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A good measure for determining whether so-called spiritual, religious, or mystical experiences are higer or lower than average, mundane experience, is this: is there more or less awareness?

Some others might be…

Is your way of participation that of blind impulsivity, or engaged spontaneity?

Is your way of liberation one of fierce destruction, or creative dissolution?

Do you feel specialness, or nobility?

Suggestions to continue this list are welcome.

I realized today that I spend most of my time on this blog talking about awakening and practices which can help the process along. What I don’t talk about is the fact that none of this is necessary.

The truth is that awakening doesn’t make you better. Awakening won’t solve your personal problems. In fact, it only solves one very specific problem, which turns out to be no problem at all. When I take the time to consider my motivation for posting my writings here, I find that it has nothing to do with trying to convince people that they should try to wake up, so they can be better, or feel better, or gain some special salvation or safety from the world. I would never want to put those ideas into the heads of otherwise ordinary people. But, the truth is that so many people are already on this path. They’ve already decided that it’s important to wake up. It’s for those people that I offer these writings. This work can take a long time, and I would hate for it to take longer than it needs to.

Emptiness is not static. There’s nothing to it, nothing that can be set apart from anything else. Somehow emptiness and awareness are inseparable in essence. This is how your own awareness is the starting point, the path, and the goal. Therefore, if you don’t feel compelled to practice, don’t! If awakening isn’t important to you, that’s fine! You’re no better, and no worse, than me. I’m no better, and no worse, than you.

Honestly, “enlightenment” as a term is terribly misleading. Reality is always-already itself. There are those who don’t know this, and those of us who do. Likewise, there are those who simply don’t give a shit. They’re probably the best off! Those who don’t know, and don’t care, are the highest kind of Buddha.

Awakening will not save you from anything. If you take it all the way, you’ll see that there’s nothing to be saved from, and no one to save. Furthermore, this has no bearing on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. All of it is still just as fluid as it ever was. Human beings are human beings, period.

Forget Buddhist clichés like “carry water, chop wood.” Go to work. Play with your kids. Honk your horn at the asshole veering into your lane on the freeway. Go to your daughter’s dance recital, and bring her flowers. And most importantly, stay up late to watch Dexter, and go to work tired the next morning.

But if you can’t do that, I guess you should practice until you can.

“That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real.” -Sri Ramana Maharshi

The profundity of the above quotation cannot be fully unpacked in a simple blog post. However, I would like to use the quote as a pointer for the subject of this post.

The path to awakening brings lots of interesting experiences, particularly in the realm of states of consciousness. It would appear that the human mind (and perhaps other non-human minds) are stratified or layered. Through concentration, it is possible to access a wide range of experiences. Some are blissful, some are dull. Some are in the realm of dreams, others of the void. Many states are rather enticing, which is why so many great sages (including Ramana Maharshi) have warned against getting too caught up in them.

So, when Ramana refers to “deep dreamless sleep,” he’s pointing to a state of consciousness. In traditional Vedanta philosophy, there are three primary states of consciousness: gross/waking, subtle/dreaming, and causal/deep dreamless sleep. We are warned that the states themselves are not “real,” due to their changing nature. These states come and go. And although the state of deep dreamless sleep feels like freedom, it isn’t. It isn’t freedom because there’s no way to stay there. Clinging to any state will keep one immersed in sticky, murky delusion.

That’s not to say that states of consciousness do not have a place on the path to awakening. Quite the contrary, actually. For, it is in accessing these states that we discover that which exists in them all; or rather, that which is the essence of them all. In Vedanta, they call this the turiya, or the fourth state, which isn’t really a state at all. Turiya is the Witness – the aspect of reality which cognizes experience of the three basic states. And really, the only way we can really recognize that which persists through all three basic states is to access them all consciously. That’s why we meditate. And the Witness just so happens to be the cognizant aspect of the source.

Recognizing the Witness is not the end of the game. As I mentioned in a post on tracing back the radiance, recognizing the source is only the beginning. We must then trace it back. In so doing, the seeming separation between the Witness and the three states is seen through completely, and one eventually achieves Self-realization. Ramana called this awakened state of affairs turiyatita – that which beyond the fourth state, beyond the Witness.

Any way you look at it, awakening is not a state that you learn to hang out in. Recognize the essence of every state, trace it back, and awaken.

Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns, the original nature of your own mind. The natural state of the universe unmanifest. Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it. It is your own true nature, it is home.

From The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In my last post in the Practice Profiles series, I gave an brief overview of self-enquiry. Self-enquiry, in my view, is one of the most effective technologies of awakening available. Why is self-enquiry so effective? As Ramana Maharshi states, “By repeatedly practicing thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.”

Now, if increasing the power of the mind to abide in its source is your aim, self-enquiry is not your only option. There is another practice that I find to be nearly, if not equally as effective as self-enquiry, and that is tracing back the radiance.

The phrase tracing back the radiance was used by the Korean Zen master, Chinul. In this practice, one learns to clarify the natural radiant quality of their awareness in the present moment, and than traces that radiance back to its source. This kind of practice is done especially well when this radiance is pointed out by a skilled teacher, in which the practice is referred to as being given pointing-out instructions. But it can be done on one’s own as well, so long as they know what to do.

In the quoted section below, from Tracing Back the Radiance, Chinul gives pointing-out instructions to a student:

Chinul: There are many points at which to enter the noumenon. I will indicate one approach which will allow you to return to the source.

Do you hear the sound of that crow cawing and that magpie calling?

Student: Yes.

Chinul: Trace them back and listen to your hearing-nature. Do you hear any sounds?

Student: At that place, sound and discrimination do not obtain.

Chinul: Marvelous! Marvelous! This is Avalokitesvara’s method for entering the noumenon. Let me ask you again. You said that sounds and discrimination do not obtain at that place. But since they do not obtain, isn’t the hearing-nature just empty space at such a time?

Student: Originally it is not empty. It is always bright and never obscured.

Chinul: What is this essence which is not empty?

Student: Words cannot describe it.

The use of sound to clarify the radiant nature of experience is one of the most effective, and it’s really quite simple. Sit quietly, preferably outdoors. Don’t make any special effort to listen to whatever sounds arise. Just sit there. Sounds will come. When they do, notice how hearing is effortless. You don’t have to try to hear. Even if you try not to hear, hearing occurs. Recognize that radiant knowing nature present in hearing and not-hearing. Stay with it when the sound vanishes. Recognize it, relax into it, and follow it home.

To re-cap… when practicing self-enquiry, one clarifies the sense of “I am” until it collapses into the source. When tracing back the radiance, one clarifies not the sense of “I am”, but rather the natural radiant quality – or intrinsic luminosity – of awareness, and traces it back to the source. In both cases, the separate-self sense may collapse. But since this site advocates freestyle awakening, which ever practice works better for you is the one you should do.