Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nonduality Teachings and Free Will

In the last post, I discussed the confusion often generated when nonduality teachers respond to questions about free will.  What follows are some additional observations about free will and nondual inquiry.

I've come to the conclusion that discussions about free will, for the most part, are not helpful in realizing our true nature.  The mind loves to engage in these discussions, but in the end, the mind is never satisfied with the responses given.  So the search goes on and further mental activity ensues.

The mind tries to convince you that you must get some solid answers about the extent of free will.  The mind will tell you something like this:  "If you can just get a final, clear understanding of free will, you will be able to have a breakthrough and realize your true nature." This, as you may have already discovered, is a lie.

Nondual teaching reminds us over and over that we already are what we are seeking.  We don't need any further information to be what we already are.  That which actively engages the mind seems to slow down our inquiry.  That which stops the mind seems to enhance the inquiry, at least in my experience.

During self-inquiry, the moment my mind looks for an answer, I realize that I'm in for trouble.  And inquiries about free will activate my mind, big time.  The end result is always frustration. 

The discussion of free will DOES play an important role in one sense.  In the early stages of self-inquiry, most of us feel that we are a separate entity with extensive control over our thoughts, emotions and activities.  Nondual teaching introduces us to the possibility that we are not in control as we previously thought.  It begins a process where we can observe our thoughts and emotions -- and see, through our own experience, that most of what we thought was in our control, is in fact, not in our control.

This finding immediately softens the mind, and sets the stage for deeper inquiry.

However, when we try to figure out the precise extent of our free will -- and many of us are obsessed with this issue -- the mind climbs back into the picture and the ego is strengthened.   

There seems to be a natural tendency in human beings to cling to the notion of having free will.  I think many non-duality teachers are subtly influenced by this preference as well.  The idea of not having any control just rubs us the wrong way.

We want the Truth we find (through self-inquiry) to include some type of free will for us.  We desperately want to feel like we have some control, and preferably, a lot of control.

Perhaps it is simply the limited, separate ego thought that prefers control or has any concern for it.  It would seem that only the mind would care about free will.

As I mentioned in my last message, the notion that the Absolute has free will to choose whatever appears is empty and meaningless to the mind.  There is no "juice" to free will if the choices are made by an unknown entity spontaneously.  All the fun with free will comes from knowing in advance what the options are -- and making a selection. This is what the ego craves, a sense that it has a significant role in running the show.

So, if you are wrestling with issues of free will, perhaps that is all coming from your mind.  And you might begin to see that any answers you ultimately come up with, or search for, will not lead you to an understanding of your true nature.

I'm not suggesting that you should resist whatever thoughts or preferences come up for you.  I'm just inviting you to examine if the mind activity is helping you.  Think of it this way:  no matter what answer any sage gives you about free will, do you really, in your heart of hearts, think that the response will resolve all your questions and doubts about your true nature?  Will it resolve anything?

It's interesting that I've never heard anyone report that they realized their essence or true nature by hearing a discussion about free will.  I think it's just the opposite.  Free will discussion confuses, rather than clarifies.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nonduality Teachings Aren't Clear On This Issue

There are so many gems that come from the mouths of nonduality teachers and sages.  The eloquence and insights offered by these teachers stop the mind and penetrate the heart.  You can sense that the wisdom they are conveying is from a source beyond the mind.  Their words bring clarity and a feeling of expansion.

However, there is one issue discussed by nonduality teachers that leaves me confused.  I've probably read more than 50 discussions of this issue (some from the most respected sages) -- and heard more than 100 discussions of this issue (in person and through online audio/video), and I must confess that there is still no clarity here.

I think the overwhelming majority of nonduality students remain unclear on this subject, despite the fact that the issue is discussed over and over again.  Teachers offer detailed responses, yet the students remain confused.  The answers offered simply don't resonate.

After the teacher finishes the answer, the student's mind is busy with more questions.  Sometimes the student persists and asks follow up questions, but more often than not, the student eventually gives up, knowing that a satisfactory resolution of the question is not forthcoming. 

What issue am I referring to?

Free will.

There's no doubt that the extent of our free will is a popular topic at nonduality meetings and satsangs.  Even those who have no interest in nonduality engage in lively discussions about free will.  We all want to know how much control, if any, we have over our lives and the choices we apparently make.

I'd go so far as to say that the mind is obsessed with this topic.  I think it's one area where the seeking mind/ego can strenthen and perpetuate itself. Trying to figure out the extent of free will
keeps the mind in seeking mode, always looking for new information or insights that will resolve the question once and for all.  The resolution never happens, so the mind continues its seeking.

I'm not looking for nonduality teachers to come up with a uniform answer on this topic of free will.  Part of the beauty of nondual teachings are the varied ways in which teachers discuss each topic.  There are many common denominators in the discussion of most nonduality topics, but each teacher has his or her own unique expression.

For example, let's say that I have listened to ten teachers discuss the personal identity or the welcoming of all emotions.  Each discussion is slightly different and yet all may resonate with me.  I don't leave the discussion confused.

And yet, I've found that if you ask those same ten teachers, "Is there free will"? or "Do we have control over anything in our lives?" you will get 10 very different answers, and perhaps 11 as the discussion wanders.

I've observed over the years that teachers approach the free will issue from a few different angles.  Some will advance the "puppet" position, namely that there is no free will whatsoever.  There is no individual entity, they say, and therefore no one to make a choice.  Everything arises spontaneously.  Just face it.  The body/mind is nothing more than a puppet or a robot.

Other teachers will say that there is no free will except that we have the ability to choose where to place our attention -- too see ourselves as universal consciousness/Awareness, or to see ourselves as a separate, limited entity.  They will take issue with the "puppet" position.

Yet two minutes earlier in the meeting, these same teachers convincingly stated that the individual has no control over his thoughts, emotions and events -- and that they arise spontaneously. 

So how can this non-existent entity make a choice as to where to place attention?  What happened to the spontaneous arising of thoughts and events? 

I've heard several teachers explain this seeming contradiction by breaking up the inquiry into two parts -- free will from the perspective of the separate entity and free will from the perspective of Awareness or the Absolute.

The limited entity, they explain, does not have free will.  How can a non-existent entity make a choice?  So far, I'm with them.  Makes sense.  However, they go on to say that universal consciousness has free will.  While this might make sense at first, I'm still left in confusion. 

To the mind (at least this mind), free will means knowing the choice in advance.  That's the only type of free will the mind is interested in having.  To say that Awareness or the Absolute has free will is meaningless since the choice is not known in advance.

I realize that using the words "in advance" brings in the concept of time, and many nonduality teachers (and scientists) will tell you that time doesn't exist.  Sorry to inject even more confusion here.

It seems obvious that Awareness or the Absolute "decides" what is to be manifested.  While we could call that the free will of the Absolute, it is an empty or meaningless concept....at least to the body/mind organism.  If the body/mind has no control whatsoever, and all is the result of the spontaneous movement of Awareness, why even discuss the concept of free will?

I would challenge you to read the discussions of sages such as Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj on the issue of free will.  Then go read or listen to discussions of free will by the nonduality teachers you most respect.

After doing that, can you honestly say that you aren't confused?  Is your mind quiet or full of questions? Do the "answers" you received bring peace and contentment....or confusion and agitation? 

I have a few more comments to offer on this issue of free will but will save them for the next blog post.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Personal Identity

From early childhood, you are conditioned to believe that you exist as an independent, personal identity inside the body -- somehow separate from others, each of whom also has an independent, personal identity within the boundaries of the body.

Well, if you exist as the personal identity called _____ (and you can fill in your own name here), where is this individual person actually located?  What is the nature of this entity you take yourself to be?

In essence, I am asking "Who or what are you?" and "Where are you located?"  These questions have been asked, and investigated, for thousands of years.

For purposes of this message, let's assume we are referring to a person named Robert.  If I approach Robert and ask, "Who are you?," what is likely to happen?  Robert will start to THINK about who he is.  He will search his mind and he will tell me facts or descriptions about himself.  Thus he may say that he is a man, has a wife, and two children.  He might tell me what kind of work he does, his religious affiliation, or when he was born.

These are all facts about Robert's life situation.  Do these facts tell us anything about the essence of Robert, about who he really is?  Is Robert simply a bunch of facts that make up his biography?  Very few of us would say that's what Robert is.  We sense in our hearts that Robert is more than that.

Furthermore the facts could change -- and the essence of Robert would not change.  If Robert gets divorced or changes his job,  that wouldn't change his essence.  If he has amnesia and thinks his name is Charles, that wouldn't change his essence.  Robert can't be the facts that make up his personal story.  Robert's true nature is changeless and beyond any description of his life situation.

These "facts" or descriptions are nothing more than thoughts or beliefs in Robert's mind.  These thoughts and beliefs are not who he is.

Many people would say that Robert, in his essence, is Spirit (inhabiting a human body).  Where is this essence of Robert located in his body?  If there is a personal identity called Robert making decisions for this body, then Robert's essence, or control center, must be located somewhere.  Where is the personal identity located in Robert's body?

If asked this question, the vast majority of people say that the personal identity is located in the brain.  No other part of the body would seem to be a likely candidate.  The arm is not the essence or control center of Robert.  The leg is not Robert.  None of the other internal organs would appear to be Robert, although some people identify the heart region as the location.

However, if we remove Robert's heart and put it on a table, I doubt people would say, "That's Robert."

The brain seems to be where the personal identity might be located.  Is there a personal, limited consciousness located inside the brain? 

Here again, if we remove Robert's brain and put it on the table, I doubt anyone would confidently say, "That's Robert.  There he is."  The essence of Robert is more than a few pounds of brain tissue. 

The cells that make up the brain tissue are constantly changing -- so how is it that Robert's essence does not seem to change?  Robert's "beingness" or his knowingness that he exists has remained throughout his life, despite the fact that none of the cells from his childhood are present in his body now.

In addition, I do not know of any scientific proof that has ever been produced to establish that the personal identity is located in the brain. 
Perhaps what we consider to be our personal identity (our name, nationality and other descriptions) are nothing more than thoughts.

"I am Robert" is a thought.
"I have two children" is a thought.
"I am married" is a thought.
"I have such and such religious beliefs" is a thought.

What these thoughts DO have in common is that they all appear in Awareness and subside in Awareness.

Thoughts change, they come and go.  What you are, your essence or true nature, does NOT change.  In addition, any thoughts or descriptions you may feel are part of your personal identity are not present 24/7.  Thus you aren't thinking all day about your name, your religion or your job title.  Those thoughts come and go.  While you sleep, these thoughts aren't there at all.  Yet something about you never changes -- and that something (actually not a "thing") must be what you are.

It would appear that what you are is non-phenomenal and unlocatable.

Nonduality teachings invite us to investigate if we are Universal Consciousness or Awareness, as opposed to a personal, limited entity inside the skin line of a body. 

I am not suggesting that you should deny the physical body or refuse to acknowledge others in the manifest world.  Nor am I presenting this so that you will form another belief about your identity.  Your mind will never figure out what you are. 

It's more a matter of seeing what you are NOT.  Then, through grace and understanding, it may begin to dawn what you ARE.  Your focus will shift from a preoccupation with the changing phenomena....to a focus on the changeless.

If this question of personal identity interests you, the inquiry will unfold in its own way.  You will be led to people and resources that are appropriate for you -- and you will begin to do your own introspection.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Many people are obsessed with purpose.  They feel it's important to have a  purpose in life and then to pursue that purpose.  Perhaps you feel this way as well.

The main challenge you face is to figure out your purpose.  It isn't always easy to determine.  If purpose is so crucial, why is it often hidden from us?  We have to use our mind to come up with our purpose.  How can we be sure that we have found our TRUE purpose -- as opposed to something our mind has concocted for personal gain and ego gratification?

The other thing we notice is that even if we think we've figured out our purpose, our purpose changes over time.

Has your purpose (as best as you can discern it) stayed the same?  Or did you have a different purpose 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even last month?  Purpose seems to be a moving target for most of us.

I think purpose is a learned habit -- not something that is inherent such as the drive for food and survival.

We've been conditioned to believe that our lives will be empty and unsuccessful if we don't find our purpose and take action to fulfill that purpose.  There's nothing wrong with having a purpose or mission.  At times, it appears to provide direction in our lives.

Once we give our mind the job of identifying a purpose, the mind will strategize what our purpose SHOULD be -- and as you know from experience, the mind will take into account wealth, prestige, security and the like.  It will choose a purpose that it believes will bring us those things.

What if you dropped the notion of purpose entirely?  Would your life suffer in any way?  Can you live without having a purpose?

We often believe that those who don't have a purpose in life are destined to become lazy bums who accomplish little or nothing, and contribute nothing of significance to society.  Those who are willing to question the notion of purpose and engage in nondual inquiry often experience periods where they aren't "active" in the normal meaning our society attributes to that word.  Something inside has called them to slow down.  These people might even have the audacity to turn off their cell phones on most days -- and rumor has it that some of them don't even own blackberries.

In my view, this has nothing to do with being a lazy bum.  And in almost all cases, the person who engages in nondual investigation will become very active as the investigation matures and a different level of seeing emerges.

On this issue of having a purpose, I once heard Mooji ask someone in satsang, "Why does life have to be about something?"

It's a very good question.  You might take a moment to ponder it and see what comes up for you.

Is purpose really necessary?  Perhaps it is your mind/ego trying to get you to run around in a frenzy of activity, as you assure yourself that you are saving the world or making a difference.  Can you make a difference by going with the flow of life -- even without a purpose?

Consider this scenario:  your child (or your young niece or nephew) comes up to you and asks, "What is your purpose for loving me?"

You'd probably be stunned for a moment, smile, and say something like, "Love doesn't need a purpose."

If love doesn't need a purpose, why does your life need a purpose?

Love just is.  Your life just is.  No purpose required.

We can allow life to unfold each moment without labelling anything as "my purpose."

Furthermore, where is the individual who is choosing your purpose?  In my investigation,what was revealed is that this individual is a thought.  Can a thought pursue a purpose? 

I find it's better to put this purpose stuff aside and just live life as it comes.  That's what is happening anyway, even if your mind suggests otherwise.  If you dig deep, you will find that there is no individual choosing a purpose or controlling the activities taken to attempt to fulfill that purpose.

This subject is a bit tricky since it seems at times that our purpose HAS directed us to achieve certain results.  We may be dedicated to some cause or outcome and feel that our concentration and commitment to this purpose moved us forward and influenced others. 

We often rush to the judgment that a purpose or mission is required although we never in our adult lives attempted to live without having a purpose or mission mapped out in advance.

Living without a purpose doesn't mean we live an aimless, insignificant life.  On the contrary, those who live in the flow of life are often very active and make extraordinary contributions in the world.  When you are in the presence of someone who has this degree of trust in life, you will feel it in your being -- perhaps as peace, love, and/or aliveness.  It awakens something in you.

What would happen if you dropped the idea of purpose? Lots of people would tell you that you're crazy but you might make some interesting discoveries.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Nonduality Teachers and Money

The amount of money charged by nonduality teachers can be a delicate issue.  There are those who believe that no teacher should ever charge money for communicating this sacred teaching.  They will tell you that the truth is "not for sale" or words to that effect.

I can respect this position, although I don't feel that way myself.  I just don't see a problem with charging reasonable amounts, especially in today's society, where the teacher is incurring significant expenses relating to the transmission of the information (including maintenance of websites and securing meeting facilities).  In addition, the teacher may have little or no other source of income and would be unable to devote considerable time (or full time) to being a teacher.

I think many who are vehemently opposed to the idea of charging for nonduality meetings are thinking of situations years ago (in places like India) where sages held open meetings without charge and welcomed all truth seekers.  However, it is my understanding that sages in these communities had all of their personal needs taken care of by others in the community, i.e. food, clothing, shelter, medical care, transportation, etc. 

Such is not the case with most teachers today, especially in Western countries.  The members of the community do not offer to provide for the basic needs of the teacher.  How can a teacher in Chicago or London pay his or her living expenses (and in some cases support a family) without charging any money or receiving significant contributions?  It would only be possible when the teacher has another job that provides adequate income.

I'll offer some of my observations and judgments regarding fees charged by nonduality teachers.  Naturally, these comments represent my own biases and conditioning. If you are relatively new to nonduality meetings and retreats, these comments may provide some helpful guidelines.  If you have attended meetings or retreats, I'm sure you have your own preferences and opinions on this subject.

In my view, the overwhelming majority of nonduality teachers charge very reasonable fees for their meetings and retreats.  These teachers are not involved in teaching in an attempt to build wealth.  They have a love of Truth and feel "called" to spread the teaching.

The amounts charged for meetings will vary with the locale and the cost of living in that locale.  Therefore, we would expect meeting charges to be different in an area where the average income is thousands of dollars per month as opposed to areas where the average income is hundreds of dollars per month or less.

In the United States, it has been my experience that most nonduality teachers charge in the range of $10 - $20 for two hour meetings.  Full day meetings (approximately 6 hours) are in the range of $60 - $75. This can be called a registration fee, or in some cases, a suggested contribution.  This is an extremely good value, as I see it.  In addition, I don't know of any respected nonduality teacher who would deny admission to a person who was truly unable to afford the registration fee.

With regard to retreats, the range for 5- 7 day retreats is typically in the area of $300 - $450, which covers only the registration or tuition charge.  Here again, I consider that a very reasonable fee for what is being offered.

Retreats can get expensive when you add in the lodging cost and food cost, as well as travel expenses to and from the retreat, if the retreat is not held near your home.  Thus you may hear that someone paid thousands of dollars to attend a retreat in Costa Rica or Hawaii, but the lion's share of the expenses were for travel, lodging and food expenses.  The teacher did not pocket thousands of dollars from each student.

Of course, you will find exceptions.  There are teachers, or should I call them charlatans, who will ask for thousands of dollars and promise that you will realize your true nature by attending their meetings or studying at their ashram or retreat center. 

No legitimate teacher of nonduality will make promises that you will recognize your true nature within a specific time period -- and they won't promise that you will ever self-realize.  I would be very wary of any teacher that asks for significant amounts of money upfront or makes any promises about what results will come from his or her teaching.

Some nonduality teachers charge consultation fees for phone discussions or email communications.  In the U.S. and Europe, I've noticed that teachers charge in the area of $50 - 75 per hour for such communications.  There are also many teachers who conduct phone discussions and email exchanges at no charge.

I admit that I'm not a big fan of consultation charges, especially when it comes to email.  Many of the best nonduality teachers will answer your email questions at no charge, but they simply don't have time to answer all email inquiries in detail -- and it may take them a long time to respond due to a large volume of email.

Can you imagine a popular teacher like Adyashanti trying to answer all of his email inquiries?  It's just not reasonable to expect a teacher to do that.

If you are in the beginning stages of nondual investigation, email is not usually effective.  You will tend to ask questions that can't be answered in a short email response.  And whatever response you receive will trigger more questions.  You can't expect every teacher to spend all day conducting email satsang with you.

Regarding phone discussions, I can understand why some teachers charge a fee.  If there is no charge for phone discussions, many people abuse the privilege.  They will want the teacher to spend hours answering all of their questions.  This can be a tremendous time burden for the teacher.  I think most teachers who set fees for phone consultations are not looking to make money from these discussions; rather, they want to discourage those who are not "serious" from calling and wasting the teacher's time.

It has also been my experience that nonduality teachers are usually willing to speak to you on the phone (or provide email responses) at no charge when you are deeply committed to your nondual investigation and need to clear up a few specific issues.

Almost all nonduality teachers are extremely generous in providing free resources, especially through the internet.  Most of the popular teachers have websites, where they provide essays, books excerpts, question and answer exchanges, as well as audio and video materials.  Some resources may be offered for sale, but in almost every instance, a generous supply of free materials is offered directly from the website.

There's also the issue of teachers who set up their blog or website to allow site visitors to make a donation.  I see nothing wrong with that and only a few teachers are very aggressive in soliciting donations.  The vast majority have a short statement that donations are appreciated and there is no other mention of money. 

Some people like to support a teacher's efforts, realizing that the teacher is spending time to assist the site visitors and is not charging for his or her services. It's a nice way for the student to give something back to the teacher.   I don't think many teachers are making a lot of money from these donations.

Finally, I salute all of the teachers who are willing to travel to conduct meetings and retreats, even when their appearances will yield little or no money for the teacher.  There are many fine nonduality teachers, especially in the early years of their teaching, who get requests to travel to different countries (or different parts of their own country) to conduct meetings.

In some instances, the attendance at these events is very small -- perhaps only 15 or 20 people.  The teacher is often getting nothing more than payment of his or her travel expenses.  In other words, they earn nothing from the meeting and yet it requires several days of their time, when you factor in the travel time.  They come because of their love for sharing the teaching.

You may have your own opinion about the fees charged by nonduality teachers.  I am just grateful that there are so many outstanding, sincere teachers who willingly share the teaching without being motivated by how much money they can make.

It's true that a small percentage of nonduality teachers earn quite a bit of money.  What's wrong with that?  They deserve it and I see no reason why they should have to take a vow of poverty.  As long as they are coming from love and sincerity and charging reasonable fees to students, it's all fine with me.