Here's some thoughts about the value of basing your spiritual practice on... drumroll please... absolutely nothing. But I'll introduce this topic by sharing an anecdote.
Yesterday I took our dog for a walk around the community lake near our rural property. A house is for sale that overlooks the lake. A woman and two children were walking down from the house toward the lake, seemingly because the family was looking into buying the house.
A young boy came up to the fence that our dog and me were on the other side of. He pointed and said, "nice lake." Then he crawled through the fence with no problem.
His mother, I assume it was, came over to him. "Look," she said, "there's some barbed wire on this fence. You could have gotten caught on it. There's a gate over there. I'll show you the proper way to get through the fence."
I said, looking at the boy, "Proper? That's no fun." As dog and I continued on our walk, I thought about my own boyhood days growing up in a rural area in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
Barbed wire was used in all the fences on the land where my friends and I played and cattle roamed. Rarely were there gates. Early on I learned various tricks to get through a barbed wire fence.
If the wire was tight, stand on the strands next to a post and hop over the fence. If the wire was loose, put your foot on the bottom strand and crawl through the fence. Or have a friend pull up on a strand while you step on the bottom strand while you crawl through.
Telling the boy that only a gate is the proper way to cross a barbed wire fence not only isn't true, it prevents the boy from learning other ways. The mother could have said, "Let's think of some ways to get through the fence safely without using a gate."
I was right when I said Proper is no fun. Often we have to act properly to fulfill a societal expectation. But I've found that improper behavior tends to be more enjoyable, because it flows from our natural inclination, not someone else's view of how life should be lived.
Anyway, back to the best spiritual practice being nothing. I can relate this to what I wrote above with just a little cramming of the fence/gate metaphor into the subject at hand.
Religions are fond of gates. They like to control who passes through their gate that supposedly leads to God, heaven, enlightenment, or some other elevated state. So there are requirements to approach the gate.
For example, the Eastern religion I was a member of for 35 years, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, required initiates to be vegetarian, meditate 2 1/2 hours a day, not use alcohol or recreational drugs, abstain from having sex outside of marriage, and follow a vaguely stated pure and moral life.
Members of other religions follow other sorts of rules. The underlying rationale is that the spiritual seeker is different from what is sought. So the gap between seeker and sought has to be bridged by a gate that leads between what a person is now and what they hope to be.
Thus almost all religions have a dualistic philosophy. Humans are on one side of a cosmic fence -- the worldly, physical, limited, time-bound side where suffering is commonplace. Religions promise a way to get through that fence into a very different supernatural, spiritual, expansive, eternal side of the cosmos.
But what if that side doesn't exist? After all, there's no proof that it does. Then we're left with two basic approaches to spirituality, one that isn't based in reality, and one that is.
(1) There's much to do and become (non-reality based)
(2) There's nothing to do and become (reality based)
Yet here's why (2) still exists in the form of Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita, and similar non-dual approaches to spirituality. Religions who preach (1) are so ubiquitous, and have been so for thousands of years, currently billions of people are lined up in front of gates that don't lead anywhere.
So they need to be told, "Hey, guys, wanted to point out that there's no need for those gates that you wrongly believe lead to divinity. Actually, you can just walk right around them, since there's no fence either."
Meaning, reality isn't divided into a natural world and supernatural world. There's just one world, and it isn't supernatural. It's right here, right now.
Thus nothing needs to be done to be "spiritual," viewed as being in touch with how you and the world really is, other than giving up the erroneous belief that you're separate from reality.
This is akin to someone being afflicted by a psychosis of sorts where they imagine being judged by an outside power, told by that power that they lack something without which they can't live a meaningful life, and instructed how to search for it under the guidance of people in tune with that power.
What that person needs is the ability to recognize that what they imagine to be true, actually is false. They don't need to do anything. They need to stop believing in a fantasy.
Sam Harris likes to say in the guided meditations on his Waking Up app, "Rest in the condition in which everything is appearing." That condition is awareness, or if you like, consciousness. Without awareness/consciousness, there is no reality capable of being known.
So in that non-dual sense, the observer isn't separate from what's observed; the thinker isn't separate from what is thought; the hearer isn't separate from what is being heard. Alan Watts speaks of this when he says, "We don't come into the world; we come out of the world."
In other words, we aren't separate from the world.
I'm reading Stephen Bodian's book, "Wake Up Now: A Guide to the Journey of Spiritual Awakening." There's many places in the parts of the book I've read so far that echo the notion that the best spiritual practice is nothing.
Here's an example:
From a direct intuition of the imminent availability of the truth of your being, you've been lured into the spiritual marketplace, where well-intentioned vendors hawk their wares, promising enlightenment somewhere in the distant future as the result of years of effort if you're willing to buy their product, take their course, join their community, and invest thousands of hours of your time.
The innocent initial impulse to orient, listen, and move toward truth the way a child naturally returns to its mother or a bird to its nesting ground has been co-opted by an established tradition and turned into a circuitous path to spiritual realization. Welcome to the progressive approach!
Progressive paths are extraordinarily appealing because they've been so carefully elaborated, often over many centuries. Bearing the imprimatur of an established tradition, they suggest that if you just follow the instructions wholeheartedly, the results will take care of themselves.
If you listen to enough teachings, spend enough hours in meditation, attend enough retreats, cultivate enough of the right attitudes and qualities, you'll one day discover the truth of who you really are. As inspiration, the progressive scriptures are filled with exhortatory tales of masters who began as seekers just like you and me and eventually achieved enlightenment through prolonged and concerted effort.
...Eventually, after giving up the effort and the formal practice of meditation, I met a teacher who told me, "The seeker is the sought, the looker is what he or she is looking for." My mind couldn't wrap itself around these words, but one day soon after, in a moment out of time, the seeker and the sought collapsed into one another, and I knew who I was once and for all.
The one who had been looking so hard for true nature was the very true nature I had been looking for. Truth had been playing hide and seek with itself. As long as I continued focusing so much on searching, I couldn't possibly stumble backward into the silent presence that was the source of all searching.
...In fact, the prolonged practice of a particular technique may have the opposite effect, deadening and habituating the mind, rather than making it more open and accessible to truth. If you want to know how a progressive path might affect you, spend some time at one of the tradition's residential meditation centers or ashrams.
Do the longtime practitioners appear happier, freer, more peaceful, more enlightened? Or do they seem rigid in their adherence to structures and rules, lacking in spontaneity, proud of their spiritual progress or stature, addicted to control?
Every center, tradition, and practitioner is different, of course, but many of the ashrams and monasteries I've visited lack the joy and aliveness one would expect to find there; instead, they exude a quality of emotional repression and subservience to form.
Which is why I started off this post by saying, Proper is no fun.