Pitfalls, Myths and Misunderstandings
'I ask you to believe nothing that you cannot verify for yourself.' G.I. Gurdjieff
that enlightenment is extremely rare and only for the special few. This false belief is a barrier to many more people discovering the truth of their own being. Most awakened people are ordinary people living ordinary lives. Teachers with large followings and public profiles are the minority: there are many more awakened people than are visible publicly.
that enlightenment doesn't exist. Enlightenment is indeed real, more real than the self-concept based on personal history, feelings, memory and thought that most people currently believe themselves to be.
that enlightenment is something outside of and other than you. Your Self is not some new entity that you will become. Your Self is who you already are and have always been. Your Self is the YOU reading these words.
that enlightenment will solve all your problems. Enlightenment means you have recognized the truth of your own being.That truth still has to be integrated and embodied. You will have to practice consistent self-examination/radical self-honesty and deal with unresolved psychological, practical and emotional issues after awakening as well as before. Awakening can and most likely will disrupt your entire life and all your belief systems.
that having a spiritual experience means you are enlightened. Spiritual experiences are not the same as enlightenment. All spiritual experiences end. Enlightenment is the firm, unwavering and effortless knowledge of your own Self, and the end of identification with the personal self/ego.
that after enlightenment you will remain in a state of bliss and transcendence. The shift of identity becomes normalised and integrated over time and is experienced as something ordinary, natural and simple.
that there is only one enlightenment or one definition of enlightenment. There are, according to various traditions, different stages of awakening and different levels of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not an end point and development and refinement appear to continue indefinitely.There are also many definitions of enlightenment. What I am presenting here is only one definition.
that you the individual gets enlightened: in fact you the individual is replaced by the Self. There is nothing in enlightenment for the personal self. You still retain your individuality and uniqueness but the 'you' construct dissolves or falls into the background. Enlightenment is not an adornment or special experience for the ego. This is what 'spiritual materialism' is, where the ego claims spiritual experience and insight for itself.
that every enlightened person becomes a teacher. Most don't. The teaching function is a specific expression of awakening. If you are not enlightened but are eager to teach enlightenment to others, you have an ego problem.
that enlightenment means you are a perfected human being and have cleared all your shadow elements and karma. Very unfortunately the myth of the totally enlightened, perfected being has proven to be extraordinarily persistent. Even after awakening there is shadow work be done and psychological and emotional issues to face and resolve.
that enlightenment is always a sudden revelation. Enlightenment can also be gradual, a gradual understanding of one's true nature as the Self.
that the way to enlightenment is through meditation, being on a Path and patiently waiting for an explosive mystical event to permanently transform you at some time in the future. This is one of the most powerful, prevalent and misleading spiritual myths, and it's possible to waste decades of your life stranded and sidetracked by this false belief. Deep enquiry and investigation into your own nature is a more fruitful and reliable approach.
that you have to 'kill the ego' as a prerequisite to awakening. It is impossible for the ego to kill the ego and also completely unnecessary. This is another wild goose chase that can tie seekers in knots and line the pockets of unscrupulous or ignorant teachers for decades.
that awakening automatically qualifies you to teach. The teaching role, if it isn't to create serious problems and distortions for both teacher and student, must be filled by qualified, mature, ethical people who have deeply integrated their awakening and who themselves undergo some form of continuing guidance and oversight.
that enlightenment is a super human accomplishment. Enlightenment is simply your true nature.
Pitfalls on the Path
Spiritual Bypassing is the misuse of spiritual practices and concepts to avoid taking personal responsibility for one's life and one's actions: facing up to uncomfortable or unresolved emotional and psychological issues and practical or relational concerns. It is a rejecting of the physical world and one's humanity for the imagined safety of the Absolute.
The teacher/student relationship: myths & misunderstandings
We will cover this topic in more detail in the section 'Do I need a Teacher?'
Belief in an infallible or perfect guru or teacher. There is a persistent myth that enlightenment destroys all imperfections and psychological aberrations.This in spite of the endless scandals and proven wrongdoings by teachers of every stripe. Enlightenment bestows self-knowledge, not perfection or the eradication of flaws.
Relinquishing your autonomy (or money) to a teacher. Self-sovereignty and personal authority are essential qualities to cultivate if we are not to run the risk of being exploited or misled. A genuine teacher will encourage your independence, and not make themselves the centre of attention and focus. The focus for the student needs to be on discovering their own inner guru, their own spiritual understanding and authority.
Power and group dynamics. As part of a spiritual community, being unaware of how group and power dynamics work including the use of peer pressure to enforce obedience and conformity.
Beware psychological transference. Many seekeres are unaware of their unresolved psychological (particularly parental) issues or their often pressing need to be loved and accepted. These unrecognised needs are often projected onto the teacher and if the teacher is inexperienced or unprincipled can produce a toxic and damaging result.
Cults and other high demand/control groups. Never assume you are too intelligent or sophisticated to fall for the lure of a group or teacher of this kind. What you are presented with and allowed to see when you first become involved can vary wildly with the actual aims and workings of the group once you are fully committed.
The bliss trap. Mistaking 'energy'/bliss/shakti experiences from the guru as being evidence of their authenticity or enlightenment. Likewise charisma and eloquence.
Being used and abused. Possible sexual, emotional, financial or labour exploitation.
The loyalty trap. Remaining with a teacher through loyalty even though there is no longer a discernible benefit to the student.
False and unqualified gurus. The spiritual marketplace is rife with unqualified teachers who will not be able to guide you to liberation. The size of a teacher's following is not a reliable means of evaluation.
More on thought and thinking
As spiritual practitioners we come to understand that our experience of our true nature as awareness is almost always obscured by our mechanical and habitual thought patterns. We need to recognise the compulsive nature of thought and our identification with it and learn to rest in our true nature beyond thought.
Unfortunately it appears that a significant cohort of contemporary spiritual teachings are conflating mechanical, habitual thought patterns with critical thinking and reason and dumping them all into one unholy, ungodly pile.
Any kind of thinking, even clear rational thinking is seen as somehow suspect and not to be trusted.
If anything, our critical thinking skills and ability to discriminate are even more needed in the subtle, complex and often confusing territory of the spiritual domain. What we experience is one half of the equation and understanding what those experiences actually mean is the other.
We have a tool for helping us to see clearly. Let's appreciate it and cultivate it and employ it in the service of our awakening.
When examining an idea or belief about Enlightenment ask yourself the following question:
"HOW DO I KNOW IF THIS IS TRUE?"
On the nature of spiritual experiences
Over time I realised that the 'enlightenment' I sought was actually my own self and that all the mystical experiences I had that made me feel so special and 'on the right track' and 'getting closer' were glimpses of my true nature but were ultimately just fuel to keep duality (I'm a separate person having an experience) in place. I saw that my entire spiritual quest had been based on this misunderstanding.
The spiritual experience is not a trophy or an object to be fascinated with. It is a mirror. It shows you who you are. Not your potential in some other time and place, but now.
Healthy scepticism and the ability to think clearly and critically are important, and often undervalued, skills to have in the spiritual domain.
However doubt, in the form of self-doubt or doubt in the existence of liberation or the possibility of attaining it, is unproductive and will only undermine your efforts. Don't give in to this kind of doubt. If you have glimpsed the peace and freedom of your True Nature, hold fast to that knowledge and allow it give you conviction and courage.
Ego Traps and Trips
spiritual superiority and competitiveness
lack of persistence and consistency
believing you are further advanced than you are
failing to make liberation your priority
blindly believing what others tell you
chasing spiritual experiences
premature desire to teach
Do not believe in any thing
Simply because you have heard it
Do not believe in any thing
Simply because it's spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in any thing
Simply because it's found written in your religious books Do not believe in any thing
Merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because,
They have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation and analysis
When you find that any thing agrees with reason
And is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all
Then accept it and live up to it.
- Gautham Buddha
ENLIGHTENMENT IS NOT AN EXPERIENCE
Spiritual experiences, no matter how profound, are not enlightenment.
All spiritual experiences end.
Enlightenment is the unwavering recognition of our true nature as that which is unchanging and prior to all experience: simple awareness or presence.
'The major problem with the notion of transformation is that it forever hangs on to some form of self and never lets it go. It perpetuates the notion that self gets better and better, more and more divine, when in truth, the divine increases in proportion as the self decreases or falls away. The notion of a divinized self only increases or inflates the self; for those who buy into this notion, the journey may well end in total disillusionment.'
- Bernadette Roberts
I am struck by two significant things in the contemporary spiritual field: one is the deep and sincere longing for spiritual truth from so many, and the other is the enormous scale of misinformation and ignorance that is being shared as 'Truth'.
Especially problematic I believe are the neo-advaita type tropes 'there is no-one here' and 'this is all a dream', or the (discussion terminating) "Who is this 'I' that is asking the question?"
These concepts are taken out of context from the original Advaita Vedanta teachings and fail to make the essential distinction between the relative and absolute or personal and transpersonal dimensions. Half-truths of this kind are extremely unhelpful to anyone wanting to understand and embody their true nature beyond the limited self/ego.
These views are promoted by many teachers in the contemporary spiritual field and have gained a foothold in the minds of many seekers. But just because something is popular and pervasive, doesn't make it true.
When presented with spiritual concepts and precepts, we must ask ourselves:
How do I know this is true?
Is this my actual experience?
Am I blindly believing in the words of others?
Have I cross-checked this information through trusted sources?
'The path of truth is profound - and so are the obstacles and possibilities for self-deception'
- Chogyam Trungpa
'What if genuine, deep and liberating self-knowledge wasn't a special, marketable condition, but a stage of normative adult development?'
- Sam Blight
At the level of Source or the Absolute nothing ever happened and there is no coming and no going and no-one to come and go.
But we humans live in the relative world of form: the life we see all around us and of which we are a part. The felt sense 'I am' is probably the only thing we can be completely sure of: that I exist. And because we exist in this relative world of form we have to navigate and confront all the messy, human challenges and difficulties here. We can't escape or avoid those difficulties by trying to convince ourselves that we don't exist and that this is all a dream.
Of course I'm not saying we are limited only to the relative world of form. We are participating here because we know or intuit there is more than just this world of form. We sense that we are part of (or even in essence not different from) something far greater, more mysterious and more profound. We want to know that and be that.
The misinterpretation as I see it with the 'nobody here' way of thinking is that the relative world of form (us in a very real body in a very real world) is being denied its existence in the mistaken belief that only the Absolute dimension exists. But are we not both? A human in a body in a complex world, and a divine being of pure conscious awareness? Is the relative world with all its terrors and beauty, not itself an aspect of the Absolute, just as we are?
Embodied Spirituality Part II
Transcendence of the material world in favour of the Absolute or Cosmic realms has figured heavily in the spiritual literature over the millennia. This world is often seen as lesser or inferior: a necessary and burdensome stepping stone prior to escaping to the higher spheres.
What if this world, and the magnificent earth that supports it, were in themselves a creative outpouring of divine Love? What if the Cosmic realms are made manifest as you and me and all that surrounds us, and our purpose here is to discover, honor and celebrate that fact? How differently would our relationships to each other and the sacred earth be?
But what of the horrors and suffering? How can they be explained? If the Absolute truly is Absolute wouldn't it have to contain everything: all the horrors and suffering as well as all the magnificence and beauty? What if this is inherently God's realm, and by dismissing or undervaluing it, we are dismissing and undervaluing ourselves and the extraordinary creation we find ourselves in?
The reality of realization
Be aware that the realization of the Self will almost certainly revolutionise your beliefs, relationships and goals. Be prepared to lose some of your most cherished ambitions and connections.
Things will fall away/fall apart in your life that are not in line with the new perspective. It is often deeply painful to oneself and others.
I was an ambitious artist with a long exhibiting history. I was used to being very focused and prioritising work over everything else. Over time my ambition evaporated and I wasn't sure I would still have a career. Thankfully I found the work could and did still happen without my ambition, without me as the 'doer'.
One's hands have to be empty. My personal relationships all went through major changes and transformations. This shift of identity is a handing over of control and will to the Unseen. You don't know what you're going to be given and you don't know what will be taken from you.
You may have to face your greatest fears. Fear of loss; fear of confronting certain people or situations; fear that you will be left standing completely alone.