When exploring the different thoughts and philosophies when it comes to spiritual awakening it is helpful to understand that there are two basic maps, both with a different “finish line”.

The first map suggests that the completion point of spiritual awakening is “emptiness”, a state of complete dissolution of the ego.

This first map is quite popular with non-dual enthusiasts and others who may be confused about the purpose of releasing attachments and identity in other paths.

In this process, the stripping away of identity, thoughts, beliefs, and the body is considered to be the goal. This is common in many transcendentalist paradigms, in which the idea of enlightenment or “moving into another dimension” means moving away from the body and the life.

This path typically has a focus on releasing the sensate world, and coming into a state of blankness in terms of thoughts.

For the second path, the first path is simply a stopping point, with further roads to follow.

During the second path, identity, thoughts, and beliefs are similarly released but they are done through anchoring into the body… not moving away from it.

Those who focus singularly on the mind, and do not include the body, do not experience the shift of daily life, attitude towards others, or transformation within the self that the second map does.

The “hooking in” to the sensate world is released only temporarily, in a way that allows for the individual to understand that they are not their thoughts or emotions and to move beyond the notion that physical reality is the only layer of existence.

In the first map, emptiness is achieved. If this is the goal, the person who achieves it believes that nothing matters and they have little connection to others, to themselves, or to life. It is quite easy to get stuck in emptiness, and not recognize that there is more beyond it.

The basic superiority-inferiority loop (what causes for us to see others as inferior or superior to us, rather than composed of the same basic humanity as we are) is not broken through in the first map. This is how you get individuals who are reasonably conscious but can still cause a great deal of harm to themselves and to others. They do not yet see others as a reflection of themselves, and have not moved beyond the initial entry point of emptiness into further unfolding.

If someone moves beyond this initial gateway of awakening, two things happen.

The first is a moving beyond the remaining ego inflation that causes for the individual to participate in the superiority-inferiority loop. This involves letting go of the idea that the self is enlightened or superior in any way to those around them. 

This also involves letting go of the “quest” of enlightenment, as if the person moves beyond this initial gateway, they will realize that it is illusory. There is a map to be had, but at some point the map gives way, and what occurs is that the person will move back into life and into their bodies.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave people began awakening by seeing that they were in chains, recognizing that they were not the shadows that they viewed on the walls, and moved into sunlight. Eventually the ability to go back into the cave to assist others can occur.

In the second map, the goal is to awaken through the body. Each cell, organ, tissue, and pathway of the body can radiate with golden light.

When we awaken through the body, we connect, both to the sensate world and to humanity. We recognize that we are nature, we are each other, and a lived experience of reality being a mirror develops.

The recognition that we are all human, and all have our gifts as well as our suffering, is seen. Empathy develops.

When awakening through the body the basic conflicts that are lived out within and without cease. This can be considered the arbitrary “finish line” of the second path, that end of conflict.

This does not mean that the world will be peaceful, but simply that we have accepted people, and the world, for what they are. This is done by looking within and accepting every single part of ourselves as we are.

In the second path, paradox occurs. Awakening allows for an understanding of emptiness and the same recognition that things that were offered to us as meaningful are in fact devoid of meaning occurs. But it also simultaneously teaches us that life is inherently meaningful, that each tree, person, flower, and occurrence in our life is filled with beauty and purpose.

This paradox must be lived, as it is too confusing for our mental processes to fully conceptualize.

The end goal of the second path is individuation. This is yet another paradox, as we release our trauma, our beliefs, and our understandings about reality (as well as anything that prevents us from seeing ourselves reflected in one another) and all of this stripping away reveals not an absent ego, but a healthy one.

An ego that fully is its Self. That can recognize who it is as an individual, separate from the thoughts, wishes, and understandings of what others may want for it.

That we can release our ego and gain a healthy ego simultaneously is a realization of emptiness and fullness, dark and light, and every other binary we can think of combining together into a single Self.

Emptiness is still a part of a binary, and there is no place for it without fullness. To truly awaken is to move beyond binary, to move beyond this versus that into the paradoxes of existence (this and that).

We can allow for ourselves to disconnect in a way that allows for us to fully connect.

For the second path, what results is understanding reality as composed of many layers, and an appreciation for each layer. We are not just the base layer of our being (emptiness or love, which I will talk about next), we are layers upon layers of reality all simultaneously weaving in and out of one another (for all of these layers, see my book, The Spiritual Awakening Guide).

This recognition allows for us to live on many different layers of reality, and many different layers within the self, simultaneously.

We can fully be in emptiness, and view everything is meaningless, and still have an ancestral practice and see the beauty in connecting to our familial line. We can see everything as filled with light and meaning and empty simultaneously.

We can fully be in emptiness and go beyond even that to realizing that the base layer of our being is not emptiness, it is connection. It is love. Our job is to unearth everything that is disconnected within us, every part of us that needs to feel superior or inferior out of low self-esteem and basic self-hatred, into recognizing that love and allowing for it to emanate out of every pore of our being.

The greatest realized souls are also the most human. In accepting our full humanity, stillness develops, and this sense of peace and equanimity show up in how we treat ourselves, and how we treat one another.

While awakening connection allows for us to more deeply feel. It is understandable the the modern soul, filled with pain, wishes to compartmentalize their pain and call it awakening, but in accepting every single emotion that we have within, we discover that the pain and emotionality that once ruled our lives can simply flow through us as the creativity and vitality (enthusiasm for living) that it was meant to be.

The discovery that we are based in love, allows for us to release the illusion of a map, a finish line, or of needing to be anything other than who we are right now. Radical acceptance of ourselves, and one another develops.

This understanding can only deepen and expand the more that we allow for ourselves to evolve. Consciousness does not have an end point, it is a continual evolution of self. Any idea to the contrary can simply be released.

Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual teacher and author of several books, including Working with Kundalini and The Spiritual Awakening Guide

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