Describing my longer retreats always presents me with a challenge and an opportunity. The intention behind them is audacious and subtle, and communicating exactly what it is sometimes feels overwhelming. At the same time these retreats are the place where everything I teach comes together in the most comprehensive and intensive way so articulating them is a chance to express everything that my life is dedicated to. It has become my habit to prepare for each longer retreat by writing a series of essays that explain what happens on retreat and why it is designed the way it is.
This is the fifth in a series of seven essays.
We are self aware.
We don’t just experience the world, we experience ourselves experiencing it.
Spiritual liberation is often spoken about as the attainment of Self-Awareness, but I think it is better understood in terms of the loss of self-awareness.
Over the past few hundred years, particularly in Western culture, we’ve been very busy developing a strong and stable sense of self. We’ve built up a powerful cultural capacity to hold an abstract image of ourselves and use it as an ever present reference point.
We’ve become so deeply identified with our sense of self that we tend to equate consciousness with self awareness and so self aware consciousness is the only form of consciousness we recognize. That means that if we don’t see evidence that something is self aware like we are, we assume its unconscious.
Even in relation to ourselves, if we discover that we’re aware of something but don’t know we’re aware of it we see that as being unconscious of it. Since we don’t recognize awareness unless we are aware of being aware we relate to unconscious awareness as no awareness at all.
This is the biggest spiritual challenge to overcome on the path to spiritual liberation.
The spiritual liberation we seek is the loss of self awareness. It means letting go of the part of you that experiences yourself experiencing and just becoming absorbed in your direct experience of life.
But because we define awareness only in terms of self awareness, we will not be satisfied with a liberation that we cannot see. We don’t want to be free. We want to experience ourselves being free.
As soon as you let go of the need to know that you’re free you will discover that you already are. You already are having a direct, immediate, unmitigated experience of reality. You are already free of your ego’s distorting influence on perception. You just don’t recognize that awareness because it isn’t an awareness that you can see yourself having.
This insight, if you let it have you, if you let it flip everything upside down, will radically change everything without anything at all needing to change.
It will be worth taking a little time to explore the implications of giving up our human centric view of consciousness.
The part of us that is aware of being aware is our sense of self. When we define consciousness exclusively in terms of self awareness then consciousness becomes merely a property of the sense of self. Consciousness, we wrongly assume, belongs to the ego rather than to existence itself. The consciousness of existence has become trapped inside our self image.
Spiritual liberation is the liberation of consciousness from its current bondage to the human sense of self.
The promise of spiritual liberation is that the profound creative potential that human beings have been developing will finally be at the service of existence itself.
When we get our sense of self out of the way the concerns of existence will move us. Our incredible self aware consciousness will not disappear, it will simply become available for a universal being.
The biggest reason to pursue spiritual liberation is so the true creative potential of the human spirit can become available to serve universal concerns.
In pursuing spiritual freedom it is helpful to see it as a kind of flow state because in flow states life just occurs. We may do things, but we are not aware of doing them. We don’t feel like we are doing them. Everything is just happening.
There may be other domains in which we experience the magic of flow.
When I write I often get into a flow where I find that I’ve written for an hour and can’t remember what I wrote. I often go back and read it and think, “Wow, this is really good.” My wife tells me I’m the only writer she knows who loves their work most of the time. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t feel like me who wrote it.
I also paint, and sometimes my brush just flows over the canvas and amazing shapes and colors appear in front of my eyes. They were not something I was planning for and once they appear I don’t know where they came from.
And finally, when I give an Ancient Lomi Lomi massage there are times when my touch is not guided by my mind. It is guided by the sensation of the skin alone. I have no thoughts about what I’m doing. I am simply in service of a massage that wants to happen.
The primary characteristic of flow is that you forget yourself. You get so into what you’re doing that you forget about yourself doing it. You’ve lost self-awareness. When this happens you feel so free!
Spiritual liberation is a special kind of flow state because it occurs when we’re not doing anything at all.
In normal flow states we get absorbed in a particular activity. It could be skateboarding, knitting, dancing, or tennis, but in most flow states there is something that captivates our attention long enough to allow us to forget ourselves.
The experience of spiritual libration is a state of flow that involves only being. Meditation is a practice that is ripe for igniting these liberating flow states.
If we sit in meditation and allow ourselves to get absorbed in the experience of being, all of our attention will be consumed by the miracle of awareness itself. You forget about yourself. You are just absorbed in being aware. You forget about what you are absorbed in. There is just awareness.
If you have time to rest in the inherent amazement of being, you start to forget how you used to watch yourself. You are just absorbed in being. If you are lucky enough to be on retreat when this occurs you may have the luxury of continuing to let go even when you’re not meditating. You find yourself walking around between sessions not sure of who you are and not knowing who is doing anything.
In this open state of mind you are profoundly available to be moved by the love and wisdom of existence itself. You’ve stopped directing life and you’re ready for a greater insight, intuition and care to move you forward.
Your separate sense of self is no longer the one seeing through your eyes. Feeling your emotions, or generating the wisdom that continually arises in your mind.
The spiritual liberation we seek is not our own. Without realizing it we have always been seeking the liberation of the higher possibility within ourselves.
There is a new way of being that is waiting to be born and our spiritual freedom begins the process of its birth.