An excerpt from Enlightenment Now: Liberation is Your True Nature (Inner Traditions)
The real sense of unity at the core of enlightenment is eclipsed by the overstimulation of our relative existence.
People take up a spiritual practice for a lifetime and somehow never attain enlightenment. This happens because the art of the practice is thought of as inducing the enlightenment state, while our relative being — ego — goes on through life with its habits, tendencies and little idiosyncrasies unchecked. Numerous individuals in the world practice yoga, tai chi, meditation and so on, but continue to live imbalanced through their need to overstimulate the senses.
I’m not saying here that we should discard our sense activity, as that is impossible. What I am saying is that bad habits and tendencies become “bad” when there is a propensity for excess. If we are more conscious of our own being, we have an intuitive feeling when a particular part of our life is out of balance.
This propensity for excess — material and habitual — is best reflected in our diets: the obesity epidemic, obsession with food, and problems of overexercising or being underweight in our culture are all the result of imbalances in individuals’ lives. For example, obesity is often the result of psychological imbalance, as we tend to mask pain with unhealthy foods. An individual suffering from this kind of obesity finds it difficult to realize enlightenment because the focus on excessive food intake veils the innate intuitive faculty and connection with the universe.
On the opposite extreme, we have those individuals who are very rigid and strict in their diet. Some vegans and vegetarians would surely fit into this category. There is nothing innately wrong with being conscious about your diet. But when you are overly concerned about everything you eat, very subtle forms of stress develop within your body and mind or, as in the above example, you are masking something deeper. In both extreme poles, there is a lack of balance within the physical and mental planes of consciousness.
When one realizes their own imbalances, they become more attracted to spiritual practices because they are thought of as a medicine for our relative ills. This is true in one sense and false in another: true because spiritual practices will center your focus if backed up by dedicated discipline, and false because the excessiveness that made our ills can begin to be projected into our spiritual practice. Once our spiritual practice becomes excessive, it loses its natural flexibility and enters the intellectual domain of becoming rigid, ego-driven behavior to attain the “goal” of enlightenment. Then our spiritual practice has more to do with repetition and anxiety than with liberation.
Almost all spiritual paths are vexed by this paradox as a majority of traditions involve excessive discipline. But as Gautama the Buddha realized after his seven years as an ascetic, no matter how hard he strived for enlightenment, it continually eluded him. It was only when he completely let go of all his searching and accepted a milky soup from a young farm girl under the shade of the infamous Bodhi tree that he realized he was searching and striving for what is intrinsic to our nature: enlightenment.
Paradoxically though, Gautama the Buddha needed to be on his journey to realize this. We could say that it was absurd for him to adhere to seven rigorous years of asceticism to realize what is ever-present, right now, but we lose sight of the fact that without those seven years he could not have become enlightened.
If Gautama the Buddha was not deluded by intellectual striving and at the same time sincere on his search, then there would be nothing for him to let go of in this life. There would have been no attachment, as to his practice, that could have eclipsed his spiritual perception. It is only when we are attached to those aspects that eclipse our connection with the universe that we could know the freedom in being detached. This is a paradox, but the mystery of life exists in paradox. Gautama the Buddha’s Middle Way spawns from this mysterious paradox and essentially is why it is so difficult to discover the Middle Way — it is beyond the sphere of category and discernment.
This paradox is often left out of new-age spirituality because of its depth and because it implies that there is still an immense amount of self-work to do. An artificial spirituality comes into existence when we just take the pleasurable aspects of any story and build our foundation upon that. In the case of some new-age spirituality, the complete letting go aspect of Gautama the Buddha’s story is highlighted, while the rest of it is ignored.
People are taught to forget about spiritual practice or any desire one has, especially for enlightenment, because all you have to do is let go and enlightenment will be your reality. Though this sounds like a sweet deal, those of us who are authentic and sincere with ourselves know this is only a half-truth, one that needs to be supported by spiritual growth in the relative world. This mindset overlooks the fact that the absolute realm of mystery is in direct relationship to the relative world. Form implies formlessness and formlessness implies form in the same way that the universe produces consciousness and consciousness evokes the universe.
The real spiritual significance of transcendence means going beyond the idea of who you think you are. Real transcendence implies self-work and a stepping through the artificial aspects of our being. In our culture and society, it becomes normal for individuals to not be conscious of their own latent habits and tendencies. As a result, we dive head first into an excessiveness that keeps us distracted from reality.
Reality can only be experienced when we make a conscious effort to eradicate the excessiveness in our lives that distracts us from our original nature. As Gautama the Buddha realized, freedom is not for free, but it is our original nature.