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 –
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 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 . You may
respond regularly to questions in a society or in an 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. A student of the Michael Material
might teach others about overleaves or begin to learn to channel. If
you have an advanced degree in psychology you may hold workshops and
others.

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 , 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. I’ll use my own experience as an example:

When I
began to focus on my spiritual path, everything lit up for me. I wanted
to taste it all. I found truth in so many different things: energy
healing of all kinds, crystals, the whole "ascension" idea, plant lore,
shamanism, the work of (just a few examples). Everything
tasted good! I was clearly in the Explorer layer. This
is what I often refer to as the "sponge" stage. As time went on, I
applied some discernment. Some things resonated more than others. I
deepened my look at the things that felt right to me. I was in the Initiate
layer. Over time, I felt that I wanted to speak about what I knew. I
had taken these truths into my being and was ready to move them outward
again. I was a Teacher, but also used the Explorer and Initiate layers when new things were presented.

Then
the real fun began. Everything fell apart and I questioned it all. I
went deeper into myself, examined my beliefs, and came out more sure of
who I was and how I viewed the Universe. The Search Begins. And at times, because of that, I’ve been in Truth in the Moment. But frequently I’ll move into Teacher because it works for that time. And then into Explorer/Initiate when I wish to learn something new. And I’ve had moments, perhaps, of Living Deep Harmony and Being Pure Presence — 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.