I recently heard probably the most famous meditation teacher in the world echo a very common, and unfortunately simplistic idea: that ‘waking up’ to our identity as unbounded and silent awareness is the essence of all spirituality. This has certainly been the aim of many spiritual practices from a diverse range of cultures, but by no means is it the whole story. I believe that the coming together of all the world’s spiritual traditions today weaves a much richer tapestry than this. The magnetic pull of the conclusion that privileges waking up as formless awareness partly lies in the assumption that permanence is good and impermanence is bad. Awareness is a permanent (unchanging) feature of our lives, whether we know it or not, and the ‘waking up’ is the recognition in every moment that awareness is the context for our entire lives within which everything else plays out. Awareness is free, illuminating, transparent, always calm and clear. Within our awareness writhes the chaotic kaleidoscope of our sensations, feelings, thoughts and relationships. In many spiritual traditions, old and new, this ever changing and impermanent flux we call our lives is often referred to implicitly or explicitly as an illusion, maybe even sinful and revolting. Why is something less real if it is temporary? In my opinion the permanent and temporary are simply two poles of reality, and now is the time to live this paradox by holding both poles simultaneously, but that’s a topic for another discussion. Awareness can be stably recognised through long term meditation practice, but also many people spontaneously have lucid dreams and sometimes wakefulness (without thoughts) in the black emptiness of deep sleep. Hence the clinging to Awareness because it is present in waking, dreaming and deep sleep and thus seemingly the only permanent and ‘real’ feature of ourselves. Meditation focusing on this always-already radically free, un-contracted and peaceful awareness has made up a large part of my own practice over the last 25 years and I place great importance on it. But, for me it is a practice that has always been one of several that I have devoted many years to.
This emphasis on the primacy of Awareness leads to a one dimensional spiritual practice. I feel this type of approach belongs to a bygone era where humanity was obsessed with finding the one big truth. Our contemporary moment presents us with a pluralism of truths and I believe it is time to make a world spirituality that brings together the distinct strengths developed in the many cultures of our planet’s history. The great gift of our era is that we have all the various spiritual traditions available to us, and we can watch them compete with each other and see which is most appropriate and effective in different circumstances. It is very similar to the situation with the plethora of martial arts coming together in the Ultimate Fighting Championships which began in the 1990’s. Since time immemorial each martial arts school would say “our style is better than yours” without ever actually having to prove that in the arena of combat. We were supposed to just take their word for it. To the surprise and great humiliation of many martial arts traditions, when they actually put their skills to the test in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993 they displayed to the world that they were in fact not the best and their fighters were overpowered or out manoeuvred. Initially the winning technique was Brazilian Jujitsu. But as time moved on strikers learned that if they could keep a Jujitsu practitioner on their feet, rather than taking the fight to the ground, they could win by landing punches and kicks. So, in turn the Jujitsu fighters were forced to learn striking as well. The present situation is that to be a champion mixed martial artist you need to have solid grappling AND striking skills. Of course individual fighters tend to excel in one of these skills but they will always bring the other skill up to the highest level they can.
The UFC was tried and tested in public for the world to see. I feel that the same is happening with the various spiritual traditions. We can now all see what kind of person each tradition tends to produce: are they only developed in one domain and lacking in other important areas? People tend to be naively idealistic about spirituality believing it obeys different rules to everything else in life, or even go so far as to say it transcends all rules. I think this is a confused view that ultimately disempowers us and mutes our common sense. One of the great insights we now have from looking at our global heritage is that humans have managed to find the sacred in everything. What is taboo in one tradition is sacred in another. Two obvious examples are sex which has been revered for centuries in Tantra yet avoided like a disease in monastic traditions, and psychedelic drugs which are the key sacrament in the shamanism of most indigenous people yet demonised by the religions that came out of the axial age (eg. Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions). In large part the fear of these taboos is born of ignorance and fear - for example, how many Buddhist monks have actually drunk Ayahuasca? The internet now allows anyone to get good sex education or learn how to use psychedelics responsibly.
One of the arguments against forming a world spirituality is that we end up digging lots of shallow holes in too many practices rather than digging a deep hole in one. This would be the equivalent to trying to learn 4 musical instruments at the same time and not getting very good at any of them. This is a critique that I do take seriously but I also have an answer to it. It is perfectly natural for people to excel in one thing and be competent in others. If we stick with the music analogy, I have been a musician for 30 years and my main skill is as a drummer. But I am also proficient in music technology, Piano and the Kora (an African harp/lute). This breadth of skills has given me an advantage in finding work as a musician because clients are not always after a drummer. Artistically my understanding of melody and recording techniques has made my drumming better and vice versa. I can also join in any musical jam session happening on any type of instrument anywhere in the world. Lastly, my musical diversity prevents me from making ridiculous comments like “drums are the greatest instrument”, or “rhythm is the essence of all music”. Some instruments are great for percussion and not so much for melody and vice versa. How about having the aim of becoming a great musician in general with a speciality in a particular instrument. Lastly, as a drum teacher I could see how much better my students are than when I was young, mainly because of the internet. To bring in an evolutionary perspective, the positive feedback created by greater access to better information, and standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, means that the shallow holes we dig now would have been deep holes in the past.
Turning our attention back to spirituality, we tend to find three broad areas of practice in the world’s traditions: physical, subtle and formless. Examples of physical practice are Hatha Yoga, nutrition and meditation on the breath. Examples of subtle practices are psychedelics, dream work and visualisation meditation. Examples of formless practices are the Self Inquiry of Vedanta Hinduism, the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ of Christian mystics and Big Mind meditation in Zen. These broad domains are connected yet distinct and any individual practice can span them all but will tend to excel in one in particular. Tantric sex has an obvious physical element, a particular focus on blissful subtle energy and can sometimes lead to a moment of formless awareness. What if, like in our music analogy, our aim was to make our whole lives sacred yet also follow our natural talents and specialise in one or two areas. It is again a matter of being able to hold the paradox of simultaneously being a generalist and a specialist. Let’s not forget that people in the past have gone right down the rabbit hole in specific areas, yogi hermits living in caves, shamans in the amazon, clinical psychotherapists, and they have distilled their years of practice into pith instructions that we can take forward and develop further. We don’t need to start at square one every time, let’s build and evolve what has been already done.
Historically it has been easier to cover up failures and propagandise achievements, but with the access we currently have to information the scandals are being continuously unearthed around many gurus. It is my view that the age of having one guru is over. It has been the source of too much pain and stupidity. Why not have several gurus in different domains of practice and take the actual wisdom they have to offer and reject the rubbish they will also try to smuggle in. Let’s look at some examples of what happens when we expect one ‘pure’ tradition or one teacher to provide coherent answers to every aspect of our life. I have sat in the audience while a lady asked a childless guru how she should parent her children. He seemed to have a lot to say about a subject he had no personal experience of, and to my dismay she seemed very eager to heed his advice, because after all he was her guru. I know this guru had a lot of useful knowledge to share about meditation, and I listened intently to that, and put it into practice, but I ignored his nonsense about how to be a parent. I have seen gurus say psychotherapy is a waste of time as it simply reinforces the illusion that “we are our story”. The result of this neglect is their communities have become an emotional torture chamber for their narcissism to run rampant unchallenged for decades, leading to ruined lives and even suicides, and not the enlightened utopia they were selling. I had a traditional Christian childhood and learned many beneficial lessons about ethics, but I was told drugs were evil. As an adolescent I decided to draw my own conclusions by personally trying all these different drugs. This was before the internet was a useful source of information on such matters so I was in the ‘wild west’ of urban myths and peer advice (ie. ignorant teenagers) and I was honestly lucky to get out of this phase alive and psychologically intact. But, nonetheless, I found there were two different types of drugs - some like heroin and cocaine were toxic and usually destructive, and some like Psilocybin and DMT were not toxic and usually very beneficial. I have heard Advaita Vedanta teachers proclaim that climate change doesn’t matter because the world is an illusion - a statement that could only come from someone who has dissociated from their heart. I have heard shamans say there is no need to meditate because all you need are the psychedelic plant medicines - could it be that these shamans are masters of the subtle realm but have never experienced the empty formlessness of Buddhist meditation? I have heard meditation teachers scoff at those who treat their own bodies with reverence through such “mundane” activities as lifting weights. Are we to take this person seriously when they are obviously unhealthy and treat their body like a slave to carry their minds around?
We now have the opportunity to create a hybrid spirituality. This hybrid may outcompete the more pure strains. When it comes to dogs, the most healthy are the mongrels, and the pedigree breeds are plagued by ailments. I have a pure breed Rottweiler who I love dearly, but her body has been bred out of appropriate proportion and she consequently has joint problems. The truths revealed in the three domains of spirituality (physical, subtle and formless) are so powerful and attractive on their own terms that they can turn people in to ‘true believers’ of the ‘one legitimate path’. I am agreeing that these truths are powerful, I know because I have done 25 years of sustained practice in all three of them and intend to continue to do so for the rest of my life. But I am calling for us to take the next step and combine them to make something new and even more powerful. It is an experiment, and we don’t know the outcome for sure, but I believe it’s a risk worth taking. Let’s see how this plays out on the global stage. The proof will be if it creates human beings capable of bringing greater goodness, truth and beauty into the world?
P and C owned by Ralph Cree 2020