No one will disagree that life brings challenges, but step back for a moment and ask the deeper question, which is why. Why is life so difficult? No matter what advantages you are born with— money, intelligence, an appealing personality, a sunny outlook, or good social connections— none of these provides a magic key to an easy existence. Somehow life manages to bring difficult problems, the causes of untold suffering and struggle. How you meet your challenges makes all the difference between the promise of success and the specter of failure. Is there a reason for this, or is life simply a random series of events that keeps us off balance and barely able to cope?
If the spiritual answer is true, there should be a spiritual solution to every problem— and there is. The answer doesn’t lie at the level of the problem, even though most people focus all their energies at that level. The spiritual solution lies beyond. When you can take your awareness outside the place where struggle is ever-present, two things happen at the same time: your awareness expands, and with that, new answers begin to appear. When awareness expands, events that seem random actually aren’t. A larger purpose is trying to unfold through you. When you become aware of that purpose— which is unique for each person— you become like an architect who has been handed the blueprint. Instead of laying bricks and fitting pipes at random, the architect can now proceed with confidence that he knows what the building should look like and how to construct it.
The first step in this process is recognizing what level of awareness you are working from right now. Every time a challenge comes your way, whether it is about relationships, work, personal transitions, or a crisis that demands action, there are three levels of awareness. Become aware of them, and you will take a huge step toward finding a better answer.
Level 1: Contracted Awareness
This is the level of the problem, and therefore it immediately grabs your attention. Something has gone wrong. Expectations have turned sour. You face obstacles that don’t want to move. As resistance mounts, your situation still doesn’t improve. If you examine the level of the problem, the following elements are generally present:
Your desires are thwarted. Something you want is meeting with opposition. You feel as if every step forward is a battle.
You keep doing more of what never worked in the first place.
There is an underlying anxiety and fear of failure.
Your mind isn’t clear. There is confusion and inner conflict.
As frustration mounts, your energy is depleted. You feel more and more exhausted.
You can tell if you are stuck at the level of contracted awareness by one simple test:
the more you struggle to get free of a problem, the more you are trapped in it.
Level 2: Expanded Awareness
This is the level where solutions begin to appear. Your vision extends beyond the conflict, giving you more clarity. For most people this level isn’t immediately available, because their first reaction to a crisis is to contract. They become defensive, wary, and fearful. But if you allow yourself to expand, you will find that the following elements enter your awareness:
The need to struggle begins to diminish.
You start to let go.
More people connect with you. You allow them more input.
You approach decisions with confidence.
You meet fear realistically and it starts to lessen.
With clearer vision, you no longer feel confused and conflicted.
You can tell that you have reached this level of awareness when you no longer feel stuck: a process has begun. With greater expansion, unseen forces come to your aid. You move forward according to what you desire from your life.
Level 3: Pure Awareness
This is the level where no problems exist. Every challenge is a creative opportunity. You feel completely aligned with the forces of nature. What makes this possible is that awareness can expand without limits. Although it may seem that it takes long experience on the spiritual path to reach pure awareness, the truth is exactly the opposite. At every moment pure awareness is in contact with you, sending creative impulses. All that matters is how open you are to the answers being presented. When you are fully open, the following elements will be present:
There is no struggle.
Desires reach fulfillment spontaneously.
The next thing you want is the best thing that could happen. You benefit yourself and your surroundings.
The outer world reflects what is happening in your inner world.
You feel completely safe. You are at home in the universe.
You view yourself and the world with compassion and understanding.
To be completely established in pure awareness is enlightenment, a state of unity with everything in existence. Ultimately, every life is moving in that direction. Without attaining the final goal, you can tell that you are in contact with pure awareness if you feel truly yourself, in a state of peace and freedom.
Each of these levels brings its own kind of experience. This can be easily seen when there is a sharp contrast or a sudden change. Love at first sight takes a person without warning from contracted awareness to expanded awareness. Instead of relating in the normal social way, suddenly you see immense appeal, even perfection, in one other person. In creative work there is the “Aha!” experience. Instead of wrestling with a blocked imagination, suddenly the answer presents itself, fresh and new. No one doubts that such epiphanies exist. They can be life changing, as in the so- called peak experience, when reality is flooded with light and a revelation dawns. What people don’t see is that expanded awareness should be our normal state, not a moment of extraordinary difference.
Making it normal is the whole point of the spiritual life.
Listening to people tell their stories of problems, obstacles, failure, and frustration— an existence trapped in contracted awareness— one sees that reaching a new vision is critical. It is all too easy to get lost in particulars. The difficulties of facing each challenge are often overwhelming. No matter how intensely you feel your situation, which has its own unique difficulties, if you look to the right and left, you will see others who are just as caught up in their situations. Strip away the details, and what remains is a general cause of suffering: lack of awareness. By lack I’m not implying personal failure. Unless you are shown how to expand your awareness, you have no choice but to experience the state of contraction.
Just as the body flinches when faced with physical pain, the mind has a reflex that makes it draw back when faced with mental pain. Here again, a moment of sudden contrast makes it easy to experience what contraction feels like. Imagine yourself in any of the following situations:
You are a young mother who has taken your child to the playground. You chat for a moment with another mother, and when you turn around, you can’t see your child.
At work you are sitting at your computer when someone casually mentions that there are going to be layoffs, and by the way, the boss wants to see you.
You open your mailbox and find a letter from the Internal Revenue Service.
While driving you approach an intersection when, out of the blue, a car behind you swerves past your car and runs a red light.
You walk into a restaurant and see your spouse sitting with an attractive companion. They are leaning in toward each other, talking in low voices.
It doesn’t take much imagination to feel the sudden change of awareness that these situations provoke. Panic, anxiety, anger, and apprehension flood your mind; these are the result of brain changes as the lower brain takes precedent over the higher brain, triggering the release of adrenaline as part of an array of physical responses known as the stress response. Any feeling is both mental and physical. The brain gives a precise representation of what the mind is experiencing, drawing on infinite combinations of electrochemical signals coursing through one hundred billion neurons. A brain researcher can pinpoint with ever- increasing accuracy exactly those regions that produce such changes. What cannot be seen on an MRI is the mental event that incites all these changes, because the mind functions at the invisible level of awareness or consciousness. We can take these two terms as synonyms, but let’s explore them a little.
Spirituality deals with your state of awareness. It isn’t the same as medicine or psychotherapy. Medicine deals in the physical aspect where bodily changes occur. Psychotherapy deals in a specific difficulty, such as anxiety, depression, or actual mental illness. Spirituality confronts awareness directly; it aims to produce higher consciousness. In our society this is seen as much less real than the other ways of approaching problems. In times of trouble, people cope as best as they can with a swirling confusion of fear, anger, mood swings, and everyday struggle. It doesn’t even occur to them to pair the two words spiritual and solution in the same sentence. This points to a limited vision about what spirituality really is, and what it can do.