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Is Spiritual Practice Necessary?
This article originally appeared in HarshaSatsangh Magazine
Is spiritual practice necessary? This question never comes up in the orthodox traditions, because the "Yes" to practice is built into their very structure. But within nondual teaching contexts, this is a Top Ten Question. And most of the time, the answer is some version of
Does this mean that meditation, contemplation, Kundalini yoga, self-inquiry, devotional love and selfless service are counterproductive? Up comes the question,
If practice proves to be necessary or even helpful, then it's not counterproductive. So let's restate.
In nondualism, is spiritual practice necessary?
It depends on your goal, on what you really, really want. The question, as stated, is incomplete. Is practice necessary? For what? Spriritual practice is certainly not necessary to go shopping or wash the dishes.
So what do you really, really want?
Is your goal to be awareness, to be your true nature, to be that which cannot be thought, to be that which is before and beyond phenomena? Is your goal just to be?? No practice necessary for that! Anything that is truly your nature, anything that truly is, is both inescapable and unattainable. The noumenal WHAT IS is intangible. It stands untouched before all phenomena. Phenomena are inseparable from it, so close that they're "inside" it. It is already the case. It is ISness, and ISness simply is. It can't be acquired and can't be shed. If being is your nature, then you are unavoidably that, even now! And to call it awareness or emptiness or beingness is saying too much.
You are THAT. So are the teacup and the schoolbus. Awareness, or that which precedes, constitutes you and every "thing" else. There's no aspect of you that is not it. There is no aspect of you removed or shielded from it. You don't need to do anything to be it. Also, you cannot do anything to be it. And there is no way that you can not be it. It is not an experience. It is not an activity. It is not phenomenal. It can't be grasped or held. It can't be pointed to or talked about, even in this essay. Wherever you look, it was already there. It's behind you, it's unseeable. If that's the goal, no practice is necessary!
So there you are. You are. The non-dual traditions are unanimous about it. Question: Does hearing this help achieve the goal? Does it make everything fall into place? Does it seem like the end of the matter?
If something's missing, practice can help. (Back to top)
Perhaps you clicked here because you feel, "Yes, I know I am awareness, but..." If this is the feeling, then your actual goal is not awareness but something else. And whatever your actual goal is, some kind of spiritual practice can help, even if only to free you from that "Yes, but" feeling! Since your goal is not the non-phenomenal THAT which precedes phenomena, it is therefore something phenomenal, tangible, experiential. And presumably it has a phenomenal criterion of success or failure. Achieving this goal is something located in the world of experience, whether the goal is tangible such as keeping one's temper, or breathtakingly subtle, such as generating a distant pinpoint of light in deep sleep. Whatever it is, it's a phenomenal motive with a phenomenal solution.
Phenomenal spiritual goals abound. These goals arise for different reasons, often having to do with one's conception of IT, of enlightenment. Sometimes the goal, such as improved self esteem, is what we really want, but we adopt spiritual language to talk about it, and it starts to seem like something much loftier. Knowing one's goal isn't always easy, and it requires clarity and honesty, which I discuss below. Sometimes the phenomenal goal is seen as a necessary precondition to enlightenment, as when we desire a quiet mind because "If you quiet the mind, your enlightened nature will shine in all its glory." Sometimes it's the other way around. The goal is seen as the proof of enlightenment, as when we desire siddhis because "All enlightened beings have them."
The link from quietness or siddhis to enlightenment is not the point. The point is that one's desire for these psychophysical phenomena can be addressed. These are goals. They are amenable to achievement. They make themselves felt and they don't go away. As phenomenal needs, they can be phenomenally satisfied. For example, meditation can quiet the mind, and raja yoga can beget siddhis. What if the goal is to penetrate the ultimate Truth or make sense of the notions of the Self, Consciousness, Enlightenment? Well, in that case one can turn to the vast ocean of nondual teachings. They're only an Internet click away, should the next Barnes & Noble be too far.
Spiritual practice for spiritual goals is necessary in the same way that ice-skating practice is necessary to land a triple-axel. Weightlifting sculpts the body. Meditation quiets the mind. Selfless service reduces one's egotistical motives. Sincere devotional chanting opens the heart. It's all a matter of phenomena operating on phenomena. As Ramana Marharshi rhetorically asks, "What is practice if not an attempt to make something natural?"
With goals like a supple body, a sharp intellect, or healthy self-esteem, there are proven techniques such as hatha yoga, jnana yoga, and the company of loving companions. Other goals simply dissolve when examined. If your goal is to lose the sense of doership, there are analytic meditations that dissolve the goal by showing that a doer never existed in the first place. Sometimes one goal is achieved, and another one pops up in its place. New techniques can be taken up, which also work. Should it ever become tiring and repetitive to pursue these shifting goals, it may mean that the newest is now the goal of goal-lessness. There are even investigations that can address this goal.
We have to be honest and courageous if we are to achieve our goals. For example, what we really want might be a pleasant emotional life, free of guilt and insecurity. We would be quite happy with that. "YES!! Now I can die!" as TV sitcom characters say when they get what they want. But sometimes we mask or hide what we want. For example, in some spiritual groups, we can be made to feel that placing importance on emotional states is petty and betrays a lack of understanding. Feeling this influence, we tell ourselves (and others) the spiritually "correct" thing, that we're really after just Beingness, which is Now. But part of us knows this isn't what we really want, unless of course Beingness could deliver us from guilt and insecurity. In this example, if we were really after the NOWness of Beingness, that would be it. Clink! Tea time!! But the NOWness is a cover story. We might even adopt it as an article of faith -- we might actually come to believe the NOWness motive. But the other motives have been there longer and are now much stronger. They bubble under the surface and jump out as often as they can. To insist that there's nothing to do, while our mind and heart cry out for relief, is a form of escape. "Nothing to do" sounds sophisticated but throws us off track. As our sexiest new newest doing, it is actually just an ineffective spiritual practice. It prolongs our pain, and we look in the wrong place for the solution. We end up going to ten years of satsang where ten months of therapy would solve the problem. Candid and unflinching observation keep us on track.
Clearly knowing what we want provides the openness and impetus to seek our goal directly, head on. Reminding ourselves that we are Awareness has not achieved the goal, and turning our head away hasn't made it disappear. So why not go for it? It's fitting! It's efficient! The proper tool for the proper job! Like lighting a candle instead of rationalizing the darkness. Sometimes hearing about nondualism and consciousness just feels irrelevant, whereas a beautiful chanting service quiets the mind, opens the heart, and puts us in touch with our completeness. The Nike ads picked up on an American cliché which is apt here -- Just do it!
Spiritual goals abound.
Sometimes you might have tasted what you take to be IT,
and come away with a very strong intuition about it. But
it slips out of your grasp. The goal can be to keep this
intuition very close, as in: "I know that I am
awareness, but I want to --"
Or the goal is stated in
terms of the desired thoughts or feelings. For example,
"I'll have IT when I can --"
Or the goal can be cast in
negative terms. They sound a bit more theoretical, but
this is because they're usually inherited from a
spiritual teaching. "I need to --"
How can practice help with goals like these? Practice has a long history of success in achieving some phenomenal goals and dissolving others. Practice works because it includes not only the usual suspects of chanting, meditation, contemplation, and selfless service, but much more. Practice is as varied as life itself. Practice becomes whatever you do with your goal as your motive.
For example, practice includes living with the question "Who am I?," delving into why there is anything at all, attending every satsang in your area, being with your teacher as much as possible, reading inspirational books, creating art, trying to witness thoughts, trying to see between thoughts, trying to stop thoughts, refusing to run from painful experiences, being open to criticism, changing your diet, cleaning the floor, going to therapy, getting to work on time, or calling your mother.
And even the most abstract goal, such as wanting to understand one's true nature, is still phenomenal. It is felt as something sweetly or bitterly tangible. It is believed to culminate in something to hold onto, to abide in. Given this belief, there's a phenomenal method. Nondual teachings are helpful here (in fact, they are at their best here, where the goal is abstract and intellectual). Nondual lore is a voluminous storehouse full of pointers, paradoxes, dialectics, flashes of insight, and even exercises.
But these tools don't achieve this goal -- when they work they dissolve it. Understanding our nature with the mind is not possible, because our nature is not a graspable object like tax laws or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The mind cannot grasp that which gives rise to the mind. So how do nondual teachings help? By conveying the insight that the desired kind of understanding is impossible, unnecessary, and nonsensical. When this insight dawns, the desire to grasp and hold comes to a gentle conclusion. The result is peace and -- laughter!
So, go for it! No reason to hold back!