From horizon to horizon
a strange noise is bounding.
Thunder, it is thunder you say,
for you are older now, you know
the name of this sound.
Rain has been coming steady
while you sleep, surrounded
by your dream.
Think you that you know
what thunder is, and rain,
because you have names?
Yet you can hardly say what it means
to wake in the night and listen,
suddenly so nakedly alone
in your senses,
rapt beyond all reason.
You know then the great silent thing
that empties you between each rumbling—
You are not what you think,
nor the world what it appears.
As consciousness is unchanging, enlightenment is not, strictly speaking, a process of altering, increasing or expanding consciousness. It is a process of subtracting ignorance.
When a thick layer of clouds dissolves, we can see and feel the sun that was always shining behind them. Yet the sun never changed. The turning of the earth brings a new morning and the apparent rising of the sun. In the same way, when we turn our attention toward our true nature, the felt presence of awareness seems to appear anew. Of course it has always been there, but our attention was directed elsewhere.
By turning the light of attention upon itself, awareness seems to grow and expand. Its presence feels more lucid, rich and vast. Thoughts receive less fuel and slow down. The neutral space of stillness allows the mind to relax and may catalyze a powerful release of emotion, energy, laughter or mystic visions and insights. Yet nothing is being added to us. No matter how dramatic the mind states are, it is only the impact of shedding ignorance.
Spiritual ignorance does not imply a lack of intelligence. Ignorance is simply the condition of ignoring or not being aware of the actual nature of reality or Self. When we have never heard of enlightenment, we tend to see the symptoms of ignorance as natural and unavoidable. We fail to appreciate that we are suffering the effects of basic, pervasive delusion. Ignorance can therefore be likened to being lost without knowing you are lost.
This type of lostness only reveals itself through increasing struggle and bewilderment. Eventually we grasp that we are suffering because of a fundamental confusion about life that we have never dealt with. Knowing we are existentially lost can be called the beginning of the spiritual search. We can also see that this search has always been with us, albeit in an unconscious mode.
The search for fulfillment is built into the struggle and process of human existence. Right from the beginning, we misidentify our being and our happiness with external things and circumstances. We cannot help this process of identifying with mental and physical conditions. Many substitutes for truth are accepted along the way, and substitutes always lead to disillusionment. This is the natural process of growing up.
The real meaning of growing up is to become conscious, an awake being. We become conscious through the dynamic of identifying ourselves with something, only to later disidentify and realize a new wholeness and independence from that thing, activity or situation. To outgrow something means consciousness got tired of identifying with something less than its own fullness and potential.
We outgrow not only interests and activities but entire paradigms and modes of being. When the defining theme or logic of a developmental phase has fulfilled itself, its main limitation is revealed and becomes increasingly uncomfortable to live with. The mind endures instability and uncertainty as it seeks its next foothold.
From birth onward we move through stages of unconscious identification, increasing discomfort and disidentifcation. This is the game of consciousness played out in each individual mind. The toys of childhood give way to the more sophisticated amusements of adulthood. Whereas the play of childhood was spontaneous and vital for learning, our adult games often continue long after the joy of discovery has passed.
When disillusionment continues into adulthood without revealing a new horizon of discovery, it is easy to rationalize that this must be all that life offers. If we do not break new ground of wisdom we easily fall into the trap of cynicism and despair. Perhaps we expected that growing older would lead naturally to clear-headed wisdom, but instead of shedding our illusions we find we have only exchanged the simple illusions of childhood for more complex ones.
The game of realizing wholeness is still on, but as life presents us with seemingly unsolvable riddles and contradictions it may seem like senseless torment. Not knowing where to find clarity, we develop conflicted, chattering minds distracted by the routines and amusements of materialism. Eventually, our basic ignorance catches up with us and triggers a crisis of some kind.
The spiritual game is serious, although its goal is the revelation of lightness. We could say that in its quest to actualize the infinite lightness of its own being, consciousness makes our ignorance feel heavier and heavier.
According to the materialistic outlook, we just have to add more novelty and spice to our lives to maintain the façade of being fulfilled by things and experiences. Enlightenment offers an entirely different possibility. We can wake up out of the game of identity altogether.
This is the last disillusionment, the final frontier, and what a refreshing vista it presents. At last, consciousness uses the mind to question the primal sense of separateness. At this juncture we realize that gaining new and better experiences cannot add anything to us. We can accept and enjoy positive experiences while no longer expecting them to deliver lasting peace and fulfillment. As our understanding becomes more sharp and subtle, we lose interest in the identity project that has been driving us our entire life.
When our mental-emotional energy no longer fuels the restless distraction and seeking of the separative mind, the mask of persona has no support and crumbles. We no longer know who we are. We find it difficult to sustain the image we and others have had of ourselves. Our former vanity and self-absorption are exchanged for a refreshing authenticity and genuine contact with other beings. We cease to live for the story we are telling, preferring the raw flow of life unmediated by superfluous, self-conscious narrative.
The sense of self is a process defined by the movement and investment of energy. It becomes very shaky in moments of neutrality and stillness. Such moments are typically felt as an intolerable emptiness and boredom, to be quickly escaped. But when consciousness is ready to know itself, we will be helpless and unable to direct attention away from the truth. The seemingly awful truth we are being forced to confront is actually love—not the image we have made of love, but love as pure presence. Real love is unconditional because its nature is empty, free of conditions.
The quality of having one’s mental-emotional energy suspended and nullified is the experience of death. All death is psychological. Death is the absence of any experience or object to cling to. It is the agonizing inner voidness of loss. It is primal uncertainty and destabilization.
Sure, you see the room full of familiar objects around you, but when you are psychologically removed from them, your surroundings cease to bring you the familiar comfort and security. You are not going crazy, you are going sane. Consciousness is having its day, but what is day to consciousness is experienced as night for our long-held ignorance. The soul, consciousness, does not go through a dark night—only our ignorance does.
The purpose of death is not to end life and bring a new one. It is to reveal eternal life, the timeless. When you move through the final threshold and outgrow all mind-made identities, you are reborn in spirit. Of course, this is what you have always been. Pure being, pure awareness, pure knowing. Then you live the divine game as consciousness itself. You have always been one with life, but now you know it. Having outshined the former ignorance, you are now just the shining.
Michael Damian is a direct path teacher