Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence


Stages of the Path

All major ways agree in depicting their final ineffable goal as union with, perfect service to, or liberation into the Ultimate. But we cannot see the Unconditioned, so we need another kind of beacon to guide our immediate steps. Fortunately, the vast body of spiritual teachings offers numerous maps and descriptions of the milestones along the path. These often-detailed accounts of the stages leading toward the Ultimate hold deep importance for us, as signposts marking the path. One view, common to the great ways, sees the path in terms of degrees of letting go and recognizing emptiness, purifying and awakening the heart.

The first significant letting go occurs when we discover that nothing in the material world can offer us true fulfillment. As one of many possible scenarios leading to that realization, imagine that your entire ambition, your whole desire, focuses on acquiring X, or achieving X. You work hard, fortune smiles on you, and after many trials X comes your way. Then follows a shattering realization: even though you now have X, you remain the same person with the same problems as before. X does not bring the lasting happiness you anticipated. You also realize that X is temporary. Then you see, with bitter disappointment, that if X could not offer you enduring joy, nothing in the material world will.

In Sufi terms this represents the first fana, or spiritual death: seeing and accepting the emptiness of the material world. In the Buddha’s teaching, you have seen the impermanence (anicca) of material phenomena and their inability to bring true satisfaction (dukkha). You would not be reading this page if you had not already, to some extent, entered this first fana. Without having entered this first stage of letting go, you would still be wholly and exclusively immersed in material pursuits, with all your hopes and dreams centered on externals.

Gradually you recognize the possibility of other avenues toward fulfillment and your search beyond materiality begins in earnest. Not rejecting the material world, you continue performing your duties to your family, your career, your society, your own body. Only now an added dimension enters. You seek enlightenment, purification, and spiritual development. Your heart and mind become your field of endeavor. You learn to meditate or pray. Perhaps you undergo psychotherapy to balance your emotional nature. You think “I am really growing now.” Your practice brings positive results in terms spiritual experiences. But then your whole scenario falters and cracks appear. All your efforts to reform your mind and emotions bring only partial success.

Instead and unexpectedly, your practice strengthens that part of you that can see objectively. You notice that your mind seems to think its endless thoughts and daydreams without your participation or choice. You see your emotions reacting to the events of your life in the same old habitual ways. Slowly you come to realize and accept that there is no “I” in all of this. Your mind, your emotions, your personality live a life of their own, pre-programmed to their conditioned, experience-trained patterns. Your personality proves empty: there is no “you” in it. You see clearly that your thoughts are not you, you emotions are not you, your knowledge, skills, and desires are not you, and your sensory perceptions are not you. You arrive at what the Sufis term the second fana: letting go of your personality as your reality. In Buddhist terms (anatta), you have reached the first stage of seeing your own lack of an independent self.

Yet the belief in yourself as an independent something persists, only more subtly. You believe: “I am consciousness, beyond all thought and sensory perception.” “I am separate from others.” By this point, though, your practice flows strong and deep, and reveals moments that belie your separateness. At times you see that your notion of yourself remains ephemeral and empty, that by letting it go, surrendering your separateness, you taste an immeasurable Greatness. Your own reality, your own true “I am” becomes the vehicle through which that Greatness acts.

Despite your distractions, your forgetfulness, the Unfathomable Heart of the World persistently draws you toward Itself, beyond consciousness. And you see that the absolute, unalterable condition of entry is to relinquish all vestiges of your imaginary separateness, thoroughly letting go of your self-centered world view and abandoning your illusory ego. Through a process of purification and surrender you move toward the flower of perfection, the third and fourth fanas, toward Nirvana, the Unconditioned and unconditional Love, toward Union with the Divine, in accord with the Tao.

As the Buddhist master Achaan Chah put it: If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom.

Viewing the path in terms of stages is only one view, however, the sequential, time-oriented one. In truth, the path is also nonlinear and timeless. The linear view of the path involves a goal-orientation, variously presented as liberation, enlightenment, the Kingdom of Heaven, or union with God. In the timeless view we lift the veils to discover our fully-formed being and our pure will, which is already free, as our inmost spark that never was separated from the One. Because of that we practice as an act of service. Our inner work of transforming energies, of kindness and prayer, creates something new and needed for the spiritual economy of the world. All the aspects of the path combine and support each other in an evolving sense of the breadth, depth, and nobility of our true role and possibilities.


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