By Craig Hamilton (integralenlightenment.com)
When we look back historically, many traditional spiritual paths were focused on helping us learn how to liberate ourselves from the mind. These meditation practices usually involved sitting down each day for a period of time to try to do that. The belief was that when we do this, our experience will then change everything else in our lives, which it will.
In a sense, the meditation that I teach is basically meant to do the same thing. The intention is to liberate us from our compulsive identification with thought and feeling in order to free us up to respond to life in an unconditioned way.
And yet what also excites me about this evolutionary spiritual path is that it isn’t just something we do for 30 minutes or an hour a day or something we just do when we go on a retreat away from the world. This is really a 24/7 spiritual practice (except when you’re asleep). It’s a spiritual practice you can engage all day. It’s woven into your life.
For me, that’s really good news, since we spend most of our lives engaged, not just sitting quietly. This means we have a lot more time to practice. We have the potential to dramatically accelerate our progress on the spiritual path because we’re not just doing it for an hour here and there. We’re practicing all day long.
This evolutionary relationship to life plays out in very specific ways, which means there are a variety of practices that we can engage as we go through the day.
Before we get into these specific evolutionary life practices, I want to first explore the essential orienting framework for this way of living, which has four dimensions.
First, this evolutionary relationship to life rests on the recognition that life is not fundamentally about “me.” It’s the opposite of the egoic position. The ego says, “Life’s only about me. I’m the center of the universe.” But when you’re relating to life from this evolutionary orientation, you say, “No, it’s not fundamentally about me. I’m part of a universal, unfolding, cosmic process. Therefore, I’m more concerned with the evolution and health of that whole process than I am with my own personal welfare.
“Of course, I recognize that giving my energies to the evolution of the whole will include taking care of my own genuine needs. I’m not completely left out of that picture, but I am no longer the be-all and end-all. I’m no longer the center of the universe. My life isn’t my own. I’m beholden to something bigger.”
This stance, in a sense, flows right into the second orienting point. This is the recognition that not only is life not about me, but my life isn’t my own to do with as I please. Instead, I have an obligation to other people, to life, to the evolutionary process, to God, if you will. I’m beholden to becoming the most enlightened human being that I can possibly be, because that will be of greatest service to this process. Only then can I really truly function as a contributor to our higher evolution. I strive to take full responsibility for all the ways in which I’m not yet that evolved, so I can show up in every situation as an expression of my most enlightened self.
The third of these four orienting points is that I relate to my life as an evolutionary experiment. I recognize that there is no road map for the future that we’re creating. Nobody knows where this is all going. So if I’m going to participate in this great process of evolving consciousness and culture, I need to have an approach to life that is experimental, ever-learning, inquisitive, and open. I’m always open to new information and new data, and I’m always ready to change course or shift my behavior in response to new opportunities.
The last orienting principle is that I’m more interested in the future that’s being born in each moment than I am in the past, or even in the present. I’m more interested in what’s next—in where this is going. I’m animated by the call of a higher potential to emerge. I’m not just complacent or content to sit here in the moment and just be. And I’m definitely not oriented to just dwelling on what has been in the past. Instead, I’m always leaning forward into the emerging future that’s coming into being. I’m living on the edge of evolution and maintaining a continual posture of stretching forward into that unknown edge.
These four orientations together make up a kind of latticework upon which these evolutionary life practices rest. To distill them down even further, these four points make up the North Star of our lives. They are the simple questions that guide us in every moment. We are constantly asking ourselves, “What’s the most evolutionary or helpful response I could have in this moment? What’s the response that would break me free from the patterns of the past and make room for a new higher possibility?”
Within this simple framework, we could create hundreds of practices to guide us through our lives, but today we’re going to explore three of them. They are all focused on how to live an enlightened, evolutionary life in a very practical sense.
The first practice I want to talk about is the practice of caring for the greatest good. That can sound very abstract. What is “the greatest good,” anyway? What does that even mean? And who’s to say what’s the greatest good?
What I mean by the practice of caring for the greatest good that in every situation you find yourself in, you stand in a place where you’re genuinely interested in serving the best outcome for the whole situation rather than just advocating only for your own personal benefit.
The egoic stance would be, “What’s in this for me? What do I stand to gain? What do I stand to lose? How am I going to get my needs met?” That would be the basic egoic orientation to every situation we could ever encounter. Most of us consider that normal, right? Humans beings are considered to be self-interested creatures trying to get our needs met, to fulfill our agendas, and get what we want.
So this is actually a very radical practice. Instead of just going with the selfish momentum of the ego, we choose to say, “What is truly in the interest of the greatest good here?”
The greatest good isn’t just some abstract higher principle. It’s practical. In every situation you ask, “What will serve the greatest good of the whole?” which means all parties concerned. Some situations concern just a couple of people. Other situations concern a large group of people. You could even argue that some situations extend beyond people to impact larger entities like the entire planet. Certain choices we make on a daily basis affect our whole biosphere.
From a spiritual perspective, some choices we make can potentially impact all of consciousness. We realize, “Wow. If I give myself wholeheartedly to meditation, that’s adding momentum to the awakening of humanity.” So this question relates even to those deep interior choices we make in our spiritual practice. Are we practicing for ourselves or something greater? The ego would say, “Do I want to meditate today or not? What’s in it for me?” But instead we say, “What do I need to do now to serve the highest possible good?”
This is something you can apply to any situation at any level. It’s a shift in orientation and it’s a practice. You might not feel like serving the greatest good, but you still make the effort to do it. You can say, “I’m going to plant my stake here. I’m going to do it whether it feels good or not.”
As we engage this practice of always orienting towards the greater good, we begin to develop a deep moral compass. We awaken to a kind of inner navigation system, like our conscience, that tells us which way to go and what to do. We can practice remaining responsive to the call of that inner compass. In essence, we practice by following our deepest, clearest sense in every moment of the best thing to do.
So, that’s the first practice, and itleads directly into the second practice, which has to do with our ability to see the truth of things. In order to be able to discern the greatest possible good or the right thing to do, we need to be able to see clearly. And when we try to do this, we quickly confront the many ways in which our perception is distorted.
We know that human beings are deeply prone to distorting reality. We know that all the ego defense mechanisms that have been catalogued by psychologists are all ways of distorting our perception in order to defend our self-image. We are also full of cognitive biases, which get in the way of our ability to see things as they are. Sometimes they lead us to want to see things as better than they are. Other times we want to see things as worse than they are, or to justify decisions we’ve made.
Because we don’t naturally see things as they are, it’s important to make a practice of being interested in the truth. This sounds really simple. You might be thinking, “Of course I’m interested in the truth.” But this has to be a very rigorous practice. The kind of truth seeking I’m pointing to is constant. In every situation you encounter, you want to be more interested in seeing what’s true than in how you feel, or in defending any belief you have. This is such a powerful practice that if you could do only one thing to get through this life with grace and wisdom, facing the truth in every moment would probably be it.
Facing the truth in this way plays out as a willingness to consistently question our assumptions. We have to assume that our perception is full of cognitive biases and defense mechanisms. We want to be interested in seeing all the tendencies to distort the picture.
This practice requires a rigorous, and at times ruthless willingness to simply see what’s going on. It’s almost a yearning to see clearly. You’re constantly saying to yourself, “I want to be in right relationship to the universe. I want to be in right relationship to other people. I want to be in right relationship to reality. So I have to see what’s true. I have to see clearly, so I have to get out of my filters.”
This practice propels us into inquiry with others, because we need other people to get outside of the limitations in our own perspective. It propels us to deeply question ourselves and our assumptions. We are compelled to look, again and again, striving for the naked, unadorned truth.
This practice of cultivating a relentless interest in seeing clearly in each moment rests on another practice, which Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind.” This is a practice of not already knowing. It’s a practice of letting go of what we already know. You could say it’s a practice of innocence, but not the naïve innocence of a young child. It’s not an innocence where we throw out and reject the hard-won wisdom that we already have.
It’s a practice of being more interested in what we don’t yet know than in what we already know. We suspend, at least temporarily, the things we already know and say, “If I already know something, then it will still be there. I’ll still know it, even when I let go of it. I don’t have to hold onto it to know it. If it’s true, it will continue to be self-evident and so I can just let go and I can rest in this place of innocent interest. I don’t know, but I want to know.”
In this practice, we’re emptying out all of our fixed ideas and assumptions and beliefs. It’s a powerful experience to have, even though not knowing is terrifying to the ego. Ultimately, it’s very calming for the deeper parts of us. It’s an easy place to be, because we’re really not clinging on anymore. There’s not a fear. There’s a letting go of knowing and a willingness to simply trust, which brings us to the next practice.
The third evolutionary life practice is learning to deeply trust—in life, in God, or in the mystery. Those words get thrown around a lot these days: “Oh, I just need to trust the universe,” or “I just need to trust life,” or “I just need to trust God.” It changes depending on the context we’re in.
But this way of understanding “trust” often doesn’t really make a lot of sense. What people tend to mean is they’re trusting that some external force is going to take care of things. If they just stop trying to make things happen, then some external cosmic force will somehow step in and take care of it. There may be a little bit of truth to this. To some degree, there is more under heaven and on earth than any of us can imagine and there do seem to be mysterious forces at work in certain situations. But we don’t want to rely on any of that. I wouldn’t call that a very wise way to live: to just cast it all into the hands of some hopefully benevolent external force that we believe in, even though we claim we’ve left the mythic God in the sky behind.
This notion of fundamental or essential trust that I’m pointing to is much more profound than that. When you let go of the need to know what’s going to happen beforehand—of the need to control outcomes—and you allow yourself to trust that what you need to know will be revealed in the moment, you make yourself available for a mysterious process to begin to happen within and through you that you really can’t know anything about. There’s a spontaneous emergence of wisdom.
If I make the choice to go out to that edge and let go of everything—of all my certainty, all my knowing, all my need to control life and have it go my way—and I just allow myself to show up empty-handed, then I find something mysterious and profound. There’s a depth of wisdom and clarity. There’s also the passion and drive and power to act on that wisdom. It all shows up from somewhere utterly mysterious that we don’t anything about and that we’ll never know anything about. It’s the great unknown.
If you had to say there is one key to living an enlightened life, it would be this practice of trust. It’s not that we need to feel trusting. It’s that we need to decide to trust—decide to act from this unpremeditated, unscripted place.
This practice of trust doesn’t mean we are not doing long-term planning for our goals and projects. It means that there’s a fundamental trust that something deeper will emerge when we don’t grasp. It’s a practice of essential trust.
Another way to look at this practice of trust is as a willingness to take risks. I’m not talking about careless or reckless risk-taking. Nor am I talking about risk-taking just for its own sake. Many of the things that living a spiritual life requires of us will feel like a gigantic risk to our egos—to the part of our self that’s organized around comfort, safety and security.
If you’re really doing the practice of facing the truth, which we explored earlier, you’re going to see a lot of things that you were previously avoiding, but that need to be said. Once the truth is known, it needs to be named, regardless of the context. In a relationship, for example, you might suddenly realize, “Hey, there are lies between us. We’re deceiving each other. We’re deceiving ourselves. We’re pretending something didn’t happen that needs to be addressed. We’re avoiding how bad things are or we’re denying how good things are.” When we start to face and see the truth, there’s this overwhelming sense of risk associated with speaking the truth.
So a big part of this practice of trust includes healthy risk-taking for a greater good. We’re not doing it just to get what we want. We’re doing it for its own sake. We’re doing it because it needs to be done.
Sometimes it’s around speaking challenging truths. Sometimes it’s about revealing something about ourselves that we’re terrified for other people to see. It could be admitting that we don’t know what to do in a situation where we’re responsible, or being transparent about a limitation.
We might feel we’re taking a risk by admitting that we don’t have it all together, but we need to do it for a greater good because if we don’t, we’re potentially going to do more harm or damage through our ignorance. Admitting to others that they “don’t know”is a risk many people are afraid to take. They don’t want to reveal that they have a certain vulnerability, or lack of capacity, or a weakness they’re struggling with.
Another element of risk that comes into play is that many of us are terrified to stand for our own depth in the world. We’re afraid to fully step into the deepest, most awake part of ourselves and speak from that place with great clarity. We’re timid about revealing the depth of what we’ve discovered about our own true self. We’re afraid that when we do this we can’t go back, because the world will now expect it of us and we’re not sure whether we have what it takes to consistently show up with that much clarity, courage, care, love, and wisdom.
It’s like that phrase from the Bible, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.” People will hide their light. People will hide the deepest, truest part of themselves out of fear for being called to a higher responsibility in the future. We’ll act less enlightened than we are. We’ll dumb down and pretend.
So risk-taking goes both ways. It’s taking a risk to reveal both the smallest and biggest parts of ourselves. In essence, it’s really a practice of consistently taking emotional risks, all the time: the risk to be vulnerable, the risk to be authentic, the risk to challenge a situation, the risk to step up and reveal our own wisdom. And many other things.
This may be one of the most challenging evolutionary practices because it means walking straight into those things we’re most afraid of.