Updated: Apr 4
In my decades of spiritual exploration and personal growth education, I've met many people traveling on that path who are in various stages of awakening. I don't know exactly what distinguishes one person's pace from another, as we are all entwined yet unique aspects of the collective human landscape, but I do feel that there are points along the way where we make crucial choices that determine the length of our time in the process of becoming whole and integrated physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Some of these choices are unconscious, especially as we take those initial steps, but as we progress, the choices become more consciously made, whether we wish to own that fact or be in denial. I am a firm believer that fate and free will are equal operatives in all of our lives; certain situations are destined to happen—it's what we do with them that will influence the course our lives will take.
The beginning of a holistic integration with all aspects of who we are seems to have a universal quality to it; that essence of purity or innocence, or "beginner's mind" where we are wide open to possibility and not yet influenced by the landmines of illusions that eventually present themselves, and to which we must learn how to navigate our way around. Some can pinpoint the exact moment or experience that triggered this drive to reach for the Light and blossom into wholeness, as though it were an internal "big bang" that happened to cause them to transcend the mundane levels of human awareness and seek something which at first is perceived to be outside our narrowly focused bubble of existence. For others, it is a desire to escape or transcend personal pain that is the catalyst to extend toward what we describe as a "higher" place. In actuality it is not a linear movement at all, it just feels that way: the source of all spiritual wisdom rests within, not above or outside of us. Regardless, the yearning for an expansion of consciousness beyond our personal status quo certainly comes from an intuitive sense that there is more to be had than what exists in our present state.
That first stage is often a blissful one, and many try to hold on to the experience as long as possible. It's similar to the euphoria of falling in love - a hormone-supercharged state that never lasts but is nonetheless drug-like in its impact.
This initial state of innocence can make us vulnerable to all sorts of influences that can lead us astray unknowingly. The small self - aka our ego - conspires to keep us in this state of euphoria, which in itself is neither bad nor good, but is ultimately a place to be stuck in or attached to. There is a large portion of the spiritual/self improvement industry that caters to this desire to feel "warm and fuzzy" all the time, and thereby be numbed by the narcotic of indulgences that cleverly fool us into thinking we are enlightened—when in fact we are cultivating a pit of personal quicksand if we solely engage in "Me! Me! Me!" activities. Don't get me wrong; it is essential to do the healing work on ourselves to create a healthy level of self-esteem and wellness on all levels. The trap in spiritual terms is if our focus becomes entirely self-directed and neglects to recognize the impact we have on others in our desire to become liberated from our past and present situations.
Another problem occurs when seekers chase after "peak experiences" and run from guru to guru seeking "darshan rushes." True spiritual transformation occurs when you can have your feet on the ground at the same time your head is in the clouds, otherwise you wander around like a spaced-out "bliss ninny" who just can't get their act together on the physical plane.
Human souls are quite malleable and can be shaped by others with similar perceptions or by delusional yet powerful leaders or teachers. Often, many are well intentioned, but their knowledge is fragmented - and as we all know, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Yet we are drawn in because we feel they may hold keys that unlock doors. The problem is that those doors may lead us into places that do not serve us in our quest for genuine awakening, but are merely carnival rides that can be fun at first, but the thrill either eventually wears off, or we exit with our heads reeling and our guts wrenching. I've been there myself. It took me months to recover from the impact of a cult-like "spiritual" organization I innocently joined in the mid-80s - and the abuse of power by its charismatic leader. It's also what placed me on the path of teaching about the spiritual etiquette the self-proclaimed "enlightened master" spoke about - yet who failed to practice what he preached - that eventually evolved into me teaching Ethical Intelligence skills.
Perhaps being dazzled by what I call "roadside distractions" is determined by karmic influences, and it is likely we are drawn into them for a reason and for the "dis-illusionment" lessons to be learned. Some never see them for what they are and spend entire lifetimes enthralled by the sideshows, the games of chance and the roller coaster rides, investing themselves into believing the maya is real, and that the games aren't rigged. I do know that the tough lessons I learned during the time I spent in that so-called spiritual community helped me lose many false illusions I'd held, and prompted me to teach others how they can do the same - and I am eternally grateful for this.
Let me just say it plainly. A fair percentage of what is being offered in pricey workshops and on the shelves of your favorite New Age bookstore will just keep your wheels spinning in the mud of delusion, egoism and distraction away from the real work of genuine spiritual transformation, the process of innerevolution that will take your soul where it longs to go. You may disagree with me about such a strong statement, but if you pay attention to the core teachings of any of the authentic spiritual masters of past and present, they will all concur.
Eventually, the instinctual soul drive to evolve propels humans to the next level, and this, in my very humble opinion, is when it gets interesting. This is when the serious work begins, when we are no longer intrigued by the mystical dazzle or the peak experiences or the magical thinking that once captivated us. It is graduate school study, as it implies mastery over the small self and its infatuations. This is where we begin to be fully conscious and accountable for every choice we make in every moment, and the mere fact we have reached this level of awareness makes the evolutionary karmic stakes higher. It is the place that Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes in the title of one of his books that we arrive at when we are truly ready: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. It's time to get real and do the "dirty work" of stripping away all of the illusions and samskaras and shadow thoughts, behaviors and actions that have held the holy grail of enlightened existence at bay.
And yes, acknowledge that some of the landmines we stepped on were of our own creation.
Ah, but here's the rub. When we come off the spiritual high that we finally realize could only last so long, we may still hold on to false notions of what a "spiritual life" is all about and how "spiritual people" are supposed to appear. In many self-proclaimed "spiritual" people's lives, there is a hypocritical gap between their talk and their walk, and they conspire with one another to let that be okay by using mind-messing terms like stating they are "non-judgmental" and "unconditionally loving" when they aren't either—they just wish to appear that way. As spiritual companions, it is a disservice to turn a blind eye and not hold one another accountable with grace and tactfulness, and at such a critical time in human history where huge leaps of collective consciousness are so desperately needed, ignoring or justifying spiritually self-destructive behaviors does nothing to combat the ever-increasing wave of darkness. But be mindful of this fact: "holier than thou" projections prevent anyone from facing and transforming their own inner shadows—genuine evolution is demonstrated by considerable compassion and humility, not by spiritual one-upmanship.
Sri Ramakrishna said, "True spirituality consists in making the heart and the lips the same." Spiritual activism is only effective when we passionately lead by unsullied example, and purification is the means by which we attain seamless unity between our inner beliefs and our actions in the world.
But true, lasting inner change takes Doing the Work. We live in an instant gratification, "I should have it because I deserve it" mindset. It's just ignorant and selfish to think you should receive without earning or giving back.
The good thing is, eventually all truly committed seekers come to understand that a genuine spiritual life has nothing to do with us - it's all about everyone else. It has nothing to do with our "comfort level" or how much we can "manifest" on the physical plane for ourselves. Undertaking the undeniably rigorous experience of transcending the small, egoic self, to actualize the expansive, unified Self by doing the work (and not just romanticizing it) is the right thing to do for the benefit of the collective humankind.
In dedicating every moment to doing the work, we embrace the heroic yet humble spiritual warrior position of dismantling our inefficient old Internal Operating System and installing a new, much more spiritually sustainable one. It is an act of service to collective humanity. We surrender in a courageous and graceful manner to the process of what our beginner's mind envisioned was possible, and we engage in the inner alchemical process that turns us into voluntary servants of humankind. We see clearly that we are at choice in every situation that comes our way, and acknowledge the impact of our free will.
We grow up. We get real. We play Big.
We don't fall back on excuses or the "really good reasons" we are dysfunctional and stuck; we realize we are so done with the cheap drama and move on to what we can do to facilitate change on a global level simply by taking action in how we show up in the world.
And suddenly, quietly and powerfully, we even move past any sense of doing the work; it simply becomes our way of life - and being the change we wish to see in service of our fellow human beings and the planet we all call Home.
This post was originally written and published on September 13, 2005 and has been updated for this blog.
©2005, 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.