Learn about awakening, teachers, spiritual community and being a real student in this spiritual seeker’s guide
Why did Ramana Maharshi, after becoming enlightened at the age of 16, say nothing after he left the caves until someone asked him a question? Why traditional teachers have never advertised, and are even harder to find? If this question interests you read further.
The desire for Truth is an essential urge from the core of our Being. And yet most people aren’t seeking Truth. In order for this desire or Intent to flourish, it needs to be innately strong or else get fed by conscious sources until it’s self-sustaining. Most people on the path are really seeking enlightenment as an ego-mind desire in which case seeking is just another form of “What can I get for myself?” And if that’s where we’re starting from it’s a good beginning for our journey.
The only one who can seek enlightenment is ego, the description of the separate self. The interest in enlightenment is really a masked wish to end suffering, which is every person’s natural desire, but this becomes distorted if we also have the illusory belief that life can and should be perpetually happy and pleasurable. We believe we want truth, but what we’re really looking for is ease and consolation. Close encounters with Truth or Emptiness are sometimes frightening. Annihilation as the Sufis sometimes call it doesn’t sound inviting. Being disillusioned is scary. There’s nothing you can hold on to—no set of ideals, method, community, order. Emptiness, now that doesn’t sound inviting if you consider it deeply, which natural we don’t. If there weren’t barriers to ego, such as fear, this wouldn’t be as challenging.
With the deepening or purification of motive, “this wanting to know Truth,” which is Intent, eventually transforms into the urgent need to know Truth.
Intent, when it is unencumbered, has been symbolized by the Sufis as the winged heart. As Carl Jung illustrates, “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens.”
Enlightenment, awakening and liberation
Another crucial misunderstanding occurs because we only have a couple of English words for all “spiritual” experiences and events, this wide spectrum of experiences are collapsed together into the terms “enlightenment” or “awakening.” Perhaps because there are but a few words for the state shift we call enlightenment we presume that there are only one or a few events, that any unusual or ecstatic experience is the proof of transcendence of ego and materiality. There are probably as many variations of states as there are people who experienced them. And there are common recognitions throughout most of these events. Reading biographies of saints, sages, gurus, Avatars, teachers, and mystics, one discovers that a vast variety of such spiritual experiences are possible.
Before you go up you must go down
For experiences outside of our daily state of consciousness to be grounded and stable they need to rest on a foundation of self knowledge (as an impartial acceptance of the ego complex). When these altered states of consciousness are not resting on such a foundation of self knowledge, which includes the shadow, blind spots regarding our behaviour can occur, such as, teachers who become sexually or financially compromised. Or, as Jung says, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.” Many presenters of higher wisdom don’t seem to acknowledge, much less expose, our self-deceptions. Instead, they often speak of peace. Perhaps because few want to hear that they’re not quite ready for enlightenment.
What is awakening?
Awakening, as I’ll define it broadly for the moment, is any consciousness enhancing experience or event. It’s the beginning of a real life, not the final event as so many believe. It can and often does take years to process and integrate. Integrating the awakening event is important so that ego doesn’t define it or use it as an identity, thus preventing us from continuing to learn and grow. A real teacher and a strong living lineage, like Tibetan Buddhism, provide feedback and support as a major antidote against getting stuck with an “enlightened ego,” thus keeping us open and deepening our humanity. Our unconditioned Emptiness is of another order not subject to change. Our temporal and human side is what grows and deepens for most people. Don’t get the categories confused.
After Awakening it’s obvious that everyone is and has always and will always be enlightened. The word “enlightenment” is either a verbal convenience, instead of saying such awkward phrases as “unawake to being whole, perfect and complete,” or “awake to our unconditioned self.” It’s an enticement or carrot for seekers, the big carrot. And there are events and experiences that confirm the existence of more than we generally see and perceive. These are important and big first steps, a beginning, otherwise you just believe what someone else says, that we are not separate.
Varieties of awakening
Awakening comes in many forms. Some saints or jiva muktis (liberated souls) are invisible. School teachers, healers, parents, and many of our ordinary roles are quite worthy of living in the awakened state. Also, what about “un-awakened” beings—those who are just responsible for their actions and don’t complain about how unfair life is. Though uncommon, they aren’t rare.
Awakening isn’t the end of the road. It’s a beginning that can give us a good start to becoming mature human beings. (A simple definition of mature is not taking anything personally.) Another major aspect of awakening is living in integrity—when there’s no contradiction between our thoughts, feelings, speech and actions. These attributes are impressive. Such remarkable ordinary people are at least equal in Being, in my opinion, as many awakened people. There are highly mature beings that do not have visible teaching functions.
“Teacher/guru” isn’t the only manifestation or indicator of transformation, as most spiritual tourists seem to believe. Maybe those little heroes in life who have integrity and compassion, and are capable of self-sacrifice are also of real help. They act correctly from their own innate sense of conscience, without the sort of guarantee that enlightenment or a guru appears to bestow. As far as I’m concerned, people who do the right thing from an awakened conscience without any belief that God is on their side, are also saints of this world.
Judaism teaches that there are 36 righteous ones who are invisible and yet are the sustainers of the world. In fact, there must be at least 36 in order for the “show” to continue.
People think ego is evil, something that shouldn’t exist. In fact we need it to exist since it’s our interface with the world. The ego is like the operating system of a computer, which allows the user to access the computer’s functions. As Christopher Calder says, “The only way to become egoless is to physically die. If you are here and have a pulse, then you have an ego. Do not fool yourself or allow yourself to be fooled by others.” It’s not an option to destroy the ego, it just needs to be under proper management—an integrated self in the service of life, not a mind for maintaining an imagined unique identity. More practical than the sought after prize of enlightenment is ego-management. After awakening, the ego returns, but you don’t want it acting as the controller again.
The probability of awakening
Statistically, the peak ages for awakening are 30 to 40. The probability of a major death-rebirth event or awakening diminishes with age. The body has less energy, or charge, for crossing “the neural gap”—awakening has a corresponding subtle physiological component, not only insight. These are just probabilities, the proverbial bell curve, and everyone is an individual. UG Krishnamurti, I believe, had his major awakening in his late forties.
Individuals who awaken in their early twenties or younger often have significant teaching work. Or as an accident like a near death experience (NDE). More intense awakenings such as kundalini or NDE, in contrast to epiphanies, are often physically transforming. They’re immensely intense. The Sufis call it annihilation. That’s not to say that final surrender has to be a kick-ass-blowout either.
There are true accidental awakenings where the individual wasn’t seeking and didn’t even have a notion or desire for such an event, such as NDEs, or suffering under the “right conditions.” To quote Eckhart Tolle for whom this happened, “Historically, suffering has been the primary catalyst for awakening.” It seems that unsought for awakening is some people’s karma, fate, or destiny. The difficulty with this type of awakening is that many of these people don’t have a context for referencing it. They’re confused when trying to share it with unreceptive or ignorant friends and family. Some are so confused that they can’t reference it at all, putting it on hold in a corner of their psyche. For all who awaken, ego will return.
Interpretation, or how one references or understands any experience, is all important. “The way in which we interpret our experience really determines how we value it and how we see it,” spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen says. “Individuals from different cultures, backgrounds, and levels of development can have similar experiences but interpret them in completely different ways. And the way that we interpret our experiences really does determine the way we see reality, the way we see ourselves, the way we perceive the world, and the way we see the relationship between the self and the universe.”
Integrating ones awakening is of great importance. Jed McKenna, an American self-enlightened writer and iconoclast (one who destroys religious symbols used in worship), said that after his final event of no experience or experiencer, it took him another 10 years to integrate his final awakening before he started attempting to transmit his understanding. It will impact the rest of our lives.
Even the extraordinary Ramana Maharshi, who awoke so young, went into solitary retreat for many years before beginning to transmit his understanding after questioning began. There are numerous examples of this deepening maturation process that could be cited. I advise everyone to educate themselves through research, reading biographies of acknowledged recent historical teachers, and of course being with a real teacher.
When awakening does happen, you’re never ready. It’s not going to be like anything you imagined or hoped it was going to be. If I’m making it sound complicated like the splitting of the atom, it’s not necessarily. One of my teachers said to me, “For you it may be just a matter of relaxing and it may take you 20 years to learn to relax.” In Osho’s words, “Whatsoever you choose— singing, educating children, dancing, plumbing, or whatsoever—it has to be your love. Then it gives growth, inspiration, impetus, and it creates a nucleus in your being around which, by and by, you start crystallizing being.”
What about spontaneous awakening?
I’m not claiming that there are not beings who awaken spontaneously into an abiding or stable, state of non-dual awareness such as Ramana Maharshi, but they are extremely rare. These spontaneously-awakened beings, both those who have teaching roles and those who don’t, don’t need to advertise to be seen. Real Being naturally attracts recognition and respect.
You don’t go to heaven alone
We need to release the idea that seeking enlightenment is a personal quest. It may even sometimes be a by-product of service—serving the teacher, the dharma, the sangha, referred to as the three jewels in Buddhism. Another important component of Buddhist teachings is a part of the Bodhisattva vow—continuing incarnation until all sentient beings have become enlightened. This may sound like an impossible endeavour, but it suggests that awakening isn’t an exclusively personal affair, but is connected to all others and life. Possibly intending, or dedicating your spiritual efforts for the benefit of all beings everywhere provides ongoing fuel for the journey. It certainly suggests that you’re not done regardless of the experiences and events that happen to you. In Unknown Journey, Seth clearly illustrates:
The framework is so woven that each particle (of consciousness) is dependent upon every other. The strength of one adds to the strength of all. The weakness of one weakens the whole. The energy of one recreates the whole. The striving of one increases the potentiality of everything that is, and this places great responsibility upon every consciousness… it is the responsibility of even the most minute particle of consciousness to use its own abilities, and all of its abilities, to the utmost. Upon the degree to which this is done rests the power and coherence of everything that is.
Finding a teacher
Because we have only a few words for teacher, especially for the word “guru,” we assume that all gurus are the same. In fact, there’s a broad range of people performing teaching and guiding functions.
Different teachers have different sadhana. Most individuals working as real teachers, besides whatever teaching or other work they do for their students, are also refining their own practice. However, rare exceptions might be Ramana Maharshi who seems to have come only to “turn the wheel of the dharma” or Meher Baba with his “Universal Work.”
There isn’t a reliable yardstick for the spiritual process, other than a real teacher. Determining the authenticity of a teacher has its own difficulties. Most seekers don’t have the good karma of meeting a real teacher at the beginning. So what to do? Without a real teacher the seeker must refine one’s own discrimination through readings of biographies (not necessarily Dharmic texts), or through visiting with acknowledged teachers. In the absence of such discrimination, less reliable sources of information such as advice from other seekers and one’s imagination are used. Finding a real teacher, ideally one’s own (and preferably one that has been acknowledged by other teachers through a lineage), is critical on our journey.
This saying, attributed to the Tibetans, highlights the importance of a teacher. “The three indicators of a lucky birth are birth in a human body, an unquenchable desire for truth and a Guru.” And a telling story I overheard regarding teachers: A seeker in Tiruvannamalai, India asked a Western teacher, “Why are there so many false teachers?” His answer, “Because there are so many false students.”
Develop a bullshit detector
One way to expose false teachers and teachings is to read biographies of well-known traditional masters from throughout the world. For instance, Ramana Maharshi, Shirdi Sai Baba, Meher Baba, Neem Karoli Baba, G.I. Gurdjieff and Upasni Maharaj (who are relatively contemporary, and for whom there is much documentation). Anyone claiming to be a teacher needs to be checked out, carefully. How do they live? Most, if not all, real teachers have little to no private life (much less do they need or want lavish personal quarters), and tend to be fairly accessible to their students.
Advaita, and especially neo-Advaita, generally means lecturing teachers, without ashrams, sangha, practices, or sadhana, like a performance given and then the teacher retires off stage to their private life. In fact “private life” would be an oxymoron in spirituality. Not that lectures and workshops can’t be a way of scouting for ready seekers.
Some gurus have a verbal teaching whereas others like Yogi Ramsuratkumar in Tiruvannamalai had next to no verbal or written teachings. Instructional teachers can provide information, as in this document, but there may be little if any transformational potential or transmission if it isn’t passed along through Grace and a lineage to a student who is open.
The importance of a teacher
Having a teacher or guru doesn’t guarantee enlightenment. Sincerity and diligence are important after awakening, and a real teacher is essential so that we don’t become crystallized with an enlightened ego. Rather, we stay fluid and responsive to the needs of life, and a real teacher prevents us from getting stuck on the idea that we’ve reached the end. Instead they help us to keep moving on. Awakening therefore, is not the end of the road as spiritual teacher EJ Gold points out, “Enlightenment is but one pearl on the necklace of the Beings journey through existence.”
Is a teacher necessary?
At some points in this document it may seem like I’m advocating that a teacher/guru/guide isn’t necessary. Well, it’s kind of yes-and-no on that, but for most of us a teacher is necessary. For myself, I didn’t just need one teacher, I needed and attracted myself to three teachers, and I must admit I needed them all. From my own direct observation I’ve found that most people can not only benefit, but really do need help— tangible, incarnate, on-the-spot help. The likelihood of ego co-opting and using the search and any awakening event, big or small, for its own substantiation is almost guaranteed. I’ve seen it often enough!
Enlightened people need peer-group relationships and community agreement for enlightenment to remain. This support is indeed what happens within the context of a traditional lineage, such as the guru-disciple arrangements of Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. In these lineages, even after a student has an awakening or kensho, it must be deepened and then tested by the master. Teachers without the friendships of equals may be in the “lone wolf” ego mode (though this is not necessarily confirmation of ability or maturity as a teacher).
Often an individual may work with or under a teacher for many years, maturing and refining his or her character. The following Zen story tells it best: A Zen master was asked “Isn’t enlightenment the most important thing?” He said, “Yes, enlightenment is the most important thing, after good manners.” This idea, though trite, really has profound import. In fact the clearest most comprehensive map of the journey that I have encountered is the Ox Herding drawings of Zen Buddhism.
Who becomes a teacher?
Historically, most teachers have had only one lineage heir or two at best. So any teacher, who acknowledges many students as ripened teachers, probably isn’t what they appear to be or has more complex motives for his student. And in regards to the nominees for teacherhood, it would seem useful to carefully inquire inside oneself before launching into a vocation with such responsibility and karma. Looking at teaching from the outside may seem very attractive to the superficial observer, but teaching at the level of guru is a serious and difficult undertaking that should only be done as a kind of necessity of destiny—having lived somewhat closely with two teachers from what I saw of their lives this is not something anyone would seek if they knew the energies and complexities involved. In a moment of dismay, I’ve even called teaching at the level of guru a form of bad karma.
The teachings of Advaita, neo-Advaita, and non-duality, for example, can be twisted when taken outside of the context of Hinduism, so anyone with an epiphany, confidence, and some intelligence may decide to teach and then declare themselves a teacher, or get pronounced as a teacher by another of the same unconscious or misguided orientation. To declare that your “students” have graduated and become teachers is a way of legitimizing your authenticity as a teacher.
Traditionally, teachers didn’t advertise since word of mouth more than sufficed. Advertising is associated with marketing and sales—not parts of the spiritual path. Though we’re living in different times now with much broader outreach possibilities available, most real teachers still do not advertise themselves openly—they have their own way of finding those with need and readiness. Yet many students have a desire to get the word out about how great their teacher is—a kind of ego recognition by association. Depending on the work of that teacher, this outreach activity may or may not get reigned in. This type of ego tendency needs to be recognized, and the most memorable way of learning is still “getting your hand caught in the cookie jar,” meaning recognition through experience.
Number of students
Teachers such as Amachi of Kerala need more visibility for their work and hence have many students. But most teachers can only work effectively with a limited number of students and so intentionally keep this number small. Even these high profile teachers will have their close students who usually have arrived early on in the teachers work. These world teachers may have an ashram with a sort of “playpen” for the mass of devotees seeking their blessing. The guest resident’s areas of larger ashrams can also serve the teacher in that they can select individuals for greater contact with them.
Traditional teachers usually keep students near them, at least initially, to ensure they get a good start. Many teachers also keep some kind of teaching environment; in the East these are generally called ashrams, in the West, spiritual communities. Such a community, or sangha, is perhaps the most important agency for the preparation of students by providing an opportunity to do seva, service, to the teacher and community. Moreover, working with others within the sangha, tends to bring to the surface unresolved tendencies, or vasanas, which if viewed in the light of consciousness can be accepted, owned. Not all teachers have an ongoing community. Some may work with only a few students intensively or intermittently.
Teachers whose work is more focused may create a tiered community for the students around them, working differently with each tier or group. This accommodates the varying degrees of readiness of the students approaching. Even false or unprepared teachers, which I’ll broadly define as those not conducting the flow of Grace, serve the guru ecology by providing places for unprepared, ignorant, or insincere students, and even within that sphere a sincere student will be attracted to what they need for themselves and can invoke real help even from pseudo-gurus, as Grace is always raining on us.
Partially enlightened individuals tend to, if they don’t see a larger picture, become “talking teachers,” not living with or near sangha, just making appearances and lecturing. This is fine and valid if everyone understands that the speaker is presenting information about something and not transmitting Grace. Accurate information is valuable but not of the same transformational potential as a Guru can provide. A residential preparation program such as an ashram won’t happen with less than a fully responsible, competent or trained teacher. The energies around eager competitive students can get fairly intense. Maybe a clever teacher can pull off an “ashram lite” for spiritual tourists, like a yoga retreat. Traditionally these talk-teachers were called pundits, which is not to say that accurate information isn’t really useful for the right person at the right time, but there isn’t the committed relationship that happens between a guru and a student.
Some awakened beings have neither the skills to teach nor the energy for transmission—lacking “skillful means” as some Buddhist call it. This is especially true when the awakening happens outside of a lineage with a teacher, a teaching, and a community—the proverbial three jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. As these people don’t have a model or vehicle for transmission they have to make it up as they go along and few have the ability to do that. Easier is to reproduce what you received to teach as you were taught. And to really own it you have to be able to somehow add to it, be creative, find your own unique style or words of presentation. Lineages tend to assure a kind of quality control, but clearly not always. No lineage doesn’t mean the teacher isn’t effective, as I can personally attest to, it’s all a matter of whether the flow of Grace is present or not.
I recently read that one indicator of a real teacher is if you feel peace; I’d say an equally good, perhaps better, indicator is if you’re disturbed after the initial contact. This is because ego is the only one who gets disturbed. And clearly this person is neither trying to win you over nor offering comfort and consolation. Rather, are you willing to accept the challenge of acknowledging that something challenged you.
The real student
Given how difficult it is to determine the capability of someone claiming to be a teacher, the real question for a seeker therefore, should be, “What is a real student and how do I become one?” This question is more useful than asking how to recognize a real teacher, which may be more a matter of providence or karma than any amount of experience or discrimination. Wanting to pick a guru is counter-intuitive because this apparent act of picking assumes that a very limited ego mind can make such evaluations, seeing beyond its own conditioned assumptions. Thus, a bit of humility would turn such a tricky question of identifying your teacher back on the questioner.
The most important attributes of a real student are humility and the lack of self-importance, which enables sincerity (or self-honesty). Another quality is diligence—as an unwavering intent to know truth. Some other qualities include patience and a sense of humour. These attributes are obvious enough, but it’s up to each one of us to embody them. Without this profound commitment, which the teacher can see, seeking is just “window shopping at a spiritual supermarket.” Then the statement, “When the student is ready, the teacher will call,” ceases to sound like a cliché and becomes reality.
Figuring it out
There are no how-to answers. I’ve heard people at satsangs asking questions and expecting answers as if they, or their condition, is a problem that can be intellectually solved with the right answer. I’ve heard questions such as “How to still the mind?” as if there’s an instruction manual for unplugging the mind. The mind isn’t the problem (refer to “The ego” section above). There isn’t a how-to answer for anything connected to consciousness. It’s a just “do it” kind of thing. Awakening is one’s destiny and you either find your destiny or meet your fate—the mechanical life of sleeping humanity (see the movie The Matrix).
The most important attitude for a seeker is that Truth is the overriding priority, if this is the highest priority, virtually your only priority, then awakening is just a matter of time, maybe a long time relative to a young person’s impatience, but it’s still a done deal.
A real teacher and community are most important in the preparation phase, creating useful life habits such as self discipline, meditation, knowledge of dharma, and the observer (witness). These are best described as “life habits” for a richer, more productive life and if awakening should occur they’re a kind of foundation for stabilizing or grounding after the event and then living from the change of understanding and perspective that comes with awakening. I’d recommend Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind: The Life and Letters of an Irish Zen Saint by Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran, as a good example of the path. She was a remarkable student so the book is meant for education and inspiration not for comparison.
Theoretical vs. practical
It takes more than just reading to understand. You must live it. A number of great books and articles describe how to live consciously—Deepak Chopra’s books, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, even this “noble” work that you are reading now. You’ll notice that reading something, however wise and inspiring it may be, makes little difference to how you actually live, what you do in difficult situations or even on ordinary days. If you haven’t noticed this then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.
Why is this? The answer is easy. When reading, it’s only words that reach your brain through your eyes, there isn’t the kind of “print” via an experience, regardless of how inspired you feel and how strongly you agree with the author. Understanding something so that it is in and of your Being, and you are living your life through it, is quite a different matter. Really understanding that “you can’t do what you think you can do” is the beginning of transformation. It’s the beginning of self-honesty. Only with these open and empty hands is there the sincerity that can purify intent.
by Karl Krumins
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The bhakti path
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Indian guru and author of I Am That, did arti (devotional ceremony) to the pictures of his guru three times a day. When asked how this fit in with his teaching he called it a “mystery.” To me this showed that despite his pure non-dual teaching he was very humanly appreciative and grateful to his teachers.
Many scriptures, starting perhaps with the The Bhagavad Gita, say that bhakti yoga is the recommended practice, or sadhana, for this age. It’s the practice of showing adoration, love, and devotion to an object—an incarnate one is the easiest object (how about your mate?), however Christ or any Ishta Devata (a divine form) through which the aspirant contemplates God, can be used.
These times, the Kali Yuga, are tough times, and we all have a kind of attention deficit disorder to some extent, relative to people of past ages, making jnana yoga and the rest of the yogas very difficult to do. The “easiest” of the yogas—I quote the word “easiest” because of major qualifiers—is bhakti yoga.