One of the great problems with most commentators on religion, spirituality, and even philosophy is that they have not cultivated. If you have not seriously cultivated (which includes more than meditation), your odds of understanding what the founders of the great religions were trying to do are small.  You cannot understand philosophers with attainments, and you certainly can’t understand the mysticism.

Kali standing on Shiva's corpse

Kali standing on Shiva’s corpse

Such people are reduced to literalism, or to muttering about hallucinations and delusions. They listen to Socrates, through Plato, saying “no man knowingly does evil” and can only say “this is nonsense”—which it is, if you’re unenlightened, because what certain enlightened people mean by knowledge isn’t what ordinary people take as knowledge.

Let’s start there: Socrates was known to freeze in place and lose all sense of the outer world. This is most likely Samadhi, a type of (very deep) trance state. Buddhists list three types, but anyone who can do even the lowest is an advanced adept.

Krishnamurti claimed that to him moral facts were facts in the same way that physical facts are. If you see a train bearing on you, you jump out of the way. When moral facts are perceived the same way, known the same way, that knowledge is very different from your knowledge that “I shouldn’t kill.”

No one who knows moral facts in that way does wrong if they can possibly avoid it. All knowledge prior to that is not knowledge in the sense that an advanced adept means the word.

In fact, such adepts will tell you that you really don’t know anything. Nothing. This is very common in Buddhism. The world is illusion, mediated through the senses and the mind, both of which are inherently unreliable. You know nothing.

The Delphic Oracle said that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece. He said it was because other people thought they knew something, but he knew he knew nothing. (Careful reading of the dialogues will indicate he did believe he knew some things, but not in the way ordinary people do.)

What are the early Socratic dialogues about? Proving to other people that they don’t know anything.

This is similar to Zen Koans: The idea is to break people’s conditioning and mental models. When you realize that intellectual thought can’t actually grasp true knowledge and stop trying, you create space to actually understand. (More on this further down.)

Let us step to another matter: “Turn the other cheek.” Another common enlightenment experience is that other people are you. Everyone is just a mask on the same underlying reality: God, Awareness, the Tao, whatever. We are the same entity. If you hit yourself does it make sense to hit yourself again in response? To someone who literally perceives everyone in the world as themselves the idea of responding to violence with violence is counterproductive, insane.

Progress on the cultivation path requires learning how to stop paying attention. If you watch your mind, you’ll notice that your attention is always somewhere. On what you’re reading, on what you’re seeing, on what you’re feeling, on the thoughts rushing through your head, on your worries for the future, your regrets for the past, and so on.

Various practices, not just meditation, strive to teach you to not have your attention anywhere. Try it, right now. Try to pay attention to nothing. Unless you’re quite extraordinary, or have done a lot of work, I doubt you can: Your attention’s always somewhere. Maybe you can put it nowhere briefly, for a few seconds. If so that’s actually impressive, most people can’t.

In order to investigate what you actually are, you have to stop paying attention to anything, including your thoughts and feelings.

So the cultivation path spends a ton of time on this. Let’s run through some ways.

Teaching You to Notice and Control Your Awareness.

This is your breath watching —anapana, or a variety of other exercises. You put your attention on something, and you keep it there. Beginners can’t do this for any length of time. Thoughts distract them, itches catch their attention, sounds demand notice, in time one’s heartbeat roars. Once you can put your attention where you want and keep it there, you’re closer to being able to put it nowhere–if there aren’t too many distractions.

Mindfulness Meditation

In mindfulness meditation, you watch your thoughts but don’t get involved in them. As you do so, they tend to die down, but they rarely go away entirely. This isn’t about getting rid of thoughts, though that’s a bonus to whatever extent it happens, it is about learning to, yes, pay no attention to them. And because so many people think they ARE their thoughts, it is about learning that you aren’t your thoughts. If you can pay attention to something, it isn’t you.

Karma Yoga

The God Krishna said that one has the right to one’s work, but not to the results. To a secular type, this sounds horrible, but what he’s saying is this: Don’t worry about it. Do good work, don’t worry about the results, because so much of that is not in your hands. You plant the crops, the rain doesn’t come in time, you get a bad crop. You do your best on the exam, there’s no point in worrying about results.

Confucius told people to do the right thing, but not worry about how doing the right thing worked out in the world. Same idea, and when you also know what the right thing to do is without having to think about it, “never steal, never kill, give charity, do what your father says, etc…” well you also don’t have to think much about what to do. Make most daily behaviour between people ritual “bow x depth to person of Y rank, greet them with z words” and so on, well, a lot more decision making is taken away. You don’t need to think about this, or worry that you did it wrong. Mental space is cleared.

Vows of Poverty, Silence and Monastic Codes

By now you’re getting the idea: more stuff you don’t have to worry about.  Friars or Mendicant monks (like most Buddhists and many Hindu Sanyasan) eat what they are given by people.  That’s it.  They own nothing beyond their clothes and begging bowl, and they don’t work.  They don’t have children to worry about, they no longer care for their parents.  Whole vistas of thought and worry and emotions are cut off.

There are innumerable practices like this. They all reduce cognitive and emotional load.

Who Are You?

Who you are is known: You are awareness. But actually identifying with awareness beyond an intellectual way is damn hard. You reduce all the stuff above to create space, but it is also often necessary to reduce attachments significantly. Mindfulness meditation, as noted, teaches you that you aren’t your thoughts. Vispassana, where you concentrate on body parts or sensations teaches you that you aren’t those parts. You concentrate on a pain in your toe and ask, “Am I that pain?” You concentrate on your heart, your head, your little finger, whatever, “Am I this?” No, you are whatever is aware of the sensation, body part, or sensation.

Then you start doing the same thing with sight and hearing, with things outside your body. Am I that? Of course you aren’t. But in time you begin to wonder what’s so different about that which is “outside” your body, “outside” your mind and that which is inside. Is any of it really “outside?”

You aren’t anything your senses show to you. You are nothing you think. You are nothing you feel. The discriminating intellect can figure this out just through reason, but most people can’t make the leap from that to the experience that you are none of these things, you are the awareness in which all these things reside.

Layers of Enlightenment Experience

There are a lot of different experiences on the enlightenment path. Let’s run through a few.


Hang out in certain cultivation circles and you’ll often overhear the phrase: “There is nothing you can do.” This is deceptive, but it’s a common experience. Krishna talks about this, that the enlightened person does nothing. The actual experience is that your body moves without you, you think without volition, you make decisions without volition, and so on.

Let me point out that this is congruent with science. Scientists can tell when you’ve made a decision, and it happens before “you” are consciously aware of it. In the early enlightenment your mind, your ego, starts perceiving this, and it interprets it as “I didn’t decide to that!” Some people really hate this experience, for reasons I trust are obvious. This isn’t the final enlightenment experience, which for many, reintegrates. Instead it is a point where you don’t identify as what you truly are, awareness, but become aware that your ego/mind is not actually calling the shots.

Everything Is In Me

This experience usually comes after non-doership. Everything except other people is seen as being inside of you. The monitor, the mouse, the walls, the buildings, they are all you. This is supposed to be a wonderful experience, akin to being master of all you see. It’s all you!

Of course it is all you, and it always was. That doesn’t mean it has no independent existence (though it doesn’t seem like it does), this is direct perception of neurological fact: Everything you perceive is through your various senses, which are interpreted by your brain (and maybe a non-physical mind, though you need not believe that). Everything you ever experience is a representation of an outside you can never directly perceive. (Kant: You never know the thing as it is.)

At this point you are experiencing the world as inside you because your only experience of the world is inside you, that’s all.

Cutting the Senses

One of the Yogic goals is to learn how to shut down all the senses. Sense, touch, kinaesthetic, etc… When you do this, what you get is a sense of infinite whiteness. It is very similar (perhaps identical) to many near-death experiences. Certain parts of the brain shut down. The idea here is simple enough: Shut off all senses, see what remains. Cut off the part of the brain that keeps time, and even more mind-bending experiences occur. If you’re a careful thinker you’ll understand why this is valuable.

Causeless Joy

Most of what I’ve written about I haven’t experienced, or I’ve barely touched the edges. I’ve had episodes of this, however. Here’s the odd thing, and I don’t know the reason for it, but when you stop attaching to anything, stop worrying about anything, you get absurdly happy for no goddamn reason. Confucius talked about this, he said that when you acted without worrying about consequences and always acted morally, you would be happy. I’ve never been able to stay there for more than a day at a time, but it’s a very nice place to be, and many adepts manage to sit there permanently. (Also common is to start feeling love for everyone, again with no discernible cause. This is VERY different from what we normally call love, which is contingent, even with our children, but especially with romantic love. I’ve experienced this, though not for any lengthy periods.)

Identification with Awareness

As best I can tell when you actually identify with awareness you avoid suffering.  This is that level. Awareness never suffers. Everything, including pain, happens in awareness, but awareness is not affected or changed by it. This is the part where the advanced adepts start talking about how it’s not this, not that. It has no characteristics, it is affected by nothing, but it creates everything. It is uncreated, blah, blah, blah.  Doesn’t mean you can’t experience pain, and you may do a lot of screaming, but it isn’t suffering, it’s just pain and once it is done, it is done. At this level you really get that everything is ephemeral; that everything ends, that there’s no point in clinging to anything, etc, etc.  No, I’m not there.

Everyone Is One

Common high level experience as noted above. Of course, by common we aren’t actually talking a lot of people, but it has been reported by many of the great masters. Nope, never been even close, myself.

God Identification

There are a couple different levels of this. The first seems to be identification with a specific concept of God, the second is God as cosmic awareness, as all that is, the eternal within everything else resides. Never experienced this, not close to it, and the writing on it is ambiguous. But it is dead common for Yogis, Saints, and mystics of high attainment to say “I am God.”

Religion and Cultivation

The great religions appear to have all been created by people who were advanced on the cultivation path. You can look at them and see the influence.

Prayer, Especially Repetitive Prayer

Ever been told to say 100 Hail Marys? Seen people counting off prayers with prayer beads? This is mantra meditation, which tends to still the mind if done long enough.

Confession and Absolution

Ok, God has forgiven you your sins, so you can stop worrying about it, got it?


Food is one of the hardest things to stop clinging to. Perhaps you should go without food for a while and see it’s not so big a deal. (Note that Mohammed put this into Islam in a big way through Ramadan.)


It’s not that there is anything wrong with sex, but constantly thinking about sex gets in the way of detachment. So, spend enough time not having sex to get over it.  This is also why same sex monastic communities are common: most people are heterosexual, and the less they see of people they find sexually attractive, the easier it is to get over sexual desire.

Buddha is reputed to have said that if there were two desires as strong as sex no one would ever enlighten.

There are also some technical reasons for not having sex or masturbating which may have some validity.

Trust in God, Master, or Guru

We covered this above, but again, if you put your trust in God or Guru and just do what they say, it reduces a pile of worry, decisions, and so on. Of course, this trust can be deeply abused, and I’d never swear obedience to a Guru, but the system has worked for many.

Make No Images of God

If you’re meditating on God (common on the devotional path, noted below), it’s best to have no image, because otherwise you’re meditating on a picture, rather than on something that has no characteristics. (If you can meditate on a God with no characteristics this is incredibly valuable and you will make progress fast.)

Final Notes

You can be a straight atheist or agnostic and progress as a cultivator. The final step in cultivation is often said to be “the end of spirituality.” This is one meaning  of Kali standing over a dead Shiva: The end of spirituality. There is no need to believe in God (though you can conceive of awareness in the broadest sense as God. But you can also call it many other things). What does seem to be a common experience, however, amongst the highest adepts is the idea that your true self is eternal– not immortal, but eternal.

The main things to understand here are: a) the process of learning to pay attention to nothing, and; b) that the experience of enlightenment genuinely changes how you experience and perceive yourself and the world. Enlightenment is not intellectual knowledge, though intellectual knowledge IS helpful on the path, despite what many say.

You can get there a bunch of ways. Often the path is divided in two: the path of discrimination (eliminating everything you aren’t, and attachment to it, till all that is left is what you are), and the path of devotion, in which you trust completely in God and Guru till you are so detached and worry free that you can also see the truth. (The last step on this path is the infamous, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him point,” but you have to be damn advanced before you need to kill your Gods. Until then, God is a great crutch.)

When you have some understanding of the enlightenment path you can re-read the great religious-mystics with a new eye, and you can actually understand much of what they were trying to do with the rules set up for religion. Many of these rules were cultivation practices meant to give ordinary worshippers a chance at some real attainment. You can understand that when a mystic with real attainment tells you to “Treat your neighbour as yourself” he or she is really thinking, “They are you, but you’ll never believe it, so just treat them that way for now.” You understand why they want you to put your faith in God. And so on.

May the world open before you.

(For the record, I am not enlightened.)

Further Reading

Some Notes on Meditation

Personality and Destiny


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