Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
A reflective understanding through an inter-disciplinary lens
In this ground breaking work, by challenging the idea that reality can have a bottom or a top that is fixed and final, Almaas does away with the notion of reality either as a container or as containable. It can accommodate various views and remain still indeterminate, which indeterminacy is not ambiguity but rather, radical openness. From the vantage point of totality, we can discern not only the distinctness, the validity, and the experiential universe of a particular view but also the relationship of one worldview to another. In many ways, the messages of this book synchronize with the new disciplines of complexity thinking, quantum mechanics and process philosophy.
The insights from the book are presented below as some key questions which have personally come up for me and for many co-travellers, which I find dealt with in refreshingly revelatory ways by the author.
1. What is new in this book?
Previous teachings of Almaas’ Diamond Approach have a progressive (higher, deeper etc.) or hierarchical (or holarchical) dimension to mapping or understanding reality. This does away with that construct and presents a radically pluralistic understanding of reality, richly context-sensitive and paradigmatic both in its nuancing and in its inclusivity. As such, it does not negate the progressive path or construct, but places it as one of many possibilities of practice and understanding; it is in many ways both Newtonian and non-Newtonian and holonomic and more in its epistemology of totality. The Vajrayana metaphor of ‘turning the wheel’ is used to describe four broad movements or turnings on the freedom vehicle, where the first two deal with the stages of realization, and the latter two with the kinds of realization.
Almaas himself likens this teaching to the scientific equivalent of post-classical physics including relativity and quantum mechanics, which accepts classical physics as a useful approximation but which runs out of steam in the edges of ordinary reality, namely the domains of the very large and the very small. Likewise the classical spiritual teaching which deals with emptiness, non-duality, timelessness, presence, Being, Becoming etc. is sufficient for feeling blissful and free and enlightened even, but, according to Almaas, falls short of getting a relatively surpassed glimpse on the multifarious nature of reality itself. As a matter of fact, this teaching is the mystical equivalent of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which proves that any self-consistent system cannot be complete. Various assumptions underpinning the classical nondual teaching are examined carefully and seen to be unnecessary and/or prematurely conclusive. For example, the nature of motivation in the classical teaching progresses from self-centric to mutual to other-centric, but we begin to intuit that true practice need not require a motive of any kind whatsoever, just abiding in the delight of unfoldment and love of Truth for its own sake is enough. Even though I think ‘classical teaching’ cannot be boxed into a monolithic descriptive category as the author tends to indicate, it is fair to think of the author’s own classical teaching as the box which is ‘undone’ here.
2. Is there a recommendation to follow a specific spiritual path?
No and Yes. No, as in no specific path is prescribed for everybody, even the Diamond Approach or the teaching in this book. Yes, as in the suggestion that every person follows and adopts one specific path for some time, without much of dilettantism. Almaas refers to the ‘logos’ or logic of a teaching which needs to be engaged comprehensively for the practice to receive the holding, support and guidance of the larger field of the teaching. Only after a certain level of freedom has been achieved in the phenomenological realm of the practitioner, it is okay reach out and explore. Too wide too early- is thus not recommended. It also shows how it is possible to be committed to a particular path and simultaneously be aware of the possibility that the path may not be the best, or the ultimate one, but may be still be adequately appropriate at a point in time.
My own experience has been a bit different. In my early days of this process, whenever I came to be very impressed or wowed by any particular teacher, once I had absorbed what there was to absorb, somehow circumstances came in the way of my ‘latching’ on to him/her for too long. I somehow never felt compelled to keep my entire vista of experience subservient to one teacher’s prescription or even logos. Reflecting back I can now explain this as an innate orientation to listen to my own inner compass, which drew on a wide variety of teachings and conducted its own filtration, synthesis, and personalization to suit my unique nature. Even discipline was self-determined, fluid and unencumbered by a fixity of routines or to-dos. It seems to me that commitment to the process mattered more in my case than commitment to a teaching. My own definition of dilettantism, then, becomes – allowing oneself to get waylaid in the organic process due to discursive flits for spiritual sugar-highs.
3. How is the dynamic of realization presented here?
The usual notion of cause and effect between practice and realization, embedded in the linearly progressive paradigm of time, is questioned in terms of its usefulness to explore how:
A recursive relationship is described between practice and realization, both in terms of ontological status and causality, until they fuse into a single thing with two windows of sensing it. Formal practice (such as subtle body work, meditation etc.) is distinguished from and subsumed within continual practice which is more a permanent attitude of engagement and discovery, energetically associated with the ‘enlightenment drive’ expressing itself through the belly button or Hara. Practice does not end with realization, because there is NO end-point to realization, practice is NOT engaged with a final destination orientation, and the one practicing is NOT apart from the reality that she is attempting to ‘grok’. Letting go of the notion of any kind of ultimacy in the realization journey automatically allows for the process to be end-less and goalless, including letting go of the state of no-goal as an end.
Realization happening when ‘Being’ wakes up to itself (the spontaneous and unpredictable descent of Grace), and the role of individual agency working hard and ‘attaining’ it, are harmonized from the usual paradoxical structure of understanding and ‘rescued’ from the relative ambiguity of conclusiveness. In ‘Programming the Universe’ Seth Lloyd imagines the universe as a gigantic quantum computer which computes itself to evolve and reduce its entropy. Likewise, realization can be viewed as Living Digital Reality practicing, through individuated units of consciousness (how else could it do it?!), to reclaim self-understanding. This unfolds through a non-linear, mysterious and chaotic process of ongoing information processing, with randomness (God does play dice!) and path-dependence (experience depends on history).
In my own life, I remember a transcendent experience of about 8 hours under the influence of psilocybin as one of the most deep and profound, something I had never experienced before. Within a short time after that event, I found myself beginning to lose compulsive attachment to things of normal material life that seemed to have held sway over me, I started a meditation practice (albeit intermittent) and my life conditions started changing quite dramatically. It is possible that the brief experiential glimpse of transcendence served as some kind of attractor to reorient my life (mostly below the level of conscious awareness or volition). If that is not coincidence, then the causal arrow between practice and realization could reverse – a small spark of light, however incipient and diffused, sets the ball rolling for an increasing focus on practice towards deeper domains of realization. Clearly then, there is a ‘both-and’ dynamic in operation.
Practice and realization could thus be one dynamism manifesting in different ways in dialectic communication; one is manifesting as the action of the soul, the other as arising of True Nature. These are two complementary expressions of one force, whose intensifying feedback loop culminates in conscious insight.
4. How is doing and non-doing associated with the realization dynamic?
The paradox of non-doing is presented in its subtler aspects, such that even the notion of ‘getting out of the way’ is not something which is wilfully done. The dynamic interaction of apparent opposites, at a certain stage of maturation of practice, becomes ‘riding the razor’s edge of our responsibility and our openness to revelation……not interfering with and not trying to change our experience is a non-doing and, at the same time, there is an active engagement of exploring, questioning, and challenging.’ As this harmonization progresses in degree, the inner attitude of inquiry and the unfolding of discernment becomes a single, ongoing movement.
In my personal experience, I have, for a few years, felt that my life is not really in my ‘control’. While personal autonomy in the way I make choices seem to have increased and the influence of external deadlines and to-dos has reduced, I also find myself drawn to, and immersed in questions and subjects which come up spontaneously from somewhere that were not a part of the morning’s plan! Each such ‘bifurcation point’ leads to a new trajectory of exploration, which, a few days later, begin to make sense at a macro level in piecing together a fuller understanding of a subject or a set of interrelated subjects. In the language of complex adaptive systems, it is said that actors or agents in the whole of the system can influence almost everything but control almost nothing. The dynamic of non-doing exemplifies that for me.
5. How is the subject of psychological work dealt with, in and as part of the realization process?
Psychological work, in spiritual parlance, refers to one’s attention to, and work with obscuration, obstacles, contaminations and impurities that constrain one’s full understanding of, and relational harmony with the dynamism of reality.
Almaas classifies these structures in three categories, in decreasing order of traceability or detectability:
The individuated unit of consciousness mistakes all three categories of impressions as important features of reality and holds onto them as if they are what it is, and moreover cannot usually distinguish between the three categories of structures because they constellate to form the usual sense of self. Traditional psycho-spiritual approaches normally deal with the first and second category of structures, and goes by the names of therapy, shadow work, integration work etc. A high degree of astute self-observation amidst daily life experiences can reveal the patterning of the first two categories of structures, which constitute the ‘narrative self’. The third structure, however, requires the experience of what the author calls Total Non-conceptuality, ‘that is not the opposite of concepts, a non-conceptuality that transcends both the concepts of the conceptual and the non-conceptual.’ Total non-conceptuality is shown to transcend the polarities of time and timelessness, spatiality and boundlessness.
Firstly, a distinction is made between nondual experience and nondual view. It is possible to have a nondual experience and have a dualistic view, just as it is possible to have a nondual view from a dualistic base without a nondual experience (Wilber’s state and structure distinctions). In the process of that distinction, the very notion of the individual having the experience and/or view is revisited as done during the practice-realization relationship exploration, such that we can view the individual and awareness itself (personified) waking up simultaneously.
Secondly, a view is put forth that highlights some shortcomings of the nondual view, as understood cognitively. In the non-dual view, all particulars are an inseparable part of the same unity. But the particulars are supposedly all equal, and no single particular, including the individual self, stands out. Thus, the nondual enlightened condition of realizing true nature, tends not to reveal the uniqueness of the particular and the particularity of the particular. The nondual condition shows that all particulars are background and what is foreground is pure awareness or presence of true nature. Everything is a manifestation of the same thing; all forms are ephemeral and transitory, and they have equal value in terms of perception. That sense of equality tends to be an important part of nondual realization. We know, however, that if we take everything in life to have equal value - even though we might perceive it that way when our heart is full of love - we will end up with a lot of trouble. We need to discriminate that some things are more important than others, there is a holarchy of values, and we need to set priorities. Without priorities, it is difficult to live life. The nondual condition tends not to focus much on matters of daily life. It tends not to recognize that we need to prioritize in order to live in a mature way. And for that to happen, we need to understand the uniqueness of the particular.
This limitation of the nondual view can be likened to the problem with the Systems View as highlighted by Edgar Morin in his paradigm of complexity. General Systems Theory tends to invoke the principle of holism which seeks explanation at the level of totality only, in opposition to the reductionist paradigm which seeks explanation at the level of elementary components. Holism turns out to be a partial, one-dimensional, simplifying vision of the whole. It reduces all other system related ideas to the idea of totality, and as such, arises from the same simplifying principle as the reductionism to which it is opposed.
Finally Almaas, drawing on some earlier insights such as those of Plotinus and Dogen Zenji and the holographic universe model, contends that while the microcosm contains the entire macrocosm, the particular does not simply replicate the whole in miniature; the particular is the whole and is also every other particular as particular, not as an agglomerated whole. So, the individual and Living Being or True Nature are not two things, and, at the same time, they are not one thing. Reverting back to Morin, the view of totality does not commit the simplification error of holism, by neglecting or abstracting the particularity of any ‘part’ of totality, and creates space for celebrating its uniqueness at the highest necessary level of granularity. Totality then is a unitas multiplex, ‘where the whole is effectively a macro-unity, but the parts are not fused or confused therein; they have a double identity, one which continues to belong to each of them individually (and is thus irreducible to the whole), and one which is held in common (constituting, so to speak, their citizenship in the system)’. Marc Gafni intuits this through his Unique Self thesis and teaching, even though he comes from a different purpose and angle.
7. How is the relationship between freedom and creativity expressed?
The fundamental nature of reality is investigated as uncertain both in ontological and epistemological sense, as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle establishes, which allows reality to manifest itself in any way – awareness, love, the physical world, dual, nondual etc. without any injunctive limitation, constraint or programming (Seth Lloyd), unless chosen that way!
Almaas’ notion of freedom is similar to Whitehead’s processual understanding of reality as a continuous unfolding. As we know, Whitehead criticized monistic philosophies which allow the ultimate an illegitimate final ‘eminent’ reality beyond that ascribed to any of its ‘accidents’. According to Whitehead, not God but creativity is the ultimate reality
Thus Whitehead’s ‘creativity’ and Almaas’ ‘freedom’ both see the ultimate as an interminable verb rather than any conceivable noun. The processual verb has infinite degrees of freedom to actualize, and accommodate many kinds of ultimates (both verbs and nouns). Also, while the nouns (such as realization, or enlightenment) tend to convey some kind of end to delusions, the verb is not interested in believing that there is an end to delusions. The verb is in a perpetual playful engagement with obscuration, ignorance and delusion recognizing them as aspects in the unfolding, even as they become subtler and more fine-grained.
In summary, we can see how the loosening of fixity in views, however compelling and definitive they may appear to be, unleashes the inherent freedom of reality, and reality shows its delight by leading us to other views and further mysteries. This is the upshot of uncertainty: we are loosed from the search of final meaning into a life of limitless adventure.
This is wonderful, Neelesh. Thank you. I will read this again more closely as soon as I can, so I can better respond to it, but I was happy just to see it because I've been considering getting this book (I was just browsing for it on my Nook the other day).