Spirituality as indulging in fantasy vs exploring reality

We can define spirituality in several different ways.

I’ll here focus on two very general orientations – indulging in fantasies vs exploring reality.


One broad category is the type of spirituality where people indulge in fantasies.

We imagine all sorts of things – about nonembodied beings, spiritual teachers, life after death, karma, and so on. We may even try to pretend it’s true even if we don’t know for certain and cannot check it out for ourselves.

This pretending is not completely successful since we know, somewhere, what we are doing. We know we are trying to trick ourselves, and it doesn’t really work.

And this is also why many view religions and spirituality with – well deserved – skepticism.


Another broad category is spirituality as a sincere and honest exploration of reality.

What am I, most fundamentally, in my own first-person experience? What do I find? How is it to explore living from this noticing?

What do I find when I explore how my sense fields combine to create my experience of the world?

What do I find when I explore any mental representation – in words or mental images – I hold as true?

Can I know anything for certain?


Both orientations serve a function.

The upside of fantasies is that they can serve as a carrot for us. Although they may not be grounded in reality and our own direct noticing, they can give us motivation and a sense of direction. They are also projections, showing us something about ourselves and what’s already in ourselves.

The downside is that they are fantasies. Somewhere in us, we know that we cannot know for certain, so they are not completely fulfilling to us. Something is missing.

So the fantasy approach can be helpful in the beginning of our exploration and tends to thin out as we go along.

The upside of the reality orientation is that it keeps us more grounded and focused on our immediate experience and noticing. It’s more real to us, so it’s also more fulfilling. Especially as we start noticing and living from a noticing of our nature.


In practice, there is often a mix of the two.

We may indulge in some fantasies, and also engage in sincere practice and exploration of our relationship with the divine, or our nature.

And if we have a sincere orientation, I assume we tend to move away from initial fantasies to a more dedicated exploration of reality.


Religions and most spiritual traditions inevitably have an element of fantasy, and often a strong element of fantasy. They encourage fantasies.

That’s why, if we have a sincere interest in exploring reality, we have to – at least internally – be willing to question and examine it all and hold it all lightly and place our own immediate exploration and noticing first.


Science has a particular content which reflects our place in time and culture and changes over time, and it also has a methodology that is more universal.

The methodology of science is a kind of systematization of common sense and can be a great support in our spiritual explorations. Learning about the history and methods of science, logic and logical fallacies, and so on, can all be valuable. It can help us avoid some of the pitfalls on the way.


The fantasies come in a couple of different forms.

There are the ones mentioned above.

They are the typical spiritual fantasies – mental representations of something we cannot check for ourselves or cannot know for certain. For instance, what happens after life, karma, angels, avatars, heaven and hell, and so on. It may be ideas of what awakening means and how it will change our life, that it’s a kind of permanent state. It may be ideas about spiritual teachers and how they are and what they can or cannot do for us. It may be ideas about what actions or practices will do for us in the future, or won’t do for us. And much more.

These are often a kind of wishful or fearful thinking. We use them to feel better about ourselves and life, or to scare ourselves. And what they refer to may or may not be real in a conventional sense.

In a more basic sense, these fantasies include any mental representation. For instance, of space and time, past and future, who and what we are, and so on.

These mental representations help us orient and function in the world and test out possibilities.


We can relate to these fantasies and mental representations in a couple of general ways.

We may mistake them for reality. We don’t recognize them as mental representations and assume they are how reality is.

When that happens, they often have a charge for us. They mean something special to us and we feel something related to them. And as mentioned above, we use them to feel better or worse about ourselves, and they often become wishful or fearful thinking.

We use them to feel safer by telling ourselves we know, whether that is something we see as desirable or undesirable.

We can also recognize them for what they are. We can recognize them as mental representations. We can recognize what these mental representations can and can’t do for us.

They help us orient and function in the world. We cannot know for certain how accurate they are in a conventional sense. And they cannot hold any final, full, or absolute truth.

We can notice that we cannot know for certain how accurate they are in a conventonal sense.

We can notice that we cannot find safety in mental representations. It’s not in their nature.


There are some common fantasies in the reality-oriented approach.

For instance, as we begin to notice our nature, we will inevitably form mental representations of our nature. We have mental representations of oneness, consciousness, love, and so on, and ourselves as that.

That’s not wrong or inherently problematic. It’s natural and helps us navigate and talk about it.

And yet, it’s also easy to mistake our mental representations for a direct noticing, and it’s good to examine this and learn to recognize the mental representations for what they are.


I inevitably have a mix of the two as well, although I have a strong affinity for the more reality-oriented approach.

This is likely influenced by the culture and family I grew up in. (A culture that is secular and largely non-religious, and a family that was focused on science and art and the practical.) And likely because I, before the initial awakening shift, was deeply fascinated by science and a self-proclaimed atheist since I saw religion and spirituality as indulging in fantasies. (Not wrong since most who are into spirituality do that to some extent, in some phases of their process, and in some areas of life.)

Note: This article is an example of what happens when I have stronger brain fog and when my energy goes more into the physical than the mental. It has little flow and is not nearly as succint as it could be.

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Why don’t awakening teachers more often differentiate between small and big interpretations of awakening?

Why don’t more awakening teachers differentiate between small and big interpretations of awakening?


First, what is awakening?

It’s when we go from taking ourselves as most fundamentally something within the content of our experience, typically our human self, to finding ourselves as that which allows all content of experience, and that which forms itself into any and all content of experience. This is something we are already very familiar with, although we may not have noticed it’s our more fundamental nature.

Here, we find that our nature – and all of existence to us – is oneness, love, and so on. And this allows our human self and psyche to transform within this new conscious context. (Which has always been here, just not consciously noticed.)


What are the small and big interpretations of awakening?

The small interpretation of awakening is what I used to describe awakening above. Here, we keep to what’s immediately noticed, and we avoid jumping to conclusions beyond what we can easily check for ourselves. It can also be called a psychological interpretation of awakening since it stays within the realm of psychology.

The big interpretation of awakening takes it a step further. Here, we assume that the nature of all of existence is the same as our own nature. We assume that all of existence is what a thought may label consciousness, or even the divine or God.


To me, this is a helpful distinction for a couple of reasons.

It’s intellectually honest. Since we experience all of existence through and as what we are, it will appear to us as if the nature of all of existence is the same as our own. And, if we are honest, we cannot know for certain.

And it’s pragmatic. A small interpretation of awakening, or being more fluid between the small and big, is more appealing to certain groups of people. The small interpretation of awakening is compatible with just about any worldview, including atheism, materialism, and so on. It doesn’t require any particular worldview or cosmology.


So why do not more awakening teachers point out this distinction?

I am not sure.

They may not see it as important, for whatever reason.

They may be familiar with one and not have much interest in the other.

They may point out the distinction in private to students who may benefit from it.

They may be unaware of the distinction.


Awakening is the shift from taking ourselves most fundamentally as this human self, to finding ourselves as what all our experiences – of this human self, the wider world, and anything else, happen within and as.

We can understand or talk about this from a small view on awakening. Here, we just point out what anyone can check and find for themselves, without making assumptions about the nature of all of existence.

We can also talk about this from a big view on awakening and use terms like God, the divine, and so on.

Differentiating between the two is, to me, intellectually honest. And the small and big views appeal to different groups of people, which is why this differentiation is useful.

If awakening teachers don’t point out this differentiation, it may be for a range of reasons. They may not see it as important. They may have their target group already and have terminology that works for them. They may point it out in private. And some may even be unaware of the distinction.

Note: If I am honest, I am not aware of any awakening teacher that does differentiate between the two. I assume there must be many out there, I just haven’t found them or heard them yet.

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Awakening doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or religion

This is true in one sense, and not another.


Awakening doesn’t depend on spirituality or religion. It’s what we already are noticing itself.

It’s about noticing what we are to ourselves in our own first-person experience, and then see how it is to live from this noticing.

For me, I find my nature more fundamentally is capacity for the world as it appears to me, for all the content of my experience. My nature, or “I”, am what all my experiences – of this human self and the wider world – happen within and as.

Noticing this doesn’t require or depend on any spirituality or religion. It’s something that will, in some cases, happen naturally. It’s already here. It’s about noticing what’s here.


At the same time, awakening does obviously have something to do with spirituality and religion.

Some aspects of spirituality and religion reflect insights from awakening and the life that happens naturally within awakening. Although most or nearly all of it is partially obscured by culture and tradition, and the assumptions and misconceptions of people who were more focused on philosophy than immediate noticing.

Some aspects of spirituality and religion are aimed at helping us mimic living from noticing what we are. This can include guidelines for living, and it often includes heart-centered practices.

Some aspects of spirituality and religion are pointers and practices inviting us to notice for ourselves what we are and our more fundamental nature.


For me, this is a helpful – although perhaps very obvious – distinction.

Awakening itself doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality, religion, or anything within culture. It’s more fundamental than that.

Also, the pointers and practices within spirituality and religion are not awakening. At most, they only invite us to discover it for ourselves. In this context, they don’t have more value than a sign pointing us in a certain direction.

And certain aspects of spirituality and religion do reflect awakening and point to awakening.


What’s the practical side of this? What if we want to explore what we are in our own first-person experience?

Does that require spirituality or religion?

The answer may be yes and no.

Sometimes, what we are spontaneously notices itself without any previous conscious interest or guidance. (That’s what happened in my case as an atheist teenager with no interest in these things.)

Sometimes, we may find helpful practical pointers that work well in themselves. For instance, Headless experiments, the Big Mind process, and Living Inquiries. These may rest on or be inspired by certain spiritual traditions or religions, but as an explorer, we don’t need to even know about that for it to work.

And sometimes, we may choose to get involved in a spiritual or religious group and tradition for the additional support this gives us. If we do, it can be especially helpful to remember that awakening – in itself – doesn’t depend on spirituality or religion. It’s simpler and more immediate than that.

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Adyashanti: Our minds may believe that we need subtle and complex spiritual teachings to guide us to Reality

Our minds may believe that we need subtle and complex spiritual teachings to guide us to Reality, but we do not. In fact, the more complex the teaching is, the easier it is for the mind to hide from itself amidst the complexity while imagining that it is advancing toward enlightenment. But it is often only advancing in creating more and more intricate circles to walk around and around in.

– Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Why do spiritual teachers not acknowledge the projection aspect of awakening?

To ourselves, and independent of world views, we are consciousness and all our experience happens within and as that consciousness.

This consciousness may temporarily get fascinated by thoughts and stories, hold them as true, and take itself as a particular content of consciousness – an I, a me, an observer, doer, human being, and so on.

And it can notice itself as consciousness and all experiences as happening within and as consciousness. It can learn to notice this more steadily and through different situations. And our human self may reorganize and align within this noticing.

We can honestly say that to us, all is consciousness.

But to say that all of existence in itself is consciousness is a leap.

That’s a projection.

For me, the only thing that’s honest is to say that to me all is consciousness. My world happens within and as consciousness. And although there are signs and hints (synchronicities, ESP etc.) that all of existence is consciousness, I cannot honestly say that that’s how it actually is.

So why do many spiritual teachers and traditions say that all is consciousness? Whether directly or indirectly by calling it Spirit, the Divine, Allah, Brahma, God?

It may be just because it’s tradition and a habit?

It may be to make it simpler for most people?

It may be because they notice but don’t want to speak up because it goes against official and unofficial tradition?

It may be that they don’t have noticed?

And is it important?

Yes and no.

It’s perhaps not so important in a practical sense. But it is important in terms of noticing and honesty.

For me, it would not be intellectually honest to jump to the assumption that all of existence is consciousness – at least not without acknowledging that it’s a leap, an assumption, a projection.

A few notes:

It can take some examination to notice that we are consciousness and all our experience happens within and as this consciousness. As I often write about, there are structured forms of inquiry that can help us discover this more easily – Headless experiments, Big Mind process, Living Inquiries, and so on. And it can take continued examination to notice this through different situations. And the same for allowing our human self to reorganize within this noticing.

Also, the label “consciousness” happens within and as what we are. It’s a thought, an idea, a label. It points to it but isn’t it.

What about oneness and no-self as some talk about? When consciousness notices all its experience as happening within and as itself, it’s all one. And it also notices any ideas of an I, me, observer, doer, human self and so on as happening within and as itself, so there is no final identity in any of it.

On a personal note, I can say that this differentiation is something I noticed in the initial awakening in my – this human’s – teens. I did bring it up to some spiritual teachers but it was dismissed so I learned to not mention it very much. But I am doing it here since it seems important enough.

As mentioned above, the oneness – and recognition of all happening within and as consciousness – is the same whether we make the projection differentiation or not. It’s just a noticing, or an interpretation, or a way of talking about it. For all practical purposes, it’s the same, apart from one being a little more intellectually honest.

What are some of the hints and signs that tells us that perhaps all of existence in itself is consciousness? For me, there are a few things. Synchronicities – and especially the frequent and undeniable ones – suggests that all of existence is one and consciousness. As does ESP – sensing and picking up information at a distance or before something happens. And having prayers in different forms – including distance healing – answered in a relatively systematic way.

When the historical Buddha awoke, according to tradition he said “all of existence woke up with me”. (Paraphrased from bad memory.) That’s a projection. We can say that his world woke up to itself as consciousness, and he jumped to the conclusion that all of existence woke up. Or – equally accurate – it was a poetic expression of his direct experience there and then.

And yes, these questions are – not by accident – similar to what The Matrix is about. In the Matrix, all of people’s experiences happen within and as their own consciousness. The difference is that when they wake up from it, they awaken to a real (maybe!) physical world instead of as consciousness.

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Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse: Many gurus claim they are straight shooters

Many gurus claim they are straight shooters: they say what they think without inhibition or filters. But if they dish it out, they should be able to take it. They should embody tolerance.

But most of the time, critical gurus don’t tolerate criticism very well. One way to check is to watch how the guru handles bad publicity. Check the Internet to see whether he or she has ever been met with scandal, and if so, how did he or she react?

How a person handles praise and criticism, gain and loss, fame and insignificance, happiness and suffering is all very telling.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, The Guru Drinks Bourbon?

The value of the lighter new age approaches

When it comes to healing and awakening, I’ll try anything and use whatever works. I have never felt bound by any tradition, and instead used whatever seems useful from each one. I know there is a great value to immerse yourself in one for a lifetime, but that has not been my path this time. And there is equal value to taking what works from wherever you can find it.

I even value the lighter new age approaches. They can be very helpful stepping stones. And calling them stepping stones is not a put-down. Everything, even the most profound, deep, and powerful approaches, are stepping stones. They allow us to take a step in the direction of healing and/or awakening. They put us in a certain direction. They open up something in us.

I was reminded of this when I told my partner about some of the early influences in my own conscious spiritual path. In my mid-to-late teens, I found great value in Shirley MacLaine’s writings (Out on a Limb), Richard Bach, and others. They opened up something in me. I saw that a different way of living was possible. They inspired me. It was just the right medicine for me at the time.

Of course, I was also – and mainly – immersed in more “serious” approaches like Christian mysticism, Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism, depth psychology (Jung), and systems views. I read a lot of C.G. Jung, Jes Bertelsen, Fritjof Capra, and anything I could find on Christian mysticism, Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism (Trungpa, Chöki Nyima etc.). And I practiced prayer, Christ meditation, tai chi and chigong, and tonglen and the basic and preliminary Tibetan Buddhist practices.

Why did I feel a need to add the previous paragraph? I could say it’s because I wanted to make the picture more complete. But more honestly, it’s because a part of me still wants to keep up a certain image. While I was mostly into “serious” and traditional mystical and spiritual practices, it wasn’t so important. But I notice that with Vortex Healing, which some may view with more suspicion (since it’s divine energy healing often done at a distance), I want to be seen as grounded, serious, and using approaches I have thoroughly tested out and know works. (Which is all true.)

Using oneself as template for others

This is something I see now and then.

A spiritual or healing coach or guide use themselves as a template for others. It’s as if they think “it was that way for me so it must be that way for others” or “it works for me so it must work for others”.

It’s natural and necessary to use one’s own experience when we guide others. But we are not in any way a template for others. We all have our own path. Our path unfolds in a unique way. What works for us at any one time may be different from what works for others and at other times.

So the best guides tend to help people find their own aims, path, and approaches that work for them. And when we speak, we speak from our own experience and make that explicit. “This is how it was for me, this was my path, this worked for me, and it may be different for you. But if you want to try something that’s within my experience and my arsenal, let me know and I’ll be of assistance.”

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Overly idealized vs more real, honest, and down to earth

Like a butterfly emerging from it’s cocoon,
I have been transformed inside,
All parts of myself now aligned in Truth,
I have nothing left to hide.

from mysticmamma

A friend of mine posted this quote on Facebook.

I understand that this is meant as as inspiration, or as a guide or a direction. And that can be very helpful.

There are also possible drawbacks to statements like this one that seem a bit absolute and overly idealized.

Some may see it as unachievable and give up without even trying, even if what it talks about sounds desirable to them.

Some may see it as undesirable since it may seem too sterile and in the unhealthy perfection-striving category.

Some may create a goal out of arriving at a certain state and then be done. Reality is often far more messy, and it seems more of an ongoing process of clarifying, deepening, and embodying. Also, awakening isn’t about a state – apart from perhaps a state of recognition. (What any experience happens within and as recognizing itself as that). And by setting a goal, it may be seen as out there in others and possibly in the future, and they may miss out of being more fully present, engaged with, and allowing of what’s here and now.

People can take it to mean that something is wrong. They know that their own process is messy and far from finished, so at best they are not “there” yet, and at worst they think there is something wrong with them or their process.

In some case, and especially following an opening or initial awakening, people may use these statements to tell themselves they have “arrived”. They may use it as a denial of what’s left, or to avoid what’s left.

To me, these idealized and absolute statements seem more like the “dream of the ego”, and they appeal to the dreams of the ego. They promise a future without any pain or problems, and where everything is fixed and aligned with truth.

These types of statements also seem a bit old fashioned to me. I know they are common in certain spiritual traditions. But today, it seems that a more nuansed, real, and honest description is often more helpful. And that’s a trend we see with teachers such as Adyashanti, Pema Chodron, Jeff Foster, and Matt Licata.

I should also mention that none of the “pitfalls” mentioned above are “wrong”. The mind goes to these types of ideas and ideals to find protection, and that is very natural and understandable. We all do it in our own ways. And it’s an inherently self-correcting process through the interplay between our assumptions and life, our dreams and reality. When there is a mismatch, it’s stressful and that’s uncomfortable, so we are invited to align more closely with reality.

For most of us, these types of wrinkles are part of the process. It’s part of the process of clarifying, deepening, embodying, and becoming more deeply human.

And in the bigger picture, it’s all part of the play of life.

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CG Jung: Teachings are tools

Teachings are tools not truths; points of view that are laid aside once they have served their purpose.

– CG Jung

Exactly. Teachings are tools. Pointers. Invitations for own exploration.

At most, there is limited truth in them, as there is in just about any story.

In the same boat

Whether I work with clients or teach a group, or am a client or student, there is often a sense that we are all in the same boat.

The roles, there and then, are different. One is a facilitator, the other a client. One is an instructor, the others students. After the session or the class, the roles change. They even change during the session or class, sometimes.

Behind the shifting roles, we are all human beings. We are all exploring universal dynamics. What I see in you is what I know from myself.

When I work with someone, as a facilitator or client, it’s often with a sense of a shared exploration of universal dynamics.

Of course, it may be that the person in the facilitator or instructor role has more experience or skill in a certain area. But even that may not be the case.

This makes it much easier. We are in the same boat. I don’t need to pretend.

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Scott Kiloby: On spotting bypassing

A Note from the Kiloby Center on Bypassing. www.kilobycenter.com

Here are a few tips on spotting bypassing in a teacher or teaching, in which case you might pick up those habits if you aren’t aware of how and when they appear:

1. Avoiding the negative and only desiring the positive. Although this sounds like a positive thing, addiction -as one example – is the ongoing, repetitive experience of reaching for something positive as a way to cover up or avoid the negative. It is easy for this kind of addictive thinking to find itself in spiritual teachings. Promises of this or that in the future are very appealing to a mind that is already locked into that kind of seeking and to a mind that thinks the “self” is deficient and lacking and needs something else to happen later to experience true fulfillment. Once you start to peel back some of the positive affirmations people are clinging to, they begin to face the real pain they have been avoiding for years. Do you really want a teaching that helps you avoid?

2. Self-issues that are being overlooked in the teacher. For example, if a teacher is getting triggered by students a lot or in other relationships, but does not look at those triggers when they arise….how can the teacher help you look at them?

3. Overblown self-images. If you find a teacher who says, either explicitly or implicitly, that he or she is fully awakened or more advanced than other teachers, question that teacher on which thoughts are being believed and not being examined. Just as a great pianist can stay in his or her head about who or what she is (which gets in the way of the freeflowing of the playing itself), a teacher can do the same thing. Be interested in teachers who are exactly the same – whether they are on stage teaching or sitting and eating a sandwich.

4. Watch out for grand concepts that are very alluring. If a teacher says “you can experience your true divine nature by following me,” he or she has chosen words that appeal to a part of your brain that is tantalized by language. This is the same mechanism of the brain that is seduced by just the right language in a commercial. But what is actually being delivered? Did you actually find “happiness” when you bought your last car, after watching a car commercial that promised that? When the words are peeled off or seen to be just words, what exactly is being offered? If there is some realization that can happen, surely it is not those words themselves. Because language has such a seduction to it, always examine language being used very carefully. Ask a teacher why he or she insists that you use the same language as he or she does. Ask him or her to question his or her own spiritual ideas as much as he or she is asking you to question what you believe.

5. Watch out for teachings that don’t speak to the body. The body/mind connection is an important one. What about all that stored pain that many of us carry in the body? Will seeing that I am not my conscious thoughts actually release that pain, which is usually highly unconscious? We are thinking, feeling, sensing beings. And the feeling and sensing shows up primarily in the body. When something was too painful to feel earlier in our lives, we may have suppressed or repressed it (e.g. trauma). Yet it is still there running the show. Avoiding the topic of the body entirely and focusing only on the mind is very partial in our view.

6. Watch out for language that speaks to pure non-conceptuality. Notice how many books the teacher has written that contain tons of concepts. Concepts are a part of life. States of pure nonconceptuality can happen. But when concepts arise, the question is whether they are believed, followed, treated like religions, etc. Daily triggers don’t happen in those moments of nonconceptuality. They happen the moment a concept is believed or identified with.

7. Watch out for any teaching that claims to take care of all suffering by itself. What we are learning more and more at the center is that integrating is most helpful and that most approaches, even the best approaches, are partial. Methods or teachings rarely speak to the entire mental, physical, emotional, relational aspects of our lives. They promise this, while ignoring that. Adjunct therapies or methods that fill in the hole left by the nondual teaching you follow primarily can be helpful. For example, no matter how present you are or how well you are manifesting great things in your life, there may be physical issues, past trauma, shadows that aren’t being addressed. Sometimes a simple change in diet makes all the difference.

8. Awareness can be used to bypass. For example, there is often a strong inclination to identify with certain core stories, such as victim or “I’m not good enough.” Simply being aware of those stories may be a way of not actually looking in a more penetrating way at the thoughts, emotions and sensations that make up those stories. There are ways to undo the velcro of those thoughts from the emotions or sensations that arise with them, so that the stories are truly seen to be empty. The mind has a way of rationalizing bypassing by saying, “I’m aware of it” or “It’s all happening in awareness.” But if you keep seeing these same stories arise, it could be that awareness is being used as a “safe space” from which you don’t have to actually inquire into what is being believed. There are many reasons not to look – wanting to be right, wanting to maintain the self-identity, wanting to claim being awakened prematurely, not want to actually feel pain, etc.

Take what you will from this. It’s just that we feel at the Kiloby Center that we have a good view of what often gets missed in nondual teachings, as a lot of our clients are seekers who have been on the path for years. The Center is a laboratory where we examine these issues on a daily basis, all day. That level of support is rare in the spiritual circles. We just want to report back what we are seeing.

– Scott Kiloby, The Kiloby Center

Adyashanti: A good teaching dwells with you

Nisargadatta’s teaching has the power of staying with you in a deeply unconscious way, and then in a year or two years, it’s so clear. That’s the power of a good teaching. It dwells with you even if you’re not consciously aware of what’s happening.

~ Adyashanti

It’s all here

Some spiritual teachers and teachings makes it sound either/or, or black and white.

The other side of it, is that it’s all here.

Whatever I see out there, in others or the past or future, is already here. What any concept refers to is already here. It may appear small, and take some looking, but it’s here. At least, that’s been my experience so far.

Both ends of any polarity is here. It happens within and as life, awareness, what I am.

Either of these ways of talking about it – as either/or or all here – are teaching strategies. Both have truth in them. Either one can be helpful for some people in some situations. Neither is, or even points to, any absolute or final truth.

And for me, the it’s all here pointers resonate the most, and is more interesting and juicy as an exploration. At least so far.

Teachings creating a false impression

Spiritual teachings, and also psychology and self-help information, may create a false impression.

It’s relatively easy to talk or write about these things, and make it all look clean and straight forward. After all, we want to present it in a clean and straight forward way. And that tends to give the impression that what’s referred to is that way too.

And yet, it’s so often not. Reality tends to be messy and bumpy. People in teaching roles are people too, just like you and me. (They are you and me.) or our lives is sometimes messy. We don’t always apply what we talk about. It’s like that for just about anyone. I know it certainly is for me.

Why not bring all this out in the open? It can be very liberating. It shows we are all in the same boat. It’s more honest. When it’s out in the open, it’s easier to do something about it, and receive support to do so. There is less stress from feeling we need to hide so much from ourselves or others. There is less stress from fearing being “found out”.

For instance, I have – at different times – lied, cheated, stolen, hurt people, mislead myself and others, and more. I have done so out of fear, confusion, wounds, and trauma. And I have often not admitted it to myself or others. I have tried to deny it, justify it, make it seem smaller. And that too is from fear, confusion, wounds, and trauma. I am no saint, no more than anyone else.

Teachings as strategy

Adyashanti sometimes talks about teachings as strategy. They are meant as pointers, as invitation for own exploration, to correct a fixed viewpoint, and in general to possibly have a certain effect in the listener. It’s not about any absolute or final “truth”.

All language is like that. It has a practical function. It helps us orient and navigate in the world. It’s a tool. It’s a strategy.

When teachings are taken as true, we mistake a strategy for truth. It seems silly to do, but most of us may at times do it. It’s good to notice.

Teachers who make it special, or polarized

I know this may seem an insignificant topic, but it may also be important for a couple of reasons.

Some western spiritual teachers use a “spiritual” tone of voice (Gangaji comes to mind). (Or they dress in a “spiritual” way, or take on a “spiritual” name.)

I realize that this may make the teacher a better – or at least different – projection object, which may be a part of the path for some. At the same time, it can be a bit misleading. It may seem that “spirituality” is something special, or hushed, or that it’s all about (superficial) peace & love, or that it’s different from ordinary everyday life.

Some tend to polarize their discussion about certain topics. They make it seem more black-and-white than it perhaps really is.

Again, this may be helpful for some. Some say it may “shock” the student out of their habitual views. (I see that it may happen, but am not sure if it’s the most effective strategy.) This approach can also be misleading, and even confusing. Our experience is rarely either/or, or black and white. Things blend into each other. And they do so because it’s all here right now as part of a seamless whole. Only thought separate out aspects and states. We are rarely completely on auto-pilot, or all wounded, or all healed, or always aware of being awareness, or completely unconscious, or whatever it is.

I am happy to see that many contemporary teachers take another approach. They appear completely ordinary, because they are, and because spirituality is – for a large part – about the completely ordinary. They nuance their language, because things rarely are black and white.

There are a couple of reasons why this apparently insignificant topic can have some significance. One is from a practical teaching-strategy view, as mentioned above. The other is that if I am bothered by this, as I sometimes am, I can take a look at it. I can identify and question beliefs. I can explore the velcro around it.

Spiritual teachings as medicine

Spiritual teachings are medicine.

The general spiritual teachings are aimed at meeting most people where they are, and nudge them in the direction of love and reality.

And specific spiritual teachings are aimed at a particular person, with the intention of correcting hangups and one-sidedness of that person.

If most people were very familiar with Big Mind but not their human self, reverse of how it tends to be today, then the teachings would tend to be reverse as well. Mainstream spiritual teachings would say: “Look, you have this human self, and a world, and it’s important you take care of this human self and your life and your world. It’s not all about basking as Big Mind and Big Heart (and Big Belly). It’s also about how you live it through this human self.” And, of course, some teachings do say that, because some people are at that place. It’s one of the typical phases of a spiritual development or awakening to be temporarily identified more as Big Mind and Big Heart, and less as the human self.

In general, spiritual teachings can be grouped in a few different categories. (a) Living according to certain guidelines (morals), and developing and living from love. (a) Inviting Big Mind/Heart/Belly to recognize itself. (c) Recognize all life as Big Mind/Heart/Belly. And (d) how to live from and as Big Mind/Heart/Belly through this human life in the world. Each of these is a medicine for people at specific phases on the path.

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Basics of spiritual practice

A brief outline of a(n imagined) course on spiritual practice:

  1. What it is, and is not
    1. What it is: Training the mind (just like training the body, or training any skill)
    2. What it is not: It’s not airy fairy, or “mystical” in the sense of strange or hidden
    3. Overview of the course + tasters + Q&A
  2. Stability practice
    1. Training a more stable attention, creating a new groove for attention
    2. Bring attention to an object, for instance (a) the breath, the sensations of the breath at the nostrils or (b) a visual object
    3. Insight: Notice attention wander, being drawn into compelling stories (beliefs), bring it back (grace when notice it’s wandering)
  3. Mindfulness / Natural Rest
    1. Body scan, feel sensations, allow what’s here to be here
    2. Notice all is already allowed as is
  4. Insight / inquiry
    1. Insight that comes from the other practices
    2. Insight from inquiry, f.ex. The Work, Living Inquiries, sense field exploration, labeling, Big Mind process, holding satsang
  5. Devotion / Heart Centered
    1. Prayer – (a) Jesus/Heart Prayer, (b) Christ meditation (visualize Christ at the seven points), (c) asking for guidance etc.
    2. Ho’oponopono, tonglen, metta
  6. Body Centered
    1. Yoga, tai chi, chi gong, Breema etc.
    2. A form of stability practice + mindfulness + body awareness practice + grounding (psychologically and energetically)
  7. Life / Guidelines
    1. Simple guidelines for life
    2. Reduces turmoil and drama (suffering + distractions) + mimics a life lived from love and clarity
    3. Shows us what’s left to look at (get to see beliefs, take to inquiry)
  8. Spiritual Emergence / Emergency / Maps
    1. Map of stages and quadrants (AQAL)
    2. Spiritual emergence – definition, typical unfolding, sign posts
    3. Spiritual emergency – definition, possible triggers, types + symptoms, how to best relate to it

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Being up front about the possibility of spiritual emergencies

Spiritual emergencies can take several forms, including kundalini awakening, a spiritual opening turning one’s world upside-down and inside-out, a dark night, wounds and trauma surfacing to be healed, a “dry period” of lack of interest in the world, or more.

These spiritual emergencies may happen “out of the blue” without any prior spiritual practice (as it did for me), or they may happen as an apparent consequence of a spiritual practice – whether this practice is a form of meditation, yoga, chi gong, shamanic practices, or prayer of the “true” or “dangerous” kind (for awakening, be shown what’s left, etc.).

So just as a medical doctor will inform a client about possible side effects of a medicine, especially if these side effects are common and can be severe, it’s good practice for a teacher of any spiritual practice to inform the students of possible side effects of their practice.

To me, it seems reasonable to – at the very least – offer….

A map of the terrain, including (i) the typical phases and facets of the process, and (ii) common and less common forms of spiritual emergencies and their symptoms.

And guidelines for how to navigate this terrain in general, and spiritual emergencies in particular, in the most skillful way possible.

Knowing the map will help students recognize the symptoms when they occur, and see that they are common and even to be expected. It helps prevent or reduce an additional layer of distress, bewilderment, and either inflation (f.ex. kundalini awakening) or thoughts that something “went wrong” (f.ex. in a dark night).

Practical pointers can also be invaluable. For instance, how do I prepare to reduce the chances or intensity of a future spiritual emergency? And if one happens, how do I relate to it in the best possible way? How I ground myself during a kundalini awakening? How do I help see through the distress of a dark night?

In addition, being open and frank about this up front has several benefits. It may help some students decide that a particular practice is not for them, at least not at this point in their life, and they may chose something else that’s gentler and more grounding. It gives the students an idea of how well the teacher knows about and understands spiritual emergencies, so they can chose to go to them – or someone else who is more experienced – before a spiritual emergency takes place, or if or when it takes place. And having more information about these matters out in public makes it easier for people who have a spiritual emergency “out of the blue”, without any prior practice or interest in spiritual matters, to find information, support and guidance.

In terms of education, it seems reasonable to include information about the spiritual terrain and spiritual emergencies in the school system, and in the training of medical doctors, psychologists, priests, and – obviously – teachers of meditation, yoga, chi gong and similar practices. It is already happening, to some extent and in some places, and it may be more widespread in the future, especially as there is more research in and public knowledge of this topic.

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Adyashanti: Teachings and teachers are here to serve that spark

This was never about enlightened masters, that’s not what my spark said [or was about] at the very beginning.

It wasn’t about trying to attain what all the teachings said I was supposed to attain.

No, the teachings and the teachers, we are there to serve that spark. If we don’t, move on. If the teaching doesn’t, move on.

– Adyashanti, Kanuga Retreat, session 10

Talking about the whole process

I am very grateful for the Center for Sacred Sciences here in Oregon, and have gotten much out of the retreats and individual conversations with a couple of teachers. At the same time, I notice something I have heard from others as well. They talk about the journey to God, and not within God. At least in public, they talk about only a part of the process.

I can imagine a couple of reasons for that strategy: It’s simpler, at least on the surface. And they leave out a few things, including dark nights, that may scare people off from getting involved.

At the same time, I see several possible drawbacks:

(a) It’s a misrepresentation of the process. And since many students are familiar with other teachers/teachings, they know it’s a misrepresentation of the process. This invites a lack of trust. What else do they hide? Do they know about the rest, or not?

(b) They leave out several phases which could give a better understanding of the process as a whole, including the one they do talk about in public – the initial phase.

(c) Talking about the journey to God only may set up awakening as (i) a goal, (ii) either/or (binary), (iii) only sudden, and (iv) better than unawakened.

(d) They may lose folks who have been through the gate – either stably or temporarily – and look for guidance of what’s after.

(e) They implicitly treat the students as children, unable to discern, unable to deal with complexity, unable to take care of themselves, someone that needs to be protected against themselves.

And I see several benefits from talking openly about the whole process, as many do these days:

(a) It’s a fuller and more honest representation of the whole process. It invites trust.

(b) Talking about the whole process gives a fuller understanding of what it’s about, including what the initial phase – the journey to God – is about.

(c) It shows that it’s an ongoing process, and ongoing unfolding. An opening or awakening is one of many milestones, and not a goal and not necessarily “better” than what’s before or after in time.

(d) Their approach is more attractive to people who have been through the first gate.

(e) Students are treated as responsible, and able to discern and take care of themselves.

What about their two possible reasons for choosing their strategy? For me, it’s simpler to include it all, also because the whole sheds lights on each phase. Also, I prefer transparency and knowing what I am getting into. (And in my case, there wasn’t any choice.)

Some thoughts for me to look at:

Their approach belongs to a different culture / time.

They are dishonest. Misguided.

They treat students as children. They do people a disservice.

They only talk about the journey to God and not within God.

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In the tradition of looking at turnarounds of teachings, I thought I would look at integration.

The main teacher at Center for Sacred Sciences would sometimes say that Enlightenment has nothing to do with integration.

So in what sense is the reverse true? In what way is integration integral to Enlightenment?

One example is quite obvious. When everything is recognized as Spirit, there is a reorganization of the human self within this new context. A reorganization at physical, energetic, emotional, and mental levels, and how this human self functions in the world. In this sense, there is an integration within Enlightenment. The human self realigns with reality, and this is an ongoing process. It integrates into this new context of Spirit recognizing itself as all there is.

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Spirituality and the dream of the ego

Religion and spirituality serve different functions for different people, such as social control, a source of ethics, a sense of community, guidance, solace, or tools for spiritual practice.

One thing is quite striking: The public side of most religions and most forms of spirituality reflect the dream of the ego. They often offer or promise a life that’s just what we think we want lasting forever (heaven, Enlightenment, Nirvana, Valhalla). The term ego here refers to what happens when a thought is take as true, such as I need to be happy, I need to control my life, I need to know my future will be as I want it. It’s confused love, and innocent.

There may be many reasons for presenting this version. The people promoting it may want it for themselves and others, out of confused love. It may be a hook to get people interested and involved. They may give people what they think they want.

This is also found in more intentional spiritual practice. Traditions and teachers may offer a Sunday school version of the path and what it involves. They may talk in absolutes (complete, lasting) and present things in black-and-white. They may talk as if a state, insight, recognition or shift is permanent, as if they know the future and anything is stable. They may leave out that it may be a messy and confusing process, or the details of how it may look. They forget to mention the possibility of dark nights, and not knowing in advance how dark it may be. They may make it sound as if there is a single shift and everything is easy and fine after that. They may not mention the ongoing process of healing, maturing and realignment of the human self in the world, and how whatever is not aligned with reality (wounds, fears, confusion, beliefs) tends to surface so it can align more consciously with reality. They may leave out that it can always be more clear.

There may be many reasons for this as well. Some teachers may not want to scare people away. They may conform to a traditional way of presenting it, which deals in absolutes and sanitized presentations. The specific teacher may not have explored or gone through this him- or herself. They may think it’s better to mention it in private when or if it happens for any one student. They may not want to set up expectations for something that may not happen.

As so many others these days, I cannot help thinking that presenting an intentionally sanitized version is doing people a disservice. The ones who are sincerely drawn to it will do it anyway, because there is no real choice. Some who are less committed may leave, which is not a problem since there are so many other approaches out there. It provides a more realistic map for students. It gives a sense of transparency and honesty which invites trust. And it may be a great relief for teachers to be honest and open about it, not feeling they need to censor or leave anything out.

And if this is taken on as a belief, I notice it feels uncomfortable and a bit “off”. It seems more attractive to look at any stressful thoughts I see around this, in both directions, and find more clarity that way.

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How I benefit from what others share

Whatever stories are here – about experiences, insights, pointers etc. – are really questions.

And when I share – or have an impulse to share – these, I sometimes notice hesitation.

Here are some of the fears and beliefs behind this hesitation:

 I am not qualified to share this. Others can do it better. What I say/write may put someone on a wrong track. It’s not an absolute truth, so there is no point sharing it. It’s better to be quiet. I am responsible for how it’s received. (What if what I write here is wrong, puts someone on the wrong track? I know everything here is provisional, stepping stones, so why write about it at all?) 

When these beliefs come up, I can take each one to inquiry and see what I find. And I also sometimes remind myself of how I benefit from what others say or write.

Here are some of the ways I benefit from what others share:

(a) I sometimes feel connected, it’s a relief to see that others are on a similar path.

(b) I may get pointers that are valuable to me.

(c) I sometimes explore the topic by fleshing it out for myself, use different perspectives, take it a step further, etc.

(d) I sometimes go to the TAs of what’s been said and find examples of how these are as or more true.

(e) I sometimes imagine beliefs behind what’s said or written, find a situation where I had those thoughts, and do inquiry.

These and some related inquiries brings me back to myself and reminds me that what I share is for my own benefit. And since I do it for myself, I wish it to be as clear and sincere as possible.

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Teachers and audience

There seems to be little correlation between how clear or mature and teacher appears to be, and the size of their audience.

Some may be quite clear and/or mature and have a relatively large audience, such as the historical Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and even Byron Katie. These people live their insights, and they present it in a way that’s inviting and helpful for a large group of people. They are interested in and able to express it in a way that meets a wide range of people where they are. They may also be somewhat charismatic, or be good business people. All of this helps them reach a wider and larger audience.

Some may be less clear and/or mature, and still have a larger audience (some popular new age authors come to mind). They meet people where they are, and do so in an engaging way.

This is also very good. It’s a stepping stone, as any teaching or insight is. There is always further to go. It can always be more clear. It can always sink in a bit further. As it’s lived, there is always more to discover.

Some may be quite clear and/or mature and have a smaller audience, even a very small one – just their family and friends. I assume most lives where reality awakes to itself in a relatively clear way fits this category. They may be content with a simple life. They may not have the human packaging to be a teacher or reach a wide audience. They may not be drawn to it. They may be clear it’s not needed. And that’s very good too. Reality awake to itself is lived in any number of ways, including as just an ordinary person living an ordinary life.

When I wrote clear and/or mature, it’s because I suspect that levels of clarity and maturity may be only moderately correlated. Some seem clear and less mature (Ken W. comes to mind), others seem quite mature and somewhat less clear (the head Breema teacher), while some appear clear and mature (Byron Katie, Adyashanti, Bonnie G., Barry). Of course, if there is clarity and it’s allowed to sink in, that does provide fertile ground for maturity at a human level.

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Something simple about teachings:

I tend to not seek out teachings these days, apart from some doses of Adyashanti and Byron Katie which are explicitly an invitation for own inquiry.

In general, I find it helpful to take any statement – whether it’s a teaching, a model or anything else – as a question and invitation for own exploration. What do I find for myself, in my own experience, when I look into it? If it’s something very practical, I can test it out for myself. And if not, I may find I don’t know, cannot know, and don’t need to know (at least not right now).

Also, teachers and teachings may trigger beliefs in me, and I can take these to inquiry. Quite often, what I find through these inquiries are as or more interesting and helpful for me than the teachings themselves.

I also sometimes look at the turnarounds of teachings and find how these are as or more true for me than the initial statement. Again, this may be as interesting and helpful as the teaching itself.

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Talk vs Inquiry

I tend to avoid talks (with the exception of Adyashanti), and am now in a bodywork intensive that includes talks so this topic comes up for me.

Some beliefs:

He should use inquiry instead of just telling people. It’s more helpful for people to find it for themselves.

He presents it in too dualistic a fashion.

He shouldn’t be so tied to the tradition (Gurdjieff).

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Turnaround on Teachings

I find that it can be very helpful and interesting to do turnaround on teachings.

I can first find how the pointer itself may be true for me, with specific examples, and then find the same in the turnarounds.

And with some pointers, the turnarounds may be even more helpful for me in shifting and illuminating.

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Knowing you know

Some teachers seem to come from a sense of curiosity, receptivity and shared exploration.

They know you know, even if you don’t always yet know it yourself. You just need a reminder, a pointer to rediscover it for yourself.

Adyashanti and Byron Katie are good examples of this, as are Douglas Harding/Richard Lang and more locally for me, Todd and Barry. The Big Mind process, along with The Work and the headless experiments, are also seem to reflect this approach.

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Any pointer, practice or insight is medicine.

It’s medicine for a stuck view, for what’s covering up innate wisdom, love and guidance.

And as with any medicine, it’s helpful for a certain person in a certain situation, and that’s it.

For others, it may not be helpful. And it may not be helpful before or after.

Trick teachings

After you die, you will be asked two question: How much have you loved? How much did you open up to receive love?

Someone told me that story, perhaps a little differently. It is a beautiful story aimed at motivating us and inviting us to see how we are living our lives here now.

Told in this way, as something that may happen in the future, it has a certain poignancy. But it is also a “trick” teaching, and it can backfire.

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Thoughts cannot help realization?

It is worth noticing that what you think one way or another is not a help for realization…. Realization does not depend on thoughts, but comes forth from beyond them; realization is helped only by the power of realization itself.

Thoughts cannot help or hinder realization. That is a common pointer by teachers, and one I have been curious about since I first heard it.

It seems true in several ways.

Everything happens on its own and in its own time. We can set the stage for and invite in realization, but whether it happens or not is outside of the control of what there is identification with or as, such as images of this human self, a doer or observer, etc. 

Also, in shikantaza (choiceless awareness), the content of deliberate discursive thoughts cannot help or hinder the process. Although identification with them can. And that is exactly what this pointer points out. Don’t pay attention to the content of the stories that come and go. Allow identification with them to soften or release, and the center of gravity to shift into that which all experience already happens within and as.

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Stepping stones

Again, this is very simple, and in many ways obvious. We know this. It is part of our culture.

And yet, there is always more to explore. When I take it as a pointer and explore it in my own life, it can be very helpful. Especially when I find and explore those places in my life where I don’t quite get this yet.

Any story is a stepping stone.

It is a stepping stone to shifts in attention, and to choices and actions in the world.

And it is a stepping stone to other stories which may be more useful or appropriate in this or later situations.

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Spirituality as escape

Spirituality can easily be an escape. In fact, it often is.

And yet, when I tell myself that is wrong, and take it as true, that too is an escape. There is nothing wrong with escapes. It is a stepping stone. An expression of human life. A safety valve when no other option is open to us.  (Because other options are not familiar to us, or do not appear to us.) One of the ways the universe is exploring itself. A part of the terrain we humans can explore and become familiar with. An invitation for others to notice and inquire into their beliefs about escapes. And it can be an invitation for us to take a closer look at what is going on.

That said, here are some ways spirituality can be an escape:

Spirituality can mean many different things: Belief in religion. Participation in religious institutions. Genuine glimpses and opening experiences. Airy-fairy sentimentality. Hard-nosed testing and application of pointers from spiritual teachings. The world as it appears when reality notices itself.

In each of these, apart from perhaps the last, spirituality can be an escape. It can be made into a belief, and any belief is an escape. It is an escape from allowing experience as is. (Taking a story as true is a distraction.) And it is an escape from what is more honest for us.

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Babysitting, or two steps more

Some spiritual teachers seem to babysit their students. They give partial information. Hold back. Gloss over. Present an overly simplified, and sometimes polished, image of the path and the process.

It is understandable. They want to not scare new students off, or protect their students against mistakes, so they filter information and advice carefully.

But it may not always be the best strategy.

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