A more level headed approach

messy draft of an – most likely – unfair post…..

I am quite comfortable with approaches that place a mostly equal emphasize on who and what we are, our human self in the world and what we really are – that which experience happens within and as.

After all, growing up in this western culture I am familiar with the who part through psychology, health and well-being and personal growth, so when the what part surprisingly revealed itself, it was natural to combine the two. And even more so since there is a wide range of tools that address both areas, such as inquiry.

It is also easy for me to appreciate a more exclusive focus on the who part. It is what takes care of our usual knots, neediness, wounds and so on, helps us find more meaning and satisfaction in our lives, and live in a way that is more aligned with the larger whole. If there is still a quiet longing for God, truth or reality, then the what part comes in.

Yet, it continues to be difficult for me to find appreciation for an exclusive emphasis on the what side. I can easily appreciate it in other cultures, and also in a traditional western monastery setting. It is easy to see the beauty and appropriateness of it there.

But when it happens in a modern and more secular setting, it feels off for me. I continue to have a hangup there.

I notice this most clearly in my local spiritual group in Oregon (CSS), which has somewhat of an Advaita flavor even if they use practices and readings from all the main traditions. They emphasize what and de-emphasize who, it often feels a little dry, abstract and seen from a birds-eye view. A common dynamic among (some) students there appears as a hope that awakening will take care of their neediness and wounds, rather than focusing on healing and maturing in ordinary ways and not putting it all on awakening. (It seems healthier to not expect anything at all from awakening.) The irony is that the teachers do recognize those dynamics and sometimes try to discourage it, yet it won’t work since the very style of their teachings tends to fuel those dynamics.

The drawbacks of a one-sided emphasis on what seem obvious: It is too easy to put our hopes on the idea or image of an awakening in the future, to use our knots and neediness as fuel for that fantasy, and not take care of those knots through ordinary healing and maturing. We overlook what is very simple: If we want to get something – if there are holes, knots and neediness – take care of that through ordinary means, through inviting in healing and maturing for our human self. And if we can’t help exploring what we are, if there is a calling we can’t overlook, then by all means go ahead, although not coming from a place of expecting – or demanding – something from it.

This is obviously a quite one-sided view in itself.

To balance out what I just wrote, I need to acknowledge that the tools applied for waking up also, often, do invite in healing and maturing as a human being in the world, at least if applied with that intention. And that awakening itself – even if it is just a glimpse – is an invitation for who we are to heal and mature further.

And if the healing and maturing does not happen, in what way is the exclusive-focus-on-what approach a gift even then? What is right about it?

It is part of the play of life. If something is possible, life (reality, existence, God) will go there to explore and experience itself in that way too. It is an expression of life exploring itself in its richness.

It gives some people – myself included – a sense that there is something else which we then can explore on our own or with other groups. There is no obligation on any one group or approach to be comprehensive. Our approach is always quite limited – by biology, culture, insights and much more.

It helps me notice some of my own hangups and inquire into them. I wouldn’t want it differently. As soon as there is a sense of compulsion around it, there is a belief, and it is good to notice and inquire into. I may still use it as a practical guideline in the world, but coming from a quite different place.

It helps people get familiar with the terrain that is revealed through that slightly one-sided approach, and in some cases experience that is is slightly one-sided and move on. If they do, they will have valuable insights from that particular path. They may also later help others who also recognize it as somewhat one-sided.

It is understandable if people chose a slightly one-sided approach. The systematic exploration of what we are is relatively new in the west, and the combination of western psychology etc. and (mainly) eastern spirituality is also quite new, so we’ll approach it in a wide range of ways, many of which will have the marks of immaturity. I am sure I do exactly the same in ways I am not even aware of. It is part of a natural exploration process. It is what we naturally do when we explore a territory that is new and unfamiliar to us.

Who am I to assume that the view I am currently most comfortable with somehow has a privileged or superior position? The teachers who promote a teaching style that I see as one-sided have, almost always, far more experience, and are more healed and mature and awake, than I am. Also, I am sure there are many views held by others right now, many views held by some in the future, and innumerable other views that will not be held by any human at any time, that all would make more sense to me right now or at some point in the future.

Also, what I see there is – as always – a mirror. I see qualities and dynamics I recognize from myself, here and now, alive when I judge them. And it all happens within my own world of images. I don’t know if or to what extent my stories fits what is going on there (that will always be open for interpretation anyway), but I know that my stories fits what is going on right here.

And finally, the who and what distinction itself is – obviously – imaginary. Who happens within and as what. Who is what what temporarily takes itself to be through mistaken identity. Who doesn’t exist as anything solid, separate, lasting – it only appears through an imagined overlay of boundaries, labels, interpretations etc. And even with the overlay of these boundaries, tools – practices – tend to work on both areas. If it appears to work on mainly one, it tends to open for the other, especially if used with that intention.

Footnote: I am not quite able to put my finger on what’s bothering me about some of the more Advaita style approaches. When I look at CSS, I find….

  • What seems like a birds-eye view. It somehow feels remote. Distanced. Almost like an identification with Ground and less with content of experience, even if the teachers do emphasize that all is the play of Ground and all is fine as it is. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with awakening – with release of identification out of stories, and seems to have everything to do with a certain teaching strategy and ideas about teaching.
  • There is a sense of a baby-sitting mentality. Following a – apparently quite limited – idea of how the teachings are supposed to be, and filtering/leaving out whatever doesn’t fit. There is a sense that they are not saying everything that could be said. That they don’t trust the students to be able to digest all the different aspects of a teaching that is more real, more openly honest, more openly acknowledging the grittiness, messiness and humanness of the path to healing, maturing and awakening.
  • The teaching style feels a little too old-fashioned, with a guru/teacher up front lecturing and answering questions. There is of course a place for this approach, but it feels a little limited on its own. It is a far cry from the juicy interactivity in, for instance, the Big Mind process.
  • There is a sense that they – the teachers – chose to channel neediness, wounds etc. in the students into a quest for awakening, instead of channeling it towards ordinary healing and maturing, and then see if there is a more genuine longing for awakening behind that neediness. I would be much more comfortable with just that: Channeling any knots, neediness, wounds etc. into ordinary healing and maturing, using the many very effective tools out there. And then see what is left. Is there a more genuine and honest longing for God, truth, reality behind all of that? A quiet longing? A calling? If so, then yes, let’s see where it goes. But if not, that is fine too.
  • When the main teacher talks about Zen, he does so in a similarly one-sided way. For instance, in koan practice, realizing the koan from the absolute is only the first little step, the main work is bringing it into and living from it in daily life, on the relative side. The main teacher at CSS seems to think that the absolute side is sufficient and the end of working with the koan, rather than the beginning. He is making the most obvious novice mistake there, and would receive – at least figuratively – some good blows with the stick by a zen teacher.
  • They seem to think that acknowledging the human side too much can get people sidetracked. This is another example of what I experience as a baby-sitting mentality. Couldn’t they instead acknowledge and dig into it as appropriate, and give people the tools to work with it without getting sidetracked? Or allow people to get sidetracked and trust they will come out on the other side? It seems that they stop two steps short, instead of going one step beyond what they are (may be) concerned about. Also, more importantly, acknowledging the human side would allow them to channel the sense of lack and neediness into ordinary healing, as mentioned above, uncovering the quiet and genuine longing beneath. That seems like a much cleaner – and more honest – process.
  • The main teacher seem to think that if we (a) acknowledge and place emphasis on the human side – including healing and maturing, then it follows that (b) we will take that as what we really are. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as far as I can tell. On the contrary, really taking the human seriously is what allows knots – and so identifications – to fall off, making it easier for what we are to naturally recognize itself.
  • And then something petty – possibly hitting below the belt – that comes up for me now and then. The main teacher was a soldier in Vietnam and will mention that as an aside, but I have not (yet) heard him speak about his experiences there, the traumas, healing processes afterward, and so on. It seems that it would be a rich and fertile area for teachings, even if everything around it is completely healed and clear, but he leaves it out. Why? Was he not impacted by it? Does he think it is not good material for teachings? Didn’t he process?

Footnote 2: What would I like to see instead? (As soon as I say that, I see that it isn’t true. I don’t want it any different. I don’t want it to conform to my current ideas and ideals, because I don’t know if that would be better.)

  • full openness about the wrinkles and messiness of the process, not glossing over, not making it appear that is looks one particular way
  • digging fully into the human side of the equation, digging into knots
  • including tools that focuses on the human side, including working more actively with projections and shadow
  • channeling neediness into work with healing/maturing (if we feel we need to get something, why not work at a level where we can get something), and leave the spiritual facets to that quiet longing for truth/god. I know it is not that simple or easy, but if there is neediness, it can be approached with tools aimed at healing/maturing instead of (directly) awakening. It seems more honest.

Footnote 3: Looking back a day later, I see that I wrote this influenced by a conversation I had a few days ago. The woman (Vigdis G.) had this view, and it brought this side of myself into the foreground. It feels quite one-sided, unfair and off – which is good! It helps me see my own hangups around it more clearly so it can be digested and I can find more clarity, find what is more honest for me.


  • level headed approach
    • growing and waking up (if interested in both)
      • emphasis on growing up (healing, maturing)
      • waking up as possible side-effect (not a “goal”)
      • using tools that combine both – untying knots etc.
    • also appreciate one or the other
      • growing up – psychology, body-centered etc.
      • waking up – exclusive focus, find value in it – genuine appreciation for that approach

With our traditions of psychology, health and well-being, and (more recently) personal growth, it is only natural that this is included in our approach to spirituality – whether it is of the western or eastern flavor.

There is a combined emphasis on growing and waking up, often using tools that invite in both, and an emphasis on the growing up bit. After all, whatever knots (wounds, neediness, dissatisfaction) is there, is best taken care of through healing and maturing, through growing up. And if there is a quiet curiosity or love for God or reality, then that is addressed by the spiritual facets.

When it comes to the remaining more one-sided approaches, I can easily find appreciation for the growing up emphasis, partly because it is so familiar to me and so much a part of our culture.

But I find it more difficult to find appreciation for the purely “spiritual” approaches, the ones emphasizing what we are, and not so much who we are.


So to help release my view from my own one-sidedness, I want to explore the validity in what I tend to exclude:

What are the genuine gifts and benefits of such a one-sided emphasis on what we are?

As mentioned above, I can easily see its gifts in a more traditional – often monastic – setting.

But what about a modern secular setting? What are the gifts there?


Some of the common dynamics among students there seem less than healthy, such as trying to deal with neediness and wounds through (hoping for) awakening instead of by emphasizing healing and maturing in ordinary ways. And those dynamics are fueled by the style of the teachings.


We overlook the simple and obvious: Take care of knots and neediness through ordinary means, inviting who you are as a human being to heal and mature. And if you can’t help exploring the what facet, then stay realistic and don’t expect anything from it.


– personally, usually emphasize the growing up part if anyone asks, and appreciate when teachers emphasize the growing up part as well

As part of this, there seems to be a maturing awareness of purely “spiritual” tools as not so appropriate for taking care of the knots – the neediness, wounds, dissatisfaction and so on. It can very easily become an escape.



  • a more level headed approach
    • focus on growing up
      • healing, maturing
      • satisfaction, meaningful rewarding life, healthy relationships etc.
    • waking up
      • as a context
      • or if especially interested – coming from curiosity, love for existence
    • too often
      • traditions/teachers emphasize waking up, while what people need more (and are actually looking for more) is growing up
      • if come from neediness, then growing up much more appropriate – can meet it
      • if come from neediness and emphasize waking up, then easily an escape
      • (local center, people often come from neediness, but are given a “waking up” talk + tools….. doesn’t look so healthy)

inquiry: they should emphasize the growing up part

2 thoughts to “A more level headed approach”

  1. About Viet Nam: Joel’s personal struggle with processing his traumas from the war is prominently featured in his spiritual autobiography.

    About dealing with our human side: You might have enjoyed the recent retreat whose teachings and practices focused on fully experiencing and healing our emotions.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I knew that what I wrote here is probably quite unfair, but since it keeps coming up (at low volumes) I wanted to get it out and up in the open so I can see and digest it, and find more clarity.

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