Q: Are spiritual practices necessary, or are they a hindrance, consolidating the sense of an individual self? In particular, my mind creates the seeming problem of what to do and busies itself with this, even as I try to observe it. Do I spend short moments each day resting as awareness, or do I inquire into myself? Or do I try to combine these? And when I spend time inquiring into myself, I find thoughts swim in: “What question should I ask myself? Should I ask more than one question? Is ‘Who am I?’ the question to ask or ‘Where am I?’ or ‘From where does the I thought arise?’ How often during the day should I ask these questions?” and so on.
I think in part my mind’s busyness stems from having read a lot of different nondual texts, all of which recommend different approaches, and I find that all of them speak to me. Sometimes I want to watch the breath or attend to the inner body, sometimes I want to observe thought, and sometimes I want to inquire into the “I.” But then I become aware than I’m hopping from channel to channel, as if I’m trying to find the right practice—which I know doesn’t exist.
And thank you for your wonderful website and books: I am reading the ebook "That is That" at the moment, a little a day; and it is resonating deeply with me.
A: My suggestion is to try all of the approaches and all of the questions and be really curious about what you experience with each and every moment of practice or non-practice. This consciousness that you are is affected by everything—that is why we call it consciousness! And so every form of inquiry question will have a different effect on you. In addition, every time you ask the same question, the experience will be different, since your consciousness is being affected by a wide range of influences in each unique moment.
So how is it different to ask, “Who am I?” versus, “Where does the ‘I’ thought come from?” You can also play with an even simpler form of the question: “Am I?” What is the effect of hopping from channel to channel with a wide range of questions and practices? And what is it like to simply sit with one question or practice for a while longer? And what is it like in between the questions and in between the thoughts? What effect on your consciousness does silence have?
This underlying curiosity is the heart of the practices. The point of practice is not to get somewhere, but to show you something about yourself as you already are. Curiosity is not something you can get better at—you already are very curious, as is clear from all the questions you asked. Spiritual practice isn’t meant to make you better at the practice or to answer your questions. It’s meant to put you in touch with what is already true about your awareness. It’s kind of like practicing having ribs: You can’t get any better at having a ribcage, but you can become more aware of the ribs you already have.
With this simple result in mind, there is no right or wrong way to practice. It also doesn’t matter if you practice or not; this innate curiosity of your awareness will still be here. Often when we hear that it doesn’t matter if we practice or not, we assume that means there is no reason to practice. But it is also true that there is no reason not to practice. And often the most authentic and natural expression of this curiosity is through some kind of inquiry or practice. So when you do practice, enjoy it!
Spiritual practice doesn’t cause you to be curious or more aware. But the reason why the impulse for spiritual practice naturally occurs when this curiosity starts to dive deeply into awareness is that spiritual practices are about awareness. So just as directing awareness to your ribs doesn’t cause you to have ribs but it does make it more likely you will be aware of your ribs, so directing your curiosity toward awareness doesn’t cause you to be more aware, but it can make it more likely you will notice the awareness that is already here.
Curiosity is just one of many qualities that awareness has. Awareness is also loving, compassionate, peaceful, strong, powerful, and wise. So in playing with curiosity and awareness, you never know what you will discover next.