# Chapter 18. Practices and Teachers
# 18.1. Why practice?
On pages 8–9 of Mindfulness in Plain English (1994), Buddhist teacher Bante Henepola Gunaratana says:
Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, that brittle-tongued voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath. Feel the tension, feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fans in the stands. Watch the irrational fit of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm or team spirit. Booing, catcalls and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty. Drunkenness, fights in the stands. These are people trying desperately to release tension from within. These are not people who are at peace with themselves. Watch the news on TV. Listen to the lyrics in popular songs. You find the same theme repeated over and over in variations. Jealousy, suffering, discontent and stress. Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, some enormous effort against staggering odds.
Does this paragraph remind you of anyone you know?
What is described in the above paragraph is not living — it is surviving. But spiritual practice can transform a life of survival into a life of peace.
Suffering is intrinsic to the dream because of the perception of pervasive conflict and potential war between the split pairs. From the point of view of the individual, the purpose of all spiritual practice is to awaken from the dream of suffering. Since the basis of all splits is the ego, or illusory ‘me’, awakening means to see that there is no ‘me’. However, expecting the ego to see this is like asking something that does not exist to see that it does not exist. Spiritual practice does not get rid of the ego because there is no ego to get rid of.
Awakening can only happen by seeing from outside the split that there is no split. Since the essence of the ego is the false sense of personal doërship, awakening means to see that there is no doër and there is no choice. Paradoxically, awakening is usually preceded by considerable effort but it is never that of a doër. For practice to happen, intense earnestness and intention are usually necessary. (Of course, if they are supposed to happen, they will. If not, they won’t.) An immediate and lasting benefit of practice is that, even before awakening, our understanding of suffering deepens, and this greater understanding is inspiration for further practice and progress.
One misconception that is common among beginners on the spiritual path is that suffering and sacrifice in themselves are useful spiritual practices. (This is undoubtedly reïnforced by the biblical story of Jesus suffering for our sins, and the suffering of the Christian martyrs.) However, since separation is the basis of suffering, seeking to suffer in the hopes of finding spiritual truth in it can only increase the sense of separation, and thereby increase suffering. Only the individual can suffer. The one good thing about suffering is that its presence tells us that we are still not identified as our true nature. In this way suffering is actually our guide to freedom from suffering. Every instance of suffering is another opportunity to realise what we are.
Have you ever known anyone who thought that suffering and sacrifice in themselves were useful spiritual practices?
# 18.2. The importance of being aware
We are not individuals; we are pure Awareness/Presence (see Section 9.3, Section 11.10, Section 14.3). It is because we transcend the ego that we can see that it does not exist, and we can be aware that the effort to see that it does not exist is not our effort.
Bondage and suffering are due to the belief that we are separate. To be effective, any practice depends on the increasing awareness of this belief. For this reason, spiritual practice is better termed awareness practice. When the seeker understands that suffering is the direct result of a belief in separation, there is a strong incentive to become aware of it. Thus, becoming aware of the connection between a specific suffering and the identification from which it springs is a valuable, even necessary, awareness practice and is the first step to becoming disidentified and free.
We saw in Chapter 11 that we can distinguish between three levels of identification. The first is identification with the body–mind organism without any sense of personal identity. This identification is necessary for the organism to function and survive, and causes no suffering because there is no entity to suffer. We are not concerned with this identification in this course — in fact, it is the state of being awakened. The second level is identification with the ‘I’-concept, which produces the illusory entity with a sense of personal doërship. The third level is identification with various thoughts, images and emotions, resulting in the sense of ownership of them, so they become ‘my’ thoughts, ‘my’ self-images, ‘my’ emotions and ‘my’ suffering.
Disidentification at the third level means becoming aware of all of our thoughts, images, feelings, emotions and sensations, and accepting them rather than resisting them. This is the key to the beginning of the end of suffering. This can happen while still retaining the image of the self as doër. Thus, at this level, it is unimportant whether the seeker still thinks of himself as the doër.
The first step in disidentification at the third level is to use a specific experience of suffering as the impetus to become aware of the real source of that suffering. For example, if ‘I’ feel angry because ‘I’ think ‘I’ have been victimised by somebody, my first step is to become acutely aware of the anger and the associated thoughts, images, and body sensations. As was discussed in Section 11.7, anger at being victimised always comes from seeing an image of myself as being helpless, and another image of the victimiser as having some kind of power over me. Neither side of the polar pair can exist without the other. Both are nothing but mental images.
Close your eyes and watch your thoughts come, change and go. Look for the owner of the thoughts. Can you find one?
Now watch your feelings and emotions come, change and go. Look for the owner of the feelings and emotions. Can you find one?
Now watch your body sensations come, change and go. Look for the owner of the body sensations. Can you find one?
Now, where does a feeling of helplessness, which is the essence of victimhood, come from? It may come from the thought that there is something ‘wrong’ with ‘me’ for being so helpless. Thus, we see that this experience of suffering may have as its roots identification with a self-image of defectiveness or unworthiness.
Close your eyes and look for the thinker of your thoughts. Can you find one?
Now look for the feeler of your feelings. Can you find one?
Now look for the experiencer of your body sensations. Can you find one?
There are two important lessons to be learned from these exercises. The first is that the image I see of myself as victim means that I cannot be the victim! I am what is aware of the image, so I cannot be the image! This is the most fundamental step that anybody can take in liberation. Whatever I am aware of cannot be me because I am what is aware! This one realisation is enough to produce a gigantic crack in the bonds of bondage.
The second important lesson is just a generalisation of the first. Since nothing that I see can be me, there is no object, thing or entity that can be me. I am not a person, not a mind, not a body, not a being, not a thought, not a feeling, not an emotion, not an image, not an observer, not anything. And most importantly, I am not a doër, not a thinker, not a decider and not a chooser. Now we have progressed to liberation at the second level.
If I am not anything, then what am I? The answer is simple: I am pure Awareness/Presence that is aware of all things and is present in all things. What could be more simple, and yet so profound and so liberating?
This exercise is the essence of all spiritual practice. It helps us to identify with our true nature, which is Awareness, rather than with any thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations or perceptions. When we identify with Awareness, we are immune from all changes because Awareness never changes. When we identify with thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations and perceptions, we are subject to their constant changingness.
First, become aware of anything in the mind that is changing, like a thought, emotion or body sensation. Can you realise that, if it is something that you are aware of, then you cannot be it because you are what is aware of it?
Second, if you are what is aware of it, what are you really? Look and see!
# 18.3. Some sages and the practices they teach
There are innumerable types of awareness practice, covering a broad spectrum, and different spiritual masters teach different types. Ramesh Balsekar (deceased 2009, who lived in Bombay, India) and Nisargadatta Maharaj (who lived there also) are at one extreme of the spectrum, and teach that any effort by the individual to achieve something will only reïnforce the sense of personal doërship, which is the essence of the individual. They teach that understanding the absence of the individual is of primary importance, and, indeed, it is the spontaneous deepening of this understanding from the intellectual level, to the level of intuitive seeing, to the level of awareness of our true nature, that is the process of liberation.
Ramesh, however, does teach that, in order for the understanding to deepen, it is necessary to see its validity in one’s own experience. This is a practice, but one that does not reïnforce the sense of personal doërship. He recommends simply to watch and see that all decisions and actions happen by themselves, so there can be no decider or doër. Ramesh also emphasises that the acceptance of, or surrender to, what-is is equivalent to the disappearance of the sense of doërship (see Section 19.2).
Ramesh, on pages 170–171 of The Final Truth (1989), divides spiritual aspirants into three classes: a) the advanced ones who require only a simple teaching about the nature of identification and of the individual in order to realise the Self, b) the not-so-advanced ones who require some effort and time before realisation (although this effort, as always, is never by an individual), and c) those who require many years of spiritual instruction and practice before realisation. For the first class, no practice is necessary. Just receiving the proper teaching, in one form or another, is sufficient. The third class of aspirant is the one for whom an interest in practice has just begun. These people have just realised that “there must be a better way”, or “there must be more to life than this”, and they must seek and find the teachers and practices that are right for them.
Which class of aspirant are you in?
For the intermediate class described above, Ramesh sometimes mentions the practice of inquiry, which Ramana Maharshi taught in Tiruvannamalai, India. This is a ‘direct approach’ because it directly confronts the only problem that exists, that of the illusion of the individual. The investigation into the existence of the individual is a practice that avoids reïnforcing the concept of the individual, and leads to the direct realisation that there is no individual.
In the meditation for November 15 in A Net of Jewels (1996), Ramesh says:
The hazard of any kind of disciplinary practice or meditation is that the means and the end generally get utterly confused. Some seekers end up in frustration when they find that long years of such practice have brought them nothing, whereas others may go along the Pathless Path and reach the Destination Which Is No Destination almost effortlessly, while yet others fall by the wayside having mistaken some puerile spiritual power as the ultimate goal. The subtle and fundamental fact that is most often missed is that the means and the end are one and the same, and that the only means to Truth is Truth itself — Understanding is all.
Several contemporary sages teach inquiry. Among them, Poonjaji of Lucknow, India; Francis Lucille of Temecula, CA; Rupert Spira of London; and Greg Goode of New York City teach their own versions of it. Poonjaji considered himself to be a direct disciple of Ramana Maharshi (although Ramana Maharshi claimed that he had no disciples). Gangaji, of Ashland, OR, is a direct disciple of Poonjaji, and she teaches his version of inquiry.
At times, Nisargadatta Maharaj, who was Ramesh Balsekar’s guru, taught inquiry and at other times did not, depending on the state of consciousness of the student. While Ramesh describes inquiry in detail in The Final Truth, he rarely mentions it in his later books, and he only occasionally suggests it as a practice in his seminars because he prefers to emphasise the understanding and how it deepens. However, he often uses it himself in his dialogues by asking, e.g., “Who is asking the question?”, or, “Who is seeking?”, to get the student to see that there is no ‘you’ that can do anything.
The purpose of inquiry is to see that there is no ‘I’ and to focus the attention on our true nature (pure Awareness/Presence). Inquiry was discussed briefly in Section 10.2 and will be described in more detail in Chapter 23.
Ramana Maharshi taught that there are only two practices that are effective in preparing for the disappearance of the individual — inquiry (the path of the jnani) and surrender (the path of the bhakta) (see Section 10.3). Whereas Ramesh teaches that surrender is equivalent to acceptance of what-is (see Section 19.2), Ramana taught that surrender could include devotion to the guru, who, because there is no entity, in reality is none other than the Self. In fact, while bhaktas may find that their devotion is directed initially to the guru, they later see that it becomes an expression of all-encompassing, divine love (see Chapter 16, Chapter 19, Chapter 25).
Terence Gray, a sage, Irish aristocrat, and scholar who wandered the Himalayas before his death in the 1980s, published several important books under the pseudonym, Wei Wu Wei. His books, like Ramesh’s teaching, emphasise the importance of the deep understanding of the absence of volition and of the ‘I’. Ramesh has stated that he has read one of Wei Wu Wei‘s books, Open Secret (1970), at least a hundred times. I have found that Open Secret and another one, Posthumous Pieces (1968), are both extremely powerful and succinct metaphysical pointers to Reality.
In addition to inquiry, Ramana Maharshi and many other masters teach meditation as an awareness practice. There are myriad techniques for meditation (see Chapter 24), but from our previous discussions, we can say that if meditation is to be fruitful, it must lead to transcendence of the sense of being an individual.
The Buddha said, “Rare in this world are those who enjoy freedom from mental illness even for one moment”. He was referring to the afflictions that cloud all but enlightened minds. For this ‘illness’, he prescribed two types of meditation, concentration and mindfulness (see Section 14.5, Section 14.6, Section 24.2). These types of meditations are not cut off from life, nor do they avoid life. On the contrary, they are all connected with our life, our daily activities, our sorrows and joys, our words and thoughts and our moral and intellectual occupations.
In addition, at a minimum, as a training in morality, a Buddhist vows to observe the Five Precepts:
- Not to destroy life.
- Not to steal.
- Not to commit adultery.
- Not to tell lies.
- Not to take intoxicating drinks.
These have been elaborated on in many Buddhist publications.
Since the second half of the twentieth century, Buddhists and Buddhist teachers have come in increasing numbers to the West. Many of these have been refugees from conflict. After the Chinese takeover in 1959, many Tibetans fled from their country. The wars in Indochina in the 1950s and 1960s led many Vietnamese people to move to and settle in Europe, Australia and America. Other Buddhists from countries such as Thailand have established businesses in the larger Western cities. They have brought their Buddhist beliefs and practices to their new homes, and have helped to set up Buddhist centres.
Many Westerners have trained in Buddhism in monasteries in India and Southeast Asia, and have returned to the West to teach. For example, The Insight Meditation Society was founded by three Westerners, Joe Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg. Its website now lists 59 teachers.
Among contemporary Christian sages, Frs. William Meninger and Thomas Keating, now at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, CO, and Fr. Basil Pennington (now deceased), have revived a 14th century anonymous manuscript entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. The following is an editorial review from amazon.com of William Johnston’s version of the book:
God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts. So less thinking and more loving.
This is William Johnston’s summary of the message of The Cloud of Unknowing. Nobody knows who wrote the book, or exactly where he lived, or whether he was a member of a religious order, or even, really, whether he was part of any church at all. The text first appeared in Middle English in the 14th century, and it has inspired generations of mystical searchers (from St. John of the Cross to Teilhard de Chardin). The mysterious conditions of its composition, however, focus the reader’s attention squarely on the book’s message — an almost Zen rendering of Christianity, which has a great deal to teach our querulous, doctrine-obsessed churches: “And so I urge you”, the author writes, “go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labour, but love, full of rest”. —Michael Joseph Gross
Frs. Menninger and Keating have devised a form of meditation which they call centring prayer that is without doctrine and is aimed at opening to God’s Presence.
In Advaita, the traditional path to enlightenment is through instruction by the guru in the practices of inquiry and surrender, preferably within monastic life; and through intensive study of the Vedas and Upanishads. In Buddhism, it is through the teachings and practices of the Buddha as taught by an experienced monk or nun in a monastery or on prolonged retreats. In Christianity, it is through the practice of Agape and of worshipping God. Advaita and Buddhism present difficulties to Westerners because of the need to spend long periods away from home, family and work. Christianity has the difficulty that it is intrinsically dualistic since God and man are assumed to be separate, even in heaven. In all of these traditions, monks and nuns have depended on the generosity of lay people for their survival in return for being given the teachings. There does not seem to be any way past or through these difficulties except to accept them.
Many people in Western society are too impatient, and their lives too busy, for long periods of retreat. Consequently, during the last few decades, a form of Advaita called Neo-Advaita, has sprung up to accommodate them. Neo-Advaita teaches that enlightenment does not require long periods of training and discipline, but can happen right now, given the proper teacher and teaching. Neo-Advaita practice consists primarily of satsang with enlightened teachers, reading their writings, and viewing their videos (e.g., Francis Lucille, Adyashanti, Scott Kiloby, Charles David Hayes, Tony Parsons, ‘Sailor’ Bob Adamson, John Wheeler, Candice O’Denver, and Rupert Spira). (The fact that all modern sages have websites is one of the miracles of this technological age.)
Another Advaita teaching, called the direct path, was taught by the sage Sri Atmananda (Sri Krishna Menon, 1883–1959) and is now taught by the present-day sage Greg Goode. This path, like Neo-Advaita, avoids the years of preparatory practice, like meditation and studying the ancient scriptures, of traditional Advaita. It is intended to bring the aspirant quickly to realisation of the Self through studying and absorbing the short treatises Atma Darshan and Atma Nirvriti of Sri Atmananda.
There are many other practices. A course like this is best suited principally for obtaining an initial understanding of the metaphysics of non-duality, which itself is an awareness practice, and for becoming familiar with the practice of inquiry and its variants. Further evolution will occur during a possibly lifelong journey that may include other practices as well. At some point in the journey, most people find that association with a Self-realised master is necessary for further progress. However, as with everything else, if practice happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
# 18.4. Who or what is it that practices?
The functioning of the nervous system is analogous to the programming of a computer (see Section 5.15). The programming of the nervous system depends on both its genes and its conditioning. All of a body’s actions are governed by the nervous system’s responses to stimuli, and every new stimulus adds to, or modifies, the existing programming. A stimulus may arise from the nervous system (internal stimulus), or it may come from outside (external stimulus). An internal stimulus can come from conscious memory, from unconscious conditioning, or from instinct. An external stimulus can come from receiving a teaching, or it can come through non-local mind (see Section 5.2, Section 9.4, Section 12.1, Section 12.2). An exceedingly important part of non-local mind is spiritual intuition, which is the link between the mind and Reality. (Spiritual intuition is what drives the individual to seek to know Reality, see Chapter 16 and Section 17.3).
Many people become confused when they are told at one moment that there is nothing they can do, and at the next moment that they may benefit by following certain practices. Naturally they ask, if we can do nothing, who or what is it that practices? The paradox of spiritual practice is this: We must do it in order to see that we are not doing it! Nobody practices because there is no doër to do it, but if practice is to happen, the thought of it must be in the brain–mind first. This must usually come from outside the brain, and that is the function of a teaching like this. If the idea is received and is compatible with the brain’s programming, practice may happen. If not, it probably won’t. This is no different from any other type of behaviour. You have never done anything because there is no you to do it.
Do you have a spiritual practice? Was it your idea? If so, how did the idea arise? If it wasn’t your idea, where did it come from?
# 18.5. Some possibly helpful tips
At this point, I will list some observations I have made about teachers and practices. However, be warned that this is not science, and others may disagree, so you should make your own observations and draw your own conclusions.
Teachers teach what worked for them. It may not work for you.
It is unlikely that a teacher who has never engaged in spiritual practice will be able to suggest a spiritual practice to help you to end your suffering, no matter how genuine his enlightenment. (An exemplary exception to this was Ramana Maharshi.) The same thing is probably true of a teacher who has never suffered to any significant degree.
Some practices can and do relieve suffering, even though they may not lead to enlightenment. An analogy is that aspirin may relieve a headache even though it may not remove the cause. (Of course, we must remain aware that it is not the practice that relieves suffering. If suffering must stop, it will stop, though practice usually precedes it.)
At some point, liberation requires going inward far enough to be able to see every object of awareness. It then becomes clear that you are not an object of awareness, but pure Awareness itself, as discussed in Section 18.2 above. This may have to be repeated many times.
The teachings of teachers who have responsibility for managing and maintaining ashrams or spiritual centres are likely to be aimed at a larger audience than those who do not, because supporting an ashram requires large amounts of volunteer effort and substantial financial commitments from the disciples. Consequently, such teachings will generally be designed for maximum acceptability. Even teachers who have only small followings, but who depend on their contributions for survival, sometimes will colour their teachings to avoid losing their followers. On the other hand, the purest teachings usually come from teachers who are not surrounded and supported by followers or an organisation. A good example of such a teaching is Wei Wu Wei’s books, which focus on one point and one point only — the absence of the individual ‘I’. As a teacher, he led an obscure life, and his books have never had a wide audience. Compare him to Sai Baba who has many tens of thousands of disciples and several ashrams, and who utilises materialisations to attract attention. His teaching emphasises discipline and selfless service (karma yoga). This is more acceptable and understandable to large numbers of people than is the teaching that there is no individual.
In the course of investigating various spiritual teachings, the seeker will find that a teaching and teacher must be acceptable if they are to be helpful. The natural inclinations of each personality will self-select between the enormous variety of teachings and teachers. A person who is naturally service-oriented will probably be moved to do karma yoga in an ashram or spiritual centre. A person who is devotional by nature will probably find a teacher who can symbolise God for him. The intellectual will probably be drawn to a jnani whose intellect matches his own. Of course, personalities come in all forms and mixtures, so who will be attracted to what or whom is an individual matter. Furthermore, a particular teaching and teacher need not be a lifetime choice for a person. As Ramesh says, it is perfectly all right to go ‘guru shopping’.
Very few teachers give their teaching a metaphysical basis. Of the ones that I know, only Ramesh and Wei Wu Wei consistently do. For those who appreciate metaphysics, its logical and intellectual structure makes the teaching more understandable and therefore more acceptable. For that reason, a teaching with a metaphysical basis is generally more suitable for an academic course than one without it. However, this in no way implies that a metaphysically based teaching is best for everybody or even for most.
The occurrence of awakening in a body–mind organism leaves the conditioning of the organism essentially the same. In other words, the basic personality is unchanged by awakening. Hence, if the organism was ‘not nice’ before awakening, it also will probably not be nice after awakening. If it had a lust for power before, it will probably also have it after. If it was not a good teacher before, it likely will not be a good teacher after. This makes finding an acceptable teacher all the more difficult. However, all genuinely enlightened beings have compassion for all of their fellow beings because they see no separation between them.
Many people judge the behaviour of a guru using their own standards, which, of course, are those of the ego. This is similar to creating a god in one’s own image and then expecting the god to live up (or down) to that image (see Section 14.2). When the guru’s behaviour disagrees with the image, the student often becomes disgusted and then accuses the teacher of not being enlightened. However, just as there is no objective test for consciousness (see Section 5.5), there is also no objective test for enlightenment. So how does one select a teacher? The only valid criterion is whether the teacher is able to help the student reduce his own suffering. If so, the teacher is a genuine one for that student as long as the student is being helped. If this is no longer the case, it is best for the student to find another teacher.
Some teachers, including both a bhakta like Gangaji and a jnani like Francis Lucille, emphasise the value or even necessity of spending time (called satsang) in the presence of the guru in order for transmission to occur. My own intuition is that, if the necessity of being with a guru seems like a ‘should’ to you and feels like an obligation, it will not help you and will only increase your suffering, but if it feels like an opportunity to stop stagnating and to experience more clarity, it will help you towards liberation. If it is a mixture, just remember there is no ‘you’ who ever decides anything.
Some spiritual organisations require secrecy pledges and/or teach proprietary systems of thought and practice. While proprietary techniques may yield some benefit, one suspects that exclusionary policies are designed more for the power and privilege of the teacher than for the enlightenment of the student. Such strictures seem contrary to our intrinsic freedom, and there are plenty of legitimate teachers who do not impose them. Your true nature cannot be a secret, and Self-realisation cannot be bought or sold.
# 18.6. Some of the contemporary sages of non-duality who have followed the tradition of Advaita
see, e.g., his 1998 book, Your Head In the Tiger’s Mouth ↩︎
Consciousness Writes (1998) private distribution ↩︎
What the Buddha Taught (1959) by Walpola Rahula, p.67 ↩︎
from What The Buddha Taught (1959), by Walpola Rahula, p. 80 ↩︎