Photo via PXFuel
The world’s wisdom traditions point to one truth, but each highlights distinctive features.
I find the best way to understand something is to look at it from many angles. This means I gain only so much depth from any particular vantage, but the integration of perspectives more than makes up for it.
In re-visiting the gifts I’ve discovered in different spiritual traditions, I marvel at the variety of fresh, tasty ingredients stirred into my pot. Although I’m not sure what to name the resulting dish, I’ll share what’s in the recipe.
Taoism’s rural wholesomeness is a great counter to my intellectual nature. If any tradition forms the bedrock of my understanding, this one, so brilliantly laid out in Lao Tzu’s eighty-one poetic chapters, does. It pictures reality as an organic whole evolving in accordance with a single principle, Tao. This simple root yields abundant fruit.
The Yin/Yang symbol for which Taoism is famous illustrates, better than any long exposition, the mutual dependence of life’s opposites. I would never know good if I did not recognise bad. Neither I nor the world can have one without the other. They arise together, and each contains its opposite’s seed. This calms childish expectations of perfection and unrealistic hopes for an undisturbed existence.
My use here of metaphors from the plant kingdom pays homage to Taoism’s organic nature. Life is fluid; so best if my navigation of it is too. Moral and customary rules are like dry, dead stalks — brittle and likely to break under the forces of change. Let me imitate the green, flexible reed, remaining anchored but bending to absorb life’s gusts and whirlwinds.
Even better, I can emulate water. In its humility, it flows to low places. Untroubled by obstacles, water eases around them or bides its time to build and spill over them. In no rush, even gentle streams carve gorges in mighty mountains. Just as no drop’s movement is independent of the stream’s flow, my personal decisions and actions are inseparable from Tao’s comprehensive unfolding. Far from restricting freedom, this realisation liberates me.
Taoism’s final gift to me, highlighted in its rejection of rules and authority, has been a playful irreverence. In my best moments, I adopt its ironic view of life’s dramas and of my character’s participation in them. Taoism keeps humour close to my heart. Here, the purpose of life is spontaneous creativity and play.
Theravada Buddhism is anchored in the Pali canon and Gautama’s direct teachings. Through the practice of Vipassana, it introduced me to the body’s central role in seeking what I don’t have and clinging to what I fear losing.
Experimenting on himself, Gautama found that these reflexes, at the heart of human suffering, were not responses to external conditions but to pleasant and painful bodily sensations.
By attending gently and patiently to the coming and going of these internal experiences, I notice that none persist. All are impermanent. This decreases their power and sometimes breaks the causal chain connecting my life events to unnecessary suffering.
Western Therapeutic Tradition / Heart Path
My interest in Carl Jung’s work and my personal experience with therapy deepen the somatic aspect of my practice. Jungian psychology tells me that, as a youngster seeking love and security, I hid certain aspects of myself that seemed to make me unworthy. My behaviour and even conscious perception altered to bury these characteristics from sight — in the shadow.
But hiding my vulnerability doesn’t remove it. I can’t fool life. When my child-crafted image of myself conflicts with reality, shadow elements squeeze out in otherwise inexplicable antics. Like Gautama, many modern Jungians recognise the body’s role in this triggering process.
When I feel this activation begin, I can breathe slowly and attend to my body. The physical discomfort of my image-reality-conflict arises somewhere — usually in my gut or chest. If, instead of distracting myself or acting out, I sit with it until it subsides, I weaken the unconscious association of the sensation with existential threat.
Over time, I can ‘handle’ the discomfort and integrate the associated shadow element into a fuller self. As I repeat this with the various outcast aspects of myself, I disassemble the image built in childhood. I operate more frequently (but sadly not always!) based on present reality instead of blindly replaying reactions from the past.
Bhakti Yoga uses devotion to a Higher Power as a path to surrender and the peace that accompanies it. Building on Vipassana and the Heart Path, I have tried treating my heart/innocence/body as this divine object of worship.
I shower the innocent child in me with love. He is bravely reassembling himself by opening to things he has always refused to face, and he communicates most simply and directly through uncomfortable sensations. I try to love these sensations, and when that fails, I embrace the very innocence that can’t accommodate the current challenge of integration.
Taoism approaches truth from an organic, poetic angle. The heart paths proceed from psychology via somatic awareness. Advaita Vedanta is a philosophical path, the most natural to me and one on which I’ve spent considerable time. Here, I learned to discriminate between the objects of experience — thoughts, sights, sounds, emotions, internal sensations — and the subjective awareness of them.
A careful exercise on this front reveals that all the ‘things’ I took myself to be were instead objects of which I was aware, elements I experienced. ‘What then,’ the path leads me to ask, ‘am I?’ The first great breakthrough is the realisation that I am the pure Witness of all I observe, while void of observable attributes myself.
The ultimate step involves realising that ‘Observer’ and ‘Observed’ are redundant in this analysis. Everything that needs explaining can be addressed by the presence of subjectless, objectless ‘Observing’, a non-dual non-state that includes, knows and is all possible states.
This may sound bizarre, but it resonates with me intellectually. I applaud it as elegant and persuasiveness. What I don’t find is that my conceptual agreement with it transforms my experience to equally ‘track’ with it.
The Vedantic path of discrimination risks leaving a head-bound seeker like me in a disembodied limbo. I’ve spent time stuck, believing myself, as the Witness, aloof from the world. But in reality, nothing sits between me and what I observe, because Experiencing is what I am.
The Tantric path of love explores this intimacy with all experience and reacquaints me with it. Tantra helps me ‘wake-out’, as Loch Kelly puts it. The world shifts, no longer appearing to me but in me, then as me. This is a beautiful rounding out of the inward Vedantic journey, and the metaphors of dream and play help it ‘land’ with me.
If I am the unitary field that comprises all of existence and if there is a God, then I am She! The ‘I’ here is not a person but the true Self. One way to make sense of our world is to see it as a dream in the mind of The Divine, populated by the lives that pass on earth. It resonates best with me as countless simultaneous dreams, one for each sentient creature. Within each dream, God, not realising She is dreaming (although that is all She ever does) believes She is the protagonist. This doesn’t mean that our lives aren’t real, just that they are real as dreams!
A parallel analogy sees God as the actor (and set, stage and audience) in a Divine play, performing in the role of every living being. I find these metaphors fascinating, beautiful and surprisingly instructive, whether or not they reflect metaphysical truth.
This tradition of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism reminds me that I am perfect in this and every moment.
From the standpoint of Consciousness, every aspect of experience, including the man typing these words, is exactly as it is ‘meant to be’ at all times. This person may be experiencing confusion, but Consciousness knows that confusion with perfect clarity. A woman may be experiencing toil and sweat, but Consciousness knows that toiling effortlessly.
No moment lacks anything. As Eckhart Tolle tells me, only the ego has an issue with the present moment. Now is always already perfect.
My native tradition gives me two primary gifts: it demonstrates my simultaneous humanity and divinity, and it reminds me of the roles of death and rebirth.
Jesus, as the Son of God, is both human and divine. I don’t take this as a special case but as an exemplar to help me realise the dual natures of my one being. Jesus doesn’t reject his humanity, and no seeker, yearning like myself to realise his true nature as God / Consciousness / All That Is, will do so through rejecting his.
I am Perfection. I am Consciousness. I am God. I am. But I am these embodied in human form. Yes, as a person, I only exist as an embodiment of God. But equally, as Him, I only live and experience myself as and through this person. There is no God’s eye view.
Jesus suffers, dies and rises again. I don’t interpret this as a unique story or one promising eternal heavenly reward after human demise. For me, Jesus’s death and resurrection exemplify the dying to each moment that allows the continual creation of Tao’s flow.
To me, Now is every moment in which God re-creates the world, descending to earth as one of His creatures and experiencing that world — His body — through a particular perspective. Jesus’s story simplifies that continual re-birth to encompass one full (if short) human life followed by death and resurrection. But in reality, every second that passes is a new creation.
Spiritual kingdoms like these ring the Sacred Mountain, sprinkled around the circumference of its base. Each realm’s holiest place houses an eyepiece directed to the peak. Not only do these magnify one or other particular cliff face. Each spyglass, through its mirrors and prisms, also projects its own characteristics onto the summit and the upward path.
I’ve lived in two of these kingdoms and visited the rest. Each tradition, fully understood, implies every insight I’ve summarised, and more. For me, different schools point more clearly to certain truths than others, so touring the kingdoms has been valuable.
Regardless, spiritual growth doesn’t happen in these citadels. From them, expeditions launch. I’ve been on several. In the steady upward trek itself, or in a blinding insight from a high rocky ledge, pilgrims awaken. The trek is daily life, how I observe, think, speak and act on that mountain’s varied terrain.
I invite you to visit one or more kingdoms, then enjoy the walk!