SADHANA: The Art of Spiritual Practice
traditions suggest that ordinary consciousness is actually spiritual slumber,
and that we are missing a higher perception of reality—things as they really
are. Spiritual teachers throughout recorded history have offered advice for
for awakening higher consciousness in each of us. But maintaining a steady
sadhana seems elusive for many people.
We must ask
ourselves why, although every generation has a handful of individuals who
achieve outstanding levels of spiritual development, the overwhelming mass of
humanity throughout history has remained asleep. What is the secret hidden in
the teachings that we have not yet understood; what more do we need to learn?
Clearly, information in itself is not sufficient to achieve the task of awakening. Improvements in information technology during the last century, such as the availability of electronic media, vast libraries, and instant communications, have brought us a push button away from every major discovery, every pronounced truth, every grain of wisdom transmitted throughout the ages. Indeed, we have been blessed (some would say cursed) to have at our fingertips more information than was available to kings, emperors, or sages of the past. In fact, many profound wisdom teachings are so common, they have often been trivialized through overuse; e.g., God is Love, Be Here Now, The truth is within, etc. Yet, although we can readily discover in the local library references to almost all of the wisdom teachings regarding spiritual sleepiness, few of us are awake. Thus, according to most teachers, the knowledge of truth is not enough, and awakening can be accomplished only through personal, direct experience. Nobody else can awaken us, we can only awaken ourselves.
Well, we have heard this before. Indeed, many people in this age not only feel ready and willing to awaken, but go out of their way to find teachers, read books, attend workshops and seminars, try out different exercises, change diets, and generally pursue any glimmer of the elixir that will bring us the clear light of full awareness.
Some of us have
daily practices of meditation, prayer, or other spiritual endeavors. Many people
find that after the initial enthusiasm, the practice slowly dissipates. Others
discover that they can sit
in a meditation practice for years
without any sense of progress: they still get upset in traffic jams, their
relationships are still difficult, life is still a struggle. If anything, their
practice generates an even greater sense of dissatisfaction as they become aware
of how often and how deeply they sleep on a daily basis.
As a result of
all this, some folks avoid or walk away from spiritual practice altogether,
finding it too time-consuming, arduous, or frustrating. Some dance in and out,
trying a little of this, a little of that, going through periods of intense
commitment and then letting go, but never really feeling content with their
level of practice. And some people are consistent in maintaining their daily
schedule rain or shine.
But there is a
crucial element that determines the degree to which anyone will benefit from a
practice. It is this: As long as we segment our lives into periods for spiritual
practice and those for everything else, we are doomed to perpetuate dualistic
thinking which by its nature is self-defeating. Meditation may begin and end
with the sound of a bell, but our spiritual practice must transcend bells.
Simply put: Life itself is our sadhana.
have dualistic thinking, our frame of reference is insidiously altered. When I
believe I am engaged in a spiritual practice, I introduce a small voice, which
says, “Now I am doing my practice.” I need not say the actual words; it is
more a state of consciousness. In this dualistic model, as soon as I end my
practice, I stop making an effort to pay attention and quickly settle into an
habitual, rote, thoroughly conditioned state of mind.
practice consistently become more familiar with their mind-states and are more
likely to notice what is really happening even when they have released from
their meditative practice. Indeed, over time, regular practice often leads to
major insights. However, as long as the illusion of duality is perpetuated, even
long-term devotees tend to enter the cul-de-sac of form without substance. They
know how to look good in the practice, but little is happening. Chogyam Trungpa
Rinpoche noted once: “Because America is looking so hard for spirituality…
we see charlatans in the role of student, chela,
as well as in the role of guru.”
Once we truly
understand, however, that spiritual awareness is the product of a life-style
rather than of a segmented practice, our expectations change dramatically. Our
approach to our sadhana takes on a new meaning, and we come to realize that
traffic jams, relationships, and everything else that we encounter in our
moment-to-moment consciousness is an opportunity
for practice. When Trungpa Rinpoche was asked which teacher he was
following, he responded: “Situations are the voice of my guru, the presence of
And when asked what guided him on the path, he said:
does not walk ahead of you, but walks with you.”
THE GURU IS AN EVER-PRESENT REALITY
When I read
this twenty years ago it sounded interesting, but I had no idea of its
profundity until I discovered for myself on a three-month silent retreat that
every event we encounter, every stimulus that enters our senses, every thought
that arises in our minds is a message from our perfect teacher—the one we
spend so much time looking for. The ideal guru is an ever-present reality. We
need not wait for anyone to arrive, we need not travel in
search of a master, the perfect teacher is here in this instant as you read
Stop for just a
moment. Let the awareness arise of what is happening. How are you sitting? Sense
the pressure of the chair, couch, or floor on different parts of your body, and,
if you are reading online, feel the mouse in your hand, notice what is happening
in the mind, observe the flicker of emotions, experience how the mind resists,
yields, constricts itself. And as awareness illuminates what is happening from
moment to moment, remember one thing: our ideal guru does not communicate in
normal language or with obvious symbols; rather it uses metaphor, simile,
analogy—it is a poet who uses the language of events, thought forms, feelings,
and actions. If you are willing, give yourself a minute and observe very closely
what is happening in your mind and body right now, under the assumption that
your teacher is communicating with you. You may wish to close your eyes if it
helps, trying to notice every thought that arises.
You have just
accomplished the central task of learning how to enhance spiritual awakening.
Each moment in which we notice what is happening in our mind-body, our immediate
environment, our reactions to stimuli, or our general state of being, we are in
the awakening process; each moment we are not noticing, we are asleep.
You may have
discovered that it is not difficult to invite awareness into consciousness.
Awareness is our most helpful friend, always present upon demand. As you read,
allow awareness to listen to distant sounds. Notice that right now you are
probably hearing something that you did not realize you were hearing a few
seconds ago. You are able to hear this sound and continue to read at the same
Notice too the
difference between the feeling of awakening and the normal experience of
sleepiness. When we encourage the presence of awareness, whether noticing our
body, thoughts, emotions, mind-states, or impinging stimuli—and as you read
you cannot help but notice these things—there is a heightened sense of
aliveness, a vibrancy, an interest, and for many people a new feeling of hope,
integration, and wholeness. This is the experience of awakening.
There are innumerable practices in a wide variety of wisdom traditions. Once we transcend dogma and ideological constrictions, the true purpose of all these practices is to enhance awakening. The question arises, however, that if our awareness always comes when invited and it immediately sets the stage for the awakening process, what is the purpose of all these different practices? Why not simply follow a personal practice of constantly inviting awareness?
indeed? Actually a number of major teachers suggest this very method.
Krishnamurti’s primary teaching was, “What are you waiting for?” Don’t
wait for anything, don’t fall into the trap of systems and beliefs, just be
aware. He said:
is total sensitivity of the whole mind, then we will act differently; our
thinking, feeling, will be wholly of a different dimension. But there is no
method…Please do realize this, because when you realize it, you are free of
the enormous weight of all authority and so free of the past…
What is one to do? All that one has to do
is to see. See the corner, the little house that one has built in a corner of a
vast, an immeasurable field, and living there, fighting, quarreling, improving, see
it… So what is important is not to learn but to see and to listen…
If you can see, you have nothing else to
do, because in that seeing there is all discipline, all virtue all beauty…
Then where you are, you have
heaven; then all seeking comes to an end. 
This is a prime
example of a powerful wisdom teaching—incontrovertible, direct, clear, a
solution which assures heaven on earth and the end of our search. Moreover, it
seems not to be all that difficult to practice. But, alas, Krishnamurti had tens
of thousands of students, yet he said near the end of his life that not one of
them really understood his message. Perhaps this was an overstatement, and a few
of his students did in fact discover for themselves the truth of his
transmission. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those who sat at his feet were
not able to integrate this essential level of awareness into their daily lives.
What keeps us from our own awakening, even though we think we are trying to the utmost, even when our teachers show us the way?
will say that the very aspect of trying to awaken is self-defeating. The Taoist
writings of Chuang Tzu from two thousand years ago say:
tell if what the world considers “happiness” is happiness or not… My
opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it. My
greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is
calculated to obtain happiness: and this, in the minds of most people, is the
worst possible course. I will hold to the saying that: “Perfect joy is to be
without joy. Perfect praise is to be without praise.” 
The act of sitting at the feet of the guru has implicit in it desire for self-attainment. Chuang Tzu and Krishnamurti both would say that the search for the guru outside of oneself is destined to fail. Yet, many traditions teach that without a guru/guide/teacher one can never accomplish true spiritual progress. They would agree that we must awaken ourselves, but without a helping hand—they say—it is virtually impossible.
This debate has
gone on for thousands of years and will probably continue for thousands more.
One point is certain, however. Having or not having a guide does not seem to be
the decisive factor for an individual’s awakening; many great teachers had
their own teachers, and many did not.
We are left
then with absolutely contrasting views: the belief that awakening requires
method and practice, versus the idea that awakening is impossible when we follow
a method or practice; and the position that awakening requires a teacher/helper
who will give us guidance, versus the opinion that turning to a teacher/helper
assures a dependency upon authority that is self-defeating.
apparently contradictory positions offer us a perfect example of the continuous
presence of the ideal teacher. If we read the previous paragraph in the
consciousness of dualistic thinking—our normal state of mind—we are left
with no clear direction or advice in our yearning for spiritual development. In
fact, the teachings seem to be telling us that either way we turn, we are doomed
But let us
shift our awareness for a moment and listen to the whisper of the teaching that
there is no duality. It is the awareness that Ken Wilber describes as the major
principle of the Dharmadhatu (Universal
Realm or Field of Reality), called shih
shih wu ai, which he translates as “Between every thing and event in the
universe there is no boundary.”
perspective of “no duality,” apparent contradiction may be resolved by
finding a commonality that heretofore was unnoticed. What then is a method or
practice of spiritual development that is no method or practice? What is a
teacher/helper that is no teacher/ helper? This is the koan
given to us by our guru. As with all koan challenges, it is best not to work
with it directly, but to approach it tangentially; and so for a moment we will
Each tradition has a model for awakened beings; one of the most clearly defined is the Buddhist path of the bodhisattva. The word bodhi means wakefulness, or the awakened state. The traditional understanding of the bodhisattva is, “one who having attained enlightenment is on his/her way to Buddhahood but who postpones his/her goal to keep a vow to help all life attain salvation.” But I prefer Trungpa Rinpoche’s definition: “He/she who is brave enough to walk on the path of the bodhi…This is not to say that the bodhisattva must already be fully awake; but he/she is willing to walk the path of the awakened ones.”
We must be
careful with the language we use to describe the process of awakening, because
there is a subtle mind-trap that can catch us in its sticky web. The trap is the
perpetuation of the idea that there is a final state of pure enlightenment and
total wakefulness, that these are attainable goals. That is to say, the myth and
misunderstanding that enlightenment is a thing or place—a noun—when in fact
it is a process—a verb. Awakening is an ongoing, infinite process. We may at
times use the word “awakened” to indicate a state of being relative to the
sleepiness of ignorance, but it should never be understood as an endpoint. Thus
when we discuss “the path of the awakened ones,” the emphasis must be on
“path”—i.e., process—because we have no idea of what it means to be an
“awakened one” and we must not assume that it is a point of culmination.
Indeed, all of the “awakened ones” themselves stress the message of
impermanence, which informs us that being awakened is a constantly changing
The fluidity of
the enlightening process is exemplified by a story told by Trungpa Rinpoche of a
hermit—known as a bodhisattva—who hears that his patron is coming to visit
and thus hurries to clean up his little hut until it is spotless. Then in a
moment of reflection he realizes he is being hypocritical because this is not
the way he normally lives, so he gathers handfuls of ash and throws them around
until his room is a complete mess. When the patron arrives, he is impressed by
the natural quality of the room, and both burst into laughter when the hermit
admits what he has done.
Trungpa Rinpoche points out: “Interestingly, although the bodhisattva
has taken a vow not to attain enlightenment… he always lives life
thoroughly and fully, and the result is that before he realizes where he is, he
has attained enlightenment. But his
unwillingness to attain enlightenment continues, strangely enough, even after he
has reached Buddhahood.” 
The point is
that enlightenment is not neat and tidy. It is whatever it is—changing
constantly—and our preconceived notions must be put aside. Moreover, we need
not try to enter the enlightening process; it is always happening. As
Ramana Maharshi says: “The degree of the absence of [extraneous] thoughts is
the measure of your progress towards Self-realization. But Self-realization
itself does not admit of progress, it is ever the same. The Self remains always
in realization. The obstacles are thoughts. Progress is measured by the degree
of removal of
the obstacles to understand that the Self is always realized.”
VIRTUES ON THE PATH
The path of the
bodhisattva is designed to enhance the removal of these obstacles. It consists
of six virtues called paramitas. Param means
“the other side,” and ita means
“arrived.” Thus, the paramitas are the ways one gets over the barriers to
the shore of luminous wakefulness. These six virtues are: dana
(giving, in all forms), sila (morality/discipline),
kshanti (patience), virya
(energy/interest), dhyana (meditation/awareness),
and prajna (supreme wisdom).
The idea of
dana is often confused with charity. It really means letting go of the tightness
that is the result of a strong identity with “I/me” which results in
selfishness. Thus, dana actually is the expression of unconditional generosity
which requires a mind-state of selflessness.
teaching describes two individuals walking down the street. One encounters a
filthy beggar who has a grim, ugly appearance. The man does not have warm
feelings toward this beggar; if anything he is repulsed by the beggar’s nasty
disposition. But he was just paid some money and he is under obligation by
Jewish law to tithe an amount for tzedakah
(charity). So he gives the beggar the required ten percent.
individual has no obligation to give tzedakah, but he sees an unfortunate person
who touches his heart and so he pulls out a couple of coins and hands them over.
The question is: Who has done the greatest act of tzedakah (dana), the one who
gives because it is the Jewish law, or the one who gives because of personal
teach that the one who gives out of obligation has performed the higher act.
Why? Because the one who gives with feelings thinks he is doing something for
somebody, while the one who gives because of the law has removed himself one
step and is acting with less self-consciousness. This is the essence of the
virtue of dana. Our giving has nothing to do with our likes and dislikes;
rather, dana means generosity of spirit, giving whatever we can —time, money,
possessions—without self-obsessed thinking, and this in itself is a primary
path of awakening.
The virtue of
sila (morality/discipline) relates to the cosmic principles of justice and the
laws of karma. It stems from the
recognition that every thought, feeling, or action reverberates throughout the
universe, and thus the awareness of our impact from moment to moment has
considerable implications. This is especially true of potentially harmful
thoughts, feelings, or actions regarding any form of life and every element that
composes the planet.
This sila is
not directly concerned with laws of morality constructed by individual
traditions except as they may apply to universal truth. It is the immediate
consciousness of personal responsibility in every breath.
(patience) is the natural offspring of the realization that everything is
constantly in flux, and therefore unpredictable. Nothing is permanent, so if we
try to hold on to the things we like or push away the things we do not like, we
will soon be disappointed. Therefore this kind of patience is not related to the
usual meaning which implies endurance; rather it means reaching a level of
equanimity, not being disturbed, knowing that “This too will pass.” Kshanti
is the path that allows us to be comfortable in the wisdom of insecurity.
The virtue of
virya (energy/interest) is related to the well-known concept of beginner’s
mind, the level of openness, reflection, and deliberation to examine each thing
that presents itself— and everything that arises in our minds—as if this
were our first encounter, knowing that each moment offers something new. With a
heightened level of energy/interest, nothing is boring. Even in some forms of
meditation, when one is doing nothing but observing the flow of one’s breath,
the quality of acute interest causes each breath to have the uniqueness of a
snowflake. When every moment in our lives is approached with this magnitude of
interest, outer shells of appearance rapidly fall away and we are able to probe
the depths and meanings of even the simplest events.
(meditation/awareness) is the one virtue that most Westerners equate with the
awakening process, often to the exclusion of other paramitas being discussed.
Unfortunately, however, there are widespread misconceptions about meditation,
how it is achieved and what it can do for us. The image of a yogi in full lotus
position is a paradigm even for experienced meditators who approximate this
ideal in some form of sitting—calling this meditation. But dhyana does not
require a particular posture, special breathing, or for that matter, anything
regarding what the person happens to be doing. Although dhyana is usually
translated as meditation, its literal meaning is “awareness.” For a
bodhisattva, dhyana never means “a trance state, bliss, or absorption. [A
bodhisattva] is simply awake to life situations as they are. He/She is
particularly aware of the continuity of meditation with generosity, morality,
patience, and energy.”
So the true
meaning of dhyana for the bodhisattva path is a continuity practice. Everything
is grist for the mill, and it is in this heightened awareness that all of the
paramitas are integrated. In this state of being, the five virtues overflow into
each other, ending—as is said in the sutras—in
the ocean of prajna (supreme wisdom). This is the discriminating
knowledge that sees everything, providing the fuel which is the source material
empowering all of the paramitas.
The concept of
continuity practice is the key element for the enhancement of spiritual
awakening. Continuity in essence means that there is no beginning and no end to
the practice. Anyone following a traditional religious way of life will
immediately recognize the element of continuity. When religion is the center of
our activities, then everything we do is colored by our religious commitment.
CONTINUITY OF PRACTICE
But many people
are not attracted by organized religion yet have a deep spiritual longing and
seek a way to pursue the path of awakening. The question is how to develop a
continuity practice in the context of a normal lifestyle that is filled with
distractions. As noted, these distractions could be the material for our
spiritual work; but the reality for most people is that our pattern of life
perpetuates spiritual slumber. We feel overwhelmed with our daily tasks, family
responsibilities, basic maintenance requirements, and the concern for financial
management. Almost everyone has complaints about not having enough time. Be
aware, of course, that all of these complaints stem from a dualistic mindset,
separating mundane activities from spiritual practice.
The solution to
this is not a simple “ten-point” program for enhancing spiritual
awakening. In fact, the solution is not something that we can easily grasp with
our logical, empirical thought process, for it dwells in a timeless, space-less
realm that defies description. Which brings us back to our koan: What is a
method or practice of spiritual development that is no method or practice; what
is a teacher/helper that is no teacher/helper?
koan from the perspective of dhyana, meditation/awareness that contains the
other four paramitas of generosity, morality, patience, and interest, we find
that all the paramitas, individually and combined, are spiritual practices that
transcend practice; they are acts where the teacher and the teaching are one. A
person is not taught to be generous; generosity is its own teacher. So too for
morality, patience, and interest. We may encounter teachings about these things,
but nothing is really integrated until we discover that the true teacher is
hidden in the acting out and repetition of these virtues. Spiritual knowledge is
never intellectual, it only develops through direct experience.
of the bodhisattva, the willingness to walk the path of the enlightened ones, is
a continuity experience transcending formal methods of practice. Every act of a
bodhisattva comes from the heart of wisdom, prajna, the sixth paramita, where
the other five paramitas meet, and where—as the Sufis would say—teacher,
teaching, and the one taught are the same.
There are no
secrets to this process, and as Krishnamurti pointed out, there are no methods.
“What are you waiting for?” Don’t talk about a practice, don’t dream
about a month’s retreat in the mountains, don’t fantasize about when you
will have the time. Do it! Doing is the necessary requisite for “knowing.”
We cannot “get it” by thinking.
As soon as we
explore in ourselves what we would do “if only,” we immediately come to the
“yes, but…” Take
a close look at the “yes, but” demon, because this is one of our most
addictive mindsets; it’s a drug that can keep us asleep for years if not
A simple game
to play with ourselves is to imagine—God forbid—that we have just come from
the doctor’s office with a diagnosis that gives us one year to live. Now,
imagine how you would live your last year—being careful to have what you need
should you prove the diagnosis wrong. But assuming the doctor is correct, how
would you want to spend this year?
The deeper I
look into this question, once I get past the immediate concerns for my family,
and after I engage my fantasies, I soon come to the paramitas: a feeling of
generosity, acute consciousness of my actions, a growing sense of equanimity,
and a newfound interest in everything happening around me.
accounts are written about high levels of awareness in people who are in various
stages of serious illness. One person with AIDS writes: “You become more
tender and expressive as you pierce the veil of ordinary reality and seek deeper
things.” He also experienced “a completely different level of reality, a
buoyancy lighter than air… You begin to realize that everything is perfect
It has been noted that, “the experience of deepened spirituality seems to be
nearly universal among those touched by AIDS.”
In truth, not only AIDS, but almost everyone who encounters death deepens
We do not need
to play the game of going to the doctor’s office. We need merely ask:
What are we
waiting for? If we think somebody is going to give us the answer, we’ll be
waiting a long time. If we are hoping for an inspiration, it may come, but will
not likely be sustained for long. So we return again and again to the need to
have ongoing direct experience, and the only way we can acquire this is by
entering the stream and getting wet. The more we follow through, the more our
“knowing” will be enhanced; and this is the cycle we can follow for our
personal sadhana. Just as sleepiness leads to more slumber, awakening produces
So the answer
to how to wake up is as simple as the statement “begin now,” and as
difficult as restructuring our entire way of being. That is why most of us do
not awaken—it is too threatening to give up the identity of who we think we
are for the unknown quantity of who we think we would like to be. Yet, it is
possible to guide ourselves gently and compassionately on a path that will yield
the fruit of awakening.
has its path: the bodhisattva in Buddhism, the tzaddik
in Judaism, the saint in Christianity, the qutb
in Sufism. Our first step in awakening is the realization that these
qualities belong not only to special individuals, but to all of us. By opening
ourselves to the bodhisattva, the tzaddik, the saint within, we give ourselves
the opportunity to
pathway of awakening. And in all traditions, this path becomes a lifestyle,
sufficient in itself. Each day, this awareness will help us strive for more
selfless generosity, it will keep us aware more often of the implications of our
acts (especially as they involve others), it will remind us more frequently when
we are anxious or bored that this is but a passing phase, it will bring the
curiosity of our inner child to see things with a fresh eye, and it will
constantly remind us that death is never more than an instant away.
of our practice comes from this willingness to explore our highest qualities
with a clear mind and an open heart, with humility and surrender—exclusive of
all pretension or conceit. Thus, we never wait for the time when we will awaken,
but we accept each opportunity that life offers—right now—to engage life
with as much awareness as we can muster. And this approach is complete in
itself, leading to ever more conscious awareness. Thus we will continuously
open, like the mythical lotus whose inner petals rest at the center of all
essence, having the translucent, pristine, and profound clarity of constant,
© THE QUEST,
*** *** ***
David A. Cooper is the author of Silence, Simplicity, and Solitude: A Guide for Spiritual Retreat (Bell Tower, 1992), which is an introduction into the use of retreats as a spiritual practice; and The Heart of Stillness: The Elements of Spiritual Discipline (Bell Tower, 1992), which elaborates on methods to work with various mind states that arise in contemplative practice. His new book, Entering the Sacred Mountain: A Mystical Odyssey (Bell Tower, 1994), describes a personal journey through Judaism, Sufism, and Buddhism. Cooper and his wife currently live in Colorado, overseeing a facility for people who wish to experience independent retreats. For information contact: Heart of Stillness Hermitage, P.O. Box 106, Jamestown, CO 80455.
Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through
Spiritual Materialism (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1973), p. 18.
Ibid., p. 19.
Ibid., p. 21.
J. Krishnamurti, The Awakening of
Intelligence (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 191-95, excerpts.
Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New
York: New Directions, 1965), p. 101.
Ken Wilber, No Boundary (Boston:
New Science Library, 1979), p. 39.
Quoted by Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1968),
Chogyam Trungpa, p. 170.
Ibid., p. 118.
Ibid., p. 176.
David Godman, ed., The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (London/New York:
Arkana, 1985), p. 67.
Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1951),
Chogyam Trungpa, p. 177.
Mark Matousek, “Savage Grace,” in Common Boundary, May/June 1993, quoting Dean Rolston, AIDS patient