There is no goal other than the realization of natural freedom, effortless, faultless, and without defects, the unique fact of awareness, self-radiant and free from discursiveness.
Imagine the sky on a clear spring morning—utterly transparent, empty, and vividly fresh. It is alive, though there is nothing there.
This experience of the sky's emptiness and at the same time its living presence is often pointed out as analogous to the experience of spiritual awakening. The sky is perceived simultaneously as both a presence and an absence. The same paradox becomes apparent in the instant of spiritual realization. There is an unexplainable sense of absence and presence, of emptiness and fullness.
Yet the analogy with the sky is not perfect, because the sky is usually perceived as something "out there," separate from the perceiver. The simultaneous realization of emptiness and living presence that occurs with spiritual awakening is not limited by this kind of subject-object relation.
"It" is simply here, both inside and outside our physical form. In fact, the sense of inside and outside falls away as a result of this recognition. The empty sky — to continue the analogy — passes right through everything. There is no inside or outside. It is without boundaries. There is no here or there, no separate perceiver of something perceived.
In this analogy of the empty sky, the sky signifies the nature of Awareness.
Awareness is the "it" that is here. Like the sky, Awareness is empty of all form, yet forms arise and vanish within it. Like the sky, Awareness is vibrant with what could be called "Life," yet Life that is invisible and without substance.
It is no coincidence that these words begin to sound like descriptions of "God." God, after all, is described as omniscience and omnipresence, which are simply other words for Awareness. And one of the ninety-nine names of God in Islam is al-Hayy, "the Alive." For many religious traditions, the idea of God (or gods) has been a convenient way both to express aspects of the sacred dimensions of being that we all intuit naturally, and to extend a sense of sacred authority to ensure social cohesion. One of the problems with this convention, however, is that it has led to the exteriorization of the sacred as something other, something fundamentally unapproachable.
In the Open Path trainings and retreats of the Sufi Way, we focus on experientially recognizing the nondual nature of Awareness, without the context of religious narratives or interpretations. The nature of Awareness is recognized as "nondual" because it has no opposite. There is no "Non-Awareness." In order for Non-Awareness to be it would have to be known, which would then include it in Awareness. Awareness is recognized in this sense as the original ground of being. All that we perceive, every object, thought, emotion, sensation, and memory is recognized because it appears in Awareness. As the Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj remarked:
Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginningless, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change...It is the common matrix of every experience.
I would like to introduce here three themes explored in Open Path work as we learn to recognize the boundless, lucid nature of Awareness and our unity with it. These themes are: the intimacy of Awareness; selflessness; and release at inception. While I speak of these as part of Open Path "work," the moves involved are not actually effortful. Effort implies seeking a certain result. The result of this work is arrived at only when the search for results is abandoned, and we open to what is already so.
The Intimacy of Awareness
The first steps of this work involve turning to the simple fact of your being aware right now. It is not difficult — you can do so even as you read these words. You notice that the words and their meanings arise in your awareness. Perhaps you also are aware of objects in the periphery of your vision. You feel the pressure of gravity drawing you downward to the earth. You may be aware of other sensations in your body, or of sounds in your environment.
At the same time, you are aware that you are aware. However, the sense of awareness does not present itself like these other perceptions — words, sensations of gravity, sounds. Awareness itself is sky-like, empty, and simultane-ously the most intimate and alive aspect of your being. What could be nearer to you than awareness? It is so near it is you — for without awareness there would be no sense of a "you" existing, or for that matter, of "existence" existing.
One of the great nondual teachers of the twentieth century, Jean Klein, described Awareness as "your nearest, your dearest." This points again to the recognition of Awareness as the primordial intimacy of ourselves with the entire universe. Indeed, as we come to open into this unmistakable recognition, we cannot help but be struck by its utter familiarity. Whatever it is we are talking about is our very nature, as well as the nature of all. It is not something other, not a rarefied holiness glimpsed from afar. We might recall here Jesus' words, "The kingdom of God is within you," and the hadith, "He who knows himself knows his Lord."
This view of Awareness as utterly familiar and intimate might seem to collide with our expectation that God is a Vastness and Majesty far beyond our capacity to know. But both senses are possible. What is signified by the words "God" and "Awareness" is both intimate and awesome. It is both our primordial identity and unknowable.
It may seem a stretch to consider that your ordinary awareness — the awareness present at this moment as you read these words — is one and the same Awareness referred to as Supreme Reality, Buddha Nature, God Consciousness, Primordial Mind, etc. This seeming contradiction results largely because we are in the habit of associating awareness with our private sense of self, which includes all of our attitudes and moods about the contents of our awareness.
As the basic fresh wakefulness of our being is revealed, free from the stories of our personal self-sense, we experience a kind of opening into stillness, the stillness and lucidity of contentless Awareness itself. This opening into stillness does not mean that our minds are devoid of all thoughts, emotions, or sensations. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations continue to arise in their normal ways, but we no longer consider ourselves to be an entity located in relation to them.
Nothing is added. We are aware in the way we have always been aware. But now we are open to the boundlessness of "ordinary" Awareness, which is no longer identified with, or confined to, the seeming location of our personal sense of self. No matter what contents arise in Awareness — brightness, darkness, moods, sleepiness, noise, quiet, emotions — we recognize that they do not color or mark Awareness itself, just as the sky is not marked by clouds passing through it.
We also come to recognize that Awareness is not "ours." We don't produce it. It isn't private to us. It is an unlimited matrix of Awake Nothingness in which everything arises and vanishes. This realization often comes with a laugh of surprise, like recognizing something we have always known but somehow forgot. Awareness is the shoreless ocean of intimate, living Presence we are immersed in.
One of the fundamental movements involved in the work of the Open Path — and in any approach to nondual realization — involves shifting out of the self-concept, as mentioned above, where we imagine ourselves to be an "entity located in relation to" thoughts, emotions, objects, and sensations. This shift releases the sense of being a "me" in a location, being a point of reference. I am no longer the thinker of my thoughts, the feeler of my emotions, the perceiver of objects, the sensor of my sensations, or the doer of my actions. These appellations — "thinker," "feeler," "doer," etc., — may be convenient ways to speak, but they tend to reify the assumption that there is a "someone" behind each of these functions.
Let's explore this directly for a moment. If you were to ask yourself, "Am I aware right now?" you would have to answer, "Yes." It wouldn't be possible for you to register the question without being aware. Now look carefully. Ask yourself, "What is it that is aware?" Can you find anything? Go slowly at this point, be the scientist of your experience. Some people veer off here and declare that this kind of inquiry is too abstract, too "mental." To draw that quick conclusion would be to avoid the experience. Far from being abstract, this kind of inquiry can open you to the experiential heart of life.
It is absolutely clear that awareness is occurring, but what is it that is aware? Can you find it? Does what is aware have any identifiable features? Does it have a color or texture? Does it have an outside and an inside? Could you turn it upside down? Does it reveal any movement? Does it have a feeling tone by which you can recognize it?
You may find that no matter how carefully you look, you will not be able to find anything identifiable that is aware. "You" are unfindable.
You can engage in similar self-inquiry by asking questions such as, "What is it that thinks these thoughts?" "What is it that feels these feelings?" "What is it that chooses to do this rather than that?" In each case, you will come up empty-handed. Nothing can be found.
In some nondual traditions, the unfindability of the self that becomes apparent with this kind of inquiry leads to conclusions such as, "I have no self," or "There is no self," or "There is only the non-personal Self (with a capital 'S')." These conclusions are extra, and can lead us subtly into other forms of reification. The only thing we have actually discovered is that we can't find the self, whatever that might be. That is enough — stay with the unfindability. Allowing your experience to simply open into openness like this, rather than claiming a new discovery of selflessness or a "nondual point of view," may at first seem inconclusive. This is fine. Part of this work is to become comfortable with not coming to conclusions about anything. We are inviting natural openness to be our living reality.
We don't have to "know" what is going on. As Sufi Inayat Khan said, "The secret of life is boundless. Knowledge is limited." "Knowing" in the typical sense implies a kind of possession, a mental assertion by which we claim to have a thing's measure. The need to know is actually a mark of insecurity, the mind trying to arrange reality into "knowable" bits that will help orient and stabilize the construct of the separate self. But this effort to stabilize the self is itself destabilizing, because the effort is never-ending. We always need to know more, have more opinions, and reinforce our positions.
As we learn to open into Awareness without the filter of the self-concept, we begin to experience greater spaciousness and ease in our lives. The stress of having to define and judge our experience relaxes. We find ourselves simply present and wide-awake. There is a natural freshness to each moment when the self-concept is no longer busy generating itself and filtering experience through it.
Release at Inception
Yet, as we know, the habits of the self-concept are deeply engrained. They are held in place by mental and emotional constructions or stories that we repeat to ourselves. It is as if they form an elaborate shell around us — although there is nothing inside! The most reliable approach we use in Open Path work to dissolve this carapace of interpretations and stories is to simply see them. We notice them. Just that. No interpretations, self-judgments, or analysis. Simply becoming aware of our repetitive patterns of identification — whether these are mental, emotional, or body-centered — functions as a kind of effortless medicine. It is essential that allowing Awareness the field in this way is not coupled with judgment or any intention for a result. Jean Klein:
If there is anything to do, it is to become more and more accustomed to silent observation free from all conceptualization. In this silent observation you are completely free from thinking, from judging, attaining and achieving. It is an innocent looking, a pure perceiving. In this silent observation there is no you or other. In a certain way, you need to cultivate silent observation. The first step is to see that you do not observe free from any conclusion.
Early Tibetan texts refer to a specific function apparent within the nature of reality: whatever occurs, whether object, thought, emotion, or sensation, appears and vanishes spontaneously. Even when a thing seems to abide for a while, it is actually made up of minute and instantaneous changes in its structure. In addition, our consciousness of it continually changes. Sometimes called "natural release" or "release at inception," this recognition points to the completely effortless way in which everything is "healed" spontaneously. What is leaves no residue.
As we learn to live free from self-concept and free from making conclusions or interpretations about what occurs, it is as if we become congruent with this dynamic of natural release. We create less turbulence in the living moment. Our experience becomes graced with ease. Identifications and mental/emotional constructions may arise momentarily in our awareness, but we don't pay them much credence. They are noticed but nothing is done about them, and they vanish on their own. All experience is left without a trace, like the path of a bird's flight in the sky.
When perceived in this way, whatever arises in our awareness, even if it is a seemingly intractable repetitive story or trauma, is naturally "liberated in its own place." The image sometimes used for release at inception is of a snake with a knot in it. The snake moves and the knot effortlessly vanishes. In the same way our apparent knots of conflict, disappointment, and hope are released as they appear.
A final reflection: the three themes touched upon here — the intimacy of Awareness, selflessness, and release at inception — are all ways of talking about the same underlying reality, which may best be termed effortlessness, or ease. Each of these themes resolves into the realization that there is nothing that needs to be done: everything is already so.
There is nothing that needs to be done: the sky is empty and vibrant, just so; Awareness is intimate and boundless, just so; the separate self is unfindable, just so; the bird's flight leaves no trace, just so. These phrases point simply to this that is freely given, that is already so. In the words of Peter Francis Dziuban:
This open, free Ease is Unconditional Love. It is unconditional because It never is faced by any condition — just "more and more" of Its own endless Openness. This Open Love is the all-embracing softness with which Your Awareness is now present and aware....
This endlessly overflowing Ease is what you never, ever, fail to be.
This Infinite Ease that You are permanently being is never, never, never going to go away. It can't. Ease is absolutely All That Is....