Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Prayer of Gratitude

First, I'm grateful to my son for fixing my bizarre computer problems (malware). Second, I'm grateful for the break from blogging these problems brought on, since it gave me time to do some more samyama on the issues raised by commentators and others. I now have a backlog of interesting ideas to write about in the coming days and weeks. I'm not sure if I'll have time over the next few days to write much, however, since I'm with family and friends over the holidays. I hope all you are too. Busy making pumpkin pie and basting turkey right now. Catching just a brief break.

The thing about gratitude is that we tend only to be grateful for the good things that happen, and seldom for the bad things. Maybe you could call that human nature, but it's not terribly smart. Ramana used to say that the biggest mistake people make in their ordinary lives is just this - being grateful (to God or fate or whatever) for the good and pleasurable things in our lives, and yet not to be grateful for the rest. He points out that this weds us to duality, to an endless cycle of seeking the good and eschewing the bad, and this distorts our minds and hearts. Yet even on the basic human level, this approach isn't very smart, in that it keeps us from appreciating the difficult, tragic, and unfortunate aspects of life. The truth is, unless we appreciate the virtues of the tragic, we are not receiving the wisdom this life has to offer us. We are separating the parts from the whole, and witholding our love from those parts which displease us. It doesn't mean we have to pretend that these things please us - they may never - but we can at least appreciate what they have done for us.

Without the difficult and challenging dimensions of life, including the most tragic, even what is often called evil, we would not rise up or be broken down in spirit sufficiently to truly appreciate what is beyond this world, what is beautiful, loving, magnificent, ordinary. In my own life, I've experienced all kinds of tragic and disappointing experiences - like everyone else. I've learned, slowly but surely, to be grateful for these things. In fact, one of the most powerful spiritual exercises I've ever engaged is what I call "The Prayer of Gratitude", in which I express and feel my gratitude for all the difficulties of my life as well as for all the enjoyable and easeful things that have come to me. Life always comes at us two-sided, with varying measures of pleasurable and unpleasurable, good and evil, easeful and frustrating. It's important that we be grateful for all of that.

One of my occasional vices, if you could call it that, is playing online poker (very small stakes). I manage to stay pretty much even at the game, but you have to wonder why I bother, since I don't win much, I don't lose much, and yet the game is still entertaining. I always remember an interview I saw with one of the more famous current poker players, Daniel Negreneau, who boiled poker down to the basics. There are two great pleasures in poker, he said: the first is winning, and the second is losing. The point being that even losing is actually a highly pleasurable experience in its own way, despite the pain it brings. This is because there's nothing quite like losing to penetrate our hearts. In life, tragedy and loss has the capacity to open us up in ways that success and pleasure may not. It is this capacity that tragedy can brings that we must be grateful for.

That's the whole point, in some ways, of this blog of mine. I began using the name "Broken Yogi" when I was in the midst of leaving Adidam, and realizing the tragic dimensions of my experience there. I was posting about these things at the Lightmind Adidam forums, and there were a few pranksters using variations on the "yogi" theme as screen handles, such as "smoking yogi" and the like. I said to myself, well, I feel like a broken yogi - and the name somehow stuck. The point being, that being broken down, even especially by our own tragic choices in life, can open us up and help us grow. So to me "broken yogi" is not a negative name, it's a sign of a recognition that having one's heart broken in love is often the best thing for us, that it can open us up in ways that being fulfilled never can. The feeling heart, laid bare to the universe by its tragic failures, opens us to the meaning of genuine "success", which is not measured in any worldly or mental values, but by our own direct, unfettered openness itself. It's important that we be grateful to God, or whatever, for this experience. It is the real window to the non-dual, to what is beyond the rise and fall of experience.

In some ways, that was the best experience of my life - and I can't even separate that opening from the mistakes that came before it, including all the years of my life in Adidam. I realized over time that it was important to be grateful for it all, and not to harbor any resentment or feelings of being screwed over. I'm glad it happened that way, because it helped open me in ways that would not have been likely if my life in Adidam had "succeeded". If it had been a pleasant experience, it would not have pushed me as far as it did. Clearly, I needed to be pushed to certain extremes to get the point. And it's clear that life has many more difficulties for me, and yet also many more loving pleasures as well. In fact, the loving pleasures often lead to the tragic losses by their very nature. Nothing lasts forever, and if it did, that would not be "good" for us anyway. The universe, contrary to popular opinion, is always conspiring to make us happy, even when it deals us a crappy hand to play. It just has a funny way of going about the job.

What I've noticed over the years is that the power of this prayer of gratitude is surprisingly penetrating. When I find myself mired in some kind of trouble, I try to remember this pray, and to actively engage it. When I do, it transforms my relationship to the experience I've been suffering, and that alone is an immense relief. I wouldn't say that it magically changes things, but it does change my own relationship to them sufficiently that I can see ways of working with the problem that I couldn't before, and this leads to a much more favorable outcome. When I don't, when I remain resentful or disappointed, the problem tends to persist and become more and more deeply rooted in my mind and life, and harder to work with. This all changes when the power of gratitude is activated.

So on this Thanksgiving Day, let's all remember to be grateful not just for the loving and wonderful things we enjoy in our lives, but for the difficult, frustrating, troublesome and tragic things we suffer. We can actually transform our relationship to experience by being grateful for what we suffer, and this raises our suffering to a higher dimension, and allows for redemption and atonement, not just from the sins of others, but from our own sins. To give thanks for all of this experience is the beginning of real wisdom.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Forum Discussion Site

Unbeknownst to me, a new forum dedicated to discussing the issues raised on this blog has been created by Elias, over at Lightmind, embarrassingly titled “The Broken Yogi Fan Club”. This could prove useful for people who feel they are not wasting enough of their precious time and energy reading my posts here. Now they can indulge themselves even more deeply in the Broken Yogi Experience by engaging in discussions on this new forum. I'm not sure I'll be very active there – the Broken Yogi Experience is for me already a bit overwhelming, taking up most of my waking hours – but I'll definitely read comments and often use them in creating posts here. And please note, despite the ironic and fawning title of the forum, I'm not much interested in fanfare, but in good questions and revealing commentary that helps stimulate understanding. Sometimes these kinds of interactions can lead to a more penetrating insight – the goal of any true samyama.

As a side note, for those of you who are wondering why I'm not replying much to comments here, and other technical problems, I've been experiencing some serious computer and internet problems of late. For some reasons, I can't connect directly to any google sites, including gmail and blogger. So when I post to this blog, I have to write my post separately, email it to myself via a second mail site, then go to another computer, reformat it, and post it to blogger. This is rather a pain in the ass and time-consuming, and it results in some inexplicable formatting problems, such as the font changing without my seeming able to reverse it. Sorry for those problems. My team of technical experts (my two sons) should be with me over the holidays and I hope help me correct these problems. If not, please bear with me.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Authority, Direct Experience and the Hypnotic Power of Cults

Continuing with the samyama on “un-cults”, I realize how much there is to say about the subject, much of it obvious, unless you happen to be in a cult and can't see what's going on, in which case there's not much to say about it that will penetrate past one's defenses. This is of course the purpose of cultic thinking to begin with – erecting a solid defense against one's vulnerabilities. The result, unfortunately is an inability to recognize one's defenses as liabilities, rather than benefits.

The biggest problem with cults is that the people in them for the most part want to be in a cult, and they stay in the cult because it gives them something they need. We can argue till we're blue in the face that they don't really need the cult, but like all needs beyond the elemental basics of life, such things are always in the eye of the beholder. In that sense, most people who are in a cult have to learn some basic lessons about themselves, just as someone who has a physical addiction does. They aren't going to even recognize they have a problem unless they start to notice some intangible symptoms of things not going right, and even then, they will tend to blame themselves first. In some sense this makes sense, in that the impetus to be in a cult begins with the cultist, and not with the cult leader, despite what many anti-cult propagandists would have us believe. However, the way in which they blame themselves masks the real nature of the problem, and guilt becomes a vehicle for strengthening the defense of the cult rather than realizing that it's merely a symptom of a deeper lack in us.

The problem with cults is not leaders, but followers. Cultic followers can turn even relatively benign leaders into narcissistic despots over time, because of the burden they place on the leader. Not that this excuses the leader any more than the follower. The leader and the followers become co-conspirators in an escalating game of hypnotic chicken, daring each other to bring their cultism to new heights of grandeur and foolishness. I saw this occur first hand in Adidam, and it's hard to say who was more to blame, Adi Da or his devotees. The more one plays this game, the greater the need becomes, as in any addiction. The opportunity to play the game is itself something the cultist feels immensely grateful for, since ordinary life and relationships seldom allow one to play out these fantasies as fully as the cult does. And the sense of gratitude is real, because the person feels they never could have achieved these states of relaxation on their own. Of course, these states of relaxation are precisely the result of being in a cult, because they are the result of transferring the responsibility and the hard work of making decisions for ourselves and forming our own world views on our own. And yet because of their dependency on something or someone outside of us in the context of what is essentially a trance state, no true satisfaction is achieved, only a deepening cycle of dependency.

We have to recognize just how deep our fantasy life runs. Religion is of course rife with fantasy, and it gets criticized by the secular or non-religious with great scorn at times for its rather obvious dependence of credulous believers. But the fantasies of cultism are not limited at all to religion, they appear in all kinds of guises, from the ordinary ones of sex and power to the more exotic ones of art, music, entertainments of all kinds, and sports. Even seemingly rational pursuits such as science, finance, and academia become playgrounds for our narcissistic fantasies, with leaders and followers enacting similar rituals as are found in religion. Some recent neurological studies have shown that when expert advice is given, people almost automatically turn off the decision-making parts of their brain. They follow authority, in other words, and take the word of experts without seriously questioning the reliability of the authority, even when the actual advice given is truly terrible advice. This fulfills a basic need which leads us to transfer our decision-making power to authoritative figures who fulfill certain cognitive criteria, and we appear to receive almost immediate benefits from them simply by “recognizing” them as trustworthy authorities.

I suspect people do this because it actually feels good to them. Having your decision-making brain on at all times is tiring and debilitating. It creates tension and disturbance. It's so much easier and relaxing to let someone else make your decisions for you. It allows us to enter into a soothing trance-like state in which we are no longer entirely responsible for ourselves. The problem here, I think, is not so much that this relaxation is undesirable or even bad, but that we often cannot find a way to relax without entering into a trance of some kind and transferring our decision-making power to others. By following a leader, or a system of thought developed by some authoritative figure, we vicariously experience the satisfaction of relaxing our minds, in the same way that would occur if we had made the decision ourselves. And in fact we have made a decision – the decision to follow the leader, the system, the beliefs and structure of authority, and this mimics some of the internal benefits that would have come to us from actually being responsible ourselves and making decisions on our own. Which leads us to think that we never really needed to make these kinds of decisions ourselves, but are better off transferring that troublesome task to the authoritative sources we have presumed are more capable than us.

The crux of the problem it seems to me is that we often don't know how to make intelligent decisions, and let them stand. Rather than come to intelligent decisions for ourselves that we can simply accept and relax into, we tend to function in a perpetual state of doubt and indecision, never quite sure if we are right or wrong or somewhere in between. Because this is often the case, we are seldom able to simply relax. We tend to be tortured by internal self-doubts about the decisions we have made, about the various views we have come to over time. This is why we like to turn to authorities to make our decisions for us. It's not so much that they actually give us better results – studies of financial investment authorities, for example, show that they tend to actually do worse than sheer chance – it's that by handing over our decision-making power to an authority, we are able to achieve a much greater degree of relaxation than we can if we make the decision ourselves, because it puts an end to the constant doubt and confusion we experience internally when we try to make these decisions ourselves.

This is why cult-leaders tend to be decisive individuals. They radiate self-confidence and the magical ability to decide things that we have been tortured by for a very long time. Often their decisions merely mimic some internal anxiety we have, and provide confirmation that something we were inclined towards anyway has the stamp of authority behind it. This is why it is so similar to hypnotism – the hypnotist doesn't really “brainwash” anyone into thinking or doing something they didn't already fantasize about, it merely gives them permission to enact that fantasy as if it were true. The authority they are drawn to tends to mimic these internal fantasies, and even when the decisions these decisive character make for us are bad ones, we feel better, and don't even notice, because we've turned off the part of our brain which could properly evaluate such things. Their ideas might be total garbage, but it still “works” for us, because it allows us to relax and enjoy the immediate psychological benefits that result from such relaxation.

We feel good about the decisions we've adopted from the authoritative source, or the beliefs we've accepted, no matter how absurd they might be, as long as we have relaxed as a result of accepting them. Bernie Madoff conned people into giving him over fifty billion dollars because his investors felt so relieved that their money was in the hands of a trustworthy investor. They slept well at night, and this led them to plow even more money his way - not just gullible laymen, but highly trained professional hedge fund managers. The more his reputation grew, the more comfortable people felt with their money in his hands, because it meant they didn't have to make any serious decisions in their life about money. They let someone else make those decisions for them. That was of real benefit to them, psychologically speaking, or so it might seem, even if in the long run it actually damaged them, not just in the actual decisions made, but psychologically, in terms of stunting their real ability to form their own views and make their own decisions. Instead, a dependency develops that spirals downwards as our ability to make decisions is diminished the more we hand over that task to authorities.

So if we are to discuss what needs to occur for an “un-cult” movement to gain traction, we are really talking about people developing the capacity not only to make autonomous decisions for themselves, but to feel comfortable doing so, and not torture themselves with indecision, regrets, or constant worry. This applies to both the most basic and ordinary kinds of decisions about one's life, to the most esoteric and abstract. The development of a world-view, for example, is something that people have a lot of worry and concern about, and so they tend to turn to authorities for help. This often comes in the form of scriptures, gurus, traditions, and religious leaders of all kinds. The most common reason people turn to these kinds of sources is that they cannot make a decision on their own, and they hope someone else can help them. In some respects this is perfectly natural, but all to often it leads to the acceptance of authority in the place of our own decision-making process, because that offers immediate benefits, whereas the long struggle of developing our own views and making our own decisions seems stressful and difficult.

This is why the hypnotic trance state is so popular and powerful, and why we hardly notice when we are in it. At the most basic level, it merely means turning off a certain part of our brain, such that we accept decisions made for us by others, rather than making decisions for ourselves. In most cases, we would not see ourselves or someone else enter into a “trance”. Instead, we would see them relax and even become quite happy and even “blissful”. People tend to be so self-tortured by doubt and indecision that it's immensely relaxing and enjoyable to at last not have to worry about such things. By putting one's worries in the hands of someone else, we can enjoy a deeper sense of our own freedom – or at least it seems that way. But like every other vicarious pleasure, it doesn't last. The less time we spend making decisions for ourselves, the less skill we have at the process, and this leads us to turn more and more of our decision-making process over to an authority.

It doesn't matter how “integral” or advanced we may think we've become, unless we learn to make decisions for ourselves and develop our own views of the world, we will end up as dependent cultists. Thus, when you have someone like Ken Wilber reading all those books for you and telling you what they mean, it's a great relief. You don't have to actually think these things through yourself, and instead you can simply adopt the views and system that he's developed. This seems at first to be a great help to people, simply because it helps them relax, and that's what they are looking for – an opportunity to relax and not torture themselves so much anymore. They adopt abstract notions of what “integral” means and it feels good to finally know the answers to life's questions. They feel they have a magical tool for self-understanding, but really, all they've done is relax the questioning part of their brains and learned to think like Wilber, or whomever it might be. People easily confuse this with genuine maturation and growth, because the authorities in question encourage this, because they benefit from taking on the role of an authority, since it is part of their own internal fantasy life, and it relieves them of the insecurity they have about the views and decisions they have made. The more decisive the cult leader, the more it masks his own internal doubts and self-tortured rationale. Thus, the leader and follower are both imbibing the same drug in a mutual cycle of dependency and trust aimed at relieving each of them of their internal psychological problem.

And so it is with every version of authority, every system being sold. In this respect, they are all con jobs, whether they are relatively true of not. They benefit we get from them is not actually in their truth content, but in their relaxation effect. My years in Adidam demonstrated just how fulfilling it can be to have someone who knows all the answers being able to tell us what's what. It's no wonder people become immensely devoted to an authority who tells you that he is an infallible God. It brings an end to a level of life-concern and worry that is terribly bothersome to many people. That is what makes them come back for more, and become deeply devoted to this source of authority. This kind of devotion may not represent our real responsibility for life, but it does represent our real needs. It is only that they are relatively childish needs, and perpetuating them as adults actually inhibits our own growth and our inner ability to surrender ourselves directly into life, without the “help” of authorities.

So there's another aspect to the un-cult that can help obviate this problem, and it has to do with the development of the capacity to simply relax even when we don't know what's right or wrong or what to decide. Often we convince ourselves that ambiguity and uncertainty is somehow a sign that something is wrong with us, and it plunges us into a perpetual state of concern. The only solution to this state, we often mistakenly conclude, is to think that we need to resolve these concerns decisively, and make a deep and abiding decision about them. In reality, we often simply need to realize that it's not necessary to make decisions about things we don't have enough information to decide, and that it's okay not to know all the answers to everything/ “Theories of everything” are a not a cure for our problems, they are the manifestation of a false sense of need, as if we really do have to form a conceptual view that explains everything. Not only is it impossible to actually create such views, it isn't necessary. What is necessary is the ability to live in a relaxed and surrendered state of mind and body regardless of what views we have. We simply need to learn how to surrender to reality, rather than to authority. We don't actually need to have decisive views about the world, we only need to learn how to decisively surrender to the simple experience of our being alive.

As Papaji often said, it's best not to develop a highly detailed conceptual understanding of enlightenment or the spiritual process. It can actually be a burden on us to try to develop such a thing, and we will tend to collapse our concerns around some piece of received wisdom, and then construct all kinds of justifications and rationalizations around it, to the point where we will actually experience great benefits from these received ideas, and think this only proves their validity. In fact, we could have felt just as relaxed and enjoyable without any of those conceptions or ideas, if we simply learned how to relax and surrender directly, regardless of the concepts we associate with surrender. Those who labor the hardest to develop the most elaborate conceptual systems are often the least mature of all, because they cannot relax their strained conceptual thinking until they have constructed a vast conceptual fortress in their minds. Wilber again comes to mind, but so does every elaborate system of thought which we can use to substitute for genuine surrender to our own process of experience.

The real process of living is not one of forming elaborate world views, but of merely observing the world as it is directly experienced by us. This is part of the argument for “direct experience” that one finds in the neo-Advaitic approach to non-dualism, although it is seldom directly put this way. The practice of deferring to the authority of scriptures and Gurus does indeed help us relax our conceptual struggles, and lets us surrender the mind's tensions and difficulties in a very simple system that makes much internal sense. However, in the process we may fail to develop the ability to simply be attentive to our actual experience, and be surrendered into it with native, internal intelligence and wisdom. If we approach these sources in that fashion, we will never actually grow an autonomous ability to inspect our experience, to observe it directly, we will always do so through a filter of received concepts. It doesn't matter what that filter is a profoundly gifted one or a pious fraud, we will still be stunted in our growth and maturation. We simply may not notice that we have become stunted, because we will feel great benefits just from having turned over our own process to the receptive one of taking on the views of authority. This is of course how religious and spiritual traditions become cults that reinforce themselves over time, and how we develop severe dependency and attachment to them. Our devotion to the cult masks a deep psychological need which is the result of not knowing how to simply be attentive and observant of our own experience, and form our views naturally and organically as a result of that process of observation.

The basic asana of the un-cult, then is one of simply being observant of our own experience, and not interpreting it through the conceptual filter of received wisdom. This may sound simple and basic enough to hardly need to be said, but in practice it is much more difficult that it might seem, because it is so tempting, and so habitual, to function from the perspective of a received set of concepts and views that come from a trusted authority. In fact, it often seems that we need an authority of some kind just to tell us not to follow authority, but instead to follow our own experience through a simple process of direct observation. We don't even need to develop conceptual systems of thought around this simple process of observation. We can just learn to experience the internal relaxation of those needs by learning to enjoy the process of observation itself, and let it develop naturally and without overly elaborate conceptual guidance.

The best teachers, therefore, are the ones who leaves us alone, who guide us to simply observe experience directly, and to relax our immensely complicated internal conceptual need to impose a conceptual system on our experience, not only because we are usually going to get that system from an authoritative source, but because conceptual systems in themselves, even when developed by us directly, are not necessary, and can even impede our growth by interfering with the ability to be surrendered directly into experience itself, rather than into the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind is not the gateway to true experience or true surrender. It is a gateway all too often to our own internal fantasy life, which then becomes projected onto our experience in a way that seems all too real and attractive, but in reality is our biggest obstacle to reality.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Un-Cult Spiritual Movement

I mentioned in my recent post on “The Hypnotic Trance of Cults and Cultists” something about the “emerging model of the un-cult”. I'm not sure what I meant by that phrase, and I'm not sure that such a thing is even “emerging” as a spiritual form in our time, but I'll take a stab at the idea. One might simply say that a lot of old, cultic forms are dying, falling apart, becoming exposed in the light of day, and seem deeply inadequate to the needs of many spiritual aspirants. One need not propose a new model, perhaps, but rather just the absence of cultic ones as they fall away.

If we look at those proposing new models for spirituality, such as many of those in the Integral or related “new” spiritual movements (Ken Wilber, David Deida, Saniel Bonder, Adi Da, Andrew Cohen) we find a great deal of cultism surrounding them, even when they position themselves as stauch anti-cultists. Likewise, if we look at any number of more traditional spiritual movements, from the latest generation of popular India Gurus, such as Ammachi, Karunaguru, Sri Sri whateverhisnameis, Nityananda, etc., we find all kinds of deep problems with cultism and exploitation. Even within the neo-Advaitin Satsang movement we see cultic problems, and sheer silliness, which is of a lesser level of disturbance, but nonetheless not a good model for spirituality. And then of course there is the whole range of new-age, channeled, and occult spirituality, where almost anything goes, and one must constantly remind oneself that “buyer beware” is the standard for all interactions.

The very notion that “new is better” needs to be called into question. In many respects it is not. There's certainly much that is corrupt and cultic about old systems of spirituality, but one has to appreciate how well-oiled many of them were within the context of their cultures, and that removing them from that context often leaves behind many of the safety mechanisms that actually protected people from being exploited by cults. There are a great many traditional maxims in Hinduism, for example, that can help identify genuine Gurus and discriminate them from those who are of suspect morality and ethics and lack real qualifications to teach. Very few modern spiritual teachers could pass the tests those cultures create for spiritual teachers. And likewise, those cultures also created qualifications and tests for spiritual aspirants, which weeded out those not well suited to the seriousness of the spiritual path, and kept people from straying beyond their real aspirations into esoteric practices they were not suited for.

Among those guidelines for both teacher and student were some very specific rules for living that might seem to us to be rather ascetical and hard to live up to, but if we look at them more closely we can see the wisdom of them. The first and in some ways the most obvious rule was that money and sex should not be involved in spiritual pursuits. Ramakrishna famously warned that “women and gold” were the great dangers that all spiritual aspirants should stay clear of. Most modern spiritual teachers and seekers tend to ignore this injunction, referring to it as antiquated, not in keeping with the times, and ignoring the necessity and centrality of both money and sex to human life, and especially modern human culture. It turns out that they do so at great peril and risk, and few of them are able to navigate thought these waters successfully.

If there's a lesson in the experience of modern cultism it is that Ramarkishna was basically correct. Wherever we see commerce introduced into the world of spirituality, we find corruption, exploitation, degradation of morality and ethics, and spiritual teachings and practices become so corroded by the needs of commerce as to become indistinguishable from any other sales category of modern economic life. The notion that spirituality should be set apart from such things is treated with contempt and derision. The notion that sacred relationship should actually be cultivated is considered an anachronism unsuited to the needs and qualities of our age. And yet, if we look at the evidence dispassionately, and without constantly deferring to the commercial needs of the marketplace, I think we can see that this influence has had a deadly and deadening influence upon everything it has touched.

I am not merely referring to the most exploitive of Gurus who attempt to drain off the fiaancial resources of their devotees. I refer just as much to the whole range of commercial enterprises, most of them quite legitimate in many respects, that surrounds spirituality in our time. I refer to the endless number of spiritual teachers who charge money for their services, for their “coaching” of others, for their seminars, programs, books, audio and videotapes, for “readings”, for channeled services, for ashrams and centers and retreat facilities. The list goes on. Many of these enterprises are, on the face of it, even justifiable. Certainly we cannot expect books and tapes to be free. Certainly if someone gives a public lecture, there will be expenses that have to be paid for. And such people have to make a living somehow, and if they have to work an ordinary job, they won't have much time left to teach.

All these explanations make a certain amount of practical sense. And yet, in the course of making these spiritual pursuits into a career, a business, a machine that is dependent first and foremost on a cash-flow machine, the spirituality becomes corrupted by the entire process. This is why the traditional admonition for those who become spiritual teachers is to take vows of poverty, and not to profit from their teachings. They are permitted to accept small donations that are enough to give them the bare basics of life, but not much more. Nor is it expected that they would need more than that. In this way, a basic degree of integrity is maintained for these teachers, and most of all, for their relationship to those they teach, which is relieved of the whole obligation to act as businessmen serving their clients, but as the living embodiment of spiritual wisdom itself.

Once in a while you come across people like this. A few years ago when I was still spending time in Marin, I was invited by a friend to a small gathering for Prem Avadhoot, a close disciple and attendant to Rang Avadhut, who was known to me through the lore of Adidam as one of the most interesting saints of 20th century India. Rang Avadhoot is not well known even in India, yet was a very impressive figure in the area around Ganeshpuri, and occasionally visited with Swami Muktananda where he by chance met young Franklin Jones (Adi Da) on his first visit to India. According to Jones, it was actually Rang Avadhoot whose penetrating glance sent him into Nirvikalpa Samadhi near the end of that first trip, and he thus occupies a high place in the Adidam pantheon. I knew little about him other than what I'd learned through Adidam.

Meeting Prem Avadhoot was a very different experience than the kind of thing one finds in Adidam, however. Prem Avadhoot was a very unassuming, rather frail old man at this point, in his seventies, but still very lively and extremely friendly. In fact, when he introduced himself to the gathering of about 50 people in a large private living room in Mill Valley, his first words were, “Don't think of me as a guru or a teacher, relate to me as a family friend”. He proceeded to describe his relationship to Rang Avadhoot, who lived a life of great simplicity and integrity, as one of loving and ordinary intimacy. He made no claims about himself, and he explained that he didn't even have much of a spiritual teaching. His God, he said, was humanity itself, and his practice was to love and worship human beings as God, as a servant to God. In accord with this, he would accept no financial donations. His travel expenses had been paid for by a wealthy Marinite (the host of the gathering), but beyond that, he had taken vows of poverty and lived in ordinary simplicity. In his home village he was known as “the loving saint” who spent all his time simply being with people, loving then, acting literally as a family friend, spending time with children and animals, and not really trying to make anything more of himself than that. To him, this was his teaching – how he actually lived and related to others. In appreciation of this, he gave everyone at the gathering a small gift, personally, as they come up to his chair and were embraced by him. I received a small cloth, which I used on my meditation altar still, and a laminated card that had a number of brief aphorisms from Rang Avadhoot, which were touching in their simplicity and loving attitude. I got to spend some time with him after the gathering, and he invited anyone who was there to simply sit with him in his room.

I didn't get the sense from Prem Avadhoot that he was a great non-dual realizer, but he didn't pretend to be either. He was a simple bhakti, a lover of God who understood that to love God meant to love others unconditionally. This is what his Guru Rang Avadhoot had taught him to do. He was living what to him was a simple, traditional life of renunciation, but it was immensely full and happy and loving, and he didn't need anything more than that. He didn't need to make money, he didn't need to travel to the US, it just worked out that way through the generosity of a patron. He didn't need to create a following or a movement or an organization around any of this. He kept it all very human and small and intimate. No money exchanged hands. There was no fee at the door, not even a bowl for “donations”. You could see from his body and clothing that he simply had no use for money or luxuries. He was spiritually alive, awake, and full of love, and he just lived in a natural manner, keeping that love pure and untouched by the commercial life.

As he describes his life:
"I eat when I feel hunger. I sleep when I feel to sleep. An unhappy happening makes me weep too. When occasion demands, I laugh aloud and freely.At the time of silence, I go into deep silence.Whatever I do, I do it as a worship to and of God."
~ Prem Avadhoot Bapuji
Anyway, if there's a “model” for the un-cult, Prem Avadhut is one of the best examples I could offer. Unfortunately, he's not easy to find, since he doesn't promote himself. I don't think he even has a website. It was sheer chance that I happened to know the right people to be invited to meet him. But that also is part of the un-cult model It works off of basic human intimacies, and the notion that God will find a way to touch you through people like Prem Avadhut if you simply allow Grace to guide you.

Of course, one can say that Prem Avadhoot is the product of an long Indian tradition that we don't have here. That is hardly an excuse, however, in that if the west is in the process of creating new spiritual traditions - “cutting edge” as some claim – why not create a genuine tradition, rather than a commercialized one? Why not, if we are to be inspired by eastern philosophical traditions like Advaita, also be inspired by the living traditions of loving saints like Premananda? Why adopt the modern commercial model for virtually every spiritual teacher, teaching, path or tradition? I think we all know the real answer to that, and it isn't a pretty one. People want to get theirs. They don't value God and human love above commerce. In some sense, we can't even say that most of these spiritual teachers have been corrupted by money, because they never achieved any real degree of spiritual integrity in the first place. One simply can't do that when one's teachers are in business for themselves as well. People tend to model themselves on those who teach them. It's no wonder that all the teachers who came in touch with Adi Da in some way adopted a commercial model. It's certainly not unique to Adidam of course, it's present in almost every spiritual path one can find these days.

When Ramana Maharshi went to Arunachula, he renounced everything, and survived only by the help of some local sadhus. Slowly, over the years, an ashram grew up around him, but Ramana would never allow it to be commercialized in the least. He forbid anyone to solicit donations, and he and his fellow renunciates lived on the spontaneous kindness of local people, who would donate food or supplies as needed. Ramana said repeatedly that they should simply rely on Grace to bring them sustenance, and this occurred, not in any great avalanche of support, but enough to keep the ashram alive, and slowly growing in a simple way over the years through patronage. Ramana felt that if what he was doing was genuinely worthwhile, the support would appear, and if not, so be it.

The same ought to be true for the modern western spiritual movements and teachings. There should simply be no commercial enterprises associated with spirituality, aside from the very basic needs of publications and occasional places of worship or meditation. The basis for any spiritual “movement” should simply be human intimacy and love, people sharing with one another the fruits of their own spiritual practice, without money changing hands. There should be no charge for “satsang” or teachings of any kind – except, as needed, some books and publications. But even these should not be heavily promoted as some kind of commercial enterprise, hawked like late-night infomercial products advertising salvation. Genuine spiritual teachers should inspire private patronage for the most part, and if they do not, they shouldn't expect to be supported by “consumers” of spirituality.

It's not merely the cult-model of spiritual organization which needs to be done away with, it's the entire commercial model of salesmen and consumers. Tony Robbins is not what we want the future of spirituality to be about. These people and their emulators (I'm talking to you, Ken Wilber) have no genuine spiritual teachings to offer, they only have something to sell to people who are bereft of the spiritual. But like fast-food, these things do not satisfy. They don't provide the human intimacy and love that are the real signs of genuine un-cultic spirituality. They are trying to sell something which can't be sold, which can't be bought, but which is only excluded by the effort to create such an enterprise.

I have nothing against business, money, commerce (or sex for that matter), but it simply is not part of spirituality. If anything, spirituality is a way of disciplining and guiding our use of money and the ethical participation in commerce, which is difficult enough within its own world. But there's a natural hierarchy here, and it only goes one way. Money should not dictate our spirituality, or shape it in any way. Spirituality should, if anything, dictate how we earn and use money. If we find ourselves shaping our spirituality into a money-making enterprise, we are turning it upside down and in effect reversing its power, turning it into something which degrades us rather than elevates us. This happens even on the smallest of levels, when we ask for $5 at the door for some spiritual “talk”. Most spiritual teachings can, like Prem Avadhoot's, be delivered for free in someone's living room. If it requires a giant hall, it's probably gotten out of hand and will no longer serve anyone's genuine spiritual interests.

So I would suggest a series of informal “rules” for un-cultic spirituality, which basically revolves around the idea of spirituality always remaining small, human, intimate, and personal, and never large, impersonal, and oriented towards a mass audience. And of course, always free. If it can't be free, it simply shouldn't be done. If patronage is required, it should be unsolicited. One must have faith that if something is worthy of patronage, it will appear at the appropriate time and place. In this way, whatever spiritual teachings do thrive and survive, will do so with their integrity intact. And the people associated with them at every level with strive to protect them from the corruptions that occur in commercial enterprises or large organizational platforms.

For many current spiritual paths, this would amount to bringing them to an end. Which I heartily endorse, even if I have few expectations that they will do so willingly. The best we can hope for, then, is that these kinds of ideas gain ground the spiritual underground the world over, slowly, one person at a time, through human intimacies, to the point where people simply don't participate in the old cultic commercial models. If people simply don't join groups like Adidam or Wilber's Integral Institute or pay for seminars and lectures and so on, those things will simply die out. That doesn't mean that such teachings have to come to an end. They will simply be forced to become human and intimate and genuine, rather than corrupted by business enterprises and all the aspirations of worldly empire their leaders have become infatuated with. If they can't survive without their commercial apparatus, then they don't deserve to survive.

In general, then, we need to find a way to cultivate and value genuine forms of spiritual teaching, based on the model of renunciation rather than of commercial success. By renunciation I don't necessarily mean living a life of dismal poverty and asceticism. The model of ancient rishis was not one of poverty and the life of the sadhu. The ancient rishis were householders, with wives, children, families, and businesses – usually farmers given the economies o the ancient world, but frequently participants in all kinds of trades. The Tibetan Buddhist Mahasiddhas were ordinary people – cobblers, farmers, blacksmiths, tradesmen – who nonetheless realized the highest spiritual truths. They did not leave those trades in order to become spiritual careerists making a living off their students and devotees. And yet, of course, over the years Tibetan Buddhism became corrupted by those trappings, and that commercialization. Nonetheless, the real spirituality of Buddhism lives on outside the monasteries and the trappings of powerful lineages. The scattering of these Buddhists to the winds, however brutal it may have been, has been of benefit in many ways. And yet, coming to the west they find the temptations of commercialization even greater than before.

I can't be lecturing these traditionalists who have long ago become wedded to power and money and prestige to let it all go. Mainstream religion in whatever place it has taken hold has tended to become corrupted by power and money, and that isn't going to change soon. It just doesn't need to be supported by commercial enterprises of any kind. The selling of empowerments and blessings is an old business that every religious culture has indulged in at one time or another. It of course leads to institutionalized cults in which the worst kinds of abuses can be not only tolerated, but even praised. Ending that pattern isn't going to happen overnight. And fighting it won't change it either. It's only by not support, and the encouragement of a different approach to spirituality altogether, that this pattern will change.

About seven years ago I went to see Ammachi at her San Ramon ashram. It was an interesting experience. She's a genuine spiritual figure, with much shakti and presence, and I'm sure she does a lot of good. But merely entering the hall where she gives her hugs was quite a jarring experience. Arranged on all the sides of the hall were innumerable stalls selling this item or that, and worst of all, a man on a loudspeaker talking endlessly about this or that way of donating to this or that cause by buying various things. I found it amusing, but also bizarre. What exactly was the point of this group? It's wonderful that Ammachi gives hugs to people, but the whole setting is not one of personal love, but of mass commercial enterprise and vast organizational goals. Rather than giving attention to the love of God within the context of intimate human relationships, all attention was on Ammachi herself, who hardly anyone could actually have an intimate relationship with. The pattern was similar to that of Adidam. In a sense, this diminished Ammachi's spiritual power and influence, rather than enhancing it. And it made even those who were close and intimate with her, as with Adi Da, into cultic devotees rather than genuine intimates. The sheer size of her organization made the many “renunciates” in her organization into the usual human sacrifices to God, the cannon fodder for some greater purpose that never quite materializes, but is always justified because she is taken to be God Incarnate, and devotion to her becomes devotion to God. Those of us who were in Adidam know the drill. What is lost in all this is the kind of actual God-loving that one finds around much humbler spiritual teachers like Prem Avadhut, whose claims are much smaller but whose actual effect is much more meaningful.

I guess I've hardly touched upon the topic of sex. Perhaps another time. In brief, however, the same principle applies. Despite all the fancy talk about sexual tantra, sex and spiritual teaching are best kept apart, just as with money. There certainly is a spiritual dimension to sexuality that must be honored and cultivated, but it's really just about the intimate love one has with one's partner, and it has no particular place outside that sacred space. Again, when we mix sex with spiritual teachers, it only corrupts both. We can see that in spades in Adidam, but also everywhere else, including traditional religion, new age groups, sexual-spiritual therapy groups, Tibetan lamas getting off on their students, and all the various hokey-pokey that goes on at all levels of the spiritual enterprise. It tends to be the case that money and sex end up in the same mix, when there's a strong commercializing force at work. The games of money and power inevitably lead to sex games getting played out, and this tends to demean all of them

I'll probably keep coming back to this whole issue a number of times. I just want to make clear that I'm not suggesting some kind of puritanical ethic that is either anti-money or anti-sex. Quite the opposite. I'd simply like to see the process of spirituality made sacred, set apart, and not debased by financial or sexual desiring. That actually frees us up to find the right guidance and guidelines for engaging in business and sexual relations with spiritual force, because our spirituality is not bound up in them. In other words, it's the route to becoming genuinely non-puritanical. When sex gets mixed up with spiritual teachers, it generally becomes weird, secretive, and exploitive. So it's best to keep them apart, if merely as a healthy discipline, just as it is with money.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ramana and the Method of Self-Enquiry

Elias, another old friend from Lightmind, has made a good comment regarding the recent post "Ramana. Vivekananda, and Shankara - An Historical ...":
“Broken Y ~ your exposition of Ramana's teaching on self-inquiry, while interesting as one possible reading of the sage, lacks sourcing.

The reader (or at least this reader) is hungry for quotes that make your case. By quotes I don't mean a few words or a phrase taken out of context -- I mean reasonably lengthy quotations.

For the record, I have never found anything in Ramana's teachings to indicate he meant his practice to differ from Vedanta or Buddhist self-inquiry. My impression is that some have taken the simple directive "who am I?" as the whole of the teaching. And out of this they can say things like "What Ramana criticizes in [Shankara's] approach is the energy and attention it gives to these phenomenal appearances, and thus he says that it ends up feeding and strengthening them, even by opposing them, and this prevents ever truly going beyond them."

But the very purpose (and effect) of both Buddhist and Advaita self-inquiry is NOT to give energy to the rising appearances, but to cause them to vanish by simply noticing them with the eye of the intellect.

Ramana would know this, I am sure, from personal experience, so it wouldn't be something he criticized in that sophomoric way. ...That is, unless he was in fact a mere saint, or one of those incomplete sixth stagers! ;-)”
These are all good points and good questions. I'll try to cover the basics with source-quotes.

First, the general issue Elias seems to be bringing up is the relationship between the ego and the world of objects in the case of those practicing self-enquiry, and taking it a step further, the relationship of the Self-Realizer to the ego, and to “the world” as known to us egos. I think we'd profit from looking at the second part of this issue first, so as to better illuminate the first.

Ramana's view of the ego is that it is illusory. But let's go a little deeper than that cursory statement. Here's Ramana explained the complexity of the ego's structure:

“Q. While the one aim is to realize the unconditional, pure being of the Self, which is in no way dependent on the ego, how can enquiry pertaining to the ego in the form of aham-vritti (the 'I'-thought) be of any use?

M. From the functional point of view the ego has one and only one characteristic. The ego functions as the knot between the Self which is pure consciousness and the physical body which is inert and insentient. The ego is therefore called the chit-jada granthi (the knot between consciousness and the inert body). In your investigation into the source of aharm-vritti, you take the essential chit [consciousness] aspect of the ego. For this reason the enquiry must lead to the realization of the pure consciousness of the Self.

You must distinguish between the 'I', pure in itself, and the 'I'-thought. The latter, being merely a thought, sees subject and object, sleeps, wakes up, eats and thinks, dies and is reborn. But the pure 'I' is the pure being, eternal existence, free from ignorance and thought-illusion. If you stay as the 'I', your being alone, without thought, the 'I'-thought will disappear and the delusion will vanish forever. In a cinema show you can see pictures only in a very dim light or in darkness. But when all the lights are switched on, the pictures disappear. So also in the floodlight of the supreme atman all objects disappear.-(Be As You Are, p.49)

I think we can see from this quote that from the point of view of the Self-Realizer (Ramana), the images and objects of the world have no existence at all. They are “outshined” by the inherent Self-Radiance. In this sense, what Ramana is describing here is not a “sixth stage error” as in the Adidam teachings, but what could only correspond to the “Translation” point of view of the “seventh stage”, in which all objects are outshined by the inherent Radiance of the Self. There is no separation implied by this Radiance, for it is the very Radiance of the Self. Objects are not disassociated from, they are merely swept up and dissolved in the overwhelming Radiance of the enlightened condition.

Likewise, the process of self-enquiry described here is not even a way of separating the ego-self from the egoic non-self, the world of objects. What self-enquiry “attacks” is the knot, the illusory distinction, that arises as a barrier between the universal consciousness of the 'I' and the life of the body in the world (on all levels, not just the physical). It is not concerned with the objects of the world, or our relationship to them per se. It is concerned with the very nature of the 'I', the consciousness which feels itself separate from the body. The purpose of self-enquiry, then, is not to separate consciousness from the body or other objects, but to dissolve the fundamental illusion of separation that confuses our own sense of identity. In opening this knot, the Radiance of the Self floods body and world, the mind and all worlds, on every level, outshining them in the Self-Radiance. It should be mentioned here that when the 'I'-thought ceases to exist, the 'I'-consciousness which had been kept back by this knot emerges from its separate status and dominates all. This is Self-Realization. Then the 'I' knows the 'I''s true nature, which is the Self. Then the floodgates open and the whole body and world is overwhelmed by the Radiance of the Self. Until then, however, the method of self-enquiry requires a direct and unflinching examination of the 'I'-thought, not letting it squirm away. It does not examine the objects of the world to see whether or no they are the Self, and then rejecting them, winds up with the Self. That would be a disassociative exercise, what you might call a “sixth stage method”. Self-enquiry doesn't disassociate from the body, mind, or world, it merely leaves them in peace for the moment, recognizing that everything we experience in the world is merely a thought. When we look at beautiful garden, the image appears in our mind as a thought. That thought depends on the 'I', since it is we who see it. Ramana is not suggesting we turn away form the garden, as if it were evil and distracting or not the Self. Instead, he merely says notice who is watching the garden, for the perception of the garden depends on that perceiver. The separation we experience between ourselves and the garden is due to this false assumption of an 'I' who inserts itself between us and the body and world, monitoring every experience, every form of light and delight. The Self-Realizer does not experience that separate monitoring self. He has recognized it as a mere knot of thought, and released the knot, so that the beauty of the Self shines forth as his very being. His very consciousness becomes a garden of delight, within which all forms shine with the same brilliant intensity, such that none stand out as separate from one another.

Ramana explains the basis of self-enquiry further:
“The 'I' in its purity is experienced in intervals between the two states or two thoughts. Ego is like the caterpillar which leaves its hold only after catching another. Its true nature can be found when it is out of contact with objects or thoughts.

The ghostly ego which is devoid of form comes into existence by grasping a form; grasping a form it endures; feeding upon forms which it grasps it waxes more; leaving one form it grasps another form, but when sought for it takes to flight.

Only if that first person, the ego, in the form 'I am the body' exists will the second and third persons [you, he, they, etc.] exist. If by one's scrutinizing the truth of the first person the first person is destroyed, the second and third persons will cease to exist and one's own nature, which will then shine forth as one, will truly be the state of Self.

The thought 'I am this body of flesh and blood' is the one thread on which are strung the various other thoughts. Therefore, if we turn inwards enquiring “Where is this 'I'?” all thoughts including the 'I'-thought will come to an end. And Self-knowledge will then spontaneously shine forth.” (BAYA p. 50-51)
Further, Ramana describes why self-enquiry is essential to the process of genuine Self-realization:
“Attention to one's own Self, which is ever shining as 'I', the one undivided and pure reality, is the only raft with which the individual, who is deluded by thinking 'I am the body', can cross the ocean of unending births.

Reality is simply the loss of ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because the ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth by itself. This is the direct method, whereas all other methods are done only by retaining the ego. In those paths, there are so many doubts and the eternal question “Who am I?” remains to be tackled finally. But in this method the final question is the one one and it is raised from the beginning. No sadhanas are necessary for engaging this question.

There is no greater mystery than this – that being the reality we seek to gain reality. We think that there is something hiding our reality and that it must be destroyed before reality is gained. It is ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will yourself laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is here and now."
Now, as to the actual practice of enquiry, Ramana is very clear that it strictly follows this process of attention to self, without any concern for objects of mind or the senses.
“Q. I begin to ask myself 'Who am I?', eliminate the body as not 'I', the breath as not 'I', and I am not able to proceed further.

M. Well, that is as far as the intellect can go. Your process is only intellectual. Indeed, all the scriptures mention the process only to guide the seeker to know the truth. The truth cannot be directly pointed our. Hence this intellectual process.

You see, the one who eliminates all the 'not I' cannot eliminate the 'I'. To say 'I am not this' or 'I am not that' there must be the 'I'. This 'I' is only the ego or the 'I'-thought. After the rising up of this 'I'-thought, all other thoughts arise. The 'I'-thought is therefore the root-thought. If the root thought is pulled out all the others are at the same time uprooted. Therefore, seek the root-'I', question yourself 'Who am I?' Find out its source, and then all these other ideas will vanish and the pure Self will remain.
In another case, when directly asked about the practice of neti-neti, Ramana dismissed it:
“Q. I meditate neit-neti [not this, not this]

M. No, that is not meditation. Find the source. You must reach the source without fail. The false 'I' will disappear and the real 'I' will be realized. The former cannot exist apart from the latter.

There is now wrong identification of the Self with the body, sense, etc. You proceed to discard these, and this is neti. This can done only by holding to the one which cannot be discarded. That is iti [that which is]
And here Ramana tries to gently re-interpret the scriptural recommendation to practice neti-neti in his own way. Whether his interpretation of the scriptural intention is true or not, it certainly reveals his own attitude about the matter.
Q. Is not discarding of the sheaths [neti-neti] mentioned in the shastras?

M. After the rise of the 'I'-thought, there is the false identification of the 'I' with the body, the senses, the mind, etc. 'I' is wrongly associated with them and the true 'I' is lost sight of. In order to sift the pure 'I' from the contaminated 'I', the discarding is mentioned. But it is does not mean exactly discarding of the non-Self, it means finding of the real Self. The real Self is the infinite 'I'. That 'I' is perfection. It is eternal. It has no origin and no end. The other 'I' is born and also dies. It is impermanent. See to whom the changing thoughts belong. They will be fond to arise after the 'I'-thought. Hold onto the 'I'-thought and they subside. Trace back the source of the 'I'-thought. The Self alone will remain.
As for these other paths, Ramana never said that they were not useful, only that in the end, one would still have to practice self-enquiry. They could be quite useful in concentrating the mind or developing a strong capacity for awareness. As he said of neti-neti, it can eliminate objects but it cannot eliminate the self. So his argument was why not use self-enquiry from as early in the process as possible? One will have to do it eventually, why not begin now? Well, he was clear that this wasn't going to be the case for everyone, or even many, but it was still his recommendation. If someone practiced some other path, he would always bless them, but if they asked for a recommendation, he always told them to practice self-enquiry.

I'm reminded of Papaji's story of his realization, of how he practiced an incredibly intense form of devotional practice his whole life, and when he came to Ramana he couldn't understand what he was talking about when Ramana recommended self-enquiry. Not until he reached the end of his rope, and found that he couldn't practice his mantra any more, and came to Ramana out of desperation, did he understand what self-enquiry meant. He practiced it once, and realized the Self immediately. And from that point on, all he ever taught anyone was self-enquiry, and he never recommended his devotional practice, which had brought him to that final moment, to anyone. He said he wished someone had told him about self-enquiry long before, it would have saved him a lot of time. But everything occurs in its proper time, and that's true for all of us. Ramana was not a fundamentalist about self-enquiry. He understood perfectly well that other practices were useful and good. He just felt that it was the pure essence of all true practice, and it appeared to be his role to clarify that principle to everyone who came to him.

In reply to a questioner asking if self-enquiry was like japa, Ramana said:
M. Suppose you who are now in Ramanashram ask “I want to go to Ramanashram. How shall I start and how to reach it?” A man's search for the Self is like that. He is always the Self and nothing else. You say 'Who am I?' becomes a japa, It is not meant that you should go on asking 'Who am I?' In that case, thought will not so easily die. In the direct method, as you call it, in asking yourself 'Who am I?', you are told to concentrate within yourself where the 'I'-thought, the root of all other thoughts, arises. As the Self is not outside but inside you, you are asked to dive within, instead of going without. What can be more easy than going to yourself? But the fact remains that to some this method will seem difficult and will not appeal. That is why so many different methods have been taught. Each of them will appeal to some as the best and easiest. That is according to their pakva or fitness. But to some, nothing except vichara marga [the path of self-enquiry] will appeal. They will ask, 'You want me to know or to see this or that, But who is the knower, the seer?'Whatever other method may be chosen, there will be always a doer. That cannot be escaped. One must find out who the doer is. Till then, the sadhana cannot be ended. So eventually, all must come to find out 'Who am I?'
Now, Elias is right that the paths of enquiry into the nature of the world-appearance engaged by some Buddhists and Advaitins aims at examining the world of objects in order to get past them, to make them vanish through the exercise of buddhi, enlightened intellect. This allows the practitioner to notice over and over again that the world is “empty” of ego. However, what Ramana points out is that this very method keeps attention outward bound, rather than examining the place of the Self, which is always within us, at our very core and heart, and never in the realm of objects. Even when this practice is able to vanquish objects, it does not succeed in vanquishing the ego-self which gives rise to objects. SO they tend to appear again and again, and the process of neti-neti becomes endless. In the end, one must still examine the ego directly. Ramana's method is to start by examining the ego, which saves much time and trouble. It makes perfect sense, I think, even if not everyone is so inclined.

As to whether Ramana was trying to differentiate his teachings from Buddhism or traditional Advaita, I sincerely doubt it. I don't think Ramana had any concern for such matters. He was just teaching what he saw to be true. If anything, he tried to praise and build bridges of commonality to Shankara where it was something of a stretch, out of sheer generosity of spirit, I would say. Likewise with Buddhism.

One thing that should be mentioned is that the approach of phenomenal realism, which has been strongly identified with Buddhism for a very long time, particularly in its application of the vipassana approach to meditation, is not, I think, intrinsic or essential to the fullness that the Buddha taught. He certainly did teach something like vipassana to beginners, as a method of merely becoming attention to the mind and its relationship to the world, but the intention was to more and more simply be attentive to the root of mind, to awareness itself, rather than to any objects of awareness, which turns awareness into attention.

In fact, the greatest instruction of the Buddha, I think, was his final instruction, the one that I think summarizes his whole approach to practice. It's often popularly translated as “be a light unto yourself”, or “be a lamp unto yourself”. The general interpretation is that Buddha was recommending that we think for ourselves, but that is only a small part of its meaning. The actual wording of the phrase is best translated as “be a refuge unto yourself”. The meaning I think becomes most clear if we understand this in the context of Ramana's teaching about self-enquiry. What the Buddhas was saying is that we should take refuge in ourselves, by immersing ourselves in ourselves, bringing the “light” of our own consciousness to bear on the fundamental experience of “self”, and by doing so, vanishing its illusory nature. The final and truest meditative practice of vipassana, then, is that of taking refuge in the one's self, of abiding in oneself with the full power of one's buddhi, one's intrinsic awareness, until the truth of annata, no-self, is revealed, and one's true nature is Self-Realized.

So on that level there is no genuine distinction between Buddha and Ramana. There's a difference in the historical Buddhist tradition in how these things have been taught and practiced by many teachers,, however. And the same is probably true of Shankara – that his essential teaching coincides with Ramana's, but is simply not so clear in the traditional mode of practice. In this sense, I think Ramana does an essential service in making clear the essential truth of both traditions, and helps clarify what has become something of a misunderstanding that both have had about the process of liberation. From my point of view, self-enquiry is the unifying principle that brings Buddhism and Advaita together (and not Adi Da's teaching on the self-contraction or the enquiry “Avoiding relationship?”)

I throw that last part in there for sheer laughs.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Hypnotic Trance of Cults and Cultists

At Integral World I came across exerts from William Yenner's recent book “American Guru”, detailing the sordid history of Andrew Cohen's spiritual community. Yenner is apparently getting a lot of heat from current members of Cohen's group, as well as some former members who have branched out and become teachers in their own right. I've read some accounts of former member's of Cohen's group before, and nothing Yenner says about them surprises me in the least. I can certainly relate to a good deal of Yenner's disappointment that spiritual groups would have such a hard time dealing with basic issues of fact, considering my own experience in Adidam, which Cohen incidentally was a member of for a brief period shortly before becoming a Guru himself.

Yenner describes how the criticism he gets from these folks generally deflects questions of outright veracity of the basic facts of Cohen's abusiveness with the accusation that Yenner is not providing the proper spiritual "context" for what should be viewed as Cohen's “crazy wisdom” - again, a term and concept Cohen picked up from Adi Da, who of course used the same rationale for many years to justify his own oftentimes abusive teaching methods. I'm familiar with that defense as well in my dealings with Adidam devotees. In a recent online exchange following Adi Da's death with some current and former members of Adidam, I encountered a similar problem. When devotees disputed some factual accusation made against Adi Da, I usually asked them to simply describe what had actually gone on in Adidam, putting all the facts out on the table, and let us all decide for ourselves how to deal with those facts. This was universally rejected by devotees, who time and again explained that only those who “recognize” Adi Da could be given access to these facts, and even then only as their “maturity” warranted.

This kind of logic is of course very familiar to anyone who has examined the psychology of cults. Cults create an internal structure of self-protection which is, if examined dispassionately, precisely how the ego defends itself from the attacks it sees coming at it from all sides. In a certain sense cults simply operate as any ego does, constructing internal forms of logic and self-justification for whatever it needs to do to survive and prosper. The ego tries to be very thorough in creating its own internal world, and is immune to outside criticism from those who don't understand the “context” of the ego's rationalizations. The only difference is that in religious cults, the ego wraps itself in the holy shrouds of Divinity, and equates any criticism of its core beliefs with criticism of the universal God.

It's interesting in a strictly anthropological sense to see how this dynamic came into being in Cohen's world. In some respects, it's almost a duplication of the Adidam model, and that shouldn't be surprising given Cohen's own previous involvement in Adidam. I didn't know Cohen when he was involved. I at best saw his face a few times at gatherings. He only lasted a year and a half, and left dissatisfied, I was told, with the lack of recognition of his own spiritual maturity he received from others in Adidam, and his own desire to be like Da, a Guru in his own right. Certainly some of these impressions of Cohen from people who knew him in Adidam were motivated by Cohen's rejection of Adidam. But it also seemed accurate enough in its own way. Cohen clearly was someone who had a desire to be a Guru, and he never would have lasted in Adidam, given its proclivity for suppression and sublimation of those kinds of desires.

Cohen left Adidam to go to India to meet Poonja Swami, known as Papaji, who at the time was just becoming well-known to westerners. Eli Jaxon-Bear and Gangaji had just come back to Marin County from visiting Papaji in Luchnow, and Gangaji was declaring herself an enlightened Jnani, and beginning to teach in her own right. Cohenm who had been living in the Adidam Marin community, apparently met Gangaji, was both impressed and inspired, and quickly traveled to India to meet Papaji himself. He stayed for five weeks, during which time Papaji gave him all kinds of spontaneous spiritual experiences, and heaped all kinds of praise upon him, which he was doing with many other people at the time. As with Gangaji, he told Cohen to go back to the US and tell people about what was happening in Luchnow, to spread his Satsang, and make it available for others.

When Cohen returned to the US, however, he almost immediately began to proclaim himself an enlightened teacher of the highest degree, comparable to Ramana Maharshi and Papaji (who was a direct devotee of Ramana). In some sense this was not unexpected. Papaji had certainly been telling Cohen, and many others, that they were all fully enlightened. And some, like Cohen, actually believed it and ran with it. :Later, Papaji said of this period that it was all basically a test to see who would take these kinds of spiritual awakenings for the ego, and who would surrender them. A year later, Cohen came back to visit Papaji, presuming that he would be welcomed with praise for his good work. Instead, Papaji explained to Cohen that he was completely deluded, that he had misunderstood and misused everything Papaji had given him, that he was not a Guru and had no capacity to teach at all, and that he should give it all up.

Cohen of course refused to believe Papaji, and finally rejected him and declared that Papaji was mistaken, and that if there was any testing going on, it was to see if Cohen would reject his own enlightenment. Cohen chose to retain his “enlightenment”, and instead severed his ties to Papaji, who warned him that he would be creating severe consequences for himself and his students by doing so. Apparently many ugly words were exchanged between the two, and a great deal of bad blood ensured.

Of course, other Papaji devotees made similar choices, including Gangaji and her husband Eli Jaxon-Bear. They did not become hostile as Cohen did, but they did not accept Papaji's assessment that they too, like all the others who had believed in their own enlightenment, were essentially deluded and unqualified to teach others. In fact, many Papaji devotees came away from Luchnow convinced that they were enlightened and began making the rounds of the spiritual circuit. The entire enterprise became infamous, and spawned several generations of what has often been hilariously referred to as “Advaitic micro-gurus”.

Most of these “micro-gurus” had very little staying power, and tiny audiences. Only a few had the charisma to carry on for long, and to attract enough loyal followers to sustain themselves financially and create actual communities around them. Gangaji and Saxon-Bear were fairly successful in the lucrative Marin county spiritual circuit, enough to live in a nice home and have all the accountrements of successful Marin county businesspeople. That being a Guru was the business they were in was perhaps incidental to the lifestyle, but it was an odd way to make a living, considering that their legitimacy was derived from Papaji, who was famous for refusing all financial support, and refusing any ashrams or formal spiritual communities, but warning against them repeatedly. He repeatedly taught that any spiritual teacher who charges money for their Darshan and instruction was a fraud, with no exceptions. He learned this by example from Ramana Maharshi, who would never allow people to solicit money in his name.

Gangaji found a fairly sizable following of people who considered her the “real deal”. I lived in Marin at the time, and I knew of her, but I could never take her very seriously. No one I met who was impressed by her struck me as impressive themselves, even by Adidam standards. It seemed the sort of thing that required very naïve and needy people – again, even by Adidam standards. Of course, it's funny how people in cults can recognize people in other cults as nutty, but seldom do they see themselves and others in their own cult that way. Even so, one couldn't help but notice that the people attracted to both Gangaji and Cohen were not exactly of the highest caliber. Even so, Gangaji's students were at least seemingly decent people, and even Gangaji herself and Eli Jaxon-Bear seemed like fairly honorable people, if self-deluded. In recent years, the Gangaji organization was scandalized by the revelation that Eli had been having an affair with another women in their community, and this led to all kinds of questions being raised about his “enlightenment” and the ethics of their whole operation. It wasn't helped by the stonewalling of questions about what was going on, and then an expensive “retreat” in which people were charged lots of money to sit down and work through their reactions to this news.

A few months ago I caught an interview with Eli on NPR, in which he freely admitted to the affair, to handling the whole situation badly, to hurting a lot of people, and to learning many lessons from it all. However, he defended the notion of his own enlightenment, and said instead that it merely showed that even enlightened people make mistakes. His definition of “enlightenment” seemed a little vague and even malleable, but I gather it was designed in such a way as to always include his own self-image, regardless of whatever he managed to do along the way. For him, enlightenment is a question of knowledge, of knowing who you are, and since Eli feels that he knows that he's eternal Brahman, that makes him enlightened, even if he still has trouble with his weenie. The notion that enlightenment involves not only knowledge, but the relinquishment of desires and vasanas, the tendencies of mind, seems foreign to him, and very inconvenient, so he doesn't bother addressing such things. Which is how most of these types get by.

Eli's not a bad guy at all. He seems pretty likable, actually. He's not the ferocious egomaniacal Guru type. He's just deluded and entrepreneurial. I'm sure he feels that he helped people out and was justified in charging high rates for his help. Psychiatrists, after all, get paid quite well for therapy that is also often of dubious value. Being in a cult definitely has value to many people, and they are willing to pay for it. This is part of the human condition, like the sex trade, or even traditional marriage (by which I mean, wife as chattel). Calling it what it is shouldn't be a matter of controversy, except to the degree that the trade depends on not calling it what is is, but on pretending it's something other than what it is.

Even so, Eli and Gangaji are by nature softies, as were most of Papaji's devotees, delusional or not. It should be mentioned, of course, that most of Papaji's devotees were not delusional, and did not set themselves up as Gurus in their own right. Most of what Papaji taught seems to have been properly understood as a goad to awakening, rather than as a badge to be worn on one's breastplate.

Andrew Cohen turned out to be the most hardcore of the former Papaji devotees. He believed the most deeply in his own perfected realization, and was the most aggressive in promoting it and foisting it upon those around him. One can only speculate as to why this is so. I would gather that it was simply his own character coming through. Whether or not he had met Papaji, I suspect he was determined to become a Guru, and it would have come out one way or another soon enough. I know Papaji has received a lot of criticism for his involvement with Cohen, and some have even blamed him for creating the Cohen monster, but my own suspicion, based on nothing at all personal but merely on my own understanding of human nature, is that if anything, Papaji probably had some moderating effect on Cohen's inevitable Guruship. What Cohen might have become without the influence of someone like Papaji is perhaps not so pleasant to consider.

Even so, what Cohen became is in many respects more attributable to his experience in Adidam than with Papaji. Papaji, after all, openly rejected virtually all the teaching precepts which Cohen came to embrace, from “crazy wisdom” to the value of abusive behavior to financial demands on devotees, to a complex organizational structure and hierarchy centered upon the Guru, etc. All these things, on the other hand, can be found in Adidam in spades. Reading about Cohen's organization is very much like reading about life in Adidam, with its own peculiar twists. The general picture, however, is very much the same. Cults are relatively monotonously similar in their structure and methods, if the details always manage to vary. The names and beliefs change, but the structure and activity remain the same across the board.

I recently came across another board in Yahoo groups dedicated to ex-members of Ammachi's organization. I was surprised to see that similar cultic patterns are present in her community, especially since I had a generally favorable view of her. I'd seen her just once, right after leaving Adidam, got that hug, and generally felt a strong, positive spiritual influence from her. I could see the obvious signs of devotional cultism around her, but I guess compared to Adidam it actually seemed not so bad. At least the people around her were dedicated to making her available to the public, rather than hiding her behind a cocoon. And yet, reading through some of these accounts, it appears that there was and is much ugliness within her organization, and she seems indifferent to it and doesn't care to take responsibility for it. One gets the sense of some who has some great and powerful spiritual qualities and power, and yet who has fallen into the trap of identifying with an archetype, rather than surrendering all that in God.

There seems to be a basic misunderstanding that realizing God means that you become God. This is simply not true. Realizing God means eternally surrendering to God, and becoming nothing at all. God is not a thing one becomes, but a living consciousness one surrenders oneself to. That principle is utter unity, oneness, non-separateness, total equality. Thus, the realizer lives as the equal of all, not as someone above and beyond everyone else. This is how Ramana lived, how Papaji, Nisargadatta, Buddha, Jesus, and others like them lived.

However, there is a group of advanced spiritual types who fall short of complete and final realization, and one of the reasons they fall short is that they begin to identify with profound and universal spiritual archetypes. Adi Da identified with the “Avatar” archetype, as did Meher Baba. Ammachi identifies with Kali, and the universal Female Energy, and Cohen evidently identifies with "crazy wisdom". I'm sure they all have decent enough reasons to feel these are valid self-descriptions. I am sure they were accompanied by profound yogic experiences that led these archetypes to dominate their psyches. I'm merely suggesting that it's the sign of an incomplete realization, and a mistake that keeps such people back, not a sign of a more profound realization that we should either desire, emulate, or worship. To do so creates a co-dependent narcissistic relationship, in which we are encouraging and even profiting from their mental instability, just as the crowd at a rock concert feeds on the precarious narcissism of the self-destructive front-man.

Ramana used to say that many people reach a level of spiritual understanding that feels like enlightenment, and that very few ever go further than this. I'd gather that there are various kinds of false enlightenment, not just one type, and that one can see the examples of it in many of these characters. Andrew Cohen seems to have a pretty low level of this “enlightenment”, but clearly it was sufficient for him. Adi Da achieved a much higher level of spiritual greatness, as did Ammachi, but they still seem to have fallen short, and turned their spiritual achievement into something that in some respects can actually work against the their own enlightenment and that of others. One can still make use of such people, but one has to be very wary of their dark side, their ego, which is still alive and kicking, and unfortunately, completely unconscious in these types, but present only in their identification with Divine archetypes, which enable a much wider range of co-dependencies among devotees.

One thing that can be said in general about all positive spiritual pursuits is that they requires a direct inspection of the ego. In fact, the most positive of all spiritual pursuits is, paradoxically, just that: the direct inspection of the ego, such that one never takes one's eye off it. In any spiritual endeavor, the best recommendation is to be aware of one's own ego and its various tricks, for if one does so, one will never be entirely taken in by the egos of others. For one, you will simply recognize the smell and taste of the ego in what others do, and second, you will simply not be inclined to go down those paths. Unfortunately, most of us are not terribly self-aware, and we all tend to fall into paths that are blind to their own ego, and which blind us as well.

Cultic indoctrination has often been compared to “brainwashing”, as if it is something that is imposed upon us from without. But there is no such thing as “classic” brainwashing in that sense, at least without total physical control such as one might find in a POW camp. What is commonly referred to as cultic brainwashing is something much subtler and more sophisticated than that. It's more akin to hypnosis, which is also not what people tend to think. Practitioners of hypnosis and scientific investigators of the phenomena all agree: there is actually no such thing as “hypnosis”. In other words, the hypnotic trance is not really a trance at all. It's a state of voluntary submission to a charismatic leader, the hypnotist, so that the ego of the one in the “trance” can live out various fantasies without taking any responsibility for them. The ego merely tricks itself into thinking its in a trance, when in fact it is merely going along for the ride, participating in an exercise of play-acting, because it wants to.

This is the dirty secret of virtually all cults and con-men: people want to be tricked and taken advantage of. They like the game, and they like to play it, and they go along because it serves the ego's purpose. Now, the ego's purpose might not be good for us, and in fact it seldom is, but we can't pretend that we didn't follow our own ego's prerogative to join a cult and submit to its games, unwittingly or unwillingly.

We join cults for very good reasons, if we examine ourselves honestly. And this is why cults can be so successful and so long-lasting. It's also why it's hard to get around the defense most cults make that people joined willingly and not against their will – because it's true. That doesn't make it any less disgusting, but it does make it a morally complex situation, and not just a simplistic question of innocent people being hoodwinked by a conman. As any conman will tell you, people's desire to be fooled is the essential ingredient to any con. Without it, no one can be conned. And without people who want to join a cult, cults would not exist either. They are very much like the people who volunteer at a hypnotist's show. They want to be hypnotized. They want to fall into a daze and be led to do crazy things and enjoy themselves doing that, without having to take any conscious responsibility for it all.

The cult leader understands this, because he too wants to live in a trance. His trance is called “believing in one's own enlightenment”. He becomes the hypnotist who is his own first subject. The others fall in line with the hypnotist's message, and they become willing participants in the drama he creates. Not everyone, of course, has the same fantasies they want to live out. But fortunately there are a wide number of cults each with a slightly different fantasy, and there's enough of them to suit almost anyone. Andrew Cohen created a fantasy world for himself that was able to attract enough willing followers to survive and even thrive in small-pond style for quite some time. Adi Da was more successful, and Ammachi more successful still. Some of their devotees eventually fell out of the self-induced trance, but often conveniently forget that they themselves were responsible for their own trance state, and for what they did while under the trance. It was never really a real trance, after all. It was a self-induced state, created not by the hypnotist/cult leader, but by the cult follower themselves. This doesn't relieve the cult leader of their responsibility either, it merely makes it clear that they were never the one with the power at all, it was the cult follower all along whose own bizarre desires and fantasies led to this game being played out. Even the conflict and cognitive dissonance are those of the cultist, not the leader. They are not actually transferred or transmitted, they are merely duplicated because it fulfills a fantasy..

Even the Jonestown massacre was not entirely Jim Jones' creation. Many of those who were attracted to him in the first place shared his macabre and death-loving character, which had those kinds of overtones all along. On the other hand, not everyone there was actually desirous of playing out the suicide game. Many were there to play out the murder game, and when that terrible day came to pass, those who opted out of the suicide trance were captured and killed by those in the murder trance. We should be reminded that those who committed those acts of murder were doing so not just out of their own free will, but out of their own murderous fantasies. They might try to blame Jones for their crimes, but like the Nazis who were “just following orders”, they were willing participants who enjoyed that horrifying game.

Andrew Cohen was a far cry from Jim Jones, of course. His submission games had a definite sado-masochistic side to them, as did some of the Adidam ones. But sado-masochism is not as rare as many of us would like to think. It's actually a fairly common fantasy, that some people seek out through one cult or another, or even just one bad relationship or another. It would be nice if we could blame cultism only on these insidious cult leaders, but they are not really the main problem. The problem with Nazism wasn't Hitler, it was the Nazis themselves, big and small, who were all too eager to play out a crazed and glorious fantasy.

As Freud said, the pattern of these kinds of social groupings is always the same, At the center is a charismatic narcissist who “gives permission” to the narcissism of others to come out of its hiding place. This is the pattern of many rock stars, who give the audience permission to exploit themselves once the star puts out the “word”. The party begins, and everyone's private narcissistic fantasy is given expression. A cult is very much like that, sometimes even with the music, sex, and drugs thrown in.

As Papaji used to say, there are no bad gurus, only bad devotees. The way to end cultism, in other words, is not about learning to recognize bad gurus, but by learning to recognize one's own narcissistic fantasies, and stop pretending when we live them out that we were not responsible for ourselves. This isn't a way of excusing cults, it's a way of ending them. If we come to terms with our own narcissism, our own desire to live it out surreptitiously through the “permission” of a narcissistic cult leader, we can't exploit the cult experience, or find ourselves “exploited” in the process. Cults will die out only when people face up to their own desire to fall into a “trance” that relieves them of responsibility for their own fantasies. It's not a question of guarding people from cult leaders, but of helping them to consciously face their own inner fantasy life consciously and go beyond it.

This in no way calls for a re-evaluation of cult leaders that excuses them for their criminality or manipulation of others. The narcissism they play upon in others is merely a reflection of themselves. Their own sense of victimization at the hands of their devotees, past and present, is merely the flip side of those devotees who feel victimized by the cult leader. Both are playing out the same sado-masochistic fantasy, and trying to profit from it. In the end, no one but the ego actually profits. The problem there, of course, is that the ego thrives on suffering, not on happiness, and so the outcomes reached in most such cases are rather miserable, depending on just how far one took the fantasy. One is left in the end only with a spiritualized ego, and that is not nearly as much fun as our fantasies would have us believe. This is true of the leaders as much as the followers.Cults are generally boring places of inner misery camouflaged by righteous ideals.

So there's no need to unduly “target” fellows like Andrew Cohen or Adi Da. That is just part of the fantasy relationship as well. It's best merely to see them as they are, and see ourselves as we are, and understand that we went along with their trance-state for reasons of our own, and if we leave it, we have to understand that the desire to live in a trance is a universal one. We don't leave that behind merely by leaving one particular cult. We have to leave our own ego's fantasy life behind to do that. Or at least not let it be unconscious in us, such that it takes us by surprise. If we want to live out our fantasies, we should do so consciously, and know what we are getting into. And maybe if we become more conscious of it, we won't want to indulge it anyway.Consciousness of our own fantasies tends to dissipate the unconscious power of the fantasy, loosening its hold on us. This is why consciously examining the ego undoes much of its grip. The principle of the ego is unconsciousness itself, which the hypnotic trance of the cult extends rather than undoes. Whereas the power of conscious awareness makes conscious what is unconscious in us, and thus frees us from its compulsive necessity.

I'll probably write some more about this topic in the coming days, as well as discussing its opposite: the free life, and the emerging spiritual model of the un-cult.