There is a zen saying that “Enlightenment is a divine accident, but spiritual practice makes one more accident prone.”
It reflects beautifully the synergistic dance between grace and personal effort in the awakening process.
All non-dual teachings remind us that freedom and love is our natural state. God – pure radiant consciousness, is what we always already are, even if we do not feel it yet as our emotional reality. Many insist that since our deepest being is already free, we need not engage in any kind of spiritual practices. Why seek to become what we already are? Others focus on chipping away at the blocks to truth, working to become awake. I take an integrated approach that includes both perspectives, embracing what helps us taste more directly our true nature as ever-present being and love, and what helps us continue unfolding and embodying that realization.
Dedication cultivates Ripeness
I have always been a mystic at heart – following the thread of my direct experience as it has unfolded, supported by study and practice of universal truth teachings. After an initial awakening into Boundless Love as a teenager that set me upon the spiritual path, I found my way to years of very dedicated formal practice that included specific meditations, prayers, study and esoteric practices, alongside in depth psychological unpacking and quality guidance from good teachers.
This served me well for many years, and this period of disciplined effort clearly smoothed out some of the more crude edges of my personality structure (or at least showed me what these edges were!) It also seemed to cultivate greater receptivity to more refined spiritual states of awareness. The engine of my practice was a deep yearning to return permanently to the glimpses of unity that I had tasted in moments of grace. Although my practice worked well, there seemed to be a wall my own efforts were unable to penetrate through.
Grace happens of itself
One day on pilgrimage to a sacred mountain in southern India, a deep transmission into no-mind spontaneously arose. It happened by grace when I was not seeking anything special. At the time, I was just sitting quietly in the cave that had been the home of Ramana Maharshi. It was a transmission from His depth of silence. My consciousness opened up beyond all concepts of God, self, spiritual reality that I had known previously. The familiar sense of self dissolved in an ocean of infinite being, infinite silence. The peace and fulfilment was indescribable. It came with guidance, a teaching from the depths that oriented me into a very profound relaxation – not to try to be anything, get anything, become anything, relinquish anything, just be, just rest. It was profound and utterly natural.
By grace my individual consciousness, the separate ‘me’ disappeared, and with it the efforts to attain enlightenment – primed it seemed by the pump of so many years of sincere practice. Yet when it passed, as all states at some point do, it was clear I was in new terrain that would take significant integrating (some years and still continuing). This new awareness of self/reality had to knock down though all dimensions of my being, loosening everything that prevented this landing into embodied actualization. It initiated a new phase of life and understanding.
After the ecstasy – the integration
With supportive conditions, certain practices and a sincere heart, such taste of spiritual realization can happen to anyone, but this does not therefore make us enlightened. After substantial spiritual openings, we usually pass through a period of undoing proportional to the degree of the spiritual opening. It is a necessary stage of integration often initiating an entry into the unknown where existing maps usually cannot nagivate us. In the months and years after this non-dual awakening, it felt as though the subtle structures of my entire chakra system (and life) were being dis-mantled, re-arranged, so that they could re-form to accommodate this deeper awareness. Although I understood this process, on a human level I was very raw and shaky for a while. I had to learn to ride that and keep resting in the ground that does not change.
Initially I tried to continue with my previous spiritual practices, but the forms of practice that had nourished me up until this point now felt very clunky and not that resonant with the new terrain I was in. The same guidance that had appeared in the cave was gently inviting me to just be still, not to try to get anything in particular, not even desirable spiritual qualities. Prayer no longer made any sense as I felt beyond any kind of theistic God. This was uncomfortable as my natural disposition has always been very devotional, and identified as a bhakta. Although it felt weird to let my familiar practices go, somehow I knew it was right and necessary.
‘Nothing real can be threatened: Nothing unreal exists’
~A Course in Miracles
Amidst the shifting internal landscape, pretty much every structure in my outer life that had been propping up my prior identity started dissolving. There was nothing to cling to at all and that clearly was the point. My years of spiritual practice had given me a context for the process of egoic dismantling, which helped me trust even though it felt like being asked to allow death of all that I knew.
At certain junctures of evolution, death is required. However, what dies off are merely self-images which we have taken to be the self. These images and identities run very deep and hold together our ego structure and known sense of reality, keeping us bound in experiences of fear, deficiency and separation. Even seemingly positive self-images at some point block the way as often we are using them to compensate for our sense of separation. Most people go through life suppressing all of this, living on the surface of them-selves through keeping busy and distracted, yet this kind of suppression cost us contact with our soul.
To live a meaningful life where we continue unfolding, we must learn to befriend the empty spaces where we are not controlling the course. This allows for shedding of old identities, structures and ways of being both internal and external that are no longer true. Ultimately, we are invited to surrender everything – that’s how grace, or the hand of the divine mystery can spring forth abundantly from within us.
The Practice of Ego-Relaxation
Surrender is a movement of non-doing. You cannot direct yourself to surrender, because the one trying to surrender is the one in the way! This is part of the problem with spiritual approaches oriented at repressing or killing off the ego to get to preferred spiritual summits. They usually fuel internal conflict and keep the engine of separatness fed by seeking to get, fix or become something – even enlightened. There is another, much more feminine way we can approach our spiritual path and practice that supports our ego to relax, so we can learn how to let ourselves BE. This sounds simple, but how to live it?
It we look at the ego as a matrix of beliefs, defences, un-investigated assumptions, inherited patterns and historical impressions, we see there are many threads that keep us bound in a contracted and primitive consciousness. I hold the view that our ego is not a mistake, nor is it wrong; it is just a stage of evolution that has not yet realized its own true depth. We don’t have to try to fix it, we just have to come to know our self deeper. Viewing the places we personally get caught in our ego tendencies, it is obvious that a loving, compassionate approach is such an important beginning point to help us relax the defensive need to direct and control our experience so much.
Love as spacious allowing, supports our capacity to inquire into what obscures the truth of our being. With real love, we can explore our attachments, our defenses, our habits of closure with truthfulness. With love and space, absent from any kind of judgment, our soul unfolds into deeper reality beautifully, because it inherently knows the way. As I sit with people in retreat or private sessions around the world in embodiment of these aspects, I see so clearly that this is the spiritual environment that allows for liberation, healing and direct realization.
Over the last couple of years I have been exploring what’s practically involved in ego relaxation, letting the unreal melt. I began to map what happened when people sat with me and see if this could translate into a practice that people could access for themselves. This has been coalescing into a method of guiding people into deeper direct experience, and also a series of practices that support us in how to be as we are: Essentially, the practices I have gathered, some drawn from ancient traditions and some have come through as guidance, all support us in:
- opening into what’s unfolding,
- softening our clinging and resisting,
- allowing grace to unfold without interference
- recognizing what has always been here.
This opening, softening, allowing and recognizing is to be embraced not as a doing project, but as moment-to-moment invitation for surrendering with our whole being not just the mind. It is a holistic ‘method’ for non-interference.
Soul support for heart, mind, body:
This is a path of integrated awakening that supports both deeper access to grace, spiritual nourishment and vertical love AND a means to inquire, diving in and through our human experience to land in deeper direct wisdom. This liberates a deep and true sense of guidance that can navigate us through life with authentic meaning. It shows us how to use our everyday human experiences as the gateway to our depth, and is a waking down- as much as a waking-up.
There are certain practices that really help us cultivate a loving, trusting heart. Chanting, centering prayer, calling on help from enlightened beings, and just turning our attention to see what’s really holding us now and in all moments, opens up a visceral sense of trust. The deeper our heart trusts – the more surrender happens – the more receptive we are to grace.
There are certain practices that support us in cultivating clarity and one-pointedness, which helps prevent endless egoic distractions pulling us back into repeating patterns of suffering. There are simple meditations that help us calm and quieten so we can listen to the voice of stillness, letting the mind inquire with particular questions that open us up, rather than endlessly analyzing our experience or closing down in judgment and self-attack.
There are practical ways that help us to really be here, present in the now so we can stay out of our mind’s assumptions and stories, and discover what and who is actually here. Sensing body energy is a profound friend in helping us to be here, staying open to our actual experience rather than our mental concepts about what’s happening.
Personal Psyche Included:
Lastly, I have seen just how important it is to be thorough and humble in working through and not trying to jump over our psychological history. The impressions that formed in mind, heart and nervous system as children when our ego was forming into a personality, need to be metabolized in an atmosphere of deep love and understanding in order for higher spiritual states to land. More than anything, this blocks the landing of grace.
In my retreats and teachings this spring/ summer, I share the practices I have found to be most helpful. Although I embrace the appropriate use of certain simple methods, all are in the service of one thing:
- relaxing the interference,
- relaxing the need to control and direct everything all the time,
- so we can BE STILL and KNOW
- Residing and living as That,
- both on the cushion and in day to day life.
There is no end to the depth that we can be still and know God – who we are.
Until our realization is fully stabilized ie: we are continually residing in awareness of eternal reality, and able to embrace all that arises with equanimity, spiritual practice is incredibly useful. However, we want to approach spiritual practices not from the efforting perspective of our super-ego, but in a way that truly supports the naturalness of grace unfolding.
It is not just the actual practice we take up that makes the difference, but the attitude to it. Let your spiritual practice, whatever form it takes, be powered by your heart’s natural love for God, for the source of Itself. Feel into your love of the real – and the true satisfaction that arises when you are in touch with yourself. Even when what is flowing through you is something very tender, still there is a kind of fulfillment that comes when we are really present. This satisfaction arises because we start to feel our own soul – we are more intimate with our own heart. Nothing satiates the heart like authenticity. Let your spiritual practice form around the rituals, rhythms and practices that most support your defensive habits unwinding. What most helps you to rest in pure unconditional being? What help do you need to soften, open and dive inside with dedication to the truth, whenever your greatest difficult comes knocking on the door?
On the other side of a huge journey into greater spiritual depths, that involved the dis-mantling of everything I thought I was and knew, I have landed in a preciousness of all things human. Devotion, discipline and practice has returned, but in a way that feels relaxed and round rather than effort-full. Certain old patters don’t seem to live me any more, others I am more awake to and growing more compassionate with. Ironically after hanging out in some pretty abstract spiritual dimensions, I re-integrated into a much more grounded person, happier to be here in ordinary life here on earth yet with a more substantial footing in changeless grace. A new depth of love emerged in my spiritual experience and in my personal life, and with it new humility for life. There is deep sweetness in being alive, with it all. Life itself is grace, and gratitude abounds.