“Make no mistake about it – enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretence. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imaged to be true.” Adyashanti
I think there’s a widespread notion that becoming enlightened or awakening is a smooth and joyful process, a kind of ever-expanding state of love, light and bliss. At times it maybe is, but that’s not the entirely of it. In spirituality, I think there’s a tendency to cling to positive feeling-states and use them as a means to evade the nasty stuff that’s still lurking deep within our psyche.
This kind of evasion is what is sometimes referred to as a ‘spiritual bypass’ and is, I think, the reason that a lot of people are initially drawn to spiritual pursuits. They use it as a way to circumvent the pain that’s deep within them, the fears, the ravaging self-doubt and the residue of emotional pain from the past.
It maybe works for a while, as well. We become ‘spiritual’ and for a time our attention is shifted away from the black ball of pain that’s lodged somewhere deep within and we feel better, brighter, happier. The problem is, aversion tactics don’t work in the long-run. They don’t remove the underlying unease and unrest, they just temporarily mask it over.
Of course, it’s not just spirituality that people use as means of distraction and denial – some more common ‘weapons of mass distraction’ are addictive use of alcohol, drugs, social interaction, sex and compulsive mental stimuli such as an overabundance of television watching, computer game playing, internet surfing and anything else that keeps us as occupied as possible so we never actually have to feel what’s within.
I think that we all have this black cloud of fear and pain lodged somewhere deep within. My feeling is that it starts the moment we’re born and are forcibly yanked from oneness into a strange and unsettling world of separation, in which we have very real survival needs that must be met and the inevitability of occasional (or, if we’re unfortunate, sustained) pain and suffering. Something deep within us tightly constricts – we become aware on a deep, instinctual level of potential danger and the possibility of annihilation. This primordial, unconscious fear remains within us our entire life, like a tightly clenched fist in our gut, a continual reminder that we are potentially at threat in any and every moment. This fear is at the core of our sense of self and is possibly a biological survival mechanism.
As we go through life, experiencing various hurts and pain, a residue of this pain forms around this core fear. Layer after layer of pain develops, until the black ball gets larger and larger. It gets so large that we begin to mistake it as being who we are. A large proportion of people’s actions are motivated by this mechanism and the desire to avoid future pain and discomfort. This is what Eckhart Tolle calls the ‘pain body’, the accumulation of past pain within us. It’s dormant sometimes, but can easily get triggered and take us over, dramatically colouring our thoughts, perceptions and behaviour. Different people seem to have different key feelings that glue their black ball together: for some it’s fear, for others it might be a sense of unworthiness, abandonment or anger. The circumstances of our lives can trigger this mechanism at any time and set in motion all kinds of subsidiary programs and conditioning.
No one likes to confront the darkness that’s within. I think most people are unconsciously aware of it, but they do anything they can to avoid feeling it. We have this black lump of crap at the core of our psyche and we spend our entire lives both running from it and disguising it as best we can. We try to cover it in paint and make-up, masking it with more and more things, achievements and possessions in order to fill the void. We distract ourselves from it in sometimes the most destructive of ways. For many people, ‘being spiritual’ is just another way of running from the black void within. Most spiritual seekers think they’re seeking enlightenment or whatever, but I see now that most the time we’re just trying to escape the pain that’s within.
Avoidance and aversion are never the answer. I no longer see enlightenment or spiritual awakening as I used to. I used to buy into the notion that it’s something that you add to yourself, an experience of perpetual bliss and peace and knowing. But now I see it differently. I’m not saying this is the final understanding I’ll have on the subject, and I’m always open to shifting perceptions and deeper understandings, but I now see that there’s no way we can ever be enlightened. The ‘we’ I’m referring to is, of course, ego. The ego that seeks enlightenment can never be enlightened, because enlightenment is a shifting of awareness beyond the illusory chimera of ego. There’s nothing to ‘add’ to ourselves. We are already the totality. Perhaps awakening is nothing more than the realisation of this.
Going back to the original quote by Adyashanti (who is one of the clearest teachers on this trickiest of subjects), I can now see the truth of this. Awakening is NOT about achieving extraordinary states of bliss and light. It’s not something that we add to ourselves. It’s more a process of excavation and eradication. It’s the shedding of layers upon layers of masks, stories, beliefs and conditioning. Instead of continually polishing, painting and trying to disguise the black ball that resides at the core of our psyche, we meet it head on.
We begin peeling back the layers and moving deeper and deeper into it. The more we deny and repress it, the more it grows. I know it’s a cliche, but there’s never been a truer one: the only way out IS through. It’s a painful process, confronting our deepest fears and most intense emotional pain. But each layer has to be acknowledged and felt, although it’s also important not to get stuck in it, as some people might have a tendency to do this. Bringing our conscious awareness into it, we can feel it fully and then let it go, moving to the next level. It takes great courage to face our pain and fears like this. Once you’ve started, there’s no going back, only forward. We must persevere as we move deeper and deeper, through layers of fear, anxiety, terror, grief, loss and hurt.
When we move right into the core of this black void, we encounter something inexplicable. I’m almost hesitant to speak of it, because it’s maybe something everyone needs to discover for themselves. But at the core of all these encrusted layers of sediment…is something extraordinary. Well, that’s actually not true. It’s more like nothing, but it is extraordinary. At the deepest core of all this crap is a vast expanse of openness, emptiness, expansiveness. There’s nothing there — and yet this vast nothing is simultaneously everything. There’s just pure Being; unconditioned awareness, a sense of vast and intangible intelligence and conscious prior to any identification with form or thought. If you’ve experienced this state of being before you’ll know what I’m referring to. If not, you’ll probably be scratching your head about now, utterly perplexed. That’s all right too.
From this core state of simple Being (and I’m on shaky ground here, because words are really inadequate when it comes to putting these experiences into language), we can begin to see through all the pain and fear. It was all based on a misidentification with form. It was based on the illusion that what we are is anything other than this vast, intangible, infinite ocean of awareness. The identifications of mind, ego and conditioning quickly dissolve into this endless ocean of nothing/everything. Tracing consciousness back to its source and being rooted in this primordial sense of ‘I am’ (which exists prior to notions of ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’), is the method of self-enquiry as recommended by two of the spiritual giants of the 20th century, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta called this the ultimate medicine – nothing else is needed. All problems, all fears and pain tend to dissolve when we trace our consciousness back to its root (at least this has been the case in my experience, which is all I can really speak from).
Of course, it’s unlikely that you will remain in this state of being forever more. We have bodies and minds and we have to function in this world, so of course we’re going to come back into our ordinary state of consciousness. What happens then, I can only speak for myself. Each time I move into the state of pure being, I feel it dissolves a little more of the illusions and pain I’ve carried within for so long. Sometimes it’s as though the black ball of fear/pain disappears completely. Even if it doesn’t, it rarely seems quite as dense and impenetrable as it was previously. I think that each time you touch the realm of being, you bring a little of it back with you. It has a transmuting, healing quality. Sometimes it stays with you a long time, sometimes just a few moments. Maybe at some point it with remain as an abiding awareness, but it’s best just to accept the process as it unfolds. There’s no need to understand, grasp or cling.
There is no goal to achieve this, and I don’t believe there should be a goal to get rid of the black ball within. The moment we have a goal, we create a resistance within us and we tend to create additional blocks. I don’t recommend this process to everyone. Many probably aren’t ready or willing. It’s fine that they keep doing whatever they’ve been doing, distracting themselves with TV and alcohol. I can’t do that. It’s like I’ve come so far that I no longer have the option of going back.
The ego hates this stuff, because it often ends up in tatters, limping about in the corners of the psyche, broken and battered, quietly plotting ways to reassert itself as it wipes its bloody nose. It’s free to do it’s stuff. There’s a deeper process at work, in all of us. And that’s all it is – a process. It happens, a lot of the time unbidden. We’re drawn to do what we do, what feels right in the moment. The right pointers and teachings appear at the right moment. It might seem like we are, but it’s ultimately a fallacy to think that WE’RE doing anything. The process does itself. We are just a process!
The pain drives us either outward seeking distraction, or it compels us inward, to find its source. Pain is perhaps our greatest teacher and healer. Uncomfortable though it is, it’s certainly not the enemy. It’s pulling us back to ourselves, to what we truly are. It’s the mechanism that invites us to wake up from the dream we’ve been living. We’ve been fighting and resisting it all these years, but perhaps pain is a vital component of this thing we call enlightenment or awakening…