To Practice or Not to Practice

The aim of all mystical paths is to end suffering through a Realization (Enlightenment or Gnosis) of the Truth—namely, that our experience of being a separate entity or self, subject to birth and death is, in reality, a delusion. In reality, there is only Consciousness, Itself, ("God," "Brahman," "Buddha-mind," etc.) in which all apparent `entities' and `selves' arise and pass like the seamless waves of a shoreless ocean.

In order to help us attain this Realization, mystics of all traditions have developed, over the centuries, a vast array of disciplines and practices for such things as conducting inquiry, training in meditation, cultivating morality, and kindling devotion. In recent years, however, there have appeared a number of teachers who claim that these disciplines and practices are not only unnecessary but actually obstacles and hindrances to Realization. What they recommend, instead, is a kind of effortless contemplation in which the practitioner is advised to abandon all efforts, cease seeking to attain anything, and just be still.

Moreover, by way of justifying such an approach, these contemporary teachers often invoke the words of some of the world's most venerable Gnostics—particularly those belonging to the Advaita ("Non-dual") school of Hinduism and the Dzogchen ("Great Perfection") school of Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, the great 14th-century Dzogchen master, Longchen-pa, insisted that "sought-after truth is found by not seeking it"1 and gave the following instructions for doing nothing:

In the meditation which is great natural self-perfection, there is no need of modifications and transformations: whatever arises is the Great Perfection... If you reside in the groundless state through detachment from mind you will accomplish spontaneously and changelessly, the inconceivable sovereignty.2
In similar fashion, the renowned 20th-century Advaita teacher, Ramana Maharshi, used to tell his students:
Make no effort...your effort is the bondage...All that is required to realize the SELF is to BE STILL. What can be easier than that?3
Nor are such teachings found only within the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In fact, there have been mystics in all the Great Traditions who have taught precisely the same thing.

Listen, for example, to the 11th-century Sufi, Abdullah Ansari of Herat, who wrote of Allah:

To find You involves neither time nor means; the one who is dependent on seeking is veiled. To seek You is a remnant of separation and dispersion: You are before everything, (so) what (would it mean) to seek You?4
Likewise, the 13th-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, declared:
Whoever is seeking God by ways is finding ways and losing God, who in ways is hidden. But whoever seeks for God without ways will find him as he is in himself, and that man will live with the Son, and he is life itself.5
But if what these teachers say is true, then why walk a spiritual path and engage in all sorts of arduous disciplines and practices? Why not dispense with all these "ways" and, instead, simply Realize your True Nature through effortless contemplation?

This is a good question. And the best way to answer it is to give it a try. So why don't you do that, right now. Just sit quietly for a few minutes. Do not meditate on anything in particular. Do not even get into any kind of special posture. Above all, do not seek to attain anything. Simply be still and Realize your True Nature as Consciousness, itself....


If you Realized your True Nature, congratulations! As a matter of historical fact some mystics have, indeed, attained Enlightenment without ever engaging in any formal practices. One of the most famous was Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. Hui-Neng, as the story goes, was an illiterate woodcutter who happened to be in a marketplace when he heard a monk reciting a verse from the Diamond Sutra. Suddenly, his mind opened up, just like that, without any effort! If this did not happen to you, however, do not be discouraged, for it is also an historical fact that such cases of totally spontaneous Realization are extremely rare.

The reason for this is that Realization can only occur when all seeking has ceased—especially the "seeking" or movement of attention. As long as attention is wandering about, seeking for some thing, it cannot Realize Consciousness, itself, because Consciousness, itself, is No-thing. Thus, when mystics like Ramana Maharshi say, stop seeking, and be still, they are not just talking about stilling your body. What they really mean is you have to still your attention so that it is completely undistracted by any thing whatsoever. If you are like most people, however, even though you might have been able to keep your body still for awhile, your attention continued to be distracted by all sorts of things—sights, sounds, sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories, plans, etc. In other words, it was still seeking this thing or that.

What's more, if you tried to force your attention to be still by an act of will, you were still engaged in a subtle form of seeking, because willing and seeking go hand in hand. Whenever we will a thing to happen, it means we are seeking for something, even if that "something" is paradoxically a state of non-seeking. This is why Zen Master, Sengtsan, wrote:

When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity your very effort fills you with activity.6
So while it is easy to say, "stop seeking and be still," such instructions are almost impossible for ordinary people to carry out, for the simple reason that willing and seeking are not normally under our control. They are conditioned activities, built into the very foundations of delusion. To understand why this should be so, we need to take a closer look at delusion, itself—how it arises, and what it actually entails.

The delusion of self begins with a simple error in cognition—the mistaking of an imaginary distinction between `subject' and `object' to constitute a real or inherently existing boundary. Prior to the reification of this First Distinction, there is only Consciousness, itself, bathed in Perfect Happiness and enjoying Eternal Bliss as it radiates pure Self-less Love, expressed in a Dance of its own Infinite Forms. Once this First Distinction becomes reified into a boundary, however, everything changes. The Non-dual Nature of Consciousness, itself, is suddenly eclipsed, blanked out, and in the next moment the `self' is born as a pure formless awareness beholding an objective world of forms, which it now perceives as being not-self. But while this initial cognitive error may be the beginning of delusion, it is by no means the end of it, for it alters the entire field of awareness in radical and devastating ways.

Because the self now seems to be cut off and isolated from the world of forms, the Perfect Happiness of Consciousness, itself, turns into its opposite—namely, the experience of suffering—which manifests as a profound, existential Loneliness. But because the self also "intuits" or "remembers" the Bliss of its Former Paradise, out of this Loneliness arises an equally profound and existential Longing to Return to it. Now the only way the self could accomplish this would be to wrest its attention away from the objective universe and direct it back to the boundary between subject and object long enough to Re-cognize that it does not truly exist. But because this boundary is precisely what now defines the self, the prospect of discovering that it does not exist seems tantamount to self-annihilation. As a result, the pure Selfless Love of Consciousness becomes transformed into an overwhelming Fear of losing self.

Thus, from the moment delusion arises, the self is caught on the horns of an unbearable dilemma. On the one hand, Loneliness and Longing compel it to find some way to escape its suffering and regain its Lost Happiness; while, on the other hand, the Fear of self-annihilation prevents it from taking the one step that could actually bring this about.

With the way back blocked by Fear, the self, then, decides to keep its attention focused in the opposite direction, on the world of forms. Although, in reality, this "decision" has been dictated by an existential Loneliness and Longing, to the self it seems to arise from within, as an act of "self-will." In any case, the self now embarks on what will become a lifelong search for happiness somewhere `out there' beyond itself. And the way it goes about carrying out this search is to continue creating and reifying more and more boundaries.

In order to locate itself in the world of forms, the formless Self of pure awareness creates and reifies a boundary around a particular body-mind. Having identified with a particular body-mind, the self's search for happiness becomes channeled into an effort to grasp and hold those things the body-mind desires, while avoiding those things to which it is averse. But, since all these things—as well as the body-mind, itself—are impermanent, this strategy inevitably yields only temporary happiness, followed by more suffering. And yet, because the self now takes the body-mind's desires and aversions to be its own, it seems to have no other option but to continue on its `chosen' course.

If the body-mind the self has become identified with happens to be that of a human being, possessing a capacity for thought and language, it can try to further enhance and protect itself in conjunction with other human beings possessing the same capacities. In addition to physical boundaries, thought and language allow human beings to create and reify socially-constructed boundaries, which further define and solidify the delusion of self. For example, kinship boundaries establish and delimit the self's family, clan, and societal identity; class and caste boundaries define and delimit its relationships to others within that society; economic boundaries define and delimit its relationships to different forms of property; and ideological boundaries define and delimit its membership in various religious, philosophical, and political communities sharing similar views and values.

Yet despite the benefits which come from creating and reifying these social boundaries, the self still cannot escape its suffering or find lasting happiness. In fact, for each advantage the self gains there arises some corollary misery it must endure. Thus, while relationships with family and friends may produce feelings of fellowship, love, and joy, they can just as easily excite jealousy, hatred, and grief. And although social and economic relationships may bring an increase in wealth, power, and position, they also produce poverty, injustice, and oppression. And while identifying with a particular religious or ideological community may give life some semblance of meaning and purpose, such affiliations also lead to conflict, aggression, and war.

Moreover, the deeper the self becomes enmeshed in these social relationships, the more they act back on the self, to shape and condition its own internal dynamics. Experiences of past successes and failures give rise to likes and dislikes which, over time, harden into more or less fixed attachments to objects, people, places and things. These attachments, in turn, mold the self's present and future actions into conditioned patterns of behavior which at once limit its freedom of action while simultaneously intensifying its sense of personal identity.

Finally, the human self's capacity for thought and language allows it to not only create and reify an increasingly complex web of external boundaries, but also to monitor its own progress in trying to navigate through them. This it does by translating its lived-experience into an interior stream of ideas, images, symbols, memories, expectations, judgments, narratives and commentaries, which it then weaves into an intricate and ongoing story—The Story of "I"—in which the self sees itself starring as the central character, forever driven by Longing and Fear to seek an elusive happiness in the world of ephemeral forms.

Thus, although the delusion of self begins with a mistake in cognition, it evolves into an elaborate and multilayered ego-drama which, like some fascinating soap opera, completely captivates the self's attention and so keeps it perpetually ignorant of its True Nature.

This is why cases of spontaneous Realization like Hui-Neng's are so rare. In order for attention to return to its Source in and as Consciousness, itself, it must become totally detached from The Story of "I", along with all the self-centered patterns of conditioning upon which this fiction is based. For most seekers, however, just becoming aware of these patterns, and the various levels at which they operate, requires a lot of hard work—and that means a lot of practice.7

Moreover, this was something recognized by virtually all the great masters of the past. For example, even though Meister Eckhart maintained that God is hidden in ways, at the same time he was adamant about the need to practice such "ways" before they are abandoned:

This is like someone who wants to learn to write. If he is to acquire the art, he must certainly practice it hard and long, however disagreeable and difficult this may be for him and however impossible it may seem. If he will practice it industriously and assiduously, he learns it and masters the art....Then, when he has the art, he will not need to think about and remember the letters' appearance; he can write effortlessly and easily.8
And even though Abdullah Ansari of Herat called seeking a "veil," he knew seekers could only dispense with their seeking after traversing all the stages of the path, for as he himself wrote:
The last stages cannot be confirmed without authentically securing the early stages, in the same way that a building cannot stand except upon a foundation.9
This was also understood by the traditional teachers of Dzogchen and Advaita. Thus, although Longchen-pa did, indeed, say that "Sought-after truth is found by not seeking it," he also declared:
The unexcelled Buddhahood is impossible to attain until one completes the paths and stages....because it is necessary that the defilements (of the different levels) be abandoned, and the virtues need to be achieved... Therefore, one should endeavor in the training of the pure stages and paths...To practice Dharma with efforts from the heart is essential.10
And even though Ramana Maharshi told his students, "Make no effort...your effort is the bondage," he also insisted:
Sadhanas [practices] are needed so long as one has not realized it. They are for putting an end to obstacles. Finally there comes a stage when a person feels helpless notwithstanding the sadhanas. He is unable to pursue the much-cherished sadhana also. It is then that God's power is realized. The Self reveals itself.11
The purpose of spiritual practices, then, is to step-by-step liberate attention from the delusion of self. In general, they do this by dissolving our identification with all those reified boundaries upon which The Story of "I" rests, and by weaning us from our attachments to the objects of desire and aversion which fuel the story.

In particular, practices of inquiry give us direct insights into the emptiness and impermanence of the things we try to grasp, as well as the emptiness and impermanence of the `self' doing the grasping. Practices of meditation train us to disengage from that stream of thoughts, images, memories, and plans which constitute The Story of "I" and, instead, to rest our attention in the naked awareness of what actually is. Practices of morality allow us to interrupt actions based on our self-centered conditioning and to replace them with actions based on the Selfless Love and Compassion inherent in our True Nature. Practices of devotion encourage us to relinquish our own will and to open our hearts and minds to that Divine Will, Grace, and Guidance which continually flow out of Consciousness, Itself.

Finally, we reach a point where, as Ramana Maharshi says, our practices are exhausted and we are unable to pursue them. This is quite different from choosing to abandon them prematurely. When you are unable to pursue your practices it is because your own will has been completely surrendered. Then, with no will to direct it, all seeking ceases, the Story of "I" dries up, and effortless contemplation becomes not only possible but unavoidable, for the simple reason that there is nothing else you can do. Once attention has been freed from all distractions, it naturally returns to its Source in and as Consciousness, itself, and there is the opportunity to Realize for yourself: "Oh, of course, THIS IS IT! THIS IS WHO I AM! THIS IS WHAT EVERYTHING IS!"

So what our latter-day Advaita and Dzogchen teachers say is principle. All that is required to Realize your True Nature is for attention to stop seeking anything and BE STILL. It is also true that if you cling to any practice after its purpose has been served, it can, in fact, become an obstacle. What must be understood, however is that, as with all teachings, these are stage specific. And these particular teachings apply only to seekers who have reached the last stage of the path. So, how do you know if you, yourself, have arrived at this stage? Well, here is what Shankara, the founder of the whole Advaita school, had to say about it:

Of the steps to liberation, the first is declared to be complete detachment from all things which are non-eternal. Then comes the practice of tranquility, self-control, and forbearance. And then the entire giving-up of all actions which are done from personal, self desire....He who has completely overcome attachment is ready for the state of liberation.12
If this is true of you—if you have given up "all actions which are done from personal, self desire," and "completely overcome attachment"—then you are ready for effortless contemplation. If not, then you had better heed the advice of the great Sufi poet, Hafiz, who wrote:
Although Union with the Beloved
Is never given as a reward for one's efforts,
Strive, O heart, as much as you are able.13
- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Winter-Spring, 2002. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. Longchenpa, You Are the Eyes of the World, trans. Kennard Lipman and Merrill Peterson (Novato, CA: Lotsawa, 1987), 38.

2. Longchen Rabjam, The Practice of Dzogchen, 2nd ed., trans. Tulku Thondup, ed. Harold Talbott (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996), 330.

3. Ramana Maharshi, The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1972), 49, 76.

4. A.G. Farhadi, Abdullah Ansari of Herat (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1996), 130.

5. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, l981), 183-184.

6. Sengtsan, Third Zen Patriarch, Hsin Hsin Ming, trans. Richard B. Clarke (Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 1973), no page numbers.

7. In fact, Hui-Neng, himself, attributed his unusually quick attainment to the good karma he had accumulated in previous lives—see A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), 498.

8. Meister Eckhart, 253-254.

9. Farhadi, Abdullah Ansari of Herat, 79.

10. Longchen, The Practice of Dzogchen, 389, 340.

11. Talks With Sri Ramana Maharshi, 8th Ed. (Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, T. N. Venkataraman, 1989), 607.

12. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 3rd ed. (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1978), 42, 45.

13. Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, In the Paradise of the Sufis, 2nd ed. (New York: Khaniqahi-Nimatullahi Publications, 1979), 22.

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