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A good measure for determining whether so-called spiritual, religious, or mystical experiences are higer or lower than average, mundane experience, is this: is there more or less awareness?

Some others might be…

Is your way of participation that of blind impulsivity, or engaged spontaneity?

Is your way of liberation one of fierce destruction, or creative dissolution?

Do you feel specialness, or nobility?

Suggestions to continue this list are welcome.

I realized today that I spend most of my time on this blog talking about awakening and practices which can help the process along. What I don’t talk about is the fact that none of this is necessary.

The truth is that awakening doesn’t make you better. Awakening won’t solve your personal problems. In fact, it only solves one very specific problem, which turns out to be no problem at all. When I take the time to consider my motivation for posting my writings here, I find that it has nothing to do with trying to convince people that they should try to wake up, so they can be better, or feel better, or gain some special salvation or safety from the world. I would never want to put those ideas into the heads of otherwise ordinary people. But, the truth is that so many people are already on this path. They’ve already decided that it’s important to wake up. It’s for those people that I offer these writings. This work can take a long time, and I would hate for it to take longer than it needs to.

Emptiness is not static. There’s nothing to it, nothing that can be set apart from anything else. Somehow emptiness and awareness are inseparable in essence. This is how your own awareness is the starting point, the path, and the goal. Therefore, if you don’t feel compelled to practice, don’t! If awakening isn’t important to you, that’s fine! You’re no better, and no worse, than me. I’m no better, and no worse, than you.

Honestly, “enlightenment” as a term is terribly misleading. Reality is always-already itself. There are those who don’t know this, and those of us who do. Likewise, there are those who simply don’t give a shit. They’re probably the best off! Those who don’t know, and don’t care, are the highest kind of Buddha.

Awakening will not save you from anything. If you take it all the way, you’ll see that there’s nothing to be saved from, and no one to save. Furthermore, this has no bearing on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. All of it is still just as fluid as it ever was. Human beings are human beings, period.

Forget Buddhist clichés like “carry water, chop wood.” Go to work. Play with your kids. Honk your horn at the asshole veering into your lane on the freeway. Go to your daughter’s dance recital, and bring her flowers. And most importantly, stay up late to watch Dexter, and go to work tired the next morning.

But if you can’t do that, I guess you should practice until you can.

The ways in which many Western spiritual types relate to the profound teachings of the nondual traditions is deeply problematic. There is a tendency to learn about some high spiritual truth, like no-self or emptiness, and apply it to their experience using habitual, unrefined attention; basically, their baseline delusional state. They find some truth in the teachings – such as looking for a self and not finding one – and then think they’re enlightened. What they don’t realize is that a lot of the time, the fact that the spiritual truth corresponds to the gross/physical realm of experience is purely coincidental.

The fact of the matter is enlightened beings (humans, for our purposes) do not primarily speak from the same frame of reference as those who are still spiritual sleep walkers. Metaphorically speaking, enlightened folks are awake because they’re learned to use their eye of wisdom, while most people simply use their eyes of their bodies and minds. While this may happen spontaneously is an extreme minority of the awakened, most develop this capacity through good, consistent practice.

Prior to awakening, we are so stuck in our habitual mode of perception – our deeply engrained preference for body and mind – that anything outside of what we consider ordinary receives terms such as “altered states.” It’s silly, even ironic, to consider the deluded state as non-altered. To conflate the illusory with the real; to affirm the shallow as deep; to uphold delusion in place of wisdom; these are the symptoms of the sickness beings are plagued with – and they (read: most of you) don’t even know it!

I’m not one for politics. However, came across a phrase used by some libertarians to express the sentiment of being a part of the thoughtful minority. They say, “Truth is treason in the empire of lies.” How much more does that apply to reality as a whole? Enlightened folks train their minds beyond the baseline deluded capacities of the majority, and they peer into the nature of experience with laser-like precision. Not only do they discover truths about reality in general, but also the cause and cure of suffering. And what do the deluded say? “Bollocks. Rubbish. They’ve just learned to have state experiences. It’s their brains playing tricks on them. It’s a misapplication of neural mechanisms which evolved for a different purpose altogether. Everybody knows there’s only material. Any reasonable, sensible person knows there’s nothing beyond basic human perception.”

To that I say: Bollocks. Rubbish.

The same is true of some practitioners who have difficulties developing their eye of wisdom. They’re not good at training their attention, and thus haven’t been able to see into reality the way many others claim to. In attempt to validate their practice and insights to others, such an under-developed individual will likely endorse an interpretation of nondual teachings that allows them to fit within their model of what it means to be enlightened.

I find this approach to be very disingenuous, most of the time. What these people are saying is, “One doesn’t have to access this or that state, or train their attention to this or that degree, in order to be enlightened. To teach people this is disempowering and cruel. People suffer when their told that they are not good enough, and that’s just wrong.” I suspect what they mean is something more like, “Look I’ve been working my ass off for decades. If anyone should have been able to train their attention to the superlative degree, it would be me. When you tell others they have to do that, it makes me feel inadequate. I don’t like that, and I don’t like you because you’re the one saying this to me.” I would prefer the latter, because it’s honest, at least.

Bottom line: To get enlightened, it’s not enough to hear a teaching and apply it to your habitual, deluded baseline perceptual condition. Training, for most people, is absolutely required. Don’t think that you’re one of the special 0.000000001% (or fewer!) who can receiving a Dzogchen pointing-out instruction and realize full enlightenment without any practice.

Also, don’t sell yourself short. There are lots of valid ways to open and train the eye of wisdom. They have stood the test of time. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to pick one – seriously, just one – and follow the instructions, patiently and persistently, until you experience the appropriate stages that follow. This takes a lot of time. You’re not likely to master a practice in one month, or even one year. Do not deviate until you meet at least the minimum requirements of mastery, as outlined in whatever tradition you follow. This isn’t about dogma or religion. It’s just like learning a sport, or a musical instrument. If you don’t practice, and don’t follow the sequence, your form will be sloppy and you will not likely perform at the level you aspire to.

As Daniel Ingram once said, “[Don’t] settle for the chips and salsa, when [you] can get the big burrito.”

**Update**

I just came across this excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s essay, Mysticism and Logic. It provides an exceptional example of delusion masquerading as intelligence:

“From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions. Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception.”

Let’s break it down, shall we?

“From a scientific point of view” – I’d like to know what he means by “scientific.” I would guess he is referring to empirical science, which takes as its object of study those perceptions that arise directly from the five senses. If so, then…

“we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes.” – This is what happens when you think of everything in quantitative terms. Hallucinating and mystical visions are qualitatively different, which Russell would know if he put in the effort to have a mystical experience. (Just to be clearly, experiencing a heavenly vision is not the same as awakening.) When there is no qualitative hierarchy that clearly differentiates pre and post, both are seen as just non (Wilber’s “pre/trans fallacy). This is clear to enlightened folks. We know the difference between pre-egoic, egoic, and trans-egoic. Anyone who is operating from the perspective of ego will look at trans-egoic states as simply non-egoic, and lump them into the same category as pre-egoic. Russell is doing just that.

“Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions.” – There he goes again with lumping all abnormal (read: non-normal) physical conditions, along with their associated perceptions, into the same category; which are, of course, categorically “lower” than “normal” perceptions…

“Normal perceptions, since they have to be useful in the struggle for life, must have some correspondence with fact; but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence” – Once again, Russell makes a covert value judgment, preferring those perceptions which aid in the survival of the organism in its physical and vital form. And really, who can blame him? This is all he knows!* And although rooted in common sense, the assumption that all normal perceptions must have some correspondence with fact is not easy to support. The arrogance of this position is astounding.

“but in abnormal perceptions there is no reason to expect such correspondence, and their testimony, therefore, cannot outweigh that of normal perception.” – Oh, but it can – for those who have mastered the territory. This is analogous to saying that astronomical evidence collected using a telescope cannot outweigh normal perception, because telescopic perception serves no survival value. That’s what spiritual practice does – it calibrates your instrument; your eye of wisdom. For the enlightened, the testimony of the eye of wisdom far outweighs that of “normal” perception.

*I’m aware he is dead, but I don’t like writing in the past tense.

“The point arrives, then, when it is clearly understood that all one’s intentional acts – desires, ideals, stratagems – are in vain. In the whole universe, within and without, there is nothing whereon to lay any hold, and no one to lay any hold on anything. This has been discovered through clear awareness of everything that seemed to offer a solution or to constitute a reliable reality, through the intuitive wisdom called prajna, which sees into the relational character of everything. With the ‘eye of prajna’ the human situation is seen for what it is – a quenching of thirst with salt water, a pursuit of goals which simply require the pursuit of other goals, a clutching of objects which the swift course of time renders as insubstantial as mist. The very one who pursues, who sees and knows and desires, the inner subject, has his existence only in relation to the ephemeral objects of his pursuit. He sees that his grasp upon the world is his strangle-hold about his own neck, the hold which is depriving him of the very life he so longs to attain. And there is no way out, no way of letting go, which he can take by effort, by a decision of the will. . . . But who is it that wants to get out?

“There comes a moment when this consciousness of the inescapable trap in which we are at once the trapper and the trapped reaches a breaking point. One might almost say that it ‘matures’ or ‘ripens,’ and suddenly there is what the Lankavatara Sutra calls a ‘turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness.’ In this moment all sense of constraint drops away and the cocoon which the silkworm spun around himself opens to let him go forth winged as a moth. The peculiar anxiety which Kierkegaard has rightly seen to lie at the very roots of the ordinary man’s soul is no longer there. Contrivances, ideals, ambitions, and self-propitiations are no longer necessary, since it is now possible to live spontaneously without trying to be spontaneous. Indeed, there is no alternative, since it is now seen that there never was any self to bring the self under its control.” –Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Picture a man sitting by the edge of a still pond, admiring the calm, serene, reflective quality of the water; truly relishing in its apparent qualities.

Now, let’s suppose every now and then a boat cruises by some 50 yards away from the shore, causing waves to appear, rushing toward the man and disturbing the stillness of the water. The man gets upset at the sight of the waves, so he jumps into the water and attempts to stop the waves using his hands. He tries pushing them down and breaking them apart. He even tries to hold them back so they don’t reach the shore. After a while he will see that the waves are not longer coming in, and he finishes his wave-stopping process until he feels the water is calm enough go back to sitting on the shore.

And then a storm comes. The howling wind disturbs the water, and rain drops splash through the surface. Again, the man jumps in, doing his best to shield the water from falling drops, and still the wind-blown surface. Eventually, the storm recedes. He finishes his work, and goes back to the edge of the shore, exhausted.

And then…

The man in this story fails to realize three very simple, yet important, things: First, that there’s nothing he can do to prevent the water from become disturbed on occasion. There are forces beyond his control, which do not under any circumstances surrender to his desire or will. Second, the act of jumping into the water and manipulating it only exacerbates the initial disturbance. Not only are there waves, but now there’s a man frantically thrashing about, bringing about even more chaos. And third, the water is of the nature to self-stabilize once the disturbance has passed. It didn’t become still because the man jumped in and made it so. Rather, it became still after it was allowed settle according to its own nature.

The man’s attachment to stillness may be the root of the problem. But, even if he remains attached to stillness, he is better off to not interfere with the water when it becomes disturbed. For, then he is likely to experience more stillness than would otherwise be the case. He could do nothing about his attachment and merely behave differently, and his attachment would be better fulfilled.

But, how much better would it be if the man no longer cared whether or not the water was still or disturbed? What if he could learn to appreciate the various ways that water behaves under the various changing circumstances of life, that remain utterly beyond his control? Why, he wouldn’t even need to speed all of his time tending to the shore. He could come and go as he pleases.

Now, that’s dharma!

I’ll get right to the point: I’m not a fan of appeals to tradition.

The reason is simple. There are two primary ways that one can approach the teachings of a well-established spiritual tradition; either one uses the tradition, or the tradition uses them.

How can you tell the difference? That’s pretty simple, too. Those who are used by their tradition show more trust in some particular interpretation of a set of teachings over both their own experience, and/or the experience of flesh and blood beings who are actually awake. When you are used by your tradition, you’ll find yourself saying things like, “But the Buddha said…” (insert any prominent spiritual figure, past or present, in place of “the Buddha” if you’d like), or, “Well, how can you say that when Buddhism has always taught that…” as if one can even know real Buddhism is with any real confidence.

It’s quite a different story when one uses tradition, rather than the other way around. In fact, one who uses a tradition will likely be using traditions, as in, more than one. They look for matching descriptions sometimes, and other times for clues into what might come next. They’re less trusting of anything firmly established, for in rigidity and inflexibility are usually signs of illness or death.

The truth of the matter is this: no awakened woman or man has ever explained the path nor the result in precisely the same way. There are always differences, and these should in no way be swept under the rug. With strong confidence in any tradition comes a lack of confidence in one’s realization. You’ll never see a truly awakened person sticking to the stuffy, traditional script laid down before them by some other religious authority who came before them. If it’s genuine, it’s uniquely conveyed. If it’s partial or phony, it will sound just as you would expect it to. Ingenuous awakening is never expressed in bad faith.

The fact that awakened beings communicate their realizations to such varying degrees is not cause for alarm. Those who are rule by tradition, however, will see the lack of consistency and insist that at least ONE of them must be right, and the others wrong. “Guru So-And-So is the true example of awakening, and all those other guys are either fakes or less realized.” And it is in this very act of looking for authority outside of themselves that leads them on their everlong search for something that is right under their noses.

My advice, which you are free to accept or reject, is to pay attention to the ways that tradition is using you. If you’re looking around for an awakening that fits the description given in some tradition, forget it. It will never be like you imagined. For example, no matter how many times you imagined what it would be like, or had dreams about it, or heard others’ descriptions, or even watched it on cable TV, I would venture to guess that having sex was in most ways spectacularly different than you imagined it to be. (for those of you who have had sex, of course. Kissing works as an example as well.) Awakening is like that, and it’s just as life changing.

Doubt gets a bad rap in most of the spiritual teachings teachings I’ve come across. It’s so often viewed as some kind of stumbling block that is to be removed one’s path, so they don’t trip over it. Instead of doubt, seekers are told to cultivate faith (i.e. confidence, trust) in the teachings or their teacher. Doubt is seen as an opposite to faith, as though you can either express one or the other in any given moment. You either have faith or you have doubt, and to have the latter is to be set up for failure from the beginning. Among communities of faith, expression of doubt is often taboo. Sure, it’s OK to express doubt for a brief period, but it’s expected to be cleared up through prayer or by receiving advice from elders who know better. Faith is the higher virtue, end of story.

The problem is that this faith/doubt dichotomy puts the intelligent seeker in a wicked double-bind. By intelligent I don’t mean genius. I’m referring to ordinary levels of adult intelligence. And this means that for many adults, perhaps upwards of 50% of them, have matured to a point in their human lives where doubt is the expression of higher developmental processes than what is required for doubt to arise in the first place. Was it not doubt that made the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil attractive to our mythical first human beings? Was the serpent not other than that voice inside each one of us that is unsatisfied with anything but knowledge acquired by testing things for ourselves? Giving in to this voice is seen as the root cause of our lives gone-askew, and it is our inheritance, our original sin. Thank God for that sin, for you can’t travel a path if you stay in the garden.

The great misnomer here is that doubt could somehow be removed and replaced with faith, like uprooting a weed and replacing it with a food-producing plant. Some people think this is possible, and some even claim to have done it. Perhaps they have. But in suppressing the expression of doubt (since I sincerely doubt anything has actually been removed), the source energy of doubt is also suppressed. This energy is a tremendous resource that goes untapped for so many people, because they either don’t no about it or don’t believe in the possibility of it. The confusion lies in what I said earlier about doubt and faith being misconstrued as opposites. This isn’t so. Faith and doubt are not expressions of the same energy. The flip-side of doubt is not faith, but rather clarity. We could also call it discernment, or even wisdom. And to which coin do doubt and clarity make up the heads and tails? I’ve been speaking of it already… intelligence.

This is not the kind of intelligence that comes from memorization of facts, the “book smart” variety. It’s the intelligence that is capable of seeing things clearly and accurately as they are. It is the primordial intelligence of the source. It is before ego, before identification of any kind. Therefore, it is selfless, belonging to no one and everyone alike.  I have never known one single awakened person who did not have access to this resource, and who didn’t gain that access through allowing doubt to remain on their path. It is by working with doubt – exploring it, using it, testing it, allowing it – that one discovers how to use this same energy to give rise to clarity and understanding at the deepest levels available to humankind.

I said already that doubt is often mistaken to be the enemy, even the flip-side, of faith. But, in my view, faith and doubt do not arise from the same basic energy, so  so they are not really opposites. I bring this up to point out that faith is not the enemy of doubt, even thought that’s how it seems sometimes. One can simultaneously express great faith and great doubt for this very reason. There’s something more sneaky, more clever, more cunning, to watch out for on the path, which is the expression that attempts to suppress or deny the basic source energies as they are, and thereby distorting their expressions into the forms we call “hindrances.” It can be none other than fear.

But what is fear, really? Much like doubt and clarity, whose source is primordial intelligence, fear also has a source and an alternate expression. For, what is fear other than the fundamental expression of “No”? The opposite of fear is often said to be love, and that is true in some ways. But the word love doesn’t really do this expression justice. If fear is the fundamental “No,” it is that which we are able to close ourselves off from experience. If the fundamental “Yes” is that which we express as openness to experience, this “Yes” is a more basic form of trust; and therefore, faith. Faith is that which says “Yes” to what arises, and fear is what says “No.” And the root energy of both is choice.

Confusing as it may seem, choice is built into the fabric of reality. Yes and No are not unlike wisdom and ignorance, yin and yang, expansion and contraction, nirvana and samsara. This doesn’t jibe well with the philosophy that says because there is no self, there is no real choice or agency. But to think that choice requires an inherently existing self is ignorance. And the more one taps into the source, realizing the primordial intelligence, the more all of this becomes clear. It’s a matter of learning when to say Yes and when to say No on this path. Our confusion leads us to say Yes when saying No would be more beneficial, and vice versa. And this is when doubt becomes particularly useful, for it’s expression says, “Am I saying Yes to this when saying No would be better?” Doubt raises the important questions, leading to skillful experimentation. And this experimentation refines doubt into clarity, which then guides us to taste and see the results of our Yes and our No when applied to life as it shows up for us. Really, there can be no real inquiry without doubt.

So often people say No to doubt when saying Yes will take them further. But you can say Yes when your mind, body, and emotions say No. Feelings often lag behind the decisions of the higher regulating centers; that is, you don’t have to wait until you feel like doing something to do it. All of these energies are expressed in your body, your use of speech, your thoughts, and your actions (that is, expressions as a bodies of No, feelings of No, thoughts of No, actions of No). They need not all be aligned at first. It just takes one step with one of these to give a Yes instead of a No, and that can turn your whole life upside down… or rather, right-side up.

If you doubt any of this, that’s wonderful. Explore it. Use it. Trying saying Yes to doubt if No is getting you nowhere.

I laid out a general sketch of the path of awakening from beginning to end in my previous post on Disintegration and Reintegration. In this post I hope to elaborate on a common misconception that frustrates many a spiritual seeker, and for much longer than necessary in most cases. It is a misconception about the nature of path and its result.

We know the first phase of the path is one leading to the disintegration of the illusion of separateness. This illusion (or delusion) is not merely one of abstract thought, but also of direct perception (as an aside, “direct” here does not mean clear or correct, as one might suspect when contrasting with abstraction). Not only is how you think about the world skewed in the beginning, but also how you experience the world. This is because the thinking and perceiving are interconnected processes, however counterintuitive this might seem to those who have yet to experience any amount of disintegration.

Now, the spiritual path is often described as path leading to the end of suffering, particularly in Buddhism, and also in various forms of Hinduism and Jainism (among others). It becomes pretty clear early in one’s journey that the path leading to the end of suffering is not itself free of suffering. In other words, you will suffer on your way to freedom. Disintegration hurts. Realizing your limitations, facing your fears, experiencing your lack of control – it’s a humbling experience, to say the least. But one inevitably passes through the war zone to a stretch of the journey where the battle has largely, if not completely, subsided. If one keeps practicing, awakening (in the form of completing the path of disintegration) is realized.

A sense of accomplishment undoubtedly arises. “I did it! Suffering has been conquered! It is finished!” And it is… sort of. You see, the difficulties you face on the path give you no other option than to open up, to become exposed and vulnerable. There’s no other way through. And so you open up just enough to get past the difficulties and realizing the initial awakening. You remain open, exposed, and vulnerable for a time, but then you start to close up. Only you don’t notice it, because you feel safe and sound having travelled what seems like a great distance from the war zone.

Herein lies the misconception that thwarts the progress of countless spiritual seekers, even the newly awakened. You thought awakening was a state of calm, where everything is OK. No war, no pain, no grief or sadness, no disappointment or frustration. You feel as though as long as you stay right year, on the other shore, those sorrow-filled days are over. All of that madness happens over there, not over here.

But that isn’t true at all.

The misconception is that believe you are now OK because you’re no longer in the treacherous territory. But moving past the territory is not what saved you. It was the way in which you past through the territory that saved you. It was the shift in the way you relate to whatever you experienced that changed you, even if the change may now seem temporary.

What really occurs on the path is an opening. The opening cannot stabilize to any significant degree without disintegrating the sense of separateness, but that alone will not sustain or fully develop a truly reintegrated freedom. And that’s why reintegration must follow disintegration. One has to keep moving, allowing themselves to experience whatever comes. This isn’t because the first landmark of awakening – the fulfillment of disintegration – was somehow an illusion that now must be discarded and forgotten about. It truly was necessary. But the path of awakening is the path of life as it is, and life as it is brings experiences of joy AND suffering, beauty AND ugliness, pleasure AND pain, fulfillment AND longing. To close yourself off to any of it is to live only a partially-awakened life.

It’s not that you continue to go through struggles because you have yet to finish the job. Difficulties will always come and go. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise. The key is to open yourself up equally to all of the ups and downs of existence. There is no escape, and yet there is freedom in the midst of it all. Freedom is not found outside of life, detached from experience. True freedom is realized only when one first able to let it all go, and then embrace it all once more. You don’t really end up where you started, but you also kind of do.

True doneness comes when being done no longer matters. In that sense, it isn’t being done at all, and is also exactly where and how the awakened live their lives in freedom. But there is no way to realize the result by way of bypassing your difficulties. Skipping over the path is impossible.

Awakening is not like getting a spiritual makeover. Of course, this is seems obvious when put into those terms. No one admits to wanting an artificial spirituality. But just take a look at the types of things being sold by spiritual scenes across the globe: bliss, peace, union with the divine, compassion, equanimity, lovingkindness, generosity, etc. Along with selling potential emotional changes, spiritual scenes also sell worldview adjustments – interdependence, one world, one people, peace on earth, sustainability, and what-have-you. But awakening has very little to do with any of that stuff. It’s not that those things are bad or wrong. It’s just that you can have those things without being awakened, the same way you can be awakened without those things.

Replacing the crucifix hanging in your living room with a Tibetan thangka painting will not wake you up. Trading your monthly subscription to Playboy for a subscription to Tricycle will not wake you up. Smiling at the person who cuts you off on the freeway, rather than flipping the bird at them, will not wake you up. All of these things are merely, as the saying goes, rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. Or, as Alan Watts said, winding your watch on the way to the gallows. Adopting a new lifestyle will not address the issue at hand. Redecorating your ego not help you realize the true state of affairs.

Awakening is not about adopting a new religion or philosophy. It has way more to do with seeing through the limitations of religion and philosophy. It’s not about knowing the right answer to the question. It’s about going beyond questions entirely. It’s not about feeling good. It’s about going beyond feelings.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I’ll leave you with a question that Lama Surya Das is well known for asking, “Why be a Buddhist, when you can be a Buddha?”

Sam