Whether you like your spiritual life in the fast lane or prefer a more gradual and grounded experience, you can’t go wrong.

Our modern world values speed, convenience, and quick results. We zoom along our highways, enjoy fast food, and pursue the immediate gratification of our desires. We put a high premium on achieving timely results in all areas of our lives. Rather than musing or philosophizing, we often prefer to just cut to the chase.

This tendency also plays out in our attitudes toward spirituality. If awakening or enlightenment is promised, then we want it right now. We often skip over preliminaries, and even the need for certain practices, and focus only on the end result. For example, Eastern religions and their emphasis on achieving realization have become increasingly popular in the West since the 1960s. We are excited when a guru says, “Relax, you are already enlightened,” or when we discover a specific teaching that offers complete transformation.

It is, of course, rarely that easy. After more than 30 years of church ministry, I can attest that despite my best efforts in teaching the deep truth that we are essentially one with the One, my job security always remained guaranteed. Many things had happened in people’s lives, some quite wonderful, but during those years no one had become a fully realized Christ or Buddha, as far as I could determine. The work continued. We may have glimpses of the unitive state but they are often temporary; the long haul of unfoldment remains.

The Short and Long of It

The distinction between the path of immediate awakening and the gradual path of awakening are not just distinctions discovered by modern-day seekers. In fact, they are inherent within most spiritual traditions, especially in their mystical cores. The short and the long paths are distinct, but are they contradictory? Does one preclude the other? Let’s find out by looking at the promises, gifts, and blind spots of each approach.

We can start with the Unity teachings themselves. The beautiful teaching that the Christ spirit or Presence dwells in fullness within each of us right now can be transformative, especially for those who have been imbued with ideas of our sinfulness or separation from the Divine. To affirm and pray from this consciousness of oneness is powerful.

There is a caveat, though. Without sufficient understanding of our own psychology and that tricky thing we call ego, we can end up spiritualizing our ego and falling prey to a kind of self-satisfied arrogance instead of expressing the love and wisdom of our essential Christ nature.

Jesus knew the dangers of this tendency. His teachings and practices are all about self-emptying and giving glory and power to God rather than to himself. He counseled humility, which I believe is one of our most helpful friends on our spiritual journey. The simplest and most humble of souls—the Dalai Lama comes to mind—are those who laugh the most infectiously and shine the most brilliantly. These souls have found that simplicity and spontaneity, hallmarks of immediacy, are ungirded by discipline and consistency, the hallmarks of the gradual path.

I should confess here that the immediate path greatly appeals to me. I fully accept, through my own direct experience, that the timeless moment of full awareness and enlightened consciousness is always available. However, I also know how easily that moment of freedom and release can dissolve in the distractions and desires of our everyday lives. So I have come to have enormous respect for the rigor and dedication of the gradual path.

Short paths, like the Tibetan practices of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, although offering immediate realization, are given only to those who have succeeded in preliminary practices. In addition, they often take the form of three-year retreats in remote places. Talk about discipline!

Again, in Japanese Zen practice there is lots of talk about satori or kensho—moments of clarity and spontaneous awakening—but if and when these take place, they do so in the context of arduous meditation and deep scrutiny of koans (paradoxical riddles designed to cultivate a deep, intuitive knowing). The dedication of Christian mystics like St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart attests to the fact that pellucid awakening is often hard won.

Whether you like your spiritual life in the fast lane or prefer a more gradual and grounded experience, you can’t go wrong.

Potential Pitfalls

The pitfall of the immediate path is that the awakening we experience is short-lived. It is not underpinned with the discipline and understanding needed to sustain that moment of opening. In a Christian context, this flowering has shallow roots and is often called cheap grace.

The pitfall of the gradual path is its overemphasis on the step-by-step approach. There can be an endless focus on our psychological faults and flaws, and the practices to overcome the frailties of our humanness are long and hard. Various systems have been devised that help us look closely at our mind and its motivations, such as the spiritual exercises of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, or the subtle teachings of Theravada Buddhism on mindfulness and clear seeing. We know as Unity students that we tend to become what we focus upon, and if we are not careful, these rigorous paths can actually keep us from the joys of realization that are their goal.

Call Off the Search

The influential 20th-century Hindu teacher H.W.L. Poonja (affectionally known as Papaji) advised his followers to “call off the search.” To be an endless seeker can relegate us to just that—endless seeking and never finding. Papaji’s advice is to see in a different context, become aware of the truth that we have already arrived at fullness, here and now.

The apostle Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 15:52 that the final realization will come “in the twinkling of an eye.” I think he is right. I believe many of us have had that experience, whether spiritual or not, of coming to an awareness or to the solution of a problem, often after much work and effort, and realizing that it had happened easily and effortlessly, almost timelessly.

The immediate or short path and the gradual or long path are not mutually contradictory then. They support each other. I greatly appreciate that someone is praying continually in the Unity Prayer Vigil Chapel. Prayer work is being done ceaselessly while, at the same time, Unity teachings also affirm the possibility of immediate healing and connection to the Divine.

I am also grateful to a particular ecumenical community in Wales that is focused on Hindu practice. As well as running a farm and a hospice and providing hospitality to all who visit, they hold six ceremonies each day in praise of the Divine in all. They are but one of countless communities, churches, and temples worldwide that offer the deep foundation of spiritual practice upon which awakening can take place.

I am a nature mystic and have been since childhood. I find the beauty, order, and harmony of the natural world an endless source of inspiration. The wonder is that the natural creation is always there whether we are aware of it or not. If I experience a sudden and spontaneous moment of opening or awakening because of something I see or feel in nature, it is because that timeless moment of awakening happened in time itself. The immediate and the gradual are one because we live in a both/and world, not an either/or world.

The Silence

So why is it seemingly so hard to experience an awakening that is more than just a temporary breakthrough that so quickly fades away? The spiritual teacher and author Paul Brunton says in his book The Short Path to Enlightenment: Instructions for Immediate Awakening (Larson Publications, 2014), “The presence is always there, always waiting to be recognized and felt, but inner silence is needed to make this possible. And few persons possess it or seek it.”

Silence, of course, is not simply the lack of sound and distraction. I remember when I first started meditating (almost 50 years ago) I required total quiet so that I might “meditate properly.” I’d get irritated by traffic or if my girlfriend made sounds in the room nearby. Today I see the ridiculousness of that demand. We can never find a place that is totally silent in the outer sense. When we enter the inner silence of our being, however, outer sounds simply fade from our awareness or become like waves on the shore—a part of the natural rhythm of life.

Unity cofounder Charles Fillmore referred to prayer as the Silence; stillness and silence have always been at the core of the movement’s spiritual practice. Various tranquil spots around Unity Village display affirmations, taken from the Bible, such as, “Be still, and know,” and “Peace, be still.” As we take time and sit in the Silence and are still, our gradual path of disciplined practice can open us up to the immediate presence that, as Brunton said, “is always there, always waiting to be recognized and felt.”

Immediate or gradual path? The answer is yes. As the Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” As spiritual beings in human form, we have been given the immense gift of recognizing the essential truth of our being. Yet as embodied beings, our task is to carry that realization into everyday life.

Paul John Roach is the author of the new book Unity and World Religions, published by Unity Books last December. The book examines how the five universal principles in Unity teachings are expressed in the heart of all the world’s major faith traditions. To order a copy, visit unity.org/shop.

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

This article was designed by Mark Szymanski and received a 2022 Folio: Eddie Award honorable mention.

2022 Folio: Eddie and Ozzie Awards

About the Author

Rev. Paul John Roach is a writer and world traveler who served as a minister based in Fort Worth, Texas; as a board member for Unity World Headquarters; and hosted World Spirituality on Unity Online Radio. Visit pauljohnroach.com.


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