The goal of all spiritual practice is to help us see that we are more than temporary and meaningless collections of automatic emotional and physical responses. All spiritual practices are designed to lead us to see a higher reality -- that we are, in truth, eternal consciousness, occupying physical form for a purpose, animated and connected to the creative and sustaining source of everything. Spirituality is, in essence, the experience of waking up to this higher, truer reality. And the birth of religions stems from individuals who have glimpsed this reality, have known that most human beings are trapped in a false, destructive dream, and have attempted to free others by sharing their experience of a better way.
Of course, as we all have seen, religions can quickly -- and at time horrifically -- distort this initial impulse. The experience of higher realties, by its very nature of being more than most people's normal vision and containing knowledge that often defies verbal description, must be told in metaphor, story and allegory. Followers who do not understand this may, in an honest but childish effort of devotion, concretize these subtle teachings in to literal and rote dogma, thereby losing the original intention and beauty. But the initial impulse to communicate the experience of higher reality for the benefit of others is the fire that sustains and renews the great religions, and that shows us the possibility of being more fully awake.
Whether the Buddhist experience of Bodhi, Christian rebirth, Jewish d'veikut, Zen kensho, Hindu moksha, or Sufi nafsil mutma`inna, most religions are designed to point us toward an awakened state of being. We may think, therefore, that spiritual awakening is like physical awakening, with only two states -- asleep or awake -- and that we can attain a state of being fully awake or enlightened. And we may think that this is the end goal of religious and spiritual practices, and may work to reach this enlightened state as though it is an object of attainment and possession.
The truth is, though, that spiritual awakening happens gradually, across many stages, with -- as far as we can tell from our current perspective -- no end. Once we think that we have finally awakened, another possibility, which was previously hidden from sight, appears and pulls us forward to higher levels. A sure sign of spiritual derailment, usually caused by the ego's hijacking of the process in order to feel superior and therefore safe, is the belief that one has reached the end, knows the truth and is done.
The realization that awakening is a never-ending process is a core spiritual insight taught by all great religious teachers, and these teachers have left us a map of the stages of awakening. The following is a brief and general outline of some of these stages, utilizing the Hebrew Bible -- the religious text with which I am most familiar -- as well as other religious traditions.
Awakening to Self-Awareness:
Many living things are conscious, but as far as we know human beings are the only creatures that are conscious of being conscious. We can ask the fundamental questions: Why am I here? What does my life mean? The story of Adam and Eve is a mythical telling of this evolutionary moment, when the light ignited in our eyes and we looked at the world from a new viewpoint, knowing that there is difference between good and bad, and aware of our own nakedness -- of our limitations and mortality. Almost all Homo sapiens have reached this basic level of awakening.
Awakening to Meaning
We can stay stuck at the first level, seeking only to satisfy our needs for security in the face of uncertainty and shame. Then, often suddenly, we discover that our life actually has meaning, and we are radically changed. This happened to Abraham, who, in a flash, sees that he has been created for a purpose and must leave the meaningless life that he has led to create a new way of being that is centered on the struggle to honor that purpose. This is the beginning of the spiritual journey.
Awakening to Sacred Service
We can awaken to the knowledge that our own life has purpose, and yet never reach the obvious conclusion: If my life has purpose, so must everyone else's! This is a huge shift, when one first moves beyond self and connects deeply to others. In this connection is found the call to service, as illustrated by Moses, who dedicated his life to liberating others, without seeking reward or recognition. At this level one discovers true humility and gratitude. All those who have changed the world for the better have awakened to this level.
Awakening to Freedom
Two thousand and six hundred years ago, Siddhartha Gautama awoke to an essential truth: that we cause our own suffering through our desire to make permanent that which is inherently transient -- possessions, fame, certainty, power, health -- and that we can end our own suffering by liberating ourselves from this insane cycle. Then we can see that we are not our minds, not our bodies and not our emotions. These, instead, become objects of curious and compassionate examination rather than the unconscious drivers of our lives. With this we can experience life, people and events as they are, free from the need to control. This is the level of awakening that many associate with enlightenment.
Awakening to Spirit
The life and teachings of Jesus are demonstrations of a radically simple but endless truth: We are spirit made flesh. Jesus knew that God is not a being "out there," and we are not feeble creatures "down here." Instead, we are God incarnate; the physical vessels of an infinite, loving creative force. And when we see the face of God in another human being we are seeing our true nature. This may sound appealing, ridiculous, obvious or meaningless. That too is the lesson from Jesus, because this level of awakening moves us beyond the restriction of our physical senses and provokes strong emotions from the ego. But with this awakening comes healing and rebirth to our true selves.
The next stage of awakening appears to be emerging now. I certainly can not see it, but my sense is that it will be one in which we know that consciousness is the structure of physicality and that we can deliberately connect to the forces of creation in order to elevate life.
The very reason that we are here is to gradually awaken, and by doing so transform the world into heaven on earth. This transformation is completely in our hands to do, and with courage and humility we will.