- Charter of Transdisciplinarity



Special Issues

   - The Book Shop

The Golden Register -


Useful Sites








SADHANA: The Art of Spiritual Practice


Rabbi David Cooper


Most wisdom traditions suggest that ordinary consciousness is actually spiritual slumber, and that we are missing a higher perception of realitythings as they really are. Spiritual teachers throughout recorded history have offered advice for developing awarenesssadhanarecipes 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.

Whenever we 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.

People who 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.[1]

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 my guru.[2] And when asked what guided him on the path, he said:

The guide does not walk ahead of you, but walks with you.[3]


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 teacherthe 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 these words.

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, analogyit 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 stimuliand as you read you cannot help but notice these thingsthere 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?

Why not, indeed? Actually a number of major teachers suggest this very method. Krishnamurtis primary teaching was, What are you waiting for? Dont wait for anything, dont fall into the trap of systems and beliefs, just be aware. He said:

When there 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 methodPlease 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. [4]

This is a prime example of a powerful wisdom teachingincontrovertible, 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?

Some teachers 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:

I cannot 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. [5]

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 handthey sayit 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 individuals 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.

These 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 thinkingour normal state of mindwe 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 to failure.

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.[6]

From the 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 digress.

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.[7] But I prefer Trungpa Rinpoches definition: He/she who is brave enough to walk on the path of the bodhiThis 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.[8]

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 placea nounwhen in fact it is a processa 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 pathi.e., processbecause 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 phenomenon.

The fluidity of the enlightening process is exemplified by a story told by Trungpa Rinpoche of a hermitknown as a bodhisattvawho 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.[9] 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. [10] (My italics.)

The point is that enlightenment is not neat and tidy. It is whatever it ischanging constantlyand 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.[11]


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).[12]

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.

A hasidic 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 beggars 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.

The second 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 feelings?

The rabbis 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, possessionswithout 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.

Kshanti (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 beginners mind, the level of openness, reflection, and deliberation to examine each thing that presents itself and everything that arises in our mindsas 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 ones 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.

Dhyana (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 sittingcalling 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.[13]

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, endingas is said in the sutrasin 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.


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?

Pondering our 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.

The commitment 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 whereas the Sufis would sayteacher, 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? Dont talk about a practice, dont dream about a months retreat in the mountains, dont 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; its a drug that can keep us asleep for years if not lifetimes.

A simple game to play with ourselves is to imagineGod forbidthat we have just come from the doctors office with a diagnosis that gives us one year to live. Now, imagine how you would live your last yearbeing 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.

Indeed, many 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 around you.[14] It has been noted that, the experience of deepened spirituality seems to be nearly universal among those touched by AIDS.[15] In truth, not only AIDS, but almost everyone who encounters death deepens spiritually.

We do not need to play the game of going to the doctors office. We need merely ask:

What are we waiting for? If we think somebody is going to give us the answer, well 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 awareness.

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 awakenit 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.

Each tradition 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

discover a 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.

The foundation of our practice comes from this willingness to explore our highest qualities with a clear mind and an open heart, with humility and surrenderexclusive of all pretension or conceit. Thus, we never wait for the time when we will awaken, but we accept each opportunity that life offersright nowto 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, iridescent wakefulness.

THE QUEST, Spring 1994

*** *** ***


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.

[1] Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1973), p. 18.

[2] Ibid., p. 19.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.

[4] J. Krishnamurti, The Awakening of Intelligence (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 191-95, excerpts.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions, 1965), p. 101.

[6] Ken Wilber, No Boundary (Boston: New Science Library, 1979), p. 39.

[7] Quoted by Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 369.

[8] Chogyam Trungpa, p. 170.

[9] Ibid., p. 118.

[10] Ibid., p. 176.

[11] David Godman, ed., The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (London/New York: Arkana, 1985), p. 67.

[12] Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1951), p. 161.

[13] Chogyam Trungpa, p. 177.

[14] Mark Matousek, Savage Grace, in Common Boundary, May/June 1993, quoting Dean Rolston, AIDS patient and author.

[15] Ibid.






Front Page



Spiritual Traditions




Perennial Ethics






Alternative Medicine


Deep Ecology

Depth Psychology

Nonviolence & Resistance




Books & Readings




On the Lookout

The Sycamore Center


: 3312257 - 11 - 963

: . .: 5866 - /

maaber@scs-net.org  :

  :        ӡ ߡ ɡ