Are spiritual teachings prescriptions or descriptions? Sudden vs. gradual teachings.

Q.  Hi Tom, often you talk about spiritual teachings as something you have to do, like a spiritual practice such as devotion or enquiry, but in my experience the most effective spiritual teachings are not really teachings or prescriptions but the best teachings are descriptions. Does that make sense? What are your thoughts?

Tom: Hi _____, yes that’s a really good point, especially as you near the end of your spiritual search or spiritual journey, descriptions become more important than prescriptions. Essentially the higher teachings are descriptions and the lower teachings are prescriptions. Let me explain:

Descriptions

The higher teachings simply describe your normal everyday experience, pointing out the Freedom that already is. This is why some higher teachings are called pointers. They are pointing out what already is the case.

They are not saying you need to do anything or become anything, they are not saying you have to improve in some way, but are pointing out the illusion of separation that when believed in causes suffering. Examples include statements like ‘there is no separate self’, ‘there is no doer’, ‘there is only god’, ‘all is one’, ‘awareness always is’.

These teachings are descriptions. These descriptions can trigger an insight, or in-seeing, into something about life as it already is, but has thus far not been recognised/realised.

Prescriptions

Now the prescriptions, the lower teachings: these teachings tell you that you have to do something, they prescribe you something do to, such as meditation, chanting, physical exercises, be near the guru or some other kind of action to do. Prescriptions are instructions to be carried out by the body mind. They are often teachings for the ego, and are something for the ego to do, and so may serve to perpetuate the ego and can often actually reinforce the sense of self/ego/separation.

Prescriptions are instructions to be carried out by the body mind. They are often teachings for the ego, and are something for the ego to do, and so may serve to perpetuate the ego and can often actually reinforce the sense of self/ego/separation.

Perhaps implicit in this type of teachings is that you are not quite good enough as you are and that you have to improve or change in some way. There is also, perhaps, the idea of spiritual progress here, the idea of a path that can be travelled and a destination to be reached. All this is implied in prescriptive practices.

Notice that I write ‘perhaps’ and ‘often’ because practices are not necessarily bad, as I explain below.

Prescriptions as descriptions

There is also a third way of looking at this, which is that teachings that prescribe certain activities or practices can also be seen to be descriptions when looked at in another way, and so what appears to be a lower teaching can then be seen to be a higher teaching.

For example, the practice of mindfulness in which the seeker is instructed to ‘be mindful’ or ‘be aware of the present moment’ can be instead seen as a description of the way things already are, ie. awareness is already aware of whatever is being experienced, regardless of whether or not the mind is caught up in thoughts or not. The instruction of ‘be aware’ has been trumped by the pointer or description that ‘you are already aware’ or ‘awareness is already here.’

Similarly with ‘be unattached’, or ‘be loving’, or ‘be at peace’ – these prescriptions can be seen as descriptions of life as it already is, without having to lift a finger:  ‘be unattached’ becomes a description of awareness that is already unattached and ever-free, ‘be loving’ becomes a description of awareness that already fully embraces, ‘loves’ and is one with the totality of every experience, and ‘be at peace’ points out that awareness is a synonym for peace in that it is a constant in a world of impermanent transitory objects. All things come and go, awareness just is. We could continue: the prescription ‘let go’ becomes a pointer at  the fact that awareness has already ‘let go’ as it is and always has been unattached.

Descriptions are not necessarily better

As I said at the start of this answer, descriptions become more important towards the end of your seeking journey and they are essentially the higher teachings. Descriptions act as pointers that can trigger insight into the illusion of separation. Does this mean they are better? Many would say yes, but I disagree, at least partially. Both prescriptions (practices) and descriptions (pointers) are useful to different people depending where they are.

Practices are useful to purify the mind, reduce neurotic and addictive habitual tendencies, which results in a calm and peaceful mind that is able to better understand the pointers. As the mind becomes calmer, more psychologically integrated and mature, and happier, the pointers work much better and can trigger a ‘shift’ as intended.

Practices are useful to purify the mind, reduce neurotic and addictive habitual tendencies, which results in a calm and peaceful mind that is able to better understand the pointers.

Here, where the mind is already relatively pure, happy and calm, pointers/descriptions become increasingly important. What is interesting is that most spiritual teachings in the public domain tend to be action orientated, ie. practices/prescriptions. Most people when they encounter spirituality never even hear of direct pointers or so-called radical non-duality, so in this context of lack, the pointing teachings/descriptions become even more important.

That said, many seekers do not possess calm, contended happy minds, and so a practice/prescription becomes much more important, at least initially. I often come across seekers who are addicted to the radical non-dual teachings but their minds are still gripped strongly by illusion and as a result the chaotic and addictive habitual tendencies of body and mind doesn’t allow the pointers to truly hit home apart from on the intellectual conceptual level. The pointers do not penetrate the heart as the heart is barricaded in by a barbed-wire fence of intellect and concepts, often non-dual concepts.

These seekers are often lured in by the possibility of a quick, easy and instantaneous enlightenment in which one single ‘ah-ha’ moment will result in the total annihilation and vapourisation of all their pain, suffering and negative habits into a giant puff of smoke, and they will emerge An Enlightened Master from the Instantaneous School of Awakening. And while that may apparently happen for some, for most a process of purification is required, both before and after awakening.

Non-dual prescriptions

Yes, purification is also often required after awakening, and this is why I said ‘perhaps’ above when talking about the prescriptive teachings. Even when the illusion of separation has been seen through, spiritual practices may still be useful. Here, after awakening, practices no longer perpetuate the ego or false sense of self/separation that may happen during seeking.

Just as an enlightened sage can take driving lessons to learn to drive or buy an electric toothbrush to better clean their teeth, they can also utilise spiritual, physical and psychological practices to make their lives more comfortable on the social, physical and psychological levels.

Now practices fulfil a practical function. Just as an enlightened sage can take driving lessons to learn to drive or buy an electric toothbrush to better clean their teeth, they can also utilise spiritual, physical and psychological practices to make their lives more comfortable on the social, physical and psychological levels. They refine the body and mind and remove negative habitual tendencies which in turn results in less suffering on the relative level (of things or objects) and eases the flow of energy in the body. This improves alignment with life and also improves social and physical functioning as a result. As the mind is purified, psychic and intuitive channels are also allowed to more fully open and wisdom can pour in this way too. Lastly, it is this purifying aspect of the teaching that leads to a more ethical way of living and is the link between love, ethics and spirituality.

Lastly, it is this purifying aspect of the teaching that leads to a more ethical way of living and is the link between love, ethics and spirituality.

I often describe this as a process of heart opening in which the conceptual understanding sinks down into the energetic and emotional heart and eventually the knot of the ego is cut when the egoic tendencies have been removed, either by life or with the additional help of a more formal spiritual practice. Here the sense of individuality is lost at an energetic level as well as the intellectual knowing, but the perspective of the body-mind continues as long as the body-mind lives.

Descriptions can also purify

Pointers and descriptions, whilst their primary purpose is to trigger insight or recognition into an aspect of ordinary life that was previously overlooked, they can also have a purifying function, that is they can also have a role in removing negative habitual tendencies which is the usual role of spiritual practices.

This works by being exposed to pointers repeatedly over a length of time. Over time, the pointers seep into the mind of a seeker, infiltrating the mind’s hidden depths, slowly rooting out false thoughts and notions based in ignorance, slowly rooting out ignorance. Then one day a critical mass is reached and the penny drops, the bottom of the bucket of water falls out and the illusion of separation is seen through. If the seeker-finder now continues to expose themselves to the pointers, even though the essential insight/realisation has occurred, these same pointers can have a purifying function in removing residual and vestigial habitual tendencies that may still cause discomfort and suffering on the phenomenal level (ie. the everyday world of objects in which the person/we live)

Gradual vs sudden path

Basically what we have been talking of here have historically been called the gradual and sudden paths to enlightenment. The gradual path is sometimes called the progressive path, and the sudden path can be called the instantaneous path or no-path school. Pointers may form part of the sudden school, whereas practices predominate in the gradual paths. There have been arguments between these ways of looking at enlightenment teachings and technologies/practices for many centuries across various traditions, most notably Buddhist schools.

Hopefully in this answer I have outlined how these two approaches can be utilised together to maximise success in achieving both insight into the Freedom that is already here, as well as remove the negative addictive habitual tendencies that perpetuate relative suffering and egoic decision-making.

Purification and  insight

Purification takes time and energy – it occurs at the level of the body and mind and results in a maturation in the psychological and energetic domains. I liken it to weeding a garden. Insight is quick, takes little energy, and most readily occurs in a relaxed but awake and aware state of mind relatively free of thoughts. I liken it to looking up and noticing the sky that was always there for the first time.

Purification involves change and improvement of the body-mind, insight is noticing that which was always there but was overlooked.

Don’t all practices just perpetuate the false-self? (Seeking vs teaching)

Now I’m sure many will disagree with what I am saying. Particularly the staunch non-dualists, those who say no practice is required and say that all practices just strengthen and reinforce the false-notion of separation/self.

However I have always been interested in what actually works and am not really one to cling to dogma. It was when I started sharing or ‘teaching’ this that I really came to realise how important practices are. Of course, there is such a lack of pointing/descriptive type teachings in the common public domain, this form of direct pointing inevitably becomes very valuable, especially to those seasoned seekers who have not encountered it before.

However I have always been interested in what actually works and am not really one to cling to dogma. It was when I started sharing or ‘teaching’ this that I really came to realise how important practices are.

However I have seen many seekers who need to learn to relax, learn to be more positive and deal with their psychological issues first, as these are the overriding issues that are causing suffering and preventing insight from occurring.

Often what happens is that as a seeker becomes more advanced and purified, the direct pointings become more important and it is these that are ultimately liberating. When the seeker becomes a finder, often they stress the importance of the teachings that directly led to their own realisation – ie. the direct pointings.

However to ignore the indirect teachings, or practices and gradual path, we do a disservice to those who need them, and we may also prevent further purification post-insight from occurring.

However to ignore the indirect teachings, or practices and gradual path, we do a disservice to those who need them, and we may also prevent further purification post-insight from occurring.

Some final words

Whilst I try to map some of this out in order to aid seekers, especially those who are unable to find the answers they are looking for in a teacher or teaching, I acknolwedge that the path is different for everyone. These are some general trends and I am sharing what I know. I hope you find these words useful. Don’t cling to them too much either and remember this is difficult, if not impossible to put into words.

Best wishes to you and please contact me or join me in one of my online meetings if you think I can be of service.

Tom

 

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5 thoughts on “Are spiritual teachings prescriptions or descriptions? Sudden vs. gradual teachings.

  1. Dear Tom , this has ben Lesson Two for me. Thank you friend and Master.
    My seeking in a more direct manner has started some four years ago although I believe to have been a searcher for truth all of my life.
    I say lesson two because as I have studied many enlightened masters repeating the same thing in different words and ways , I decided to start from zero with your teachings because in a very fortunate aspect , from moment one you have grounded me to deal with reality in a very positive, objective and creative way just by being as you are and making me realise from the start the simplicity of everything that already is.
    It is like we are speaking the same idiom whilst the others spoke in languages that were used as secret codes to hide ( not show or point out ) what is essential.
    I feel that I can trust your teachings as you leave no room for doubt or encourage my fantasy world in the arts that served me as an armour do defend me from the harsh and brutal realities of conventional life.
    Even when I say path now it means : the pathless path .
    To my fortune and surprise it is all pointing out to the sheer essence of what I call the poetry and beauty of existence which includes all the tragic and negative aspects as well.
    Love from e d u a r d

    Like

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