The purpose of spiritual practices is not to acquire anything new, but to clear away obstacles to Realizing a Truth that is already present here and now. This is the Truth of who we really are—God, Brahman, Buddha-nature, the Great Tao, or Consciousness Itself. The main obstacle which hides this Truth from us is the delusion that we are something else—namely, a separate, individual self.
This delusion begins with mistaking an imaginary distinction, or boundary between 'self' and 'world' to be real. Having reified this boundary, we then identify ourselves with the particular body-mind defined by that boundary. Because this body-mind is impermanent, identifying ourselves with it fills us with a deep existential fear, for we now believe that when the body-mind dies, so will we. As a result, we spend our whole lives engaged in an on-going but ultimately futile attempt to enhance and protect our body-mind. Everything we think, feel, and do revolves around this project, so that finally we come to see ourselves as the central character in an imaginary drama, "The Story of I." This story, which constantly plays in our heads like some mental soap opera, captivates our attention so thoroughly that it completely obscures our true nature as Consciousness Itself.
In order to help us free attention from this on-going "Story of I" and dispel the delusion of self upon which this story is based, mystics over the centuries have developed a wide variety of disciplines and practices. It is not possible here to give a full account of how all these disciplines and practices work, but some idea may be gleaned from the following brief description of four basic practices which the Center's practitioners undertake: inquiry, meditation, morality, and devotion.
Our practice of inquiry has two aspects. The first is to inquire into the teachings of the world's great mystics. Studying classic texts from different mystical traditions allows us to verify that the Five Fundamentals do, indeed, reflect what these mystics have said. It also provides us with a rich array of instruction and commentaries which we can use to help develop and refine our own practices.
The second kind of inquiry we practice is self-inquiry. This involves cultivating self-observation based on the question: Who am I? Instead of simply taking for granted what we have been taught about the nature of ourselves and the world, we begin to pay attention to our actual experience. For example, whatever arises in Consciousness—be it a thought, feeling, sensation, emotion, or an impulse of will—we might inquire: Is this phenomenon me, or not-me? If we decide that it is not-me, we then inquire: Where is the boundary which separates it from me? Or, if we decide it is me: Where is the boundary which encloses it within me? Rather than trying to find intellectual answers to these questions, we look directly at our experience to see if any such boundaries can, in fact, be found. In this way we try to determine for ourselves the truth of what the mystics say—that our 'I' is an imaginary construct which has no real referent.
The purpose of meditation is to free our attention from its habitual absorption in thoughts—particularly those thoughts that make up "The Story of I." This freedom of attention is necessary if we are ever to experience reality nakedly, without the filter of distinctions which thoughts superimposes on it.
Our formal meditation practice unfolds in three stages. The first is concentration. Normally, our attention is in constant motion, jumping from one thing to another. Whatever phenomenon appears in consciousness, our minds try to identify it, judge whether it is good or bad, and start planning how to grasp it or avoid it. By concentrating single-pointedly on one object (such as the breath or a mantra) for set periods of time each day, we can train our attention to ignore all these distracting thoughts and be still.
Practicing concentration in this way leads to the second stage of meditation, stabilization. Here, attention becomes clear and stable, like a flawless mirror which reflects whatever is put before it without any distortions. This allows us to begin to discern the difference between what we are actually experiencing and the thoughts we are having about our experiences.
Once stability is attained we can begin to practice the third stage of meditation, contemplation. Because a stable, mirror-like mind is not distracted or deceived by thoughts about experience, contemplation allows us to gain direct, non-conceptual insights into the true nature of ourselves and the world. For example, one of the first things we contemplate is the impermanence of all those objects in our environment that we usually try to grasp or avoid. Focusing our undistracted attention on these things shows us that they are actually made up of sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes. Furthermore, when we contemplate these sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes we see that they are all constantly coming and going in every moment of our experience. This direct insight into impermanence shows us just how futile all our grasping and rejecting really is. As a result, our attachment to objects starts to drop away spontaneously, and so we naturally experience less suffering.
Even more important than the insights which come from contemplating external phenomena are those that come from contemplating internal phenomena. Focusing our undistracted attention on all those things that constitute our body-minds—thoughts, memories, emotions, bodily sensations, etc.—shows us that they, too, are completely impermanent. With the direct insight that they constantly come and go, our attachments to these internal things naturally dissolve as well. Moreover, in contemplation we can begin to recognize that, while all these internal phenomena come and go, we—the observer of all these phenomena—do not come and go. Therefore, we cannot be any of these phenomena and so we cannot be our body-minds.
Finally, when our attention is not the least bit distracted by any phenomena whatsoever—whether internal or external—we can contemplate Consciousness Itself—that naked Space of Awareness in which all phenomena arise and pass like the waves of an ocean. Here, surrendering all effort to attain anything, it becomes possible to glimpse the Truth of what the mystics unanimously proclaim: This is what we really are!
Morality is today perhaps the most misunderstood of all spiritual practices. Exoteric believers usually regard the moral laws prescribed by their religious tradition as inviolable edicts laid down by a Supreme Being who rewards compliance and punishes transgressions. Hence, they practice morality out of hope for future reward and fear of future retribution. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, observing that norms of behavior vary from tradition to tradition, conclude that moral laws are merely inventions of the human mind. Hence, questions about right and wrong are not grounded in objective reality but reduce to a matter of subjective opinion. The view of mystics, however, differs from both of these.
Although it is true that, due to different cultural and historical circumstances, specific codes of morality vary from one tradition to another, the basic virtuous qualities which these codes embody do not. For example, the virtues of love, compassion, generosity, honesty, humility, patience, and gratitude are common to every spiritual tradition. Why should this be so? Because all these virtues are expressions of the same fundamental principle—selflessness—which is everywhere derived from the same Gnostic Insight that, in reality, there is no separate 'self'. Thus, for the mystic, the motive for practicing morality is neither fear of retribution nor hope for reward. Rather it is simply to conform to a spiritual law that is every bit as objective as any of the laws of physics—namely, that virtuous actions generate happiness because they reflect the reality of selflessness, while nonvirtuous actions generate suffering because they are based on a delusion.
The trouble is, under delusion we believe just the opposite—that self-ish actions will bring us happiness while self-less actions will cause us suffering. Moreover, we have become so accustomed to acting out of our own self-centered desires and aversions that even if we want to change, we find it extremely difficult to do so. In a moment of spiritual lucidity, for example, we may make a vow to be compassionate to all beings, but once we are again embroiled in the hustle and bustle of worldly life our desires overwhelm us and our vow is forgotten. In order to help break this pattern of conditioning, mystics of all traditions have prescribed specific precepts which we can use to start transforming our behavior in small but significant ways.
At the Center we have adopted just such a set of precepts: The Ten Selfless Precepts. Making a daily commitment to recite these precepts plants them like seeds in our psyche. Then, in appropriate situations they sprout spontaneously, calling attention to various aspects of our behavior. For example, if we are about to tell a lie, the precept of honesty will automatically come to mind. This prompts us to investigate our motive for wanting to tell the lie. Perhaps we wish to exaggerate some story out of a desire to win another person's admiration, or perhaps we wish to cover up some mistake because we have an aversion to being thought incompetent. In any case, once we have identified a specific feeling of desire or aversion as the motive for wanting to lie, we can attend to the feeling itself. By observing how it arises and passes we can come to understand that it can not be our True Self—that Consciousness which does not arise and pass.
Practicing in this way, we start to gain some detachment from our desires and aversions. Because we no longer identify so strongly with these feelings, we can allow them to come and go, experiencing them fully without having to act on them. Then, simply by abiding in a space of free and open awareness, we begin to discover another, totally different motive for acting—one which is not based on either desire or aversion, but which flows effortlessly out of that selfless love and compassion that is inherent in the very nature of Consciousness Itself.
For most people the linchpin of the delusion of self is the sense of possessing a will that is separate from, and often in conflict with, the will of other beings, the will of God, or the blind will of the universe as a whole. Yet, from the mystic's point of view, this perception that there are multiple wills at work in the world is false. In Reality, there is only one Will, one Power, one Buddha-nature, one Tao, one Consciousness, which—out of pure and selfless Love—continuously informs this entire Cosmos. In order to be able to fully Realize this, however, we must surrender our own will and allow this Divine Will to move through us in a completely unimpeded fashion. And yet, precisely because our sense of self-will is so intimately bound up with our sense of self, the prospect of actually making such a surrender fills us with a terror akin to the terror of death itself.
The purpose of devotional practices—such as communal worship, singing sacred songs, and group chanting—found in all traditions is to help us overcome this fear of surrendering our self-will. By throwing ourselves body and soul into these practices, our sense of possessing an individual will can be temporarily suspended, giving us at least a taste of what it would be like to surrender ourselves completely and unconditionally to the will of the Divine. Then, instead of annihilation, what we actually experience is bliss, and it is the experience of this bliss that serves to allay our fears.
But even if we manage to overcome our fear, there is still another problem we must face. It is impossible to surrender our own will by an act of will, because as long as we are willing ourselves to surrender, we are exerting the very will that must be surrendered! This, in a nutshell, is the paradox at the heart of the whole spiritual path. It is also why the mystics of all traditions insist that ultimately Realization, or Gnosis, is not something we can make happen by our own efforts but occurs spontaneously, or through an act of Grace. What we can do, however, is to learn to open ourselves more and more to the action of this Grace. How can we do this? We can begin by engaging in what is probably the most universal of all mystical practices—contemplative or devotional prayer.
Now, many people think that prayer is asking God for special favors, and often seekers do in fact begin this way—especially if they have been brought up in an exoteric religious tradition. From a mystic's point of view, however, petitioning God is not prayer's real purpose. The real purpose of prayer is to open our hearts and minds to a direct, experiential relationship with the Divine as it appears to us in some form, such as a Holy Name, an Image, a Mediator, or simply a Presence.
Like meditation, mystical prayer unfolds in successive stages. First, there is verbal prayer; next, prayer-in-the-heart; then, unceasing prayer; and, finally, silent prayer. But while the primary function of meditation is to awaken direct Insight into the true nature of Consciousness, the primary function of mystical prayer is to awaken that selfless, unconditional Love which is also inherent in the true nature of Consciousness. This is what makes devotional prayer such a potent practice—it unleashes the power of Love. In the practice of devotional prayer we quite literally fall in love with God. And the stronger our love grows, the more we are able to surrender our will to God's will, not just in our formal periods of prayer, but in all activities. Then, instead of performing whatever tasks are at hand—doing the dishes, taking out the garbage, going to work—in order to satisfy our own will, we do them simply because that is what the Divine Dance requires.
And, in Truth, we have no choice about this. The Great Dancer extends a hand, and we are compelled to take it. The only question is, are we going to be reluctant partners, dragged around the dance floor against our will—in which case the Dance will surely seem a nightmare—or are we going to be willingly led, surrendering to it wholeheartedly and without the slightest reservations—in which case the very same Dance is suddenly transformed into a Performance of Unspeakable Beauty, an endless outpouring of a Consciousness so full of Love that it cannot contain Itself. And so, It must Dance. And so must we, because, whether we Realize it or not, we are that Consciousness!
In summary, the practices on our path begin with paying attention to ourselves, looking for that separate 'I' which we believe ourselves to be. Through a commitment to meditation we free attention from its habitual distractions and carry our inquiry beyond the range of thought into the realm of immediate experience. By adopting precepts we learn to break the compulsive cycle of selfish actions and develop detachment from those desires and aversions which fuel it. And in practicing devotion we learn to surrender our attachment to the last and most formidable delusion, our sense of self-will. Quite paradoxically, however, we never do find the original object of our search: an 'I' or 'self' or any 'thing' at all. And yet, in the process, a radical transformation has occurred. What began as an inward quest for our imaginary 'self' opens up to embrace the whole world as it displays itself in a Consciousness with no limits, no boundaries, no subject, no object, no content, no form, no beginning, and no end. And it is here, in this Space, that, by the Grace of the Real, we may suddenly Realize: I am none other than this very Consciousness Itself!