The Path of Openness

What is the Open Path?

wooden gateOne of the most joyful moments in the life of the spiritual seeker is when we recognize that the long sought-for goal is already here. We are the pure presence the sages and poets speak about. Not our personality, but the heart of our own natural awareness is this most intimate and infinite presence. We understand in these moments of realization that we are one with all of reality and have always been so, and that this identity is completely safe, free, and inexpressibly kind. There is nothing more that needs to be done for us to be complete. Nothing needs to change. We do not have to improve ourselves or get anything right. We recognize there is no question of being worthy or not worthy of this illumination, of achieving or not achieving it. It is our natural state.

And yet we may often experience ourselves disconnected from realizing this natural state. What will reconnect us? What will help us to sustain this realization?

In one word: openness. Openness might best be understood by what it is not: it is not closed, not attached, not defended, not judgmental, not possessive. It is the absence of something. For example, when we say a window is open, it means the window is not where it was when it was closed. But the openness of the window actually has nothing to do with the window anymore. It is when the window is not. In Meister Eckhart's phrase, "God is when you are not." Or as Martin Heidegger described it, "A person is not a thing or a process, but an opening through which the absolute manifests."

We can begin to appreciate the mystical depth and simplicity of the experience of openness when we recognize that openness is the nature of awareness itself. You can notice this for yourself right now: see if you can find an edge to your awareness. A center? Even with a moment's intuition you may be able to sense the openness that is the nature of awareness.

Yet for many reasons throughout our lives we come to identify ourselves with the contents of our awareness, with our opinions, memories, desires, aversions, self-concept, and other mental and emotional fixations. This conditioning gradually comes to define what we experience as real, while our natural state of open awareness is felt as vulnerability and lack. Often the reaction to this sense of vulnerability is a contracting away from any hint of openness, masking it with self-assertion, defensiveness, or self-doubt.

The "open path" is a name for a way out of this contraction. On one hand the open path is nothing special, simply the path of openness — of mind, of heart, of our moment-to-moment being. It's free, unstructured, and available to each of us every moment. On the other hand, the "Open Path" (with capital letters) refers to a structured course of training — a direct approach to releasing this contraction and opening to our natural condition of clear awareness and love.

Opening, understood in this way, involves a spontaneous giving up, a non-grasping that gives us no place to dwell. As we gradually (or suddenly) learn to flow with this letting go, the intimacy and beauty of life are revealed. In the tranquility of pure openness we wake up, without an agenda, present to what is.

Signposts on the Open Path

In trying to point to anything like a path, even an open one, we risk making up complications for a process that is really quite simple. If there is nowhere to go, because the truth of what is is already here, then there is nothing we need to do, and nothing we have to be reminded of, and no point of having signposts on a path that doesn't exist anyway.

And yet... we frequently experience the sense there is something we need to do, there is something that needs to be changed, there is something obstructing our happiness. This is natural. Hence the utility of a path (with signposts) arises.

With this caveat, I'd like to point to three signposts that mark this path of openness, in the hope that they may at least suggest where the open path is not.

I. Paradox, Non-Definitiveness, and the Open Path
It seems we live in an infinite field of paradox and contradiction. Nothing about this life is definitively so. The longer we live, the more we witness contradictions everywhere: this is true, but so is that. As a mystic once remarked, "Reality is a function of contradiction."

For example, consider our sense of existing in time. It certainly feels like we exist in time, with the future streaming into the present moment and then flowing into the past. But if we look closely we cannot find any evidence of the future. Where is it? Can we say it exists? And the same with the past. Where is it? Both what is about to happen and what has happened do not exist — at least there seems to be no way we can locate them or identify them anywhere except in our thoughts. And the present moment? Where is that? What exists now, in this moment, seems to appear out of nowhere (because it doesn't exist just before it does) and then it immediately vanishes again into nowhere. This moment in which everything happens is actually zero-time. So how is it that we can say we — or anything — exists? Where? When? We are an instantaneous synapse between what isn't yet and what isn't anymore. And yet — here we seemingly are!

Wherever we turn — personal relationships, the social contract, politics, morality, religion, philosophy — we are confronted with experiences of paradox and contradiction. For example, when a loved one dies, we grieve. The loss is experienced as tragic, impossible, momentous. Yet sooner or later a moment comes when we realize we are no longer grieving in that way. Does this mean the grief we felt was fictitious? Our loved one is still gone, that implacable fact has not changed, and yet we find ourselves going about life, even smiling and laughing. The logic of grief's existence remains true, yet so is the logic of its non-existence. We naturally come to live within both sides of the paradox.

Paradoxes of the Path
In explicitly "spiritual" realms it is no different. The more we inquire into what is real the more paradoxes we encounter. One of the most commonly cited is the paradox that involves our feeling separated from the Divine (that is, God, the Beloved, the Real, the One, the Only Being, Buddha Nature, the Self, What Is, etc.) This sense of separation from the Divine is the origin of all our seeking. But how is it that we could experience ourselves as other than the Only Being? It's a contradiction in terms. The Only Being is the Only Being!

Yet this experience of feeling separate is persistent. Its leads to our following a spiritual path, which means seeking earnestly, inquiring deeply, learning from teachers and teachings, practicing practices, praying, meditating, etc. All these activities presumably aid us in breaking through our feeling of separation from the One, although we also realize the contradictory nature of that feeling: we could not possibly be separated from the Only Being, while at the same time we feel we are.

So we practice. We meditate. We read essays like this one. But if what we are seeking to realize is already true and present (because it couldn't be anywhere else), then are we not just spinning our wheels when we engage in spiritual practices? Is following a spiritual path simply a matter of distracting ourselves with interesting things to think and talk about, and claiming for ourselves a spiritual identity which, by its very nature of defining us, keeps us glued to the feeling of separation? Is the whole project of a spiritual path therefore counterproductive? As Zen master Hakuin Ekaku wrote:

          Not knowing how close the truth is,
          we seek it far away — what a pity!

Yet the very closeness of the truth is what hides it. Its "hiddeness" produces yet another paradox: if we don't follow a spiritual path we can experience ourselves as lost, separated from the Beloved; yet if we do follow a path we can delude ourselves into imagining the Beloved is somewhere ahead, just beyond reach, thereby ensuring that the Beloved will remain just that, something that is beyond reach.

A related paradox of the path can be described in terms of the utility, or futility, of effort. Following a spiritual path is often associated with the sense that one must apply effort to achieve realization. I become committed to the effort of practicing various methods whose purpose is to break the trance of my being a separate self. However, the very idea that there is a someone who can apply effort to do a practice that will eradicate the illusion of that someone's existence is curious to say the least. There never was anyone there to make the effort!

To summarize just these three paradoxes:

     We experience ourselves separate from the One,
          yet we are nothing other than the One;

     There are practice paths that can help liberate us
     from this sense of separation,
          yet by their very nature no path or practice
          can liberate anyone;

     If we apply effort we can create conditions that
     support awakening,
          yet there is no independent self that can choose
          to apply effort or that could be awakened.

These paradoxes are not simply philosophical curiosities. Their non-definitiveness is what makes them signposts worthy of the open path. No neat conclusions can be drawn, no doctrine made firm. After all, we are considering "awakening to the truth" — and whatever the "truth" is, it is most assuredly unimpressed with any conceptual conclusions we can make about it.

So an open path is, first of all, a living path that welcomes paradox, contradiction, and non-definitiveness. Confronted with paradox, the mind reaches its limit. It cannot supply a conclusion. Instead, a sense of opening occurs, a sense of having nowhere to land, of being dislodged from a position by the inconclusive.

II. The Experiential Nature of the Open Path
The word "experiential," in the way I am using it here, implies direct encounter with reality rather than thinking about it or holding images of it. The open path is fundamen-tally experiential because it lets all conclusions and thoughts go, and is simply open to what is happening now. There is no distance between perceiver and what is perceived.

The vast majority of our experiences are not of this type. They involve a firm sense of being a subject in relation to objects. Our approaches to spirituality mostly involve this kind of subject-object geometry. Spiritual practices, teachings, prayer, meditation, worship, this essay, all rely upon the sense of self and other — that this that we are talking about, praying for, meditating on, learning about, is something, and it relates to something else which is us. It might be helpful to think of this kind of subject-object experience as second-order experience, while the experiential is first-order: direct, unmediated, uninterpreted, uncorrected.

The Open Path — as a learning path, a praxis — continually points us beyond the subject-object dichotomy, beyond second-order experience to first-order experience. Through a variety of ways — intensive inquiry, deconstruction of repetitive stories, work with koans and paradoxes, guided meditations, doing nothing, etc. — the student begins to glimpse the possibility that his or her familiar self is a mirage. As these glimpses are repeated, the mirage becomes less and less distinct until the sense of being a subject in relation to a world of objects vanishes. Actually the subject doesn't really vanish because it wasn't there to begin with. This is like the familiar story of stepping into the yard at night and seeing a snake on the ground in front of you, only to turn on a flashlight to discover the snake is a coil of rope. It never was a snake!

With the vanishing of the illusion of the subject-object duality, the world awakens. God awakens. As Angelus Selesius joked, "God can only come visit you when you're not there." At this point, revelation is no longer from a secondary source. It is first-hand. No scriptures, beliefs, teachers or teachings are relevant or needed. There is no longer a compulsion to apply the filter of self and of conceptual interpretations and emotional anticipations to what is. It is bare perception. Vivid, pristine awareness. Just this.

It is extraordinary because it is completely ordinary and natural. The world of phenomena still appears in your awareness, but "you" are simply transparent, open, lucid awakeness. No decorations. The truth of what is is immediate, spontaneous, and self-evident.

III. The Inclusivity of the Open Path
In 1910 a young Indian mystic and musician was sent to the West by his teacher to bring the "message" of an open path. He didn't call it that, but it was the same message. He called it "a message of spiritual liberty." It was a different era, at the beginning of the diaspora of world spiritual traditions, and his language sought to fit into and then stretch the limits of the spiritual conceptions of the time. Trained as a sufi, Inayat Khan created a sufi school here in the West to accomplish his vision. However, unlike most sufi orders that take their orientation strictly from the teachings of Islam, he established an open lineage that recognizes the divine inspiration in all religions. As he expressed it:

          Sufism takes away the boundaries that divide different faiths
          by bringing into full light the underlying wisdom in which
          they are all united.

Understood in this way, an open path — a path of spiritual liberty — is simply the path traveled by those who "bring into full light" the wisdom underlying all religions. Hence it is not a path that belongs to any particular tradition or group, sufi or otherwise.

On a global scale we can identify this open path with the vast integrative spiritual experiment now being explored by people around the world as a result of the cross-fertilization of world spiritual traditions. Since Inayat Khan's time the scope of our available spiritual lineage has opened to include wisdom from all of humanity's ancestors.

As a result of these changes, millions of seekers now combine two or more traditions in their own practice and spiritual view. While some traditionalists criticize this interweaving of spiritual views and practices as superficial or dangerous, it is a natural occurrence that has been experienced throughout history. After all, every supposedly pure tradition is a hybrid.

As we encounter teachings from the Kabbalah, from Buddhist sutras or sufi saints, from Christian mystics like Eckhart or Merton, or from Hindu sages like Shankara or Ramana Maharshi, we are faced with the challenge of integrating a reliable spiritual life from these diverse sources. While religionists may scowl at this challenge, it is nevertheless a real challenge for many people that cannot be brushed aside.

This challenge is the footfall of the open path, its edge of discovery. No one can do it for us, because the only guideline to follow is what works. We are looking for, as the nondual teacher Peter Fenner remarked, "the work that gets the job done." Whatever teachings and practices serve the realization of an awakened, compassionate life are welcome.

It has been argued that this approach to one's spiritual life is cafeteria-style religion and is doomed because there are no "obligations." While such dilettantism may be a shadow possibility of the open path, the same can be said for almost any endeavor. Embracing the inclusive, non-definitive and experiential spirit of the open path is not without rigor or sincerity. It is not a path for the faint-hearted.

A further aspect of the inclusivity I am talking about is that this path doesn't claim specialness. In fact, even to give the open path a name is misleading. It could just as well be the path without a name, or "the pathless path." It is, by its own declaration, open, and that means it does not exclude anyone or anything. Its message is utterly democratic. Its whole point is the revelation of, in Inayat Khan's words, "the divine light hidden in every soul."

The inclusivity of this universal, integrative way of awakening also means that one can be a devout Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu or follower of any other religion, or no religion, and be a traveler on the open path. What is required of the traveler is simply openness to guidance and inspiration from any direction, openness to "what works," openness to the paradoxes of existence, and the openness of living directly, freshly, beyond concepts of self and other. In this way the path of openness is the end of fundamentalism and the beginning of beauty.

          Perfectly selfless, the beauty of it, the butterfly
          doesn't take it as a personal achievement, he just
          disappears through the trees. You too, kind and
          humble and not-even-here, it wasn't in a greedy
          mood that you saw the light that belongs to
          everybody.                                   – Jack Kerouac