Why Spiritual Growth Does Not Lead to Enlightenment

Why Spiritual Growth Does Not Lead to Enlightenment
How to find a Deep Awareness that is not dependent on Growth

‘Enlightenment’ is in many ways more of a Western concept than a traditional Asian one. The Sanskrit word bodha means, depending on the context: being awake, knowing, understanding, wisdom, intelligence, perception, awakening, awareness, blossoming, opening, or expanding. It’s an everyday word, not an abstract noun, and it doesn’t imply some final state of perfection.

When used in spiritual contexts, it connotes being awake to and aware of one’s real nature, of the true nature of reality, or both. The English word ‘enlightenment’ implies (to most people) some kind of super-wisdom and/or a higher state of consciousness that elevates the one who has attained it above the mass of humanity. The Sanskrit word is sweeter, simpler, and more humble: it connotes waking up to the reality of what you really are (and always have been), and becoming generally more aware and open. Abiding in this awake, alive, open awareness is the goal of the spiritual life as conceived in the Yoga traditions.

Pursuit of EnlightenmentThe pursuit of Enlightenment

The Pursuit of Enlightenment

In our culture, however, the pursuit of ‘enlightenment’ (which really means abiding in direct awareness of reality) has become confused and mixed up with the self-help / self-improvement project. People talk about wanting to grow and become a better person, and often imagine that the terminal point of this growth process is something like enlightenment. This demonstrates a real lack of understanding of the nature of the spiritual path (as conceived in the Asian traditions, anyway). Not only is abiding-awakeness not the endpoint of the growth process, it doesn’t even lie in that direction.

Abiding awakenessAwake, alive, open awareness

What??! Look, if you stop and think this through, you’ll see it’s obvious: according to all the Yoga traditions, your true nature is always already perfect, the core of your being is pure radiant divinity, and you are always already one with the infinite divine Consciousness which gives rise to and supports the entire universe. TAT-TVAM-ASI: you are That; here and now.

Therefore, realization of this truth does not depend on any degree of personal growth. Rather, it is a paradigm shift in which you stop identifying with the phenomena within Awareness (e.g., thoughts, emotions, body-image, etc.) and wake up to the fact that you are Awareness itself—the only constant in the ever-changing world of your experience.

And yes, it is possible to become so awake that you never fall back asleep again. You don’t become a categorically different kind of person, you just finally see the truth so clearly and completely that you can’t unsee it, and thus you dwell in a different paradigm from before.

Sudden enlightenmentSudden enlightenment

Sudden Enlightenment

Now, despite fanciful stories about ‘sudden enlightenment’, this doesn’t happen overnight. Just as it can take you a while to wake up from physical sleep before you’re fully awake and clear, in the same way, once you’ve touched into the truth of your Being, you have to keep touching in and deepening your awareness of Awareness for months or years before it becomes your default state. In that process, there is a kind of growth that is necessary: reaching a level of maturity where you know what you really want and your daily-life actions reflect your heart’s deepest longing. In other words, you have to grow up enough to get out of your own way and make room for the awakening process to unfold. But this kind of growth is a necessary ancillary to awakening, not its cause.

Unfolding awarenessUnfolding awareness

So you have to ask yourself: are you subconsciously holding the belief that abiding in awakeness to your real nature has to wait until you’ve completed your therapy, or until your life’s not a mess, or until you can retire to a forest retreat, or until you’ve attained samādhi? Are you spending a lot of time and energy on a self-improvement project that yields only incremental gains, without first accessing the source of unconditional love within? If so, you’re suffering. And you’re not alone.

Spiritual Self-improvement

This is what looks really weird from where I’m sitting: a lot of people doing self-improvement type spirituality are working really hard to acquire the traits that are natural byproducts of abiding in awakeness (bodha-stha). This is going at it back-to-front. First wake up to what you really are, then integrate that realization into all the aspects of your life. Waking up is actually the easy part compared to integration, but way harder than both is trying to integrate a realization you haven’t really had yet. Which is what most people in this game are trying to do.  I know, you’ve had powerful experiences in which you tasted your divine essence; but this is really not the same as properly waking up out of the belief that your thoughts, memories, and story have anything to do with who you really are.

Waking upWaking up and staying awake

It’s this simple: you cannot heal the ‘broken self’ as long as you believe that you are it. Or you can, but it’s ridiculously difficult. By contrast, if you wake up to and become centered in your real nature, then you can lovingly address any misalignments in the body-mind that need addressing. If you’re willing to do the work of integration, every layer of your being becomes permeated with the powerful energy of awakeness. You start to then embody that awakeness, which is beneficial to all beings. If you don’t do the work of integration, even if you’re centered in your divine core, you’re not really benefitting anyone else.

This is important. Some people wake up to their real nature and then dismiss the body-mind and its problems rather than work with them. This is called ‘transcendentalism’ by my teachers (and ‘spiritual bypassing’ by others), because such people seek to simply transcend the body-mind. By contrast, on the Tantrik path, we seek to allow the energy of pure Awareness (chit-shakti) to permeate all the levels of embodiment and aspects of daily life. This is called integration. But again, in order to do that, you have to be able to access the energy of Awareness at will, which takes practice.

IntegrationAllowing the energy of pure Awareness to permeate

Awareness through Integration

So integration is the real spiritual growth, but it has nothing to do with trying to recondition oneself to conform more closely to an ideal found in books on spirituality or in the mouth of a teacher (which is what most people call spiritual growth). Rather, it means doing whatever is necessary to open up the body-mind system in such a way as to allow the energy of awakeness to flow unimpeded and permeate every aspect of your life (when actualized, this is called mahā-vyāpti, the Great Pervasion, in Tantrik Yoga).

Dwelling in the midst of the sea of nectar, with my heart-mind immersed solely in the worship of You [as the substance of every experience], may I attend to all the common occupations of man, savoring the ineffable in every thing.
– Utpala Deva

This process of integration-and-embodiment involves a lot of looking. When you hold up a thought or self-image and look at it in the Light of Awareness (again, assuming you have access to that Light), you can clearly see to what degree it is misaligned with your deepest nature and discard it (by definition, they’re all misaligned to some degree; but the less misaligned thoughts can be useful for a particular purpose). For most people, this doesn’t happen automatically; they need to actually do the work of looking & discarding; or, in the case of saṃskāras or unresolved experiences, looking & digesting; this is a crucial distinction. This explains why some people can be ‘enlightened’ but unintegrated; and if they become teachers, they usually cause harm. There’s a difference between having access to the Light of Awareness (prakāsha) and doing the work of seeing what does and doesn’t reflect that light in its fullness (this is called vimarsha, or self-reflection).

Innermost selfSelf-reflection

Embodiment of Your Innermost Self

Someone who has done a lot of vimarsha and has therefore shed their self-images and digested a lot of their unresolved experiences dwells in a state of freedom called moksha. Such a person is called jīvan-mukta, liberated while still in the body. This is significantly less common than awakening or even abiding-awakening. It is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life, but it’s not an attainment since nothing has been attained; rather, something has been lost. It’s a state of being truly unburdened and free. But even this is not a terminal state, since there’s always more saṃskāras that can be digested and more integration that can be done. Still, there is a tipping point beyond which you could never go back to the state of bondage and delusion. Passing this tipping point is what caused the Buddha to say simply and humbly, kṛtyaṃ kṛtam: that which needed to be done is now done.

What would it look like for you to drop all self-improvement projects based in a sense of unworthiness and spend your practice time learning how to access and abide in your already-perfect innermost Self? This is not as easy as it sounds, since it means going beyond enjoying a feel-good idea of your own divinity and accessing the real deal, which humbles and softens you more than it exalts and affirms you (‘you’ here meaning the body-mind-personality complex).

What if you stopped trying to be a ‘better person’ and simply learned how to fully embody the being you already are?

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4 years ago

What you have hurt and struggled and cried for. Dont let that be taken by the all consuming hunger of God that isnt god.

4 years ago

God needs to be humanised. Dont let god kill the true things that the human you has found.

Billy Dean
4 years ago

Your blogs have clarified many things for me. I am, however, still confused about what comes first. It’s a kind of chicken-or-egg dilemma that I seem to be stuck in.

At first, I thought it’s okay to see enlightenment as a journey because the search for enlightenment takes you full circle back to where you started: yourself. What we’re all pursuing is inside, not outside ourselves.

Then I found myself being encouraged to integrate that awareness into every aspect of my life. Is that another journey leading to another kind of awareness? Or…?


Andrea Shipley
6 years ago

This is very in alignment with my experience! I’ve been thinking of integration as psychospiritual bridge-building, which seems to align with what you said about being able to contact the larger awareness from every aspect of daily life.

6 years ago

Your words ring true.
I think that once the truth is found it then must be practiced and shared. This practice is the true life of me. Thank you, =

JR Vollman
7 years ago

HOLY crap this was a game changer for me

Tena Waters
7 years ago

Yes! Thank you for explaining what I have no words for. ❤

7 years ago

Very good dissertation. However, Enlightenment IS Sudden. It is not by Steps. Integration and deepening can/and usually is gradual. People have awakened and stayed there, others have been reclouded by Vasanas. All is dependent on your past work, karma, etc. On your own self! So, your words are correct 90%. But to really awaken and live this is the 10% left. And there, concepts fall away. I would have scoffed, as you have in this article, on what you say about people doing self-help work, and I have all these years, as awakening has nothing to do with self-help and psychology or therapy, and there is no WAY to be after awakening, but I have noticed that for many people, moving away or through deep held beliefs or deeply ingrained beliefs about themselves, has opened them to be available for their own dropping of the mind for their awakening. So, one never knows what will be the door for their own awakening. Haven’t you read iabout the people who woke-up while sitting on the toilet making a “Poop”!!!!??? Lol!!!

Jenette Youngman
7 years ago

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Gabrielle Bergan
7 years ago

I was so happy to read your article, Christopher. I’ve been through the process of awakening and integration, and now I help others do the same. It’s beautiful work:)

7 years ago

Thank you so much for this enligthening text Christopher. I cannot remember to have read such a clear explanation on the awakening process, and the integration that follows. When you mention ‘you have to grow up enough to get out of your own way and make room for the awakening process to unfold.’ This is where I got lost in my own integration after the awakening experience I once had…. Coming from a (neo) advaita ‘background’, I have always been confused with the re-indentification to the I-dentity… Who is there to ‘make room’ for awakening, since there is the acknowledgement that there is no one anymore, and only ‘Oneness’? Isn’t the process of ‘making room’ a way to fall asleep again? This is a bit the snake biting its tale, but it hasn’t let ‘me’ in peace since then, and quite in misery to tell the truth… I would love to know what you have to say about it.

David S. Shaw
7 years ago

If only I was a better person I could post a better comment, but this is the best I got, in the Now. I like the ending query by Mr. Wallis, “What if you stopped trying to be a “better person” and simply learned how to fully embody the being you already are?” What if we try to not fully embody the being we are, but rather stay awake to the realization that we embody all of being. To be human is to divide an inadvisable Universe into parts and attach symbols to these parts such as numbers, words, sounds, images. We divide the indivisible Universe into the contemplated and we who are doing the contemplating. How could we do otherwise. We contemplate the Universe with more than just out thoughts. We contemplate with our work, our play, our singing, our dance, our making of images, our prayers, our commenting on Facebook posts. We have opinions on what is wrong with the Universe and how to fix it. We have opinions on who is right about the Universe and who is wrong. We endeavor to get better at these things. It’s all quite fun isn’t it. All a Buddha belly laugh.

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