By Loch Kelly
Religious differences have fueled much conflict and war over the centuries, no doubt. But rather than abandon all religion and spirituality, could we instead discover a deeper and more common mystical spiritual experience within the world’s religions in order to find peace and harmony? If we are to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, the task for humans is to find the deep unity within diversity. It seems that a global shift in spiritual consciousness has already begun.
Many of us believe we’re not capable of the deep spirituality that mystics experience. Is the best we can hope for an occasional moment of peace in nature, or with friends, or at church, synagogue, mosque or on a meditation cushion? What if we’re all actually natural mystics in waiting? Brother Wayne Teasdale writes in The Mystic Heart, “We are all mystics!” and “We need to understand, to really grasp at an elemental level, that the definitive revolution is the spiritual awakening of human kind. This revolution will be the task of the inter-spiritual age. The necessary shifts in consciousness require a new approach to spirituality that transcends past religious cultures of fragmentation and isolation.”
The great hope Teasdale pointed to is coming to fruition today as the world’s contemplatives meet with neuroscience scientists, and psychotherapists. Simultaneously, the principles and essential methods of realizing and activating spiritual awakening are beginning to become simpler and more effective.
Though we’ve invested centuries in developing our intellect to create tremendous modern advances, we’re beginning to realize that the next stage of development for humankind is to discover a non-conceptual unitive awareness and to drop into the wisdom of the heart. Mysticism is not regressing back to a child-like primitive state. Mystical awareness is actually a progressive type of unity consciousness that includes and also transcends our everyday mind.
The direct path wisdom traditions have reported that this spirit, sometimes called unitive awareness, is equally available to each of us and within each of us, and also as each of us. The radical message of mysticism is that we don’t have to wait for the spirit, earn grace, or create a new awareness. Instead, unitive awareness is already here. It’s more a matter of learning how to perceive it, accept it, and live from it. If we don’t consider ourselves mystics already, then maybe we can begin to see ourselves as potential mystics, and if we choose, mystics in training.
If this unitive awareness is indeed already here, why do so many of us miss it? One reason is because the spirit, or unitive awareness, is not a thing; its essential nature has no shape, size, or color. Renowned anthropologist Emile Durkheim believed that human beings developed religions through their perception of the sacred, “a superior realm, impalpable through the five senses but one that can nevertheless be experienced.” In one Buddhist model of consciousness, we have our five senses but then thinking is considered our sixth sense. One of the doors to mystical perception is to discover what or who these six senses appear to, and then develop a seventh sense of unitive awareness.
Hindu wisdom traditions from India identify four natural states of consciousness. The first three we all know very well: ego-consciousness, or our everyday waking state. The second is sleep, and the third is dream and daydream. The fourth natural state is unitive awareness, called turiya in Sanskrit. In Tibetan Buddhism, this natural ground of our being is called Rigpa, or awake awareness. But once we know how, we can experience unitive awareness just as naturally as we experience the other three states. Unfortunately, this reality that is so important and so precious is not included in our Western psychological map. Though awake awareness may seem like a new experience, it’s not an altered state. We come to realize that the everyday point of view of the ego-identification is actually the altered state. We can then recognize a natural state of awake unitive awareness and begin to de-hypnotize ourselves from the trance of self-centeredness. By shifting awake awareness from the background to the foreground, we arrive at our natural condition, or what Zen Buddhists call ordinary mind or heart-mind.
Becoming familiar with this fourth natural state leads to a discovery of our basic nature, not just as a state, but as a stage of our basic condition. Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, said, “It is when we distinguish ‘unitive awareness’ from ‘consciousness’ that the ongoing construction of the false self ceases.”
One way we know that a natural awareness is always present is through those whose ego-identification has been dissolved or blown apart by tragedy or severe overwhelm. Many of these people report that in the midst of their extreme experience, a unitive awareness is revealed to be naturally functioning like our breath or our heartbeat. But we don’t have to wait for tragedy to strike to know this. We can learn to intentionally discover the anatomy of awareness. Unitive awareness is not esoteric or reserved for the Olympic athletes of meditation, but in fact is teachable and learnable. There isn’t one way, method, or tradition that’s best for all, but we’re finding certain principles and pathways to learn and unlearn that make unitive awareness more accessible. We’re developing modern mystical practices in dialogue with ancient methods, such as “infused contemplation” in Christianity, “just sitting” in Zen, and “resting in the arms of god” in the Sufi tradition, and also “awareness of awareness” and “recognizing your own face” in Tibetan Buddhism.
Awake awareness can learn to know itself as formless and simultaneously arise as all forms. To illustrate this point, imagine you’re in the middle of a small storm cloud, trying to see clearly. No matter where you move or what you try to change within the cloud, you remain engulfed in fog. If, instead, you simply step out of the cloud, you’ll recognize that you actually have access to the clarity of the open sky. You’ll realize that the foundation of who you are is the sky and all its contents. Once you realize that the sky is all around and simultaneously within the cloud, you can return to the cloud without losing clarity. Similarly, when we feel alone in our heads, depressed, or upset, it’s as if we’re trapped inside the cloud of those thoughts and feelings. But unitive awareness can step back and recognize itself as the vast sky of formless awareness. When we embrace this vast, open-sky awareness, we can enter any emotional storm, pattern, or story without becoming re-identified with it. We no longer need to remain outside as a witness. When this open sky of awareness is the ground of our being—the place where we are knowing from, it naturally includes everything from within and reveals the natural unity with everyone and everything. After all, no storm ever hurt the sky. And sky permeates even the thickest, darkest cloud.
This discovery of awake awareness as out ground not only leads to individual awakening from the sleepy world of the egoic view, but it reveals the interconnectedness of us all with each other, nature, and life itself. This kind of natural mysticism reflects the union of contemplation and action. And this shift of perception is also a shift in identity as we become part of a greater whole, the same world family. Though we retain our uniqueness, we realize we’re all of the same essential nature. And so, unitive awareness is the starting point for conflict resolution, cooperation, and mutual love and respect between all of humankind.