As much as I find the notion of “silver bullets” or the “get enlightened now” crowd to be illusory (and unhelpful to boot) there really are realizations and understandings that can assist people to cut through, to find the right information to find something true and sincere and of depth.

I offer this list in full realization that what I might include on it may change tomorrow, or next year, or five years from now, or even right after I publish it. Such is flow, the first item on the list…

Number One: Realize Flow

People truly crave a state that is at the top of the mountain. They want for their pain to disappear, they want to be perfect, they want to feel completed. These are all understandable things, but the irony is that we continue to grasp for the static principle, some state where everything will be okay and unchanging, but the more your conscious awareness expands, the more you begin to realize that things are always changing. 

That enlightenment is the pairing of individual consciousness with cosmic consciousness. More simply put, that we can go with the flow as well as actively participate with that flow (the “secret” to manifestation if there ever was one) or we can kick and scream and try to remain static in our lives because we feel static means safe, it means reprieve.

Shadow Side of Realizing Flow: The wheel of life and death always continues. It is interesting to me to see how teachings get changed to fit Western audiences, and one of them is to insert the ideology of some static state on top of them. Even the current trend of “being in the now” or “being in present moment consciousness” has gotten quite convoluted. The Buddha in the Dhammapada talks about how life is like a river, and to go along with the flow of it, not hanging on to past, present, or future.

Focusing techniques are great (which present moment awareness is, it is an energetic contracting technique for a specific purpose)– they are one tool in an enormous toolkit that can be called “meditation”. But when techniques are separated and marketed to an audience that craves finality, superiority, and completion, and offered by individuals who cannot understand the enormous privilege that it takes to only be in the now (spiritual reality being nuanced– planning for our children’s futures, for our own future and retirement, ensuring that we will have food in the refrigerator next week, are all necessary for those of us living in the world) and without understanding that being in the flow allows for someone to not only see this type of privilege, but to acknowledge that we are in many spaces at once– past, present, and future, here, there, and everywhere– we can instead acknowledge that if we are living in the world, we are living an existence on many layers, and to go with the flow of things.

For example, planning for the future and tending to our families, lives, and careers, while understanding and being okay with the fact that such plans can and do often go out the proverbial window.

Also, there is a tremendous irony that the idea of some static, perfected state is an illusion. The idea of enlightenment can be grasped at just like anything else can. Instead realizing the irony that finality equals letting go of the mountain, that there is no final completed state, but instead a living in flow– with individual consciousness and life on Earth in our human bodies being in continual evolution– would allow for someone to cut through quite a bit.

Number Two: We are many forces at once, and many things at once

We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations– Anais Nin

The Western mind enjoys linearity, and there is nothing more linear than the thought that we start at the beginning, and that when we get to the finish line, we are complete.

Understanding that we are not one singular thing, but many forces coming together at once can allow for us to see the reality that there may be parts of us that are quite conscious (close to said illusory finish line) and others that are quite childish and capable of throwing a temper tantrum.

By seeing our multiplicity, we can see how we can even have a moment of profound awakening, or even what may be considered “enlightenment”, and how the rest of our awareness may be in the depths of ignorance, or may be struggling mid-race.

Shadow Side of Realizing Multiplicity: The focus on finding our “true selves” as if we were (or will be) one static, fully decided being, can really be an important first step. To consider what we truly and authentically want, or even discovering what we like (separate from what our friends, family, or people on television like) can be a profound path. But at a certain point, this disappears, and it can be understood that we can be strong and gentle, shy and fierce, and many seemingly paradoxical things at once.

By accepting ourselves in our multiplicity, by looking at the parts of ourselves that may be at the start of said illusory race, we can find ourselves in a state of integration and wholeness… which, ironically is an acceptance of our multiplicity and ourselves being many things and many places simultaneously.

Number Three: Embodiment and the Spiritual Path

In our separation, we believe that the spiritual and the physical are separate things. Like we are living in a physical reality and the spiritual is somewhere out there, separate from our lives, above, to be experienced in other places and other realities than our own daily ones.

We also seek to contain spiritual reality. To mentally create dogmas, to fence in, to announce that whatever we are doing, whatever remnants of tribal consciousness cause for us to believe that our group, our way of being, is superior to another, and singularly knows “truth”; this is a method of claiming and containing spiritual reality that leads to immense falsehood. There are many doors; there is no single door. There are many religious and spiritual paths that have immense truth in them. That contain different truths. An appreciation for this allows for someone to directly experience spiritual reality, and to move beyond the tribalism mentalities that seek to separate and announce oneself, or one’s group, as the best or most in the know.

The spiritual path is something to be directly experienced, to be deeply felt, to be known. The best we can do is to point to symbol, to music/voice and vibration, to archetype, to experience spirit through ritual, through dance and movement, to utilize myth and story, and through our daily devotional practices, to develop and express this knowing.

But this is like the parable of the blind man and the elephant. Someone at the trunk of the elephant is going to say that the spiritual path is one way, and someone at the body of the elephant is going to say what is true is something else. Spiritual reality is too large, too magnificent, to be contained. I would go as far as saying that if anyone believes that they know the totality of the cosmos after their brief search that they have simply not searched hard enough. I have some excellent ideas about things. I had some excellent ideas about things five years ago, that I see now as being from someone who has narrower vision than I have now.

Shadow Side of Embodiment: Our daily reality, how we treat others, how we treat ourselves, what we do for ourselves and the world, is how we show who we are. 

If we believe ourselves to be conscious, there typically is an element of service that becomes a part of daily life. Spiritual “competition” is all about narcissism– it is about saying that the Self is enlightened, and what that means, and how that separates someone from the rest of the world.

But it is truly by embodying our path, by seeing the humanity in others (rather than “Othering” them), and by attending to our inner work that we can move beyond the “game” of spiritual awakening and into being an embodied, conscious presence in this world that does their small part in some way of making this world a better place.

That does more than bring pain and division into this world. It is by seeing the humanity in all others, by seeing the humanity within ourselves, that we can truly awaken. That we can move beyond the wounded ego seeking to call itself superior, different, special. Spiritual communities prey on this wound, and have no interest in healing it (it would be bad for business).

Realize that looking towards your humanity will assist you in ways that even the greatest of transcendental states cannot do. Realize that how you treat others, what you say, what you spend your time doing, is much more important than any title or role that you can bestow upon yourself, and shows others everything they need to know about you.

If we truly believe in oneness, that means that our individual liberation is an illusion. That we cannot simply liberate ourselves– we are a part of a whole. Our liberation catalyzes the liberation of others, and we are not a singular being to singularly “awaken” or not. Our liberation must include more than just ourselves if it truly is liberation/enlightenment.

Number Four: Understand what Role you are Playing

I occasionally liken the spiritual path to being a pilot. What you know from being a pilot is that someone may spend years dressing up like a pilot, or talking about how to fly a plane, or reading manuals on how to fly a plane, without ever flying a plane. You can also readily notice who has flown a plane, whether it be a few times or for decades.

It is also quite easy these days for people to falsify their experience and expertise, or to believe that they are at far greater depths than they are because they have not had the lived experience, or context (education), to show them anything different.

As a teacher I gradually realized that someone with six months, a ready mind, with the qualities of openness, readiness, and curiosity, may start to fly that plane. Someone who has been on their path for twenty years may have not gone beyond dressing up like a pilot or telling others how fantastic of a pilot they are or may be teaching others to fly a plane when they have never flown a plane themselves.

Moving beyond this belief can allow us to truly practice discernment. While it is quite easy to lament a world in which people who lack education or lived experience regularly speak with authority, it is easy to move too far in the opposing direction, and to cling to experience to prove personal worth, as well as to disregard others, or elevate others, in a way that may prove to be false.

It is up to us to decide what role we want to play, and it is curiosity, honest discernment (seeing where we are on our path clearly– this is one of the roles of a proper spiritual teacher, by the way, to assist people to see themselves clearly), and openness to seeing the underlying connection between ourselves and others (questioning why we may feel separate or disconnected from others) that we can allow ourselves to blossom.

Shadow Side of Understanding Roles:  In the modern world there is quite a bit that is troubling to me. The largest of these is how many people are increasingly within the vacuum of their own limited experience and opinions and believe it to be some large universal truth. We are always limited by our ignorance(s), and often people have not educated themselves enough to know how little they know, or to understand that whatever spiritual state they have attained, it may not be some great awakened or enlightened state.

While this happens in the world at large, and we can point our fingers quite readily at the internet for creating or at least maintaining this vacuum, it happens a lot in the “spiritual” category because we live in a culture in which the dominant model encourages us to discredit spiritual and energetic study because spiritual reality is “not real”, or creates models in which those who do have direct experiences of spiritual reality or seek a “spiritual but not religious” path are either flakes or crazy. For example, picture in your mind what you think of when I say the word “psychic”. Or the ever-popular (as of this writing) “empath”. Now think about how one of the best psychics I have ever met was an auto mechanic who could exactly diagnose what was wrong with a car by simply glancing at it.  He was neither neurotic nor at odds with the world.

It is also helpful to understand that many people aren’t really looking for truth. They are looking for something that sounds nice, that will get them through the day, that will get them through a hard existence. Seeing the aspects of ourselves that cling to notions because they allow us to feel safe and comforted can allow for us to feel compassion outwardly towards others who do the same.

But it is quite easy for someone to have only the limited experience that personal experience offers in this world and to call that “enlightenment”, to become a spiritual teacher without ever being a student, and to simply think that their experience of whatever they went through is a universal experience for many individuals (or, conversely, to not realize that they are far from the first person to experience or realize something). Without study and education– as well as typically a physical teacher who can help someone break through their moments of ego inflation– and without understanding what others have gone through by being a student, by truly educating oneself, by seeing clients and patients or otherwise relating to many others– their advice and guidance is going to be limited.

I will say also that if someone is expressing sentiments that are not their own continually (their thoughts are just the regurgitated or copied and pasted thoughts of others), that if they do not express stories of their lived experience on the path, that those are good red or yellow flags that the person may not have embodied experience. You can be quite intellectually or academically inclined, or take a lot of hallucinogens and think up a lot of stuff (see from a vastly different perspective), but until those realizations are integrated with daily life, with the body, they are limited in scope.

This goes double for people who live outside of the world, by the way. As someone who has spent considerable amounts of time in solitude, I can tell you that I came to some really important spiritual realizations during those periods. But living in daily reality in the modern world is a quite different thing, and while the physical is a manifestation of the spiritual, we must understand nuance, as well as take some advice– whether it be from someone who has made a “massive two year search” and believes he has learned the secret of the cosmos, or someone who has spent considerable time away from the world and has a profoundly different vantage point on reality by being an outlier– with a proverbial grain of salt.

Number Five: The Outer World (and the People in it) will show you what is out of balance within

When we lack conscious awareness of some aspect of ourselves, we push it outwards. We project our inner conflicts, the inner aspects of self that we lack awareness of (our “shadows”) onto the world. We cast people into specific roles in an attempt to heal prior traumas and conflicts. Mainly we just end up “looping” the same conflict again and again with different people cast in the same role.

It is not that we create our reality. We just project a lot onto it. It is by noticing what we cast out, noting what or who we are in battle with in the outer world, that we can begin to take these projections back, to reclaim the aspects of our shadow that we are in contention with.

One of my favorite descriptions of enlightenment is “the end of conflict”. What this means is not that if you do your inner work that the whole world is going to be singing and hugging one another. What it means is that seeing clearly allows for a stopping of knee-jerk reactions, to truly question why you are reacting the way that you do to a situation, and seeing what of that reaction is appropriate (yes, you should get angry, you should feel. Spiritual awakening does not mean emotional constipation. All of our emotions are important messengers) but much of what we feel and how we react is based on past pain, on past loops, on outwardly casting people in roles and conflicts that are unhealed within.

By questioning why we say what we say, what motivates us to do what we do, we can begin to see our shadows. We can begin to see the ways in which we are false, in which we are trying to play a role– to be larger and smarter and more superior and more special than the person next to us. We can question if what we are doing is connecting or disconnecting us.

This question (is it connecting or disconnecting) can reveal a lot, because our trauma and pain will cause for us to want to separate, to Other, to deny the humanity in another human being. To be in constant conflict and opposition, with little time left beyond our blind emotional reactions and many of the conflicts that we have cast outward in an attempt to truly look at them (and ideally, to try to heal them from seeing them played out in front of us), that we have little time left for living, for being, for seeing what comes after the knee-jerk reactions, the continual battles with self played out in the world.

Shadow Side of Seeing the Self in Outer Reality: We do not create our reality. We can certainly insert a lot of drama into it, though. But part of clearly seeing is a realization that if all that is standing in the way of you being a millionaire is your own neurosis, you likely are in a place of enormous privilege. That beyond our individual reality is collective reality, and in the collective reality are powers that shape and take power that some of us are subject to in different ways than others.

And just because you do your shadow work it doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be nice to you, that you are going to have an easy time of this world, that nobody is going to ever harass, demean, or stab you and take your wallet.

Other people are projecting and casting others in roles as well. But it is by each of us doing our work that we can truly change both our individual and collective reality. We can take back our shadows and reclaim them as an aspect of ourselves, and do the healing work necessary to come to peace, to heal, and to accept all aspects of ourselves.

Mary Mueller Shutan is the author of several books on spiritual awakening, including Working with Kundalini, as well as The Body Devawhich is a method of self-inquiry (questioning) and shadow work that allows for you to heal the body, mind, and spirit.