My spiritual evolution has been a lot like my marital arts evolution. I'll explain.
For about nine years I practiced traditional Shotokan karate. I got to the brown belt level, and did quite well in tournaments where I sparred against black belts with considerably more experience, and who were much younger than me. But when it came to testing, I was stuck. I wasn't being advanced from the initial brown belt level.
Eventually it dawned on me that I was learning martial arts skills.
But what I was learning wasn't what the Shotokan higher-ups wanted to see when it came to testing. So I switched to a more flexible style of karate. It was a big relief to realize that for those nine years, I'd been learning about martial arts. What I was learning just wasn't what traditional Shotokan karate expected me to learn.
Likewise, for about 35 years I practiced a form of meditation that involved devotion to a supposedly "perfect guru." The technique involved repetition of a mantra with a focus on the center of the forehead, drawing attention away from the body and external world. The goal was to "go within" and experience realms of existence beyond the physical.
I learned a lot during those years of meditating from one to two-and-a-half hours a day.
Eventually, though, it dawned on me that what I was learning wasn't what this particular spiritual path of Radha Soami Satsang Beas wanted me to learn. So for quite a few years I've shifted to a Buddhist style of meditation centered on awareness of the breath -- along with whatever else is happening within me and without me.
There are various forms of Buddhism, of course. I don't have much use for the more religious forms. But I very much enjoy the forms that are either wholly secular, or keep the supernatural side of Buddhism to a minimum (such as rebirth).
I'm about halfway through a book that I saw mentioned in a comment on this blog, "No Self, No Problem," by Anam Thubten. I agree with the positive Amazon reviews. Even though Thubten appears to believe in rebirth, he puts very little emphasis on this. Rather, Thubten has an engaging, honest, direct way of speaking about spirituality and meditation.
What I most like about this book is that it reassures me that the meditation path I'm on is the path taught by the Buddha. Not that I revere the Buddha, since I don't know the guy, and one of my favorite Buddhist adages is "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"
Not literally, of course. But in the sense of not being led astray by theological or religious concepts, or bowing down to an external authority, trusting instead in your own experience.
Here's excerpts from the first half of "No Self, No Problem" where Thubten talks about how a true spiritual path doesn't involve devotion to dogmas, concepts, complex belief systems. Rather, the Buddhist approach is to observe the breath, and everything else in this world, in a wonderfully simple fashion until the illusion of the self dissolves.
This opening, this receptivity, is basically related to our ability to resist arming the ego with concepts and ideas. A true spiritual path transcends all concepts and belief systems. It is not about reinforcing the mind's illusion of self as an identity. It is not about being a Buddhist, a saint, or a better person. It is really about deconstructing all of our illusions without any mercy.
...Sometimes our ego convinces us that we are realizing this sense of no fixed self at the same time we are holding on to another concept like trying to be sacred or spiritual. Holding on to conceptions such as "sacred" or "spiritual" while we are working toward transcending self-attachment is very subtle.
...Often we discover that we have been chasing illusions. Sometimes they are beautiful illusions like the illusion of enlightenment and spiritual transformation. Nevertheless, as long as we allow our mind to chase such illusions, there is no true liberation.
...On the spiritual path people sometimes get attached to all kinds of sacred and bizarre concepts to make sense out of their place in this giant mysterious universe.
...Nirvana is not some kind of beautiful, celestial garden filled with peaches and mangoes, a place where everyone is walking around with beautiful halos... It's not a place, a destination we are going to travel to. It's not even a transcendent state of mind that we are going to achieve. It is not a beautiful, ecstatic, trancelike state of mind we can cherish. That's not really nirvana. Rather, nirvana is a great cessation of the separation between us and the truth. It is the mere acknowledgement of what has been the case all along. It is like waking up from a nightmare. It's a great relief to discover that nothing has to be done.
...Sometimes the spiritual search itself prevents us from seeing the truth that is always with us. We have to know when to stop the search.
...When we meditate, when we sit and simply pay attention to our breath, we begin to see that there is an "I, a self, who is searching for enlightenment and liberation from suffering. But if we keep paying attention to our breath and body sensations, then eventually all of those ideas, concepts, and illusions begin to dissipate one after another and truth reveals itself.
...Nobody is there. "I" is completely nonexistent in that place. There is no separation between samsara, bad circumstances, and nirvana, good circumstances, and there is nobody pursuing the path or chasing after enlightenment. In that moment we realize the essence of the Buddha's teaching.
...Believe it or not, we often use the spiritual or religious path to construct ego identity, even when this is not conscious at the time.
...Sometimes the very self that is fighting ego is actually ego and that's even trickier. But sometimes we can just look directly into our consciousness and ask, "Who is fighting against ego?" Often everything collapses right there. Therefore the path of bliss is really not about declaring war on the ego in order to get rid of anything we see as a stumbling block on the road to our imagined final destination. Rather, it is about allowing the self to dissolve spontaneously by giving up nothing and going nowhere.
...Ego is trying to seduce us into chasing some beautiful exotic illusion. But if we just surrender and remain in that present awareness, paying attention to our breath, amazingly the self dies. There is no longer a self who says, "I don't like what is going on. I don't like this ordinary moment. I don't like just sitting here paying attention to breath." The "I" who doesn't like what is unfolding is completely gone and that is all that matters in the ultimate sense.
...When self dissolves, everything is already awakened.
...The hindrances to inner awakening can be so subtle they are almost unperceivable, and usually they sneak in through the back door. Many spiritual traditions teach us that we cannot be free in this lifetime. But even if they teach us that it is possible, they make it sound like it is some kind of a super attainment unlikely for us to reach. Some even go to the extreme of saying that it can only be achieved by surrendering to an outer authority. As long as we believe those rumors, we're not going anywhere but in circles. Our practice won't amount to anything more than a dog chasing its tail.
...Therefore, the essence of all spiritual paths is about dissolving everything here and now without waiting. And again, how do we dissolve that self ecstatically? We are just present, paying attention to the breath, and then the self begins to dissolve. This sounds so simple.
...As long as we are building defense mechanisms, transformation will be exiled to the realm of improbability. And these defense mechanisms, wearing a spiritual mask now, comprise layers of denial, each one more subtle than the other. It is like finding a new cradle where we can be infantile again and have no responsibility for ourselves. Mommy and Daddy are projected onto an omnipotent god or guru who will take care of us eternally.
...True meditation is nothing but the art of abiding, without effort, where you don't try to get rid of anything. If you leave your mind as it is, you will see that nothing can bind you.
...So whatever arises in your consciousness, bad thoughts, good thoughts, don't try to catch them. Watch them. It's like watching the waves on the surface of the ocean. They arise and they always go back. In the same way observe your mind without any effort. Remember that this is called the method of effortlessness. Don't try to alter or change the natural state of mind.