“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot
There seem to be two main approaches to spirituality. The first and by far the most common, is the accumulative approach, in which the individual reads lots of books and acquires as much spiritual knowledge as possible, constructing exquisite new belief systems and engaging in all kinds of wonderful practises and sadhanas. There’s always some new technique and trend that’s taking the spiritual marketplace by storm, and so many exciting things to investigate and learn. This is the spiritual sweet shop and it’s a fun — and tasty — place to be.
The second approach is the de-cumulative approach and it’s a lot less common, perhaps because it’s not in the least bit flashy or enticing. By comparison it’s stark and simple. The de-cumulative approach is in some ways the polar opposite to the accumulative approach. It’s not about gaining new beliefs or adding more knowledge to the mind. It’s not about learning new techniques or becoming a better person. On this path, there are no answers out there, beyond some simple pointers that may or may not be helpful. The only prerequisite is to have a sincere yearning to find truth (truth about the nature of oneself and life) and, with an attitude of earnest inquiry, you are invited to look within and explore the truth of your existence. It’s about letting go of everything you think you’ve learned about spirituality, yourself and the world and to take a good look around in order to find the truth, first-hand, for yourself.
It took me a very long time to realise that sweet shop spirituality doesn’t really lead anywhere. It’s all about the thrill of the hunt, the perpetual mindset of seeking — and thinking you’ve found it in the latest spiritual bestseller, before realising that this wasn’t quite it (whatever ‘it’ is) and moving onto the next big trend, technique or book. I realised the answers aren’t out there, because on a fundamental level, there is no ‘out there’. It gradually dawned on me that the world is maya, a mind-created, mind-projected and mind-sustained world of illusion and dream forms. If you want to learn about what is real, then you don’t look for it in the world of the false. You won’t find answers about reality in the world of dreams. Your best bet is to instead turn your attention to the consciousness that is dreaming.
This shift in attention from dream to dreamer was a big turning point for me. It doesn’t mean I still don’t get pulled into the dramas, crises and strife that happen around me, because I do. But it doesn’t happen for quite as long anymore. On a couple of recent occasions when there have been dramas occurring around me, and people running about freaking out, I simply found myself letting go and realising that, in spite of the panic and stress around me, the drama itself didn’t really matter and that it would quickly resolve itself as it always does. And it did, on each occasion.
The dream frequently gets scary, for that’s what happens in dreams — one moment you’re soaring through the sky like an eagle, then the next you’re tumbling toward the ground. But when you know all along that the whole thing is just a dream, you simply observe with an almost amused detachment, knowing that the seemingly dire crises will promptly resolve themselves and that what you really are cannot be threatened in any way by any of it. Indeed, the element of lucidity while dreaming even gives you an element of being able to better control the dream itself. I tried that too, and it worked remarkably! I have a suspicion that the famed ‘law of attraction’ stuff actually does work, but that you have to be detached from the dream and from what you want to create. Only when you know yourself as dreamer and not dream can you truly utilise your creative power for crafting and altering the dream should you so choose. You have the choice as to whether you simply let go and watch the show, or whether you want to change the outcome of the dream.
Now, there will be a great many people who would vigorously oppose the assertion that the world as we experience it is a dream. It’s a pretty radical statement and one that’s very hard to explain on the level of mind. I don’t feel the need to even try to explain it at the moment (although I do feel an explanation of sorts brewing in the back of my mind, words that perhaps want to be expressed at a later date). You can’t take this on someone else’s word anyway. It’s a realisation that can only be arrived through deep and unflinching inner exploration. It’s necessary to jettison all concepts and ideas about what you think you are and what you think constitutes reality and simply look within. The method of self-inquiry offered by vedanta and made famous in the west by jnani’s (knowers of truth) such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj has been, for me, the match that ignited this particular realisation.
It’s a journey that must be undertaken oneself; earnestly, without expectation and without any motive other than desire for truth. Many of us, myself included, have embarked upon the spiritual path with an idea that it will bring us something wonderful, some superhuman state of enlightenment. This hidden agenda has to be ditched. When the ego uses spirituality as a crutch or a secret weapon to bolster itself…well, it’s never going to work out. It will get messy. I am certain that the ego can never become enlightened. It sure as hell thinks it can. But authentic awakening is the transcending of ego, in which the false, conceptual self dissolves into something vaster, deeper and truer. And by ‘something’ I actually mean nothing and Everything. This is where words get tricky. This is where it’s best for me to stop talking altogether.
I suppose the point of this post was to note what I see as the two contrasting approaches to spiritual realisation. The accumulating/gathering approach sees us devouring information, teachings and techniques. It may be a necessary foundation for our spiritual explorations (until we may come to realise that it’s unnecessary and even counter-productive). There comes a point when we’ve stuffed our bellies with so much confectionary that we feel bloated, sick and yet simultaneously unfulfilled. It took me many years on the spiritual merry-go-round to realise that I was just going around in circles.
It was then that I was drawn to the spartan and decidedly un-flashy approach of de-cumulation, wherein the only motive is a simple desire to know what’s true and what isn’t true. Not because of what it will get me, but simply because the confectionery shop had left me so unsatisfied and disillusioned. This fundamental shift in focus is radical. I stopped looking for answers within the dream itself, and started exploring who and what the dreamer was.
I’m beginning to realise that this ‘path’ doesn’t really lead anywhere. It does seem to cause a radical shift in perception and awareness. I don’t think I can ever look at ‘myself’ and ‘the world’ in the same way ever again. Yet I don’t think I’m suddenly going to burst into light and ascend to higher planes. This apparently separate entity with a body and name and memories and habits is here for the duration of its allotted timespan. But there’s something changing within. There’s a timeless presence or awareness that’s simply witnessing the play of form as it takes place through and around this time-bound physical entity. It’s impossible to find and touch this awareness – it’s not to be seen or categorised. It’s simply watching with a detached amusement. It’s almost like someone sitting in a darkened cinema munching on popcorn while watching what’s happening on the cinema screen. Sometimes the film is so good (or bad!) and so compelling and realistic, that the cinema-goer is utterly pulled into the events of the film.
I like the cinema screen analogy. I’ve heard it used before and it’s one of the best for explaining the nature of consciousness and life. I may return to it. In the meantime, I continue to nibble popcorn and watch this amusing, scary, funny, sometimes tragic farce unfold.