry on merrily their usual ways of seeking money, fame and pleasures relentlessly. Only when a cancer strikes a person that he may ask the correct questions. Even then he might still continue to buy shares and properties till the last day of his life---for what purpose? We may read in the obituary everyday of friends and relatives who have passed away but the greatest wonder is that we do not believe that we may end up on that page one day. Normally, the calls are mostly not dramatic. It comes as boredom and ennui after all the successes and achievements of life: money, fame and family. There is no trumpet and fanfare. Neither is there any electrifying vision. Everything remains the same. Why is there no peace or satisfaction? Where is the bright light? The world remains as drab and as unexciting as before. What else is there?
A common trigger for women is menopause. After menopause at midlife, there is no more necessity to serve the husband and the children. She is now able to seek spiritual nourishment. Although there is no external signal for male menopause, nevertheless it happens. Male menopause comes after midlife and the man becomes crotchety. After the initial period of irritation and impatience, he will mellow towards an androgynous state. He is willing to step down to a humbler and menial job. He enjoys the grandchildren much more than his own children when they were young. Then when the menopausal spouse wants to venture into spiritual paths he is quite amenable. He may even follow suit.
Sometimes dreams or recurrent dreams may be the importuning wakeup call from the soul. Some of these dreams are too vivid to forget especially when the recipient is ripe for the plucking. Looking at all the above calling cards, the most dramatic and cogent one is great pain and suffering, as in mental depression. Occasionally the depression can even initiate a suicidal attempt, at which time a sudden and inexplicable U-turn happens. So where do we go from here?
How to look for a Spiritual Path?
Normally a strident call would also provide a ready made path, e.g. after listening to a very charismatic teacher on spirituality. If one is an agnostic, one tends to follow that teacher’s lineage or discipline. If he is a Zen Roshi, then the novitiate will become a Zen Buddhist. This practice is very common in the 60’s and 70’s, especially amongst the Americans, English and Europeans. These seekers may spend years in the Far East. They shave their heads to become Buddhist monks and Hindu Swamis. After ten to twenty years, they would have had enough and they disrobe to return to their own countries either to teach or to further practise. A few would have stayed behind in the East. Most of those that returned home and disrobed find that the practice in the East is not practicable at home. Thence there will be modifications of the eastern religions to fit the western style of living. However, pitfalls abound these fusion religious communities. This is so because the strict ethics of the eastern religion is often dissolved in the western free society. So new spiritual paths will evolve with these modified eastern teachings. Some of the seekers who have left their own religion when young may join the new eastern religions to become ardent devotees. Some of them who were disenchanted with their own religion when young may go back to their own religion and start anew. They are born again. This time they appreciate the old religion with new pairs of eyes. From this renewal they study the bible avidly and even begin to give bible lessons themselves. Finally, there are those, who have disavowed the standard established religions, will roam about to find a new age teacher who does not follow any traditional religion. These are the ones that advocate DIY (do it yourself) spirituality. If these gurus are charismatic the following could be explosive. If these foreign gurus are not enlightened and they come just for ego trips or more likely for monetary gains, then the crowd will peter out eventually. The seeker must be discerning. At this juncture it may be prudent to enumerate the type of gurus we should avoid:
1) One that declares that he is enlightened.
2) One who says that he is the only teacher who can lead you to enlightenment or to make you enlighten in a set number of months or years.
3) One who issues certificates to students to validate their stage of enlightenment.
4) One who exhibits supernatural powers flagrantly like materialising ash, trinkets etc.
5) One who charges a great deal for their initiations and lessons.
6) One who dresses in a far-flung fashion to attract crowds.
7) One who sleeps with his disciples.
8) One who drinks, smokes and takes drugs.
9) One who teaches only to select few on the grounds of status or finances.
10) One who does not charge, but urges you to donate generously to his temple or ashram or church. Or he may over charge you for some spiritual remedy or protection.
11) Be wary of teachers who propagate abstruse theories of no-concept, no-method, no-path, and no-technique. These teachings appear highly impressive and abstract, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. How does one practise with no rules, no methods and no teachings?
12) Be wary of spiritual groups that compete for power in the hierarchy of the organisation. Most of the organisers are in their twenties and thirties and they are there for power and not for spirituality.
13) Be wary of organisations that put the safety of their members in jeopardy: like rock climbing or walking in busy streets in a city waving their hands madly or insists on forms of asceticism that break down the health of the devotees.
Do we need to go the mountains?
The answer is a categorical ‘NO’. In fact there is also no necessity to stay in a temple or ashram. There is no benefit in shaving your heads to be monks or priests. It is romantic and adventurous to go into the forests or to climb mountains, for this change of scenery is like going to a picnic. To be spiritual is a commitment to an inward journey towards enlightenment, and this journey is not an external one. Our every day problems are the curriculum of the class. Our textbooks are the spiritual books written by teachers who have been through the mill: you have to be discerning here, as there is a lot of rubbish in the bookshops. You merely have to attend lectures or courses given by local or foreign teachers: the guidelines here is that the less they charge the better they will be. Better still if it is free. Resign from all committees including the religious or spiritual ones. Do not be entangled by ego trips. Start practising with your own family, friends and work mates. Find a teacher that does not need a translator, as you will be learning from the translator and not the teacher. Follow a teacher that teaches a simple technique of meditation. It does not have to be a specific religion. There should not be any pressure to get you initiated or converted to a religion. Feel comfortable with the organisation. The tempo and procedures should be leisurely and calming. Try to estimate the wisdom and sincerity of the teacher. Sincerity and humility are the best qualities to look for in a teacher.
The Spiritual Path itself
The path could be easy or very difficult depending on the individual’s history and character and the path he has chosen. At this stage it should be mainly an inner journey as well as letting go of outer commitments. The most important thing is the desire to transform oneself. Some take it as a struggle, but others deem as a breeze. The conversion must be of both the heart and the mind. The inner journey must begin with understanding and awareness fortified by some form of contemplation and silence. The outer path must start with the will to persistently walk that spiritual road reinforced by ethics. The composite journey is like peeling an onion shedding tears all the way, until one finds that there is only emptiness in the centre of the onion. Eventually one ends up by completely letting go. For the uninitiated it may help to lay down a few guidelines:
1) Start with a belief and ending with a faith.
3) Contemplation and silence.
One must start with a belief that the path one is embarking will finally transform one. Hopefully the belief will become a faith. At the end of this journey faith may transform into Grace. The arrival of Grace is beyond anybody’s control. Grace does not depend on how much effort one has put in currently. It must also take into account one’s spiritual development in previous lives. Grace may come to some one who hardly practises at all in this life. Another person may try very hard throughout this life and he gets nowhere, but his efforts will be accredited to the next life. One should believe that steps 2, 3, and 4 would do the transformation. That means that this inner belief should be supported by outer effort, will and determination. The culmination of this exercise is the ability to let go. The outer effort is purely to reinforce the inward journey.
This principle is the most emphasised in all religions. This is because if one is to proceed on to any form of contemplation, one’s unethical acts and immorality could pose as obstacles in one’s attempt at contemplation. There is no prudery here. It is merely a practical erasure of one’s guilt and conscience for one’s contemplation or meditation. All forms of contemplation should finally end up with one’s union with the soul or God or the Void. Impure acts and immorality are like boulders, nails and potholes on the path. The general principle here is that the practitioner should not hurt any one else physically, emotionally and mentally on this journey. The Ten Commandments of Christianity, the Hindu Yamas and Niyamas, and the precepts of Buddhism are there as guidelines. All other religions have similar edicts. If one is able to obey the commandments or follow the precepts, one feels much lighter. The following are goals in the process of purification:
Forgiveness: The main step is to forgive. Forgive oneself first, then the others. Utmost sincerity in the forgiving is mandatory.
Simplicity: Then one should move on to simplicity. In Christian terms it means poverty. All monastic life should be a simple one. In a religious institution, materialism and power distract the most. These distracting influences are eradicated by simplicity. It also makes us pay more attention to what is essential and real in the spiritual path. In meditation, simplicity will create fewer thoughts. Chuang Tzu said: “ The man of Tao remains unknown. Perfect virtue produces nothing. ‘No-Self ‘ is ‘True-Self.’ And the greatest man is “Nobody.”
Humility: Pride is spiritual materialism. Humility is the antidote to pride. There is no way that a proud man can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only a child can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, because he is endowed with these qualities of humility, simplicity and innocence. A proud man always deems himself superior to others. That is why it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich or proud man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The spiritual path is to humble oneself until there is no difference between oneself and others. In fact until one is ‘Nobody’.
Non-craving and non-desire: When we crave and desire we want something. This wanting is opposite to simplicity and humility. Buddha said ‘Craving is the cause of suffering’. The spiritual path is mainly to get rid of suffering. It is the disgust of the mundane life that brings us to this path in the first place. That means we must practise the 5 D’s: desirelessness, detachment, dis-entanglement, dis-enchantment, and dispassion. This is Buddha’s method of getting rid of suffering and consequently no more rebirth. The letting go should lead us to charity and altruism.
Love: This commodity is to counter ill will, anger and hatred. There are 3 types of love: erotic, brotherly and unconditional (divine). We may start with the first two, but we must end with unconditional love. Ill will quite often is the result of failure to achieve our desire, which is also an obstacle to simplicity and humility. When our pride is hurt, we get angry. When we are continually hurt we turn to hatred. All these negative traits cannot arise if our nature is filled with love.
Selflessness: This quality erases selfishness, self-centredness and self-righteousness. Selfless service with compassion means always thinking of other people first. It is a trait that evolves with practice: the more you serve, the more selfless you become.
Contemplation and silence
Under this heading, we have contemplation, meditation, prayer and movements leading to quietism.
Contemplation essentially includes most of the Christian practices, e.g. lectio divina of the Catholic Church, active and passive contemplation of the other Christian mystic traditions, and Centering Prayer of Thomas Keating. We will not go into these specialised contemplation techniques due to lack of space.
Meditation: There are as many types of meditation as religions. There are Christian, Zen, Theravada, Tibetan Buddhist, Transcendental meditations and many others. The author is partial to Buddhist meditations as these are the most structured. In the Theravada tradition, there is Samatha (concentration) and Vipassana (insight). After accomplishing Vipassana, one may move on to Shikantaza practice, which is the final stage of Soto Zen meditation. Read my essays written on these subjects. Shikantaza is found in my essay on ‘Meditation in Emptiness’. Therefore, no meditation technique will be described here. Just remember that all meditations in the world fall into two categories: concentration and awareness.
Meditations in action----movements towards achieving quietism
Then there are meditations in action, which include yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Dervish dancing, Subud Latihan and martial arts. Vipassana also includes awareness of every action outside of formal sitting, which is fully described in Buddha’s The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Lastly mass, liturgy and other congressional prayer and singing of hymns and bhajans can trigger deepening of consciousness, but this is a rare event.
The aim of all forms of meditation and contemplation is to empty the mind of any thoughts leading to the Void, which is the essence of our true Self. The Void is very deep and one can continue downwards for many layers in the maturing of one’s enlightenment.
“What we do for one, we do for many.” “ When we serve others, we serve ourselves.” These statements are never truer. When a situation arises for us to help someone it is an opportunity given to us. Never let it pass. Service must be done because of our compassionate love to others, whoever they maybe. It must be our instinctive response to the suffering of others. We must be altruistically available all the time within the limits of our capability. We must not assume a job for which we are not equipped. We must serve with the utmost humility without condescension. The empathy must be there even though the sufferers are strangers. It is easy to help our own kin and friends, but we must succour our enemies with the same fervour. You may say that it is a tall order. Otherwise one’s help is not universal. If you serve for a fee or for status it is not pure. You must serve because it is your second nature: ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is truly very difficult to practise. You can serve with material things like food, clothing and lodging. You can serve with emotional support, love and care. You can serve with wise advice and teaching. You can also serve by just being there. You can merely sit and listen to the anguish and pain of the victim. Provide warmth to the victim and elevate the suffering spirit.
In selfless service, we do not look for good results or expect commendation. We come in to help because a need has arisen. It is only with much experience and education that we learn how to serve with humility. There should not be an attitude of a well endowed helping a down and out. There is only serving with no server and no one is being served.
The best type of service is to instruct dharma to those who have ears to hear. The instructors need not necessarily be teachers, priests or monks. They can be friends, relatives or even enemies. Indirectly one may utilise animals, nature or books to instruct. This excellent service of giving dharma must have the result of letting go. Children can also teach parents and they usually do.
The above arms of the spiritual path are well exemplified by the Hindu tradition of the four paths (margas) of awareness. They are jnana yoga, bakti yoga, karma yoga and raja yoga. The word yoga means to yoke one’s soul to unite with the Godhead (Brahman).
1. Jnana yoga is intellectually learning about the true Self. Using mental analysis, he strips away what is not self: body, emotions and mind and their offshoots are all not the true Self. With simple meditation he is able to see that feelings, thoughts and sensations are all false. Then with prolonged effort he becomes a jnani. The accent here is not deep meditation but prolonged analytical contemplation.
2. Bakti yoga is the path of pure devotion to God. He spends his whole life totally devoted to looking after the temple or a guru and singing bhajans for long periods. He may travel to a site where a deity has been visualised or to a shrine of Krishna. This total dedication and devotion to God or guru has similarities in Christianity.
3. Karma yoga is selfless service to God or others as described in the section on service. This compassionate service has no doer. No credit is expected. There is no merit involved. It is selfless service performed by nobody.
4. Raja yoga is the practice of intense and persistent deep meditation. It must also include jnana yoga, as knowledge of the map of the path is essential. The accent here is deep and profound concentration, but finally the practice of awareness must be embarked upon. It is in this practice that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the Void.
A consummate Hindu practitioner would have to cover all four margas, but essentially specialising in only one.
For a serious seeker, he would discover that he has to transcend all the superficial and ritualistic practices of the traditional religions. Religions are there for the majority, but only a few could master the intricacies and intensity of deep meditation of a mystic. In other words, these ‘postgraduates’ have to become mystics of their faiths, e.g. Sufism for Islam, Kabbalah for Judaism, Buddhist Mysticism and Christian Mysticism.
Milestones on the Spiritual Path
Roberto Assagioli describes a breakthrough on the spiritual path as:
“A harmonious inner awakening is characterised by a sense of joy and mental illumination that brings with it an insight into the meaning and purpose of life; it dispels many doubts, offers the solution of many problems, and gives an inner source of security. At the same time, there wells up a realisation that life is one, and an outpouring of love flows through the awakening individual toward his fellow beings and the whole of creation. The former personality, with its sharp edges and disagreeable traits, seems to have receded into the background, and a new loving and loveable individual smiles at us and the whole world, eager to be kind, to serve, and to share his newly acquired spiritual riches, the abundance of which seems to him almost too much to contain. Such a state of exalted joy may last for varying periods, but it is bound to cease. The inflow of light and love is rhythmical, as is everything in the universe. After a while it diminishes or ceases, and the flood is followed by the ebb.”
This particular breakthrough applies to all that have the good fortune to experience it. To most of the recipients, this may be the first and only one. To those on the path for a long time, they may be repeated until the individual is transformed. To those who have been spiritually struggling all their lives this mystical state of awakening will also wane, but the memory remains with them for the rest of their lives. The awakening can come gradually to some, but it also can break out in an explosive manner with others. It can come to ardent truth seekers, but it also can arise suddenly to those who never practise at all! This act of Grace in conversion is most enigmatic and unpredictable. Some have struggled all their lives and never had a glimpse of it and after several decades of practice the ordinariness of life is recognised as the ‘fruit’. It does seem unfair to the long-suffering truth-seeker not to have any breakthroughs, and yet breakthroughs come to non-seekers. But we forget that the non-seekers might have practised hard and long in their previous lives. These old souls are merely enjoying the fruits of their previous paths. Some of these breakthroughs appear to be of the same quality to those who practise and to those who do not. Majority of those in the latter category does not have lasting benefit from these experiences. These psychic or mystical occurrences are usually more startling in nature in these non-practitioners. Some of the recipients are not on the path and so they have not the faintest clue what hit them. These are signs that life does not consists of only the material things that we can see and feel. Then there are also true signposts, which herald the stages of progress on the spiritual path. These latter signposts are of permanent value, and they seem to clock in the mileage of spiritual progress, but there is no definite timing and sequence to their appearances. So let us visit some of the ubiquitous phenomena which are not cast in stone. These may be by-products of true spiritual progress.
Ubiquitous siddhis which anybody may enjoy
These are psychic or mystical phenomena, which may or may not be permanent. Mostly they are transient. The psychic ones are of the paranormal variety: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and apportation with poltergeist effects, prophecy and cosmic healing. Divine ear and divine sight are the other rare phenomena. These qualities have no bearing on the spiritual maturity of the individual. Those who have successfully attained some steps up the spiritual ladder may enjoy some of these psychic abilities as by-products. These by-products are not what were sought. With the non-seekers, these qualities are usually not permanent. They come and go ad random. The more the recipients feel elated with these psychic abilities the more elusive are these traits. These instances of precognition are pure flukes. It can never be repeated at will. Each time the precognition episode happens, the mind is relatively empty. It is not crowded with thoughts or worries. Conversely, it does not mean that every time one experiences emptiness in meditation, a precognitive message will turn up.
The next group of phenomena comes under the heading of peak experience. This term is coined by Dr. Abraham Maslow who said: “A peak experience is, to a degree, absolute. Emotional reactions in a peak experience have a quality that can be characterised as awe, reverence and humility. In a mystical/philosophical peak experience, the world is seen united into a total entity; in the love or aesthetic peak experience, the experience itself is given the quality of the complete world. Fears, anxieties, and inhibitions are momentarily replaced by fulfilment, individuation, and great maturity.”
Peak experiences are our healthiest moments, clear, free and unencumbered, living at our optimum potential. They can come at intense emotional moments like child bearing or having passionate sex, or during meditation, in a quiet countryside or wandering in native jungle. People experiencing it tend to lose track of time and space. However these are not considered to be true spiritual breakthroughs. They may or may not have lasting value. If they are the preliminary of an actual breakthrough, then they are significant and maybe the first of a recurring phenomena---mini-satoris. Other peak experiences are like skiing rapidly down a snow-clad mountain or racing a car at 300 kilometres per hour. There are also ‘mystical’ experiences as follows: Suddenly, one finds oneself in very peaceful and tranquil environment during an ordinary moment; whatever object one sees is lighted up; there is a distinct feeling that one is facing God but without a face. Quite often the person zooms out of his own ego and there is ‘nobody home’. Peak experiences maybe the starting point for the genuine breakthroughs to follow. Majority, however, are merely peak experiences, which are not repeated and later on to be forgotten. All peak experiences are pleasurable and should not be taken as a true sign of spiritual attainment. The episode could mislead the recipient that he has ‘arrived!’ Some of these peak experiences are mere lifting of the veil for us to have a peek at the other side. It is an encouragement to those on the spiritual path. To those who are not, they give them a false boost to their ego-spiritual status. Taking psychedelic drugs is one good example. One gets high with it and a brief vision of the other side is witnessed, but it is not sustainable unless one takes another dose and another. At the end of which one becomes a junkie!
Real Signposts on the road to enlightenment
What about the real breakthrough episodes? These normally follow many years of struggle on the path. Although they are true signposts, some of these occur to those who are non-practitioners or to early truth-seekers, and these breakthroughs may be squandered. After some time they are forgotten. If the unveiling of realty happens to some one who has been arduously struggling on the path, then the episode is received gratuitously. Comparing these real ones with the spurious ones, it is like comparing the real person with his photograph. These real breakthroughs have the concreteness to the extent that they appear more real than life itself.
One common example is Light. The entire environment is lit up, even though it is night. There is no sense of time or space. Sometimes there is a feeling of no past, or future: everything is in the now. The peace, tranquillity and calmness are immeasurable: one could happily die at this moment. With increased consciousness, there is sensation of bliss and joy. There are no worries or anxieties in the individual.
Quite often after the event, the perception of the world is totally different. There are no words to describe the beauty of the world: every leaf, every insect and even the dung in the streets are exquisite and alive. Nothing is dead. Some of them see themselves as whatever they see: they are the road, the trees or the dog or the lamppost. In other words, they are part of everything. Some may see the cosmic dance in the form of energy and particles of prana. They gyrate and move in waves like ballet dancers colliding and disappearing in moments. Their own body molecules also partake in this Dance of Shiva.
Music and art may also bring about these moments of ecstasy when the picture comes alive and the music brings tears of choked emotions to the listener. The lasting effects would be from thence onwards. One now sees with different eyes and hears music with enlightening ears. It is never the same as before.
Some would suddenly be filled with love and compassion for no reason. This infinite power of love would extend even to enemies. Compassion is for everyone who is sick and poor in this whole wide world. Empathy is another quality that is engrafted in the person’s character. Empathy is the power of projecting one’s personality to the other, who is suffering. When totally extended it also means to suffer the pain of the sufferer.
In others, they cry and laugh at the same time. These crying and laughing episodes may last for hours, after which they normally subside. After this kensho, much more work has yet to be done otherwise it is wasted.
Most of the above occurrences are transient. They do not last, but in a few their characters are transformed forever. In some (those on the path), they are repeated over and over again until they are fully enlightened.
These mini-satoris would finally culminate in a maha-satori (great enlightenment). To those who have been working on their path for a long time, these occurrences are not world shaking to them. They occur just as blips on their ascending paths. To some, looking at a countryside scene initiates a sudden realisation that there is a reason to everything existing. His soul is part of everything existing: no questions are necessary. But what is the structure of this spiritual rationale is not important and this expanded consciousness will have a lasting effect.
It must also be remembered that true and ardent seekers may not experience these phenomena or psychic experiences, but their characters are transformed all the same.
The Dark Night of the Soul
Not all breakthroughs are pleasurable. Some are visions of death. Some are reminders that we have not let go enough. The best known of these is described by St. John of the Cross as ‘The Dark of the Soul’. At this point the seeker is desultory, dispassionate and depressed. There is no interest in life whatsoever. There is only sadness throughout the days. The good thing about this syndrome is that it may be the penultimate stage before enlightenment. This syndrome will be elaborated in another essay.
Divine Consciousness and Unity
With the advanced seekers, who have been practising for decades, their breakthrough visions may have a higher quality. They may be vision of angels and spirits. They may feel or ‘see’ God. This is the state of Divine Consciousness. Inevitably and finally they will travel inwards into themselves to join up with God. Once union with God is accomplished they have achieved Unity. So from Cosmic Consciousness they upgrade themselves to Divine Consciousness and finally ending in Unity.
Unity is the experience of joining with God, but at this final stage there is no experiencer. There is only the experience. And that is why these experiences are ineffable: no words can explain the experience. The Void means there is no God, no self and no experience eventually. The second the individual is united with God, there is no more individuality. This state is very well characterised by the Void of the Zen Buddhist:
“All things are characterised with emptiness: they are not born, they are not annihilated; they are not tainted, they are not immaculate; they do not increase, they do not decrease. In emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no thought, no confection, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, colour taste, touch, objects; no element of vision, till we come to no element of consciousness; there is no knowledge, no ignorance, till we come to no old age and death, no extinction of old and death; there is no suffering, no accumulation, no annihilation, no path; there is no knowledge, no attainment, and no realisation, because there is no attainment. In the mind of the Bodhisattva who dwells depending on deep meditation there are no obstacles; and, going beyond the perverted views, he reaches final Nirvana. All the Buddhas of the past, present and future, depending on the deep meditation used, attained to the highest perfect enlightenment.”
Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism
In Nirvana, the emptiness is absolute: there is no form, sensations or even consciousness. There is also no creation or dissolution. This is equivalent to the Vedantist’s deepest meditation of unconscious samadhi or meditation without seed.
Associating features of a genuine breakthrough
One can see now the path to awakening is not one single road. It is composed of many roads with side lanes and many ups and downs into valleys and hills. One can easily get lost on the way, which gets very treacherous in parts. Whatever it is, there is always one of these associating features in the breakthroughs:
a) expansion of consciousness
b) a temporary loss of the limitations of the self and
c) an infusion of timelessness, divinity, knowledge, joy, peace, light and creativity.
Light is a special subject on the spiritual path. So let us discuss it a bit more.
Light almost always signifies spiritual effluence. The haloes and white light surrounding saints and prophets mean that they are either enlightened or they have reached the Kingdom of Heaven: e.g. Buddha and Jesus. Not only are they surrounded by light, they themselves irradiate luminescence. Dr. Richard Bucke (author of ‘Cosmic Consciousness’) found himself engulfed by a flame colour cloud, which actually is his own effulgence. It was accompanied by exultation, joyousness and intellectual illumination. With others, light can also be seen in all the objects present or in the entire room or landscape. The objects may also be seen with shimmering outlines at their peripheries. The light may be white, green, blue, red or violet, in fact all the colours of the rainbow. Although ghosts are quite often seen in white, some appear as balls of green. Balls of white are also interpreted as from the spiritual dimension. Most times, these bright lights are accompanied by peace and joy to the viewer. To some a deep understanding of the complex universe comes with it. To others it represents God. Occasionally, a sense of timelessness and joy accompanies the appearance of the light. This light is the same white light at the end of the tunnel in Near-Death Experience.
To the percipient, it is like opening of the third eye. To the mystics, it is the lifting of the veil to have a preview of the other world. The episode is invariably transient. In experienced meditators, the closing of the eyes quite often is accompanied by light behind the eyelids. This is the light of the inner eye. And at times this inner light comes as a ball of white light. In such cases, the meditation room is seen to be brighter when the eyes are opened after meditation. This somewhat brighter room is still the effects of the inner eye. However, when the room is seen to be very bright with or without meditation this is the light of the outer eye. It is the flooding of the room by the divine. This is shifting of consciousness of the individual. Most times, only the solitary percipient can see the light, but very occasionally every body in the room can see that the entire room is filled with effulgent, bright light and the effect is heavenly with everybody kneeling down for thanks giving. In cosmic healing, very occasionally shafts of white light can be seen directed at the patient, while the healing is in process.
No matter how one interprets light in the above examples, it signifies the lifting of the veil allowing us to see the next higher realm.
Insights that arise when the veil is lifted
Many insights have been recorded in the literature and these include those received during near-death experiences (NDE). Only three such profound understanding will be highlighted here:
1) There is no such thing as time. Now is eternity. There is no past or future. Every incident in the whole world that has happened in the past or going to happen in the future is actually happening now. So Now is the only door to eternity.
2) Everything, every person, every animal and vegetable are interconnected. Nothing is excluded. This entire composite is God. That means everything visible or invisible is part of the Absolute, the Godhead. There is nothing outside this Absolute or Unity.
3) All the mysteries of the universe are instantly understood, but this noietic knowledge cannot be brought back to normal consciousness. It is ineffable.
There are many others, but we shall not go into it.
Milestones of true spiritual progress
All the above experiences and phenomena are milestones on the map of spiritual paths. Most of them are transient experiences, and some are signposts of real spiritual progress. In order for these progressive stages to be engrafted onto the seeker, a transformation of the seeker’s character must take place. And this is translated into wisdom. This is seen in his altered behaviour, his ability to let go and his exhibition of love, compassion and service. So let us now elaborate a little on these consolidating features of someone who has been converted by breakthroughs. We will name these features as signposts.
Signposts: signs and symptoms of an awakened individual
The seeker who has ‘arrived’ will appear to the outsider as radiant and smiling. He is a fountain of youth. A spiritual person ages much less slowly than usual or even looks younger. The radiance around him is due to his inner light or aura shining through. He is always smiling and laughing because life is a cinch: he knows he can never die and nothing in life is important. In other words he has no problems. He has already let go of everything including his ego.
He is dispassionate, detached, and desireless. Nothing awakens his desire or greed. He knows that he has to leave this world with all its materialism one day. He realises that to get angry is to hurt oneself. With his prowess at meditation, he remains cool, calm and collected. Not flustered and no panic, there is no stress in his life. Having realised that he is nothing special and he is actually part of everything else he has become selfless. Adding to this he also realises that the further he climbs the spiritual ladder, the healthier he becomes. Lately, the American doctors have found out this obvious fact: spiritual health equals physical health. As he progresses, he finds that he is backed up all the way by Cosmic Consciousness, deities and God. His aura or radiance will inevitably attract all and sundry. They crowd around him for no reason. He is never in a hurry. He does not need an audience or students. There is no intention to cause an impact and to keep a low profile is his motto. When one scrutinises him further these qualities will be discerned:
· Joy and happiness.
· Calm, cool and collected.
· A great sense of humour which is never at the expense of others.
· Shying away from publicity.
· He keeps his supernatural powers to himself, except in the case of healing.
· Selflessness manifests as service, which is non-discriminatory.
· Divine love, wisdom, compassion and empathy are embedded in his bones.
· There is no partiality to any religion. Every race, religion or cast is part of one family.
· There are no untouchables in his mind.
The list can go on ad nauseam.
As can be deducted from the above dissertation, the author does not advocate any particular religion. In fact with expanding consciousness he realises that all religions tend to prevent higher practice. At this level, all religions must be transcended by the yogin to move up. It also means that every path is unique to the individual. Therefore there are millions of paths, all of which are correct as long as one is not side tracked by powers, the occult and ritualistic practices. Practices like Kundalini yoga, Chi Kong and the sectarian esoteric disciplines must be practised with care, as psychosis is rather prevalent amongst these practices. The gurus of these disciplines must themselves have awakened. Never be in a hurry. One should take decades rather than weeks for the journey. After all one has many more lives to go!
After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
This is a book written by Jack Kornfield describing the return to the market place after enlightenment. The Zen master has an apt koan, ‘Before enlightenment, you chop wood, after enlightenment, you also chop wood’. In other words, what does one do after all the beautiful excitement, ecstasy, light, joy and exultation? One returns back to normal life to find that the baby and pets still have to be fed. The laundry still has to be done. One still has to go office to earn a living. As the splendour wanes in the course of time, the memory tends to fade but never forgotten. Many times the return home will precipitate slip backs and downfalls due to old habits of behaviour. These painful periods are excruciating, because these fallbacks are unexpected after climbing up those mountain peaks many times.
The Zen teaching is that after the maha-satori, one must still work hard at the spiritual path. One continues doing zazen until death. In the case of the Zen practitioners, there may be repeated kenshos until the final satori, after which they continue to work at the same pattern and the same pace of practice. However, the seeker with many kenshos may still slide back. One mistake and the benefit of years of practice is erased. The higher one is on the spiritual scale the smaller the margin of error and the steeper is the slide down. Having said all that, there will be much transformative change of character in most of those who have been practising for a long time. Some of the above sterling qualities would still be entrenched in them.
It must be emphasised here that the old anger, craving, habits and samskaras are still with the ‘successful practitioner’, even after 30 years in the mountain. Once aroused, the emotional desire and anger may still arise. It is the innate characteristics of the hard ware that came with the individual’s birth. What was transformed in the path was the software of the personality. The feelings of the samskaras are still in tact.
The best and most reassuring fruit is that the seeker becomes happier and joyful everyday until his letting go is total. Joy and compassion are now his second nature. With this progression, he is less likely to retrogress. He has totally surrendered to his Tao. He is truly a nobody using only his working (functional) mind. His thinking mind and self (ego) are totally eradicated. There is no enlightened person left: there is only enlightened activity.
1. Roberto Assagioli. Self-realisation and Psychological Disturbances, in Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, eds. Spiritual Emergency. New York: Putnam, 1989.
2. R.M. Bucke. Cosmic Consciousness. New Hyde Park, NY; University Books, 1961.
3. J.M. Cohen and J-F Phipps. The Common Experience. Quest Books. 1992.
4. William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Collier Books. 1961.
5. Jack Kornfield. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Rider. 2000
6. Harry R. Moody and David Carroll. The Five Stages of the Soul. Rider. 1998.
7. Abraham Maslow. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1968.
8. Wayne Teasdale. The Mystic Heart. New World Library. 1999.