Monday, February 3, 2014

Direct vs Indirect paths. (Immediate vs Progressive paths). Body awareness.

One often finds a contradiction amongst legit realized teachers concerning the two ideas of whether a student should begin practicing 1) only with the Direct/Immediate methods aimed at non-dual awareness, or 2) with Indirect/Progressive methods first, before approaching (1).

Teachers that promote the (1) idea include those such as Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Sadhu Om, Sri Annamalai Swami, certain Dzogchen masters, fringe teachers such as UG Krishnamurti, writers such as Michael Langford, Michael James, and others in various schools (some Zen teachers for example).

Teachers that promote the (2) idea include most progressive path teachers in traditional systems such as Buddhism schools (all 3 Yana-schools), traditional Vedanta and yoga schools, Western Mystery schools, contemporaries such as Osho, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and too many others to list.

Some teachers include both (1) and (2) paradoxically in their writings, such as Nisargadatta, often due to the wide range of students they were attempting to instruct.

However, in my mind, this contradiction, which is rampant in writings all over the spiritual plane (Advaita, Buddhism, etc.), can be resolved.

Generally, teachers have attempted to teach the highest truth (1) if the student's capacity was evident. Failing this, they had to resort to (2) teachings.

Some teachers such as Sri Sadhu Om take the extreme view that even this approach should be dispensed with, and that everyone should only start immediately with apprehending awareness / consciousness ('first person' or Self) immediately. On further inspection though, it seems that his writing is aimed at dispelling the notion that full Self-realization can happen via subject-object or (2) type practices. This is a common view still prevalent in many progressive schools- that one can attain full realization (and nirvikalpa samadhi) simply by the advanced practice of concentration on an object. It is evident through reading any of Ramana Maharshi's writings and those in his stream, that this isn't true. Likewise, Gurdjieff mentions that "self-observation with self-remembering is useless".

I tend to side with Nisargadatta's approach on this issue, and that is that the method should be aimed at the student's capacity level, being- "wet charcoal", "dry charcoal", and "gunpowder" levels of readiness.

Further, in this day and age, I find that people, in general, (and myself in particular) are so divorced from their physical body and physical environment, so as to require some form of body awareness and re-acquaintance with what it means to live in a physical body. If "body identification" is a major obstacle (and it seems so from the writings of virtually any teacher worth their salt), then this can only be transcended and fully understood by first knowing what it means to be identified as a body.

As a means to this end, I've found some of the practices in Gurdjieff's work and the Fourth Way, as well as basic Theravada mindfulness practices to be effective in bringing one back to an awareness of living in a body. Eckhart Tolle also makes a good attempt through some of his 'feel the body's energy' exercises as developing this awareness.

In older times, it probably wasn't so necessary to keep focusing attention on and in the body- since people generally did much more labour work and physically used their body for a larger part of the day. Walking long distances, hunting, fixing things, cooking, farming, child-rearing with no gadgets, etc. etc. all clearly reminded people that they were living in a body, no special attention required. No so nowadays, with the invention of offices, desks, computers, mobiles, Internet, fast-food, day-care, factories, etc.- you get the message.

By experiencing oneself fully as 'a body' and by developing awareness of the body (and also awareness itself), one may be lucky enough to come to the realization that they are not in fact, a body.. thus dropping one of the biggest obstacles on the path. Nisargadatta alludes to this when he explains that the path is as simple as seeing a flower- "you know you are not the flower. There is 'you', and there is the flower. Investigate this." Simple, but not easy.

In summary, I find the progressive paths, and especially body-work, to be extremely helpful, and should be experimented with by all means. However, it should also be kept in mind that they are not ends in themselves, and that the apprehension of direct awareness of awareness, or investigation of one's 'self' as consciousness- and abiding there- will ultimately lead to the undoing of the "I" and hence the endless-dream or waking-sleep we find ourselves in here.

A final point to keep in mind is also that there will be times when resting in awareness (or being as Awareness only) will be easy, and times when it will not. James Schwartz would say this depends on how "satvic" your "vasanas" are. Whatever.. the reason isn't important. What is important is that one takes a break from direct practice, if needed, and moves down a notch - again, back to simple practices such as body awareness.

Kenneth Folk writes clearly about this in his "3-gears" approach. Michael Langford also notes that trying to keep up "Awareness watching Awareness" during one's daily activities is likely too difficult, and thus advises one to practice his "Loving-all" method. Personally, I find body-awareness to be more useful (for reasons above) than a mind-method such as mantra, japa, devotion, 'loving-all' etc.

An in-between approach may be to use an awareness of one's "self" (i.e.. perceived ego-I-self which equates to a 'me' in a body). This was used by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (aka "self-remembering"), and is mentioned at times as a form of "self-inquiry" by writers in the Ramana Maharshi tradition. Others such as John Sherman call this "looking at oneself". It is a highly effective end-practice in itself.

<Apologies for the length and lack of structure in this piece- I'm constrained with time/location at the moment, and wish to "get it all down", rather than produce a perfect blog posting :) >


  1. Great article. You did not mention Rupert Spira though.

  2. Thanks! Glad it was of some use (written a few years back). Rupert Spira is an excellent, living, contemporary teacher. I would place him more in the (1) direct path category, since he almost always starts with immediate awareness, and then makes use of other means if necessary. He's coming from a similar background has his teachers Jean Klein and Francis Lucille, which are also great teachers albeit focused on direct, immediate apprehension of awareness, rather than progressive stages.