Just A Hairsbreadth Away
In much religious and spiritual literature, attaining Awakening or Enlightenment is generally assumed to be a far-distant goal, the end-product of a long and arduous process of intensive spiritual self-examination and cleansing. A common metaphor used to describe this process is climbing a mountain. Most people are understood to live in the valley (or perhaps even underground), and only a hardy and intrepid few can hope to withstand the rigors of the ascent to see the world in clarity from the heights.
This is, however, not the only possible valid view of Awakening. For instance, those who follow the path of Advaita Vedanta suggest that everyone the entire creation, in fact is already eternally Awakened. The task is take off our blinders, to remove that which obscures our view of the reality of our own true nature. According to the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly said (in fact, scholars have asserted that this statement was the most frequently repeated saying of Jesus), "The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." What clearer interpretation of this statement could there be than to understand that Jesus was reminding us that Reality or Awakening is here, present, surrounding us and infusing us at every moment. We have never left, could never leave, and already fully inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven in each moment.
Yet it certainly doesnt feel like that to most of us, most of the time. Most people either currently experience such pain, or spend so much of their energy habitually guarding and protecting themselves from potential future pain, that they cannot even imagine themselves really believing Jesus assertion. How could we be living in Paradise when the world seems so patently dangerous? Two obvious alternatives present themselves: either the claims of Jesus, the Vedantists and others are false and a shuck, or they represent a truth so far removed from our ordinary lives and understanding that virtually no regular Joe could ever hope to penetrate its secrets. Thus we return to the point from which this essay began: in peoples hearts, Awakening has already receded beyond the blue haze of the horizon.
But let us assume for a moment that Jesus and the others have it right, that all we need to do to see the Kingdom of Heaven about us is to open our metaphorical eyes in the right way. If it could be that "easy" then why havent more people experienced the Kingdom in their lives? My answer consists of two parts. First, I maintain that people have indeed seen glimpses of the Kingdom in their "ordinary" lives. Almost all of us can remember a few special, golden moments when circumstances conspired to allow our hearts to overflow with happiness, or when a remarkable insight overmastered and expanded our minds, or when our bodies so exuded the sparkly vitality of life that we felt preternaturally, perfectly complete, or perhaps all three blended together. The second part of my answer refers to the random and fortuitous nature of these glimpses of the Kingdom. In other words, these glimpses eluded any attempts at control. We were unable to extend them or reproduce them at will, evidently because we could neither see nor understand all the factors which governed their arising.
Spiritual practice is the key to learning how to see and dwell consciously in the Kingdom of Heaven. People generally assume that what opens our eyes to the Kingdom is the honest examination of reality which is the core of spiritual practice. There is truth behind this belief, but it is not the whole story, as practice is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to see the Kingdom. The injection of Grace is indispensable to being able to choose to open our eyes to the wonder of the Kingdom of Heaven immanent in everything.
But having opened our eyes through the beneficence of Grace, we must turn to spiritual practice to learn to keep our eyes open, and to learn how to dwell deliberately in the exquisite beauty of the Kingdom. We must train ourselves to take the energy we gave to the old habit of shutting our eyes tight, and redirect it to the production of new habits which encourage our participation in the vitality of heavenly processes. Here practice reasserts its crucial importance. Practice provides the true compass heading on the twisting journey through the shoals of illusion into increasingly clearer waters.
So it is ironic that from some perspectives, spiritual practice becomes even more important after one learns that it is possible to choose to open ones eyes to reality. And it is further irony that as the incorporation of practice into ones consciousness becomes more crucial, the aspects of practice that seemed at the beginning to be an annoying imposition that could only be justified to oneself as a means to an end, eventually transform into the limbs, legs and feet of our heavenly bodies with which we learn to dance to the poignant and powerful tunes of Our Endless Endlessness. And all this just a hairsbreadth away!