A version of this article was first published on the Opening to the Infinite Blog
Those of us who sincerely seek for spiritual liberation and awakening are most likely hoping to have a spiritual experience or opening that is powerful enough, deep enough, or long lasting enough that it becomes our permanent state of consciousness.
Unfortunately, this hope might just be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of true awakening.
You see, we’ve been taught to think about spiritual awakening the wrong way. We have been given a model that is faulty and that all but guarantees we won’t find the fulfillment we’re looking for.
We have been taught that the holy grail of the spiritual path is having an awakening experience that becomes permanent. We could call this The Experience that Sticks model of awakening.
We’ve had spiritual experiences, maybe even powerful and profound ones that have lasted for a few moments, a few hours or longer, but they always seem to disappear in the end leaving us busy searching for more.
So at some point along the way we decide that we need to spend time on retreat to be able to practice long enough and intensely enough to have an experience so explosive that it shifts our consciousness into a permanently awakened state.
We go on retreat. Maybe for a weekend, or a week, or a month or longer. We have spiritual experiences, maybe many of them, perhaps very powerful ones, and yet they all eventually recede from awareness.
So we go back on retreat, each time resolved to give it everything we have – determined to open so wide that we will never close down again.
How do I know? Because I did exactly this, time and time again for over twenty years.
Then one day something did happen – but it wasn't anything like what I was hoping for.
I sat down to the first practice of the very first day of yet another twenty day retreat. As I walked up to my cushion I thought about how I was going to be more still, more focused, more intent, and more receptive than ever before. I was ready for this to be the big one.
I sat down and the bell rang to start the first meditation and something happened that I absolutely didn’t expect.
As soon as I heard the bell sound to start of the meditation, I realized that I just didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t do this retreat harder than ever before because I just didn’t have the energy for another round.
Initially I thought something was terribly wrong. I started to imagine that I may have lost my passion for spiritual freedom and enlightenment.
But as I sat there for a minute, I realized that wasn’t it at all.
The reason I didn’t have the energy to pursue any more awakening experiences is because I didn't’ need any more.
Why? Because I was already convinced. I knew that the glory that I had experienced so many times before had always been, and would always be, the deepest part of me – even when I was not experiencing it directly.
Suddenly I realized that I didn’t need any more spiritual experiences because I already knew the truth of who I was and I didn’t need any more experiences to remind me.
I can’t tell you how free that felt. Imagine a moment of recognizing that everything is already perfect, always has been and always will be – because at the deepest level of our being we are always whole, complete, and profoundly fulfilled.
I stayed on retreat and it was the best meditation retreat of my life, because I didn’t want or need to get anything from it. I was absolutely free to just sit hour after hour and be perfectly content with everything exactly as it was.
I spent hours simply absorbed in the experience of sitting still and watching the parade of thoughts and feelings pass by the mind’s eye. Occasionally my spirit would mysteriously lift into an unprompted experience of elation and revelation. Then it would gently return to just sitting.
It was all perfect. I was sitting in a continuous state of unbroken trust and contentment.
As a teacher of awakening and meditation, all I want is to make this magnificent possibility available to others.
I suppose you might get there by chasing more spiritual experiences, but that could take another ten or twenty years.
Instead, I teach that the secret to awakening is realizing that what we discover in our spiritually heightened moments is simply the truth of how things are.
The goal of awakening is not to have an experience that sticks. It is to recognize the true freedom that is the natural state of our own consciousness before it gets distorted by fear, desire, or the inevitable wounds of life.
Our spiritual experiences do not reveal a future possibility. They show us the way things already are.
We could call this The Sun is Always Shining model of awakening because although the Sun is only visible to us on a clear day, we always know the Sun is still there when there are clouds in the sky. In the same way, it is possible to come to a place where we know that the spaciousness of an open heart and mind is always there even when our attention is distracted by fear, doubt or self-concern.
If you hold this new model as the context for your spiritual practice and simultaneously find the courage to give up any investment in having an experience that sticks – you will find yourself living in an ongoing recognition of the miraculous truth of who you already are.