Sunday, May 4, 2008

Enlightenment and Spiritual Awakening: "Bottom-Up" vs. "Top-Down" Transcendence

I hear a lot of discussion about spiritual awakening and self-transcendence where the emphasis regarding the whole enlightenment 'thang is as a process - a walking along a spiritual path rather than getting effortlessly and spontaneously to an end state, if there is indeed such a thing as an end state. That seems to be the case in most religious bodies and groups - in what the famed psychologist, William James, distinguished, in Varieties of Religious Experience as "outer religion".

Who knows? Maybe we're kind of looking at this backwards or askew. I know that for me that would be no surprise. I don't see enlightenment as a process but a state of being (be-ing). That's perhaps the fundamental difference between “bottom-up” or gradualist enlightenment which would be a process, and the sudden occurrence of an enlightenment which is experiential, “top-down”, occurring suddenly and that's it - the process of 'spiritual awakening' versus its outcome 'self-transcendence. . . .What's the old Zen adage? “Before enlightenment , chop wood and haul water. After enlightenment, chop wood and haul water.” … Or as my friend Harry taught me (my friend and teacher who had his “bright light” experience after 22 years of practicing affirmative and invocative prayer together with transcendental meditation), “If you are on a train reading the newspaper, and all you're doing is reading the newspaper . . . that is enlghtenment.”

Moral of the story? When you're peeling carrots, peel carrots. And when you're listening on the news to what is happening in Tibet, do not let yourself figure out how you would or can solve that problem. Rather, be the solution by manifesting the state of compassion that the Dalai Lama encourages. (Now if only I could bear that in mind when I am on the train reading about Tibet.)

Common sense says “nothing changes, if nothing changes. But I've often told my friends and those I work with (work, not in the sense that I'm employed doing it, although I do talk about it there, too), that in these times we need "uncommonly common sense." It's not that, “nothing changes if nothing changes,” I think. . . but, rather. that “Everything changes if no-thing changes”. One of the only 'absolute' constants in this relative world is that everything, everywhere is always changing (transitory, insubstantial and impermanent, as the Bhudda would tell'ya. . . .)

But, if the one thing that we perceive to be permanent in this egoic state which causes suffering changes, then every-thing does indeed change - that is, everything in the “outside” world, or at least in our perception and emotional reaction to the objects, even the mental objects, of the exterior world. And that one “thing” that needs to change? Our identification with, and the relentless persistence of the internal dialogue of, our unexamined, habitually conditioned thinking (i.e., learned way of thinking), our thinking without true awareness. That is, the inner “voice” which in our egoic state we take to be “us”, the stream of constant thinking that we can fall back into at any time and that can carry us away, precipitating virtually any action on our part - from the most altruistic acts to acts of murder or self-immolation.

For, of course, the one permanent firmament and fixture that we all have is our awareness, our “consciousness”. We are aware, therefore we are. We are conscious in our dreams and even on awaking from dreamless sleep again we are conscious. . . . We are aware. We are awareness or consciousness itself. . . . It is our awareness, our inner witnessing that is the portal through which we seem to look out from the Absolute to this relative world. If our identification with the constant thinking that obscures this awareness ceases wholly - and I believe that this is a spontaneous event if it is to be permanent, even if it occurs for us after years of prayer, meditative and contemplative practice - a “top-down” experience even if after years of “bottom-up” practice in mental discipline - then that is the enlightened state of being, that is the Absolute.

This end state, the impersonal experience of remaining "absolutely self-less while being relatively present" (to use the words of Robert Thurman, the Dalai Lama's friend and one-time student) is, I believe, the experience and the state of enlightenment that all wisdom traditions and religions speak of and aim for. “What manner of man,” Jesus taught, “can add one cubit to his stature by taking thought?” And, less so, it should be added, to the extent that one is carried away by the thinking of and the dentification with this seemingly real but false “self”. One cannot anything to one's "stature" or state of being by taking or being taken away by thought, one's awareness and connection with the Divine Unity, with the Absolute can only be lessened. Remember, Jesus also said, “Of my self, I am nothing. . .”

The Christian mystics also speak and always spoke of a 'Mystic Union' - the experience of “union with God” or the Absolute that Carl Jung wrote of and called “the thirst of our being for Wholeness” - even if these mystics, the not-so-famous and the famous-alike, the St. Johns of the Cross, the Joans of Arc and the Meisters Eckhart who were variously imprisoned, martyred at the discretion of the Church or forced to recant in the West, unlike the experience of mystics in the Orthodox tradition where the mystics of the Church, high and low , were and are equally reverenced along with the Bishops, the Fathers of the Church and the Saints. All these mystics spoke of and variously described this experience of the Mystic Union, this enlightenment and communion with the Divine, with God, with the Ground of Being.

I understand that Andrew Cohen, the modern teacher who speaks and writes of enlightenment for our times in terms of conscious or "evolutionary enlightenment", makes a great distinction between these two approaches and experiences - the bottom-up approach and experience versus the sudden, spontaneous spiritual awakening that he seems to have experienced by all accounts. Indeed he, like the Bhudda, teaches that the end goal is when all beings experience this liberation from the ego together, a concept he aptly calls "autonomy in communion".

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