I have experienced a fundamental paradigm shift, where my lived experience is completely different to how it was before. I connect with the world primarily through my heart, rather than my mind. I feel capable of loving the entirety of the Universe, myself and all the people in it. Love in this sense does not mean to like. It means to be able to feel something and let it impact you, without putting up walls or judgements.
It took me several years of deeply transformative psychotherapeutic work and a couple of years of very focused and courageous meditation practice to end up in this state. I don’t believe anyone else in the world has ever taken the practice as far as I did.
In the podcast I recorded with James O’Halloran, he asks me some questions about enlightenment. I wanted to share the timeline of what I went through. I hope that this is both helpful and satisfies some curiosity.
The meditation approach that I adopted is from Daniel Ingram’s book ‘Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book’. It is a very clear and pragmatic book, that lays out everything you need to do to achieve enlightenment in the Buddhist definition of the word. The Buddhist definition of enlightenment or awakening is the direct perception and subsequent realisation that we do not have a fixed separate self.
This is my understanding of the essence of the teaching:
- There are the three doors of perception: Impermanence, Suffering and No-Self
- Pick one and use that as your object for concentration when meditating
- If you can focus your experience sufficiently on your chosen object, you will experience a cessation, which is a ‘letting go’ into the door and equates to one step closer to enlightenment
- Eventually, with enough concentration and having experienced enough cessations, you will have trained yourself to be able to rest in a place where you can experience all three of these in a stable and calm space
Daniel primarily chose Impermanence as his object of concentration and he goes into great detail in his book about some of the experiences and effects you may expect if you follow this path. As well as offering lots of other useful advice and hard-earned wisdom from his own experiences.
My door of choice was suffering. In my experience, this is the fastest route to enlightenment. It is also the most painful; I guess the clue is in the name. Before starting meditating I embarked on a huge amount of very deep and challenging psycho-therapeutic work that involved being present with difficult emotions and sensations in the body and energy body. Essentially it was achieving the essence of the teaching, without being in a meditative setting.
In order to focus your concentration on suffering, you need to find the part of your experience that you are denying because it is in some way painful, difficult or unacceptable to you, and allow it. For example, this could look like letting rage seer through your veins, feeling repressed hurt or grief that you are holding on to or acknowledging ways in which we and others contribute to unhealthy dynamics that play out in our relationships. These are examples of things that stop us from being present and accepting reality as it is.
Daniel and I both seem to share an unshakeable dedication to uncovering the truth in our experiences and we both adopted a probably quite unhealthy obsession with focusing our experience on our chosen door of perception. I took my obsession outside of the cushion and would be constantly looking for ways to find, recognise and allow suffering in all my experiences – socially, at work, in moments of spare time etc.
My favourite prayer/ mantra was, ‘show me things as they are’. There are a lot of things that we don’t actually want to see or feel in our experiences and it takes a huge amount of courage and humility to face up to them.
A Cautionary Tale
The path I took was extremely risky and I feel lucky to have survived it. I have had a difficult life and I dedicated myself to showing up for even the most painful moments. My capacity for bearing suffering was immense and I thought that I understood how difficult experience could be.
While I was on a short retreat, I fell into what I have heard called the ‘groundless ground’ – the direct experience that there is only this moment and nothing else. Because I had so thoroughly opened my heart and removed my personal trauma, I was able to sustain an experience of complete stable presence in only this moment.
I had reduced my resistance to feeling suffering so thoroughly and taken down the walls around my heart and mind so sufficiently that I opened myself to experiencing the suffering of others and the collective. Hearts naturally heal things when they connect with things, so as I peeled back the layers of collective suffering I was presented with another layer and another layer.
When we are fully present in the moment, we lose the ability to measure risk and regulate ourselves in the same way. So in this state I repeatedly made the decision to keep opening myself to feeling and allowing the collective suffering in my experience, despite this taking a huge toll on my wellbeing. There are huge swathes of the collective conscious that are deeply disturbing and painful. Seeing and feeling them as they are was truly awful in a way that I find impossible to describe now.
It is worth saying that there were also moments of uncovering unimaginable beauty and magic that exist outside of how we normally experience reality.
I do not know anyone who has the capacity or tenacity for experiencing suffering that I do so I believe that you are unlikely to end up in the same situation as I did; however, anyone who seriously undertakes a path to enlightenment is bound to experience things that are deeply painful and difficult to face. Humans can only bear so much pain, this is why we resist suffering, and you will butt up against your limits. This is what the path is – expanding the limits of our consciousness and facing our inner worlds.
When we are at our limits, we process our experiences in ways that society often deems unacceptable. It could manifest as unusually strong beliefs and emotions, psychosis, OCD, manic depression, suicidal thoughts, chronic fatigue, physical pain and more.
It is also possible to end up in a ‘dead end’, where you reach a limit of your consciousness that you are unwilling or unable to push through/ face up to and you get stuck in a difficult place. Once you have seen something, it is hard to unsee it and you can get stuck in what is called a ‘dark night of the soul’. Daniel talks about this very clearly in his book.
Why Did I Do It?
I was in an unusual situation where I experienced a huge amount of trauma and suffering in life, coupled with a level of physical stability and belief in my own capacity to improve my situation. Most people experience only one or the other – i.e. their life is so hard they struggle to cope or their life is stable enough that they don’t feel they need to question their entire reality. I have heard it called ‘just the right amount of suffering’.
I was in so much pain in life, that it felt like the only way out was through the suffering. Eventually it reached a stage where it became a spiritual calling that I did not want to ignore. I was connecting into something that was bigger than me and my path was serving the collective. It became an exercise in butting up against the limits of the collective conscious and expanding the way in which the Universe experiences itself. I won’t go into any further detail of what this means here, but I am happy to talk about it with you if you are interested.
What is Freedom?
I believe that freedom is a misleading term, that has probably been badly translated at some point along the way. It is true that I have freed myself from most of the neuroses and ignorance that we sadly get saddled with the moment we turn up as a human animal on this planet. However, we pretty quickly normalise our reality. Once you have freed yourself from things that used to cripple you, you pretty quickly forget they were ever there.
Most of the time, I feel like I have a lot less choice in my actions than I used to. Meeting the experience of ourselves and others with courage and humility is really the only route that makes sense to me any more. My decisions are no longer about what can I do to be free, but what I can do to honour my experience, the collective experience and the story that the Universe is trying to tell through us. There is creative freedom of how that is expressed, freedom to feel joy even during challenging moments and freedom in knowing that we are exactly where we need to be.
I am passionate about the opportunities that the spiritual path can offer people. Its ability to help people expand their consciousness to give themselves more space to explore their creative potential, to increase their ability to feel joy and to find the reassurance that they are a good human being that is probably doing their best most of the time. These things also offer an opportunity for us to love each other more fully, which I believe is our best shot at healing as a collective and rescuing our planet from the brink of destruction. A sense of belonging is one of of the most satisfying human experiences there is, so it seems worthwhile to cultivate some of that.
I would really like it if our spiritual wellbeing was held in the same regard as our physical wellbeing and that every person had some sort of spiritual practice in the same way that most people do physical exercise. It’s easier if this is done from a place of playfulness, curiosity and care, rather than punishment, in both instances.
I believe that the days of achieving enlightenment by isolating ourselves from society are no longer relevant; our society is immeasurably complex and we hold an insane degree of individual and collective trauma and confusion that is very difficult and painful to unpick on our own.
I believe in another way, a way of bringing the things to the light that will help us address our challenges and thrive as individuals and as a society.
It is much easier for us to face our reality and allow the things we repress if someone is able to love us even when we are in that state. We all have different gifts and wisdom to offer and the only way to learn about ourselves and the world is from each other. If we share challenging emotions with a group of supportive people, physiologically they lend us their capacity to feel them, making it easier to bear difficult experiences than we thought was possible. It is possible to incorporate all of these things into a space for spiritual practice, that is designed to help us find meaning and shared purpose in life.
Ultimately, we are all in this together and I plan to dedicate the rest of my life to exploring and creating ways in which we can help each other be more creative, joyful and present. And hopefully show up in time to take care of each other and our beautiful home.
You can see some extracts from the journals I kept during my enlightenment process here. They hold some of the insights into the nature of the Universe and humanity that I explored on the way.