For today, let’s use the word spiritual liberation instead of spiritual freedom. They mean the same thing to me, but sometimes using a different word finds a way to connect with someone as opposed to another word. Sometimes, a different word burrows past conditioned ego defenses and resonates inside whereas another word is casually dismissed and deflected, landing uselessly into the debris of many other ideas.
Most people like to believe they are open to ideas, but the reality is that most people are not. They are so deeply and habitually entrenched in their ego thinking that there is no path for the truth to get in. That leaves it up to God to hit the person with a train wreck, heart attack, death of a loved one, and other undeniably uncomfortable experiences to get the person’s attention. It’s only then after this severe shock that enough stuff has loosened up inside to let a little light into a person’s consciousness. It’s why I sometimes say that pain is most peoples’ first spiritual teacher.
Well, I don’t intend to hit anyone with a train today. I’ll leave the extremes to the Divine. Instead, I’m just using a slightly different word to hopefully find a way inside of you to help you more deeply realize what this spiritual path is all about.
For most people, we start in darkness; we start in ignorance. Ignorance is akin to darkness because you don’t know what you don’t know. When a room is completely dark, you can’t tell what is in there. At best, you can grope around and bump into things haphazardly. Since you can’t really see, you make guesses. This generally leads to a lot of misunderstandings and wrong conclusions. When people act based off of wrong information, more problems arise. Conflicts can escalate. Problems get worse. In our ignorance, we are flailing and often slowly drowning in our suffering.
Knowledge arises when we have light. When we can see, we can engage with things in a whole new manner. If we see there is an elephant in the room, we can engage with it consciously rather than blindly bumping into it and then running the risk of being stampeded by an angry elephant. An expanded array of options is possible when you can see the elephant and the room. Taking action based off these clear insights is putting knowledge to use, and that tends to create generally more beneficial outcomes that reduce or eliminate the suffering a person has or would have elicited by pissing off a large pachyderm.
Countless possible examples can be used to substitute for the elephant in the room. It’s a metaphor that could stand for self-worth issues, scarcity fears, fears of loneliness, the actual feeling of loneliness, trauma, self-abuse, and other issues. All of these issues feel overwhelming and unmanageable when you are mostly ignorant of them.
The Desire for Liberation Arises
Typically, people desire spiritual liberation to get out of pain. As I said earlier, pain is most peoples’ first spiritual teacher. It is, however, a very crappy teacher. Pain is a poor communicator. It doesn’t tell you that your ego is at work. It doesn’t effectively tell you how you have stored all kinds of uncomfortable past experiences in your memories, emotions, and physical body. Plus, if pain goes too soon, the person often quits the spiritual path, thinking that all their issues are gone or that they are at least manageable enough to stop doing inner work. The best thing pain does is to get someone moving towards the spiritual path.
What Is the Spiritual Path?
That means that the desire for liberation is initially very corrupted by the desire to get rid of pain. This leads most people to dead-ends as they seek spiritual tools that alleviate pain, not to find liberation from suffering. The spiritual-workaholics, spiritual travelers, and spiritual high seekers (meaning they like to feel elevated, euphoric, etc. from spiritual experiences) are commonly lost going in circles because what they really want is the cessation of pain.
Certainly, some people are simply called to the spiritual path. It happens. That’s beautiful. But the vast majority will have been pushed towards it in some way, and pain is usually doing the pushing.
Regardless of how you come to the spiritual path, the true path to liberation goes inwards, and inner work is a big piece of the process.
The Difference Between Pain and Suffering
Imagine you stub your toe.
It’s a communication tool telling you to stop what you did and that there’s a problem. That’s important. If you didn’t have physical pain, then you could cut off a foot and not know until you fell down, slipping on the blood from the wound.
Now imagine being angry that you stubbed your toe.
Suffering is an ego choice based on beliefs. Most people have the belief that they don’t like pain. Since pain feels bad, it’s easy to have this belief. Furthermore, many people also have the belief that they shouldn’t stub their toe. The combination of beliefs leads to an emotional response, usually an upset one. That emotional response is suffering.
Every day we tell ourselves to think and feel in certain ways, and that repetition is a kind of practice. We repeat specific ways of feeling and thinking so much that we teach our bodies, hearts, and minds to hold onto suffering in the mind, heart, body, and subtle energy fields. There is a definitive physiological impact of ego suffering, and there can be a dramatic shift in how we feel in our bodies as we learn to let go of the ego because of this.
Doing Spiritual Inner Work
Fortunately, we are not doomed to suffer endlessly. There is a way out of this pain, and that’s spiritual liberation. The path to spiritual liberation generally involves inner work as I’ve mentioned.
Spiritual inner work involves many things, but a couple of key elements include:
- Aspiring to know yourself
- A willingness to deal with difficult emotions and sensations
- An understanding that there is a difference between between pain and suffering
- A willingness to let go of beliefs and open your mind
- More self-honesty
- Dedication, and more
In doing inner work, we learn to see through our illusions. In so doing, we discover more illusions. Typically, the amount of illusions we carry is far beyond anything we could dream of, but those illusions have been masked by the amount of ignorance we have lived in. Thus, humility is almost automatically developed as we come to perceive the extent to which we’re enmeshed in illusions and just how wrong we’ve been about a great many things in life, including ourselves.
Major Spiritual Shifts and Spiritual Awakening
Many people hope a big spiritual awakening will do all the dirty work for them.
It won’t, and it doesn’t.
Too often, people hope for quick fixes, but there is no cure-all. Any amount of grace that comes with a spiritual shift or awakening should be understood as inspiration to go deeper. It’s like a spark to start a fire. Let’s not confuse it as the full meltdown of the ego.
But if a spiritual shift of any kind is embraced, then more can be perceived about what is reality and what is illusion. This naturally encourages a person towards certain issues within themselves to resolve, and this naturally fosters inner work.
The truest kinds of spiritual shifts bring us to greater understanding of ourselves. They are not about being better than others nor being able to point out the flaws in others. They are also not about getting spiritual gifts. While spiritual shifts open us up to hidden talents inside ourselves as well as to seeing the lies and illusions in others better, the true spiritual seeker’s focus should be on becoming permanently free of attachments so that s/he can rest in inner peace.
Be Here Now
But let me pause to emphasize that this is an undoing process. Inner work is not endless, and ultimately it becomes unnecessary.
What people fail to realize is that they are rarely if ever fully here and now. They have so many beliefs and hidden ideas skewing how they perceive themselves and the present moment. Those interpretations are all coming from past experiences, so the person is not seeing the situation as it is now. They’ve got loads of beliefs that are causing them to see it as they think it should be.
So your inner work is digging inwards to discover all of these unconscious choices and thoughts so that you can un-make them. When they are gone, there is no need to create something new. Instead, you learn to stay in the present moment. With your whole attention resting in this space, life opens up in a million ways. The more “here now” you are, the quicker you notice deeper and more unconscious responses that are still trying to filter the present moment based off past experiences and ideas.
The Many Veils of Illusion
There are many levels of illusion hidden in the unconscious spaces of a person. Anyone who has had an initial shift or shifts should not be complacent. You’re not done. The ego is not gone. The path to realize spiritual liberation is just starting.
But the ego wants this to be done, and if there are some fun blissful experiences along the way, it will gladly say, “That I’m free! I’m all done.”
Good feelings are not spiritual liberation. They’re just good feelings. They–just like their counterpart, bad feelings–come and go. It’s the nature of the human experience to change. On the path to spiritual liberation, we move our attention towards the changeless presence within. The more we anchor our attention there, the more quickly we see and move through deeper levels of illusion.
This is not inherently a fast process even though theoretically it could be. We all have the ability to totally surrender the ego right now.
Typically, we have so much unconscious energy being put into maintaining our sense of separation and other illusions that we have a lot of undoing to do. It’s like if you’re clenching a fist your whole life. You’ve gotten used to it, and your body is used to expending energy to keep it clenched. You don’t even realize you’re doing it anymore. Unclenching a muscle this stuck takes some energy to overcome the energy that is still being placed into that muscle. After the muscle releases, no energy is required to keep it relaxed. It can just be.
This is kind of like what the process of spiritual inner work is. Work is done to overcome the energy we unconsciously spend. Then no work is needed to just be.
The Trap of Intellectualizing Oneness/Non-duality
Yet, the ego really doesn’t want to surrender. The ego thinks it is the key to the most important things in life, and so it’s constantly seeking an end point where it keeps most of itself in tact while proclaiming some kind of victory. So it is looking for a way to stop, and this ego desire creates all kinds of traps on the spiritual path.
A common intellectual trap is the idea of oneness, which is sometimes referred to as non-duality. The trap works like this:
- We are all one.
- There is nowhere to go.
- Therefore, I don’t need to do anything.
- There is no need for inner work.
- There is no need for a teacher.
- I am already that which is.
Intellectually, this is correct.
Practically, this is deeply misguided because the person doesn’t truly understand what any of that means. It’s an intellectual dance used to steer clear of the messiness of emotions and physical transformation that arise as someone does inner work. It’s like trying to intellectually understand dancing. Sure, you can memorize a list of steps, but can you really dance after just doing that?
Furthermore, the ego can make up any ideas to justify itself and whatever it wants to do once it has concluded that no work is needed to realize spiritual liberation. This can lead towards indulging the ego and primal urges on one side or towards nihilistic, depression on another side (“Since nothing matters, what’s even the point of living!” is how that thinking goes).
Realizing the Truth
Realization is how we come to truly understand a spiritual truth. We can realize something at the level of the mind, heart, body, or subtle energies. When the whole of us realizing something, then we truly know it, and we can live and act from that spiritual knowledge.
Typically realizations draw us further along in wanting to know more of the truth and dissolve more of the ego. Then there comes a point when the spiritual path shifts, and more of a person joins the work. It’s like a lot of players are sitting on the bench in a sports game, but after a certain period of time, a deeper decision gets made. More of those players are sent in, and the quality of spiritual work and realizations deepen for someone.
This process of realizing and deepening can continue for years, but at a certain point, there’s a way that it almost feels like gravity is now on your side. You feel pushed along as if you are coming down the other side of the mountain whereas before it felt like a long trudging expedition to go up it. That doesn’t mean that this side of the mountain is easier. It could be more treacherous, but when gravity is on your side, dealing with difficulty on that terrain is a whole lot easier.
Realizing Total Spiritual Liberation
You may have noticed that I talk in terms of layers of issues and veils. Typically, spiritual liberation is gradually realized. Even in those big spiritual moments, that’s just one veil that may have parted. It might not even have dissolved. Thus, there is a gradually process of discovering/realizing liberation, and as I mentioned in the last paragraph, the more free you become, the more you tend to want to go further.
Because to be half frozen in a block of ice is intolerable. When you were totally frozen, you were too incapacitated to know how stuck (unconscious) you were. And the first couple of thaws didn’t give you enough perspective to realize how frozen you were in ego issues. But as more dissolves, the only thing left is to want to get all the way out.
When a person fully dissolves the ego, they achieve total spiritual liberation or total spiritual freedom or complete awakening or whatever term you’d like to use. When this arises, the person is now free of suffering and can truly live in whatever way arises for them.