Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jesus and the Path to Enlightenment

In the New Testament Jesus calls his disciples, including Judas, “the light of the world,” and likely sees God even in the man who will betray him. Nothing can be excluded from God, including evil itself, in the form of Satan.

Is this how Jesus actually felt? Is this how he became the messiah? Many will say no, and with good reason. As believing Christians (or not) they conceive of Jesus as static. He didn’t have problems, and he didn’t evolve. Jesus was born divine in a stable in Bethlehem and remained that way for the rest of his life.

A static Jesus stands outside human experience, and if that makes him unique – the one and only Son of God – it also creates a gap. For two thousand years this gap has been uncrossable. Millions of people have worshiped Christ without being transformed. With the exception of a handful of saints, Christianity has not turned believers into the “light of the world,” even though Jesus clearly intended for that to happen, just as he intended the Kingdom of God to descend to earth in his lifetime. Like Buddha and every other enlightened person, Jesus wanted his followers to become enlightened too.

The Sermon on the Mount tends to contradict our instincts about how to live in the world. Why did Jesus want us to go against human nature? I don’t think he did. He wanted us, instead, to be transformed, which means going beyond the lower self with its ego-driven urges. The Sermon on the Mount – and almost every teaching in the New Testament – points to a higher existence that only becomes real in God-consciousness, a state of awareness united with the divine.

As a faith, Christianity turned its back on such a radical call to transformation. The Protestant work ethic blatantly contradicts Jesus’s teaching not to plan ahead or worry about the future. If Catholicism is tempted to feel pleased because Protestants aren’t obeying Christ, how do they live with the most famous lines in the sermon? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). If Catholicism had taken this to heart, there would have been no Inquisition or Crusades in world history.

Jesus was the product of transformation, and he wanted others to be transformed also. Without the process of transformation, Jesus’s teachings aren’t merely radical. They are impossible to live by (except, of course, in those privileged moments when we find ourselves acting kinder, more loving, and more selfless than usual).

What, then, is the path that Jesus laid out? Parts of it are already familiar. Jesus told his disciples to pray. He asked them to trust God. They were to rely on faith to accomplish miracles. Their attitude toward the world was to be one of peace and love. Like the rest of us, Christians seem just as tempted to be unloving, violent, selfish, and narrow-minded, the difference being that they are tempted to use their religion to justify their behavior. (In that, they are not alone – every organized religion creates an ethos that covers over human flaws with self-righteous rhetoric.)

There’s more to the path that Jesus outlined, much of it overlooked because his teaching hasn’t been viewed in the light of higher consciousness. Entering the Kingdom of God doesn’t mean waiting to die and then joining God. It’s an internal event here and now by which human nature turns into something higher. The Sermon on the Mount points to a transformed world that depends upon each individual’s following Jesus’s guidance. Turning inward seems familiar – every spiritual tradition demands it – but what do we do when we get there? That’s the missing key. The process of transformation remains the same today as when Jesus was alive.

Step 1: Shift your focus. The Sermon on the Mount occupies three chapters in the gospel of Matthew and covers many subjects. Yet throughout, Jesus keeps returning to the same general principle: God’s reality is the reverse of material reality. That’s why the meek shall inherit the earth, why evil shouldn’t be resisted, why we should love our enemies. It takes a shift in perception to see this, the same shift that Jesus himself made to arrive at unity with God.

Step 2: God’s providence is given to all. When he says that the first shall be last, Jesus isn’t referring to the material world, but to the action of grace. Like the rain, mercy falls upon the just and the unjust alike. The birds of the air and the lilies of the field aren’t human, but they benefit from Providence, and if we think we must struggle to survive, we don’t know God. Being everywhere, God makes himself felt everywhere (it goes without saying that “he” and “she” are interchangeable when speaking of God, and both are inadequate to describe the divine, which has no gender).

Step 3: Go beyond appearance. Your enemy appears to be your enemy, but in God’s eyes the two of you are bound by love. To realize this divine equality, you must see beyond gross appearances. The sermon constantly pulls hearers to the soul level, away from the physical.

Step 4: Accept God’s love. Jesus constantly seeks to reassure his listeners that they aren’t forgotten or alone. They don’t have to fight for the necessities of life, and the reason for this is that they are loved. As children of God, they can be denied nothing.

Step 5: See with the eyes of the soul. To live a new way, you have to grasp the opportunities for change. Seeing the world through cold expectations and beliefs only reinforces untruth. Jesus dismisses all received opinions, even when they have been handed down as the laws of Moses. He wants us to see with a different kind of attention, which comes from the soul.

The New Testament doesn’t lay out a systematic way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and so we have to borrow from the great wisdom traditions, Eastern and Western, to fill in the gaps. In almost every tradition, and implicitly in Christianity, reality is divided into three levels: the material, the spiritual, and the divine.

The material world is the domain of the body and all physical things. Here we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; that is, we pay the price, whatever it may be, for daily existence. Because this level of reality is dominated by desire for the good things in life, the pursuit of money, status, power, and possession puts us in the service of a false god, symbolized by Mammon,

The Kingdom of God is the world of spirit, where everything that applies in the material is turned on its head. Fulfillment isn’t a far-off goal, but a given. Events are governed by spiritual laws, and physical limitations no longer exist. Sometimes Jesus calls this level of reality Heaven, and he spends a lot of time enticing people with its rewards. In Heaven everyone will be loved; ceaseless labor will come to an end; a banquet has been prepared for the poor and weak. In Heaven all inequality is banished because no one is a person anymore – everyone is a soul.

God, or the Absolute, is the source from which reality is born. It transcends the material world, but being infinite and unbounded, the Absolute goes beyond Heaven also. Christ describes a “peace that passes understanding,” meaning that even the mind cannot go here; God’s reality is inconceivable.

All three levels penetrate one another. The material world, the Kingdom of God, and God himself are all present at this very moment in you and outside you. To believe that you exist only in the material world is a gross mistake, one that Jesus came to correct. He offered salvation, which opens the door to the two missing dimensions of the life, the world of spirit and the source of reality. The reason Jesus makes this seem so effortless (“Knock and the door shall be opened”) is that the two lost dimensions have always been here. We just mistakenly perceive that they aren’t.

Salvation has a practical benefit. When you realize that the material world is controlled by God, you stop struggling against the obstacles in life. The material world, it turns out, isn’t the cause of anything, it’s the effect. It receives its signals from the domain of spirit. Each of us receives impulses from the soul, and our thoughts and actions exist to carry them out. Since we do this imperfectly, life turns into a mixture of pleasure and pain. The soul wants only good for us, but that can comer about only if the Kingdom of God came to earth, the very thin Jesus aimed for.

Even though the three levels of reality are always present, a person has to rise to higher consciousness to embrace all three worlds. When Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” he indicated that for him it was natural to see everything at once. What did he see? A kind of cascade, beginning with God, flowing downward to the Kingdom of Heaven, and, after filtering through the soul, reaching its final destination in the material world.

Examples will help. Take Happiness. Most people believe that external things produce happiness, or at least trigger it. A new car without dents in the fender makes you happier than an old beater with the doors smashed in. More money leads to more happiness through the pleasure it can buy. Constant pleasure, although unattainable, would feel perfect.

But Jesus taught that happiness on earth is a pale reflection of spiritual happiness. The intensity of happiness decreases the further away from God you are. God is pure bliss, a kind of unbounded ecstasy that nothing can diminish or change. This pure bliss cascades down to the Kingdom of Heaven. Here the soul is also ecstatic, but God’s bliss must be diminished for human beings to experience it. Therefore, the happiness that pours from the soul be comes conditional. When God’s bliss reaches the end of the journey on the material plane, we mistakenly believe that happiness comes and goes. It seems fragile and prone to change. We can be robbed of happiness when things around us go wrong. No longer do we perceive it true source.

Because his eyes were open to the source, Jesus saw reality for what it is: a constant manifestation of God. Why is anything true or beautiful or powerful? Because God contains Truth, Beauty, and Power. It does little good to know this intellectually. Experience is all, and therefore Jesus kept giving such experiences over and over. He performed miracle to show how insubstantial the material world really is. He kept reversing the rules of life to give people a taste of Heaven.

Yet all his teaching was in service of one overarching objective: to find the way back home. To his first Jewish followers, the spiritual history of humans had been one long exile. Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise. The children of Israel were in exile in Egypt and forced into captivity in Babylon. All these disasters were symbolic. They stood for losing sight of the soul and being separated from the God-head. Speaking simply, Jesus offered Heaven as home and God as the Father who throws a banquet our of joy for the return of all his prodigal sons and daughters.

Jesus knew God’s lost children wouldn’t find their way home through a dose of metaphysics. Therefore, he served as an example of someone who was fully physical and spiritual at the same time – God, the soul, and a mortal human being were united. Jesus didn’t simply bring the light of God to earth; he was the light. (If it didn’t so enrage Christians, I’d call him a guru – the word in Sanskrit means ‘dispeller of darkness.”) When Jesus proclaimed that no one could enter the Kingdom of God except through him, he wasn’t referring to an isolated historical person born in Nazareth in the year 1 CE. All uses of “I” by Jesus in the gospels must be taken as God, soul, and human, not because Jesus was unique, but because reality itself fuses all three. )Thus his saying, “Before Abraham was, I am,” is Christ’s way of pointing to eternity as his ultimate source.)

Jesus preached to his disciples that if they found God first, everything else would be added to them. This is our strongest indication that he was pointing not to a father figure sitting on a throne, but to the source of reality. Such a source can’t be found through the five senses; it can’t be retrieved by thinking about it the way one retrieves a memory. The only path is one of transcendence, or “going beyond.”

In Christian tradition there are many forms of going beyond, and believers today continue to practice them. Doing good deeds and giving to charity go beyond selfishness. Praying for the solution to a problem surrenders it to God, going beyond one’s own personal efforts. A monk’s life sacrifices all material concerns, going beyond any gratification that would satisfy the ego and its unending stream of desires.

Yet it is doubtful that Jesus had such limited forms of transcendence in mind, because none of them alters reality. God is hidden as if behind a veil. He doesn’t speak and therefore concealed by the thoughts that fill our minds, which never stop speaking. Therefore, transcendence means going beyond the five senses and the mind’s constant activity. Here the spiritual world divides, for the West, influenced strongly by Christianity, prefers contemplation of God’s divine nature, while the East, influenced by India’s ancient spiritual traditions, prefers meditation.

The difference between these two ways of transcending does not have to be so severe, however. In both meditation and contemplation the mind does two things: it quiets down and it expands beyond everyday boundaries. This is accomplished by taking a thought or image and allowing the mind to experience finer and finer states of itself. In mantra meditation, for example, the sound of the mantra gradually grows softer, tapering off into silence. In Christian contemplation of an image, for example, Mary’s sacred heart, the image also fades, gaining subtle emotional significance. Meditation tends to be more abstract, since the mantra has no meaning, while contemplation focuses on love, compassion, forgiveness, or some other trait of God.

If you are already in unity with God – the end of the spiritual journey – sitting motionless within your own being would be totally fulfilling. Not because you have escaped this world in a balloon, but because the Absolute, being the source, contains the fulfillment of all desires. When the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,” the words indicate the place where all energy, bliss, and creativity come from.

The entire subtle realm of transcendence is within everyone. Here the most desirable things in life – love, creativity, truth, beauty, and power – are planted in seed form, waiting to grow once they enter the physical world. To awaken these seeds, you can practice subtle action, that is, action on the level of the soul. This may sound esoteric, but think about anything you pursue avidly that brings accomplishment and a sense of joy. The following will be present:

Love and enthusiasm; Find what is lovable in Jesus or, if you are attracted to them, in Mary and the saints. Open yourself to the possibility that God loves you, that you belong in this world in order to have everything a loving father could give. Even if your present reality doesn’t permit a wholehearted acceptance of this attitude, open a window. Love is more than a feeling that comes and goes. It’s a permanent aspect of your own being, beginning at the source. You are meant to participate in love because you participate in yourself. Keep this vision in mind. Appreciate the most beautiful things in your life, whatever they may be, as expressions of love, gifts that come your way through grace, not by chance or good luck or because you worked hard.

Align yourself with a vision of God as a tree laden with fruit that bows down its branches to bestow some on you. Or think of God as the sun covered by clouds. You don’t have to work to find the sun, you only have to wait for the clouds to dissipate. With this vision in mind, it’s much easier to be enthusiastic about life, because suddenly the unknown isn’t fearful anymore – it’s a region from which the next good thing will emerge.

Optimism; Be positive in your expectations. This doesn’t have to be merely a mood, and it shouldn’t lapse into fantasy. Just be aware that at the soul level the seeds of fruition exist in infinite number. Bad seeds, on the other hand, come from the past, engendered by memory. We remember being hurt and disappointed, and by remaining attached to those bad memories, we keep repeating them. The past plants bad seeds; the mind feeds them with fear and anger.

Optimism focuses on the good seeds. Thus they are given encouragement to sprout. Strictly speaking, I’m not referring to positive thinking. In positive thinking all negative outcomes must be wrenched around until something good comes out of them. In actuality, bad seeds yield bad fruit. But once you face a result that is painful or disappointing, step away from it and focus on the seed of the next situation, which can be a good one. Nobody is perfect at this. We all sprout bad seeds along with the good. However, with an attitude of optimism, you remind yourself to favor the good, and that shift in attention has a powerful influence.

Desire to reach a goal; Many spiritual people are suspicious of desire – it not condemnatory – but desire can work for you on the spiritual path. To do that, it must be focused, and so you need to have a goal in mind. Too many people want to be filled with the light (i.e., they want to feel love, delight, fulfillment, and closeness to God) without directing those qualities. God is constantly on the move, because God is just another word for infinite creativity. Genesis (production) occurs at every moment.

If you want to be successful spiritually, prepare to be on the move. The Indian savant J. Krishnamurti expressed this beautifully when he said that true meditation happens twenty-four hours a day. He meant that one should devote one’s waking hours to subtle action, finding the most refined way to achieve any goal. Meditation isn’t stasis. Silent, unspoken desire has enormous power, especially the power to intention. Direct your mind to a goal and keep focused, asking for reality to unfold in the most fulfilling way. Then let go and watch what happens. Giving over even a tiny desire to God allows you to learn that accomplishment doesn’t need to depend on ego-driven struggle. For most of us, it’s good to stop at least once a day and consciously resist the urge to interfere. Stand back from the situation – it can be anywhere you are feeling resistance and obstacles – and see if higher consciousness can bring a spontaneous solution. Once you’ve achieved your first successes, using this same technique becomes effortless and in time a way of life.

Focused attention; In its own right, without any desire in mind, focused attention is one of the mind’s most powerful forces. Focused attention is the fertilizer that makes the seeds of the soul come to life. “Seed” is simply a verbal token – what we’re really talking about is the potential for a subtle impulse to jump into the physical world and grow. Before any piece of matter can emerge – a tree, house, cloud, or mountain range – its atoms exist as pure potential. This invisible, motionless state then “warms up” into faint vibrations, and those vibrations acquire physicality. (In physics the shift from an invisible, or “virtual,” particle into a visible electron is known as the “collapse of the wave function.” It’s the basic process by which the visible universe becomes manifest, blinking in and out of existence thousands of times a second.)

The same is true of future events in your life. An infinite number of events exists as pure potential. From this unbounded reservoir a select number of possibilities reaches the seed stage, which is vibrational. They are waiting in the wings to emerge into physicality. That happens when you turn your mind toward a possibility and say, “Yes, I pick you.” Anything that has become important to you in your life followed this transformational route from invisible potential to full-blown event. Therefore, the more focused your attention, the more skilled you can become at activating unseen possibilities (a skill known in the Indian tradition of yoga as “one-pointedness).

Immunity from distractions; A second skill that goes along with focused attention is the ability not to be distracted. You find this ability quite natural when you’re in love. Not only do you want to spend every waking thought on your beloved, but outside things also become flat and uninteresting. Avoiding distractions is effortless. In spiritual matters the chief distraction is ego. Being rooted in the physical world, the ego wanders everywhere, consumed by fleeting desires. It is pulled this way and that by fear and expectation. It indulges in fantasies and harbors deep-seated resentments.

The ability of the ego to grab your attention can’t be overestimated. After all, the physical world is infinite in its diversity; the five senses never cease to bring new grist for the mill. You can’t argue the ego our of its incessant demands for attention, pleasure, self-involvement, success, and winning; therefore, fighting back won’t succeed. This is one adversary who must melt away gradually. And what melts it? The higher satisfaction of inner peace, love, calm, and fulfillment, which doesn’t need to chase after objects in the physical world. Only transformation quiets the ego and puts it in its place. The best attitude to take while this process unfolds is patience, because gradually, as you experience transformation, the ego will loosen its grip. Keep in mind that “I, me, and mine” aren’t the only ways to view life. You can fulfill yourself by living beyond the ego, and in time that will happen.

Spontaneous energy; Spirituality isn’t about trying. It’s about what Buddhists call “nondoing.” Jesus expressed the same notion when he taught that life is not something to worry about. The famous passage in the Sermon on the Mount about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field was an illustration of how nature unfolds spontaneously. Life flows; it unfolds without struggle. The energy needed comes without effort.

As a child you dragged your feet going to the dentist and got exhausted if you were saddled with tasks you hated, like mowing the lawn. But when you played, you had unlimited energy. Jesus has the latter state of min. He wants people not to worry and struggle, because those are the worst ways to be in the world: struggle comes from separation, an ability to let Providence do what it wants to do. Therefore, when you feel spontaneous energy – and not until then – undertake the challenges of life. If, instead, you feel dull, exhausted, depleted, stressed, or simply unenthusiastic, stop and replenish yourself. In this regard the spiritual way of life is also the most practical, because it taps into the source of spontaneous energy. If you have the courage to live the life you love, all the better.

Bursts of fulfillment; It may be part of the Protestant work ethic to postpone gratification, and Aesop’s fable predicts woe for the grasshopper and wealth for the ant. Even so, Jesus held exactly the opposite view. Life doesn’t wait for fulfillment tomorrow. It express fulfillment today. In the state of separation this sounds delusional. Therefore, as a reminder that the world’s way isn’t God’s way; resist the urge to control, plan, postpone, and hoard.

All of these activities make time your enemy. God is timeless, and so are you. The timeless waits for nothing. It doesn’t resign itself to dullness today in hopes of brightness tomorrow. Every occasion for a burst of satisfaction should be seized. When you see something beautiful, appreciate it. When you feel a loving impulse, say something to the one you love. Be generous each and every time you can. Withhold no good impulse. You may fear that you will run to excess and squander too much, but those feelings are born of fear. In God’s reality, the more you give of yourself – in feeling, generosity, self-expression, goodness, creativity, and love – the more you will be given.

Absence of resistance both inside and out; And then there’s the Adversary. You must take into account those invisible forces that resist God, that deny fulfillment and extinguish love. There’s no need to attribute such obstacles to the Devil or malignant fate. The truth is that human beings are entangled in the binary drama of good and bad, light and dark. Opposition fuels creation; there’s no getting around it. But this recognition is very different from feeling obliged to fight the darkness, either within or without. We are so addicted to struggle, not to mention war and violence, that we scarcely register Jesus’s dictum, “Resist not evil.” Yet evil itself puts up massive resistance; it is futile to adopt the same tactic.

The spiritual attitude in all things is to accept and say yes. The seeds of the soul grow in mysterious direction. You can never foretell when a temporary obstacle will lead to future good. “Everything happens for a reason” is a useful reminder of this. And yet pain and distress are not acceptable; being denied what you deeply desire is not an occurrence you should resign yourself to. Therefore, saying yes and offering no resistance cannot be taken as an iron rule. It goes without saying that push does in fact come to shove, and in those situations people fight, struggle, and practice violence. And when evil is conquered, however temporary the victory, something good has prevailed, perhaps God.

Even so, the higher way is not to offer resistance, to see if a peaceful way can be found. This leads to a general guide that sums up much of what has gone before. In any situation, when you find yourself acting in a certain way, observe what happening and apply three questions:

Do I feel fulfilled and happy acting this way?

Is it easy for Me?

Has it brought the right results?

Simple as they sound, these questions encapsulate much of Jesus’s teaching. God intends for life to proceed easily; he wants us to experience fulfillment; he intends for the seeds of the soul to flourish as naturally as the grasses of the field.

At any given moment, measure your existence by the same standard. Life is too complex to master one situation at a time. The future unfolds too unexpectedly to allow for dress rehearsals. So you must acquire the skill of living here and now, and the greatest skill comes from the level of the soul. Reality cascades from the divine to the mundane, and yet by some miracle even the mundane is divine. The same miracle brings joy in the vale of tears and immortality in the shadow of death. It’s not easy to extract one from the other. Therefore, we constantly need inspired teachers like Jesus. It would be a shame to be shown such sublime truth and not take advantage of it every waking moment.

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