It is easy, given our cultural framework, to imagine spiritual learning as analogous to education - that spiritual learning is an accumulation. The idea we have is that one must keep learning, keep reading, keep listening to teachers, keep doing yoga in order to "advance." However, in truth, spiritual learning is nothing more than learning to be fully who you are. There is no "better" as you grow older and have more experience. There is simply more of who you are.
"In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped." - The Tao te Ching
No matter which spiritual path you choose, the path will always bring you to You. Some people take roundabout paths and some dive in headlong. There is structure in the manifestation of spiritual learning as the learning moves deeper into the cells of your body and your basic being. This structure creates "layers" of spiritual learning. There is movement among the layers — this is not a static creation, nor is movement restricted to one direction only. Each of the seven layers exists within you, and each may be accessed at any time (although you likely will "live" in one for a period of time). All layers are necessary to create the tapestry that which is You.
Layers — not Levels — of Spiritual Learning
Our cultural framework suggests that older and wiser is better. Certainly, in physical life, age can bring the wisdom of experience. This often translates into perception of spiritual wisdom: "I'm an old soul, therefore I'm more evolved than you" is commonly thought but likely not voiced. But in reality, everyone — from infant to elder — is on a level playing field, simply operating from a different perception. The idea of layers conveys that. All layers exist simultaneously. One layer may be close to your core, like the core of an onion, but all layers are part of you and none are let go of or moved through, discarded. You do not grow beyond a layer other than letting go of identification with it. Each layer is simply an aspect of yourself. Deeper layers are not better; they are simply present with you at all times, ready for access. Within you, you always have both the new explorer and the enlightened master.
Moving through the layers is not a linear process. You do not finish one and then move on to the next. There may be, for a time, a "home" for you in one of the layers (certainly, when looking at them, you'll be able to easily identify the layer you spend most of your time in now, as well as layers you have used in the past), but you have access to all of them at all times. They are always a part of your experience.
Layer 1 EXPLORER
Layer 2 INITIATE
Layer 3 TEACHER
Layer 4 THE SEARCH BEGINS
Layer 5 TRUTH IN THE MOMENT
Layer 6 LIVING DEEP HARMONY
Layer 7 BEING PURE PRESENCE
Layer 1: Explorer
This initial layer holds the excitement of bounding out on a newfound journey. The quest has begun. You feel an initial sense of wonder, like a child tasting candy for a first time. You taste the potential of spiritual presence and its benefits and you feel the energy coursing in your body. In some ways, you have a core connection to what the deepest spiritual attainment is — this generates enormous energy and inspiration and draws you forward to your chosen path.
It is all new, so you explore the spiritual world with a child's wide open eyes. This is what we often refer to as the "sponge" stage. In it, you accept everything but you do not yet apply discernment or even much differentiation. Everything is good; everything is valid. You might explore and read any related subject to your interest. You might follow the recommendation of any teacher, friend or acquaintance who appears to be on a spiritual path. For instance, if you are interested in Buddhism, you might read every Buddhist title in the local library to explore it all, irrespective of the branch of Buddhism, and you might also read anything else with an Eastern flavor such as Hindu teachers. Because of the newness, exploration within this layer can feel like pure Truth and the stuff of great revelations. This is the "diving in" to a new teaching. This layer helps you get a feel for what is out there and helps bring the teachings deeper within you, past the surface layers of personality.
Layer 2: Initiate
After some time spent in the Explorer layer, there is often a realization that you need to narrow down your focus so that you can explore more deeply into what resonates with you. You cannot become a master of all teachings at once; here you find that you need to focus on one thing at a time.
The emphasis in this layer of learning is on the structure of what is being learned. Passages, sutras, and scriptures are memorized and you attempt to distill for yourself the essence of a teaching for a purer understanding. This helps you incorporate that essence into the routine of your daily life. You have a basic understanding of your chosen teaching, and with this understanding comes a first siphoning off of what does not work. For instance, if you were learning about Christianity, you might at this point choose which denomination you wish to belong to and decide on some level that other denominations aren't "the Truth"- for you. You have decided which path to follow and what works best for you in this moment. This enables you to have more focus so as to better incorporate what there is to learn in the cells of your body.
Within this layer, there is also a sense of awe for all the wisdom that is out there as well as for other "wiser" beings who are teaching you. You search for teachers who bring a deeper layer of learning. This can give you a magnificent feeling of support and guidance, and it can also lead to the (false) belief that others know best for you than you do. This belief is gradually let go as learning progresses.
Layer 3: Teacher
Within this layer of learning, you've already accomplished a lot of intellectual and social learning — there is a recognition that further study yields diminishing returns. You see all the learning that you have accomplished so far. The value of the teaching is still very much appreciated, however, and so you begin to focus on teaching what you have learned to others. There is an emphasis on demonstrating the authority of learning — that you know the teaching. Teaching others brings you a renewed appreciation in what you have learned; there is a dual experience of the joy of this path.
Within this layer, you may desire to create a study group. You may become a counselor. You may respond regularly to questions in a society or in an online group. You may proselytize if your path advocates it. You may write a blog. By teaching others and exploring your own beliefs, you learn more yourself and see how your learning interacts with others' paths. You expand your own presence to try to influence others.
The limit of the learning so far, however, is that up to this point you have been learning primarily from external sources: books, teachers, and the community around you. You are an authority under something else such as an organization or an abstract teaching. Therefore what you teach tends to be your interpreted regurgitation of what you have learned so far. You do not yet teach directly and solely from your own soul. In other words, the student becomes an authority by playing the role of what they think a true person on the path should be. A student of Buddhism might meditate regularly, speak with compassion and follow the eightfold noble path as best as they can. Experimenting with authority in this external fashion is all part of the journey to find a true sense of inner power by learning to live your path from your deepest essence.
Layer 4: The Search Begins
"What?" you may exclaim. "The Search Begins only here? What about Layers 1 to 3? I've been an expert - I'm not just beginning!"
It is in this layer that the diving off the cliff toward inner knowingness truly begins. This is the fulcrum layer between following a teaching and living it from within. In the previous layers, there was a social identity — a firm path to follow — which can involve teaching others. If you belong to an organization and have an identity as such, you'll have an understanding of what is appropriate within the teaching of your organization. However, at some level you will realize that just because someone else speaks a truth doesn't mean their truth is yours. Following the path of one's own quiet inner voice requires courage, integrity, and a willingness to step away from the herd. It requires changing your path if one day that path doesn't feel right for you — even if it disappoints others' expectations.
This is where the dark night of the soul appears. What you know disintegrates and crumbles around you — your identity, your comforts and defenses — so that you may find something greater: your Self.
In short, the inner self opens and begins to speak up. You have a newfound dialog with your own soul and essence. The newness of this creates movement in your life in thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Conflict and turmoil can appear if one's inner voice differs from what has been learned. It is rare that your true perception matches exactly the teaching that you have been following. Perhaps you realize that your body does not truly want to sit in meditation for hours and that substituting other practices can give you the same benefit. Perhaps common phrases you have used now feel dogmatic — that is, having lost their personal meaning for you. Within this layer you'll find yourself questioning authority of all kinds so that you find that you yourself are your own greatest guru. In some spiritual communities, this creates unrest, discomfort and conflict. Cries of 'heresy' and of not being 'true to the teachings' can occur. However, in this layer you feel compelled to truly bring your teaching to a new level that includes being true to one's self. There is a desire to see for one's self instead of relying on anyone else's experience, including liturgy. Every true teaching is a living teaching — and it is your life you bring.
This layer also brings a deeper connection to others — you are bringing more of yourself forward in meeting with others. You are no longer identified as "just" a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or any other member of a teaching. You are you. You are an expression of the Divine, just as you are, and you begin to recognize with your own eyes - not simply through others' words - that others are as well. By beginning to truly be yourself, you support others in recognizing themselves as well. You begin to understand the greeting "Namaste" for the full depth of its meaning:
That which is of God in me greets that which is of God in you
Layer 5: Truth in the Moment
Here, a regular connection to essence occurs and you recognize the dichotomy that while your past learning may have been true for you at that time, newfound revelations and perceptions are always different in each moment. You therefore learn to live by your own perceptions, moment by moment, with a deep trust in them. You know that there are no rules, only choices - and that all choices contain within them an inherent perfection. You build from your past learning instead of limiting yourself to it. The ideas of "right", "wrong", "good" and "evil" fall by the wayside. There is only Truth, and part of that truth is a deep love of life and everyone and everything in it. The result is an expansive flexibility that is filled with gentle humor and play.
Because of this flexibility, there are many ways that you might manifest who you truly are:
You may find a newfound interest in other learnings and see them no longer as different from one another, but as part of a universal teaching.
You may begin to have a gentle, relaxed laughter as the humor of life itself is experienced. Yes, this path is perfect - as is every other path!
You may find a new sense of creativity and even eccentricity. For instance, if you explained a spiritual topic to others 10 times, you may give 10 completely different explanations - each one being true as a completely new discovery in that moment. These may even be contradictory on a superficial level - but the contradictions will help others see the deeper truth.
You begin to let go of the "shoulds" that are in your life and live life simply as you desire. There's less need to do anything. Paradoxically, this lets you act selfless, help others more, and make better use of your time. Living firmly in this energy helps firmly build community and connection around you. True pillars of community live from here.
Layer 6: Living Deep Harmony
In this layer the connection to One has become deeper and stronger; there is less focus on what looks like teaching and more focus on loving. You live life with sacredness and spaciousness of experience, and within that spaciousness grows a deep sense of inner peace. There is room for all of You. This brings harmony in thought, emotion, and action. You love life itself. You meet all of life, from your inner demons to external conflicts, with that sense of inner harmony. This can bring tremendous inspiration to others as it shows others how to let go of past habitual conflicts and destructive habits.
This harmony also extends to tremendous compassion for the world. You bring all you have learned through manifesting a calm sense of appreciation of life in whatever form it may take. This compassion can manifest as humanitarian action, like with Mother Theresa, or through social change, as with the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Because the action comes from inner peace, movements arise seemingly without effort. There is little basis for internal conflict.
Layer 7: Being Pure Presence
This is where the great spiritual teachers reside. Here you regularly experience essential oneness with the Self: your essence, your Buddha-nature, your Atman, or your Christ Consciousness. You experience the reality of Who You Are. Intellectual learning is put aside as you teach from the Now. There is no longer a need to teach, nor to change things — perfection is experienced simply as What Is. Love is expressed simply by being, and this is felt powerfully by those around you. This manifests as pure presence.
The power of manifesting your full nature cannot be underestimated. Students came simply to sit with Ramana Maharshi, for example, because sitting in his presence enabled them to experience inner harmony for themselves.
Pure presence is more than the ultimate manifestation of a teaching, a religion, or a path. It is the unrestricted allowing of All That Is - and this creates an unlimited potential for creation and conscious choice. It is this field which allows great healing to occur. It is a far deeper authority and power than the third layer, as the authority with the layer of Being Pure Presence comes from the full allowing of All That You Are, which without exception exceeds your wildest imagination of what you can experience. Your full and complete presence is the ultimate gift that you bring to the world and to others.
Using the Layers
How does the layer concept work in reality? Again, there is no linear progress through them, although you may experience a sense of that for a given time. We all have access to those layers — when everything just clicks and I am in the beautiful flow of the moment.
Every layer is part of the beautiful tapestry we weave on a collective global basis through our experience. Every layer has a purpose and a use. Every layer is necessary to create the structure of that tapestry and to hold it together. So wherever you are in the moment is perfect for that moment. You can flow through the layers seamlessly and effortlessly, weaving your own path through the tapestry with glorious colors, being more of who you are, and in so doing encourage others to be more of who they are, to deepen and brighten the colors we weave together.