The perennial spiritual invitation that has been given us by every sage and tradition east and west is this: surrender and open through absolutely everything – no matter how it appears. We are told that this is the sacred route from the shell of our ego structure to the depths of our divine nature that is naturally infinite in peace, love and fulfillment. Although this is a very direct and simple invitation, it can feel very challenging, since the ego shell can feel very dense. Furthermore, such spiritual invitations often ask us to let go of everything we thought was fixed and real, including our known sense of self. Although we all would want the uplift-ment and expansion a spiritual practice offers, when it comes down to the bone, our ego is frightened of the unknown and does not unravel itself very easily. Therefore, much of daily spiritual practice centers on cultivating the courage, understanding and resolve that strengthen our capacity to truly let go and open into deeper reality again and again.
Sometimes this unraveling seems to happen in chunks.
During a time of deep spiritual quickening within my own life, it felt as though being drawn into a whole new spiritual sea that I had no prior direct knowledge of, and all the spiritual ideas I had been walking happily with for years did not seem to apply. My consciousness opened in ways that were indescribably profound, humbling me as it revealed whole new dimensions of the Absolute Grace at the core of all life, and yet on a human level it was very unnerving. It felt a though the ground under me gave way as I saw that I did not really exist in the way I had always thought of myself. As this revelation began to land within my being, life as I knew it seemed to be de-construct at a rate I was powerless to halt.
Now I see that really, the structures that had held my known reality in place, no longer had any purpose, and so naturally had to crumble, but it felt like being asked to let everything I had known, including my known sense of self, die. I was motivated to move with this because there was such a tangible sense of spiritual dynamism afoot, a grace so exquisite that was bringing tremendous depths of spiritual insight and vision. I was willing to move with it, but it took a whole lot of nerve.
I would reach thresholds where my personality found it extremely hard to tolerate at times. At a moment of feeling stretched to the limits of my capacity to open, I prayed for help. The answer came swiftly and clearly like a gentle breeze that seemed to say: ‘just keep opening, keep softening, keep allowing’. I asked ‘how much more?’ and that profound but gentle response spoke ‘until it is total’.
Of course! In that moment it really registered that at a certain point upon the spiritual path, nothing is left untouched. A dear friend of mine often says that deep spiritual unfoldment is a bit like the dust in India – after a while it gets into absolutely everything: under your fingernails, into your pants, in your wallet, through your hair. Similarly, the more we genuinely open towards God, towards deeper reality, a mysterious inner power is unleashed that wants to liberate every corner of your heart, mind, body, relationships, life. Its as though we have evoked a grace that will not let us go. The choice seems to be: surrender or suffer.
Surrender is simply an invitation for the personality self we have evolved and have mistaken ourselves for, to step back from leadership of our consciousness. In softening the fixed sense of ‘me’, experience can open up and we find ourselves resting in the ground of being, yet inseparable from that ground. We discover God and our true nature pristine and radiant, empty and yet abundantly full and fulfilled. There is no end to the jewels that can spill forth when we rest in this awareness. To dwell here is to end the search.
Opening into the Boundless
Two things happen when we commit more deeply to a spiritual life and practice. Firstly, the doors of our soul begin to open and we get a taste of expanded consciousness. Sometimes this comes as a sense of boundless love, spaciousness, luminous silence and profound peace, a sense of inter-connectedness that defies our physical senses and learned thinking, yet feels like the deepest home. These openings, which come as if by grace from moments when our ego filter is pierced open by life, are important teachers. They guide us experientially from within an expanded state into what life is like free from the constraints of our personality and conditioning.
This is vital. Just as no one can accurately describe what good chocolate tastes like, you just have to place it on your own tongue and experience it to know, so it is with spiritual reality. Teachers and writers can speak about God and the path. The best of them can give a transmission, but only via sincere willingness, mixed with grace, can your soul enter into new territory so you really know for yourself. Knowing is more that just intellectual understanding. To know is to let something alight in you, so that it vibrates through your very bones as lived truth. It happens when we are truly willing to rest empty, not to hold onto any fixed concept or idea, even our spiritual ideas.
Tasting the deeper reality of whom we are and what truly is, shows us the emptiness of pursuing happiness in the realms of more achievements, circumstances and things. We see through the concerns that ordinarily occupy much of our attention, and a sense of spaciousness, love and grace pervades our vision.
It feels so great that we naturally want to stay in this state forever. Yet as soon as we cling to any state, we strangle the grace. Any form of grasping takes us out of the present moment and the naturalness of pure being. Craving, like its sister aversion, shuts the door to the unfolding of grace. Deeper direct knowing of God and our own depth is supported through a deep commitment to keep opening into whatever is manifesting within each present moment, not grasping for anything particular. This is moment-by-moment spiritual practice. Then the eternal ground out of which everything manifests is free to find us.
Opening through our ego tendencies
Parallel to the expansion that happens when we open deeper spiritually, is the crunching feeling that occurs when our mis-identifications and all those ego habits that cause our suffering come to our awareness. These are the mechanisms of control, fearful reactions, the sense of deficiency and valueless, resentments, projections of blame, the old hurts that we formed at a young age in response to the inevitable loss of contact with our spiritual core. These often-unconscious perceptions and habits usually get triggered through daily life and relationship, and it is really important and positive that we become awake to them.
It can feel demoralizing when we embark on a path of spiritual practice to open up to more peace and love, yet discover how attached we still are to our old stories and positions. It really helps to remember that this means our practice is actually beginning to do its work of flushing up to conscious awareness the exact ways in which we have gone to sleep on our true nature. Without awareness of this, we are prone to just re-enact our old ego tendencies and thus make our awakening harder than it needs to be.
When our old habits come knocking, I find it incredibly helpful to remember that there is nothing to fix, get or do; our habitual responses, their emotions and beliefs, naturally self-liberate when we stop protecting or justifying them. Spiritual transformation happens when we stop trying to manipulate or control our experience, simply invite our grapplings to rest in the deeper ground of stillness. In defenselessness meeting of whatever is arising within ourselves, we naturally drop through the layers of our own illusion. We don’t need to fix our ego story – just open to know our self deeper.
Cultivating the support to deepen
I am fully aware that all of this sounds so simple, yet when we are caught in our personality stories can feel so difficult. Over the last few months I have been exploring what can helps give us a stronger foundation in which to surrender – whether we be asked to surrender open and allow grace to take us into expanded realms that show us more of God and our own true nature, or whether we are asked to burn through some of our historical habits and fears. I have found there are five universal qualities that if we cultivate, can make the process of daily unfolding so much more graceful. I think of them as interior pillars that support the inner temple of pure being, into which we are invited to rest and find deeper ground from which to move through life.
Pillar 1) Trust
To deeply trust in the intrinsic sustenance of God, or existence itself, would unravel most of the knots we get into. Trust enables a deep stepping back of the ego mind. It helps us relax and accept that in fact, we are held and supported by an extraordinary field of grace. When we can ground ourselves in deep trust, accepting that we are fundamentally held and supported in life, it is so much easier to allow ourselves to be drawn deeper – both in the direction of the light and through our own shadow. Trust supports us like nurturing arms, and give us a confidence that things will be OK if we let ourselves be led into new territory. Without a strong basis of inner trust that we are intrinsically held and supported, opening deeper than the known is just too scary.
Trust is like exercising a muscle. You just have to start using it for it to strengthen. We strengthen our trust largely through the choice to place our mental and creative power in the direction of beneficence rather than absence. We turn our attention to the evidence of support and a field of holding that nurtures and sustains us.
Trust in what exactly?
Firstly, consider the possibility that your soul already knows the way home. Just as the body has an in-built mechanism of homeostasis that programs the system to always be naturally working towards balance and health, so the human soul is homeostatic. It naturally knows the way and is always geared towards evolution. It just needs our support and co-operation. A central part in our awakening process is to loosen the habit of trying to control and direct so much of life. Instead, to listen inwards and attune to what is trying to unfold naturally. In this we leave some space for the intelligence of our soul to lead the way.
Secondly, we can cultivate Trust in life itself. Although we have all had experiences where life has felt very tough, often in retrospect we might see that what looked like bad luck turned out to be offering us a deeper gift. It is extremely helpful to view that at the deepest level, life is trying to open us to greater good. This is a view that we can refute but it supports us more to accept it.
On retreats over the last year, I have been guiding people into a prolonged inquiry around trust, via two questions that you might want to contemplate. They are:
‘What inhibits your capacity to trust?’ and ‘what’s holding you now?’
If you take these questions deep inside for at least fifteen minutes, you will discover much about where you are with trusting life, and also find deeper ground in what is here supporting you. Many have found reflecting with these questions really helps to open up the inner field of trust.
At the most basic level, the mother earth is holding you completely unconditionally. Turn your attention to this fact, and you will recognize that you do not have to do or prove anything to be held nourished, sustained, housed by the earth underneath our feet. There is a beneficent holding, a sustenance that is consistently present and freely given. Trust in That. Let it be evidence that what we truly need is always here.
This can help you cultivate trust that there is infinite support in the unseen realms – for all of humanity. We are sustained by the luminous love of God, however you relate to That. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are countless Bodhisattvas, beings in collective consciousness that are in existence to offer help in the relinquishment of human suffering. In Christianity, we are invited to lean into Christ, the Holy Spirit or Mary. Similarly, in the Hindu tradition there are many deities that reflect dimensions of divine support that exist within the infinite ground of being that we can call on to help us open when that feels challenging.
Right now, there are whole monastic communities praying for your liberation. Whether you consciously receive this support or negate it, the loving support is offered. Whatever we relate to that helps us sense and accept a sense of love and unconditional holding will go a long way towards giving you the courage to surrender open. Whether you choose to cultivate trust via calling on a guru, a teacher, an aspect of The Divine you personally relate to, an inner guide, or a person who has appeared in your life as if evidence for unconditional love, work consciously with that. Acknowledge the love and holding as a spiritual field in which you always dwell, and let it support your capacity to surrender into deeper realms. This is singularly one of the most powerful things you can cultivate in your daily life.
Pillar 2) Love of Truth
In the bible, common to all of the western spiritual traditions, is the injunction to ‘love God with all you heart, soul and might’. To love God is to love the Truth, and to let that love become passionate and total. It is not a bargaining love that is motivated by what we can get, but the development of pure love for the Source of what it actually is. Love for Truth Itself is true love, where nanny yoga (the path of direct-inquiry) meets and merges totally with Bakti yoga (the path of devotion and love). In this union of heart and mind, much is freed up. As we experience the liberating power of truth, we learn we can trust it. This turns self-inquiry into a grand adventure, giving us the strength to be ever more truthful with ourselves; an essential requirement for real spiritual unfoldment.
So often on the spiritual path, we get caught in trying to live up to an idealized vision of who we would like to be, because facing where we actually are in our process can feel disappointing. When we cultivate deep love of the truth, we have the capacity be more honest with ourselves. We can be with the relative truth of our own immediate experience, and we can hear and receive the relative truth of another. We can hear this sharing of ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’ and then keep opening out of love for that which is even deeper than ‘yours’ and ‘mine’. Then our self-deception and unconsciousness begins to evaporate, and deeper truth pulls us into Itself like a magnet.
Loving the truth supports us to be increasingly truthful with others so that we can cease protecting the places where we might not have really actualized our inner spiritual knowing. This depth of honesty and capacity to be real supports our relationships flourishing in greater love and happiness. It makes us more permeable, positively vulnerable so that we are more open to feedback and support from one another, and grow from life.
Additionally, we can cultivate love of the eternal truth – that deeper ground of all arising where we all spring from, that is pristine and unchanging. The more we love this the more we begin to see and experience it. This is the whole principle of devotional practices – chants and prayers of praise – our devotion pulls us close to what we love. The more love we cultivate for Truth the more surrendered we are to it, and then the easier it is to cut through our ego stories. This supports the blossoming of a natural forgiveness and attunement to our original innocence. We recognize that truth, whatever it shows us, is our friend.
Pillar 3: Open-Minded Curiosity
When we walk a spiritual path to try to block out any aspect of life, any aspect of our humanity, confusion and suffering results. Our suffering is in direct proportion to our tendency to close.
Jesus gave an interesting invitation in his parables to ‘be as little children’. Children go through a stage in their development when they are phenomenally curious about everything – until they are taught that this is not OK. Young children also have the capacity to learn incredibly fast – learning music and complex languages that would take an adult many frustrating years to accomplish. Their curiosity and deep open-mindedness enables this, and is something we can deliberately cultivate in support of our awakening process.
Imagine how much more enjoyable life would be if your habit was to be curious rather than fearful of everything you encounter – within and without? Life is a lot more interesting when we are willing to meet it fresh, without trying to fit it into an existing perception that keeps our view of reality fixed in the known. This is the true spirit of self-inquiry, whereby we aim not to live off assumptions, but to inquire directly into what is in each moment, so that truth can teach us directly from within. This has been known throughout the ages as the direct path.
When we meet an experience that seems familiar to us, such as a tendency to feel valueless in comparison to another, instead of analyzing it or trying to repress it, this pillar would have us just experience it as if for the first time. I.e.: what is this like? Where does it seem to live? Is it hot or cool? How old does it feel? What is it arising out of? Who is even having the experience?
Similarly when we practice open-minded curiosity in a state that feels pleasing or joyous. Instead of clinging to the state, we can just follow our experience as it unfolds as a kind of adventure, letting it open us into new territory of the soul. This just cannot happen unless we embrace this spirit of openness, minus the push to get anywhere in particular.
Opening through whatever is arising with a spirit of curiosity completely revolutionizes the way we have learned to be with ourselves, and transforms every happening into a gateway into spiritual depths.
When facilitating retreats, I often guide people into working deeply with questions for extended periods of time, and magical things happen. This is especially the case when we take the question, with this attitude of curiosity and openness, into our whole being. This means that we not only be curious with our mind, but curious about the feelings that arise within the heart, and also curious with the sensations and energy that dances through our body too. We learn how to open and inquire via all of our faculties simultaneously. This brings about a very holistic opening – both in greater awareness of where our ego limitations are, and yet mysteriously opens us up beyond them into new territory.
Pillar 4: Non-Attack
There is a Sufi story centred on the 14thcentury mystic Hafiz, where he was asked ‘what is the sign of someone who truly knows God?’ He answered ‘they have learned to drop the knife – learned to drop the cruel knife most so often use upon their tender self and that of another.’ Hafiz is speaking here of the vital and often difficult task of learning to relinquish our tendencies of soul violence – whether we tend to direct that inwardly or project it out.
Often when we engage in deep spiritual practice we begin to see how rampant our habits and conditioned responses are. It is easy to get despondent and feel bad about what we see. Often we have been raised in environments where there was a lot of criticism, dealt out with good intention to make sure we developed into ‘good people’. What happens is that the human ego develops a shell around itself based around such self-monitoring. It feels like having a critical parent inside your head.
Psychologically, this faculty within us all is called the ‘super-ego’. It is a protective layer around the existential sense of guilt that is buried deep within the structure of our ego. Ramana Maharshi spoke of this inner dynamic as ‘the thief dressed as a policeman, here to guard the treasure’. The voice of super-ego speaks with the authorative and judgmental tone of ‘I’m here for your own good. Without me you would act really badly’. However, this inner criticism is an imitation of true conscience, and actually guards against us penetrating through our sense of guilt and badness, to see that it has no substance in reality.
It is very important for all of us to get a handle on the super-ego, on our tendencies to attack. When we attack and criticize outwardly, it is just the same interior guilt projected outwards. It is something we need to learn how to spot and stop giving energy to. Instead, we can cultivate deep kindness and compassion for our humanness – personal and collective. This is where prayer and practices that foster loving-kindness and compassion are helpful. It is not about ‘trying to be good’, but about recognizing our collective need for kindness. Whenever I find myself in the midst of a super-ego attack, what seems to help most is to turn my heart towards prayers of compassion for all beings. (I have written extensively on this in Boundless Love – chapter on ‘Metta – loving Kindness)
Furthermore, I like to think of every breath I take as liquid kindness, touching my inner harshness with allowing, compassion, non-judgement. I find this very helpful in supporting me to be present without attack to what’s unfolding.
Pillar 5: Humility
Cultivating humility is really where all of the other pillars, when embraced, take us. As our practice deepens we begin to recognize that we do not really know what anything is for. We see that life is mysterious and profound, and we are humbled by its intelligence and grandeur. We cease pretending that we even exist independent of this deeper intelligence and instead, surrender to it and pray for it to use our lives for the service of what is real and true.
Hopefully, spiritual life brings us to see that our task is to step back from trying to direct life to fit our ideas, and instead let the boundless intelligence play us. This surrender that our ego most resists, actually turns out to be its relief and resolution.
Recently in meditation I was shown an image of an old fashioned loudspeaker pointed into my ear. Pouring out was the usual kind of mind-chatter, nothing particularly notable, just the ordinary planning, concerns about this and that, interior conversations that make up our ordinary mind. Every now and again I would catch a hint of an exquisite, heart-breakingly beautiful thread of music that was playing underneath it. True being is like this continuous stream of exquisite beauty, and yet we cannot know or hear it if we are listening to and caught up with the noise coming through the loudspeaker. We have to choose to step back from that. Step back from our fearful tendencies: learn to stop picking up those old habits.
These pillars – trust, love of truth, open-minded curiosity, non-attack and humility all work together to help us to step back from the noise of our ego tendencies, that together make up the noise and nonsense of the world. Cultivating these qualities in our daily life give us strength, courage and capacity to let the jewels of deeper reality come awake in our awareness, so we can open through everything – through the dark nights of the soul and into the boundless beauty of our true nature. What exquisite music could God play through us collectively if you and I, together, grew in our capacity to keep opening, keep softening, through everything?