The Paradox of Enlightenment

Andrew Cohen Read

How much effort do you have to make if you want to be free?

My Guru HWL Poonja was a Master Teacher of the instant path to enlightenment. When I met him I had been a serious meditator for many years.

At that point in my life I had let go of absolutely everything except my daily practice of meditation. I was serious and disciplined, and tried to sit for as many hours as I could every day. I wanted enlightenment very badly.

When I met master Poonjaji, I asked him how much effort you have to make if you want to be free. He replied, in a whispered voice, that you don’t have to make any effort to be free. I didn’t understand what it meant. I had never heard any teacher say such a thing.

But as soon as I heard his words I had a vision. I saw water flowing down the side of a mountain. I recognized that my own true nature was like flowing water, unobstructed and free. In a flash of realization it became obvious that un-enlightenment was only a thought – a belief that I was unfree.

After this powerful meeting, I went back to my hotel room and sat on my bed and began to meditate. I had a pounding headache. Then I burst out laughing. The Master had just told me I didn’t have to make any effort to be free, and here I was doing the very opposite. The instant I stopped trying to mediate the headache vanished.

This was my first experience of the extraordinary spiritual power of the man I had just met. His teaching was the most radical expression of Advaita Vedanta non-duality, from the lineage of Adi Shankara. Like his guru the great Ramana Maharshi, he taught that consciousness alone is real; everything else is only a temporary illusion.

Time and again, he directed my attention to the timeless, formless void, the luminous ground of all Being that exists prior to the world, prior to everything that appears in time and space. Through his extraordinary transmission, this Absolute dimension of reality became tangible and present. He called this transcendental mystery the Self.

He said over and over again that anything that comes and goes is not real. Only the Self is real. It has never been born and will never die. That is who we really are.

His approach to this realization was radical. He insisted that the only way to directly experience that which abides beyond time is to transcend time altogether. That means giving up the belief that there is any distance between where we are right now and the full flowering of enlightened awareness. If the Self abides beyond time, how could doing anything in time get you any closer to that which lies beyond it?

Through continually pointing this out, his disciples would have powerful glimpses of that depth dimension that exists beyond the appearance of the world. His Grace, and the profound immediacy of his awakened awareness, made this directly visible to them.

For some these glimpses would be a touchstone, a rare and precious moment when they felt closest to God. For others they opened a door to another dimension that would remain open forever. This is what happened to me during our first meeting.

At the Master’s bidding I started teaching soon after, and many soon had the same kind of life-changing glimpses of the absolute. Because this was happening to so many people so quickly, I became convinced that thousands would soon be enlightened.

I soon began to notice that for many of those who indeed had powerful awakenings, continued access to enlightened awareness seemed dependent upon sitting with me in a teaching context. Outside that spiritually charged environment, the higher state they were occupying soon fell away.

As much as I wanted to remain true to the radical immediacy of my master’s teaching, I eventually gave way to practical necessity. I began to give my students spiritual practices. I realized that they needed to make their own effort to awaken, and to stay awake.

I asked them to spend several hours a day meditating, practicing contemplation and other forms of spiritual practice designed to foster that process. When the master became aware of this, he became angry. He understandably felt I was not keeping faith with his radical and uncompromising approach to enlightenment, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I slowly came to understand why so many spiritual teachers have given their students practices. In truth, God is always everywhere and in all things – the very source of our own awareness in every moment. But in order to become absolutely convinced of this beyond any doubt, at a soul level, consistent practice over a very long period of time is a necessity for most seekers.

Thus I made the transition from a teaching that focused purely on “sudden” awakening, to one that included the path of “gradual” awakening. I came to realize that for most people there are no shortcuts. No matter how powerful our introduction to higher consciousness, no matter how deep and dramatic that first dive into the infinite may be, in order for that realization to stabilize there is no escaping the hard work. In the end, each individual had to make effort to liberate themselves from ignorance and un-enlightenment.

I came to realize why the Buddha famously implored his disciples to “work out their own salvation with diligence”. In order to attain liberation, each and every one of us has to work for our own salvation – even though that salvation is already always our true nature.

This is why the attainment and stabilization of enlightened awareness is always a paradox. That paradox is always in relationship to the question of whether the experience of spiritual freedom is principally a matter of letting go, or making effort. Most schools usually emphasize one or the other as the “right” way to awaken and to stay awake.

When the master told me that it didn’t take any effort to be free, he was right. When we let go of all effort and striving, we fall naturally and spontaneously into a natural state. We awaken to consciousness as it already is – infinite, open, empty and utterly free from time and history. That’s why the direct experience of consciousness as it always already is, is so liberating and exhilarating. The nature of consciousness as it already is, is freedom itself.

Yet as easy as this is to discover, it is equally as easy to forget. Time and again, we forget. This is why spiritual masters have often referred to the path of awakening as akin to walking on a razor’s edge. If we become even a little arrogant or slothful we can fall asleep in a heartbeat.

That’s why the need to make effort is always necessary. It’s especially true in moments when we may have become frightened, distracted or have lost our way. As soon as we realize we have fallen asleep, we have to be ready and willing, at a moment’s notice, to make the effort re-align ourselves with our own true nature.

The willingness to make effort when necessary perfectly balances out the willingness to let go. If we want not only to awaken, but also to stay awake, we have to be ready to do whatever is required, here and now.

In the end there really isn’t any difference between effort and effortlessness; the freedom of freefall, and the freedom and confidence that arises as a result of knowing that we will do whatever it takes to be free.

It is always a choice; a choice to be free here and now. Whether that demands intense effort or unconditional letting go, it is all the same if we want to be free more than anything else.

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