Awakening and Enlightenment: The Relationship Between Absolute and Relative

Awakening, Enlightenment, Featured Posts

    There have been many spiritual paths described in the great traditions. Every genuine path in its own way helps one to become more free from identification with the conditioned self. The Bhagavad Gita from the Hindu Tradition outlines three types of traditional spiritual paths. Some paths are devotional (called Bhakti) based on loving worship of a deity or something or someone beyond oneself. Others are paths of selfless service (called Karma Yoga), whereby one breaks free of the limited self by being of service to others without thought of gain or benefit to the ego structure. Others have awakened through the path of wisdom or self inquiry (the path of the Jnani – pronounced nyani), inquiring directly into the nature of the self by turning awareness towards awareness itself. Then beyond the three traditional paths are the meditative paths (Raja Yoga, Buddhist Samatha, Vipassana, Zen and so forth) which use meditation to purify the depth of the mind. Within all of the meditative traditions the understanding is that your true nature is obscured by identification with the mind, so if the self structure can be purified of its fundamental delusion (sankaras, vrittis etc.), the true nature will shine forth. There are many other paths that have helped point humans to Samadhi. I am going to focus mostly on meditation and self inquiry, occasionally referencing aspects of other paths as well.

Both meditation and self inquiry are paths to realize Samadhi. One can spend decades meditating and never realize one’s true nature if the self inquiry component is missing. And if one only does self inquiry the conditioned self structure may not be purified to its depths, because it is difficult to reach the deepest sankaras without doing sitting meditation. One might temporarily have awakening experiences as a result of self inquiry, but if the human vessel has not been purified then the realization will be appropriated by the ego and the old conditioned patterns will return.

Some traditions such as those that teach Vipassana meditation, or Raja yoga emphasize techniques such as observing the breath and bringing awareness to bodily sensation.  Others such as the non-dual or self inquiry traditions emphasize letting go of all conditioned techniques. So which doorway to use?

Both doorways lead to the one Samadhi.

The great illusion within duality is that there are in fact two doorways, when the truth is that meditation and self inquiry are actually one thing, or two ends of one continuum. The continuum is the human experience through time. Most people don’t do either meditation or self inquiry deeply enough or long enough to realize them as one, or to realize Samadhi. If you do a technique long enough, the technique will fall away as you will lose yourself into the meditation object/ pranic field, and if you can let go of that state then the pranic field will eventually self-awaken and the great reality will be revealed. Similarly if you inquire deeply enough into the self, all the hidden sankaras will start to rise from the depths and you will be forced to deal with them (by remaining equanimous to what is without resistance). In my guided meditation series I start with techniques and then gradually move towards less and less doing, until one reaches the still point where there is simply presence (the immanent Self or selfless self), and no doing. One comes to a place of pure choice-less awareness. Even while one is practicing a technique, one can be aware of WHO is practicing. One can be simultaneously aware of awareness, or one can be observing the observer. When we come at our practice from both ends, so to speak, the limited self structure is like a candle burning up more quickly from both ends.

Practice both meditation and self inquiry simultaneously until you realize them to be one.

Throughout the website and teachings, the terms “awakening” and “enlightenment” are used in a specific way.  Often in common parlance these two terms are used interchangeably, and unfortunately often in a vague fuzzy way. Here we are giving each one a very specific meaning which points to their particular aspect of the perennial wisdom.

What is awakening?

Awakening is recognizing your true nature beyond name and form. Awakening is recognizing your true nature beyond name and form. Primordial awareness becomes aware of itself as all things, or you could say all levels of mind/self are realized to be empty awareness.  
There are many levels of awakening, but when there is a total cessation of the entanglement or identification of awareness with mind, then one’s true nature is revealed. It has been called Moksha, Nirvana, Nirvikalpa Samadhi, fana, kensho and many other names throughout history. In Vedanta what is realized is called the Self (with a captial S), and in Buddhism it is called “no self” or anatta (or shunyata), in Hinduism is Parabrahman, or Paramatman, and in mystical Christianity it is godhead (the impersonal being of God as opposed to an aspect of the trinity). The great sages, seers and saints have said that to know the true Self beyond the limited egoic self, is to know God. Even though the language between traditions may differ, they all point to the fundamental reality of awakening which is the common experience of realized beings. Although even saying this is not quite true; it is not really an experience since it is the collapse of the duality of experience and experiencer.

Most who get a taste of the awakened state will lose it, falling back asleep, and falling prey to the fluctuations of the mind and self identification. In the Sandokai, a famous Zen poem, it makes an important point: “To merely encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment”. From the absolute perspective, awakening to your true nature is the beginning and end of the spiritual path. From the absolute perspective there is a recognition of that which was never born, that awareness which simply is. As Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” At first when you turn awareness toward the sense of “I AM” or the Self, it will be the false self that you see. But if you are unswayed by the many layers and levels of illusions that arise, then the limited egoic self will give way and Samadhi will be realized.

Awakening is the potential beginning of an accelerated period of inner development, or the beginning of the enlightenment process that will create the purified vessel that will allow one to stay in the awakened state so that one’s awakening does not come and go. I say potential beginning, because the truth is that most people will go back to sleep because they are not willing to give up the conditioned activities and preferences of the ego. One will have to vigilantly watch the mind and its conditioned behavior, and continually orient toward awareness rather than getting caught in the illusion.The limited self does not have an interest in awakening because it becomes a servant to the true self, and it is no longer the master. It is no longer “my will”, but higher will or the heart’s will; one surrenders to the flow of the unfathomable Tao. One of my teachers always asked “What are you willing to pay to remain awake?”. And there is only one acceptable currency with which we can pay; “my self”. But most people will not pay because the price is too high, and the conditioning is too strong. People don’t want to allow pain or give up pleasure in order to transcend them both. People don’t want to allow good and evil to co-exist inside so that they can be transcended. One can’t possibly understand the benefit of Samadhi with the lower mind, because the benefit is not something valuable or comprehensible to the lower mind. The benefit is only realized when there is a union of the lower mind with something unfathomable. One is pulled toward this union by the unfathomable itself.

What is enlightenment?

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said, “One must know the self before one can transcend the self.” One must become fully conscious of the conditioned, limited ego before one can realize one’s true nature. When we speak of any  “system” or “journey” of coming to know the self through a progression of stages, then we are always talking about what is relative. We are talking about the enlightenment process, which is about exploring, purifying and developing the mind and self structure; a perfecting of the personality that takes place gradually through time (since the mind is a growing, living structure).There is a saying in Zen, that awakening happens seemingly by accident, but one’s sadhana or spiritual practice makes one more accident prone. Some Christian mystics have said that God meets us half way and we must do our part to surrender the egoic self, and through grace the divine will reach out to us.

Enlightenment has two aspects: purification, which is becoming free from existing conditioning, and inner development, which is the growing or expanding of the self structure into higher levels of mind. Enlightenment is BOTH  the expanding into the higher levels of self, and the purification of the lower self structure/soul, and detaching from all of it. This is a process that happens through time, which results in a human vessel that will be fit to support or house awakened consciousness, the ever present awareness. Enlightenment is both becoming free of Samskaras or Sankaras, or free of the conditioned patterns that entangle awareness in maya, and it is the expanding into new more subtle dimensions of self. Primordial awareness, which is our true nature, of course needs no enlightening; it is perfect as it is. Upon awakening one sees the absurdity of seeking awakening, since the awakening is identical to the dropping of all seeking and the seeker. Any system to attain enlightenment is something for the mind, preparing the vessel to house primordial awareness so that it can shine through unmediated by the self structure.

If your average person were to suddenly become filled with the energy of an enlightened being, it would be like running a million volts through ten volt wiring and that person would get fried. Inner aliveness, prana, is like a waterfall, and most people have only a thimble to catch it. The mind and senses are filters, catching only the tiniest sliver of life if we are operating only on the mental and physical level. In order to encompass more of life, we must grow our filter, and expand our self structure to catch more energy. Our inner wiring includes all levels from gross physical to subtle energetic to the causal level of mind, and it is this inner wiring that grows as one lives one’s life and explores the various dimensions of one’s self.

The traditions have called the system of branching structures the inner lotus, tree of life, kundalini and the chakras/nadis, the sephirot or axis mundi and many other names.  The old wiring of the self structure could be called the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or the tree of duality. When energy or prana flows from the base of the spine to the crown, growing and expanding into ever-subtler dimensions of self, the primordial awareness becomes more and more present. The veil becomes thinner, and egoic thought becomes rarified. When the lotus is grown and healthy, more and more energy is available, the light body is activated and the jewel in the lotus, primordial awareness shines into the world.The tree of life or lotus extends from the gross physical, to the subtle layers of one’s being, to the causal or formless realm. We come to know dimensions beyond the mental and physical layers of self to observe the mind directly, merging with the pranic energy, as well as higher consciousness/mind and causal levels of self. All of these levels of maya are described in the ancient teachings. The tree of life is an energetic bridge from gross to subtle to causal, and the intermediary between heaven and Earth. To grow the tree of life inside to maturity is the full expression of human potential and your evolutionary birthright as a human being.

Always being Buddha, always becoming Buddha.

At some point on the pathless path one one is bound to wake up if one has made oneself sufficiently accident prone. It might be a big awakening or it might be gradual, made up of countless smaller awakenings over years or decades of practice. In either scenario, one wakes up but continues to become enlightened, continues to develop the self and to grow, expanding the tree of life to become a continuous bridge between the world of form and the formless. Meditation and self inquiry go hand in hand; one is simultaneously purifying and adding to oneself, and the other always realizing the emptiness of the self. Always being Buddha, always becoming Buddha.


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