Many times when writing about spiritual matters I notice how words can get in the way of real communication. I might be approaching the central issue from one angle and will say one thing, but then I will come at it from another side and say something different which may even seem contradictory to what was said before. I happen to think that's a good thing as it gives a more rounded picture of the whole, but I concede that it may be confusing for someone who takes words at face value and doesn't see through them to the reality they are attempting to describe. The subject of this post is definitely one that has the potential for confusion, and even heated disagreement, if one looks at it from an either/or perspective. As so often wisdom comes from treading the middle way.
From the standpoint of non-duality what is called enlightenment must happen out of time as it is awakening to your true self, the pure awareness that is always there and upon which your personal self has merely been superimposed by the actions and reactions of mind. Disassociate yourself from these actions and reactions and you will be what you are, what you always have been and always will be. Your eternal self, the eternal self that exists out of time, beyond form, is unchanging, unmoving and so on. This is elementary, indeed literally so. There is nothing you can do to bring this about as 'you' are precisely what stands in the way of it. And all of that is true, but it is not the whole truth.
It is possible to have a spontaneous experience in which you seemingly arrive at the ground of consciousness, consciousness stripped of its feeling and thinking accretions. You have an insight into the nature of reality, and may assume you have reached the state called enlightenment. (The truth is this is just a beginning and requires considerable deepening, but we'll ignore that for the moment). You may become a teacher based on this experience and the insight it has given you, and consider that because pure awareness is always ever-present there is nothing anyone can do to get there because you are already there. You simply have to recognise that fact. This may lead you to deny the need for a spiritual path of gradual stages and movement through time, and to reject all teachings which support that idea. But that would be a mistake. For the vast majority of people it is simply not possible to go beyond the separate self without hard work and extensive purification of the ego. Traditional spirituality recognises this and has many practices designed to facilitate the task. However some modern teachers believe these can be ignored. As a result they can leave their followers floundering, confused and disillusioned if they're lucky, self-deceived and imagining they too have attained if they're not.
It may be true that there is nothing you can do to reach any kind of spiritual awakening because what keeps you from that is identification with yourself as the doer. You must simply be. However before you can simply be in a true and real sense you must clear your mind of all kinds of erroneous beliefs and impure energies. You must root out falseness and egotism from your psyche, you must sharpen discernment, detach yourself from image-making habits, deepen humility and thoroughly cleanse the physical, emotional and mental aspects of your nature from the detritus of many years of wrong thinking, self-centred feeling, attachments, tendencies to react and so on, and this is not the work of a day, a year or even, if we're being honest, a lifetime. The self cannot be seen through as an illusion before it has been wiped clean and all the knots and tangles that comprise it have been untied, and that takes time and effort. Truly to be in the ever-present moment is only possible for a soul that has reached a high degree of purification and is relatively impervious to ego. Of course, you can think yourself into the now by forming a mental concept of it and coordinating yourself to that, but this is just the ego copying its idea of reality which, even if it is based on a degree of real insight, is still just an idea.
There is another point that needs to be made here, and because it is one often ignored perhaps it should be stressed. In most cases what is called spiritual awakening is a contact with the soul, or higher self as it is known in occultism, not the Universal Self. Thus it is not a state of full realisation but a reconnection to the ante-natal non-separate consciousness. It can, it certainly should, be used as an inspiration for further spiritual exploration but it is not an indication of any kind of final attainment.
So, bearing that in mind, I would counsel the spiritual seeker to be realistic and to understand that while awakening may indeed come spontaneously, as an act of grace you might say, it can only take root and develop as a result of hard spiritual endeavor. The water of ego will only come to the boil and evaporate when it has been fully heated.
Let me illustrate what I am saying here with an example. A while ago I saw a video in which a woman was lamenting the fact that after many years of seeking she still was not enlightened. The teacher, who was a strict non-dualist, was making the usual point that the fact she wanted enlightenment was what was preventing it happening. She should just let it come. Now this teacher clearly had some insight and a degree of realisation, but he was still what I call a personality aware of the soul rather than someone totally anchored in and speaking from the higher self. He saw everything from inside the non-dualistic box for it is a fact that the concept of non-duality can indeed become a box if it gets fixed in the mind to the exclusion of anything else. As a result he was only giving his questioner half the story, the ‘forget the personal self’ half (putting it in the terms of my teachers). This is the via negativa side to spirituality, the stripping away of all that is not consciousness to find consciousness, what is known as neti, neti (not this, not this) in Advaita. And it is a valid approach. But it lacks something for what it doesn't take into account is the purpose of creation, the reason for this whole world of manifested life and the fact that there are human beings in the first place rather than just pure unmanifest consciousness. Why would reality manifest just to return to where it had always been? If the via negativa were all there was to spirituality that would surely be the case, but the unmanifest embraces form to become more, and this is why, for a true spiritual understanding, the negative approach to God (or reality, if you prefer) must be coupled with a positive, active complementary side.
What I believe the teacher here should have told his questioner (in addition to what he said not instead of it) was that she should forget about enlightenment and focus her entire being on something greater than herself. This would take her away from herself and make the quest for enlightenment (a personal quest obviously) redundant. This is the ‘Remember the Creator’ half of the Masters’ teachings, which is known as dhikr in Sufism, a form of mysticism which seems to me to combine the essence of both duality and non-duality better than most. It is the injunction to love and serve God, and it would help this lady make much faster progress (and yes, progress for there is a path) towards a true spiritual sensibility. She would not be waiting for enlightenment to come as a result of some sudden insight into her true nature, but instead gradually opening up her heart to receive divine grace.
The objection might be raised that this is just falling back into the illusion of duality with God and the soul seen as two separate things. But God is not an illusion, love is not an illusion, and nor, for that matter, is the soul which was created for a purpose, and the practice of the presence of God in the heart is the best way to overcome the sense of a separate self which is eventually swallowed up by active participation in the divine. Continual remembrance of God purifies the ego, rendering it transparent and fully receptive to the divine light, in a way that a goal-seeking self-enquiry, which is always going to be largely a matter of the mind looking into itself for most people, will be hard pressed to compete with. Spirituality is of the heart and, while it is perfectly correct that identification with the mind must be destroyed, this will not lead to true spiritual awakening unless, together with that negative, there is the positive of being centred in the heart. Live simply in the heart and all mysteries will in time become known to you, said the Masters. Note, with reference to our subject, the phrase ' in time'.
So there is a spiritual path. It is not simply a matter of seeing that the ego is an illusion caused by thought but of cleansing the soul of all impurities, and eradicating the tendencies and habits of lifetimes. It is not just a question of detaching focus from the mind but of transferring it to the heart which is to be seen as the centre of being. And this takes time. What the God who created us wants is not that we see the self never existed, but that we actively give the self up in love, that we voluntarily give back the gift we were given, and it is this, rather than simply seeing through illusion, that is the sacrifice that makes holy and leads to the sanctification of the soul. Let me repeat this because it is so important. It is not that we see selfhood to be an illusion but that we renounce it in love. This is the proper transcending of duality, going through it and going beyond it, rather than its mere denial which it is all too easy to do with the mind. Furthermore, this is the reason for the Masters' recommendation of prayer as well as meditation, stilling the objection of the unbending non-dualist with the following words, addressed to me but appropriate for everyone. 'Do you think yourself above prayer? Even the greatest saints prayed and, while meditation is necessary, you need the humbling experience of prayer also.'
The universe was created in time. Of course, time is not the absolute reality but it exists as the means whereby unmanifest emptiness becomes more than it is. God,the Universal Mind, wants to grow. That process involves each one of us, and it can only be accomplished in and through time.