connecting psychotherapy and spiritual growth for human awakening
The Background and my Life-Preparation for the Hsüan-Hsüeh Discourses
It is a hard one to put across to people who don’t get it, but teaching spirituality involves letting go. You simply dive in! It is not information, as I have been discussing elsewhere. It is not knowledge (in the sense of learning by rote). It is wisdom in the sense of aligning yourself or tuning in to a vast impersonal flow of Truth.
This word truth also is contentious. For when I and other spiritual teachers use the word truth, most of the time, we mean Truth. Truth with a capital “T” is the Truth which participates in no opposites. It is not the opposite of a lie, some deceit or falsehood. This Truth is and if you were to further the explanation you could say that Truth is absolute (whereas truth—with the small “t”—is relative).
My life seems to have been a journey to Truth, to a direct apprehension of the Absolute. It has become as real as the relative world to me. When I was younger it was actually more real than the relative world in my experience. This life, this personal-impersonal procession of moments has been a kind of return, but more accurately discovering anew, the Reality (with a capital “R”) that I occupied unselfconsciously when I was very young.
One of my teachers, also my therapist, was an enthusiastic Taoist. So was I. It was one of many points of convergence. Some years after our meeting, a psychic dowser, the late Pat Densham of Dartmoor England told me that we had been Taoist monks together in a previous life. This somehow fit. His gift of Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu led directly to my book Tao’s Gift (which is a phrase from the book). I had puzzled over Chuang Tzu since I was twenty-five. I had puzzled over the Tao Te Ching even longer.
One morning while reading John Wu’s popular translation of the Tao Te Ching in the Shambhala pocket edition, the Tao and its resurgent opacity simply opened up for me. And I fell in laughing. I could only think—not that I was thinking all that much—that it was and had always been so very simple. I had tried to understand inscrutable, timeless wisdom with my small mind. It was like trying to fit the ocean into a pint pot. Something broke open inside me and the doors to the treasure house yielded and in I came.
My background in Taoism has been punctuated by work with Chungliang “Al” Huang of the Living Tao Foundation, the marvelous teacher who wrote Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain (as well as co-writing Tao: the Watercourse Way with Alan Watts) and Richard Dror (of the Taoist Center, Vermont, USA). I also studied with many different Tai Chi masters. This training may have saved my life (although I am prone to exaggeration, but I’ll let you judge). When I was working in Skyros running meditation groups and therapy courses on a personal growth holiday, I learnt windsurfing with another gifted teacher who I only remember as Bob. Bob showed me the basics and I took to it because water is my element and I reveled in the freedom of slicing through the waves in the wind as a contrast to the in-turned intensity of the workshops I was facilitating during the day.
One time, feeling confident, I took off on my own and sped out further than ever before into the Mediterranean Sea. My hair was flying, the sun was shining, and it was glorious. I don’t know if you have ever done this and it may be different for an experienced windsurfer, but my experience was that there was some point at which you simply fall. You maintain balance, endurance, and vigor, then at some point there’s a call to just let go and you fall in. It’s really all part of the fun. So I had got to this point and I was on the verge of letting go and savoring the pleasure of relaxing my muscles, releasing the boom, loosening my legs, and falling in when I looked straight down only to find that the sea was a quaking mass of Portuguese Men O’War, as far as the eye could see, a field of purple just below the surface of the water.
Survival instincts kicked in and I adapted to the new movement in a way that, had I not practiced Tai Chi, I am not sure I could have pulled off. Swinging around I maintained perfect balance and poise, becoming one with the windsurfer that kept me a merciful distance from the insurgent stings of the venom of the Portugese Men O’War. I have never flown as quickly as I did back to the beach.
Tai chi gives you balance and poise and much more. Taoist literature speaks of this balance and poise, which are crucial for the spiritual life. We occupy a space between heaven and earth and through this space we can reach to the farthest ends of the universe and beyond, into the furthest reaches of time and into eternity. To occupy this body and this space and reach this far into the astral and etheric bodies demands some balance, some poise and equanimity.
Balance and poise of movement but also curiously the total lack of thinking got me out of the clutches of the shoal of the Portugese Men O’War. The inspiration for the Hsüan-Hsüeh Discourses has settled over me in a similar fashion. The idea of lectures based on the Tao gestated in me for a while as I wrote pieces on love and maturity for the present series of online talks, the Novena Teachings. Then one day it erupted in me like a newborn teaching, ready and freshly prepared.
The first discourse is “Penetrating Wisdom.” The story of Huang-ti came to me in a book I have owned forever it seems—The Wisdom of the Taoist Mystics by D Howard Smith. I had picked it up in the marvelous Inner Bookshop in Oxford in the 1970s. This story reminded me of another favorite of mine, this time from the Upanishads; the story of Indra and Prajapati. Both stories explore the sublime theme of returning to the teacher for deeper levels of wisdom and the dissatisfaction with anything but the full truth. Most fascinating is the motif in the Upanishads story of carrying fuel, the symbolic and perhaps practical gift of fuel or willingness to learn and a symbol of the energy required to see discipleship through to spiritual enlightenment. I have related these stories and their themes to what I have come to call the Journey Around the Self (which was a longtime working title for Your Essential Self. It is also the title of part 2 of my book The Flight of Consciousness).
In the process of self-discovery we journey around the self. The first time is a revelation, an awakening of sorts. On the second revolution we etch in more detail, getting a fuller picture and deepening in self-awareness. On the third revolution we pick up on what was missed the first and second times. If and when we begin to venture on a fourth my view is that we should be cautious and suspicious. Some simply coast around the self for multiple times, immersed in the ride and oblivious to the reasons for taking the journey in the first place. It becomes an obsession and gets nowhere. Therefore I have set a boundary in my own work. I will accompany clients on a first and second journey and I will complete the third revolution too with the strong intention to leave the viewing at the end of it. But I will not set off on a fourth revolution (other than in very rare circumstances).
The fourth, fifth, or sixth revolutions are almost certainly an avoidance of the second stage of awakening (see my book Your Essential Self), which is the flowering of a human life. So if you are a practitioner, a counselor, a therapist, or a guide, be wary of the addiction to self-discovery that keeps your clients in a negative vortex of self-concern and morbid fascination with the past. Allow them to discover a way out of this addiction to the small self and lead them on, wherever you can and wherever it is appropriate, to the further challenges of the mature life of authenticity and heart. Much will depend on their innate potential and capacity. This is the theme of “Locating Destiny,” a later discourse in the Hsüan-Hsüeh series.
The famous empty boat story from the Chuang Tzu is a story that once heard is never forgotten. Its impact lies in its immediacy. Who does not identify with the desire to blame someone when something happens to them, to the illusion of the ghost in the action? Who has not bashed their head on a low roof beam? Or caught their clothing on a low-mounted hook in the kitchen? Or felt that the world or life itself is somehow against them?
Chuang Tzu illustrates memorably and powerfully the ephemeral nature of our emotions, the fleetingness of our reactivity, and the very core of the constellation of our egoic complex: self-importance.
What could be more apposite than the furtherance of this insight in Jesus’ dictum to turn the other cheek? And finally this inferred dichotomy in the frisson between self and other and its transcendence in my model at the second stage of awakening is the subject of “Transcending Separation,” the second discourse in the series.
Throughout the previous series of online lectures I have been giving since 2012 Truth has been irresistible in its reaching out and longing for expression. When it meets the longing and the reaching out in you something miraculous and profoundly simple occurs. It is three-fold. First, recognition. The Truth is impersonal and familiar to us all regardless of the level of intellect or acumen. If anything it relies on our readiness, openness, and willingness to listen and hear. The recognition of Truth is universal, common to all who are present and available to it.
Second is an overwhelming feeling of relief that you have found IT: that which is immutable and deathless. It is the understanding that what you have always suspected was real, that which may have alienated you from others and for whose sake you may have suffered ridicule and humiliation is demonstrable, near-tangible, and spoken.
Third is the insight, breakthrough, or expansion that constitutes the next step in your psycho-physical development. This opening is either in your heart or the higher chakras or energy centers of your psycho-physical system. You may feel this as a shuddering, a jumping, or some mental/physical disturbance. But this resolves in a resettling and a fresh centering of your consciousness in your psycho-physical organism.
Essentially what characterizes this is letting go. For it is not only the spiritual teacher who must let go, the student-devotee of the spiritual path must also let go…. profoundly. You must let go of opinions, prejudices, bigotry, judgment, and finally thoughts, altogether. Then you align yourself or tune in to transcendent Wisdom.
The vast impersonal flow of Truth offers us a glimpse of the Divine. Here in the Hsüan-Hsüeh Discourses we will join together on the journey to Truth, celebrate existence, and behold the shining state of the Source, our Divine nature through human form.
This article was published on this site in January 2014.