This is where you begin, and this is your method. Hopefully some of the notes to be found elsewhere on this site can offer you some extra hints for future investigation, or perhaps some confirmations of things already discovered. Always ask yourself, how can I find a way to know anything with absolute certainty ? Do not accept anything less than the highest standards of proof. And even when you have found the highest standards of proof, say to yourself, these standards are probably not nearly good enough, I must do better. Don’t allow yourself to be deluded by anyone, whether it be God, the Devil, the Buddha, Jesus, L. Ron Hubbard, or anyone else they can throw at you. Then you stand a chance. Take your time, you don’t have to do it overnight. Be gentle with yourself, but ruthless with religious and New Age prattle.
The Buddhistic method: start thinking for yourself
We live in a world gripped with a certain rather peculiar sense of urgency, and a need, especially when it comes to the written word, to have everything put into the simplest, clearest possible terms. There is an underlying feeling in popular culture that time is somehow in short supply, and we must all get on with things before it is too late. Most likely the whole climate of desperation is really no more than a passing fashion, and no one can say how long it will last, but there is no harm in responding to it, and treating it as an incentive to cut out the dross and make the case as straightforwardly as possible.
So the ‘method’ under discussion here is the means by which any ordinary, open-minded, educated human being can begin to engage, in the most direct and meaningful way, with the features of the metaphysical condition they find themselves in. In other words, how does one tackle the big questions of life and existence in the most effective and efficient way ? What is the first step, how do you take it, and how is it justified ?
Your ordinary, everyday intellect is the key
The first step is to reposition the intellect – your ordinary everyday ability to think things through – at the centre of your life. All spiritual teachings denigrate the intellect, because they are scared of its ability to make them look fanciful and ridiculous. A functioning intellect asks too many awkward questions which the heavy mob can’t even begin to answer, so best try to say that questioning itself is wrong, because it displays arrogance and self-centredness. Secular and materialistic philosophies praise intellectual activity in the service of science, but only when it delivers in their favour, and this is an extremely narrow and blinkered outlook. Neither of these biased perspectives are of interest here, because we are only concerned to have the intellect function analytically in the service of metaphysical insight. You begin by realising that the intellect is your one and only capacity to help you distinguish between sense and nonsense, and between stupidity and intelligence: you have no other resource. Your intellect is your most precious possession. It is the key to everything. Even your intuitions have to be assessed intellectually before you can decide whether or not you should respond to them. And your heart, your feelings and your emotions are completely blind, and have no sense of purpose other than gross and immediate satisfaction. They rely entirely on information fed to them before they can even begin to blurt out their pleasure seeking desires. You would be better off depending for judgement on your stomach than your bleeding heart, which is very often trapped in pre-adolescent yearnings, and given free reign, can be as self-destructive as a delinquent child. Religious leaders who teach the supremacy of the heart over the head often come to grief in the most squalid of circumstances, because their ability to think straight and predict consequences is so degraded it may as well be non-existent. There is a pathetically primitive logic behind all philosophies of the heart: give me everlasting pleasure at any cost.
Respecting and valuing the intellect does not mean becoming an intellectual, or an argumentative clever dick or a pompous talking head. It involves the very opposite. It is about learning to think things through in a calm, quiet, humble, simple way. It means looking at all the options, again and again, analysing them, reducing them to their principles, imagining different outcomes, and then, finally coming to the best judgement you can, while constantly reminding yourself that your judgement is most probably wrong. And the only way you can come to a better judgement, one way or the other, is to take a look at the whole situation again, at some future date, when you are better appraised of the subject, or more in control of the facts. There is no room here for getting into silly arguments with friends about whether or not there is a God, or which is the best religion, or whether you have reached a high spiritual level through meditation, and so on. You may well get into these arguments as a beginner, but as your experience in the exploration of metaphysical subjects increases, you will see the meaninglessness of ostentatious debate, and abandon it. You should always want to get into intelligent discussion with others, the better to see things objectively, but not as a clever dick, trying to wrong foot your opponents through rhetorical trickery, or defeating them in arguments.
Where do you begin ? By feeding your intellect with all the information it can handle, and then using it to turn information into insight. This means thinking about things in a deep and questioning way, exploring all options, while holding back on final judgements. It also means learning to ‘look’ with your mind’s eye at the way your mind works, observing the way thoughts arise, and observing how your mind processes them. Some mental events take many years of careful observation before you can even catch more than a glimpse of them, so you have to persist in training yourself to observe, all the time being careful not to clutch at imaginings and then trying to turn them into realities. Imaginings are not realities, but it takes some training to tell the difference, and this is where a determination to persist is so important, so that you can start to cut yourself adrift from religious – or any other kind – of fantasy. Observing metaphysical phenomena is difficult enough without cluttering up your mind with your own imaginings, but only you, as the singular witness of your mind’s eye, can tell the difference. Learning to observe and analyse the workings of your mind is a special skill, and requires regular effort. This is not the same as meditating, whereby you hold fast on to a thought, and fix it in your attention; nor is it contemplating, where you reverentially examine mental images from a series of predefined perspectives; this is more a deep ‘pondering’ where you try to find answers to seemingly impossible questions, slowly and systematically, over time; asking yourself, again and again, what is this situation, and how did it come to be like this, and what can you see – or know – for yourself ? You have to learn not to supply a prejudicial answer, such as ‘this is karma’ or ‘God’s will’ or any such silliness culled from some tradition or other: you simply have to learn to look at the situation as it appears to you, in your mind’s eye, in itself. You will not be able to do this immediately; it takes months, if not years, if not decades of practice, because your mind is probably happiest dipping into its memory of conventional thoughts and then holding up suitable candidates as answers. This grabbing of readymade ideas is very common, and is as true of the ordinary religious believer as it is of the supposedly super clever evolutionary biologist.
How do you nurture your intellect ? By exercising it. By educating it in all the major subjects which feature in modern life: celebrity, sport, politics, economics, culture. By learning, memorising, reading, discussing, observing. You don’t have to plunge into every available subject, but it does no harm to inform yourself of the major issues of the day, and have a well thought out opinion on them.
A popular idea is that the ordinary mundane secular world is irredeemably polluted, whereas the religious world is clean and spiritual, but this is an example of thoughtless infantilism, and it usually indicates a weak and damaged intellect, of the sort that would be of no use in any serious critical judgement. The spiritually withdrawn and unsullied person is invariably profoundly stupid, and inadequate, but they get away with it by employing very theatrical religious tropes to hide their idiocy. Visit YouTube, find some of the big names in religion, yoga and mysticism, and witness grand vacuity in action. The sight of their faces alone ought to be enough to tell you that no form of lively intelligence lurks behind the manifest sanctimony. It is simply not possible to achieve wisdom of any significance by insulating yourself from the very arena where wisdom in generated, namely direct experience of ordinary life itself, especially in its most displeasing and humiliating aspects. If you’ve been through life in the raw, you have at least the opportunity of elevating your experiences into wisdom; if you haven’t had direct experience, your opinion is worthless. And the idea you picked up your wisdom in a previous incarnation or in some other existence is too contemptible to dignify with a serious rebuttal.
With your intellect operating with a healthy, constantly educated and informed scepticism, you can turn it to the big task of illuminating your metaphysical quandary. If you feel unenlightened, what is it exactly you are unenlightened about ? Where could it be located ? And if you were to achieve enlightenment, how would you recognise it ? What would be its features ? And so on. These are only some of the questions you can ask yourself, and they are framed in a somewhat grand manner here, which can be enjoyable but may not be of much use to begin with. You could start with more basic inquiries, such as ‘what is the difference between the real and the unreal ?’ ‘How do I tell the difference ?’ ‘How do I know what is true, and what is not true ?’ ‘How do I tell the difference between what I know, and what I don’t know ?’ If any of these questions seem self-evident to you, and not worth pursuing, then you haven’t even begun to work on them. They are the least self-evident features of our existence, and the more you work on them, the more slippery and confusing they become. And they are the door by which you enter into a particular metaphysical realm, so you have to find a way to familiarise yourself with them, and work with them. They do not resolve themselves in simple answers, but they will, in time, start to reveal to you what the basic problem with the human condition is, and how you might possibly find a route to a resolution of it.
All you need is a notebook, and a biro
There is one incomparably valuable physical tool you will need to make use of as soon as possible – preferably on Day One – and make central to your metaphysical investigations. And this is the humble notebook, and a biro. Do not use a computer, or any form of electronic device, because they encourage a certain gushing verbosity which is completely counterproductive, and distorts clarity of thought. You should use your notebook in the following way: while you are thinking through a particular line of metaphysical thought, see if you can put into simple words exactly what it is you are thinking, either in the form of a question, or in the form of whatever simple insight you come to. Keep it very simple, and limit yourself to the fewest possible words, without being cryptic. For example, you could frame a question ‘How do I know what I know ?’ or ‘How does knowing inform me of its knowledge ?’ or ‘Is there a difference between me, and what I think is me ?’, and then underneath your basic formulation, you could try to frame an answer, if you can come to one. Keep it simple, and do not gush out encyclopaedic responses. One or two basic sentences per session is enough. Because you are basically learning to focus your thinking, and learning to stop playing games with your imagination. The very act of writing something down in a concentrated form focuses the mind in a most magical way, and any writer, whether novelist, historian or journalist can confirm this. You don’t need to refer back to what you have written, if you don’t find it helpful and interesting, because this is not about a record of your metaphysical progress, it is about trying to get your analytical capacity to help you to negotiate itself, and reveal how it works, and how it informs you of certain things, and how it fails to inform you of other things. Why is your capacity of mind for thought so mysterious ? Study it for yourself, and find out.
If you are currently involved in some sort of religious practice or school of meditation, you might find the ideas above impossibly hard to take. Where are all the bells and whistles, the compassion, the prayer, the ecstasy, the rapture, the poetry, Chartres Cathedral, and the mystical cirque du soleil ? Where is all the fun, excitement, speaking in tongues, incense, lithos of Ganesha, trips to Nepal, tantric yoga, and all the rest of it ? Surely the big questions of life and existence are not going to respond to concentrated thought with a notebook and pen ? The whole proposition is a joke. What you need is a certified teacher, someone with a chit of paper showing they are safe to be left alone with children, who has had an audience with the Dalai Lama – many times – and who has studied at a hermitage in Northern Thailand, and knows all the secret techniques of meditation, and really knows his stuff. Preferably someone with a big hit count on YouTube, and a chain of schools with headquarters in the USA.
Regrettably, these kind of quasi-religious qualifications never translate into anything. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve had an audience with the Dalai Lama, or been personally counselled by the Pope, or even had God, or Amida Buddha, whisper cosmic secrets into your ear. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an ordained monk, or whether you’ve been meditating on Buddhist nothingness for fifty years. It’s all completely worthless. You have to approach your metaphysical condition on your own, without intermediary, using the sharpness of your intellect to cut through the dross, in the hope that you will be able to see things clearly. All this has been well illustrated in the story of the Buddha, with his renunciation of all forms of doctrine, and all forms of religious practice. Of their own, your metaphysical explorations will not liberate you, or transport you into some special spiritual zone. But it will be the right start, and the next step will likely appear to you of its own accord. What else to do ? Do you have a choice, or an alternative ? Belief and hope and fantasy are degraded forms of response to the basic metaphysical quandary of the human condition, because they needlessly avoid facing the truth, when you can perfectly easily think things through for yourself. If there is another easier way to metaphysical insight, which does not involve denigrating the one and only capacity you have – your intellect – to help you distinguish sense from nonsense, let’s hear about it, and take a look at it. [There isn’t.]
Ten minutes here, twenty there. Whenever you can make the time, and whenever you find yourself really keen to work, with a clear mind, and wide awake, with these basic and exciting questions. Amazingly, though it may take you decades to realise it, your work with your notebook, and your determined questioning, are the most powerful and efficacious forms of meditation ever known to humankind. They outrank any kind of Himalayan secret initiation, and any kind of Buddhist staring at a wall for twenty years, and any kind of simpering Christian entreaties. This is the real deal, right here, if you are up for it.