There are many interpretations of this journey…
In my approach to Buddhism, and even my own current practice, I understand that there are stages through which I am passing and will pass as my practice deepens. I believe that these stages occur in most serious spiritual journeys, as they are not tied to Buddhism or my practice itself by specifics.
My initial approach to spiritual practice, especially Buddhism, has been for my own benefit. I think in terms of improving myself, seeking enlightenment, finding peace, living fearlessly … all of these things suggest attainment, suggest a place or a point where my self increases. So, I think we all come first to the Dharma or to God to ask for something for ourselves; I think we all first enter this ego stage.
The second stage, however, arises where I have earnestly sought an understanding of the Dharma – much as if I were ‘inviting God into my life’ or ‘opening my heart to God.’ This stage, of which I see glimpses here and there, feels like a personal relationship with something greater and more powerful than myself. It fills the spirit and the heart with a sense of greatness which is not pride but joyousness. Such joyousness informs and deepens one’s practice; this is the divine stage.
The third stage occurs for me when I allow my relationships with other people to become part of my practice, when I meditate on how I interact with the people around me. The benefits I have sought for myself and the glimpses of grandeur I have experienced, I want to share with those I love. Not only do I want to share them, but I want those whom I love to find the peace and love which I have myself experienced.
Suddenly, my heart feels more open to their suffering, closer to their experience, and the divisions between myself and those I love grow small and insignificant. In this stage, the compassion stage, I feel the lessening influence of the ego stage.
I presume, but have not yet experienced, a fourth stage in which the distinctions between self and others become meaningless, in which the heart and spirit, swelled by wisdom and compassion, expand to seek peace and love for all living things. In the process, concepts such as the ego lose meaning, selfishness has no real application, and acts arise out of infinite compassion. This is the selfless stage.
Perhaps there is even another stage, which in Buddhism might be called the ‘awake stage’ or enlightenment; I prefer to call it the union stage, when spirit has expanded so greatly, when wisdom and compassion have infused heart and mind so completely, when selfishness has evaporated, when one has perceived the nature of existence or perhaps ‘God has shown his face’, that the once-limited ego, the once-limited self is inseparable from the truth of the universe.
There are many other interpretations of this journey, even within the Buddhist sutras. This is only my attempt to clarify and categorize for myself the changes that occur as a result of my practice. May it assist you toward the end of suffering.