Returning home again and again

As a spiritual teacher, counselor, and mentor, I have the opportunity to work with people who are committed to waking up to their essential nature and living from this awakened awareness, as much as possible, in everyday life. But no matter how committed they may be, everyone finds themselves getting embroiled in the personal drama from time to time. They key is to notice it, without judgment or self-recrimination, and return home to rest as awakened awareness.

In order to do this, you need to be familiar with your homeground of unconditional presence so you can locate it amidst the turbulent emotions and stories the drama churns up. Imagine being lost in a storm at sea and not being able to find land until you see the bright beam of the lighthouse flashing on shore. If the light is just a weak flicker and the clouds are thick and the water rough, you won't be able to identify it and turn toward home.

The more you rest as unconditional, welcoming presence, not only in meditation but throughout your day, the stronger this presence shines. In fact, it becomes more like a magnet than a light, drawing you inexorably toward it again and again until you no longer wander often or far. The deeper your commitment to living from the truth of who you are, of course, the smaller and smaller the gap, until you become a beacon yourself, shining with the radiance of your natural state of unconditional presence, awakened awareness.

But it's often difficult to realize that you've strayed to begin with; the story can be so compelling, so convincing, so seemingly solid, that you've lost track of home. The first step is to notice when you're caught, contracted, suffering, and to stop and be attentive. Notice the thoughts, the sensations, the emotions, without trying to get rid of anything, which just feeds the pattern. Let everything be the way it is without indulging or struggling. Then step out of the story, as you would out of a crowded, noisy room, and back into the boundariless, unconditional presence of your natural state.

What do we mean by spiritual awakening?

When I teach a class or retreat on spiritual awakening, as I did this past weekend, the first step is generally to clarify what we're talking about. After all, the term awakening can be used in so many different ways. For example, you can have a sexual awakening, or a political awakening, or a rude awakening, or you can use the term "spiritual awakening" to mean a range of experiences. Shamans can awaken to the spirit world, or Christians to the magnitude of God's love.

In the nondual wisdom tradition, which I teach, awakening refers to a radical, fundamental shift in the locus of your identity. After spending a lifetime identifying with a life history, a set of beliefs, a collection of interpersonal roles, a particular body-mind located in time and space, you suddenly realize that who you really is so much vaster and more all-inclusive. Paradoxically, you discover that you are both nothing--not the solid, separate someone you took yourself to be--and everything, that is, inseparable from the ground of being, the essence of what is.

Needless to say, when it is genuinely experienced rather than just conceptualized, this realization can be profoundly disorienting in the sense that it opens you to a completely new orientation and disrupts the ego/mind's presumption of being the center around which the universe revolves. At the same time, you are freed from the constraints that your story has imposed for a lifetime, free to be who you really are: this awake, aware ground of openness without a center n which the one you took yourself to be goes about her day.

None of the words I'm using, of course, really touches on the depths of this realization, which continues to reveal its mysteries as it ripens in your experience. The only way to understand spiritual awakening is to realize it for yourself.

Releasing the spiritual superego

As a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I've had the privilege of sharing in the inner lives of hundreds of meditators and seekers--and what I've discovered, not surprisingly, is that we can be incredible hard on ourselves, even in the seemingly beneficent pursuit of spiritual awakening. Most of us grow up with some version of the belief "I'm not good enough" and spend the rest of our lives attempting to prove ourselves worthy, in our work, our families, our relationships, while judging ourselves harshly if we don't live up to some predetermined standard.

When we engage in spiritual study and practice, even if we're counseled to be especially kind to ourselves, we tend to transpose the same perfectionism to our meditation, our contemplation, our self-inquiry. Nothing we do is ever good enough--we exert too much effort, we have too many concepts, our understanding never quite measures up. In fact, spiritual seekers can be even more self-critical than most because we have the most exalted examples to compare ourselves to--the Buddha, Jesus, the great Zen masters, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj. We forget that awakening to our essential nature has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with embracing life, including ourselves, just as it is. And we make the classic mistake of "comparing our inner to other people's outer"--that is, comparing the public image that others project with the excruciating imperfection we constantly encounter in our own minds and hearts--and finding ourselves deficient. With so many different exemplars out there, we can become endlessly preoccupied with trying to imitate one and then the other, even though they express the truth in disparate ways, and end up losing sight of our own authenticity.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, one of my first teachers, once said, "We're constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance." As human beings, we're imperfect creatures who stumble our way through life, doing our best and learning as we go--or not. But our essential nature--consciousness, timeless presence, the eternal ground of being, the One without a second--is inherently perfect, pure, and indestructible. None of our mistakes ever touches who we really are--and realizing this inherent perfection and embracing the nondual paradox that we are both imperfect and perfect--or even more deeply, beyond any such dualities--provides the ultimate resolution to our endless self-criticism. In the words of Ramana, "Just rest as the Self and be as you are."



Mindfulness is a way of life

Mindfulness is a way of life

Unless you live on a digital desert island, you already know mindfulness meditation is good for you. You’ve read the articles proclaiming its well-researched benefits, from stress-reduction to pain management to relief from depression and enhanced overall well-being. The latest studies even suggest that it’s good for your sex life and boosts your immune system. You can’t open a magazine, read a newspaper, or log on to a social media site these days without hearing about some new study that discovers yet another great reason to pause and practice meditation.