Being Aware Joyfully

Show me the way to God

Many people believe there is one grand eternal teaching within and behind the whole variety of philosophies and religions in both the West and the East. The various traditions of spiritual wisdom throughout the world each give their own particular expression to one and the same great universal Truth, which encompasses and unites all individual truths.

The essential message of the spiritual traditions is that there is one highest divine reality which created everything other than itself, and that all things and lives and minds in existence are trying as best as they can to find their way back to the original divine reality from which everything came.

John White, a modern writer on spiritual development, says: "When you realize your true Self, you automatically respond to the call of humanity. That call, however unconsciously uttered, is: show me the way to God." Something similar is found in Matthew's Gospel (Ch. 6), when the multitudes come to Jesus for his teaching and he gives them the "Lord's Prayer", which tells people how to find God by praying with their whole lives for the return of God's Kingdom ("Thy kingdom come"), which is where Adam and Eve originally came from. Again, in the Hindu Upanishads we find a pray to "The one God hidden in all living beings, the living witness biding in all hearts, the wise who seek and find Him in themselves."

The spiritual traditions agree that the highest reality cannot be contained in words, whether written or spoken. For instance: the Tao-Te-Ching, a spiritual classic from ancient China (C. 6th. BCE), begins by saying: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." Later, to affirm the point, the sage Lao-Tzu continues: "He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know." Similarly, the great mystic philosopher from Alexandria, Plotinus (C. 3rd. CE), says of the ultimate reality: "There is no name that suits it, really." Indeed, in recognition of the truth that the highest reality is beyond words, the wisdom traditions often refer to it as "the Nameless".

Blinded by the light
The traditions of wisdom commonly use imagery of Light to illustrate our relations to the highest reality. Most widely, of course, there is the term "Enlightenment" itself, which refers to knowing the ultimate Truth. The Tibetan Buddhists use the expression "clear light" to describe being in the presence of the Absolute. There is even something of a cliché, "blinded by the light" – it turns up in a rock-and-roll song written by Bruce Springsteen and performed by Manfred Mann on the album "Roaring Silence" (1976). In a more philosophical context, the father of Western thought, Plato (C. 4th BCE) tells in the Republic (Book 6) how we can move out of the dark cave of illusion and be blinded by the light of Truth because our eyes are not used to seeing the radiant splendour of the highest reality.

The imagery of Light helps us to understand something about why the Nameless cannot be spoken. The first and final reality, the beginning and end of all things, is too great for words. Even our usual way of thinking is inadequate before the Ultimate. Ordinary words and thoughts are like eyes that are adjusted to seeing shadows in the darkness; when we enter the clear light of the ultimate reality itself, everything is so bright that we are unable to see anything at all.

Time and space
In what way do our normal words and thoughts make us blind to enlightened reality? Well, ordinarily, when we think and talk about things, our thoughts and words stand in between who we are ourselves and what it is that we are thinking and talking about. We use words and thoughts as if they were instruments with which to keep things at a distance. We think and talk about things in the past or in the future, thus using Time to separate us from those things. And when we think and talk about things in the present, then we use Space to keep ourselves apart from those things; our thoughts and words take for granted that the things we are concerned with are objects which are located nearby, or far away, or over there, or just here... or anywhere other than where we ourselves are as subjects. In usual thought and talk, "we" (the subject) are located at one end of our thinking and talking, and some object apart from us is located at the other end. When we think and talk in the ordinary terms of time and space, the attenuating character of our thought and speech prevents us from grasping the unity of the highest reality. The Ultimate is the totality of everything, including us, all-at-once. When we use time and space to separate things from one another, and then do not include ourselves in what we go on to think and talk about, then our thoughts and words are less than wholly inclusive. They leave out of account both we ourselves and also our activity of analysis.In consequence, when we think and speak in terms of time and space, we always fall short of grasping the intrinsic unity of Ultimate reality, which is more than time and space alone can contain. Thus, Porphyry (C. 3rd CE), the disciple of Plotinus, says "when you limit yourself by some consideration of space or relation, you doubtless do not limit existence in itself, but you turn away from it, extending the veil of imagination over your thought." To put that another way, in the words of Benjamin Whichcote (C. 17th.): "We are absent from God, not by being other-where than He is, who is everywhere; but by being other-wise than He is", rather than likewise.

The unity of self-knowledge
The Ultimate reality cannot be contained within the limits of time and space. We can, however, discover that Origin and End of all things in transcendent spiritual experience of It. Spiritual experience is unconditioned by time and space. When we experience an object without being limited or separated from it in any way, as by time and space, then we are united with that object itself in the very activity of experiencing it. This unitary character of spiritual experience is acknowledged in all the wisdom traditions, both West and East. Without the conditions of time and space to separate us from what we experience, subject and object are joined as one in the actual activity of spiritual experience itself. In spiritual experience, subject and object are united rather than separated. We find this character of unity in our own active knowledge of ourselves. Self-knowledge answers the fundamental questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is life all about? In the experience of self-knowledge, "We who know" are not separate from "What we know". In self-knowledge, we the subject are united with ourselves as object of knowledge. When we know ourselves, we are what we know. Our Being and our Knowing are one and the same. That ultimate unity of existence and knowledge is always identical for everyone; it transcends all differences between people, times and places. Self-knowledge is universal and eternal.

The domain of the ultimate
To discover the highest reality, we must become well established in experience of transcendent spiritual unity. Becoming well-practiced in knowing ourselves is the most direct way of advancing our spiritual experience. For that reason, all the spiritual traditions direct us to meditate on our own knowledge of ourselves. For example, Porphyry declares: "He who by thought can penetrate within his own substance (and know himself there, finds) in this actualization of knowledge and consciousness, (that he) that knows is identical with the object that is known." Porphyry's master, Plotinus comments: "Then, indeed, has he attained At-One-Ment, containing no difference, neither in regard to himself, nor to other beings." Tibetan Buddhist scriptures similarly affirm that, when the mind knows itself, "there are no two such things as contemplation and contemplator." In true knowledge of oneself, all dualities disappear; and without dualities, the radiant unity of the mind is clear. Therefore, "The state of mind transcendent over all dualities brings Liberation". Moreover, it is quite impossible to realize Buddha-hood anywhere than in the mind itself. For that reason, "Unless one realizes the Buddha-hood innate in one's mind, Nirvana is obscured. ... To know whether this be so or not, look within thine own mind."

Principles and practices
These teachings from the spiritual life are very deep and high. There is, however, an intuitive sense in which they are likely to be familiar already. The Western tradition can almost be summed up in two words: "Know thyself." The Eastern equivalent is equally well known: "Seek Enlightenment within." These two injunctions, to Know Thyself and to seek Enlightenment within, are likely to sound familiar because we may have heard them before. On the other hand, a central teaching of all the esoteric traditions is that we are all already innately Enlightened. The doctrines may seem familiar, then, because they resonate with our own awakened nature. Whatever the case, there is a Zen mondo which illustrates a very practical point. A student and a Master are discussing the Buddha's final injunction to his followers: "Cease to do evil, start to do good, work diligently for your own Salvation" When the student insists, a little too emphatically, that the principles of the Buddha-Dharma are self-explanatory, the Master replies: "As may well be so, but the principles don't practice themselves." There is a sense in which we all already know the high principles of the spiritual life. Yet, it is more often the actual practice of the spiritual life that causes us problems in the material world.

Meditation in the market-place
Practice is important because the spiritual path is a way of life as well as a way of thought. If we think one way in our minds but act a different way in our lives, then our overall spiritual advancement is not as great as it might otherwise be. For it is the unity and integrity in oneself as a whole (body, life and mind) which is the basis for transcendent spiritual experience and ultimate Liberation. To discover that fundamental unity, we must not only go down into our deep nature to find it, but we must also give that unity room to arise of its own accord in our ordinary daily life. In that respect, the perfect practice is "to meditate in the market-place." To meditate in the market place does not mean to sit on one's cushion in the Esplanade, oblivious of the bustle and people around. Rather, the highest practice of the spiritual life, I feel, is to go about one's daily business in an entirely normal fashion, in the street, at work, at home, with one's family and within oneself, and constantly to maintain one's unity and integrity of body, life and mind. The content of everyday life itself, including all that we think and say, is then the subject of our constant meditation. To that effect, I recall my grandfather saying that his whole life is a prayer. Also, an Islamic teacher I worked with used to say: in prayer, we remember God. When writing my doctoral thesis on this subject, some years ago at Cambridge, I combined those two sentiments in a description of the spiritual life as "living with God in mind." When our meditation is strong, then all our activities of thought and speech and behaviour are grounded in the unity of our eternal divine nature. When we know the spiritual life in ourselves, then we do not forget ourselves in the material world. We are ceaselessly aware of who we are, and of what we are doing, and of where we are going, in this life and in the life to come. That self-knowledge is the natural state of the mind. Provided we do not obscure our natural consciousness, the fundamental unity of our Enlightened nature itself shines in our hearts and in our minds; and through our daily lives, it radiates out into the world to be of benefit to all sentient beings, including ourselves.

Creation and completion
The original act of Creation is the materialization of matter. The purpose of the spiritual life is to bring eternal divine reality into the material realm. By affirming the divine nature of everything we can and, in that way, spiritualizing material things, "our souls are lifted up from earthly things to things divine," says C.17th Cambridge Platonist, John Smith. The divine nature within ourselves is the origin of our existence; and coming to know that eternal divine reality is the completion we have all been born for. Thus, "the starting-point is universally the goal" (Plotinus). In between that beginning and end, it is often difficult to keep track for where we are coming from and where we are going to. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and mystic, expressed it well in a nice analogy: when we are high on a mountain, it is easy to see our goal and the particular path to reach it; but once we descend into the valley, it can be hard to find our way again because we lose sight of the goal and cannot see which path to follow. When following the spiritual path, however, the first thing to remember and the last thing to forget is "who we are, ourselves!" Accordingly: when all is clear, then there is no problem in how to proceed. But when the days are cloudy, as they sometimes are for everyone, then our way on the spiritual path is not clear. Often, then, we do not know what to do, or say, or think, or believe, or even how to feel. For such occasions Douglas Adams' Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy has some excellent advice: "Don't Panic!" it says. Indeed, when the going gets tough: remember who you are; remember God. Whenever you get lost on the spiritual path through the material world, remember yourself as the one who happens to be lost at the moment. Recognize yourself. Find comfort in your own spiritual company. For your spirit participates in the same nature as the eternal divine Spirit. The great Hindu philosopher, Sankara (C. 9th CE), described that nature as: sat-cit-ananda, Being/ Knowing/ Bliss. Thus, Life itself is innately Joyful. And our true nature fully equips us for the journey through life; for our nature itself gives us Existence, Consciousness, and Joy. The essential practice of the spiritual life in the material world, then, is simply that of being who we are, knowing why we're here, and enjoying ourselves as fully as we can. In short, the spiritual life is Being-Aware-Joyfully. Yet, it takes great practice to truly Be, it requires real commitment to maintain open and ceaseless Awareness, and it involves dedication to be Joyful, for distractions and illusions of suffering abound on all sides.

Good luck and God's grace on your journey.