by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
For those who are awake the cosmos is one.
In March 2004, Adyashanti, Zen Buddhist teacher, and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Sheikh in the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, came together in San Rafael California for a day-long retreat entitled “Awakening to Oneness.” With love and much laughter, these powerful teachers worked with students from both traditions as part of a larger spiritual work addressing the vital question: How can we awaken to the reality of global unity? Vaughan-Lee explains that when we awake within oneness, we can participate in the spiritual work of the coming era – infusing the web of life, the magnificent Indra’s net, with a spiritual consciousness that can nourish the whole and help our global community enter the next stage in its evolution.
The following is adapted from Vaughan-Lee’s talk, which addressed the deep need for seekers from all traditions to participate in the emerging work with oneness. How do we awaken within oneness? How do we work with the energy of oneness to help heal the wounds of the world so that our global community can begin manifesting the power, peace, and awareness that is our true nature? Vaughan-Lee explains that we begin with something simple, we begin with the breath.
THE CYCLE OF THE BREATH AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
The breath belongs to the esoteric core of much spiritual work and the processes of inner transformation. Just as breathing is fundamental to many forms of life, breath and the awareness of the breath is central to many spiritual practices, whether it is the simple meditation practice of watching your breath, or repeating a mantra or dhikr.
Awareness of breath is awareness in the moment. When we are aware of the breath, we are not absorbed in the past, or in the future, but awake in the dynamic moment in which life is.
The importance of the awareness of breath is stressed in the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition by its founder, Baha-ad-din Naqshband, “The foundation of our work is upon the breath. The more one is able to be conscious of one’s breathing the stronger is one’s inner life.”
Baha-ad-din gives particular significance to the space between the breaths, as does the Zen Buddhist practice of centering: “The experience of one’s reality”… “may dawn between two breaths”-“As breath turns from down to up, and again as breath curves from up to down-through both these turns, realize.”1
Awareness of the breath is one of the most powerful agents of spiritual transformation and yet we are only aware of part of its potency. What is it we realize in the turns of the breath, and how does the cycle of the breath help bring the light and consciousness of oneness into the world?
Spiritual masters have long understood how the cycle of the breath enacts the journey to the source and back into the world. The in-breath takes us inward, back to the source. This is why in most instances the last breath of a dying person is an in-breath, that final gasp of air as the soul goes back to its source and does not return into this world.
With every breath we take we make this return journey, before the out-breath brings us back into life. If one is very attentive one can experience an instant of bliss at the end of the in-breath which is a momentary experience of bliss of the Self, a bliss known in Sanskrit as anandamaya kosha (the sheath of the soul). In this instant we are free from time, awake in the timeless realm of the soul, in the love and peace that is our real nature-what is waiting for us at the end of the journey.
The spiritual path draws us inward towards our real nature. This is the journey that most people associate with spiritual life, the journey back to the source in which we free ourself from the grip of the ego and its illusions and discover our true self. On the Sufi path one is drawn inward through the pain of longing, the lover longing for her Beloved. We are drawn away from the ego and outer world of appearances, the illusions of the world, to find the truth that is within our own hearts.
Much of the work of the path is a process of uncovering, peeling away the skins of the onion. We discover the multiple layers of our personality, ego and psyche that separate us from our true nature. This is not a linear progression, but a dance of unveiling. A bewildering, confusing dance that is a relationship of ourself to ourself, which happens through the practices and energy of the path.
Gradually the veils of separation begin to lift and we discover the luminous center of our own nature, “the face before I was born.” This is the Self, what is real beneath all the illusions, what is waiting for us at the end of the journey. This spiritual quest is described In Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, the Sufi classic story of thirty birds searching for the mystical Simorgh, (si-morgh also means thirty birds). At the end of the journey they experience who they really are:
Their souls rose free of all they’d been before.
The past and all its actions were no more.
Their life came from that close, insistent sun
And in its vivid rays they shone as one.
There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves. The Simorgh of the world-with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.2
The thirty birds discover that they are the Simorgh, the object of their quest. The greatest journey takes us back to the simple and yet astounding truth of who we really are. And on this journey the Self is continually revealing itself in different ways. One such glimpse may be an unexpected moment of deep peace, for the Self is a state of peace. This is a peace that does not result from any outer situation or belong to any conflict resolution because it does not belong to opposites. It is a peace that is just present. As Ramana Maharshi said, “We are always peace. To get rid of the idea that we are not peace is all that is required.” 3
At the beginning this may just be a moment of this peace, then it may last for days. Finally it is present under all of our activities. We just have to look under the surface and we can rest in the peace of our Self. It is a quality of being that is always with us. It is also traditionally the gift of a great teacher to his disciples, as Christ gave to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, not as the world giveth, give I unto you.”4
The Self has other qualities. For example real freedom and unconditional love. On the level of the Self there is no judgment, but compassion, complete acceptance and pure love. Our real being is also a dynamic state of oneness, of unity. When we discover ourself we discover that we are one with ourself and one with everything. We are a state of unity. In us everything is united, everything is whole. This is the circle of wholeness that belongs to all of life. Nothing is excluded.
The Self is the multifaceted diamond, the mandala that includes all aspects of life, the beggar and the king, the laughter and the teardrop. It is all one. And our individual Self is the universal Self. We are one with the stars and the cosmos as well as with every snowflake and the cry of every child.
The awakening of the Self is an awakening to an all-embracing oneness, that is at first intoxicating, awe-inspiring and yet completely natural. Resting in the Self we rest in this oneness. It is a state of being. Often an initial experience of the Self is a state of being or presence, full of the simple wonder of being human. We feel we are, present in a reality beyond duality, beyond this world of opposites. And when we fully awake in the Self we experience a pure consciousness that is non-dual. It is. It knows. There is no subject or object-only oneness. The pure consciousness of the awakened Self is the light of oneness.
And then the mystical path takes us even further, beyond the Self into the emptiness, beyond its dazzling light into the dazzling darkness, beyond the state of being into the states of non-being, the uncreated emptiness. While the Self is a reality of light and pure consciousness, non-being belongs to darkness and unknowing. This is what Thomas Merton describes as “desert and void”:
The Uncreated is waste and emptiness to the creature. Not even sand. Not even stone. Not even darkness and night. A burning wilderness would at least be “something.” It burns and is wild. But the Uncreated is no something. Waste. Emptiness. Total poverty of the Creator; yet from this poverty springs everything. The waste is inexhaustible. Infinite Zero.
Everything comes from this desert Nothing. Everything wants to return to it and cannot. For who can return “nowhere?”5
For those who want to be lost, this nothingness is waiting. And then further than the uncreated emptiness, than the states of non-being, is Ultimate Reality about which nothing can be said except that it is other than anything, and destroys every concept, every idea, every notion of what is and what is not.
The inner journey takes the wayfarer into the dimension of the Self and beyond. But this is only half of the story. It is only the in-breath. With every in-breath there is an out-breath, a turn from the inner worlds to the outer worlds. In our focus on the inner journey we often overlook or forget the potency of the out-breath, and yet it is central to the miracle of creation.
On the out-breath light, love, and spiritual nourishment flow from the source into life. Life is sustained by the continual flow of energy from the inner. And we are a part of this flow: we are not separate from life. Through our breath the real world of the inner sustains the outer world of forms. Just as we are continually sustained by the energy of the Self so is the world sustained by the energy of the Real that comes from the inner. If there were no flow of energy the world would dissolve, become just a fading mirage. The Sufis call this sustaining energy of the Real the secret of the word Kun! (Be!). It is the hidden secret of the world.
As the veils of separation fall away we experience what is real within life, we begin to see His face in His creation. Our outer life becomes richer, more meaningful. Rather than being caught in the past or the future, in dreams and desires, we are present in life as it is. In Zen this is often experienced in a moment of satori, when we are present in the beauty and wonder of the moment, see the blossom on the tree, feel the rain falling, without thought or judgment. For an instant we are really alive.
Through the mystery of the out-breath the energy of the Self sustains and transforms us and our life. And the more our awareness is grounded in the Self rather than the ego the more we experience this nourishment. In fact our awareness enables the Self to participate more directly in our life: through our conscious alignment with the Real It comes into our life or reveals Itself in our life. This is the significance of our practices and participation in the process, what the Sufi calls polishing the mirror of the heart. This polishing enables the light of the real sun to be reflected into our life. This light nourishes both our own life and life around us. This has traditionally been part of the work of the wayfarer: to bring the light of what is real into life.
The individual brings light into his immediate surroundings as he journeys Home, cleaning his own backyard and making a real contribution to his inner and outer environment. However, there is a larger dimension of spiritual work that traditionally belongs to the Bodhisattva model, the one who renounces the fruits of enlightenment for the sake of humanity and the world.
This bigger dimension of nourishing the whole of life is associated with the individual who has traversed the entire inner journey and then returns to the world. We first return to the source and then work for the well-being of the whole. This is beautifully imaged in the Zen Ox-Herding pictures. After capturing and taming the bull of one’s lower nature, one “returns to the root and the source.” Then, in the final image, the old man comes back to the market-place:
Barefoot and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; Now before me, the dead trees become alive.
I go to the market place with my wine bottle and return Home with my staff. I visit the wine shop and market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.6
This is the classical image of those who, having discovered their true nature, live from this source and naturally transform life. They are no longer interested in their own spiritual transformation, but around them “the dead trees become alive.” Traditionally it takes at least twenty to thirty years of dedicated practice under the guidance of a teacher to make this journey. In the Ox-Herding pictures the young man who went in search of the bull has become an old man when he returns to the marketplace.
THE NEED OF THE TIME
However, at this moment in time, as the world appears to be dying through our exploitation and greed, there is a deep need for the energy of the Real to be given to the whole of life, to nourish and transform it. There is spiritual work to be done by those who have not yet completed the journey, who have been given a glimpse of their real nature, of their divine self, but still remain in the ego rather than resting in what is real.
At this moment of time we can each directly participate in the spiritual work for the whole, in the out-breath of life. All that is needed is that we recognize this larger dimension of spiritual work and no longer focus on our individual inner journey or spiritual well-being-we live the whole cycle of the breath.
This shift is not so easy for seekers who have identified spiritual work solely with the journey Home, the journey back to the Source. But our world is crying out for the energy of what is real. And it needs our help.
We have collectively forgotten that the world is sacred, that it is an expression of the out-breath of the divine. The world has become so covered in illusions that it is starving, it is dying, its sacred meaning is falling away. It is covered in a cloud of forgetfulness so dense that it is difficult for the energy of the Real to shine through. It is dying.
And sadly although many people are aware of the ecological state of the world they don’t glimpse the inner truth of how we have denied our spiritual heritage and created an inner wasteland, which is reflected in outer pollution and a sense of meaninglessness. Instead of an inner attitude of respecting the sacred essence of life, we have created a wasteland of desire and greed, an underlying attitude that the world is here to fulfill us.
We have also created a collective illusion of separation: we are separate from each other and conditioned to focus on our own individual prosperity. We are separate from the world and it does not matter how we treat it, how we pollute it to fulfill our desires. And even many people who engage in spiritual practice remain caught in the collective attitude of greed and desire, wanting something for themselves rather than engaging in a real egoless quest or life of service. Through our self-indulgence we have neglected our responsibility to honor the sacredness in life and its intrinsic wholeness.
So much has been desecrated and lost that there is desperate need for those who have glimpsed the light of the Real to help bring its light into the world. The world needs to be awakened from a dream that is killing it.
How can we work to bring the light of the Self into the world? How can we fully participate in the spiritual out-breath of life?
Once we step outside of the illusion of our own separate self a radically different picture emerges. We have been conditioned by our culture to believe that we are each a separate individual, and as a result we often feel alone and isolated, impotent to effect real change. However, a glimpse of the Self gives us a sense of an interconnected oneness in which nothing is separate: everything is an expression of a oneness that is dynamically alive. Every person, every stone, is this oneness. In this oneness everything is connected and interdependent. Our individual Self is the Universal Self and it is all a living organism of light and love.
When we live with conscious awareness of our intrinsic oneness we bring this oneness into a collective consciousness that is dying through the illusion of separation. Our light is the light of the world; our divine consciousness is the spiritual consciousness of the world-nothing is separate.
Only the divine can change and heal the world; only the energy and power of the Real can free the world from its self-destructive illusions. And this energy and awareness of the Real is within each of us, is each of us. When we turn away from the ego and its desires we know that we are the Real. And we are also life hungry for what is real. In the dynamic interconnected whole we are the in-breath and out-breath of life-a life that is not just physical existence, but a multidimensional living organism of light and love. We are the spiritual life-blood of the planet and we need to honor this dimension of life, this quality of oneness that is present within everything.
AWAKENING TO ONENESS
Part of the esoteric mystery of life is that the individual is a microcosm of the whole. This means that just as the individual can awaken to an awareness of the oneness of the Self, the whole world can also awaken to oneness. This is the possibility of this present time as one era comes to an end and other begins. Just as the world is at a stage of crisis, so are there the indications of an awakening in the dawning of a global consciousness and tools like the internet which mirror the dynamic interconnected wholeness of life. The whole world has the potential to awaken.
As each individual brings the awareness of the Self into life we can see that the light of our individual Self is not separate but forms part of the spiritual body of the planet, because just as the individual has a spiritual body made of light, so does the planet. The light of the Self is the greatest contribution we can make to life, because this light does not belong to duality and its conflict creating dynamics.
The pure light of the Self belongs to the dimension of oneness, and it can bring the awareness of oneness into our collective consciousness and all of life. This light can banish the illusion of separation and help humanity to see the web of life of which we are a part. Once we see this web and are awake to its potential then we will respond in a very different way to the apparent problems of the present time. Once we collectively realize that we are one living organism then many of our attitudes will change. Seen with the eyes of oneness many of our present problems will disappear-for example there is enough food to feed the planet in an ecologically sustainable manner: it is only worldly power dynamics that prevent this from happening.
Oneness is not an ideal but a living dynamic reality that belongs to our true nature and to all of life. And the awareness of oneness that belongs to the Self is an inherent part of life. When we bring this awareness into life we help life to awaken to its true nature, as a self-sustaining organism that has its own spiritual consciousness.
How do we live the awareness of oneness? The first step is to acknowledge the light of oneness within us. Through the in-breath we glimpse the light of the Self or feel its qualities of peace, bliss, or its infinite nature. Then through the out-breath we bring it into life. Through this we recognize our own divine nature and the sacred dimension of life and know that they are one. We say “yes” to what is real within us and recognize the need that life has for this energy of the real.
That which is real is much more powerful than life’s illusions. All we need is a taste all we need is a simple moment of connection, a moment of being with the breath, who we are. It is difficult for many of us to realize that individually we have the power to change our collective forgetfulness, to help the world to awaken. Part of the power dynamics of our culture is to disenfranchise the individual, and create the illusion that real power is only in the hands of large corporations or political organizations. But when we experience the reality of the Self we know the illusory nature of worldly power, how it is as fragile as the ego. We experience a power that is real:
That boundless Power, source of every power, manifesting itself as life, entering every heart, living there among the elements, that is Self.7
We have denied ourselves our mystical heritage, and forgotten the potency of spiritual power.8 We need to reclaim this direct power that is within each of us. Then by the simple practice of awareness and an inner attitude of service it can be given back to life.
Human beings are powerful transformers of energy. Through our spiritual centers we are connected to the spiritual energies of the inner worlds that sustain us. Through us love and power come from the inner into the outer world of which we are a part. And a network of individuals linked together in love and service to the whole is many times more powerful than a single person. If we work together for the sake of the whole, we create an organic, nonhierarchical network of light that can bypass many of the centralized systems, which appear to control our world. Energy can flow freely and unrestricted into life where it is needed, healing the planet, awakening the world to its own true nature.
We have been conditioned to separate the spiritual from life: this is part of the dualistic conditioning of the past era that banished the divine into heaven and left us alone in the world. Our focus on the journey Home is part of this dynamic. But we no longer have to believe that we are separate. If we are not separate, where is there to go?
We have forgotten that our spiritual light is a part of life and connects us to the whole. We need to reclaim our deep knowing of how the visible and invisible worlds work together how love flows from emptiness into form, how in each breath the sacred dimension of life is born anew. And how we are part of the light of oneness that is being born anew in each moment is the potential of each moment. This is not something we need to achieve or struggle for, but is present in each breath, in who we are.
We need to say “yes” to the need of the moment, to life’s hunger for the light of oneness. Through the simple practice of being attentive and present in life, through being aware of the in-breath and the out-breath, we can respond to this need. We can bring the light of oneness that is within each of us into life. We can help the world awaken to its true nature.
1Transcribed by Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Boston: Tuttle. 1998), p. 194.
2Attar, The Conference of the Birds, trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, (London: Penguin. 1984), p. 219
3Quoted by A. Devaraja Mudaliar, Day by Day with Bhagavan (Shri Ramana Maharshi, 1997), p. 15.
4The Bible, Authorized Version, St. John, 14;27.
5Thomas Merton, “Cables to the Ace,” The Collected Poems Of Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1977, p.452.
6Quoted by Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, p. 186.
7Katha Upanishad, trans. Shree Purohit Swâmi and W.B. Yeats (London: Faber and Faber. 1937). Book II, 1,
8Our Western culture has been deliberately and systematically deprived of access to this dimension of spiritual power. The church hierarchy ordered the persecution of Gnostics, Cathars and other groups that gave the individual direct access to the inner spiritual realm not via the priests.
© 2004 The Golden Sufi Center, www.goldensufi.org