Beware Of People Who Say They Have No Problems

Among twentieth century Advaita Vedanta teachers, Atmananda stood beside Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta. These were the “three tenors” of their time.

Thus, when Atmananda states,

Some people say that they have no problems in life. This is meaningless talk. It only means that they are mere cowards, who stubbornly refuse to think in the light of evident facts. (Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume I–Notes 1 to 472, no. 333, p. 165)

we have every reason to listen to him.

We should careful with ourselves whenever we think or say, “Oh, I have no problems; everything is fine.” Similarly, we should beware of others who say that they have “no problems in life,” for blindness is likely mixing with cowardice, with cowardice leading the way.

Is someone just too cheery? Does it seem as if everything is just so good for him? Watch out! This is someone not to be trusted! Trust your intuition: if you feel that you can’t be real with him, you’re probably right.

Let’s begin, then, with the “evident facts,” which are that, so long as we’re not enlightened, we do find ourselves suffering. (*) See that the mere idea of your own death, provided that you allow yourself to go into the matter fully, is scary. Hence, we must start here if we do not want to be governed by shadows and subject to spiritual bypass. Besides, being courageous truth-seekers absolutely demands this much of us.


(*) Acknowledging, while beginning from, our own suffering does not entail complaining, kvetching, or excusing. We should likewise be careful with those hellbent on kvetching.

Our Seeming Inability

Reading Robert Frost’s poem, “Out, Out–,” at the age of 17 left a deep impression on me. [1]

The poem describes a boy–yea, a man-child–using a buzz saw to cut wood for the family. When he’s called to supper, the saw inexplicably leaps “out at the boy’s hand” or seems to do so. His hand is completely severed: he holds it up “[h]alf in appeal, but half as if to keep / The life from spilling.” Soon the doctor comes, and not long thereafter the boy bleeds to death.

The last sentence, cutting as it does across two lines, is the one I have remembered all these years: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

The sentence sounds callous yet perhaps it is better understood as a reflection on our seeming inability to face the incomprehensibility of death. The dead are dead after all, the living (for as long as we do) remain living, so all we can do, when confronted with the futility of life, is turn back to our affairs.

Seeming inability. Could we not instead imagine and feel this: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, fell to the ground and wept”?

The existential opening–for all of us–is Right Here.


[1] You might, or might not, know that Frost’s title is an allusion to a famous soliloquy from Macbeth. See the pull quote off to the right.

You Don’t Need To Put All Your Ducks In A Row

You might not think that anxiety arises in you, but it’s quite likely that it does. Of course, you might think that you don’t tend to experience anxiety because you’re not often filled with dread about what the future has in store for you nor, you think, do you have a fear of death nor do you tend to conjure up catastrophes. Others, indeed, have reported on the fact that you often “seem calm.”

But guess what? Anxiety, in subtler forms, may indeed arise in you. Consider:

  • Do you find that you just need to know how something will turn out or what it will mean for you?
  • Do you find yourself restless when you don’t know what to do (e.g.) with yourself?
  • Do you notice that you tend to plan a good deal?
  • Do you ask for big answers to assignments or tasks well before you begin? (“I just need more clarification on this, OK?”)
  • Do you observe that you tend to want to do something so well that it’s damn near perfect?

See that all of these, in truth, arise from anxiety: “I don’t know; I have to know; I don’t know; I need to know…” The presumption is that one cannot live or cannot live well with not knowing, but that presumption is incorrect.

Actually, not knowing–that is to say, dropping the purported need to know–is the condition of possibility for openness, presence, alertness, suppleness, lightness, and equanimity. Then you see that your field of vision has expanded. Then you notice that the other person is not someone you’re bound to run roughshod over. Then you can stand in the mighty streams of life with enough grounding to remain firm or to move with the flowing waters.

(Perhaps it will also, at a higher level, become clear to you that the mind is what purportedly needs to know but that you are not the mind.)

You don’t know what you think and feel you need to know. And if you were to utterly drop the rage for certainty as well as the anxiety from which this rage for certainty springs, you would find the peace you thought you could achieve only after all the ducks had been put in a row. That peace is here always.

A Firm Push And A Parachute

The controversial spiritual teacher Adi Da once wrote:

Everyone is enchanted with unreality, with the conventional appearance of every moment. Therefore, one cannot break that spell merely by talking to people. They are not just thinking wrongly. They are associated with each moment in such a manner that they are incapable of being Awake to their actual Condition. So, in effect, you must cut them in half with a big sword. You must blow their minds. You must shake them loose. You must wholly divert them. You must trick them. You must be wild to truly Enlighten people.

For the purposes of this post, set aside the bits about enlightenment and the ego. Read some of those words again–these especially: “So, in effect, you must cut them in half with a big sword. You must blow their minds. You must shake them loose.”

Is he right?


He is. Our naive presumption–that people make radical changes in their lives of their own accord–is so often false. Often they lack the deepest, clearest insight as well as the courage. Hence, they talk and talk and talk without much happening.

This is why, in some cases, it makes perfectly good sense to give those prone to inertia and complacency firm pushes toward the edge. Compassion is not always sweet and nice; sometimes the greatest compassion involves “blow[ing] their minds” and “shak[ing] them loose.” It’s also a mistake to believe that meditation is about making us all calm. Quite the contrary, the Zen master Boshan argues that meditation is about rousing the Great Doubt. The sword’s point, then, is to kill the deadness within so as to allow the other to take one step closer to the edge. For at the edge and over it may be new life. 


But the firm push made by one hand also ought to come with a parachute in the other. It’s here where I disagree with what Adi Da said above. Even if the leap into new life–rightly–carries no assurances, guarantees, or insurance policies, it is not without support. It may be scary to use the parachute, especially, as is true in this case, when one is new to it, yet the parachute has been shown to be strong enough to help one land in the beautiful valley below. Landing, even on wobbly legs, takes trust and fortitude.