Why it’s so hard to Attain – Part 1

The development of a spiritually awakened human is the most difficult task in human existence. It is made easier in that it consists of removing what is unneeded rather than adding to what is there. But what is unneeded to a mature adult was once vital to the survival of an infant, so convincing the adult to relinquish the accretions of infancy (the ego and all it entails) is no small task. In fact, it is nothing less than the toughest possible task, since it implies taking the self down to the bare metal, as you might say, to expose its tender heart to God.

There are basic problems about spiritual development these days, as I see it, as opposed to different times. The Qur’an says that in the “latter days” it will be harder to hold to Islam than to hold a “hot rock” (burning coal) in one’s hand.

The first one (here in the West) is obvious. The deafening roar of materialism, and its philosophical endorsement, is louder than at any time in human history and appallingly efficient at seduction. This ensures that only the half-mad and totally desperate turn up at the door of the temple scratching to be let in.

And of those who turn up, most are there to use the spiritual life to achieve temporal goals – the problem addressed in Chogyam Trungpa’s book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. We see it everywhere now: how to follow scriptural advice to get wealth or security or happiness. How to talk God into giving you a break.

But perhaps you are not meant to be happy, right at this moment. Perhaps there is something else you are meant to notice, like the cause of your unhappiness, which is probably something other than the obvious.

Whitley Strieber says that in his decade of meditation with the entities that came to visit with him in upstate New York, he learned that their approach was to “give him problems that cannot be solved and cannot be put aside.”

This is the Sufi approach too, and in both cases a certain attitude is necessary to benefit from the koan-like limitations of the puzzle. A.H. Almaas describes it in this way:

The attitude of trusting without knowing what will happen, of allowing things to emerge, is needed at all levels and stages of the process of inner development. It applies on the external level, the emotional level, the subtle levels, essential levels, all of them. Any idea of how things are going to be will only work as a boundary. The way things are and the way our true nature works cannot be bounded that way. The moment you have an idea of how things should be, you’re creating some walls, and you’re sitting inside them. There is no trust there in yourself, there is no trust in reality, and there is no trust in the process itself of transformation and growth. Then there is restriction, and you’ll suffer and complain as usual. When we allow the natural process of growth to happen, there is expansion, happiness, and joy.

Usually when you feel you don’t know, you want to do something right away. But you don’t have to do anything: you just need to be there. When something happens, you’re there for it. Ultimately, trust is really trusting your Essence. That trust will develop. The trust is not something you have right away. The more you know yourself and the more you see the rightness of your own process as it happens, the more you’ll trust it… Finally, you see that there is nothing you can trust– nobody, no authority, except the process itself. Finally the trust is not trusting in anybody; it is not trusting any theory; it is not trusting any authority; it is trusting reality. It is just trust – confidence in the Essence itself. It will take time for the trust to mature and deepen.

So those who arrive at the door of the temple – even those who sit against the temple wall by the door, month in and month out, while birds sit on their shoulders in the spring and while they are buried in snow in the winter – must empty themselves first before being filled with a new approach to their experience. We discover that the interpretations of our experience – which we mistake for the experience itself – will change as our viewpoint shifts.

Imagine a man standing midstream in a shallow river, looking downstream. From his position he can see creeks flowing into his river downstream. His experience of the river includes what he sees, but does not include the contents of creeks flowing into his river upstream from him, behind him. He feels the water against his legs behind him and infers its presence, but he does not see how the creeks blend into his river and provide its whole being. This is the state of the average man.

The first work of the teacher is to convince the man that there is a river behind him, but to see it he must turn around to look at it. This is not that hard to do, given a promising student.

What the Sufis do, however, is to then teach you how to hike upstream.


Finding the Essence

What is the element common to all experience – in whatever realm you wish to consider? That is the Essence, the unit of identity that exists and has experience. It is the very spark of life.

Ibn al-Arabi maintained that the realms are basically six in number, though they may present themselves as multiplicities. He names them as the state we were in before incarnation; our life here in the material world; the “interval”, or barzakh, after we have left this life and before moving into the metaeternity of God; the Garden and the Fire, and the sand dunes outside the garden.

It is not clear how much of this metaphysics we are capable of understanding, while in the human form, or outside of it. Ibn al-Arabi says that the number of realms is limitless and beyond our understanding whatever our state.

Our Essence is eternal and with us in whatever realm we inhabit, but our perception of those realms is colored by all the noise collected in our personalities and experience. We have and have always had every potential within us, but they remain obscured by coarser accidental responses to our world and states.

The Essence is what remains when the accidental and temporal is removed. In the “journey without distance”, Ibn al-Arabi explains, limitless expansions and elaborations of reality occur, both upward (toward an endless multidimensional spiritual abstraction) and downward (to an endless multidimensional infolding of significance and meaning). The realms are the states of being conducive to these experiences, and according to the Greatest Shaykh, they are where these manifestations “actually appear”.

It is important to realize that since these states arise in awareness, not consciousness, they are part of our own experience of ourselves, not our considerations, beliefs, opinions, fears, hopes, or phantasies. In that sense, the realms are not part of the human form itself, but the matrix from which the human form arises, indeed from which all form and identity and potential arises.

Scientists say that some dinosaurs were only capable of seeing movement – changes in their visual environment. Consciousness is like this. It exists by, for, and about differences and discrimination. Even though perception of the realms is very different from our normal consciousness, that perception does not present as another distinction, but as a change in state.

The process of disentangling the Essence from the overgrown weeds of consciousness requires making these kinds of distinctions in your own experience, and makes such perception possible.You may ask, “How is it that awareness can perceive its own change of state without invoking differential consciousness?” This is a level of mystery I cannot understand; it is deeply buried in the metaphysical significance of unity and separation, and I do not know. My own Shaykh explains it this way: absence of knowing is not a state of being; it is a blankness, not even a potential, but the hidden is there in its own special state, waiting for you to discover it, and questions like the above pertain to the hidden, not the unknown.

Ibn al-Arabi notes that when you view the greater reality from within the treasures laid up within you, they appear as “miracles and wonders” that occur continuously in your perception. This is the state of the mazjubs, the Madmen of God, who are transfixed by the parade of meaning and wonder so thoroughly that they may appear to be unconscious of events around them in “reality”.

The Greatest Shaykh advises us to appreciate this level of experience, but to look away from it and continue the Journey. At each such waystation, the temptation is there to lose yourself in it (as this is what we long for above all else), but it is what you lose yourself in that determines your ultimate destination. He says that beings and states and understanding will all appear before you and present themselves as God, upon which you must say, “God is far beyond you,” and continue on the path without being absorbed in the significance of that moment.

The Essence is the window into God. It is of God and not of God; it reveals and obscures. More importantly, all we can know of God, while wearing the human form, is of and through the Essence. It is the metaphysical – ontological layer of the human form.

Thus, development of the Essence (or more properly, the revealing of the Essence) is “cutting to the chase” in spiritual development. Any exercise or experience that “works” to develop your Being is work on the Essence.

I recommend A. H. Almaas’s book Essence as the best discursive onramp to a study of it. An indirect approach to developing the tools to meet your Essence is the traditional corpus of the Mullah Nasruddin stories.