I’ve failed more times than I can count on the spiritual path. Here are 4 of the most common traps so you can better navigate them on your journey.
1. Looking for the answer in conceptual form
Growing up we’re taught in a purely conceptual manner. We’re given a set of concepts from which to view the world, such as cells, organs, atoms, molecules, and galaxies.
Concepts are things we can play with mentally. We can add 2+2 or find the atomic number of a certain element. And there’s nothing wrong with concepts unless we’re pursuing enlightenment.
Labels disconnect us from our present experience. No words can come close to the life in front of us. If you think they can, try describing the color blue to a blind person.
We’re focused on finding the perfect map(or belief system) without looking up at the territory. There are multiple other disciplines for finding the right map, and by all means go ahead. But if you’re after enlightenment, then you must drop all belief systems.
“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
2. Thinking you have reached enlightenment
“The danger is that your mind will want to acquire samadhi, even more dangerous is that your mind might think it has acquired samadhi.” —Unknown
Beware of spiritual bypassing. If you start thinking that you’re better than everyone else because you partake in the spiritual process, this is the spiritual ego creeping in.
Enlightenment experiences are transitory, they take years to embody.
In The Ten Oxherding Pictures, Yamada Yumom explains the spiritual path from beginner to fully-realized with enlightenment depicted as an ox.
First, we see footprints of the ox, we realize that there’s something more than our present experience of reality. Then as we go down the spiritual path we glimpse the ox, and this is where some people think they have achieved mastery and are ready to become a teacher. Thus, the spiritual ego at its finest.
There’s a difference between seeing the ox and taming the ox. Thousands of hours of deep emotional suffering are required to tame and embody the ox into our everyday life.
You must struggle with your newfound insight and realization before you can live with it in your daily life.
3. Lack of Discipline
Spiritual work isn’t something to be taken lightly. The work is grueling which is why so few progress on the path.
View this path like a runner training for a marathon. You’re either in it for the long haul or not at all. There is no in-between.
Truth is, since you’re reading this right now, the path found you. Maybe you’re searching for something more or trying to reconcile a transcendent experience. It doesn’t matter how you arrived, it just matters that you’re here.
You likely know a bit about enlightenment. You’ve read or watched videos from various spiritual gurus, and now you’re trying to make sense of it all. You want tangible progress. You want insight.
The trap here is that you have a theoretical basis for enlightenment but lack the discipline to act on these realizations. You understand how to do the practices. You just need to sit down and do the work.
The end product has been praised by spiritual teachers to be pure ecstasy and bliss. They say you will live in an unfaltering state of peace. But they don’t tell you that first, you must go through hell. The path will be emotionally challenging, with roadblocks and trauma you’ll need to overcome.
But you will always fall short without discipline. If you don’t put in the work, you’ll live with untapped knowledge of something greater than yourself. And that is true suffering.
4. Thinking there are prerequisites to Enlightenment
I’ve fallen into this trap more times than I can count. You might think you need a calm, peaceful state of mind to achieve realization. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Who you are, is who you are right now. No matter what mind-state you’re in, you’re still you. Nothing is hidden. We’re not seeking anything more than we already have. We’re seeking who we are prior to all the labels.
Stop aiming for some future realization. Expect during every meditation sit to realize who you are.
This path is tricky.
Don’t expect to reach enlightenment without committing fully to the path. It will be treacherous and grueling at times, yet utterly worth it in the end.
All you can do is be a genuine seeker of truth. Expect personal gains and you will be wildly disappointed. You may arrive at happiness, but it’s not going to be the same as your original idea of happiness.
The pinnacle of this spiritual path is beyond, yet entirely different than any of your wildest dreams. A permanent feeling of wholeness could take hold, but without any sense of self to attach it to.
It’s beyond any conceptualizations, and that’s what makes it so serendipitous.