There are as many spiritual journeys as there are spiritual seekers. Nevertheless, here I would like to look at the spiritual journey itself and the stages most seekers pass through.
The spiritual search starts off with the insight that the happiness that one tries to attain usually through success, money, human relations and pleasures of varied kind cannot be attained through them – in any case, not with lasting effect. So the search for happiness increasingly shifts towards subtle realms that are often called ‘spiritual’.
This is how we get to the first stage of the spiritual journey, the search for fulfilling experiences. In this first stage one goes on seeking happiness somewhere outside, but not any more in worldly-material areas. One now hopes for blissful experiences by visiting ‘spiritual’ or ‘energetically charged’ places (temples, churches, mountains, rivers, towns) or by uplifting actions – rituals, meditations, astral journeys, magic etc. For some the spiritual journey may come to a close here. The readers of these essays, however, want more. For them this first stage ends with a feeling of frustration that arises essentially from the realization that even the beneficial experiences from such actions do not lead to a lasting feeling of happiness.
The second stage of the spiritual journey is reached when you realize that you yourself can contribute something to the longed-for happiness. Now the focus of the search shifts inwards. Many Western seekers begin to analyze their own psyche and then get down to eliminating ‘happiness-diminishing’ or ‚’happiness-preventing’ factors. The second stage can continue for a long time because there is no map for one’s own psyche: one never knows exactly whether all essential areas have been examined yet or not. Because there is an enormously big offer of methods promising happiness, the seeker runs the risk of getting stuck at this stage.
Other seekers at this stage start to purify their minds in various ways. The criteria used may differ. However, underlying all is the idea that happiness is possible only with a purified mind or a purified soul. As it is generally accepted that such a purification process can take a very long time, in several spiritual schools the happiness to be reached is shifted straight away to the time after death. Then, in heaven or in the next life, one can harvest the fruits of one’s work in this life. This is another way in which this second stage often turns into the final stage of the spiritual search.
Many seekers go on forever, moving back and forth between the first and the second stages. This includes even those who seek happiness by exploiting the whole esoteric range (see October essay), and who also never get to the end of the path on account of the almost boundless possibilities on offer. Only those who, at some point, give up all hope of reaching lasting happiness with the help of psychological or undertaken in the second stage could make a good foundation for the next stage. It is not all pointless, but it should not become the end in itself.
The third stage usually starts with utter frustration. After all, one has already tried everything and nothing, nothing at all, has brought lasting happiness any nearer. Any time something can happen that makes one plummet from the experienced heights right back into the ordinary earthly vale of tears. Now only one possibility remains, namely questioning the very aim – happiness. However, this is easier said than done. In fact it is utterly impossible because, whoever is not completely numb, longs for happiness: but why, oh why, if all methods of reaching it seem bound to fail? Has humanity been created by a sadistic God who has fun watching everyone continuously running after happiness and never finding it ?!
Advaita has a different answer: The seeker is what he seeks: in essence he is pure happiness. The problem is that he does not know it. From this ignorance he searches for happiness somewhere else.
Everything a person can perceive is an object of perception and, therefore it is not himself, the subject. He can perceive his surroundings, his body, his thoughts and feelings. Nothing of this is his true Self and, obviously, nothing of it is pure happiness and this is his frustration.
One can enter the third stage of the spiritual path only with the presumption that the seeker himself is the happiness he seeks. Only then the seeker can decide to stop seeking happiness; instead he seeks his true Self. He assumes that the issue of the missing happiness will become redundant as soon as the true Self has been discovered.
He stops seeking for happiness in the realm of the gross or the subtle world, but he asks himself ‘Who or what am I? Who or what is this I?’ Only with this turnaround – away from the objects, towards the subject, him/herself – he/she is ready for the path of knowledge. Now it is a matter of consistently ignoring all methods that promise happiness they cannot deliver. And then the search starts for someone who can support him/her in the search for the Self, someone who already has found himself (see November’s essay about the teacher).
At this stage only advaita teachers qualify: all other spiritual, or so-called spiritual, schools of thought do not suffice any more. In order to facilitate the search for a teacher, I give a brief overview.
Basically one can classify advaita teachers into four categories:
1. Traditional advaita teachers (Advaita Vedanta)
2. Western satsang teachers
3. Western neo advaita teachers
4. Direct Path teachers
Re. 1 – Traditional teachers are mostly of Indian origin, although there are also others. I recommend Swami Paramarthananda in Chennai; on his web site http://www.yogamalika.org.in one can listen to some of his talks. However, the traditional advaita vedanta is a system that cannot be grasped after one or two talks. Swami Paramarthananda is a disciple of Swami Dayananda (earlier both had had links with the late Swami Chinmayananda). He has also trained many Western people. I have learned, and still learn a lot, from both Swamis.
Re. 2 – There is an abundance of Western Satsang teachers. I cannot judge who of them teaches pure Advaita and is a good teacher, simply because I do not know most of them. I name two to whom I owe a lot: Dolano and Gangaji, and two who I value: Mooji and Adyashanti. Western Satsang teachers do not follow any system: every teacher approaches people in his own individual way. They often refer to Ramana Maharshi (who did not teach traditional advaita vedanta, by the way), however, they are not necessarily very familiar with his teachings. 1
Re. 3 – Neo-advaita teachers are merely called teachers, though in fact they do not teach. Their main statement is, ‘you are already what you seek’, which corresponds to the highest truth. Indeed, they offer no instruments for how the seeker can recognise it but stress that it is pure chance whether somebody recognises the highest truth or not. Neo-advaita teachers are for example Tony Parsons, Nathan Gill, Jeff Foster, Leo Hartong, Unmani Liza Hide. Neo advaita teachers often refer to Nisargadatta Maharaj, they also like to refer to Ramesh Balsekar.
Re. 4 – Direct Path actually is not a path, indeed it is a distinctive approach to Advaita. It is based on logical inquiry and its teachers are familiar with traditional advaita vedanta. In my opinion the Direct Path is suited only for advanced seekers, most of all for those who have already recognised who they truly are, yet whose knowledge is still unstable. Greg Goode, Francis Lucille and Rupert Spira belong to the Direct Path. Founder of the Direct Path was Atmananda Krishna Menon, a disciple of his was Jean Klein.
Additionally I would like to say something about my own teaching. It is essentially a mixture of Western Satsang, Direct Path and traditional Advaita Vedanta. Because I work only on a one-to-one basis, the mixture of these aspects is always tailored to individual needs. Sometimes, if it is about building foundations (mentioned in the last essay), I even draw on psychological methods.
The self that seeks happiness is like a wave that seeks water.
Here is a good overview of the different teachers as well as links to other sites that introduce different teachers http://www.advaita.org.uk/teachers/teachers.htm.
However, the site is being reworked at the moment and therefore, it is worthwhile revisiting it from time to time.