This is one of the most important posts I have written – it condenses years of spiritual seeking which has involved exploring dozens of spiritual teachings, reading hundreds of books and texts from spiritual teachers and spiritual traditions across the world, undergoing all sorts of spiritual practices and meditations over the years, entering samadhi’s and experiencing visions of infinite oneness, and a genuine realisation of the Freedom-that-already-is.
The aim of the post is to guide you to a Freedom beyond words, but also stay concise. For all those people who have asked me: ‘That’s all very well but how do I actually become enlightened? How can we free ourselves from suffering? What do we do?’, this is for you, and others like you.
Below is a roadmap, a way of navigating the plethora of spiritual teachings that lie before us, from the insane and hyperbolic to the lucid and profound. There is much more I could add to each section, and I will probably rework this page from time to time, so check-in every now and then for updates. I hope this way of thinking about our spiritual journey is beneficial for you – figuring it all out and putting it together over the years has been a great help to me on my journey. If it isn’t useful, I encourage you to simply leave the ‘bad bits’ behind and take what works.
Wishing you happiness, peace and wisdom
There are so many spiritual practices that one can do, from mediation to chanting, from yoga to qigong. There are also many ways of categorising different types of practice. In this post I’ve tried to put together a basic outline of how various spiritual practices actually work and fit together so you can chose practices that will work for you.
The 2 basic types of spiritual practice
For the purposes of this exposition I have kept it simple by saying all spiritual practices basically can be placed under two categories: generating peace and self-knowledge.
Generating peace usually comes first (but doesn’t have to) and these practices are often called the ‘lower practices’ as they do not directly lead to freedom or enlightenment (although in some cases they can – see below). This is not to say they are worse that the ‘higher practices’, as they are often essential to spiritual development, and can be both very powerful and extremely useful. However generating peace is usually a preparatory phase for self-knowledge.
The second type of spiritual practice I have called self-knowledge, and it is this that leads to complete and total freedom. This is therefore known as the ‘higher teaching’ or the ‘direct path’. Self-knowledge is synonymous with enlightenment and can arise in a number of ways. Just because it is self-knowledge that actually is the direct cause of freedom doesn’t mean that one should not bother with generating peace. For many seekers a generating practice will be more important and essential to provide a stable foundation for self-knowledge.
It’s a bit like learning anything really – take mathematics – which is more important, the ‘higher teaching’ of calculus or the ‘lower teaching’ of basic arithmethic? Some people will have to study the basic teachings of addition and subtraction, whilst others can go straight to calculus as they have already understood the basics.
Navigating the spiritual marketplace
In our current context of being confronted by and having access to so many different types of spiritual practice can be very confusing. Who to believe? Which path to follow? Do I let go or try harder? Do I meditate or do yoga, or do both or neither? Am I my body or am I not?
You will have your own questions and way of seeing things, but understanding this basic schema of generating peace and self-knowledge and how they interact will allow you to see how various teachings from different traditions/teachers fit together.
This I hope, will allow you to tune into your heart’s desire and lead you to both peaceand understanding.
Later when you have fully realised the teachings and are free, this schema will also allow you to guide others in a more holistic way, should that be something ‘you’ wish to do.
In Buddhism and Hinduism
As a slight aside before we get stuck into the actual practices, in case you are interested in traditional paths to enlightenment, here is some basic terminology.
In Buddhism spiritual practices are called bhavana (development), generating peace is called samatha (peaceful abiding) and self-knowledge is called panna (wisdom) or vipassana (insight, clear seeing). Enlightenment is usually called nibbana/nirvana (extinguishment) or bodhi (knowledge/understanding/ awakening). The literal translation of Buddha is ‘the one who knows/understands/is awake’. A spiritual seeker is called a savaka (a listener [to the teachings]).
In Vedic or ‘Hindu’ paths spiritual practice is called sadhana or tapas, generating peace practices are generally called yoga (union) and self-knowledge teachings are called vedanta (the end of knowledge) or atma-jnana (self-knowledge). Enlightenment is usually called moksha (freedom) or mukti (freedom). A spiritual seeker is called a mumukshu (seeker of freedom). An enlightened sage is called a rishi (seer, the one who sees) or jnani (knower, the one who knows/understands).
The distinction between the two basic types of spiritual practice is not always as clear cut as is made out above but as a rule of thumb this will allow you to navigate the plethora of spiritual paths a seeker potentially has in front of them.
1. Generating Peace
So let’s get started. The first groups of spiritual practices I have called generating peace. Unsurprisingly, the purpose of these types of spiritual teachings is to generate a peaceful or still mind. Most spiritual practices in the spiritual market place, either knowingly or unknowingly, are in this category. The essential premise is that the fewer the thoughts, the more peaceful the mind, and the less the ego distorts one’s vision. This increases the chance of self-knowledge (ie. seeing through the illusion of a separate self) arising.
The fewer the thoughts, the more peaceful the mind, and the less the ego distorts one’s vision. This increases the chance of self-knowledge.
We can categorise generating peace practices into those that primarily involve distraction, those that primarily involve letting go, and antidotes:
These practices focus the mind away from our normal thought processes onto something else. This something else has to be something that we are more inclined to pay attention to than our thoughts, eg. physical postures in hatha yogas and tai-chi, focusing on the breath, a sound or phrase (ie. mantra), a visual form/visualisation practice, chanting, devotional practices, bhakti yoga, much of raja yoga and jnana yoga, concentration practices and absorptive states/samadhis.
b) Letting go
These practices do not ask us to turn our attention away from anything, but emphasise letting go of certain aspects of our experience so we do not become entangled in our self-referential thought processes, eg. mindfulness practices, surrender practices, karma yoga, certain zen and dzogchen meditations, Quaker meeting for worship.
Another way letting go techniques can work is by way of utilising beliefs. Eg. the belief that God is taking care of our needs, or that the world is an illusion and so cannot harm us, or that by thinking in a certain positive way positive outcomes will manifest in our lives. These beliefs can allow us to stop worrying which can result in a deep relaxation and generation of peace. Even though this practice is based on concepts in the form of beliefs, it is a powerful way of destroying ingrained habits and self-destructive processes and can provide immense strength in times of need.
However, for self-knowledge to occur, all beliefs have to be dropped and seen through, for truth does not require beliefs and beliefs are ultimately a hindrance to clear seeing. Until then, belief can be a powerful gateway to nullifying unhelpful attachments and generating deep peace.
These practices aim to destroy or correct a negative characteristic or thought process by practising the opposite. eg. if we are often unloving we can practice loving kindness (metta practice), if we are lustful we can contemplate aspects of the body that are repulsive, if we have negative self thoughts we can practice positive thinking. Some forms of jnana yoga when we repeat phrases such as ‘I am Brahman’ or ‘I am not the body, I am not the mind’ are extreme forms of antidotal practices. This technique of emphasising the opposite is often required to overcome ingrained habitual processes that the preceding practices are not able to root out. Once we have changed our negative habit into a positive one, then we can start to transcend both the negative and positive. By listening to ourselves and our heart we will know when this transition is right for us, and how quickly it should be done
Once the basic underlying reason for doing various practices is understood, then we can use that understanding to quicken our spiritual development.
There are a multitude of peace-generating practices that I have not mentioned, all which essentially aim to subdue the self-referential concept-based thought process (ie. the ego). The practices may also have additional positive effects as well as generating peace, but for the purposes of becoming free these effects have less relevance.
Each of the above ways of generating peace can be done in several ways, as we have seen, and we can further categorise as follows:
a. Using the body: eg. hatha yoga, devotional practices
b. Using the voice: eg. chanting, vocal mantra repetition, affirmations
c. Using the mind: eg. mental mantra repetition, watching the breath, mindfulness, surrender/letting go practices, various other meditation and devotional practices.
Which method is best?
The more attached a person is to his/her thought patterns and internal dialogue, the stronger and more ‘coarse’ the practice initially has to be. I use the word ‘coarse’ in a descriptive sense, not a judgemental one. Coarse practices are like sledgehammers while finer ones are like tweezers. One is not better than the other – it just depends what you need to use it for. Sledgehammers are used for stronger afflictive emotions while tweezers are better for more nuanced issues.
Generally antidotes are coarser than distraction which is coarser than letting go. Coarser practices typically involve the body and are more useful to those with strong habitual thought patterns and strong attachments to a sense of self. As we become more peaceful, we will naturally gravitate towards more subtle and finer practices.
Finer practices use the voice, such as singing or chanting or mantra repetition using the voice.
The finest practices do not use the body or voice and are internal, relying solely on mental practices. Even within mental practices, some are coarser than others, and sustained practice leads to an ability to generate peace and happiness.
In terms of how to chose, usually most people will naturally be drawn to the type of spiritual practice that is best for them at any particular point in this. Naturally this may change over time, and a practice they previously were repelled by may mysteriously become more attractive, and vice versa. Similarly you may find that you have multiple practices ongoing simultaneously. Follow your heart and do what works for you, with peace and joy as the basic goal.
Initially people will often be looking for happiness, so then whatever practice makes you happy is the one for you. Often later happiness will also seen to paradoxically not be ultimately satisfying, and peace will become the goal. When this happens, whatever practice (or practices) gives you peace, that is the one for you.
Experiences along the way
As thought is allowed to slow down, peace naturally is allowed to flow in. If one allows oneself to be aware of what is happening during this peace, things can start to be seen as they really are without the distorting factors of the ego interfering. ie. insight, wisdom and self-knowledge will naturally occur if we keep our awareness bright whilst generating peace.
We can have many experiences during this phase of our development. We may have visions, we may gain clarity over how to act in certain situations, we may experience bliss and light and samadhis and we may also experience no-self or oneness.
Limitations of generating peace
However the direct effects of generating peace are always limited and temporary. Things are always subject to change, and a cultivated sense of peace is no different. All generated states, such as bliss, samadhi and peace, are all temporary. They come and they go. The same goes for psychic powers, manifested experiences, mystical experiences and any other experience or attribute – they all come and go.
True freedom, liberation, does not care for peace or silence or any other experience or state of mind. It just is, regardless of what is happening. Nevertheless, a peaceful mind, in which the ego’s distorting qualities are suppressed, does increase the chances of Freedom being seen, although strictly speaking it is not necessary.
True freedom, liberation, does not care for peace or silence or any other experience or state of mind. It just is, regardless of what is happening
This brings us to the liberating factor, what I call self-knowledge.
The positive effects of generating peace and stillness can be cumulative over many months and years but are ultimatelydissatisfying. Why? Because while the weeds and undergrowth of the ego have been temporarily brushed aside when we feel peaceful, the root has not been severed. The root is the illusion of being a separate self. This can only be severed by what I call self-knowledge.
Enlightenment is none other than self-knowledge. What is self-knowledge? Self-knowledge is realising that you are not a person. It is simply seeing through the illusion of a separate self that takes itself to be the doer and author of its actions. Once that is done, that’s it – freedom! That’s all this is about.
It is simply seeing through the illusion of a separate self that takes itself to be the doer and author of its actions. Once that is done, that’s it – freedom! That’s all this is about.
This ‘knowledge’ comes all at once, it is seen directly and completely and it has no stages. It is either seen, totally and completely, or it is not. It is not knowledge like intellectual knowledge, it doesn’t rely on the intellect or senses, but I call it knowledge/understanding/clear seeing for want of a better word.
It may take time for the mind-body apparatus to catch up with this clear seeing, but that’s fine and makes no difference. This clear seeing is just seeing things as they already are, and is always present in every human being.
This leads us to the ‘higher practices’, such as the practice of self-enquiry whose aim is self-knowledge, a synonym of freedom or enlightenment. In self-enquiry we repeatedly look at our sense of self and try to find out what it is, what it is composed of, and how it exists. This can be summarised wit the question ‘Who am I?’, or more accurately ‘What am I?’. Repeated attempts will reveal that there is no actual self there, that there is no doer, that separation is an illusion.
Unlike generating peace, it is more difficult to put self-enquiry into words. Initially self-enquiry is something performed by the mind or ego, ie. it is performed by the very construct it is seeking to see through. The person is trying to see that the person is an illusion!
There are 4 main ways this is done:
- Examining phenomena that we experience: by examining the constituent parts of our experience we can see that no constituent part/no phenomena constitutes an independent self capable of being the initiator of thoughts and actions
- Analysis of cause and effect: we can notice that every action has a cause, and that every cause is itself caused by a prior cause. We can deduce that there is no independent author of thoughts or actions in this way and see how everything is interdependent.
- Analysis of the body: we can realise that concepts form invisible lines around objects where there are really none. Where does the body end? When does the air around us become us? Same with food? We depend on air just as much as depend on our blood to survive, so isn’t that a vital part of our body too? Same with the ground. We need to ground to walk, just as much as we need our legs. We can see in this way the universe is our body and there is no separate self.
- Using the awareness teachings: using the conceptual framework of the awareness teachings (which postulates a subject awareness which is aware of various objects which are not ultimately separate from it) we can notice that no phenomena that arise in our awareness is ‘I’, and these teachings can help pierce thought the illusion of doership.
Not clinging to/letting go of the teachings
Please note that in all of the above 4 ways of seeing through the illusion of doership we use a particular line of reasoning or logic to refute the existence of a separate doer-self. It is important to note that this line of reasoning, however persuasive, is itself a story, a theory, albeit perhaps a more believable one.
However once the job of the teaching is done, we do not need to cling to these stories and claim them as truth. We can then also let go of the teachings.
Notions of their being no doer can be used to rid ingrained notions of doership, then then both can be let go of.
The concept of non-doership roots out the concept of doership. Then both concepts are let go of and neither concept exclusively operates in the mind.
Relaxing into self-enquiry
Then later, in a higher form of self-enquiry, as we relax, all there is is seeing and feeling. Out of that can come a ‘knowing’ or ‘seeing’ that there is no separation. It is just allowing things to be as they already are, and the lack of a self is noticed effortlessly, as plain as the ‘nose on your face’. In this latter example, it is not a person seeing, but just a seeing that has always been present coming to the foreground, as it were. We realise that the person that we took to be the thinker and doer is actually an object in our awareness and not a doer at all.
There is a lot more that could be said about self-enquiry and self-knowledge, but the key is to expose yourself to the higher teachings, to allow your mind to become peaceful and remain aware of what is happening. These work together and are conducive to self-knowledge arising.
The key is to expose yourself to the higher teachings, to allow your mind to become peaceful and remain aware of what is happening.
Practices involving the sense of ‘I’ or ‘I Am’
There are a group of practices that involve focusing on the sense ‘I Am’ or repeating the mantra ‘I am’ or ‘I’, eg. as advocated by Yoga Vasishtha, Nisargadatta Maharaj and sometimes by Ramana Maharshi, as well as many other sages from other traditions. At a coarse level of practice there is verbal repetition of the word ‘I’ or ‘I am’, at a finer level there is mental repetition, and at the most subtle level of practice there is just a resting in the sense of being (the sense of ‘I Am’). At all these levels there is still a sense of separation in that there is a sense of a person who is doing the practice, ie. the sense of doership that the practice attempts to undermine is still at play.
What these practices have in common is that they focus on (or distract from) the ‘I-concept’, which is the root illusory concept that needs to be undermined. These practices can work on several levels, and can both generate peace and facilitate self-knowledge simultaneously: they generate peace by use of distraction from egoic thought processes (see above); they are conducive to self-knowledge by either by focusing awareness on the sense of ‘I’ and allows the ‘I’ to be progressively seen through, or removing attention and energy from the ‘I-concept’ which reduces our attachment to the body and mind and sense of self which in turn prepares us for self-knowledge to dawn.
Again, there is much more that can be said for these ‘I’ practices, how to do them and how they work, but for the purposes of this introduction I will leave it at that. For the seeker who is drawn to this type of practice, it is a very effective sadhana.
Identifying with consciousness or awareness
There are a host of practices that involve the seeker identifying as the subjective consciousness and disidentifying as the body, mind and world. Basically the teachings go something like this: You are not the world because you are aware of the world. Most people already know this: eg. they are aware of the table, the table is not them. This logic is then applied to the body and mind: you are not the body – it is ‘you’ that is aware of the body – what is it that is aware of the body? That is the real you, the body is just an object that appears to you. You are that which is conscious of the body, the subject. Similarly with the mind, you are not the mind, you are that which is aware of thoughts and feelings and mental impressions.
You are consciousness or awareness itself, the ever present subject that is unchanging, indestructible, self-shining (it needs no other awareness to be aware of itself – it is self-aware). This consciousness is not an object, and therefore has no attributes such as shape, size or colour. All objects appear within consciousness as consciousness – ie. all objects are simply modulations of consciousness – they are ‘made’ of consciousness, but no particular object or group of objects is consciousness itself.
Importantly, this consciousness is not a doer, but just illumines objects which are non-separate from it. Traditional metaphors are used to demonstrate this, such as that of the sun that shines on the world but remains apart from it, unchanged by the ever-changing world that depends upon it. Another metaphor is the 2 birds on a tree, one that eats the fruit on the tree (which represents the body-mind that partakes in life) and another that stands still and simply watches (the unchanging witness-consciousness).
This is a powerful teaching and essentially in following it we come to realise that nothing that appears in the content of our consciousness defines who we are: the world changes, our body changes, our thoughts change, out feelings change, yet somehow we still remain – a part of us is still the same, unchanged – the part of us that is simply aware. And it is that aware principle that is our essence. So the teaching goes.
This teaching is only a halfway house. Like the practices involving the sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’, this practice acts to both generate peace and goes some way towards self-knowledge. It generates peace by allowing us to let go of the phenomenal world as we disidentify with our bodies and mind. It develops self-knowledge as through letting go we learn that the mind and body just follow their own nature and are not us. We learn that we are not the body or mind. We see that we are not the doer.
However there can be a problem, as the practice is still based in concepts or beliefs. We are letting go through using a belief (as discussed in the generating peace section above), a belief in this case that ‘I am Consciousness’. There is still a sense of a person who is now identified as Consciousness with a big C. This too is an illusion, and if this illusion collapses then real non-conceptual self-knowledge can dawn. Of course this self-knowledge can dawn without the halfway house of identifying with Consciousness first. The danger is that the seeker does not realise this and instead just claims to be Consciousness rather than the body or mind. This is just another form of identification and is a way that the ego continues itself, albeit subtely, protecting itself from the world around it. Fear is still at play. The conceptual contruct of Consciousness or awareness has not yet been seen through.
In summary, identification with Consciousness is a powerful technique but, as with all techniques, we must let go of all concepts and teachings to find that which is true. Truth requires no concepts. We cling to concepts only out of fear. It is just the ego at play. Let go, let go, do not be afraid, let it go! Whatever you truly are, whatever is real, will remain. You do not need to cling to it.
We cling to concepts only out of fear. It is just the ego at play. Let go, let go, do not be afraid, let it go! Whatever you truly are, whatever is real, will remain. You do not need to cling to it.
The ways self-knowledge or Freedom can arise
As I said previously Self-knowledge is synonymous with enlightenment or freedom. Typically self knowledge follows generating peace: the spiritual seeker will stumble across a mainstream spiritual teaching that advocates a generating peace type practice. The seeker will gain many experiences and epiphanies, become more peaceful and loving, but still not be completely satisfied for some reason. If they are lucky they will come across the self-knowledge teachings, and in seeing through the sense of self, Freedom will be realised.
Often there will be interplay between generating peace and self-knowledge: as peace develops it will deepen insight into the illusory nature of the sense of self which will in turn enable a deeper peace to be reached until in one moment it is all seen through. Then Freedom.
However it doesn’t have to be like this. Self-knowledge/Freedom can arise spontaneously without first undergoing generating peace practices. This spontaneous arising may occur in natural moments of calm or relaxation, but may also arise in the midst of turmoil. In these cases the ‘newly enlightened person’ will often say that generating peace is not required for enlightenment and just teach self-knowledge practices.
Conversely generating peace can spontaneously lead to self-knowledge arising effortlessly without intent or deliberation. In these cases the ‘newly enlightened person’ will usually say that self-knowledge is unnecessary for enlightenment and just teach generating peace practices only. If a person has ‘become free’ without first generating peace, they are either naturally peaceful or peace will tend to naturally develop after Freedom has been realised.
We can summarise the above ways in which Freedom can arise as: peace first then self knowledge, self-knowledge first then peace, or simultaneous development of peace and self knowledge.
We can summarise the above ways in which Freedom can arise as either:
-first peace then self-knowledge
-first self-knowledge then peace, or
-simultaneous development of peace and self-knowledge
Usually depending on how an enlightened individual became enlightened will often affect the way they teach, and they will tend to teach the path that mirrors their own journey, as this is what they will know best based on their first-hand experience.
Beyond spiritual practices
Implicit in both this ‘higher teaching’ of self-enquiry and the ‘lower teachings’ of generating peace are the notions of a person who is carrying out these spiritual practices in order to get somewhere. In this way both the higher and lower teachings, whilst useful to prepare the mind, often perpetuate the central illusion of self. In the highest spiritual teachings, to even admit that there is a person who has to do something to get somewhere, is to stray from the ‘path’.
In the highest spiritual teachings,
To even admit that there is a person,
Who has to do something to get somewhere,
Is to stray from the ‘path’.
So, what to do? Either see it, or do not. In the meantime feel free to purify your mind, make it peaceful, relax, learn not to worry too much. Know that the peace will not itself directly lead to lasting satisfaction, only self-knowledge will do that, but it may make your life easier meanwhile by reducing egoic thought processes and attachments and the corresponding suffering these bring.
Keep on exposing the mind to these teachings. Allow your heart to guide you and your spiritual journey. Stay savvy and alert. Remember that which comes will also go: freedom is not any particular experience, it is ever-present.
Wisdom/insight/self-knowledge will come by itself. Actually it is already here, and in truth there is nothing to be realised. Contemplate this, don’t just let it wash over you. There is a great truth here. Mull it over, let it percolate, ask yourself – ‘How can this be true? Is this true?’, then find out for yourself. Don’t cling to beliefs or concepts, don’t settle for anything less than total Freedom, or whatever it is that you are looking for. Find out what is true for yourself, on your terms, and don’t rest until you do.
Love & Blessings to you all
and maybe one day you will see that there is nobody there.
All this time,
there was nobody there.
See how your concepts and stories about life create suffering, fear, desire and mental pleasure.
Allow them to come and go.
Use the stories if you want,
but don’t believe them,
don’t allow them to ensnare you.
and maybe one day you will see there is nothing more required,
nothing to realise,
no knowledge to get,
no reason to even notice.
Wholeness is already here.
What does it look like?
It’s whatever’s happening,
just as things already are.
This is it.