“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Media and the Message

A common mistake students of spiritual paths make is to identify the teaching with the teacher, and so to think that various qualities of the teacher’s personality are critical aspects of the Way.
For example, if you had gone to a meditation retreat led by my late friend, Scott Morrison, who exuded a cozy and amiable personality, you might have come to believe the Way of freedom is mostly about developing a warm heart and a childlike, sweet-tempered innocence—just like Scott Morrison.
            Imagine your shock when you go to a meditation retreat led by a teacher who holds a high-ranking black belt in karate, and who teaches the Way in a martial manner: “Suffering is your own activity, superimposed on the openness of  experience,” he booms, glaring at you. “So cut the crap and quit your whining, NOW!” Students of this samurai-like teacher may well come to believe that the Way of freedom is mostly about developing courage and sharpening the sword of wisdom that severs clinging.
But no one’s personality or particular style of teaching is itself the Way; these are just the media, the delivery-system, for the message. Ultimately, the message is not found in the words or even the practices given, but in the irrepressible signal that alerts your heart to its own greatness.
            All authentic teachers are demonstrating the universal Way, but because each has a particular personality and background, the teachings come out “flavored” by the teacher’s own character—most importantly, by the teacher’s own strengths and weaknesses.
            Many seekers have been fed the myth that awakened persons are “perfect.” That’s freaking ridiculous! It is precisely this dangerous lie that has led to a number of idolatrous personality-cults.
A genuine awakening to the freedom of essential being does not make any person (any personality) perfect. Awakening runs deeper than the personality—it is to fully contact life at the Heart, prior to the emergent personality—while not excluding everything that is body and mind.
            We certainly do not need to become “perfect” (whatever that god-awful word implies) in order to truly awaken. Nor does awakening radically change our personalities. Rather, enlightenment is an opening to a new, free orientation to one’s personality and all the many other functions that make up a life.
            Alan Watts and Chogyam Trungpa, two of the better-known spiritual teachers in the West, were both addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. Heart disease killed each of them while relatively young. Yet (based on their lucid writings) their enlightenment seems quite genuine. So how come these guys had such flaws?
Because enlightenment doesn’t make you perfect. Awakening doesn’t take away the operation of the genes, or the born personality. It also doesn’t cure gunshot wounds to the head.
            It’s best to work with a teacher you naturally resonate with, someone who talks straight to your heart. But it’s also good to meet a few other teachers, get a taste of their different teaching styles. Then you’ll discern more clearly the seasonings your own teacher has added to the cosmic Way.
            Hear this: Spiritual teachers—lamas, roshis, rebbes, sheiks, gurus—are people. Women and men who have awakened (to varying degrees) to fundamental freedom and then integrated (to varying degrees) this understanding into their personal lives. Everyone who awakens to transcendental being, expresses enlightenment with unique quirks and charms, weaknesses and strengths. Everyone.

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