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By Rabbi Alan Lurie on the Huffington Post 8/22/11
The goal of all spiritual practice is to help us see
that we are more than temporary and meaningless
collections of automatic emotional and physical
responses. All spiritual practices are designed to
lead us to see a higher reality -- that we are, in
truth, eternal consciousness, occupying physical
form for a purpose, animated and connected to the
creative and sustaining source of everything.
Spirituality is, in essence, the experience of
waking up to this higher, truer reality. And the
birth of religions stems from individuals who have
glimpsed this reality, have known that most human
beings are trapped in a false, destructive dream,
and have attempted to free others by sharing their
experience of a better way.
Of course, as we all have seen, religions can
quickly -- and at time horrifically -- distort
this initial impulse. The experience of higher
realities, by its very nature of being more than
most people's normal vision and containing
knowledge that often defies verbal description,
must be told in metaphor, story and allegory.
Followers who do not understand this may, in an
honest but childish effort of devotion, concretize
these subtle teachings in to literal and rote
dogma, thereby losing the original intention and
beauty. But the initial impulse to communicate
the experience of higher reality for the benefit
of others is the fire that sustains and renews
the great religions, and that shows us the possibility
of being more fully awake.
Whether the Buddhist experience of Bodhi, Christian
rebirth, Jewish d'veikut, Zen kensho, Hindu moksha,
or Sufi nafsil mutma`inna, most religions are
designed to point us toward an awakened state
of being. We may think, therefore, that spiritual
awakening is like physical awakening, with only
two states -- asleep or awake -- and that we can
attain a state of being fully awake or enlightened.
And we may think that this is the end goal of
religious and spiritual practices, and may work
to reach this enlightened state as though it is
an object of attainment and possession.
The truth is, though, that spiritual awakening
happens gradually, across many stages, with --
as far as we can tell from our current perspective
-- no end. Once we think that we have finally
awakened, another possibility, which was previously
hidden from sight, appears and pulls us forward
to higher levels. A sure sign of spiritual derailment,
usually caused by the ego's hijacking of the process
in order to feel superior and therefore safe, is
the belief that one has reached the end, knows the
truth and is done.
The realization that awakening is a never-ending
process is a core spiritual insight taught by all
great religious teachers, and these teachers have
left us a map of the stages of awakening. The
following is a brief and general outline of some
of these stages, utilizing the Hebrew Bible -- the
religious text with which I am most familiar --
as well as other religious traditions.
Awakening to Self-Awareness:
Many living things are conscious, but as far as
we know human beings are the only creatures that
are conscious of being conscious. We can ask
the fundamental questions: Why am I here? What
does my life mean? The story of Adam and Eve
is a mythical telling of this evolutionary
moment, when the light ignited in our eyes and
we looked at the world from a new viewpoint,
knowing that there is difference between good
and bad, and aware of our own nakedness -- of
our limitations and mortality. Almost all Homo
sapiens have reached this basic level of awakening.
Awakening to Meaning
We can stay stuck at the first level, seeking
only to satisfy our needs for security in the
face of uncertainty and shame. Then, often suddenly,
we discover that our life actually has meaning,
and we are radically changed. This happened to
Abraham, who, in a flash, sees that he has been
created for a purpose and must leave the meaningless
life that he has led to create a new way of being
that is centered on the struggle to honor that
purpose. This is the beginning of the spiritual
Awakening to Sacred Service
We can awaken to the knowledge that our own life
has purpose, and yet never reach the obvious
conclusion: If my life has purpose, so must everyone
else's! This is a huge shift, when one first moves
beyond self and connects deeply to others. In this
connection is found the call to service, as illustrated
by Moses, who dedicated his life to liberating
others, without seeking reward or recognition.
At this level one discovers true humility and
gratitude. All those who have changed the world
for the better have awakened to this level.
Awakening to Freedom
Two thousand and six hundred years ago, Siddhartha
Gautama awoke to an essential truth: that we cause
our own suffering through our desire to make permanent
that which is inherently transient -- possessions,
fame, certainty, power, health -- and that we can
end our own suffering by liberating ourselves from
this insane cycle. Then we can see that we are not
our minds, not our bodies and not our emotions.
These, instead, become objects of curious and
compassionate examination rather than the unconscious
drivers of our lives. With this we can experience
life, people and events as they are, free from the
need to control. This is the level of awakening
that many associate with enlightenment.
Awakening to Spirit
The life and teachings of Jesus are demonstrations
of a radically simple but endless truth: We are
spirit made flesh. Jesus knew that God is not a
being "out there," and we are not feeble creatures
"down here." Instead, we are God incarnate; the
physical vessels of an infinite, loving creative
force. And when we see the face of God in another
human being we are seeing our true nature. This may
sound appealing, ridiculous, obvious or meaningless.
That too is the lesson from Jesus, because this
level of awakening moves us beyond the restriction
of our physical senses and provokes strong emotions
from the ego. But with this awakening comes healing
and rebirth to our true selves.
The next stage of awakening appears to be emerging
now. I certainly can not see it, but my sense is
that it will be one in which we know that
consciousness is the structure of physicality
and that we can deliberately connect to the
forces of creation in order to elevate life.
The very reason that we are here is to gradually
awaken, and by doing so transform the world into
heaven on earth. This transformation is completely
in our hands to do, and with courage and humility
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