Many years ago I had an encounter with an amazing spiritual teacher. I had been studying the works of Nisargadatta Maharaj and loved his work. And then something unusual happened that pushed me onto a new path. This post begins with the story of that experience and how it showed me I had been leaning into spirituality to avoid life and mask anxiety. I’ve discovered there’s a healthier and far more fulfilling way to integrate the spiritual.
Meeting Nisargadatta Maharaj
In my early twenties, while I was at university, I started to explore various approaches to spirituality and consciousness. I began meditating regularly and over a few years had many transpersonal experiences – of becoming connected to what felt like the vastness of the universe, of losing my identification with my individual self, and feeling I was one with everything.
I had studied the works of a few gurus – with Nisargadatta Maharaj being the one I related to the most. At one stage I would read his work whenever I could, even while working in my part-time job at a vintage clothing store near the university. I would sit at the counter in the quiet little shop, reading Maharaj’s writings, hoping no one would come in and disturb me.
I had embraced the idea that being spiritual was superior to being non-spiritual, and I became quite critical about my pre-spiritual, non-spiritual life and ‘concerned’ for others who hadn’t yet discovered the ‘importance’ of spirituality.
One day at work while I was engrossed in one of Maharaj’s books, an Indian man entered the store. He stood at the glass sliding door he had just closed behind him, and locked eyes with me for about ten seconds, and then left. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. His eyes were Maharaj’s – he was Maharaj. Yet Maharaj was by then no longer alive.
Did I imagine it? There are a few theories to explain this: one is that self-realised people can re-appear on earth after they have passed on, and another is that I was delusional.
In any case, after he left, the shop became busy and I had to do my job. And for the remaining time I worked there, the shop was busier than it had been previously and I could no longer avoid doing the role I had been employed to do. I had to put the books away.
To Let Go and Detach or Connect and Engage?
That experience forced me to start connecting with life in a fuller way than I had been. And it relates to my understanding now of source, awareness, spirituality, and the Aware Ego Process at the heart of Voice Dialogue.
Maharaj (and other spiritual teachers) talks about our ‘true’, timeless identity beyond our ego and other parts of the psyche, beyond the mind, beyond all that we normally can perceive. He states that the various expressions of life and our ego identifications are all a ‘play of consciousness’, as another of my favourite teachers Muktananda says.
Such teachers say that life is an illusion or at least not as real as the true Self/source beyond consciousness, and that it will continue whether we humans attach to our egos or not, whether we grow and make more conscious choices or not.
I loved that idea because it allowed me to downplay the importance of the things I had been avoiding. Back in those days the word anxiety wasn’t used so much but now I know it’s what I was experiencing. And spirituality became something I could use to rationalise my avoidance of situations that made me anxious.
Many people following the paths of various gurus have taken their teachings to mean that we ought to let go of our ego, drop out of life or at least ‘simply’ watch it go by. And instead attempt to live in the ‘real’ world that exists beyond the perceptible world of experience. And many gurus themselves appear to (try to) live that way.
The thing is, life will continue whether or not you are even alive.
So you could sit on your own in a cave someplace or in an ashram or in your own living room (if you’ve been lucky enough to inherit a house and funds for your future maintenance!) and observe life happening around you, simply accepting it all as ‘what is’, without feeling you need to engage with it or change anything.
Before Maharaj appeared to me all those years ago I would have been quite happy to drop out and watch it all go by, blissfully content in the detached awareness state I loved to inhabit.
Now I’m not saying that spiritual practices such as meditation, chanting and prayer aren’t beneficial. Obviously they are. For me they’ve been and continue to be integral in my own process.
But I don’t believe they’re intended as practices for avoiding life – we have to participate in order to reap the rewards of those practices. When we use them in our life, they help us to live a far richer and fulfilling life than we otherwise could.
Sometimes Life Takes a Course that Forces us to Engage
Becoming a parent is what really cemented this for me. Even with nine months to get used to the idea and all the preparations I’d made, I was unprepared for the intensity with which having a baby thrust me into life.
Noisy, smelly, messy, unpredictable, beautiful, sad, painful, joyous, achingly REAL life.
It was completely different to being in a committed relationship with another adult who was also committed to the evolution of our relationship and of our spiritual lives, and of consciousness.
I became a child again myself, having to learn how to deal with this new life I was now responsible for, yet also having to be the adult for her. I had to actively embrace those opposite states. I had to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined and couldn’t avoid.
I also had to make choices every day – often every instant – about how to respond to my daughter’s needs and feelings, about how to help her navigate sometimes big, overwhelming feelings, about how to help her deal with others, about how to deal with illnesses and their symptoms.
I no longer had the time to meditate or contemplate choices.
Not one of my three children has given a *uck that I could accept the play of consciousness living out around me – they needed me to play with them and to use the selves and energies that get played in consciousness. At different times I’ve been required to be nurturer, friend, nurse, protector, counsellor, teacher, clown.
I’m not at all suggesting you have to have kids in order to live your life fully – there are many paths and experiences that nudge us to become fully connected and engaged.
Using Spiritual Practices in Life
Because in the past I’d meditated and experienced transpersonal states of consciousness, and particularly the Aware Ego Process, it helped me enormously with parenting. I could make choices with my kids that were better than the choices I would have made had I not experienced those states. Those experiences helped me to step back and recognise when I was acting on autopilot, as per my habits and conditioning, and to see other perspectives.
I had some choice. I could be a better parent – a better person really, which meant not only that my kids had a better experience of life with me, but I did too!
There’s still a part of me that would love to spend all day just meditating on my own somewhere I won’t be disturbed. But I know that’s not the point of it all.
Surely the point of being alive is to live. No matter what it is you do, no matter where you live or the challenges you face, you have the choice to be present with what’s going on and engage with it.
For whenever I accept the challenge to be present with what’s going on for me, to allow myself to connect and feel, it seems as if source energy/the organising intelligence of life/the absolute/god (or whatever word you’d prefer) comes to my aid. Opportunities and synchronicities come my way. And the more I engage, the more assistance I get.
The Role of the Aware Ego
My view now is that it’s an active Aware Ego Process (here’s an explanation of what the Aware Ego is) that enables us to tap into source, thereby accessing its creative powers, but it also allows us to direct it.
But this isn’t a spiritual process in the sense of spirituality being something divine as opposed to the non-divine, or as being better than the non-spiritual. However, if you see the spiritual as the absolute creative power that the universe springs from and that includes all that exists, then it’s a spiritual process.
When we don’t have an Aware Ego Process active – that is, when we have surrendered only to awareness or when we become identified with a spiritual self or higher self that holds judgments about mundane, everyday life or doesn’t want to participate in it, then we are still experiencing only one level of consciousness or only one aspect of consciousness.
Our body and our many selves are gifts that allow us to experience life, to channel various aspects of consciousness. We can choose to either let it all happen according to preconditions and the conditioning we are subject to in our own childhoods, and go along for the ride. Or we can give it some direction and become co-creators of it all.
The beauty and profundity of the Aware Ego is that it requires us to not only dis-identify from our selves and ignite awareness, but also to identify. It enables us to connect source with lived experience.
The Aware Ego isn’t about becoming a higher self or a spiritual self nor detaching from life in awareness. It doesn’t exclude. It is absolutely inclusive.
It requires the honouring of energies that are very different to one another, at the same time – that’s what expands consciousness. Not awareness on its own which can only witness, nor becoming only one self – even if it is a higher self.
(And, on a side note, that’s what also enables us to understand and accept others, to genuinely have compassion. And that’s what our world needs. It doesn’t need more spiritual people or more religious people, or more left-leaning people, or more right-leaning people, or more scientists, or more hipsters. It needs people who have embraced all the varieties of selves within their own self.)
Only by embracing opposites do we really embrace life. Life is all that exists, not only a part of what exists.
I suspect Nisargadatta Maharaj knew this. Even though he taught that our true identity is not our individual personality/mind, which is only an ‘apparatus’ that enables us to act, and that we are really the Absolute, which is the source of that apparatus, he still married, had children and continued to work in his tobacco shop. So even though his teachings are about unhooking from the personality structures (just as in Voice Dialogue) in order to experience a greater sense of identity, his life reveals that he didn’t dismiss or disown his personality/mind but chose to experience life through them.
The message I received from my vision of Maharaj that day in the shop all those years ago was to get my head out of his books and into my life.
The Secret of Life
When we honour opposites, source helps us to do so. If we think of source as what drives life, of what is fundamental to existence, then this source likes it when we embrace ‘the other’. Because when we do, we get love. We get friendship, understanding, acceptance, compassion, belonging, new and creative ways forward, joy.
You can see this in action if you pay attention to the relationships in your life. Relationships always bring to us our opposites. They bring us our disowned selves and offer us the opportunity to embrace and incorporate those disowned selves.
And that for me means that source is in essence relational. It’s not beyond duality but includes duality. It’s black and white. It’s cold and hot. It’s fast and slow. It’s masculine and feminine.
So maybe the secret to life, the universe and everything is relationship. Even a guru needs a disciple in order to be a guru.
For me that’s a great incentive to continue on the path of learning through life, of personal growth through connecting and experiencing. To be present in my life to whatever is going on, to the pain and joy, to the contradictions and uncertainty, to the ups and downs, to the never-ending cycles. To get out and do something in the world and therefore with the world, in relationship with it.
There is value in attachment to the world and caring about changing it, just as there is value in detaching and acceptance. Both are part of the picture.
And I imagine it would be helpful for many who are feeling hopeless and helpless about the future (aren’t we all with the current state of affairs in the world?) to know that they can contribute and change things rather than watch it all go by while suspended in the stillness of all-accepting (and impotent) awareness.
If these ideas interest you, you’ll love my book Enlightenment Through Motherhood – you don’t have to be a mother or even a parent to appreciate the concepts in it.