As introductions go, the opening to the Tao Te Ching must rank right up there as amongst the most enigmatic. ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the universal Tao. The name that can be named is not the universal name.’ It’s immediately mysterious and alluring, and it’s exactly the sort of sentiment that has seen generations of seekers rushing to the feet of spiritual teachers, hoping they can shed light on the hidden truth within verses such as this.
But what if that’s not what’s going on here? What if this teaching isn’t in fact ‘spiritual’ at all? Is it possible that spiritual awakening isn’t really spiritual?
There are clues we need to follow if we’re to get to the heart of this, so let’s try and pick our way through them. Over the last few years I’ve met a number of awakened individuals (setting aside the fact that the word ‘individual’ doesn’t really have much meaning after awakening). The thing that strikes me is how few of them awakened by following what most would consider a ‘spiritual path’.
It’s true that for some, devotion to Buddhist practice, Raja Yoga, Advaita or other schools leads to an awakening, but it’s by no means guaranteed. Similarly, for many, awakening has come about as a result of simple, honest inquiry; often guided, sometimes not, that has led to this realisation or shift. It’s certainly true that some teachers such as Jidddu Krishnamurti spoke out against many religious or spiritual forms of training, famously proclaiming, ‘Truth is a pathless land.’
In fact when we look at it we can see there are three or four quite different ways in which awakening can occur. Firstly and most obviously there is the adherence to spiritual practices, either as part of a religion or school of thought or through the guidance of a recognised spiritual teacher. In a more secular parallel to this there are non-dual guides, resources and online forums that can support inquiry into the nature of our experience to develop the clarity that leads to awakening.
Totally separate from either of these approaches, for some awakening happens spontaneously, often as a result of psychological trauma or stress. I don’t want to name names but if you look closely at the back story of some well known teachers you’ll recognise that prior to awakening they weren’t following a spiritual path at all. They were, it seems, at a point where the sense of self was undergoing so much emotional pain, such intense distress that it became unsustainable and they shifted to non-dual awareness.
The last category might be the smallest but it is worth including because more than any other it has the potential to shine a light on what might be going on here. I’m sure many of you are aware of Jill Bolte Taylor’s excellent book and TED Talk entitled, ‘My Stroke of Insight’. A neuroanatomist, Dr Taylor experienced a left hemisphere brain stroke that incapacitated the left side of her brain and much of its function.
In her book she describes the experience of consciousness from the right hemisphere and the insights that arose from losing the parts of her brain that could distinguish forms, separation and space, as well as the areas that relate to language and our ego or sense of self. As a result of a physical brain trauma, Dr Taylor appeared to experience a non-dual realisation, one of deep inner peace and beauty, which persisted even as her recovery got underway, eventually leading to a complete return to function of the left side of her brain.
So let’s piece all of this together starting with a definition of sorts of what we’re talking about. There is this thing called awakening. It’s not something that can be captured in words, it has to be experienced directly. The experience is the realisation that there are no separate things, and that all is really arising from one source, which is itself not a thing, nor can it be said to have any attributes, apart from the boundless experiencing of it which might for some be described as love, joy or simply peace.
So if this is the single, unifying realisation of all experiences of awakening, how come there are several apparently unrelated ways this shift takes place? What’s the common factor that links them all together?
To understand that we really have look more closely at the problem, if we can call it that. The problem is that there appears to a world full of separate things and there appears to be a separate ‘me’ experiencing it. So if that’s not the case why does it self-evidently seem that way?
Well, the bit everyone seems to miss when they begin their inquiry into this very question is the bit that’s closest to them. If we don’t at the outset recognise how we’re seeing, then what we see will never be clear.
Whether it’s an evolutionary tool or a psychological add-on, our perceiving mind takes the raw sense data that flows in and creates from it a kind of map. The key word here is creates. The mind creates, or more accurately the parietal region of the left hemisphere creates a world from the sensory input it receives. Don’t forget that what our senses detect is really energy in one form or another. But if we begin from the standpoint that our left hemisphere is really just painting a picture of what’s actually there then we have started from the position of making an erroneous assumption. And as we all know assume makes an ass of you and me.
Now to be clear, whilst we can assert that the creation of a world full of objects happens in the left hemisphere, if we take the position that there is nothing out there, then we’re still stuck in that same left hemisphere as it tries to make a better, more accurate map. Get it? When we use cognitive thought to figure this out, all we’re doing is creating another thought, another model of something conceived. Not something ‘real’, something conceived.
So if we can take that on board, we have a chance to stop the thought train right there. Let’s pause for a minute and ask – if thought can’t figure this out, what other option do we have? Well, this is where it gets tricky. You see, since you were born and old enough to understand speech you’ve been taught and related to by people who believe the left hemisphere world model. You’ve been given a name, told you have a gender and related to as if that has prescribed associations of clothing, attitude and behaviour. You’ve been told you have possessions and other people have other possessions. You’ve been fed stories that have become beliefs. You’ve learned to identify with certain people, certain places, certain viewpoints. In short, you have a lot of baggage.
Have you seen the film The Matrix? Well, what if your brain’s left hemisphere is your Matrix? The trap you can’t see, the cage you don’t perceive because it’s woven into the very way that seeing happens.
If that’s the cage, then can we get out and where can we find the key? Well, the key isn’t in more thought, that’s not going to do it. And recognising this, generations of awakened teachers and guides have tried to point this out. Remember what we said at the start, ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the universal Tao’? What if that really means, as long as you’re operating from left hemisphere dominant consciousness, that names and separates everything, you won’t be able to see it any other way? What if this short verse, like many of the teachings in the Tao Te Ching, in Zen Buddhism and from other schools are really trying to push us away from the analytical mind into the open and differently functioning right brain?
Have you ever heard the expression, seeing starts when seeking stops? It can be rephrased a number of ways but in many teachings the aspirant is told that they won’t see the truth until they stop seeking it. What if this really means, until they stop trying to cognise it with the left brain?
We know that as far as the right brain is concerned there is no time, just an eternal presence. Time is a left brain construct along with an imagined future and past. So if we want to get into a more right brain mode of consciousness all we have to do is bring our attention fully into the moment. It’s mindfulness, isn’t it? It’s what we do when we meditate.
There are no language centres in the right hemisphere so when we reach a place of stillness, of silence that’s where our consciousness resides. Have you ever noticed that when you’re fully absorbed in something you don’t notice the passage of time? You also don’t have a sense of ‘me’ at those times, there’s just doing happening. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rock climbing, creating art or music, meditating or doing yoga or martial arts, attention is in a place of non-separation and no time.
So some teachers say, much to the confusion of their students, you are always awakened, you’re already awake; meaning that this experience is already present within you; you know this, you just never recognised it for what it was.
As long as the left brain is dominant then we believe that we are separate, we believe we live in a world full of separate things and people, we lose our connection to the source, as the source, undefined, unformed, without limits. Whether your pathless path back to balancing the right hemisphere with the left is through spiritual practices or your own deep inquiry, that’s where it leads.
Ironically as you read this, as you decode it, you’re using the left brain, of course. And you might be mistaken into thinking that what is being described is a brain trick that lets us see no separation rather than the way it really is, after all a chair is still a chair, right?
Well, no. Not right. That isn’t what’s being said at all. This is about recognising that the voice that is saying that is a product of this illusion not separate from it. You, your personality, this identity you hold can never awaken. It can’t awaken from the illusion because it is the illusion. You are part of the landscape here, not some god surveying it from the lofty heights of intellect.
But in silence ‘you’ aren’t. Not the short superficial silence between this thought and the next one. The deeper silence that lies behind all thoughts, comes before and after all words. The silent vastness against which all arisings are brief waves on a fathomless ocean. In that silence of non-being we discover our true nature. All paths are really one path and it’s not a path at all. It’s the recognition that there’s no one standing here in the first place.