Spiritual Teachers With Penetrating Smiles

The pictures we have of spiritual teachers are of gentle, smiley, ethereal creatures and of wanton charlatans. The latter have, when the traditional media catches wind of something, been news fodder (Rajneeshpuram, anyone?) whereas the former appear only as caricatures of saints and sages, those who levitate and love and laugh. We both know the famous photo of Ramana Maharshi, don’t we?, the one in which he looks intent and sweet and peaceful and loving. (I do love this photo, but I wonder whether it’s beside the point, at least as far as this blog post goes.)


Ramana Maharshi in his 60s. Credit: Wikipedia

Far more difficult for us to understand, let alone accept, are “crazy wisdom adepts” of the kind described by Georg Feuerstein in his book Holy Madness: The Shock Tactics and Radical Teachings of Crazy-wise Adepts, Holy Fools, and Rascal Gurus (HT Bryce). If I may simplify to an extreme, then I would say that the supreme point of crazy wisdom teachers is to do whatever is necessary (and whatever is necessary may be incredibly shocking) to bring students to a “spiritual crisis.” The spiritual crisis of the ego may be the penultimate step just before the student realizes his or her true nature as That.

I’m not sure where I stand right now with respect to the shock tactics of crazy wisdom teachers. On the one hand, a good spiritual teacher must push the student farther than she would go on her own. For the ego is very sticky and the student often complacent. On the other hand, Feuerstein describes incidents in considerable detail that suggest that going past the point of “consensus reality” may entail great harm to students and to sanghas.

At the present moment, I certainly wonder whether “gentle shocks”–to coin an oxymoron–may be what’s in order. One must gently press, prod, push, and twist the aspirant yet with a view to only going so far and only so quickly. It is rather like slowly “turning the screw” (to quote Henry James out of context). Too tight, too fierce and the student might squirm and be harmed. Not tight enough and one might continue on one’s infelicitous, and therefore deluded, way.

Perhaps we should make room for the generous smile that, at the same time, penetrates our entire being. The spiritual teacher Francis Lucille remarked somewhere that the teaching should “hit you like a 2 x 4 across the head.” Yet it is the profundity–or, what is the same thing, the immediacy, pungency, and simplicity–of the teaching that works its magic. And, in working its magic, it fucking smarts–while planting a seed that may change almost everything.

(Let the above be considered first, hence fresh thoughts on the matter. The case is not yet, and thus is far from, closed.)

Dreaming And Dreamless Modes Of Being Are Realer Than The Waking State

Consider the fact that you will sleep for approximately one-third of your life. Yet you do not, nor do many others, take this fact with the utmost seriousness.

You think that sleep is just a void of sorts, one, all the same, that is necessary for the restoration of the body and mind. Sleep, a trap door through which you fall, is the servant of waking life.

But you do not know what goes on in sleep, what happens to you in sleep, and whether sleep might be different from what you think. Where do you go? What happens there? Who is that to whom something happens or doesn’t happen?

You think that waking life is the realest state of all. Here, there is a world of objects set apart from you, the body-mind posing as a subject. Here, thoughts, sensations, feelings, and perceptions are all clear and distinct. You think that in waking life you are in control of your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions. You rest assured in your ignorance.

The trouble is not just that you don’t know this but also that you don’t know what you don’t know. Hence, your privileging of the waking life over the dream and dreamless states only goes to show your prior commitment to (a) being a separate self and to (b) seeing the separate self realizing itself in the form of work.

But, oh, what folly!

Could it be that sleep is more than what restores the body and the mind? Could the dream and dreamless modes of being actually be more ontologically real that the waking state? Could the waking state actually be the dream from which we need to awake?

The fact is that you don’t know and that you’re not yet in a position to investigate these questions. You keep passing off one-third of your life by ceding all ground to the purported Doer operating in the waking state.

Reject Total Work. Then see whether this rejection opens you up to the possibility that dream and dreamless modes of being may have ontological priority over the waking state. Then we can start talking seriously about lucid dreaming and dream yoga.

The Heart, The Rational Mind, And The Ego

Let the heart be that which is distinct not just from the ego but also from the rational mind.
The Heart
Moreover, let the heart be the name provisionally given to “the knowing with which one knows.” This knowing is unified (there is no dissensus), simple (there is no complexity), indubitable (there is no room for doubt), and agenda-less (there is nothing it’s “angling to get” or whatever). The heart knows no disputes, only truths.
The Rational Mind
Observe that the rational mind, left to its own devices and hence overweened, is subject to endless convolutions and complications. Left unattended and undirected, it revels in dissensus, complexity, and doubts and, all the while, seeks schematic clarity. It likes stories (especially meta-narratives), frameworks, models, and schemas because it likes the feeling of having made sense of the world.
When it is led by the heart, the rational mind is both helpful and beautiful. When it is bred in conditions of “hyperintellectuality” (that is, in conditions such as ours), it is at the whims of unobserved anxiety and thus of the rage for certainty.
The trouble is that, in modernity, seldom does the rational mind know the heart and more seldom still does it humble itself before the heart.
The Ego
Now see that the ego is resistance, and see also that this resistance is revealed in many ways, not the least being these:
  • Angstiness
  • Restlessness
  • Fearfulness and desiriousness
  • Verbosity
  • Dramas galore

Consider the possibility that the ego, as resistance, is driving the overweened rational mind often unbeknownst to the rational mind and, to be sure, not in every instance. (A rational mind dispassionately and lovingly considering a mathematical proof is, then and there, not a plaything of the ego.)

Now who is the master of rationality? The ego. And what, because it dwells in silence, has stayed quiet? The heart.


It must be seen directly that life is shot through with suffering. Some take this to mean that, on balance, there is more suffering than there is contingent happiness, yet this, while true, doesn’t go far enough. The bar is yet higher: all egoic experience is laced with suffering and therefore the rational mind is also, insofar as it is harnessed to the ego in the wide range of cases where this is so, tainted by or stained with suffering.

Consider the possibility that suffering is the pathway through with one may pass in order to find one’s way back to the heart. The heart remembers you because, at bottom, the heart is you. That remembering is sweet recognition.

The Apparent Impossibility Of Being With ‘It Is So’

Is there anything more to say, really, than: “It is so?”

Yet words, dipped in fire, leap out of the void, then singe the earth.

Yet thoughts pitch and whir and whirl, putting us in a trance.

Yet feelings itch and inch forward, subtly or acutely denying this.

It is apparently impossible to meet and be with “It is so.”

It is so and there’s nowhere to go. It is so and there’s nothing to be done.  

Instead, we try and, in trying, allegedly wipe out the “It is so.”

Yet “It is so” remains, only veiled now. And so do we, only unknown.

We Cannot Confront Thought At The Level Of Thought

We cannot confront thought at the level of thought.

Imagine that there is a still pond. Now imagine that the slightest–or, in some instances, the most volatile–stirring or agitation disturbs the surface of the pond. In this analogy, the stirring or agitations are what we rather inaptly (approximately) call “feelings.” The full-fledged forms–here, waves and ripples–we know as “thoughts.”

We think that we can dissolve our suffering by paying attention only to the ripples and waves and to the patterns of ripples and waves. But this is not so. For the stirrings or agitations, being more basic, are those we need to return to. Otherwise, the pond will be stirred again and again, and we will find ourselves seeking to confront the same course thoughts again and again. Otherwise, won’t we keep trying to get rid of something–in thought, through thought? Otherwise, won’t we keep trying to do something to improve our situation–as much in thought as in action?

Ask yourself, “How effective has this approach been?” And be very honest with yourself.

We need, therefore, to admit that we’ve got it all wrong. Drop all the discursiveness and go back and take a loving look at that from which these thoughts arose. Which feeling or feelings are those from which they spring? What stirred this all up in the first place?

From here, go back even further until the pond is seen for what it is really is: clear, pristine, unperturbed because imperturbable.

Indeed, when we dwell with feelings, soon it becomes clear that the feelings always arise in, out of, and through the pond that never ceased being a pond. The pond is the vast space from all stirrings emerge.

But then here’s the thing: we are, and have never been other than, the pond. It was only our single-minded fixation on waves and ripples that led us to believe that we were something other than this.

We are not what we think we are. We are what we are.