The Problem with Spiritual Seeking

Spiritual Seeking

Spiritual seeking - the search for an incorruptible truth at the nature of our existence - begins as a hapless unconscious wandering and then one day often becomes a search in ernest. It is this often frantic, fickle or despondent search that is the subject of this article.

This will be a dicussion of various misdirections along the spiritual path. Implicit in seeking are all sorts of metaphysical and ontological assumptions, including, that there is someone with individual free-will who is doing the seeking, and that being someone, there are others, and that somehow all of these are separate from what is sought. In the end, it is the search itself that stands as the final barrier.

It is not that spiritual seeking is a bad thing, nor that it is something to avoid. There are, however, a wide variety of caveats of which to be aware should you find yourself on the path. The search for self-realisation has the potential to be a rewarding and eye-opening adventure with life changing consequences.

There is something oddly hilarious about any contemplation of the subject of seeking. Foremost, that which is sought is not other than that which is actually doing the seeking. One of the most common injunctions of teachers is to stop, 'call off the search', or surrender, but in time, it is no longer apparent by whom or even why this is done. It seems there are a myriad other funny peculiarities and paradoxes a few of which I will attempt to share from my own perspective.


I got quite interested in mindfulness in 2010. It was around that time that I was struggling to cope with work-related anxiety and depression. At the time, mindfulness was viewed as a potential tool to help cope with stress.

Later, it became a tool to cultivate penetrating insight into the nature and operation of mind, and ultimately, conceptual reality. It was through this practice that some curiosity, courage and abiding developed to study these things in a more intimate way.

On reflection though, it was mindfulness that also appears responsible for cultivating a stronger sense of ego, albeit a calm witness rather than a hysterical person. It is clear that if there is seeking - if there is the metaphysical assumption of an independent self - doing just about anything tends to embolden this sense of independent existence. After all, mindfulness is usually approached from a very personal, egocentric perspective. It is an activity that appears carried out in pursuit of a goal: be it greater understanding, or equanimity, or whatever. The inescapable implication of someone performing a practice, or having some goal to attain, is independence - is separation.

Despite this apparent futility, like many spiritual practices there is a time and a place, and often a deeper meaning. Ironically for me, as the acute sense of separation has fallen away, there is often more of what might be misconstrued as mindfulness.

My interpretation of mindfulness has always seemed to involve an individual 'doer' and the deliberate direction of attention. As a result, some degree of precision and care naturally seems to result. Multitasking and haste are in some sense contrary to mindfulness.

Given the transparency of ego in the presence of realisation, the frantic activity and multitasking that often results from the pressure of an egocentric perspective is no longer manifested. Actually it seems at odds with the nature of things, intuitively speaking.

So in the most superficial sense mindfulness is an ego driven practice of remembering and directed attention. In a deeper sense, realisation results in the same characteristics but without the perception of effort, since it is known there is nobody really there.

Analytical Contemplation

Analytical contemplation on the self involves a repeated enquiry into the essence of who, or even what is even asking the question; 'What am I?' It often works by gradually stripping away or negating all that which is not self.

Eventually, through self inquiry of this nature the mind is bought to a sort of intellectual cul-de-sac. It is a stalemate or deadlock which manifests as a profound stop in the usual internal thought commentary. The conceptual mind has carried you to the precipice but cannot carry 'you' any further.

Conceptual mind can only provide a conceptual answer. Conceptual mind is inherently dualistic; it works by 'chopping' the world into pieces and applying labels. That which knows and perceives all concepts, cannot itself be a concept. The idea that reality is made of parts is itself an appearance within that which we label 'conceptual mind'.

In my own case, there have been several sitting sessions of such analytical contemplation as well as informal, ad-hoc inquiry during everyday activities. Almost without fail, the conceptual mind will eventually step back in with doubts and further questions, because what is seen is not completely understood at an intuitive level.

The problem is, analytical contemplation begins with the assumption that there is something lost and someone to find it. As anyone who has experienced significant realisation may attest, there is no real seeker. The story of 'me' is just a mundane convenience. There is no independent being behind the story.

Once again, we have a practice which may prove invaluable in the lead up to self-realisation but can only take you so far. In the end, it becomes just another useless impediment.

Tales of Awakening

Spiritual literature is rife with fantastic tales of mystics, past and present, who have had some 'spiritual experience' or awakening. Some of these tales are believable to the conventional, materialist mindset. Others may sound amazing but implausible.

All these tales share one aspect in common, however, that for the seeker they foster images in the mind of what awakening will be like. These images may be subtle or exotic, but they will inevitably become a measuring stick by which the ego mind will monitor progress on the path and attempt to verify attainment of the goal. In so doing, these grand tales actually hinder realisation because the images they foster never accord with the final reality. Holding on to the images themselves continues the seeking.

The other problem is that of spiritual knowledge and non-ordinary states of consciousness. There is a mind-boggling gamut of spiritual literature and much of it has no direct relationship to self-realisation. Topics include energy medicine, astral travel, precognition and channeling. How does one reconcile all this information with non-duality?

Such knowledge and experience may often be a powerful experiential catalyst. They inform the intuition that there is more to understand and they contradict the prevailing metaphysical assumptions of materialism.

I have certainly had some non-ordinary experiences of consciousness, of the kind having nothing to do with recreational drug use! Whilst these experiences are fairly tame compared to many of the tales I have read, they have served on occasion to confirm my early speculations that materialism was not a sane representation of reality. By the same token, all the talk of such experiences has at times led to doubts and confusion.

As an aside, whilst such experiences may prove a useful catalyst, they are by no means necessary. There is a growing mound of scientific evidence that is often a damning indictment of the materialist paradigm. Materialism implies that people are essentially just animated lumps of meat - zombies. It implies an essentially cold, meaningless universe. Under close careful scrutiny, these attributes do not accord with reality. They run contrary to subjective experience, contrary to the mounting record of phenomena which cannot be explained by materialism (often pushed under the carpet), and contrary to the latest findings in contemporary physics.

With realisation such experiences and certain phenomena may become more pronounced. Things like intuition, synchronicity and psychic experiences may increase because we become more open. The limiting belief of separation and individuality - is dropped.

Limits of Language

Language in spiritual teaching is often a significant impediment to understanding and realisation.

Many terms naturally give rise to a misleading mental image. As with grand tales of awakening, this image then becomes the measuring stick by which your ego monitors your 'progress'. Colourful language, like 'mysterious silence', 'sublime peace', 'felt presence', 'quiet knowing' and 'satori' all supply the ego mind with myriad additional reasons to become suspcious of any experience and to give rise to doubt. This in turn, seems to fuel seeking in a futile loop.

Various words are used to try and refer directly to what is realised, the Absolute, That, God, Non-Duality, Spirit, Now, Self and others. Such words are aids to teaching, without which it would be impossible to talk about the topic at all. Yet, they are a representation, a pointer to something that cannot be named: as all concepts ultimately are. There is no benefit to the seeker in defining such terms, because all concepts are simply built with more concepts, and so on...

Concepts are a useful practical abstraction in everyday life, but they are not that which is represented. It is when the concept of self is confused for the actual self, that we become seekers. The actual self is beyond all concepts.

Language itself is inherently dualistic and it builds upon the conceptual mind. The first thing the conceptual mind does with spiritual teaching is to build another conceptual framework. In this way, a superficial set of relationships is formed without any understanding of what is actually being communicated.

This is what my initial 'experience' of non-duality was like. A dry conceptual understanding. It was of no lasting value whatsoever! It is brittle and takes great effort to keep up the pretense; you become a walking 'spiritual ego'.

In time perhaps, this superficial understanding is gradually grounded in actual experience. This grounding is realisation. Still, unlike other kinds of teaching the coneptual knowledge itself is eventually an impediment. An intellectual understanding of non-duality will not get you far. It is soon redundant.

In my travels, I have spent a lot of time with the teachings of the historical Buddha. At the core of these teachings are the Four Noble Truths. The second of these essentially asserts that the cause of suffering is desire (craving and aversion). The desire of which the Buddha speaks is not just any desire, but a kind of primordial existential imperative to be something other than what already is. It refers merely to a kind of primal confusion or forgetfulness, where it is reality itself that is playing at being confused.

So beginners to Buddhism frequently interpret this teaching to mean they should strive to rid themselves of all desire. Those that pursue this course with rigour will find themselves in the paradoxical and untenable situation of having a desire to be without desire! It as if one were trying to get away from oneself; it is not possible. It is only in a moment of remembering that no seeking is present.

Despite this, strict religious and spiritual practices can be helpful to make space in the mind for further practice, leading to realisation. I was engaged in Buddhist practice, on and off, for many years. So it is not without meaning, and yet, the deeper truth is easy to miss.

Yet another example of language difficulty is the word equanimity. There are a couple of meanings of equanimity. In Buddhism, it refers to calm abiding and also to seeing all others as essentially equal. It is this calm abiding that most people usually mean by equanimity.

In the usual sense of the word, equanimity, may be misunderstood to suggest a rigid calm and serenity. The intended meaning is more nuanced. Personal equanimity is reflective of the ever-present, effortless primordial peace. It is not rigid but flowing. It is the absence of any imperative for experience to be other than it is. It is the state of being without existential desire or will.

This spiritual equanimity is analogous to the difference between animation and agitation. Animation is analogous to equanimity in life, whilst agitation marks a struggle, hatred or even vitriol. In this sense, one can be equanimous and experience anger. Though how the anger manifests will differ markedly between one who is animated and one who is agitated.

The true and only real agency, the Absolute, is always fulfilled and complete. It wants for nothing and has everything. Paradoxically, this is reflected in form as being without an existential imperative for peace or existence. The absence of this imperative leaves only peace. Consequently, peace is always abundant regardless of the appearance of any storm. Desire only obfuscates peace, it does not surplant it. Primordial peace is ever present.

One of the most troubling areas of my own life has been my relationship with my father. Our most congenial conversation has been that where the separate sense of ego has not been a significant factor. It is on these occasions where listening actually occurs, rather than blind reactivity. It is on these occasions when both of us have been most equanimous.

Writings of varying quality and eloquence on the subject of spiritual seeking continue to appear in the concensus reality we call 'the world' and particularly on the Internet. Invariably, the majority of these writings are misunderstood either completely or almost entirely. For those seeking, such teaching gives guidance, and the inevitable variety makes some works more applicable to certain personalities or stages of development.

All this material is also cause for a good laugh since it often seems to have been such a futile activity! I have witnessed many with a scientific background in conference video attempting to argue that non-duality is a point of view, or an opinion. I have experienced the joy and dispair of my foolhardy and often inept attempts to communicate the essence of non-duality to both friends and family. What non-duality represents is no more an opinion than the fact this body has one head. Strictly speaking the later is debatable, the former is not.

Another Misdirection

The ego is an elaborate pretense. It provides the illusion of a real, independent being. Often, this understanding does not penetrate deeply enough and much confusion or weirdness ensues. Key to understanding is to elucidate all the ramifications of no self.

For example, one of the ramifications is that the individual body-mind is a puppet. It can have no free-will. Yet if you try and embody this notion whilst still operating at some level on the assumption of separation, you are going to run into trouble. It may lead to a sense that you can simply be irresponsible, or it may leave you feeling powerless. If the understanding of non-duality is grounded in actual experience, these hidden ontological assumptions are uprooted. In their absence, there is no one to give rise to irresponsible action, nor anyone to be severely disturbed about the absence of individual free-will.

A deepening realisation of the non-dual, non-empirical aspect of reality is, a sort of ego relaxation. Literally the body tension associated with an independent 'I' begins to fall away. Thoughts no longer seem to be located anywhere in space where previously there is the subtle implication they are somehow in the head or brain. Speech and actions just happen, they don't carry the same ontological implication of being done by anyone or too anything.

This article appears before the eyes of the author, who is in some sense quietly astonished at its appearance as if a todler witnessing a magic trick.

A significant proportion, well over half of the thoughts an average person experiences will fall away with any significant realisation. The egocentrism of most thoughts becomes transparent. That is to say, these thoughts manifest only because of the underlying ontological assumption of separateness and independent existence. It is to experience a deep state of relaxation.

Though it is not so much the reduction in thoughts that is so interesting, as the underlying reason for the reduction. Long periods of silence are a potent reflection of the deeper underlying peace of being. Such silence also allows the space neccessary for subtle intuitions, and creative or cognitive insights to manifest, where they would otherwise have been covered up by wall-to-wall thoughts.

Abiding realisation is simply the unfolding of life where ego functions as a mundane instrument or tool. The person is seen through as essentially a puppet and the conceptual mind is thus no longer burdened with 'running' the ego. In truth, this is how it has always been even when it was not known.

Before realisation, life is lived from the conceptual, ego-driven mind. Attempting to live life from the conceptual mind is akin to interacting with the world through a malfunctioning space suit. The glass frosts up, you can't breathe properly and all your movements are very clumsy.

Abiding self-realisation is to live life without the limiting ontological assumption of an independent, separate self. Realisation is understanding grounded in lived experience.

It is to understand there is no independent, substantive being. That which the ego supposedly represents simply is not real.


Spiritual seeking is a tricky business. Basically everything seems to lead, not quite there. 'It' is right 'under your nose', whatever 'it' is. Seeking is rife with paradox and contradiction, and fraught with difficulty. Even when seeking seems to have ceased, it also still seems to be going on but in a different guise perhaps - by whom we don't know!

Unlike knowledge, self-realisation is a radical act of unlearning - of dropping limiting and unfounded belief: the belief in a separate self. There are no 'parts' to relate with your conceptual understanding on the path. In fact, there are no parts at all. There is no thing. There is just That. No person, no other. No seeker. No non-duality even!

The bottom line is, if you have questions, you will attempt to give rise to answers - be it through consultation with teachers or teachings, or finally, inner contemplation and intuition. There can be no denial of anything here, so let the questions come until they are no more.

Perhaps some of the little personal anecdotes I have shared here will help you to 'get out of your own way', so to speak.

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