The Open Path

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


The Open Path

by Elias Amidon

What is Openness?
One of the most joyful moments in the life of the spiritual seeker is when we recognize that the long sought-for goal is already here. We are the pure Presence the sages and poets speak about. Not our personality, but the heart of our own natural awareness is this most intimate and infinite Presence. We understand in these moments of realization that we are one with all of reality and have always been so, and that this identity is completely safe, free, and inexpressibly kind. There is nothing more that needs to be done for us to be complete. Nothing needs to change. We do not have to improve ourselves or get anything right. We recognize there is no question of being worthy or not worthy of this illumination, of achieving or not achieving it. It is our natural state.

And yet we may often experience ourselves disconnected from realizing this natural state. What will reconnect us? What will lead to realization?

In one word: openness. Openness means being not closed, not attached to anything, not defended, not judgmental, not possessive. Here we see how openness is best described by what it is not. It is the absence of something – for example when we say a window is open, it means the window is not where it was when it was closed. But the openness of the window actually has nothing to do with the window anymore. It is when the window is not. This reminds us of Meister Eckhart’s phrase, “God is when you are not.”  Or as Martin Heidegger described it, “A person is not a thing or a process, but an opening through which the absolute manifests.”

We can begin to appreciate the mystical depth and simplicity of the experience of openness when we recognize that openness is the nature of pure awareness. Actually experiencing openness is not properly speaking an experience – it is the field in which all experiences arise. Our awareness has neither center nor boundary, and can contain vast expanses of the universe or the intimacy of a kiss. As a container, awareness is simply open and empty.

Yet for many reasons throughout our lives we come to identify ourselves with the contents of our awareness, with our opinions, desires, aversions, self-concept, and other mental and emotional fixations. This conditioning gradually becomes experienced by us as what is real, while our natural state of open awareness is felt as vulnerability and lack. Often the reaction to this sense of vulnerability is a contracting away from any hint of openness, masking it with self-assertion, defensiveness, or self-doubt.

The work of the Open Path is a direct approach to releasing this reactivity and opening into our natural condition of clear awareness. It involves a spontaneous giving up, a non-grasping that gives us no place to dwell. As we gradually (or suddenly) learn to flow with this letting go, the intimacy and beauty of life are revealed. In the tranquility of pure openness we awake, without an agenda, present to what is.

Signposts on the Open Path
In trying to point to anything like a path, even an open one, we risk making up complications for a process that is really quite simple. If there is nowhere to go, because the truth of What Is is already here, then there is nothing we need to do, and nothing we have to be reminded of, and no point of having signposts on a path that doesn’t exist anyway.

And yet… we frequently experience the sense there is something we need to do, there is something that needs to be changed, there is something obstructing our happiness. This is natural. Hence the utility of a path (with signposts) arises. This is also natural. But the problem for many paths is that they can’t help becoming institutionalized as they seek to persist through time. They become paved highways with all sorts of signposts, rest-stops and re-fueling stations. Their original purpose—to reconnect us with our natural state of oneness with infinite Presence—is obscured.

The goal of the Open Path is to keep itself less formed than that, to remain light, open. The Open Path exists, in truth, only in the moments it serves. It is more like an ideal than a particular process or institution. In terms of method it is simply a series of reminders, and the remembering itself. The Open Path makes itself up as it goes along.

That said, we might be able to discern a few signposts[1] that characterize the Open Path:

  1. an Open Path will be paradoxical and non-definitive – that is, it will avoid taking refuge in definite conclusions or dogmas about realizing the Truth but rather live within naturally arising paradoxes;
  2. an Open Path will be experiential – that is, its evidence will be experienced in-the-moment and spontaneously with each individual; and
  3. an Open Path will be inclusive of all views and practices that serve the realization of an awakened, compassionate life.

In the remainder of this essay I would like to explore these three signposts in a little more depth.

I. Paradox, Non-Definitiveness, and the Open Path
It seems we live in an infinite field of paradoxes. Nothing about this life is definitively so. (Even that statement!) The longer we live the more we witness contradictions everywhere: this is true, but so is that. As Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan once remarked, “Reality is a function of contradiction.”

We don’t have to look hard to experience the profound paradoxes of life. For example, consider our sense of existing in time. It certainly feels like we exist in time, with the future streaming into the present moment and then flowing into the past. But if we look closely we cannot find any evidence of the future. Where is it? Can we say it exists? And the same with the past. Where is it? Both what is about to happen and what has happened do not exist – at least there seems to be no way we can locate them or identify them anywhere except in our ephemeral thoughts. And the present moment? Where is that? What exists now, in this moment, seems to appear out of nowhere (because it doesn’t exist just before it does) and then it immediately vanishes again into nowhere. This moment in which everything happens is actually zero-time. So how is it that we can say we exist? Where? When? We are an instantaneous synapse between what isn’t yet and what isn’t anymore. And yet – here we seemingly are!

Wherever we turn – personal relationships, the social contract, politics, morality, religion, philosophy – with a little inquiry we arrive at realizations of paradox. For example, when a loved one dies, we grieve. The loss is experienced as tragic, impossible, momentous. Yet sooner or later a moment comes when we realize we are no longer grieving in that way. Does this mean the grief we felt was fictitious? Our loved one is still gone, that implacable fact has not changed, and yet we find ourselves going about life, even smiling and laughing. The logic of grief’s existence remains true, yet so is the logic of its non-existence. We naturally come to live within both sides of the paradox.

Paradoxes of the Path
In explicitly “spiritual” realms it is no different. The more we inquire into what is real the more we arrive at paradoxes. One of the most commonly cited is the paradox that involves our feeling separated from the Divine (that is, God, the Beloved, the Real, the One, the Only Being, Buddha Nature, the Self, What Is, etc.) This sense of separation from the Divine is the origin of all our seeking. But how is it that we could experience ourselves as other than the Only Being? It’s a contradiction in terms. The Only Being is the Only Being!

Yet this experience of feeling separate from the “Beloved” is persistent. Its leads to our following a spiritual path, which means seeking earnestly, inquiring deeply, learning from teachers and teachings, practicing practices, praying, meditating, etc. All these activities presumably aid us in breaking through our feeling of separation from the One, although we also realize the contradictory nature of that feeling. We could not possibly be separated from the Only Being! And yet…

So we practice. We meditate. We read essays like this one. But if what we are seeking to realize is already true and present (because it couldn’t be anywhere else), then are we not just spinning our wheels when we engage in spiritual practices? Is following a spiritual path simply a matter of distracting ourselves with interesting things to think and talk about, and claiming for ourselves a spiritual identity which, by its very nature of defining us, keeps us glued to the feeling of separation? Is the whole project of a spiritual path therefore counterproductive? As Zen master Hakuin Ekaku wrote:

Not knowing how close the truth is,
we seek it far away – what a pity!

Yet the very closeness of the Truth is what hides it. Its “hiddeness” produces another paradox—the sense that if we don’t follow a spiritual path we can experience ourselves as lost, separated from the “Beloved,” yet if we do follow a path we can delude ourselves into imagining the Beloved is somewhere ahead, just beyond reach, thus insuring that the Beloved will remain just that, a “thing” that is beyond reach.

A related paradox of the path can be described in terms of the utility, or futility, of effort. Following a spiritual path is often associated with the sense that one must apply effort to achieve “realization.” I become committed to the effort of practicing various methods whose purpose is to break the trance of my being a separate self. However the very idea there is a someone who can do a practice that will eradicate the illusion of that someone’s existence is curious to say the least. There never was anyone there!

To summarize just these three paradoxes:

  1. We experience ourselves separate from the One,

yet we are nothing other than the One;

  1. There are practice paths that can help liberate us from this sense of separation,

yet by its very nature no path or practice can liberate anyone;

  1. If we apply effort we can create conditions that support awakening,

yet there is no independent ‘self’ that can choose to apply effort or that could be awakened.

Learning to live within paradoxes like these – and not throw up our hands in exasperation at their contradictory nature – is at the heart of the Open Path. These paradoxes are not simply philosophical curiosities. Allowing these kinds of paradoxes to do their work on an experiential level makes all the difference in the dynamic of clear awakening to What Is.

There is nothing definite about a paradox. There are no neat conclusions that can be drawn. After all, we are considering ‘awakening to the Truth’ – and whatever the ‘Truth’ is, it is most assuredly unimpressed with any conceptual conclusions we can make about it.

So when we speak of an Open Path we mean first of all a path of practice and understanding that welcomes paradox. In allowing the mind to accept paradox we can appreciate how the mind comes to its limit and cannot make a conclusion. Instead, a sense of opening occurs, a sense of having nowhere to land, of being dislodged from a position by the force of non-definitiveness.

II. The Experiential Nature of the Open Path
The work of the Open Path engages with both the “realm” of conditioned experiences and the “realm” of unconditioned awareness. Though these are not actually two distinct “realms,” it is initially useful to delineate them like this. Conditioned experiences, such as the felt-sense of opening described above and all the other experiences available through practices, teachings, prayer, meditation, worship, etc., can be helpful in creating a ripeness for the realization of our original nature. At the same time, it is important to remember that in these experiences there is always the subject-object relationship functioning. An experience and an experiencer. Self and other. A fundamentally divided world.

At a certain point one’s ripeness allows the possibility for opening beyond this subject-object dichotomy. Through a variety of ways – intensive inquiry, deconstruction of repetitive stories, work with koans and paradoxes, guided meditations, doing nothing, the student begins to glimpse the possibility that his or her familiar “self” is a mirage. As these glimpses are repeated, the mirage becomes less and less distinct until the sense of being a “subject” in relation to a world of “objects” vanishes. Actually the “subject” doesn’t really vanish because it wasn’t there to begin with. This is like the familiar story of stepping into the yard at night and seeing a snake on the ground in front of you, only to turn on a flashlight to discover the snake is a coil of rope. It never was a snake!

With the vanishing of the illusion of the subject-object duality, the world awakens. God awakens. As Angelus Selesius joked, “God can only come visit you when you’re not there.” At this point, revelation is no longer from a secondary source. It is first-hand. No scriptures, beliefs, teachers or teachings are relevant or need to be relied on. There is no longer the filter of self and of conceptual interpretations and emotional anticipations intercepting What Is. It is bare perception. Vivid, pristine awareness. Just This.

It is extraordinary because it is completely ordinary and natural. The world still arrives in awareness, but “you” are simply transparent, open, lucid awakeness. No decorations. The truth of What Is is immediate, spontaneous, and self-evident.

III. The Inclusivity of the Open Path
Nearly 100 years ago, a young Indian mystic and musician was sent to the West by his teacher to bring the “message” of the Open Path. He didn’t call it that, but it was the same message. He called it “a message of spiritual liberty.” It was a different time, at the beginning of the diaspora of world spiritual traditions, and his language sought to fit into and then stretch the limits of the spiritual conceptions of the time. Trained as a Sufi, Inayat Khan created a Sufi school here in the West to further his task. However, unlike most Sufi orders that take their orientation strictly from the teachings of Islam, he established an “open” lineage that recognizes the divine inspiration in all religions. As he expressed it:

Sufism takes away the boundaries that divide different faiths by bringing into full light the underlying wisdom in which they are all united.

Understood in this way, the Open Path is simply the path traveled by those who bring into full light the wisdom underlying all religions. Hence it is not a path that belongs to any particular tradition or group, Sufi or otherwise.

On a global scale we can identify the Open Path with the vast integrative spiritual experiment now being explored by people around the world as a result of the cross-fertilization of world spiritual traditions. Since Inayat Khan’s time the scope of our available spiritual “lineage” has opened to include wisdom from all of humanity’s ancestors.

As a result of these changes millions of seekers now combine two or more traditions in their own practice and spiritual view. While some traditionalists criticize this interweaving of spiritual views and practices as superficial or dangerous, it is a natural occurrence that has been experienced throughout history. After all, every supposedly pure tradition is a hybrid.

As we encounter teachings from the Kabbalah, from Buddhist sutras or Sufi saints, from Christian mystics like Eckhart or Merton, or from Hindu sages like Shankara or Ramana Maharshi, we are faced with the challenge of integrating a reliable spiritual life from these diverse sources. While religionists may scowl at this “challenge,” it is nevertheless a real occurrence for many of us that cannot be brushed aside.

This challenge is the “footfall” of the Open Path, its trail-breaking edge of discovery. And no one can do it for us, because the only guideline to follow is what works. We are looking for, as the nondual teacher Peter Fenner remarked,  “the work that gets the job done.” Whatever teachings and practices serve the realization of an awakened, compassionate life are welcome.

It has been argued that this approach to one’s spiritual life is cafeteria-style religion and is doomed because there are no “obligations.” While such dilettantism may certainly be a shadow possibility of the Open Path, it is for almost any endeavor. Embracing the inclusive, non-definitive and experiential spirit of the Open Path is not without rigor or sincerity. It is not a path for the faint-hearted.

Another aspect of the inclusivity of the Open Path is that it doesn’t claim specialness. In fact, even to call it the Open Path, with capital letters, is misleading. It could just as well be a path without a name, or “a pathless path.” It is, by its own declaration, open, and that implies it is not exclusive to anyone or anything. Its message is utterly democratic. There is no one who is more privileged or worthy of its simple Truth. Its whole point is the revelation of, in Inayat Khan’s words, “the divine light hidden in every soul.”

The inclusivity of this universal, integrative way of awakening also means that one can be a devout Christian or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or Hindu or follower of any other religion, or lack of one, and yet be a traveler on the Open Path. What is required of the traveler is simply openness to guidance and inspiration from any direction, openness to “what works,” openness to the paradoxes of existence, and openness to living without concepts of self and other. The Open Path is the end of fundamentalism and the beginning of beauty.

Perfectly selfless, the beauty of it, the butterfly
take it as a personal achievement, he just
disappears through the trees. You too, kind and

humble and not-even-here, it wasn’t in a greedy

mood that you saw the light that belongs to everybody.

– Jack Kerouac

[1] I am indebted to my teacher, Murshid Fazal Inayat-Khan, for first pointing out these signposts in a somewhat different context in the 1980’s.

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