What I have found is that self-improvement can be helpful, but it is limited. To find lasting happiness, you have to go deeper than the self that you are trying to improve, beyond thought, to what is always/already peaceful. Awakening to this dimension is finding the place within you that is not trying to find happiness in an ever-changing world but is freedom itself. Realizing the true Self is how you experience permanent change.
The goal of spiritual awakening is for a shift of identity to occur, from knowing yourself as a story that consists of an illusory past and future, to identifying yourself as the source of peace, which is awareness. The more that you ground yourself in the realization of who “you are”, the more that suffering falls away, and eventually, the easier it will be to live from a place of non-division.
Disidentify From the Clouds
Think of your thoughts and emotions as the clouds, and awareness as the sky. When you suffer, you identify with the clouds (thoughts and feelings) as who you are. It is easy to do this, because ideas, like the clouds, have a form, and draw attention. You often forget that the sky is the “you” that is always present and aware while everything else arises. The formless sky within you (awareness), has no separate identity. It is a quiet space that allows everything to be as it is. It is the source and the substance of all forms.
When you identify with the fleeting clouds only, you are continually protecting and defending your sense of self because you feel that who you are is ephemeral. Thoughts are temporary, just like clouds. If you identify with what is temporary, the result is a feeling of fear and lack. This egoic state is the filter through which we see life and the place we make many decisions. Hence, the crazy state of the world.
The shift of identification
When you know yourself as the ever-present, aware sky, you are peaceful, there is joy in your action, and you feel connected to life.
An important fact to notice here is that it is not you as a story made of past and future that is aware of thoughts; it is awareness/spirit itself that is aware of thinking. As consciousness separates itself from thought, you will see that (just like the sky) awareness is formless, knows no separation, and allows all to be.
The saying “You are not a human being having a spiritual experience, but a spiritual being having a human experience.” is what this means. As you begin to understand what it is within you that is abiding and what within you is transitory, your identification shifts from knowing yourself as the clouds to knowing yourself as the sky. This shift in the general sense of who you are is spiritual awakening.
A big part of awakening is learning to be the sky (awareness) and witness the clouds (thoughts and emotions). Observing the clouds as the sky is one of the most critical steps that you can take in your spiritual practice. The essential thing to see that is not always recognized is that witnessing does not require effort. We can witness the thoughts and emotions that pass (rather than identifying with them) when you relax and allow yourself to be present. Presence is your natural state. When you identify with thoughts only, you are contracted and exerting more effort than is needed.
Remind yourself that life is going along just fine without all of your unnecessary commentary, and relax. See the uselessness of the energetic contraction and constant mind chatter and let go. As you relax, you become more aware and can identify as the sky much less arduously. The more you witness thoughts and emotions, the less they take you over and become a story. I am this, or I am that, becomes I AM. The more you are the I AM, the more life wakes up through you. The more you consume yourself with the story, the more you forget who you are, the more you suffer. Suffering and confusion will begin to subside when you disidentify with what comes and goes and ground yourself in the everpresent sky. The shift of identification from thoughts to spirit will happen as you practice. As you do, your life will become increasingly more joyful and full of peace.
Have you ever lost your temper and wondered afterward, “What the hell happened?” Someone yells at you on the freeway, and before you know it, you are yelling out the window back at them. You realize later that the reaction completely took you over. Can you relate to having an argument with a significant other for 20 minutes? After you makeup, you realize that you were arguing over something that was embarrassingly petty?
What is happening when you are in reactivity mode like this? When the conscious awareness that you are becomes identified with a point of view, you develop a sense of self that you need to uphold. The ego is fearful, ready to be in attack and defense mode. It knows that it consists of nothing other than temporary and transitory ideas of you. It is always unstable and needs approval. You have completely lost touch with your true nature, the sky.
When you are reactive, you are unconscious or spiritually asleep. Don’t be hard on yourself. Loss of awareness of pure nature is the normal state for most humans. Feel lucky that a light is being shined into the darkness, where your ego has been hiding. Be grateful that for some mysterious reason, you are part of a minority of people who are awakening from the anguish caused by forgetting who you are.
In the loss of awareness of your unity with all other forms, you experience an underlying sense of threat. Much of the time, you are incognizant of this fearfulness because it is so ordinary to you. When the so-called outside world seems to have done something “to” you, suffering often comes to the forefront. If you cause damage by lashing out at others or harming yourself in some way, know that this is part of the process. It is called spiritual “practice” for a reason. Learn what you need to learn and make right what you need to make right. Continue to bring attention back to being the aware sky.
When we are not using the mind for practical application, it is generally on automatic pilot mode, often spouting senseless or at best useless chatter, keeping you lost in identification with what comes and goes. The more the mind is on automatic pilot mode, in other words, lost in thought with no awareness, the more the brain reacts to stimulus based on its conditioning. Someone triggers something in you, and there is a reaction.
When you have not established yourself as the witnessing sky, your actions will likely be a repeat of the past. The same types of people come into your life, and you seem to make similar mistakes. So, self-improvement can be very helpful, but if you are not becoming more conscious, you will be more likely to be a slave of the conditioned mind, creating the same old patterns.
Starting to get out of auto-pilot means, rather than being the pain, means being the one who allows it. As you become the witness, the old reactions will continue to operate for a while, but as you observe them, they will dissipate. New choices and insights will be born out of this practice.
Spiritual growth is contingent on your ability to bring space into your life—a gap of no-mind where there is awareness. An excellent way to start practicing this is through meditation.
Meditation that facilitates a shift in consciousness is more of a let go than a doing. A very effective way to meditate is to relax the energetic contraction that is the habitual state of unconsciousness. This contraction is a mental clinching and an emotional resistance that is the mind identifying completely with itself, much like a dog chasing its tail. A great way to meditate is to let go and witness. As you do, you become more aware.
As you are present, watch the ideas and emotions come and go, notice that they come from awareness and disappear into awareness like clouds in the sky. Rather than be the thoughts, witness them. The more you do this, the more understanding of who you are comes to the forefront. The less separate you will feel, and the more you will awaken to the sense that you are one with all. Discovering through direct experience will change the entire foundation from which you live. Fear will start to fall away, and you will begin to know yourself as the loving presence that you are. Your thoughts, words, and actions will be inspired and authentic when you give them the space of your being.
The expansiveness of who you are
Awareness and being present in the now are synonymous. You don’t have to try to be mindful, just let go of the stress and strain that comes with being entirely identified with the clouds of your thoughts.
Imagine being worried about a problem that you have with a relationship or your career. You are ruminating about the problem as you walk down the street. There may be birds chirping, people smiling at you, and the smell of blooming flowers. If you are completely lost in thoughts, you won’t be present to any of this. Now contrarily, think about if you were noticing the smells, seeing people as they pass and hearing the birds or any other sounds around you. For you to have this higher level of awareness, there would be a relaxation, wouldn’t there?
The more relaxed you are, the more aware; The more aware you are, the more that you can be present to what arises within you and outside of you.
As you relax into being the witness, you will notice that awareness doesn’t begin and end at your skin. Consciousness is primary, not the body. As you start to know yourself as this expanded awareness, you will find yourself being more at peace and enjoying what is happening for no reason. Your relationship with others will change, because, at the core of awareness, you will know that you are the same. This realization of oneness is real love, the love that has no opposite.
Meditation In Action
So, first practice being centered in yourself when you’re sitting alone. I am referring to conventional meditation. The mind will try to go into automatic pilot by daydreaming or thinking about the past and future. Expect mental chatter to do this and practice bringing attention back to the present. I have led many meditation classes, and I never had one person tell me that staying present was easy for them. All that you need to do is to continue bringing attention back to this moment. It gets easier over time for presence to become your home.
Sitting meditation is integral to awakening, but I do not see meditation as something confined to a mat or a chair. Ultimately, it is not something that you do, it is what you are.
Meditating is a great way to begin. Then, start to practice when you are walking or doing a simple activity. See how the mind tries to drift away into needless chatter while walking upstairs, going to the mailbox, or washing dishes. When you are inspired to do so, make whatever you are doing a meditation. Something that is ordinarily monotonous can become enjoyable. I make bringing in my trash cans a meditation. When walking from the car across a parking lot, I often use it to be the “knowing,” experiencing the oneness of life at that moment. As I relax and allow my senses to open, the walk becomes more relaxing and enjoyable.
The more relaxed you are, the more aware; The more aware you are, the more that you can be present to what arises within you and outside of you. When the mind is wholly absorbed in a task to the point where there is no me, just a job being done, even better, when you are immersed in a task, the ego has nearly disappeared. Everything in life is an opportunity to become more awake –doing something pleasurable, dutiful, monotonous or painful. The answer is to do whatever it is consciously. As you do, notice how the quality of your experience changes.
When challenges come
Your body and nervous system will always give you an indication as to whether you are awake to who you are or asleep. Regardless of circumstances (and that is the key), the question is, how peaceful and harmonious is life? In life, we experience beautiful and horrific things; the birth and death of loved ones, a promotion, getting fired, and everything in between. The question is, have you found a sense of peace within, no matter what happens? When you are asleep to your true nature, happiness and sorrow will consume you. When you are awake, emotions are just waves on a deep ocean.
When challenges come, you either become more identified as a story or more grounded in awareness. The challenging situation will either be an opportunity for you to let go, witness, and become more conscious, or it will trigger a downward spiral of suffering and unconsciousness.
The secret is when life’s challenges present themselves, and you find yourself wanting to react, be the witness, and watch the reaction, staying present to what is happening. Let’s use a typical example rather than something too extreme. Let’s say you are having a conversation with someone, and they offend you. Notice that it is not “you” that is insulted, but rather, there is a trigger response in your body. Keep your attention, not only on the person but also on the body’s reaction. Give the person and the trigger response in your body your full attention, to not let the reaction take you over. If there are thoughts, notice those as well.
If the reaction does take you over, it is never too late to remember who you are. As you separate mental chatter from awareness, you will then be able to act from a better place for you and everyone else. Following your breath can be quite helpful in these times to ground you. Make things right and clean up any mess made from the reaction if need be. One day, you will just stop reacting to the situations that used to upset you, and you will find yourself handling life situations more proactively.
The Transformative Powers of Non-reaction
I had some incredible experiences in my life when I practiced non-reaction. I will share a straightforward example of a person I visited on a sales call (my former profession) about 17 years ago.
I visited a couple who requested some information on my product. I remember a friendly woman guiding me to a kitchen table. As I sat down, her husband, who didn’t seem in a pleasant mood, entered the room.
As I began asking them questions about what they might need, the man stood up, pointed his finger at me, and started tossing one insulting comment at me after another. I can’t remember what he said, but I do remember the comments were personal and seemingly designed to make me angry. There have been plenty of times when I probably deserved for someone to insult me, but this wasn’t one of them. I was simply asking them what they needed. There could be a hundred reasons why the man’s ego was doing such a thing. Maybe he didn’t trust salespeople, perhaps he had been triggered by something before our meeting, and he was already angry. All that I know for sure is that it wasn’t personal.
As he attempted the verbal attacks, I just sat there, giving him my full attention, staying present in my body. I felt a defensiveness begin to arise, but I just witnessed it as awareness. It wasn’t able to take me over because I was present as the sky observing the clouds coming to pass. Because I wasn’t as grounded in my true nature back then, I found that the clouds that I was witnessing were not just fleeting rain clouds. The emotional reaction inside of me could be described more as storm clouds. I remained aware, watching the storm clouds, not reacting, although I did notice my hands shaking.
After the fourth or fifth time that he threw a needly comment my way, I saw something quite fascinating happen. The man nearly collapsed in front of me. He let out a long deep breath, smiled, and said, “OK, I’m sorry. I’m acting unreasonable, and I apologize “.
I must admit that I was quite surprised at the time. I realized later what had happened. The man’s ego needed food. It required a reaction to survive in this situation. On the outside, it needed another ego feeding it, reflecting its sense of separation and contraction. When he got nothing other than attention, which is synonymous with love, the clouds subsided, and just beneath his need to attack and defend was his love or true nature. That was what he expressed for the rest of our meeting, and that was what I experienced. The man and I had a loving interaction after that. I believe that I just described a testament to the fact that there is only one consciousness, only one love. It takes effort and doing to cause false separation.
There are more examples in my life, similar to this one. You may have some cases of your own. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to experience this for yourself by being non reactive, watching the reaction in yourself, and giving the other your full attention. As you are awakening and establishing yourself in awareness, you will change you, but you will break the cycle of reaction, and others will be deeply affected. Breaking the cycle is how you change the world.
There is likely a part of your life where you are bringing more conscious awareness into activities, and you find that there is more flow and enjoyment. Much of the time, there is more success in this area. It may be in a love relationship, or what you do for a living or something that you do as a hobby. Notice what is not at play in the area of your life that is more effective and peaceful. You will most likely find that there is more let go and awareness and less complete identification with thoughts. Noticing the parts of your life that are flowing with ease and joy, will start to give you natural insight into how you can live more effectively by being the sky in other areas.
Conclusion: As you learn to bring more awareness into your day-to-day life, you are tapping into the peace and joy that will transform you and the world around you. The shift of identification from believing that you are a story to knowing that you are formless awareness is the beginning of freedom and the way that you can transform how you operate in the world. Ultimately, realizing yourself as “the sky” rather than “the clouds” is the shift of identification that spiritual traditions teach us. Start practicing!