“Consciousness is an itching rash that makes you scratch. Of course, you cannot step out of consciousness, for the very stepping out is in consciousness. But if you learn to look at your consciousness as a sort of fever, personal and private, in which you are enclosed like a chick in its shell, out of this very attitude will come the crisis which will break the shell.”
~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
At a certain point in the conscious process of inquiry into our true nature and identity, we might begin to slip out of the mental prison of our own fabrication, especially when we come to suspect that the magic show of consciousness has some definite drawbacks. Upon inspection, we can observe that it is always up to something. It is always modifying itself, wanting something, attaching to some hopeful notion or promise, or else avoiding something. It is invariably prone to grasping at some “proof” that sustains the hope that it can survive and thrive in the current form it believes itself to be – an enduringly independent entity in a world of other separate entities.
Furthermore, as we awaken, we begin to understand how the mental judgments we habitually embrace, such as the belief that life is something we need to manipulate in order to get what we think we want, actually creates the sense of dissatisfaction and stress that characterizes our usual experience. For those who are awakening to the light of our original nature, prior to the play of hope and fear, such restless cycles of craving and aversion begin to give way to simply being lived by the effulgent Mystery which is always shining beyond the confines of the small mind.
However, there is a particular paradox about awakening. For one thing, it is not always the blissful experience that some expect it will be, based on the popular “enlightenment” lore. It certainly is not a consolation, much less some kind of badge of accomplishment. In fact, it often reveals to us in a stark and uncompromising fashion just why we chose to remain asleep for so long. That’s because true awakening involves ceasing to grant reality to that which is not real. Just so, the more we open our eyes, the more we recognize that the unreal includes all that we have thought, felt, and presumed to know – all that we cherished about the fictional character we took ourselves to be. That realization can come as quite a shock, often provoking an internal crisis, which is why a relationship with Spiritual Friends and an open-hearted community of fellow practitioners is often recommended to help the aspirant in passing through the fire of transformation.
Seekers are often laboring under many false preconceptions about the process of liberation. For those who are hoping that there will be something special waiting just for them upon awakening, Sri Nisargadatta counters: “If you expect any benefits from your search, material, mental or spiritual, you have missed the point. Truth gives no advantage. It gives you no higher status, no power over others; all you get is truth and the freedom from the false.”
Moreover, having recognized what we have been up to – pretending to be what we never were — there are no longer any excuses for behaving unconsciously. “Waking up” thus comes with the express mandate that such recognition must now be embodied, or incarnated, in the way we act and behave with each other in the world of space and time, otherwise it eventually will become just a vanishing memory. That is what “awakened functioning” is all about. Insight must be grounded in functioning, in relationship. In other words, we must allow the awakening to manifest as a love without condition or boundary, preference or bias.
All along we’ve been committed to some great escape, always wanting things to be other than they are, life to be other than it is, but now those plans are brought to a grinding halt. We realize that there is no escape, this is it. As we awaken, we recognize that there is nowhere to go. As St. Augustine famously noted, “God triumphs over the ruins of our plans.”
At the same time, “waking up” also yields the paradoxical recognition that there is nothing to do, or more to the point, there is no doer. This is the difficult part of realization — to discard the sense of doer-ship, let go, and “let God”. It’s the very sense of personal doer-ship that sabotages even profound “spiritual” experiences, where the mind adds a “me and mine” to the functioning, re-enforcing the sense of a separate and enduring self.
We are being called to the realization of an infinite Freedom beyond the reach of both knowledge and belief. This Freedom is what is actually most true of us. When one begins to catch some glimpse of this, inspecting the mind itself to the point of transparency, the reliance on words, scriptures, and all second-hand beliefs, no matter how profound and exalted, becomes obsolete. We are left with the stark realization that we simply Are, that what is, simply is, and in this innocent ordinariness of life we can move, dance, and play as Love without any need to fixate identity in transient self-images of borrowed certainty — no false landings, nothing but open eyes, open hands, open heart.
Such maturity begins to dawn when we are willing to question our most deep-seated beliefs, assumptions, and presumed identities, submitting them to the relentless fire of True Inquiry. When our love of the Real is such that even our most closely held notions and concepts about the nature of ourselves and existence can be subjected to honest and probing investigation, we are beginning to emerge from our spiritual infancy and grow up. Until then, we typically drift along in a dreamy trance of un-inspected security, at the mercy of whatever conditioning filters are operative in the body/mind organism. In effect, we are like sleep-walkers, attendant only to our human animal needs and desires. In Buddhism, this is called The Wheel, and it spins us inexorably through innumerable dreamy births and deaths until the fabric of the dream itself begins to wear thin, and then there is the possibility of Seeing.
However, for just about all of us, it is only when we have arrived at the point when there is no other option, that we are ready and willing to stop and question the dream. After all, in the dream there are limitless experiences to be sought and exploited, and so the wheel keeps on spinning, and the dreamer keeps dreaming. Who would, in the midst of the dream, be so bold as to pull aside the curtain and unveil the wizard of the ego-mind at last? Indeed, the nature of Oz is so seductive, and those poppy fields of borrowed beliefs and unchallenged self-images are so very potent, that the last thing anybody really wants to do is to awaken, despite all protests to the contrary. To truly awaken entails walking off the cliff of consensus reality and flinging oneself into the Unknown, and that is a daunting prospect indeed!
To support our awakening and maturation during the conscious process of inquiry into our true nature and condition, there have been countless helpful suggestions down through the centuries. One way that many have found effective and transformative was introduced by Shakyamuni Buddha, and is known as the Noble Eight-Fold Path. It is comprised of right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In essence, it cumulatively amounts to a prescription for a life lived with integrity, wisdom, and compassion – in other words, growing up.
Right view is born of humility. Without the foundation of genuine humility, all else is vanity. Such humility also entails the realization and acceptance of the fact that, regardless of our presumptions of knowledge, we really don’t know who or what we are. By allowing that recognition in, and totally relaxing into its implication, a space opens up, paradoxically, for the tacit but direct recognition of who we actually are, beyond the conceptual or comparative mind. With the dawning of humility, gratitude is also born.
Right aspiration is intention + attention for the best outcome in life and relations, not just for oneself, but for all sentient beings. A key component of right aspiration is both recognizing and then fully coming to terms with one’s core motivation for embarking on a spiritual adventure in the first place. Many seekers tend to affiliate themselves with some idealistic practice or method without first understanding what they really want – what their deepest yearning truly is. This in turn can lead to a lot of confusion, missteps, blind alleys, and dead ends along the way. For example, many seekers tend to start out with the belief that spirituality is all about the acquisition of exalted states and exotic powers, and hence their efforts only result in fueling the ambition of the ego-mind. Such expectations only add to the baggage that must eventually be surrendered, if one is to truly awaken beyond the need for having one’s existence confirmed and self-projections validated.
Right speech is speaking honestly – both to others and to ourselves. Moreover, right speech also precludes casting judgments about each other, because honestly, humans are the least qualified to judge each other. Consequently, more often than not, right speech is silence. This does not mean that we should refrain from speaking up in the face of injustice, or remain quiet when we see that harm is being done. It does, however, require a mature sense of discernment to gauge what manner of speech is appropriate or not in each situation. The great sage Shirdi Sai Baba summed up the essence of right speech when he suggested: “Before you speak ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve upon the silence?”
Right action is “doing the right thing” with impeccable integrity, and each one knows what that consists of at any given moment. Nobody has to tell us, and we know in our heart when we miss the mark. To go even one step further, embodying the conscious principle of non-action – “doing nothing” – is true relaxation into one’s original freedom. As the Tao Te Ching wisely advises, “Do nothing, and everything is done.” This maxim should not be misunderstood as a call for avoidance, however. By grasping at nothing, but at the same time, turning nothing away, we can find the “middle way” in every situation we encounter. Alternately, many seekers tend to imagine and believe that right activity is a matter of pursuing various “spiritual” experiences. This can be a big trap, more often than not. Awakening is not adding something new, but letting go of all that obscures our true nature, including the craving for special experiences that end up only fattening the ego-mind.
Right livelihood has been poetically depicted by Rumi as “letting the beauty we love be what we do.” However, in today’s challenging world of shifting occupations, that might not be as easy as it sounds, and in fact, it probably has always been a struggle for most to find work in a field that most satisfies one’s heart. Of course, it would greatly help to gain some clarity and insight on what one’s purpose is for being here, but that knowledge requires a deep and persistent inquiry that few are willing to undertake. In any case, steering clear of any work which involves the exploitation and harm of one’s fellow beings is a good first step, as one strives to come to terms with a proper livelihood. The poet Kahil Gibran beautifully described what it entails to work from love when we wrote:
“It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your own heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”
Right effort is an art and a skill, requiring above all a finely honed sense of emotional intelligence. For more on this matter, see the consideration on the Brahma Viharas, here.
Although there is a state beyond both effort and effortlessness, until it is realized, some effort is necessary. However, this doesn’t have to imply some grim undertaking, but when embarked upon with the serenity and humor that derives from intuition of our native happiness, it can be an enjoyable journey indeed. Without a healthy sense of humor, even the most profound aspirations will become stale and dry. When we refrain from taking ourselves too seriously, our efforts will not be weighed down by the burden of belief in a separate and desperate person in need of saving.
Right mindfulness is stepping back and refusing to believe everything we think – all the chatter of the monkey mind. Moreover, once awakened from the trance of borrowed concepts and transient self-images, right mindfulness means not falling back to sleep, and indulging in old habits of reactivity, such as greed, envy, intolerance, hatred, pride, resentment, regret, arrogance, judgmentalism, or negativity. Right mindfulness goes hand-in-hand with Right concentration, which is unswerving inquiry into the essence of mind, original nature, primordial identity. In the course of implementing the principle of right concentration, one may become naturally disposed to the practice of non-dwelling, which is refraining from fixating one’s attention on any arising mental or emotional formations, while remaining totally present in relaxed and stable wakefulness. It also is supported by the discipline of silence, or stillness.
Our application of these fundamental principles will determine the quality our time spent here, as well as create the foundation for future development, in keeping with the maxim, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Learning how to grow up and behave is the impetus for our evolution, both individually and as a species, and the supports proposed above, when engaged with heart-felt sincerity and resolve, will serve to propel our adaptation to increasingly mature levels of awake awareness.