The first time I ever met a real live enlightened person, I was nervous as sh*t.
His name was Nick Ardagh. Somehow I had coaxed him into giving a weekend workshop in my hometown where I had close contact with him over a period of about a week. Logistically, everything went fine—meetings, venues, and participants—all cool. But, my oh my, how do I say this? My own internal spiritual compass was blown to molten, fiery smithereens.
By the end of the week I was a teary-eyed, frustrated, sad sack of crap. WTF? This was the road to enlightenment? I hadn’t expected this bumpy back-ass road. I wish someone had told me the truth. It would have made it a little easier.
I survived the week and as it turned out, the roller coaster I’d been on was indeed an integral aspect of the road. Fast forward about 15 years and here I am teaching the same stuff. Go figure.
When we are young and full of energy, many of us embark upon the spiritual journey with equal dashes of enthusiasm, vigor, naiveté, and high hopes. Often we put a little effort in and then expect instant big returns—deep healing, cosmic insights, spiritual truth and purpose, a calm and meditative mind, wisdom, or even instant enlightenment.
A few years of knocking around yoga studios, meditation halls, weekend workshops with teachers, and a myriad of books and YouTube videos, can easily—like a bug on a windshield—squash those dreams.
We soon discover that the road to enlightenment is not straight and narrow, but rather bumpy, back-assed, and filled with all sorts of potholes, dangerous turns, crazy traffic, and a million crossroads.
It can be a frustrating and depressing endeavor.
The good news is, more and more folks are making it through the chaos and arriving at the paradoxical modern enlightenment finish line. I’m using the word modern here, because I don’t know squat about historical, classical Buddhist, or Hindu enlightenment. I can only speak with authority about this modern enlightenment or “spiritual awakening,” as it’s often called.
This new modern enlightenment has been made popular in the last two decades by teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Mooji, Gangaji, Arjuna Ardagh, Andrew Cohen, and Ken Wilber. Many of these teachers are categorized as non-dual or neo-Advaita Vedanta teachers.
I spent a good 20 years hanging out with a dozen or so of these teachers until my own messy, confusing, and paradoxical awakening occurred.
It’s a common misconception while on the journey to believe that enlightenment or awakening is just a quick conversation, meditation, or insight away.
While this may apply to a very small percentage of us, I found in the course of my own experience that 99 percent of the time, what usually unfolds is something far more gradual, ordinary, down-to-earth, and non-glamorous.
I’d like to share a map of the bumpy back-assed road to modern enlightenment, so you know what to expect and your journey can be quicker and, well, at least slightly smoother.
Please know that the following road map is an imperfect amalgamation of my own experience, the experience of other teachers I know, other friends I know who are awake, and many of my own students. I personally call it “blue collar enlightenment” for a reason. I’ve made the total map distance 80 miles.
Milepost 0 to 10:
In this phase, we start paying attention, listening, and watching. Usually this is precipitated by a nagging feeling that something is missing, or some aspect of our life has just turned upside down, and we’re now ready for an alternative spiritual solution. It’s in this phase that confusion is common, and we might meander from video to video, or book to book looking for instant enlightenment.
Milepost 10 to 20:
Here we start to become more aware. Part of what the teacher is saying makes sense—at least in some primal, visceral way. They seem to be speaking the truth, and even more so, embodying the truth. We might begin meditating. We might begin venturing out to see a teacher in person. We might sign up for an online course or a weekend workshop. We’re basically becoming more serious and self-aware.
Milepost 20 to 30:
Now we start to pick up on something that the teacher has been pointing to: self-inquiry or mindfulness. Mindfulness is the invitation to be completely self-aware during every waking moment—the good or bad of life. The point of this exercise is to discover that there is a vastly undervalued part of us that has gone unnoticed and undiscovered.
Self-inquiry or mindfulness, is the art of noticing an ever-present witness, watcher, or observer and then benefitting from the gentle, peaceful clarity, and openness that is generated by noticing it.
Milepost 30 to 40:
We soon discover that being mindful isn’t easy, and frequently tumble back into having an unchecked and unaware mind and emotions. Even worse, our life seems to be crumbling and undergoing a revolution.
This is the messy, rough-and-tumble part of the enlightenment process (sometimes called dark night of the soul), and it usually continues all the way to final awakening. What happens in this phase is that the “you” or “I” begins to dismantle and is steadily replaced by the witnessing, watching, observing awareness.
Milepost 40 to 50:
At the halfway point, we pretty much surrender to the process and accept it for what it is—a tough loving bitch. We meditate more. We sit with teachers more. We read more books. We attend more workshops and courses. We become more vulnerable, open-hearted, and at ease with all our flaws and imperfections. We laugh, cry, fail, win, have insights, and brief moments of non-abiding awakening, and then fail again.
Milepost 50 to 60:
The road gets rockier and bumpier, and begins to swerve all over the place. The highs are high and the lows are low. We may attend a week-long workshop or an online course, and find we are left feeling blissful for days after until—bang!—we’re dropped back down into the suffering of life again. It’s a maddening process that leaves us with only one option—surrender, accept, and hold on tight.
Milepost 60 to 70:
We’re now wondering if this shit will ever end. We can now recite verbatim every talk ever given by every non-dual/neo-Advaita teacher on the market place. We get it. We no longer need their words. Instead, now just the mysterious energy, or presence of the teacher, or teaching feeds our soul.
We start to spontaneously contain this blissful presence without help. It’s surprising, delightful, and an achievement to be lauded. But, oddly enough, something is still missing. There’s still a slight sense of suffering or separation, a slight sense of incompleteness.
Milepost 70 to 80:
Things quiet down. We’re pretty much done with teachers and teachings. We’ve passed through crisis, revolution, fear, and anxiety. We’ve touched unity, bliss, and temporary states of complete undifferentiated awareness. Our apple is very ripe and we rest, simply waiting for that one gentle breeze to blow it to the ground.
And lo and behold—one day it happens. And it happens in a way that is so subtle, that oddly enough, we barely notice it. But something amazing and radical has occurred. We no longer feel that something is missing. We no longer feel separate. We no longer feel depressed. We realize who we are—finally and forever.
It’s a flawed and imperfect type of enlightenment, and definitely not what we expected. But it’s good enough and for that, gratitude, laughter, and love pour out of us till the end of our days.
That’s the imperfect bumpy backroad map to modern enlightenment. Take this map and tuck it away in the back of your brain and heart, and remember, especially on those difficult days, that the bumps, jolts, and turns are all part of the journey.
Armed with this knowledge, you can bet the next set of bumpy potholes won’t be as bad, and you’ll live to tell about the adventure, just like I did.
Author: J. Stewart Dixon
Image: Elephant Instagram
Editor: Kenni Linden
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton