What can your ordinary thinking mind tell you about how to go about spiritual enlightenment ?
This may look like a strangely inappropriate question, and something of a misjudgement, because spirituality is all about yielding to powerful forces which have nothing to do with thought, and thinking, and the intellect. Spirituality comes from the heart, and from higher emotions, and from a deep sensitivity not appreciated by people who are caught up in materialism and worldliness. Spiritual people immerse themselves in meditation and mystical states, devotion and sacred environments, and they want to get away from the polluting effects of secular society. So the idea of taking a good look at the boring old mundane thinking process is the last thing on any seeker’s mind, despite the fact that everyone – without exception – has to use this same boring old mundane thinking process to make their judgements.
For most people, spirituality is all about giving their intuitive heart total priority over their thinking head. Spirituality is understood to be a matter of responding to the nebulous but compelling cravings that seem to point to an inner absence of some kind, an absence seemingly calling for union with a greater Being. A small minority of people come at this compelling sense of human abandonment from a more intellectual angle, and characterise their search in terms of answering the big questions of life and existence such as ‘What’s it all about ?’, ‘What is the meaning of life ?’, ‘What’s the point of it all ?’, but even in these cases, there is a tendency to believe that the intellect is not going to be of any use in supplying the answers, and you will need to put all your trust into what you intuitively sense and feel. The average seeker is not in the least worried about ‘knowing’ or having a clear sight as to what is going on, or what is bothering them – they are simply concerned somehow to be able to connect, as quickly as possible, with some sort of great ongoing sense of cosmic reassurance, and this they will tell themselves is the divine and spiritual truth they have been looking for. That’s more or less the beginning and end of their exercise in intellectual discrimination.
And if one investigates the various brands of New Age mysticism now everywhere to be found – mindfulness, vipassana, non-duality, zazen, whatever – it is not difficult to see that all these teachings, whatever they may claim about themselves, consistently disparage the capacity of mind known as the discriminating intellect. Mystical teachings are invariably based on trifling doctrinal propositions with no intellectual depth to them at all, and followers are more than happy to defend doctrinal vacuity on the grounds that real spirituality is all about ‘doing’, and ‘practicing’, and ‘being immersed in’, not about ‘thinking’. You ‘do’ – that is, you partake and practice and meditate – your way into the right spiritual state, not ‘think’ your way. Thinking is for people who can’t tune in to the right vibe, man. Thinking is for people who are probably not really all that spiritual in the first place. Just go to YouTube for proof.
And that’s not the worst of it. Because, when it comes down to it, the intellectual thinking capacity of mind can’t be trusted. It has the ability to spoil everything, while being unable to deliver anything worthwhile of its own. It simply undermines all your deepest religious feelings and aspirations, poisoning your thoughts and then leaving you empty handed. Thinking is portrayed as taking you away from the truth, and crippling your spirituality: all those useless questions and endless options, bothering you until you can’t think straight. Thinking ruins everything. As they say, if you’re going into spirituality, best to leave your brain outside the door.
All this would be fine, delightful, if any of it were remotely valid. The truth is, your ordinary, everyday intellect – your bog standard, front-of-the-house capacity to think – is all you have when it comes to working out what you need to do with regard to your spiritual development. You can pretend to yourself you have some special discriminatory ability which transcends the intellect and can do a better job of guiding you to spiritual heights, but if you care to examine the facts you can easily see that you have no such ability, and that all you are doing is grabbing hold of familiar and reassuring so-called ‘spiritual feelings’ and then twisting your thoughts to suit them. This can work in the long term if you are feeble minded – that is, weak willed, easily convinced, believing, trusting, gullible – but for those who are not, trusting your emotions and sentiments to distort reality for their own ends is a recipe for disaster. You are basically refusing to accept any unpleasant and inconvenient aspects of reality by turning your back on them, and if you are at least some way towards being a grownup, your innate capacity for judgement won’t put up with this indefinitely. You end up making a fool of yourself, as you struggle to justify – subliminally, inwardly – ideas which are either clearly untrue, or, more disconcertingly, vaguely immature, and adolescent, and silly. These tend to be either New Age mystical ideas of spiritual effortlessness and compulsory optimism, or traditional religious beliefs in worship and submission and devotion as part of various highly sentimentalised doctrines. Any sort of teaching which appeals directly to the heart, and which does not and cannot acknowledge the power of the intellect in equal if not greater measure, is guaranteed to be infantile, inwardly demeaning, and ultimately unworkable. The heart is a viciously blind and self-obsessed experiential capacity, and it only rules the head if you let it.
So what can your simple, everyday, ordinary, bog standard, front-of-the-house ‘capacity to think things through’ tell you about spirituality ? If you give it time, and treat it with the respect it is due, quite a lot. Quite a bit. When we refer to ‘thinking’, we are not talking here about the capacity for tormenting yourself endlessly with obsessive and compulsive anxieties about nothing in particular, or with the capacity to fixate on a thought, and have it spin around in your head for days at a time. Nor is thinking equivalent with to an open-ended doubting and questioning of every little detail, leading to intellectual paralysis. Such mental quirks and torments are everyone’s lot now and then, but they are of no interest here, even if some of the more small-minded religious teachers believe that these transient irritations are the only things any mind can do. What we are talking about is the ordinary, everyday, unexceptional capacity to examine an idea from different angles, weigh up the options, and then make a decision based on the evidence that you have access to, while always being prepared to reconsider your view if new and better evidence comes along. No special abilities are required for this kind of simple mental reflection, though a modest secular school education will help, as will any ability to treat all the elements of any phenomenon, including your likes and dislikes, as objectively as possible. If you can think about things clearly and objectively – or would seriously like to – then the ordinary, everyday, simple and unadorned intellect can take you – and of course it’ll be a long and difficult journey – from a state of complete metaphysical confusion all the way to the gates of Enlightenment. More to the point, it’s the only instrument – the only capacity – at your disposal which can get you there. You don’t have anything else which you can use. And if you are minded to scoff at this statement, and dismiss it as underendowed with both mystical virtue and universal compassion, then consider which part of your anatomy you’re using to make that judgement. If you head straight for your so-called spiritual feelings and use them to justify your sense of righteousness, then you are demeaning your capacity for clarity of vision, and will be unable to appreciate the modality which transcends human beinghood: for that you need to be able to try to see yourself, with all your human limitations, in a much more objective light.
How do you do this ? How do you sort out what it is you ought to be doing, when it comes to resolving spiritual questions ? By sitting quietly somewhere, with a pen and notepad, and setting about working things out. Clear you mind, and forget about yourself for a moment. Put all your self-obsessive thoughts on hold, at least for the time it takes to think clearly. You can always come back to your self-obsession after your few minutes of clear thinking. Nothing will be lost in trying to think objectively, and everything will be gained if you can manage a short stretch of clear thought. Start off with the simplest of simple questions: what exactly is the problem ? That is to say, what exactly is the spiritual problem you are trying to solve ? In other words, what exactly is wrong with you that you would like to put right ? Can you identify it ? If not, why not ? Try to find the words to formulate your thoughts. Look at what you have written, and make sure the words you have used to express your thoughts are as accurate as possible in matching what you think. You may have to come back to your formulation in a few days, weeks or months [or even years] and take another look at it. If it can be improved upon, then improve it. Pay special attention to the words, always trying to find exactly the words that nail the thought. The right words help focus and direct your thinking in an unimprovably effective way. What exactly is the essence of the spiritual problem ? Keep your formulations as clear and as simple as possible. One or two or three sentences at a time will do. Don’t let yourself start gushing in all directions: keep it simple. Maybe the question ‘What exactly is the problem ?’ doesn’t seem to bring your ideas into focus. Then try a slightly different question, and come back to the ‘What exactly is the problem ?’ at a later stage. Try a question like ‘How can I think clearly and objectively about spiritual matters ? What do I need to do ?’, or ‘How could I know whether or not I am deluding myself, when I think about spirituality ?’ Find questions that reflect exactly what is bothering you, when it comes to spirituality. Keep asking yourself, ‘When I settle on an idea, how could I find a way that would tell me if I have thought the right idea, or not ? How could I find a way to know these things objectively, without having to refer to feelings, or getting lost in other thoughts ? How could I do this ?’ Don’t worry about what you have read, or what philosophers have said, or the Dalai Lama, or anyone. Learn to examine your own thoughts, and see what they have to say, what they tell you, what information they give you.
Now a few minutes of this will soon reveal to you that the problem at hand is considerable, and confusion and hopelessness are pretty much the order of the day. But don’t give up. Persist. Keep going. Take a few minutes every now and then to sit down with your notebook and go over what you have been working at. Try some different thoughts, some different angles. Put your likes and dislikes on hold; don’t let them distort your vision, your clarity of thinking. Put your yearnings, and spiritual desires on hold as well. In order to think objectively you will have to disregard yourself from time to time. You may have to pretend, at least for the time it takes to think things through, that you count for nothing, that you have no significance whatsoever in the great cosmic confusion that is existence. Try it, it will greatly assist your attempts at objectivity and clarity. You can always come back to yourself later; you will not lose yourself in some kind of intellectual vortex. Vortices are for mystics and the deranged. You are going for clarity, and simplicity, and objectivity.
How long does all this take before you get a positive result ? Regardless of various feelings that might come and go, you cannot really expect any serious progress inside six months at the very earliest. It may take considerably longer, say two or three years, or ten years, depending on the amount of effort you put into it. Or you may be lucky, and your progress will be extremely rapid. But if you take these things seriously, speed is not of the essence. And what exactly counts as progress ? To begin with, just the ‘sense’ that clarity of thought is coming to you, slowly but surely, month by month. And as a result of clarity of thought, some new avenues of exploration with regard to your thinking will occur to you, and you will start to gain greater confidence in identifying and isolating different capacities of mind, and you will start to have a greater insight into how exactly your mind is informing you as to what your experience is all about, and how it works, and what the different features of experience are, and where the confusions are, and so on. And as a result of this you will soon find it surprisingly easy to judge the validity – or otherwise – of what the great religious teachers have to say about what the problem with the human being is, and how to solve it. Later on – much later – other things will start to happen, but you will need to see these for yourself.
If simple and persistent exploratory thinking is the solution to human spirituality, why don’t more people engage in it ? Why is it not written about in the great scriptures ? How come the big names of religion, mysticism and spirituality don’t know about it ? Why do they all tell us to do something else entirely ? This is one of the great existential mysteries, and it doesn’t admit of an easy answer. Why do humans always look south when they should be looking north ? Why do people cling to what they know even when they would be better off accepting change ? Perhaps we just have to accept that the human is a certain kind of creature, and it can’t help being what it is. But if you are one of the few who genuinely would like to find out ‘what is what’, you will have to get your mind in gear, and start learning how to think clearly and objectively. There is no other way.
However, there is an extremely important point which can be made at this stage which may go some way to explaining why this simple, straightforward method of self-inquiry is never practiced, and seldom even grasped. When you turn your analytical and discriminating intellect on to the matter of your spiritual situation, you need to do it in such a way that the goal of your efforts is objective spiritual clarity and illumination on its own terms, and not for the purposes of any other kind of knowledge. You are not trying to be a clever philosopher, or a successful public debater, or the promoter of a new religious teaching. You are not on the hunt for something which you can parade in public and which would give you special status. You are simply trying to achieve spiritual, metaphysical knowledge for its own sake, not for the purposes of self-aggrandisement. Fortunately for us, metaphysical knowledge for its own sake, and our very best self-interest, coincide completely and utterly: they are one and the same thing, although it is almost impossible to recognise and understand this to begin with. This particular and distinct modality of metaphysical knowledge needs to be identified as ‘gnosis’ to distinguish it from ordinary factual knowledge, and it is not to be confused with knowledge of any other type, which always involves cleverness, learning, public displays, and so on, and is essentially characterised by the accumulation of various facts, such that the more facts you know, the more impressive and extensive your knowledge. Gnosis is not about the accumulation of facts, or the clever orchestration and parading of facts, or with anything to do with improving and enhancing your worldly self in any way. The fact is, paradoxically, the deeper your inner metaphysical knowledge – that is to say, the deeper your genuine gnosis – the less you will feel the need to make any kind of public exhibition of your achievement.
Why this and not something else ? Because this is the only method that can conceivably work. All – repeat all – other religious and mystical practices are delusory, and lead only to the enhancement and aggrandisement of the human self through various types of experience. But it needs to be said here that there is considerable value in sampling some of these other methods – meditation, devotion, whatever – for yourself, and discovering for yourself that they don’t work, and are delusory, and ultimately unsatisfying. The logic of their uselessness is clear, but if you are tormented by the sneaking suspicion that you are missing out on something, then, by all means, try them for yourself. And if you discover that the euphoria of some mystical state or another is really what you are all about, then there you go. But if your intellect is not convinced that euphoria or well-being is really the last word on the lucidity of mind you possess, then you will be sympathetic to a teaching which seeks to have that lucidity fulfil itself, on its own terms.
So where does it all lead ? Your efforts will eventually, somehow, alert you to a different modality of knowledge [gnosis] than the one which persistently keeps you and your ‘self-interest’ at the centre of any and every perception, thought and reflection. This different modality is almost impossible to justify adequately in a short piece of writing like this, but it will more than justify itself if you can take the time and effort to explore its reality.
Isn’t this what Krishnamurti was teaching ? No it is not, despite one or two very superficial similarities. Nor is it anything to do with mindfulness, vipassana, living in the now, non-dual awareness, transcendental meditation, born-again Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Sufism, zazen, tantra yoga, or formal meditation or yoga of any conceivable kind. There is no prayer, contemplation, recollection, immersion or devotion involved.
Do you need a teacher ? It would greatly help, but you are most unlikely to find one. The entire world of spirituality, mysticism and religion is in the hands of those who have no idea what they are up to. You will therefore need to be your own teacher, and for this reason you will have to apply the strictest and most exacting standards to all your metaphysical thinking. Always be telling yourself that you have missed something, that you could try harder, that you have somehow fallen short of the best. Never be satisfied with even the most convincing discoveries that you make.
Is all this serious ? Can you really be saying that this absurdly simple method of thinking things through, and this absurdly simple method alone, leads to spiritual Enlightenment ? The answer is yes. Then what about all the millions of years of meditation by naked yogis in the Himalayas ? All the zazen, the satoris, the koans, the crazy wisdom, the crucifixions, the tantric sex, the drugs, sweat and tears, the gnashing of teeth, the permanent non-dual awareness, the cosmic consciousness ? All worthless, null and void, empty, of no value to the serious seeker of genuine metaphysical knowledge. All you have to do is give the little flame of lucidity – which is your mind’s eye – a chance to shine, and it will show you where to go. This is no small undertaking, but it does not require special equipment, university degrees, or validation by authority. You just have to work at it, patiently, over time. It cannot deliver of itself, but it, and only it, can lead you to the door. The door has to be opened from the other side. Sorry, deepest apologies to all the heavyweight meditators, devotees, gurus, saints and beautiful people, but it’s a fact. You cannot open it yourself. All you can do when you get to the final door is make yourself comfortable, and wait patiently. This last detail is something humans instinctively dislike, because they want to feel that everything is within their power, and sheer force of will can make anything come true. This type of thinking is adolescent, deluded. And it is not really such a bad thing, when you think about it, that the ultimate keys to life, the universe, existence, everything and nothing, are not ours to play with.