NOW THAT I’VE GOT YOUR ATTENTION, I’ll be spending the rest of this column trying to write my way out of the hole I just dug with this post’s title and the accompanying photo. Still, there’s nothing like a little heresy to stir the pot and get things going. Let’s have at it.
WHAT I’M PRIMARILY GOING TO ADDRESS here are my own flaws, errors and sins, because they are the ones I know best, but least like to talk about. Contrarily, yours always seem like fair game, and easy to poke a stick at. Some of my failings are already obvious to the long term reader, but they’re just now becoming obvious to me. Such is the way of self-awareness. In a similar vein, mystics often tell us that awakening can be very much a layered thing. I peel off this layer of narcissism and self-involvement only to find that layer of narcissism and self-involvement. The only thing I’m sure has truly “improved” here over the last five years is my willingness to be honest. Yet let us be clear thatwillingness is not the same thing as ability. It is just as easy for me to fool myself today as it ever was; the mistakes are simply occurring on a more subtle level.
WRITING A SPIRITUAL BLOG at almost any stage of development is very much like taking your clothes off in public with every post—often followed by setting yourself on fire. To be willing to step out into the public square with ever-evolving views one has to be either a slave of truth or a complete idiot. I would guess I’m a bit of both, with the slant moving up or down the scale dependent upon the quality and clarity of that session’s essay. I’m not declaring it noble, but I am declaring that it takes a certain courage. What is so difficult to build up, would, I guess, be much easier to tear down. Fortunately I’ve apparently fallen in with a patient and tolerant group–you. I thank you for that.
IN BARING THE SOUL AND THE MIND, the pain of either inception or reception can help make one a quick-study, so to speak, and it certainly can truncate the learning curve, but as with everything decent in life, it comes at a premium cost. One is the effect it will have on ego. It’s going to get inflated, just as it can in the rest of life, only here it is faster and more intense, which can be a threat to the host’s legitimate intention. On the other side of the coin, which duality always springs on us, it’s going to get deflated brusquely and hurtfully as well, which is not a particularly bad thing, but it can hardly be billed as pleasant. Still, it’s good to learn about the polarities that play out within not just the world, but within oneself.
TWO OF THE OTHER PRICES are foregoing self-satisfaction and rest, which are really two ways of saying the same thing. Great artists are often said to never finish a painting, but to at some point to simply abandon them. So I have found it to be with spiritual growth. The moment we become sure and self-satisfied is the moment we have allowed our diligence and core intention to come to rest. The self-satisfaction may have some duration–indeed, in some cases it can and does last a lifetime–but the restaspect of the equation is wholly illusory. Nothing is static in the universe, and that includes spiritual growth. If we think we are holding our own, we are really moving backward. If we think “now I’ve got it” it’s a sure sign that we do not. I wrote someone this morning that I admired her for picking up the heavy hammer and chisel of real spiritual work. It’s something of a rarity, I think. Yet if we are going to really move forward we are eventually forced to abandon coddling the whims and pains of ego, and the notions of either preening in self-satisfaction, or avoiding the truth in our ugly mirrors have to be dropped. We must abandon our notions of grandiose spiritual advancement the very moment they are noticed. Option B, as always, is to suffer. That wake-up bell, or wake-up hell, is always available to bring us back around.
IN MY OWN CASE, which I won’t dwell on, but which provides a stark example, I’ve made no secret on AC of the fact that there was a long stretch in my life during which I was a petty criminal. One doesn’t have to be classified as an exalted being in order to see such behavior is both selfish, and in my case, inexcusable. I was a drunk for 30 years. Once again, one doesn’t have to stand on a high hill in order to see that a life led in that manner is not a fit goal for any of us. If you start out spiritual life standing in the head-high hole I was in when I began in earnest to attempt a climb upward and outward, then you can make a great deal of progress, and still not be a shining example of moral or spiritual fitness. Another way of saying this is that there was a hell of a lot of onion to peel before I ever even got to these quite numerous and challenging more subtle planes. And how do even I know that these are truly subtle?
WHAT CAN ANY OF US TRULY KNOW? Not much. The more I think I know, the less I truly do;that’s just how the equation works. I could still be a coarse cob in the human basket and not even know it. Such is the power of denial. Such is the power of Maya. It would be a blend of pure arrogance and ignorance to assume that now, at long last, my development is over, complete, finished, and now “I’ve finally got it, and got it all.” It’s a baseless, childish, ignorant notion that once seen through, we should not further cultivate, or allow to lie long within us. It is the killer of actual progress. And to get back to theme of this post, I’m here suggesting that this sort of flawed logic is often the unseen and accidental result of too heavy a reliance on “outside forces” to stimulate our long-wished-for transcendent transformation. Too often this is allowed to creep into the spiritual community as a whole, where it fosters an unhealthy reliance on “transmission” from a much lauded teacher, and on God’s workload instead of our own.
WE HAVE FINALLY COME TO THE HEART OF IT. All the while that I was still fundamentally unconscious, and acting either completely, or almost completely from blind, looping patterns (assuming, for the moment, that I am not still so occupied), I had begun to clothe and frame myself in the trappings of Eastern religion. I was not fond of the term “religion”, so I used “spirituality” but it’s six of one and a half dozen of the other. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. Everyone decorates their home in some fashion; it’s natural to want to see expressions of our interests in our living environment. In that same vein, most of us who are considered to be currently informed and informative have quite likely always been eager, perhaps even compulsive readers. Okay. Certainly it’s better to set our sights on good literature and good direction than on poor ones. The books themselves are not a problem, but a fine habit. It is my innate tendency to model that I have to be careful about. I can look at my artifacts and my books and think I’m doing something because I have them, when I’m not. Conversely I can think they are doing something for me when they’re not. From black, Zen-like clothes and Chinese slippers to shawls and and bangles and sandals, it’s all just stuff.As stuff it is harmless. As modeling clay it is dangerous to our enlightenment. It is at this point that we begin to smoke spirituality instead of practice it. It’s a suit, an image, a projection.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD–this is true—I lived in a dream world; a world parallel to reality, but not ofreality. I kept mostly to myself and constructed a vast world of fanciful illusion and cooperative “hallucination”, as creative and precocious children are wont to do. There was my world and there wasthe world. I was aware of the world, but I didn’t seem to fit into it very well, it wasn’t nearly as entertaining or controllable as my world, and thus I didn’t have any great love for it. In my world, where I was the king, the star, the sheriff and the boss, I fit just fine and everything went according to myplans, or it didn’t go at all. Take that. I knew what was just right for me and just right for you and just what should and shouldn’t happen and when. There’s nothing great to criticize there if it’s occurring within a child.
YET WHEN I WAS AN ADDICT AND A DRUNKARD, I held up this same model of utterly ridiculous and fanciful construction, only of course I no longer had the freedom of aloneness, the protection of childhood, or the great buffer of social acceptance. As an adult, no one was particularly keen on myworld except for me: Mr. Got It All Figured Out, But Just Can’t Seem To Function Very Well. And now Ihad to function in the world in order to make a living, secure a mate, create and protect credit, afford drink and drugs, and advance along the society-approved lanes. Or I could lie around my house all day, be the All Seeing King, and suffer. It was an exasperating time, because I felt that all that sort of mundane stuff was owed me, because I knew I was special, although I could never satisfactorily present why that might be so. I didn’t confuse myself by consulting the facts. What I ended up doing was resisting, fighting, and tearing down whatever fell into my path that wasn’t to my liking, which was damn near everything. The common term for my life modality as a child is fantasy. The term for that same essential modality as an adult is insanity.
FANTASY AND INSANITY ARE BOTH A MATTER OF DEGREE. The great, great majority of our planet is living in either fantasy or insanity, or some mix of the two. From the awakened point of view, the mystics tell us, everyone is thinking insanely, because they’re operating from what we could term avacant point of view. They are all in a dream and don’t know it. In general, the ones who are reasonably happy and well adjusted are living in fantasy, which is absolutely fine and acceptable.Enough of their world is going their way, and they are resigned to going along with the rest what’s happening. They understand the definitions and values of trade-off and negotiation. This is the silent majority. And there’s no reason to ever move from that position unless there’s one inside of you. The ones who are generally unhappy and/or poorly adjusted despite their conditions, are living in insanity.This space is also absolutely fine and acceptable, but we couldn’t label it attractive. Seekers arrive from both communities, but far more of us stem from the second category than from the first. Life is not good. It is not a fun dream. We want out. In Zen they call that predicament, “eating the red hot iron ball”. You didn’t know what you were getting into, or why you ate it, or maybe even when you ate it, but you surely know now that you desperately want to be rid of it! Enter the seeking community. Nothing wrong with that either. Yet.
IT IS MY OWN HABIT TO MODEL. In fact, we can say that the human habit is to model; that’s why we’re so amazingly, perhaps too amazingly, successful as a species. We note what works and copy it. We note what fails, and avoid it. This is a great way to learn how to build houses and bridges. It is a fine way to discover that oysters are not some viscous poison, but a fine delicacy instead. I would never in the world have ever eaten my first oyster on the half-shell had I not been properly prepped for it. Modelling is an excellent methodology for almost anything worldly. Monkey see, monkey do, monkey prosper. But boy, can it ever be a lousy way to go through spirituality. If we’re using modeling as a spiritual strategy, what do we do? We first find a model—a teacher, an author, a teaching, a path, a religion, a calling; whatever. We don’t know shit from Shinola on our own, but we like what we seeover there, because this person or that path or both are representative of a way that we feel we can adapt to aggrandize our egos. That’s not what we openly think, of course, but all too often it is whathappens. This is a way of using what is sometimes called, “the extraordinary ordinary” means of spiritual questing to attain “the extraordinary, special New Me” of Bohemian Station, or what have you. We are cooked before we’ve even lit the stove. Most of us will enter spirituality in this mode, and most of us will stay there. For the authentic striver, at some point she or he will be forced to abandon that position if we are to aiming to not just (perhaps) get a glimpse of reality, and better decorate the dream and our egos, but to actually live it.
WHATEVER LEVEL OF CLARITY has arisen here, and I’ve no earthly idea what level that is, or even if it’s worth your having, has done so despite all but my earliest modeling. All the rest of my modeling installed impediments. I don’t deserve any praise for my efforts. I was looking for a better quality of dream just like nearly everyone else. I was living the Bohemian lifestyle I’d always lived, only now I was an on-again-off-again vegetarian, and I recycled some of my plastics, so I thought I was doing something real. I wasn’t. Had it not been for a crushing life blow that I wouldn’t wish on anyone anywhere, I probably could not have ever been pushed through the fence I’d built around myself and my idealized, cleanly contained and isolated brand of spirituality. I got lucky, if you can call it that. I can’t, but I can certainly call it What Is, and I’ve learned enough to not fight that.
THE SKELETON STORY OF WHAT HAPPENED is that my self-induced, sobered up, more mature and pleasant fantasy morphed literally overnight into exterior-induced insanity, the likes of which I’d never known. The next thing you knew there was a real live hot iron ball in my gut. Stuff happened. But we just can’t bet on that sort of thing happening. Trust me, we can’t even want it to, not like that. We can end up with a new understanding after such an experience, but they’re neither predictable nor bankable, and those riveting results don’t typically stick around long when it does. This is my core issue with event-style spirituality.
THE TRAP OF NONDUALISM as a definitively spiritual path is that it begins by setting up a future goal to acquire enlightenment for the personality at the center of the dream story, at some point in thefuture. Thus right from go we are waiting for the enlightenment fairy to show up out of the ether and pop us on the head with whatever-it-is-that-enlightenment-is so that we can become a more fulfilled and special story character. That will never happen; not in this lifetime, or a hundred others. On the other end, once we’ve had even the tiniest bit of true seeing, we are suddenly all about graduation. Like the Zen Ox Herding pictures point out, our prey has now been in our sights, so we’re convinced we just need to adjust them once more, or better yet, have God do it for us, and then we’ll get it right and get it now, and then we can move to the next phase, which is hanging out with movie stars and the Dalai Lama. Or if we’re more modest, we just want to get the “enlightenment thing” behind us so that we can get on to living our new lives of lovely, blissful, pain-free, problem-free, “enlightened” living. This will never happen either. So we are bookended into delusion, with personal achievement on one end and personal graduation on the other. The chief problem here is that the mystics tell us there’snothing personal about enlightenment. So we are bookended by illusion that is sometimes unwittingly, but almost always actively promoted by the spiritual community, even when it is claimed otherwise. We then we build a protective, comforting fence on everything in the middle, which we call a path. It’s a safe path, because it’s coming from nowhere and headed to nowhere; nothing much is going to happen beyond the odd spiritual experience. A spiritual experience and $3 will get you a coffee at Starbucks. They are fun, but most often of little value. Of course we want company within the fence of our safe path, so we invent and project exalted spiritual teachers to join us, and if we’re not careful, and most of us are not, then we end up caught in the cult of personality. Few mirror-image models of students-and-teachers avoid this. Few of them even try.
IT IS A WONDER AND A MIRACLE that Self-realization ever occurs through any human. That it does happen—and we are assured it does—is a testament to the Mystery’s own infinite persistence. The notion that it’s ever considered a closed, finite system by its victims is a testament to Mystery’s odd sense of humor.
I AM PROPOSING A NEW MODEL. It is my hope that it is an unmodelable model. In other words it is intuitive rather than instructive. It is more effort-based and less reliant on cosmic magic. First, we change out two words. Let us throw “spirituality” back to the religions it came from. We can still usethe word, it’s a nice word and I like it myself, but we must not believe what it has meant to us thus far. The instant we believe that there really is something that is spiritual, that implies that there is something that is unspiritual, and the Nondual traditions tell us there is just One, so what is there to be either spiritual or unspiritual? Oneness precludes either the existence or necessity of “other”. So, out with spirituality as a belief system, and we’ll hang onto it only as a loose term indicating more of alifestyle choice than anything else.
AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE TERM “spiritual path”, which I again propose is primarily code for a particular (and attractive) lifestyle, I suggest instead that we use the word “philosophy”. I know, it’s not sexy. Let’s look at it anyway. First of all, philosophy is “the love of knowledge”. That’s a great jumping off point for those who are genuinely looking for truth, and not a better crowd to drink white wine with. Secondly, while some form of enlightenment could still be a loosely held and acknowledged goal, it need not be such a sought after object that the compulsive seeking of it precludes its attainment.
THIRD, NO PHILOSOPHER WORTH THEIR SALT is waiting for the “enlightenment fairy” to show up and release them from bondage. It’s a do-it-to-yourself program until it’s not. We all know that philosophy means work on our part: dedicated study of the time-tested classics, not just the abridgement and modification of those classics that have been politely edited and spoon fed to us by…our teachers? Whatever happened to homework? Philosophy means critical thinking and head-scratching; the trying on and relinquishment of ever higher realms and patterns of thought, living, and being. Many of us avoided it in college for that very reason. Fourth, no philosopher ever expects to “graduate” from philosophy. The teacher-student model is entirely different. They may change roles several times in a single conversation. It is seen as an ever-broadening, ever-deepening experience ofright now.
WHO AM I RIGHT NOW? How am I doing right now? What am I really doing right now and how is it affecting others? How am I getting along in the world? Am I being unselfishly useful right now? Is what I’m doing actually working for the benefit of, dare I say it—Oneness—and not self-ness and self-promotion? Would I be willing to confess aloud my actions of the past month to a room full of my peers and teachers? If not, why not? Am I living truth, or am I spinning a personal lie? What do I know that I don’t want to know? These are some of the fundamental questions philosophy answers, without the many dangerous and attractive tripwires that spirituality has unknowingly grown. I’m not saying This Is It, I’m saying, it might be worth taking a look at. It was for me. Thank you.
Vote with your feet. Hope to see you next week.
This blog will be updated next Sunday evening, November 20.