Why Eastern Spirituality is Often a Struggle for Westerners

Q: In reading Master of Self-Realization by Shri Sadguru Siddharameshwar Maharaj, I find that his answer to everything is that we are experiencing an illusion. We need to let go and just stop caring about whatever it is. That’s all there is to it. But for me, it’s not helpful to be told to just let go. What am I missing?

This is one of the reasons why Eastern spirituality can be tricky for Westerners. The Advaita Vedanta teachings do walk you through the steps. But even walking you through the steps, such as the gross body, subtle body, and causal body, etc., we can’t help but say, Great, OK, so you’ve just sliced and diced it for me. Knowing that this is the progression, how does that help?

They will tell you maybe you’ll get it in this lifetime if you are a serious disciple. Maybe it’ll take you a couple of lifetimes. But if you do this practice, eventually you will become enlightened.

I don’t know that all spiritual seekers have as their passion the need to become enlightened. Part of my job is to help people feel less crazy about their spiritual life by showing them how to be at peace with whatever level of awakening they seek. And I’m saying, OK, here are more options if you want to keep going, without assuming that everybody’s drive is to become fully enlightened. Because I don’t think it is.

I find that most people are perfectly happy calling the body “me and mine and I.” Perfectly happy living in the world and being of the world and loving and experiencing the world. But they want to do it with less pain.

What Eastern teachers are saying is, Yeah, good luck with that. You can’t do this with less pain, because you don’t understand what’s causing the pain. Illusion is what’s causing the pain.

But there is a way you can live here with less pain, and it is to live a more fully realized spiritual life, which doesn’t equate directly with an awakened life. It is a way of being that can relieve pressure points that cause pain. It can shift perspective to let go of stuff that, with a different understanding, doesn’t matter.

This is one of the progressions that happens with people naturally as they age. They get more wisdom, they understand what matters and what doesn’t. They’ve been through enough rollercoaster rides that they know when they’re going through the loop de loop, yep, the seatbelt’s going to hold. They’re not going to fall out. They don’t need to scream their heads off. They’re going to survive.

But for somebody who’s new to that rollercoaster ride, it’s terrifying. It feels as if every decision is a life-and-death decision. Only with age, experience, and wisdom do we start letting go and living more comfortably with the idea that, “Eh, OK it doesn’t really matter.”

Q: Is there a way to instill that wisdom in someone at a younger age, to help them alleviate the pain?

Yes, there are ways to do that and not get caught up in duality vs non-duality. But some seekers do have to get into that non-duality lane because they’re more serious about understanding enlightenment, and making it their life’s driving force.

But there are many spiritually interested people who aren’t really going to care about non-duality. It just won’t compute for them. It’s important to meet and accept the seeker where they are, and not make them feel bad about where they are. It’s not a competition. It’s all good.

Q: My objection to Master of Self-Realization is not that I’m not interested in enlightenment, because I really am. It’s that I don’t find it helpful after a while to hear, “Well, you have to reach this place where nothing matters to you. You can let it all go when you realize it’s all an illusion.” What do I do after I’ve tried this approach and failed?

This is the problem when a Westerner goes over to India. We have little training in their disciplines of meditation and so on, so we often don’t have enough of a framework for understanding.

I was guilty of this too before I lived there. I had a real attitude about Hinduism and its gods for everything, and not understanding the profound wisdom in their approach. There’s one God and that God will take whatever face you need for you to personally relate to that God. This approach doesn’t shut anybody out. It says, come on in. It’s a big wide superhighway. Everybody come. There are enough lanes so everybody can go at their own pace.

We’ve talked about this. The longer you’re on the highway, the greater this understanding, the fewer the lanes become, and the faster the traffic goes. And then you’re whizzing through this shute where experiences are happening to you.

You go through the holy shit phase, where you may think you’re cracking up because some of the experiences can be pretty mind-blowing, and then you blast through that phase to where it’s now, “OK, I’ve had these experiences. I experientially know. I have direct experience to know what you’re talking about. OK, so I have to figure out how to live there.” And that’s a whole other process again.

Most Indian Hindus with gurus have gone through some sort of training. And there are many householders who may have a less complicated understanding. But the books you’re reading now are often transcripts of conversations with very knowledgeable “students.” Often they can be discourses with monks in training. Similar to a Ph.D. program where they put these people through training on meditation, and different practices and experiences. So when they keep saying it’s all illusion, it means something to those guys.

To us it’s, can you please just say something, anything else. Because that drumbeat is not a rhythm that our ears can hear. We don’t have the right setup. We don’t have the tools. We’re trying to jump across the Grand Canyon with a running leap and use faith to say, Well, even if I don’t make it to the other side, at least if I fall, I won’t kill myself.

So there can sometimes be a naivete about our approach, which I think is unfortunate because I think it adds to the suffering.

Because when you’re starving and somebody’s telling you there’s food right in front of you, it’s like, “Great. Where the **** is it?” If I take almost any Westerner outside and say everywhere you look, there’s food. They’re not seeing food. They’re seeing grass, trees, plants, flowers.

If I don’t show this person that he can eat this plant and that plant and that plant, the food never appears to him. And that’s what’s happening for many Westerners. There’s a whiff in that spiritual communication.

That’s what I want to remove. Here’s the food. Here’s the plant. Taste this. This is exactly what it tastes like. This is what it looks like in spring, summer, fall, and winter. These are the parts you can eat. This is where you can find it. That’s the map that needs to be drawn for people.

Q: That’s the map most people need. The map Westerners need. So why do so many go to the East?

The thing is Westerners know that Easterners know. So they think, I’ll just cut to the front of the line and go straight to the East, and I’ll get it. But they’re not really prepared for the culture shock.

So Shri Siddharameshwar Maharaj does his thing and pulls the curtain back on all of it, I think, masterfully. He explains how this is the whole process from beginning to end. This is what we’re going to do with you. We’re going to fake you out every step of the way. We’re going to tell you this really matters. We’re going to make your whole life be about this thing that really matters only so that we can tell you it doesn’t matter at all.

When I was a kid there was a toy called an Easy Bake Oven for girls that would bake “cakes” the size of cookies. It used two 100-watt light bulbs as the heat source. You’d push the pan in the slot to cook and then stare into the blindingly lit window to see when it would be done because you were so anxious to eat the cake.

The only way to get the cake out was to push another pan in to push the first pan out. So it became this continual shifting in order to make a dozen little cookies, waiting to push each one in and out.

This is, in effect, what Shri Siddharameshwar Maharaj is saying that proper spiritual teaching does. It pushes you in, you become absorbed by it. You can’t take your eyes off it. You’re waiting, you’re counting on it, you’re attached to it, you’re imagining what it’s going to be like. There’s all this anticipation, and then you realize it’s done, you’re done, it’s done. Push it out. And then the next pan gets pushed in.

There’s an installation of knowledge. Then an examination of this knowledge. Then an obsession with this knowledge. And then a realization that this knowledge is done. Not that it’s true or not true. It’s just done. It doesn’t serve you anymore, so it gets pushed out. There’s no sadness when it gets pushed out because it’s done. And then you’re on to the next one that you’re fascinated with and obsessed with and think is everything.

Only through this process of intense focus and completion can you let go to get to the next level.

So I think, what is the way for a Westerner to not have it take an entire lifetime or lifetimes, or commit to an ascetic monk’s life? Because essentially, short of that, unless somebody just has a spontaneous awakening experience, it’s not gonna happen. It’s going to remain just an intellectual curiosity or interest. Yes, some spiritual progress will be made where you live a more moral and spiritual life, and that gets you better karma. But in the spiritual grand scheme of things, that’s a limited view.

What this swami talks about is that when people find something they like, they tend to get stuck there. They don’t tend to release it. It becomes another attachment rather than seeing it as a map to get to the next territory. They just fall in love with the map and they never move to the next territory.

Q: Which would seem to me to be fine if they are genuinely happy instead.

It is fine. The whole thing is not to get into the comparison of who’s is better. It’s all moving you toward good, so support whatever is good.

But then the Eastern teachers say, “Yeah, but if you wanted to keep going, you could. Because there’s more past that. And there’s even more past that. And there’s even more past that!

Many Westerners instead of feeling excited when they hear that, feel exhausted.

“Oh my God, you’re shitting me! I gotta do more? There’s more? I have to give up more? I have to pass more tests?”

Q: Yeah, well, I think there’s also that issue. But isn’t that why you’re a teacher—because you should be able to give me clues or strategies to get past this? Or to maybe move along quicker than I would if I just tried to do this on my own?

And they would say yes, we can do that. Here’s the problem. Forget being born into this lifetime with its forgetting and being taught into the construct of the cultural reality. It’s not just that you need to forget this lifetime. You need to figure out how to remove the reinforcement of the construct of reality that has been in place for hundreds or thousands or however many lifetimes you’ve lived. You need to undo all that and do it as quickly as you can.

Q: As the student, at that point, I say why bother?

Once you become a seeker, a seed has been planted. And it wants to grow and it wants to become a seedling and it wants to become a big oak tree.

Once that seed is planted, you really have no choice. It’s a process that has its own catalyst.

You can try to give up. You can get mad or disappointed or frustrated. It does no good. Because the seed is going to do everything it can to grow. It has to. It will.

Q: It’s not so much in my case that I’ve given up. It’s that I stopped caring about it. Maybe that’s the same difference. I just say maybe it’s not in the cards for me.

The irony of that is you’re so far ahead of most people because of the way you came in with the kind of awareness you have.

Q: I don’t think I’m the least bit bitter about it. I wish that I would have the experience.

I don’t think it’s bitterness. I think it just baffles you.

Q: Yes it does. But I’m appreciative of how much I feel appreciative of my life most of the time.

I don’t know that it’s really about appreciation. That if we accept where we are, that releases us from where we are.

It releases us momentarily from the struggle that we associate with being where we are, but it doesn’t release us from where we are.

Because there’s no other knowledge replacing that knowledge of where we are.

Q: One of the things that I was thinking about as kind of an example of how this works or doesn’t work is it’s said over and over again in our culture that money does not solve problems, and that nobody on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at the office trying to make more money. And yet as many times as we all hear that, I think most people continue that pursuit anyway.

The modern world teaches and pushes scarcity—there’s not enough. It’s very difficult to get out of that mindset that it’s a zero-sum game.

Q: If I weren’t in your classes, my journey would be different. I wouldn’t even be considering this. I would have my own modest goals of becoming more fearless and less concerned about what other people thought of me. My main goal for myself is to move into someone who is kind and considerate and compassionate. To be very strong in knowing how I feel, and not be concerned about how other people see me because I’m fully confident in who I am. That would be my goal.

What you’ve done is raise the stakes. But it hasn’t really changed what my goals are. I’m just aware that maybe I’ve set my sights a little bit low. But I’ve set them where I think they need to be because I think for me, what I just described is the next step.

If I were to try to take the next step you talk about, it’s imaginary to me. I’m not even close to feeling that it’s possible.

We can’t want what we don’t know.

Q: Right, and I don’t know it so I don’t want it. Intellectually, it sounds exciting. I think, well, why wouldn’t I want that? But I don’t even know what it is.

I think many people feel the same way. Most people think it sounds good on paper, but when they actually think about it, it scares them because it feels too overwhelming. It’s like a kid in bed at night, thinking about infinity and eternity. The incomprehensible immensity of that is scary.

Q: I don’t think it scares me anymore. I think I just can’t comprehend it. There was a time when it might have scared me because I was more attached than I am now. Now I’m less attached to personal identity.

That’s the first big step.

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