Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle tells his story of awakening as follows. He struggled repeatedly with acute bouts of depression throughout his life. One night in particular he struggled with intensely suicidal thoughts. He kept repeating the phrase “I can’t live with myself anymore.”
Then he suddenly realized if there’s an “I” that cannot live with a “myself,” there must be two components of the self. He then wondered who this “I” and this “self I can’t live with” were. He soon felt himself drawn into some kind of vortex of intense energy, and heard the words “resist nothing” as if from inside him.
The next morning he woke up “as if he had just been born.” He experienced a state of deep and permanent inner peace with a sense that everything, even so-called inanimate objects, were alive. It is precisely this profound inner change that Christ refers to when he talks about the need to be “born again.”
This process of awakening through prolonged suffering finally becoming unbearably acute echoes my own experience. As one pays attention to many of the great spiritual teachers, this pattern of transformation through suffering emerges. Using what he calls a universal symbol, in his book A New Earth Tolle identifies this as “the way of the Cross.” This isn’t something you’re supposed to do, or else! It’s the path we all walk toward awakening, or not. As long as we cling to ego-identifications, the desire for status, affection, and stability, we’ll stay prone to repeated bouts of misery.
Though there is a consent at work here, the inner state of transformation is quite genuine, quite radical, and quite available, and also quite different from what we think of as a “born again experience” or consenting to the spiritual laws that allow for conversion to a specific religious group. Waking up to this level of reality transcends all organizational labels with their histories and ideologies and theologies that ultimately exist only on the level of the mind.
In some circles, of course, this is a heresy, but even that is an abstraction created to maintain consolidated ego identity of a group. It’s a thought-form to help determine who’s in, who’s out, who has status, who gets to talk, and who has to shut up. Any time we’re offended, we’re not seeing through the other person’s unconsciousness down to its root. When we’re offended, it’s we who have some ego distortion at work, one that needs to be examined.
What this path teaches is the fact that most of our problems are created by the mind or ego. There is a separate field of a kind of pure awareness that doesn’t judge or blame, that doesn’t look backwards or forwards, and therefore doesn’t fall prey to depression or anxiety. It just sees, and knows, with the capacity to manifest love. And it can’t be achieved through effort, or will power, only through letting go.
Orthodox Christian theology looks forward to the kingdom of God as a future state. This is a distortion or misunderstanding through the overlay of ideas, putting us back into mind-dominated space. Even Buddhism can fall prey to these kind of imposed ideas. In fact every “–ism” is in reality a bundle of ideas that we hold to organize the world. They have no substantive reality to them beyond social convention.
The true experience of spiritual awakening, whether articulated by the Christian mystic or the Hindu yogi (each a social construct with an external label) is always beyond the rational mind. That’s why the spiritual teachers speak about it through analogy, through story, and through symbol.
A State of Being
Jesus says “it’s like a pearl,” or “it’s like a mustard seed,” or “like a treasure.” It’s precisely because it’s a state of being that is ultimately beyond ideas, language, theology, sermonizing, or truth-claims. It simply is. Identifying with this transcendent being, Christ explodes the religious leaders’ notion of linear time, separate self-sense, and the sacred by claiming “before Abraham was, I AM,” conflating the notions of divinity, being, and the Old Testament name for God with his own person.
This speaks to his deep awareness and inner alignment with this state of being, this transcendent reality. And he said it’s available to everyone in the here and now. But there’s a problem. As Richard Rohr puts it “the primary addiction for all humans is addiction to our own way of thinking.”
Certain kinds of therapy, intense suffering, and contemplative practices like Centering Prayer can guide us through a process of letting go of this just enough for awareness to have a chance to emerge. Contemplation is that little interruption of the perpetual flow of thoughts. Over time, we realize we are not our thoughts, and we are not our emotions, though we have them. There is an even deeper component of the self, the “I” that sees, that is aware. Anthony de Mello calls this state simply “awareness.” Tolle calls it “spacious presence.” Thomas Keating calls it manifesting the “True Self.” The practice moves the needle from this limited self, this small self, this separate self, this ego-self, to the transcendent self that has manifest in this form temporarily.
Conventional theologians stuck in thinking about time in absolute and linear terms suggest the kingdom of God is “already and not yet.” It might be better to think of it as ever-present. It’s only “not yet,” in the sense that many of us still cling to the illusions and attachment that keep this reality from being evidently manifest in and through us, whether or not we use the language of a particular faith tradition.
What keeps us from kingdom is our mind, our ego and its attachments. But letting go isn’t so easy, either. That’s where a need for some kind of ongoing practice comes in. We usually start that up when we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.
And once we taste it, it’s like tasting living water, and we realize nothing else we usually cling to for happiness will quite do anymore. We let go of the little me and embrace the I AM that is beyond time, beyond self, and beyond form. After that? Well, you’ll see.