Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Enlightenment Is, What It Isn't, Why You're Not Enlightened, And How You Can Be

The Current Scene

If we survey the non-dual spiritual scene in the West these days, we find vastly different views about enlightenment and awakening. Some are quite insightful and genuine, but many seem simplistic, derivative, contradictory, misguided, or patently false. It is quite common for idealistic people of all stripes to claim all sorts of spiritual awakening, based on all kinds of experiences and ideas, and then to loudly proclaim them to the world, quickly becoming writers, teachers, and Gurus of these non-dual truths, leaving us to wonder what is at the bottom of this whole enterprise, other than the usual human vanity. Seeing so much confusion and delusion in this movement, many are tempted to simply dismiss all of it as patent nonsense, without examining the source of both the delusions, and the genuine realities.

Some claim that enlightenment is the discovery that there is no separate ego, often by those who have examined themselves, and failed to find a tangible ego present. Others equate it with the discovery of a non-dual, all-pervading spiritual Presence within oneself that supersedes and "saves" us from the separate ego-identity. Many say that enlightenment is the discovery that we are pure, unblemished, primordial awareness, empty of self. Some claim that enlightenment is found in accepting our ordinary daily awareness as our true self. Each of these insights, and many more, are presumed to be the revelation of an inner enlightened consciousness that we can awaken to relatively easily, and that once this occurs even once, we need not bother with the search, or even any further spiritual practice other than reminding ourselves of these truths, and allowing the power of this awakening to unfold within us.

Most of these awakened teachers try to equate this process with the non-dual traditions of Hindu Advaita Vedanta or classical Buddhism and its many offshoots, while yet retaining independence from any responsibility to these traditions, as if we are in the midst of a new, modern western spiritual awakening with its own standards and teachings, only loosely related to what has come before it, but essentially realizing the same enlightenment, just shorn of their traditional sectarian culture and mythology.

Even though many of these awakenings have been inspired by the teachings of modern Advaitic teachers like Ramana Maharshi or Sri Nisargdatta Maharaj and their students, it is not generally felt that awakened westerners need study or seriously understand those traditional teachings or their approaches, much less apply them to their own individual cases. To them, their own awakenings stand apart as self-evident truths that need no outside corroboration or traditional wisdom. Others come from Buddhist or even Christian backgrounds, and yet feel free to play it very loose and fancy-free, able to stretch those traditions however they need to in order to accommodate their own viewpoint and experience. What all seem to have in common is a reliance on their own immutable personal experience as their primary guide to understanding what enlightenment is and how it is to be cultivated, rather than on the teachings of those traditions or Gurus, which at best serve as ways to affirm their own experience as true and valid rather than merely imaginary - and where they differ from these traditions, this is taken as a sign of either the corruptions of those traditions, or their lack of relevance to spirituality in the modern world, rather than a lack in their own experience and understanding.

The experience of "awakening" certainly does seem to have been a powerful one for many of these people, and their attempts to understand and talk or teach about it often involves a sincere effort to make sense of these experiences on a variety of levels, including the strictly personal, the social, or the cultural, in relation to the religious and spiritual traditional models going back to ancient times, and in the context of the modern world of secular, therapeutic, and psychological insight and self-help movements. However, even when the awakening experiences may be genuine, the resulting accommodations are not always sincere; just as often, it involves a significant degree of self-delusion, and the attempt to proselytize or market those delusions to others, which includes a relatively strong hostility to criticism or any attempt at accountability. Because there is no particular relationship between all of these perspectives that these individual awakenings need harmonize with, a great deal of confusion ensues, including many neurotic and self-centered claims and proclamations of "truth" for all to behold and affirm, as if that was even possible when there is so little clarity about what is being proclaimed as truth.

Much of this gets whittled down to one-liners and other brief summaries of spiritual wisdom, some of which is valid, some not, but most has little force behind it except on a strictly personal level. There is often even an anti-intellectual bent to these people, in part because their experiences did not arise from intellectual sources, and in part because they feel the intellect might damage or diminish their experiences, which they wish to not only hold onto, but magnify for all the world to notice and embrace. The inflationary tendency that Carl Jung often warned about when westerners come in contact with eastern mysticism seems particularly relevant. Likewise, the ability to actually use the intellect intelligently, to discriminate and by that means separate the wheat from the chaff, to learn the distinction between narcissistic holding on to these experiences and the ego-surrendering release of them, and by that means to discern what enlightenment is really about, and what it isn't about - this not only seems often lacking, it is powerfully resisted and denigrated as if it were the "enemy" of non-duality rather than its benign and most helpful complimentary companion.

This is especially the case when these awakened folks are asked to sincerely describe and contrast their awakening to what is taught or described in the non-dual traditions of enlightenment prudently, critically, and in a detached manner. Above all else, this seems to arouse the greatest resistance and resentment, in great part because these experiences are so powerfully felt and identified with, and any critical approach to them seems threatening to what is being held onto so dearly as their "precious", the magical amulet that gives them power over the world (but which also corrupts them over time).

When criticisms are made of these people, we quickly hear either pious assertions that awakening cannot be described or assessed by the intellect, or accusations that those who try to apply intelligent standards to such matters are completely missing the point - that because enlightenment involves the transcendence of the mind, the use of the mind in these matters should be little more than that of rubber-stamping the superiority of experience over understanding and making ecstatic proclamations of the absolute. If these do not fail, attacks on the critics soon begin, often dismissive of their qualifications, or outright assertions that they are following a false or misleading path themselves. Because enlightenment is beyond the grasp of the intellect, they say, intellectual discussion of enlightenment confuses things more than it clarifies, and it should therefore be minimized and often simply discarded. Instead emotional positivism is the only response deemed meaningful, in which these awakenings are only embraced, affirmed, and lauded.

To which the non-dual traditions themselves have always said, hogwash. It is not hard to see that even the assertion that enlightenment is beyond the intellect is an assertion made by the intellect. It may be true in the ultimate sense that enlightenment transcends the mind, but it is simply not true within the sphere of our human and spiritual lives that we cannot understand the basics of what enlightenment refers to, how it can be described, and where we stand in relation to it, using the intellect as a tool of our higher intuition and intelligence. The non-dual traditions are not merely filled with assertions of enlightenment, they are also filled with fairly elaborate descriptions of the key matters that must be understood about enlightenment, what it is and what it isn't, that are important for every aspirant to grasp, and not just intellectually, but experientially, in a grounded, practical, and not merely theoretical manner.

Even if much of the non-dual scene these days has reduced the teachings on enlightenment to brief aphorisms and emotion-laden proclamations that might sound and feel very good on a Facebook post or in a Satsang gathering, these invariably become a disservice to those looking for some foundational understanding of what non-dualism is actually about. Without that basic foundation and at least some traditional context, a meaningful approach to practice is unlikely to develop. Even great truths can be communicated in a manner that diminishes and even obscures their real power and effectiveness, especially if we are not wary of the motives of our own selves, and the fundamental pattern of the ego's relationship to most everything, which is identification (and its polar opposite, "otherness"). At the risk of making just such an egoic mistake myself, I'd like to lay out the simple basics of how to approach non-dual teachings and practices in a manner that most people can easily grasp and make use of without much risk of falling into delusion, and to use as a base for approaching this seemingly mysterious matter of enlightenment.

Identification With The Body-Mind Is Un-Enlightenment, And Enlightenment Is Freedom From Identification With The Body-Mind 

That was easy, wasn't it?

The first principle to understand is that enlightenment itself is very difficult to describe or define in any sort of positive language. This is not because enlightenment cannot be known, but because it is essentially free of any content, even of positive content such as "bliss" or "peace". Rather than speaking of enlightenment as a set of characteristics or experiential content, one might describe enlightenment as a fundamentally different relationship to everything, including ourselves, one that is completely free in the most radical sense. For this reason, as modern Advaitic teachers like Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj have pointed out, enlightenment is best described in negative terms, as the absence of the many obstructions, delusions, and attachments of all our limited, separative, and unenlightened views and perspectives that obscure the native truth of non-dual reality. Within all those delusions, however, there is one central theme that all traditional non-dual teachings point to as being the source of the common experience of feeling oneself to be a separate, limited, and conditional person in need of enlightenment, and from which all our un-enlightened troubles spring: the simple sense we all have of feeling ourselves to be the body-mind.

Even Buddhists, who make a different approach and use a different language to describe non-dual enlightenment than Advaitists, agree that the ignorant identification of our awareness with the body-mind as if it were the pre-existent and persistent condition of our own being is the root of the endless round of sufferings known as samsara. Likewise, Buddhists assert that enlightenment is not a state or an experience, but the relinquishment of any sense of identification with any form or content of experience, resulting in the awakening to "emptiness", rather than to some sort of heavenly paradise bringing to us the fulfillment of our desired goals and aspirations. Quite the opposite from the traditional religious goal of "going to heaven", the Buddhist notion of enlightenment requires that we relinquish all those goals and aspirations for the fulfillment of our desires, for it is these that distract us from reality by trapping us in an endless round of seeking and dissapointment which only fuels further craving and its consequent delusions and miseries.

The Buddhist word for enlightenment, Nirvana, which most people assume means something like infinite bliss or happiness, actually means "blown out". It refers to the notion that enlightenment is not an achievement, but the "blowing out" of the fires of craving (tanha), dissatisfaction (dukkha), and ignorance (avidya). These fires are quenched, brought to cessation, so that they no longer disturb our free condition. What remains or arises when the fire of our delusions is blown out? This proves nearly impossible to say, because all of our words and concepts apply only to the realm of our delusional experiences, aspirations, and goals, not to the enlightened condition. Therefore, Buddhists merely call it "emptiness", because it has no content we identify with any longer, either in ourselves or in anything at all.

The style of Buddhist awakening is therefore deliberately modest, unassuming, and unconcerned for recognition, approbation, titles and claims, or even positive assertions of any kind. The enlightened Buddhist is content with "emptiness", because latching on to anything at all would be a betrayal of the freedom they have discovered to be far more important than any spiritual experience or attainment they might have achieved along the way.

We can use this principle of the relinquishment of identification with the body to clarify not just how we can talk about enlightenment, but how we approach the practice of non-dualism. We can begin to see that it's not enough merely to have some profound non-dual mystical experience, and assert it as our own truth, and then proclaim that truth to the world, all the while defending it against all comers. That too is merely another form of identification, this time with a "non-dual spiritual experience" of the body-mind's. And that in turn means that it is the result of identification with the body-mind and its potential for experience, no matter how subtle.

We must begin to see non-dual practice is an active relinquishment of the tendency to identify with our experience, even with our non-dual mystical experiences. We can begin to see that even in the midst of mystical experience, the tendency to identify with (or dissociate from) the body-mind's experiential matrix is tremendously tempting and even habitual, and that this is the root of all our problems and conflicts, even of a spiritual nature. More importantly, once this basic understanding arises, we can actually begin to relinquish this identification, both a piece at a time and at its core, as we simplify our viewpoint to see this single principle as the focus of both our view and our practice.

We can say with some basic confidence that the entire process of enlightenment all boils down to releasing identification with the body-mind and all its actions and experiences, in all its forms and convoluted complexity. What that means in practice remains to be seen for each of us, depending on the various qualities of our experience that we identify with. Even so, this principle is not hard to grasp or relate to personally, since our own sense of identity in relation to the body-mind is not an abstraction, but is felt and experienced by us in every moment, no matter what we are doing, at the closest and most obvious levels of our every experience, and not just in some esoteric domain that is not currently within our present awareness.

So the first principle of spiritual practice is to begin with the simple noticing of the moment to moment tendency to identify with the body-mind and its experience. In that noticing, we can quickly see how pervasive and deep this identification runs in us, however painful and humbling that noticing might be. In fact, progress in non-dual practice generally involves not greater and greater experiences of bliss and peace, though these will inevitably occur, but the deepening observation of how universal our identification with the body-mind runs, how powerful our bondage is in daily life, and how it colors literally everything we see, feel, or know. The great difficulty or "tapas" of spiritual practice is allowing this revelation of our self-identification to unfold and show us precisely how delusional we have been, and continue to be, even while we experience the higher truths of awakening to the underlying non-dual reality.

The intelligent noticing of how persistent and deep our identification with the body-mind is cannot simply be replaced by assertions of our enlightened identity with "Brahman" or the "Self", or "primordial awareness" or even "freedom". Not only does this fail to appreciate how deep our identification with the body-mind actually is, but it fails to even understand the full range of the body-mind's experiential delusions - as if they were only confined to this interior "self" sense, rather than to a broad attachment to the body-mind's myriad experiential potential. Much of what arises as awakening experience is merely the deeper dimensions of the body-mind that we have not been conscious of previously, suddenly made conscious. As we become conscious of these, we may feel like a whole new dimension of reality is being revealed to us. And while that is even true in some respects, it is still basically just the deeper dimensions of the body-mind that we are seeing, and as with the grosser levels, these too are things we are already identified with, so when the arise to consciousness, we are not yet free of identification with them, and so easily become ensnared in their seductions and flattery.

Because this habit is both unconscious in us, and deeply ingrained in our psyche, whenever these expanded and often profoundly joyful experiences arise, we naturally identify with them, hold onto them, cherish them, and defend them, just as we do with the physical and emotional dimensions of the body-mind. They are not just revelations to us of how much more to life there is than we previously knew, they are also tests of our commitment to relinquish identification with the body-mind. They are not an indication that we have finally found the "true me" that we can now safely and accurately identify with, they are simply the rising to consciousness of forms of bodily identification that we were previously unconscious of. Unless we understand that the core of non-dual practice is the relinquishment of identification, we won't grasp that lesson, but will instead embrace these new experiences as if they are the very point of non-dualism, and therefore to be embraced as our own true "awakening" or enlightenment.

What must be understood above all is our own deeply unconscious tendency to identify with the body-mind and all its experiences, including its spiritual experiences, even the seemingly most profound of "non-dual" experience. Even if these experiences originate beyond the body-mind, in the transcendental reality, when they are experienced by us while we are still identified with the body-mind, they are made to conform to the body-mind's own pattern of perception, cognition, and experiential identification. These experiences then become a part of the body-mind, and thus become something we identify with and hold onto just as we do with everything else in our bodily experience.

So even spiritual experiences of non-dual awakening can become just another part of the cycle of bondage, rather than an avenue of our freedom. And that is of course one of the great ironies of religious and spiritual teachings - that they tend to reinforce the very problem they aim to solve, by leading people to identify with them not just as social identities, but as experiential revelations of God or Truth. When the experience preached by the religious or spiritual path one is pursuing finally arises, we immediately identify ourselves with it, and feel that we have achieved its great goal - even if that goal is the absence of a reified self or ego. Which is why a foundational understanding of this principle of identification must become grounded in us, especially when expanded spiritual experience awakens in us. Otherwise even the experience of "no-self" becomes just another insight to make an ego out of, and usually one that we will not even recognize as such, adding to our difficulties.

The attempt to create a new form of spiritual identity (or "non-identity) centered upon these non-dual experiences and concepts is itself merely another example of how our identification with the body-mind bleeds into everything we do or know, even if that includes experiential knowledge of the non-dual or Divine reality. Constantly shifting identities of all kinds flow from the body-mind and its potential for experience, which is far greater than what most people are commonly aware of. It's understandable, then, that those who have unusual spiritual experiences and awakenings will then try to organize these into a new kind of identity, which will of course be interpreted and held onto from the perspective of a larger sense of the spiritual self. This expanded spiritual identity may seem like a grand solution to the problem of identifying with the smaller "me" of the physical body-mind personae, and the inference will be made that this is what "enlightenment" is about - identifying instead with a far larger and expanded "me" seemingly implied by awakening experiences. But the fact remains that identification is itself the sign of un-enlightenment, no matter how profound the dimensions of the body-mind that one identifies with are, and so long as we persist in the habits of identification with these experiences, the essential bondage we suffer remains untouched (though it can certainly be consoled and temporarily satisfied by these greater experiences of even a Divine nature).

We must also understand that the inability to describe enlightenment in positive terms is actually an advantage, in that because of our persistent impulse to identify with the body-mind and its experiences, any positive element introduced into our minds only seems to offer another object to identify with and become deluded by. Poonja Swami made the acute observation that having too strong an idea of what enlightenment is (in the positive sense) and how it comes into being, can actually be a disadvantage, in that the mind can easily latch onto those ideas, and produce experiences from them that seem to be "enlightenment", and thus create a self-referential experiential delusion of personal enlightenment. Because this is so, we must also recognize that we are so accustomed to identification, that we can somehow manage to identify even with notions of "emptiness" or "non-identification with the body", creating yet another locus around which to identify ourselves and our spiritual adventure. So even these must be observed for the signs of further identification and relinquished in good stead.

The drawback to these negative descriptions of enlightenment, however, is that it doesn't much tell us what the actual experience of being enlightened is, other than freedom from this identification with the body-mind. Even the Buddhist word for enlightenment, Nirvana, which most people think means something like infinite bliss or happiness, actually means, "blown out". It refers to the fact that in enlightenment, the fires of craving (tanha) and dissatisfaction (dukkha) are blown out, quenched, brought to cessation, and no longer disturb us. But what remains or arises when the fire of our delusions is blown out? This proves nearly impossible to say, because all of our words and concepts apply only to the realm of those delusions, not to the enlightened condition.

This does, therefore, limit our ability to understand through the intellect what enlightenment is - unless we confine ourselves to these negative descriptions, such as the absence of craving and dissatisfaction, or the absence of identification with the body-mind. However, I think this turns out to be sufficient for most spiritual purposes, since the path to enlightenment is itself largely a negative one, of getting rid of our delusions, rather than a positive one of  becoming more and more "enlightened", or getting closer to enlightenment, as if it were some sort of attainment of goal to be reached.

One of the primary delusions that results from identification with the body-mind, in fact, is just that perspective that enlightenment is something to be attained by the body-mind personae through years of practice and growth. As Nisargadatta and Ramana frequently pointed out, even the path to enlightenment is a negative one rather than a positive attainment. It has more to do with getting rid of delusions than achieving some positive state called "enlightenment" or realization. Because the enlightened condition is already the truth or reality of our own condition in this very moment, it does not need to be attained. But because it is obscured by our identification with the body-mind, so that our own conscious awareness is associated with the body-mind in all its complex and differentiated functions, that identification must be lifted for us to enjoy our native condition. So the process of growth towards enlightenment is itself a negative one, in that it proceeds through a removal of obstructions, until the last obstructions are relinquished. And all of those obstructions can be best understood as forms of identification with the body-mind and all its forms and filters of experience.

So the first thing to understand about enlightenment is that it can best be thought of as the absence of identification with the body-mind. Anything else we might say about it in positive terms, such as that it is love, or bliss, or perfect understanding, or the knowledge of the Self, will only be interpreted by us through what these things mean to a body-mind in a world, so long as that is how we identify ourselves and filter our experience even of the transcendent reality that is beyond such identification.

This is a very important point to understand. Identification with the body-mind subtly transforms every kind of experience we have, including our spiritual experience of the transcendental reality, to conform to our shifting bodily perspective. So, even to grasp the meaning of our most prized spiritual experiences and "awakenings" we must be released from identification with the body-mind, not just conceptually, but literally. Otherwise, we will continue to experientially feel and interpret even these through the deluding filter of bodily identification.

On the other hand, it is still possible to speak of the positive side of enlightenment, in that we can consider what it is to have all the obstructions to our natural state and even its bodily expression lifted, so that we function freely, openly, without any sense of separation or assumed identity. This requires us to consider the full nature of our own bodily life, and what the bodily implications of non-identification with the body are.

What Is The Body-Mind?

It's important to grasp that when Advaita Vedanta or Buddhism speak of "the body-mind", they are not merely referring to the physical body or the lower, verbally-based brain-mind of the waking state. They are referring to a deeply complex and expansive understanding of the body-mind as existing on many different levels simultaneously, structured and communicating with its many parts in ways that are often either above or below the conscious mind's awareness. An analogy would be to our own physical body, most parts of which function below the level of our awareness, in a manner that we have little conscious control over. We are not generally aware of the functioning of our liver, kidneys, or lymphatic system, our digestion or blood circulation, even our heart and most brain functions, except when something goes wrong with them. And even then we rarely know what exactly has gone wrong, unless we submit to a careful process of examination and testing.

The body-mind as understood within the non-dual teachings of Advaita Vedanta, is seen to be composed of five koshas, or sheaths, nested one within the other, somewhat like Russian dolls.

1. The outermost sheath is the physical body, or Annamaya kosha, also called the "food sheath". It includes the whole of the physical body, brain, senses, and nervous system, including all its instincts, urges, desires, and compulsive habits. This sheath is the only one scientifically identifiable as the body, and is often taken by materialists to be the only "you" there is.

2. The next sheath is the "energy sheath", or Pranamaya kosha, associated with subtle life-energies we feel and associate with the sense of "being alive". It is experienced in all our emotional, feeling sensations of being connected to a living power of enjoyment, happiness, and higher life. Just as the physical body feeds on and is composed of food, our pranic body feeds on these subtler life-energies, and is even composed of their circulating patterns. The pranic body is closely associated with the physical body, even with the physical breath cycle, and both relate closely with one another so long as the physical body lives. This sheath is considered the first of the three "subtle sheaths", and provides a link between the physical sheath and the subtler dimensions of the body-mind.

3. The middle sheath of the body-mind is the Manomaya kosha, often simply called the "subtle sheath" (though in reality the three middle sheaths all belong to the subtle realm), or the "mind sheath". This sheath is associated with the experience of subtle worlds and dimensions beyond the physical body and world. It is also the seat of the experiential mind, which becomes subsumed in the physical body when we incarnate through it. Our own intellect and mind, even as we experience them right now through the physical body and its brain, are in reality rooted in this subtle sheath, which is the source of our creativity and spiritual intuition. When our physical body dies, we resume a fuller awareness of this subtle body, relieved of its limits and gross conditional presumptions. While we live, however, our minds are mostly subservient to the physical body's perspective, and our ability to experience subtle or spiritual phenomena depends greatly on the integration of these three lower sheaths.

4. The highest of the three subtle sheaths is the Vijnanamaya kosha, or the wisdom-sheath, associated with the highest spiritual function of discrimination, or the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood. It is often called the "intellectual sheath", but this should not be confused with the ordinary intellect we ordinarily associate with intellectual activity, which is a function of the lower mind. This higher mind's discrimination is a highly sensitive spiritual function that essentially can tell shit from shinola in spiritual matters. It is called Prajna in the Buddhist traditions, and is often the primary function cultivated in esoteric spiritual traditions through imaginative practices of the higher mind.

5. The deepest of the body-mind's sheaths is the Anandamaya kosha, or the "bliss-sheath". This is the sheath associated with pure being, pure consciousness, without any physical or even subtle objects associated with it. It is also known as the causal body, subtler even than the subtle body, existing in a realm beyond all the senses, where only the pure "I Am" of the body-mind finds its root. This sheath is a reflection of the blissful reality beyond the body-mind, but as a reflection, it has no inherent reality of its own - like the rest of the body-mind, which rests upon this deepest of the sheaths.

It must be understood that all of these bodily sheaths have vast experiential potential, including a remarkable capacity for spiritual experiences well beyond that of the physical organism. Ordinary human life is associated with a stepped-down version of each of these aspects of the total body-mind, often reduced to the point of absurdity, leaving a sense of separated, alienated disassociation and dissatisfaction. What we call "spiritual awakening" is often simply an awakening from the degraded and reductionist experience of these sheaths, to a fuller and more alive and inclusive experience of them. We must be aware, however, that this is not the same as enlightenment, and is in fact merely an awakening to the fuller extent of what we are identified with as the body-mind.

Experiential Knowledge Of The Sheaths

A good definition of spiritual life is the process of bringing to consciousness what is unconscious in us. To the degree that these five sheaths are not consciously experienced by us, becoming conscious of these sheaths is highly important. However, it is highly important precisely because it allows us to see just how identified with the body-mind we actually are, how unconscious much of that identification is, and just how much we have to surrender to fully relinquish that identification. Simply becoming conscious of these sheaths and their experiential nature is not the same as enlightenment, though it may certainly feel that way at times. Enlightenment is all about having an entirely new kind of relationship to the body-mind and all its sheaths - one that no longer necessitates identification with them.

That new relationship doesn't mean that we actually dissociate from the body-mind, or cut ourselves off from it in some manner, or suppress or abandon it. Quite the opposite, that is what people do when they identify with the body-mind and its problems, out of reaction. Not being identified with the body-mind simply means that we are not implicated in its problems or its quest for solutions. We become free of these, and don't relate to the body-mind in anything like the old ways based on identification. We don't even see ourselves as something "other" to the body-mind, because we are no longer identified with any "thing" at all. This is of course hard for us to imagine, because we are so identified with the body-mind that we think that is how all of life must be, that it is perfectly natural and appropriate to identify with the body-mind, and to make a life out of that as best we can.

Spiritual awakenings of whatever variety often jar us loose from this identification, at least in moments, and at least to some significant degree. They can give us a sudden "vision" of the reality beyond the body-mind. But because we have not truly relinquished identification with the body-mind, the basic effect is an energization of the deeper aspects of our bodily life, the parts we have not previously been conscious of. That energization can be felt as a tremendously positive effect, or it can be felt as a disturbance that we'd rather not have disrupting our lives. Or, most commonly, it can be felt as both. In fact, any ecstatic experience can have this effect, even if it comes from the physical life. Intense sexual experience, for example, can serve this same purpose in some cases. Drugs can have this effect as well. Childbirth, near-death experiences, even severe stress, pain, or illness, can also trigger these breakthroughs.

When these experiences do break through our ordinary awareness, we have to understand what is really going on, and not make presumptions about ourselves based on the grandiose ambitions and expectations of the ego, which is always looking for ways to appropriate these breakthroughs to serve its own purposes. The primary way the ego does this is through identification, which is how it appropriate everything in our experience. So these spiritual experiences, no matter how profound and true, also become something more to identify with. If we are smart, that is precisely how we will use these experiences - to see how deep and automatic this process of identification is in us. Because seeing that is our only real hope of relinquishing and transcending it, and enjoying genuine freedom.

So it is not enough to simply become more conscious of those deeper aspects of our bodily life that previously have been unconscious in us. It is far more important to become aware of our unconscious identification with these aspects of our higher bodily life. And this includes not merely our unconscious identification with the physical body and its functions, but with the subtle and even causal dimensions of our bodies.

When people have what these spiritual awakenings, what is most commonly occurring is a heightened awareness of the subtle and causal dimensions of our own body-mind, and even practical knowledge of their relationship to the physical body. This is of course generally speaking a very good thing, and carries with it the potential to release our identification with these subtler aspects of the body-mind, which we can't readily do if we are unconscious of their very existence or breadth and depth. But merely awakening to the subtle life within us does not, in itself, release us from identification with the subtle. Instead, it reveals our identification with these deeper, spiritual sheaths, and can even strengthen our identification with these, if we are so inclined (which we in general very much are). Then, we simply become "spiritual egos", very proud and full of ourselves and our spiritual breadth, and happy to tell everyone about it.

It takes a conscious effort to resist the temptation to identify with subtle and blissful experiences when they arise, precisely because they have such a deep unconscious grip on us. The lessons of Freudian psychology's discovery of the unconscious should be well noted. What is unconscious in us often functions as autonomous psychic patterns that we are deeply attached to, and which compel us  to all sorts of habits and presumptions we simply assume to be true and real, but in reality are merely unconscious creations and attachments of our own making. When these first arise from our unconscious, we naturally feel that we are experiencing some profound spiritual revelation about the universe, unaware that it is actually our unconscious creations that we are witnessing.

Carl Jung pointed out that the autonomous patterns functioning in our deeper psyche actually take on the form of genuine personaes, often of an archetypal nature. When intense spiritual experiences of the subtler dimensions awaken, these archetypes often come to consciousness, and we can identify with them in the same way we do with other elements of the body-mind. Jung called this "possession by an archetype" or "ego-inflation", and warned that westerners in particular were very vulnerable to this problem when the engaged in eastern or other foreign spiritual paths that their psyches were unaccustomed to handling. But the problem can occur with anyone who enters into the mystical realms of experience. He himself noted that these archetypes were genuine, living structures in not just the personal consciousness, but the collective consciousness. And that when we break through to these deeper layers of collective unconscious identities, we can ourselves be overcome by their power, and identify with them almost automatically, if we have not understood ourselves well.

This is why people who undergo spiritual awakenings often seem egoically attached to and even narcissistically inflated by the experience. The process of identification with these subtler and collective aspects of our body-mind has not been relinquished, but in some cases merely affirmed or strengthened. And so we have the apparent paradox of spiritually awakened individuals seeming to act like egotistical wankers. They have not grasped that the process of genuine spiritual maturity is one of relinquishing identification with all aspects of the body-mind, not letting go only of some, while identifying even more strongly with others.

Why Spiritual Maturity Is Measured Not By What Experiential Phenomena Arise, But By How Free We Are Of Identification With Our Body-Mind

If we properly understand the maturation of non-dual understanding, we can see it not as the accumulation of vast experiential knowledge of the many potentials contained in all our sheaths (even including the great bliss of the Anandamya Kosha), but of freedom from identification with these. Knowledge of the sheaths can certainly be useful on a practical level, and some is certainly necessary to the process of maturity in both human life and non-dual practice, in that we cannot be free of unconscious identification with the body-mind's sheaths until we become conscious of them. And the process of becoming conscious of them, and relinquishing identification with them, is what is called sadhana, or non-dual spiritual practice.

Non-dual practice of whatever kind we begin to engage involves the uncovering of all our sheaths, and the experiential observation of all our tendencies to identify with these sheaths and their patterns of experience. We can even notice that every individual has a different pattern or structure of identification with the sheaths, which accounts for the unique nature of every born personality. Advaita Vedanta calls these patterns vasanas and samskaras.

vasana is simply a pattern of attention that creates identification with whatever object it is drawn to. A samskara is a rut or groove in our consciousness created by vasanas that have been repeated for a long period of time, even over many lifetimes, creating the various "pitfalls" that we tend to fall into over and over again, in many different ways, even if we don't seem to consciously choose them. Our past choices of attention have created a structure in our awareness that sucks us back in automatically and even unconsciously, so that we end up identifying with similar things over and over again.

When non-dual experience begins to awaken in us, it is always experienced in this two-fold manner:

One, as the awareness of some specific repetitive pattern of identification with some aspect of our body-minds.

Two, as spontaneous release of our identification with that repetitive same pattern.

This process occurs spontaneously, not sequentially but instantly, through the simple act of observing ourselves and our habits of mind and identification. It can be understood as both an instantaneous and a progressive progress. It is instantaneous in that in the moment of release from identification with any aspect of the body-mind, we immediately intuit the freedom and bliss that is beyond the body-mind. And yet, until we have released all identification with every aspect of the body-mind, throughout all the sheaths, each moment of release will inevitably be followed by the rising to consciousness of those forms of identification we have not been  conscious of, and not yet released. And so the more we release ourselves from identification with the body, the more we will have to face of our own unconscious patterns of identification with the body.

That cycle does not end until every form of unconscious identification with the body-mind is released. However blissful and free each momentary release of some form of identification is, even that experience becomes something that tests our tendencies to identify with the body-mind in some form or other, because those blissful experiences are themselves still being experienced from an even subtler level of bodily life that we grasp, hold onto, become attached to, and form a new, improved identity around.

So the non-dual process continues as a negative one, of relinquishing identification with the total body-mind, not a positive one of declaring oneself awake and free and enlightened and ready to teach others how to become this new "awakened" identity. It is certainly a positive process of becoming more and more free and able to enjoy freedom rather than fearing it as a process of loss of either things or identity. It is always active as the shedding of identification with whatever forms of experience arise, no matter how spiritually alive and free they may seem to be. Until even the subtlest forms of identification are released.

Why You're Not Enlightened

Sri Nisargadatta once compared enlightenment to the maturation of fruit on a tree. The fruit may take a very long time to ripen, he said, but when it falls from the branch, it falls suddenly.

Enlightenment, likewise, can be seen as a maturation process, in which the total body-mind, all the sheaths, is a great tree growing from out of the absolute ground of Being. Enlightenment is not so much the fruit that grows on the tree, as the falling of the fruit to the ground. The purpose of the fruit is not to hang onto the tree forever, as something glorious to be worshiped and identified with like some Avataric ornament, but a process that naturally severs all identification with the tree. The fruit cannot even be eaten until it falls to the ground - meaning until all attachments and identification with the body-mind, all that binds us to the tree, is finally released. The fruit does not fall until all the cords are cut. If even the slightest of cords remain, the fruit is still attached to the tree, and enlightenment is not possible. But when that last cord is cut, the fruit falls freely, and enlightenment begins.

Before that moment, there is certainly a great ripening process going on in the fruit, but it is a conditional process, limited in its scope by the bondage to the tree of the body-mind. The fruit can experience many great things, including a profound intuition of what is beyond the body-mind, but these are not forms of "enlightenment", they are merely forms of heightened awareness. Enlightenment is not known within the realm of the tree, the body-mind, itself. In fact, identification with the tree prevents a full understanding of what life free of such bondage even means. It even distorts our understanding of the body-mind itself, and what it represents within the chain of our true being.

This is why the traditions of enlightenment do not describe it in relationship to the body or the mind, but always point beyond these. Ati, ati, ati, is the rallying cry of the non-dual traditions. Beyond, beyond, beyond. Beyond what? Beyond identification with the body-mind and all its sheaths, even the subtlest and most blissful. Anything that can be spoken of, pointed to, or described, must be gone beyond. Every experience must be gone beyond. It is identification (and its consequences) that holds us back from this, and so it is identification that must go.

This is why virtually none of those engaged in non-dual practice are actually enlightened, however much higher mystical experience we may have. We must apprehend that we all have profound forms of identification with each of the five sheaths that must be released. We need to be very realistic and uncompromising with ourselves about this. It is certainly true that many people have profound experiential awakening experiences within the five sheaths, which they feel are of great significance to themselves and others, and provide the opportunity for much growth. It's also true that an intuition of what lies beyond the five sheaths has awakened in a great many people throughout history, including those in the present. That should be valued and appreciated. But we should also remember that none of that is itself the point of non-dual practice.

The point of non-dual practice is most simple: whatever arises in our bodily experience, we can either identify with it, or release it. If we identify with it, we are simply affirming and adding to the delusions we have always been under. If we refrain from identifying with it, we will experience some basic sense of the inherent freedom beyond the body-mind. And in the next moment, something new will arise from our unconsciousness to test us in the same manner. That cycle does not end until we have seen it all, and released all identification with any form of bodily experience, high and low.

What Does Identification With Bodily Experience Really Mean?

All of this might sound easy, as long as we deal in generalizations and don't get down to specifics. Identification with the body-mind might be very clear and simple in principle, but in the course of our living, it becomes immensely complex and frustrating, precisely because it has so many varied and often conflicting manifestations.

That is the nature of duality. It begins with the simplest form of identification, but branches out from there into a massive tree of so many entangled branches we often find ourselves lost and unable to recover our original singleness. The five sheaths are themselves general examples of how this branching occurs, from the subtlest sheath to the grossest. Our attention is, generally speaking, fixated on the grossest sheaths, the physical body, brain, and nervous system, while the subtlest sheaths remain largely unconscious to us, or are only superficially experienced.

To realistically address our identification with the body, we have to begin with the most obvious levels of identification, which is almost always at the level of the physical body-mind and its relationship with the physical world beyond its skin. We experience that growing identification with the body quite naturally it seems, as soon as we are conceived and born, along with all the human conflicts the physical body brings with it. We feel that as a sense of attachment and aversion towards the various things we like or dislike, love or hate, feel good or bad about, and so on. So long as we are identified with our physical bodily life, we are also bound to experience these dualistic opposites endlessly cycling forth from our minds to our lives and back again. In the midst of that, we experience an endless cycle of frustration, seeking, limited achievements, momentary release, and varying degrees of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

That cycle never ends so long as we are identified with the body. Even worse, this cycle manifests even at the higher or subtler levels of bodily life. Even higher forms of spiritual experience, which when they first occur in us tend to feel as if we have stumbled onto the perfect form of Divine life that promises to resolve all our problems and turn us into God-Realized beings who have finally discovered the secrets of life. Unfortunately, we eventually find that these have problems of their own that become increasingly difficult to resolve. The higher forms of identification with the body-mind turn out to be just as binding and frustrating as the lower forms of identification.

Eventually, if one is intelligent, or just honest about oneself, one begins to see that this principle of identification is the key to both our suffering and our liberation at all levels of the body-mind. Suffering becomes understood not as a failure to achieve either the earthly or mystical potentials of our body-mind, but is the very identification with the body-mind which motivates us to exploit that potential A different approach to life's experiential potentials begins to develop. Not one that idealizes either worldly relationships or these grand spiritual experiences, but one that begins to understand that the real purpose of our lives is to release our persistent identification with these - to be free, in simple terms. Not to reject them literally in some objective manner of separation from the body or the world, or even to dissociate our own sense of self from what arises to us, but merely to reject this persistent impulse to identify with the body-mind itself, or anything that arises to us through the body's experience of the world.

It is within that perspective that we can allow the body-mind and the world to simply be whatever it seems to be, including all the messiness that identification with the body has produced, and yet in the midst of that, to simply feel all of it, observe all of it, and release the feeling-sense of being identified with it. That process is not the idealistic spiritual "awakening" most seekers would like to think liberation from ignorance implies, of somehow just feeling more and more love and God and happiness and bliss, until that's all that's left to feel. It is not like sitting in an easy chair after winning the lottery. Instead, the real process involves seeing and feeling everything that we have identified with, and all the conflicts it has created in ourselves and in the world, and instead of trying to resolve these, of merely releasing identification with them, high and low.

Even the experience of Divine love and non-dual intuition of the Oneness of reality is therefore released, and not identified with. That is just as hard to do as releasing identification with all the pleasures and loving relations and attachments of the physical body. To experience the Presence of God is a great and wonderful thing, but to hold onto and identify oneself with that Presence is also a form of identification to be relinquished, and not cultivated, because it too becomes a form of suffering and duality that one gets entangled and lost within. It turns out that all forms of identification are really the same thing, the same act, regardless of the object identified with, no matter how beautiful or sublime.

This understanding that identification is the root of our errors in life is sobering, and yet also liberating. It means we don't have to become the idealized, saintly, smiling assholes that much of religion has built its principles around. It also means we don't have to fight our darker side, as if some victory were even possible against it. It allows us to stop viewing ourselves and the world through the filters of dualistic identification, or to seek some grand results from this identification process. It means we can live as genuine renunciates, living within the world but not of it, not identified with either its conditions or its results, but simply accepting all of them, good and bad, with equal appreciation.

There is a price to be paid for this, of course, and that is the conscious revelation of every twisted element our identification with the body has produced in us. This is the "dark night" that much of spiritual literature describes. The less identified we are with our own body-mind, the more we see the havoc that our identification with the body creates. And yet, as these naturally rise up, we are given the opportunity to feel and experience these while releasing identification with them, rather than re-identifying with them. This is where the real "battle" of spiritual life occurs. The more conscious we become of ourselves, the more conscious we become of the patterns and attachments of our identification, and while this may seem like a dreadful step backwards, in fact it offers the opportunity for a great leap forward, if we simply make use of these revelations as a goad to release ourselves from identification with them.

Even all the guilt and shame and remorse we may feel about ourselves is itself merely the product of identification, and are forms of it to be released, rather than held onto as if they define us. Once we get the hang of this process, we may find ourselves actually looking forward to and embracing all these fractured elements of our self-identification, so that we can release ourselves of identification with them. It turns out that none of them define us, and when we cease to identify with them, they even lose their customary designations of "good" or "bad". We are not driven to seek them or dissociate from them any longer, and can live at ease in their midst with gratitude for whatever forms of life arise or pass.

Releasing The Knots Of The Body-Mind

In many traditions, such as Kashmir Shaivism, the body-mind (in all its sheaths) is understood to be composed of thousands and thousands of large and small nadis, or circuits of energy and consciousness, that flow without interruption through the body's many levels and centers, giving life to every aspect of our being. All of these nadis have their source in the Heart, which is beyond the body-mind, but communicates itself through a most subtle center roughly located in the right side of the chest, according to Ramana Maharshi and other jnanis.

This Heart center is the bodily seat of the Self that transcends the body-mind, according to this tradition. In the natural state, the pure bliss of the Self flows from this Heart center through a single nadi, called the Atma Nadi or Amrita Nadi, up to the transcendental matrix above the crown of the head, and then down from there into all the other nadis of the body-mind and back again, creating an endless flow of Divine Consciousness/Energy throughout the body and the world.

However, when the Heart becomes identified with the body, this center closes down, and becomes "knotted". Identification with the body-mind has this single effect, of knotting up the nadis everywhere it goes. Experientially, this is felt as a sense of limitation and reduction, so that the flow of Divine life force in the body dries up to a trickle. It can even stop altogether, producing what we call death.

Much of religious and spiritual practice, as well as ordinary seeking for pleasure and enjoyment, therefore involves what is often merely an attempt to open up these nadis and experience a great flow of Divine life in our lives. Enjoying a beautiful sunset or drinking a beer can provide a temporary opening of these knots, as can a spiritual experience of "awakening". Any kind of enjoyable moment in life tells us that we can experience more of life than we normally do, that these knots are not some permanent fixture in our body or the world, and that there's a great potential to be gained by working hard to open these knots.

Even if people do not think in terms of knots or the opening of them, this is how they intuit the process of growing and achieving happiness in life. Even the grossest materialist is looking for ways to open up his physical body and mind so that it can feel and accomplish and experience more in life. We can see countless examples of this in ourselves and others. It's basically what people are always seeking: ways to be healed, to feel more alive, to enjoy themselves, both humanly and spiritually.

Spiritual seeking is no different. It too notices these knots, even directly, and tries to open them up so that the life-current can flow, so that consciousness can be more free and at ease and happy. It comes up with all kinds of methods to achieve this purpose. some of which actually seem to work, at least in the short run. The problem is, neither the spiritual nor the worldly methods for opening our knotted body-minds take into account the real source of the knots themselves, which is identification with the body-mind both at the root and in every sheath.

This is why so much of spiritual seeking is conflicted and counter-productive and finds so much difficulty in the nuts and bolts of living. We are motivated by these knots to seek release from them, but that very motivation is itself a form of identification with the knots themselves. Hence, the seeking of release creates an even deeper samskara of identification with that knot, that in turn produces more knots. So we end up with a spiritual seeker's version of whack-a-mole, opening one set of knots only to tie others tighter. We move around and around the body-mind, trying to fix one knot after another, without noticing that this fixation on opening the knots only reinforces our identification with the body itself, that produces the knots. Eventually, we may come to understand that it is our identification with the body-mind that produces these knots in the first place, and that is what needs to be relinquished in order for the knots to truly open.

This is why it becomes so important to observe the total process of spiritual seeking, rather than merely to identify with it as the seeker trying to achieve lasting results. If we see ourselves as the body-mind seeking release from the knots of the body-mind, we have  created an endless negative feedback loop that only reinforces the original error of identification with the body-mind. From that, there can be no release other than to step back from the whole impulse to identify with the body-mind altogether.

When that insight awakens, a different approach to the knots of the body-mind begins to develop. In that case, we no longer need to identify ourselves as the seeker of enlightenment, love, or liberation. We can see that identification is itself the error of our ways, and that it can be resolved only by no longer identifying with our own body-mind and its relationships. This is a kind of renunciation of its own, a letting go not merely of the body, but of our attachment to it, and all the habitual patterns of identification that have ensued.

We must first understand that the knots or obstructions or limitations we experience in life, whether in our own body-mind or in relations with others and things of the world, are entirely due to our own identification with these aspects of bodily life. Nothing else has ever created these problems but our own identification. And so the solution to these problems is not to try to work them all out by trying to open ourselves and our knots, but to cease identifying with them and the cycles and knots they have produced. Even identifying with the problems that identification has created is itself merely another form of the same error. One must step back from all of these, not by dissociating from them, or not feeling them, or not engaging in life, but by not identifying with any of them, even while one continues to engage life in all the ordinary and extraordinary ways the body-mind naturally does.

The Structure Of Levels In The Opening Of The Knots

It's important to understand that just as identification with the body-mind creates many levels of experience that branch out from the subtlest to the grossest kinds of bodily consciousness, the process of releasing identification proceeds in a generally backwards manner, from the grossest levels to the more subtle.

Whatever form of esoteric spiritual practice one engages, once we get the point that release from identification with the body-mind is what needs to occur, we usually have to start with the most down to earth and obvious forms of identification with the physical body and its relations. That cannot be avoided, and no magical runaround that fails to deal with these matters can be accomplished. Nor should one want to, because in seeing that identification is the root of our problem, every release of identification even at the grossest levels of life produces the same opening of the knot of the heart.

This may seem bizarre at first, but the reason for it becomes obvious over time, which is that all our knots are really the same knot. This primal knot of the Heart simply becomes reflected through the structure of the body-mind like a primordial light that is reflected through millions of mirrors, each one stepping down the power and breadth of the light until it achieves the limited levels we generally experience in daily life. As Paul said, "now we see as through a glass, darkly", keeping in mind that in his day a "glass" referred to a mirror, whose reflection was always darker than the original. When that original gets seen through enough mirrors, the image becomes quite ordinary and mundanely dark, rather than brilliantly illumined as it originally was. So each of these mirrors, or knots, is really just the same knot refracted so many times over that it seems to produce a separate, limited "darkened" world of separate, limited "darkened" beings, ourselves included as just one of many.

Because all knots are the same knot in reality, whenever any knot anywhere in the body-mind opens, no matter how mundane it might seem, the knot of the Heart also opens to the same degree and extent. And it also affects and subtly opens the knots everywhere else in the body-mind, because all these knots are connected to one another just as surely as the body-mind arises in a single Reality. When that knot opens because we have released identification with it, there is a ripple effect throughout that whole of the body-mind, from the Heart center outwards, subtly releasing all of the knots to that same extent. Seeing how profound that can be tells us something important, but it's just as important not to confuse this with enlightenment itself, which is release from all the knots.

This is why it is so important to be attentive to the most obvious forms of identification we experience, rather than to seek the most subtle solutions to our knotted consciousness. If we remain attentive to the obvious, and release identification with what is in front of our face, it will naturally cascade to even the deepest and subtlest parts of our body-mind. In the moment, we feel and experience an intuitive sense of what it means to release identification with everything, everywhere, even if it sprouted from the most mundane sort of recognition of our identification with the body-mind.

And naturally, as that recognition proceeds, by being attentive to the obvious forms of our identification with the body-mind and then releasing these, the subtler dimensions of our identification with the body themselves become more obvious and even ordinary to us. Rather than identifying with these, as if now we are some sort of great spiritual being, we simply release identification with them as well.

The problem of levels raises its ugly head when we seek to cut past the obvious movements of our attention, and try to bring into focus the deeper, more "spiritual" loci of awareness. It is common, for example, in western non-dual circles, to talk about focusing attention on pure awareness, or pure consciousness, even to identify with these rather than with the "ego". There is much talk about living as the witnessing consciousness, as the "I Am", because that is the deepest level of identification at the causal body, the Anandamaya Kosha. But generally speaking this simply does not work, and only produces a distorted, even dissociated outlook, in which the mind becomes identified with the witnessing consciousness, rather than released from identification with it. This is the opposite of what needs to occur. And yet those who have this experience, often assume it is the "great awakening" described in all the spiritual literature, something to be treasured, cultivated, and held onto. It ends up becoming another icon of the ego, an expanded and even triumphant ego to be sure, but an ego nonetheless, even an ego that claims not to have any ego.

For this reason it is usually best to return to the most ordinary levels of one's identification with the body, and release these in a natural manner as they arise to one's awareness. This is not a denial of the higher wisdom of consciousness, it is its actual application. A simple confidence will grow that this more humble approach is actually more effective, because the universal insight that all our knots are really the same knot renders the need to seek out the subtler knots pointless and unnecessary. We can enjoy the same esoteric freedom in the midst of the most ordinary insights that we could in these higher states of mystical absorption, and at the same time gain real freedom from identification in the process.

Even practices such as Ramana's self-enquiry are actually founded in this humble approach to the most obvious levels of our identification with the body-mind. If we practice self-enquiry in this down-to-earth manner, rather than trying to find the deepest and most subtle sense of self buried remotely within ourselves, we will notice the most obvious feelings of self that we have in our ordinary life, and see how they are brought about by this universal principle of identification with the body at every level. Just this basic sense of "me" that we generate through all the ordinary matters and relations in our life is all we need to remain aware of. If we can notice that this simple sense  of "me" is simply a form of identification with all the ordinary attachments of our physical life, we can also begin to release this identification as it actually arises. If we can see and feel this identification with all our "stuff", from the body to our relations, our friends and family and job and food and sex and emotions and so on, then we can also release that identification. The simple seeing of what we are doing gives us the opportunity to stop doing that, and to live by another principle instead.

Wherever we find this sensation of "me" or "mine", we are finding a form of identification with the body and its sensory world. And we will soon notice that it's not necessary to identify with these. We will also notice that when we release identification with these, the body and the world and its relations don't go away. Nor do they dry up and die. Instead, they simply become more open, more free, and easier to deal with in many respects, because our identification with these was what was making them so hard to handle, by introducing the sense that there is some kind of separation existent in our relationship with ourselves and the world, a sense of separation that needs to be overcome through desire and craving.  So by feeling this sense of separation, and noticing that it is not simply "the way things are" but that it is the result of identification, we gain freedom from desire and craving. This means that we are also released from the need to exploit this openness by turning it back into another means for furthering our program of desiring more and more experience. We can simply let the body-mind be, and enjoy it without needing to identify even with the openness of that attitude.

The more released we are of identification, the more we open up, the more the world opens up, and the more we then get tested by deeper forms of identification with the body-mind which these openings allow us to see in ourselves. The knots begin to open everywhere in us, and not merely in the places our attention has been drawn to, but even at the deeper levels. Spontaneous spiritual experiences and awakenings may occur naturally as a result of this opening. When they do, however, we need to remember that the whole point of allowing such experiences to occur is so that we can release ourselves from identification even with them. The process is not complete until there is no identification with anything, anywhere, in ourselves or in the world. And that is freedom, or genuine enlightenment.

This can be described in Advaitic terms, but it is the same as the Buddhist realization of "emptiness". It has no final content, no "there" to get to that we can call enlightenment as some "thing" we have attained or acheived. When identification is released, we merely return to our natural state. The knots in all the nadis open, including the Heart center itself, so that identification with the body no longer knots up the body. Then, strangely enough, the body opens entirely from head to toe, from Heart to head to toe and fingertip, and the entire world is no longer experienced through the knotted filter of the separative body-mind's senses, but as a total unity of Divine Life. That is perhaps the closest we can come to describing enlightenment while yet identified with the body.

But even that is a description using the body as a locus of attention. In reality, enlightenment opens up to the reality that transcends all bodies and all forms. And that is simply not describable using any concepts or experiential references comprehensible to the body-mind.

It's Feeling, Stupid!

One need not hold all this information in one's head to grasp the basic principle at play here. Instead, it's enough merely to observe all the ways in which we are identified with the body, the mind, our thoughts, our relationships, our life altogether, as they present themselves to us in the course of our moment-to-moment living. We can feel that grip of identification very strongly if we simply let ourselves feel what's going on in any given moment. We can feel that subtle internal tension of identification, the attachment, the craving for release, the sense of "me" that rides along with it all, and the dissatisfaction that accompanies every moment of its circular imprisonment of attention in the body-mind's arc of seeking for release.

As T.S. Elliot wrote in The Wasteland:
Each in his prison, thinking of the key
Thinking of the key, each confirms his prison.
Once we have identified with the body-mind, and confined ourselves to its prison, all our efforts to find release from that prison only reinforce the sense of imprisonment. Even grand spiritual plans and heavenly blisses only decorate the prison more pleasingly, allowing us to feel more at home in our confinement. But it is only by releasing identification with the body-mind itself, do the bars begin to dissolve, and the doors begin to open. This is the crucial insight to be had. It begins the process of liberation.

The first step is to have a true understanding of what our prison actually is, and what it is made of, and how it perpetuates itself. To do that, we have to allow ourselves to feel the reality of our situation, including the reality of what our identification with the body-mind had done to it. Rather than being the route by which we can be liberated, identification turns the body-mind into a prison. And rather than seeking to identify with higher and subtler and more enjoyable experiences possible within this prison, our task is to actually feel the consequences, especially at the most mundane levels of experience, of this identification. So that requires a process much less glamorous or flattering or even just plain enjoyable than most spiritual seeking promises.

Instead, it requires us to simply feel the body-mind as it is, in the midst of our identification with it. That includes all its sufferings, doubts, pains, and miseries, as much as its pleasures and enjoyments. In other words, we have to allow ourselves to observe through direct feeling all the things we would otherwise seek to dissociate from, not feel, distract ourselves from, and be free of. In many respects, this becomes the opposite path from most spiritual pursuits, which seek to find ways to leave our sufferings behind, and instead enjoy infinite and endless growth in love, bliss, and happiness.

Rather than viewing these disturbances as our enemy, as something that we have to vanquish by spiritual methods and approaches, we need to begin simply observing and feeling these very ordinary consequences of our identification with the body-mind without imposing some sort of identification upon its results. We already have identified with the body-mind, so there's no point in adding more of the same by identifying with its consequences, and seeking to fix them. Instead, we can notice that it's actually possible to simply release identification with these things as they arise. We can release identification with both the body-mind, and with its consequences. This is done simply by feeling ourselves just as we appear to be, with all our delusions and frustrations intact and unresolved, rather than trying to escape or solve any of these.

We always think spiritual practice has to be something much more elaborate and complicated that just feeling ourselves in the moment in the midst of whatever troubles us. Or, we may think that we have to feel something really special or transcendental in the moment, not just our ordinary dissatisfactions and problems. But that is simply another form of self-deception. The simple truth is that the only way we can release our identification with the body is to feel it, to feel the mess it has made of our lives, and thereby, as we become sensitive to this process of identification, release ourselves from it, simply by not identifying with either its sufferings or its enjoyments.

It turns out that freedom from identification is far greater an enjoyment than anything we might experience through identification and its cycles of seeking and attainment. As the Buddha himself once remarked:

No earthly pleasure,
No heavenly bliss,
Equals one infinitesimal fraction
Of the bliss of the cessation of craving

That "bliss of the cessation of craving" is not of the same nature as the bliss of sex or chocolate or winning the lottery, though in each of those instances there is some correspondence, in that in the attainment of any of our desires, there is a momentary cessation of that desire, at least a partial relaxation of our cravings. But so long as our bliss is identified with the body-mind in any respect, the limits of the body-mind also apply. So even the greatest pleasure we can experience in the body-mind do not compare to the inherent bliss of not identifying at all with anything. Without the limits imposed by identification, our love, our happiness, and our bliss are infinite, meaning beyond any limit. That does not mean "so much as to be uncountable", it means beyond all sense of numeration or measure.

The Vedantic word "Maya", usually translated as "illusion", actually means "that which can be measured". So the world of illusions is actually a realm of "measurable things". What we call the body-mind, or the five koshas, is merely a form of limitation and measurement, that sets a limit to our existence and being. When we identify with the body-mind, we bind ourselves to those measurable quantities of life and consciousness. Likewise, when we no longer identify with the body-mind, we are no longer bound or limited by its measures. The very sense that there is even any limited "self" that could identify with the body-mind is also released in the process, because its only existence was an illusory product of that identification. What remains is the uncreated, the unborn, empty of all identifiable substance, whether we give it a name for convenience's sake or not.

Why Do We Identify With The Body-Mind?

If the consequences are so terrible, why do we identify with the body-mind at all?

The answer to this question is impossible to see from the perspective of one who is identified with the body-mind, but puzzling over the question itself can help us break out of the trap we have made for ourselves. In that sense, it is like a Zen Koan, which poses a riddle impossible to solve from the perspective of the ordinary mind, but instead forces us to drop that mind in order to grasp the answer.

One line of enquiry is to see identification with the body-mind as the solution to the felt problem of separation. In that avenue of approach, we can see that once we feel ourselves to be separate from our own primordial Unity, we instinctively seek something to identify with. Whatever objects present themselves to us, we end up identifying with, and either seek to incorporate into ourselves, or reject and project away from ourselves. That process creates both a body-mind-self, and a world separate from us.

Those things and qualities that we identify with becomes our body - in our case, a complex human body-mind. Identification is therefore simply a form of seeking to resolve the sense of separation, and is the primal form of it. The reason this approach produces so much suffering is that it doesn't actually solve that problem. Instead, it inadvertently makes the feeling of separation worse, reified in consciousness as a distinct body-mind structure of spiritual and neural patterns that is separate from other such patterns, and all of that only makes ever grosser forms of seeking seem necessary and even required of us to bridge those grosser forms of separation. So we identify not only with the body-mind as a whole, but with each of its parts and functions in overlapping layers of identification, many of them coming into direct conflict with the others. From that, we find ourselves trapped in a web of desire, not just for the satisfaction of those many parts and functions, but for a return to the original unity we left behind when we began to identify with the body-mind at all.

Out of all that comes an impulse to raise the body-mind to higher and higher levels of unity, of dissolution in some sort of prior Absolute. But the problematic habit of identification remains intact, so that instead of learning to be free within the Absolute, we seek to identify with it. We seek to identify with God, with Brahman, with the Unborn, with Love, with Happiness, or with whatever form or concept seems easiest to identify with as a proxy for these.

And yet, we seldom seem to ask ourselves where this feeling of separation came from in the first place? How did it arise, such that we resorted to this seemingly natural path of identification with what is arising as a solution to it? Even a few moment's contemplation of this mystery leads to an internal sense of contradiction, strife, and, yes, separation. So this approach seems to come full circle, and bring us back to the place we began.

The insight that is necessary to break through this conundrum comes from the observation that the process of identification and separation are not causes and effects with one or the other being more fundamental, but a circular dependency in which each creates the other, and yet neither being fundamentally real in itself. In other words, the sense of separation does not "cause" us to identify with an arising body-mind. Neither does identification cause any actual separation. Both depend on the other, in an endless circular process of the snake eating its own tail. Both feed upon the other, producing an endless wheel of identification and separation, each feeding the other in turn. One has to see this process and break the cycle, by simply relaxing our identification with separation, as well as our impulse to separate through identification.

This is the root of what Buddhism calls "Dependent Origination", played out at the primordial level of awareness. Our suffering is not a thing in itself to be resolved within its own logic. It is a dependent process that has no real existence outside of its own logic. That logic is what must be seen through and abandoned. Separation and identification depend upon the other for their existence, each produces the other, and neither can exist without the other. And yet, because this habit-pattern is so deep in us, it cannot easily be broken, or even observed in its depth. Instead, we can only observe it at the surface of our lives, and we can only penetrate its logical paradox where we actually observe it taking place. If we begin with the surface, we eventually will penetrate to that core. But as mentioned before, even observing and releasing this pattern at the surface makes what is beyond this core come to the fore. And so addressing the visible and conscious manifestations of this dual pattern of identification and separation brings into our awareness the unborn reality which transcends these.

Separation, usually experienced as dissociation, is just the flip side of identification, and is naturally found wherever identification is present. The two go together like peas in a pod. When we identify with one thing, or one quality, we automatically dissociate and separate from its opposite. That's what duality means. It creates the basic sense of self and other, and as the Upanishads remind us, wherever there is an "other", fear arises. And from fear arises all the rest of our complicated lives, including our pursuits of spiritual liberation. So we can never speak of identification existing on its own, but only in conjunction with separation, both as an action and as a felt state.

Because this is so, it's natural that those who identify with "awareness" or other forms of the Absolute, will also seem to dissociate from the body-mind, and other forms of the relative world. It's also true that those who identify with love, with dissociate from those who seem to be full of hate - but in so doing, they will produce separation, and not love, and thus feed hatred even if that is not their intention. Those who identify with God in any particular form will likewise separate themselves from other Gods, and their followers, and produce forms of separation and even violence. This is inevitable. Identification produces separation, and separation produces identification, at all levels. That is the wheel of illusion which goes round and round endlessly, until we get off.

It is not enough, then, to love God, or even to exalt love as the solution to all our problems. So long as we feel ourselves to be separate, and identify with the body-mind, even the love of God will be identified as a quality or action of the body-mind, and the result will be a reinforcement of the cycle of separation. The same goes for all the great qualities and virtues, however Divine, that we might seek to cultivate. Even these will end up feeding the monster that dwells within us through this cycle of identification and separation. And until that cycle is brought to an end, there is no true enlightenment.

That is what vasanas and samskara are: fuel that drives the endless cycle of samsara, which piles separation and craving upon itself until they feel like solid substances and components of our life to be identified with. These seeming abstractions congeal into body-minds with drives to fulfill and limits to overcome. All of that feels increasingly real, and creates seamless laws of logic and even physics within our universe that seem unbreakable and solid.

Enlightenment And The Practice That Results In Enlightenment

The solid world of separation and identification we all live in will not collapse of its own, because it runs by a logic and force that has a momentum that is self-sustaining, and fuels itself through its own internal process. It is like a freight train barreling down the tracks. We have to recognize the we have fed this train tremendous amounts of fuel, and that it will not stop unless apply the brake to it, and stop fueling the beast. That does not occur overnight. Even the sudden insight that leads us to see beyond this logical illusion does not instantly bring its momentum to a stop. Nor can that insight merely be held onto as if it, too, is something we can identify with, and thus become if we merely reinforce that identification strongly enough. Instead, we have to release the forms of identification that we feel, and by that process, incrementally slow down the train until it finally comes to a stop, allowing us to get off.

That may seem like a grinding process, and in some respects it inevitably will be. But, if we simply refrain from the exercise of separation and identification, even at this most obvious level of our seemingly solid lives, that whole locomotive engine will begin to sputter and slow, until it breaks down and falls apart. When we begin to cease to identify with them, even the qualities of our own body-minds no longer function as vasanas that limit and bind us, but instead become liberated forms of bodily life. The body-mind begins to become illumined by the light and power of reality, rather than of separation.

In that process we do not become incompetent engines who cannot function. We do not become blank or dead to life. Instead we become free. But our freedom and competence is no longer of the same kind that drove the engines of separation and identification. We can no longer live that way, and our ways no longer are compatible with that process. And yet, neither do we become unconscious automatons who cannot function creatively in life, but quite the opposite. We become capable of life in a free manner, unlimited by the body-mind's qualities. And even the body-mind can begin to manifest its own qualities in a free manner, no longer inhibited by the limitations that identification imposes upon it. To convert ourselves and our train to that new process requires much re-adjustment and learning. A different kind of engine must be built to drive our vehicle. That begins spontaneously as the old vehicle's engine breaks down and collapses. We have to be sensitive to that, and appreciate the new ways that are being built, and not merely mourn the loss of the old.

Likewise, the absence of identification with the body-mind doesn't mean an absence of presence or awareness. It merely no longer ties it to some fixed point or limit of the body-mind. Consciousness remains, undiluted by identification. And everything we call experience remains, just not identified with any longer, or limited by the body-mind's sheaths that filter experience and create the sense of separation from the rest of life. The common fears we have that without identification with the body, or without this felt sense of separation and difference, we could not live, survive, or function, are complete hokum. Certainly there is a shaky transitional process between the two, and a sense of disorientation, but these are a good thing, and a sign that we are losing our illusions, and gaining a deeper sense of reality that is not built on the process of identification and separation.

This applies to everything we experience, even bodily. As identification with the body is relaxed, th body has to learn to function in its natural manner, not in the manner we have imposed upon it. This will affect everything we do in relation to the body-mind. Rather than dissociating from the body-mind during this process, we find ourselves even more intimately and feelingly related to it. All its qualities, from the physical to the emotional to the mental, are gradually released from the grip of identification, and as they break down, they will also flower, strangely and beautifully.

In enlightenment, even the emotion of love is no longer identified with or filtered through the body-mind. Instead, it is known as unconditional love that transcends the body-mind. Love only seems to come and go, and is felt with varying degrees of strength, because we identify it with the body-mind. But if we follow any love experienced even through the body-mind to its source, we can see that love never was something to be identified with as a bodily experience. It was always beyond the forms of identification we felt limited by. We can begin to see that love was never actually a bodily experience, even when it was felt to be. Even if we reduced love to a bodily experience, it never actually is one. It just seems to be one, because we are identified with the body-mind. But when that identification relaxes, the limits it seems to have imposed upon us also relax and are lifted.

The more this relaxation of the grip of identification is practiced, the more we begin to see how unnecessary and counter-productive it has always been. We not only become free of its effects, but we become free of the sense of separate self that identifies with the whole process. It makes less and less sense to us to continue on in that manner, and the whole cycle begins to lift. When all of that identification and separation are released, it becomes directly understood  that none of it was real or necessary to begin with. It was simply an illusion that fed upon itself ad infinitum. And that is what enlightenment means. It's also why we are not truly enlightened until we completely cease to feed these illusions. Nothing else suffices.

As Jesus said, you cannot get out until you have paid the last penny. And the pennies to be paid are all the things we identify with. We cannot get into heaven so long as we are thick ropes with many attachments we identify with, and think we can take with us. Only the single thread of awareness shorn of all identification can get into heaven. That is the meaning behind the famous saying "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." The common translation that uses "camel" actually has it wrong. The word actually refers to a thick rope, composed of many threads. Only when that rope becomes a single thread, can it pass through the eye of the needle. And likewise, a man who is "rich" in the things he identifies with, cannot enter the realm of enlightenment until he relinquishes all those forms of identification.

That is what the spiritual process involves: renunciation of identification with and separation from all the "things" of the body-mind, until we have nothing left to identity with or hold onto, nothing to call our own, nothing to call other, no mine or yours. The life that begins when all of that ends is unfathomable and indescribable, but something we can intuit and relate to even now, in any moment in which we relax this identification even to the slightest degree. In those moments, we experience at least something of that release, no matter how small. Learning from that, and growing in our innate capacity to live free of identification, is what the true esoteric spiritual process is about. That's important for all of us to understand, and even more important to practice.

How that practice unfolds depends entirely on what the pattern of our identification has been. Whatever things or processes we have identified with, will arise to our awareness, and we will have to release them. That includes religious and spiritual content, emotional and personal qualities, people and things of all kinds, including that which we are attached to , and that which we are averse to. There is no need to analyze ourselves or engage in some sort of driven introspection to find these things out. They appear naturally in every moment, in the form of both inner content such as thoughts or emotions or feelings, and outwardly as people and environments and circumstances. Any form of conflict, any form of enjoyment, anything at all we experience, is precisely what we tend to identify with, and is therefore precisely what we need to relinquish identification with, and not separate from.

As we do that, the contents that arise will change, and so will our relationship with these. That process is far from an ideal one, and inevitably difficult, because our identification with the body-mind is neither superficial nor easily shaken. The momentum we are trying to reverse was not built in a day, and it will not vanish suddenly either, much as we might wish. Even the suddenness of our insights and breakthroughs must build slowly and gradually upon themselves, until the old patterns of identification are finally overwhelmed, and the fruit falls suddenly from the tree.


  1. Reality is relative. Make Love your closest relative.

  2. Broken open Yogi thankyou

  3. The last paragraph really describes the process pretty well and is exactly in synch with the four Vipassana "stages" and the three "phases" of Dzogchen.

    The error in an instantaneous Realization eradicating or uprooting "samsara" once and for all has been adequately debunked by the many life stories of so many people that a lot of us have witnessed/encountered. Kornfeld's After the Ecstasy, The Laundry is an important documentation of this.

  4. ~ Y E S ~ ~ Y ~ E ~ S .....

    ..... also available~ specific, simple, rapid 'ways of incisively Seeing/SeeingThru 'the Impermanent', supportive of "I~I" introspection ~ OM

  5. thanks,
    Well done.
    You and I are aligned in much of this it seems.
    Is it hard for you to write like this?

  6. The bestest and most extraordinary book that was ever written on the nature of Enlightenment and what it really takes to stably Realize the enlightened condition was The Enlightenment of the Whole Body by Bubba Free John.

    Congratulations on a beautiful site.


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