This was exactly what deeply impressed me about Greg when I first discovered his website a couple of years ago. Namely his proficiency in, and knowledge of, a very wide range of spiritual and philosophical systems. It doesn’t matter if one is into Advaita and Awareness teachings, Idealism, postmodernism, Buddhist emptiness teachings, Christianity, ancient Greek schools of philosophy, or no teaching at all – it seems Greg always has the capacity to respectfully adjust his language in order to meet people wherever they are.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions, Greg! I might start by asking, how come you seem hesitant about settling down with any one philosophical/spiritual/religious system?
What do you mean by settling down?
For instance, in a recent interview — in which you and several other spiritual teachers answered a bunch of questions — you did not speak from the Advaita perspective like you usually do. Instead you chose to answer from the point of view of Buddhist emptiness teachings. Why do you seem to enjoy switching perspectives like this?
I answered those questions as from the emptiness teachings for several reasons. More and more people have been interested in that approach. Also, I really like the emptiness teachings – the first "nondual" insights in my life even as a child were very congruent with the emptiness teachings. And I also thought, let's add a bit of variety to this round-table discussion!
As for perspectives, I don't consider them to be like marriage vows, where you "forsake all others."
And what if someone were to offer you the question, “But which is the true perspective? Surely they can't both be right?” I ask because I know you've also criticised the view that all the different teachings are simply different ways of pointing to the same absolute spiritual truth/experience.
Would "true perspective" mean "the perspective that correctly and accurately describes reality as it is, beyond perspectives?" If so, I'd say that it's an incoherent notion, since one can't ever perform the needed comparison between perspective and a non-perspectival reality. One's access to non-perspectival reality turns out to be an artifact of a perspective after all. The irony is that it naïvely fails to regard itself as a perspective. It takes itself as unmediated apprehension of reality as it is in itself. The perspective defines itself and defines reality so that it turns out that this very perspective happens to get reality just right! So if one believes the pronouncements of this perspective, one might come to regard it as "true," and maybe even exclusively true in a way that makes others false.
|Greg's upcoming book|
To feel strongly that various teachings really point to exactly the same pre-existent truth, or that they really point to different truths -- both these alternatives depend on representationalist assumptions. Without these assumptions, the same/different question just doesn't come up.
Thank you for fleshing that out. The reason I'm asking is because the Integral Monastery loves to explore perspectives in this manner. For example we examine whether it is possible to flow freely between different perspectives without getting stuck. I think you’re able to demonstrate this attitude quite beautifully.
Thanks Dawid. I think that perspectives have been thought of as something that one must be faithful to. I have felt this myself very strongly in life, especially when I began to study philosophy and get into spiritual paths. Each one claims truth for itself. I felt this pull, I felt and understood the claims that were being made. But these claims were never able to take total control over my experience. Maybe 95% control, but never 100%.
5%? Yeah – I've thought about this over the years of doing direct inquiry, and think that that 5% was probably due to where I grew up. There was a sort of openness and lack of exclusivity that were baked into my life early on. I grew up in multi-cultural southern California, and I spent summers with my grandparents on a ranch in Oregon. My paternal grandfather had been a cowboy when he was young. I went to a very preppy high school where I was a cheerleader and wore saddle shoes and cuffed, pleated wool trousers, and those preppy multicolored ribbon watch bands sold by Brooks Brothers.
African American culture was all around as well, and much of this for me was during the Vietnam era where these social issues were problematized and brought to the surface. And then in graduate school I lived in Germany for a year while studying at the Universitaet zu Koeln.
You see what I'm saying? Early on and for most of my life I was constantly immersed in different lifeways, with different languages, values, imagery, history, foods, clothing, art, music, color schemes – so much! Each one makes its claims. And many of these lifeways operate as though there are no others.
Many years later, I discovered that this richness itself can be a great teaching. Each claim serves to soften the others.
There's an interesting book by Jan Assman called The Price of Monotheism that traces the notion of exclusive truth to monotheism itself, where a given monotheism relegates "truth" to itself and "falsity" to other religions, dating back to Akhenaten's cult of the sun god Ra in Egypt around 1350 BCE. In the West, we grow up with this sort of exclusivistic attitude towards norms of all kinds. We think that if one holds, then the others must be false. But how does one really go about making sense of claims like these? What do we gauge them against? Our experience, as already influenced by one or more claims like these, is not exactly a neutral standpoint. Deeply grokking this can bring great freedom and joy!
Another area we're very interested in, obviously, is monasticism. Recently we interviewed your friend Tomas Sander, who had been living as an urban monk for several years. I heard you were also fascinated by this at one point?
I never pursued monkhood for its own sake. But for several years in the early 1990s in Manhattan I had a lifestyle that sounds like your description of urban monkhood. I haven't watched TV since 1972 and don't drink or go to bars. But during that time I was deeply involved in the spiritual quest. Though I wasn't purposefully being celibate, I simply wasn't interested in having a "significant other" for much of that time. I didn't read novels and hardly ever went to a movie. I visited many different spiritual retreat houses, temples, churches, cathedrals, meditation centers and monasteries. I joined the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. I attended many different spiritual events, from both Western and Eastern traditions. One year, I abstained from meat, wheat and dairy all at the same time. And I read hundreds of books on virtually every spiritual topic I could find info on – I spent many a Friday and Saturday evening at home alone, searching for the secrets of the universe and the wisdom of the ages.
Wow, that sounds intense, all right! Looking back, do you feel this rather eccentric lifestyle were an idiosyncratic expression of Greg’s, or is it something you’d actually recommend spiritual seekers in general to go through?
The solitary search is something that I'd recommend to anyone who is deeply interested. Certainly there are social aspects to spirituality, and these are important. But the individual aspects cannot be overlooked. As for all that reading – that's probably an idiosyncratic Greg thing!
We touched on emptiness teachings earlier. Before we conclude the interview, I’d like to ask if you have anything in the pipeline related to this spiritual/philosophical perspective? Personally I’ve studied and practiced with emptiness teachings for many years, totally digging it. As you said, it seems now that more and more people are discovering this kind of inquiry.
In the pipeline is a book due in February from Non-Duality Press called The Direct Path: A User Guide. It's a very experiential approach. Also coming is a book on modern approaches to the emptiness teachings, a new website, and lots of classes and interactive web sessions.
I'm putting more attention on emptiness partly because I've found this teaching to be radical and heart expanding in a real-world way.
But the main reason is that I'm encountering more and more people who really relate to the emptiness teachings. They've tried the "oneness/awareness" style of nonduality teachings, and for various reasons didn't feel a deep connection to them.
The emptiness teachings are nondual but without assuming unicity or a single consciousness. So there are different ways one connects with these teachings. This itself is a rich subject, way beyond the scope of our interview here!
Thank you kindly for your time, Greg! Maybe next time we can sink our teeth deeper into the emptiness teachings.
I'd love to end by asking you to share a quote or two that had a great impact on you in your spiritual life.
Everyone has heard the quotable Buddhist and Vedantic quotes. Here are a few from one of my favorite teachers, Richard Rorty. He wrote about truth and reality for over 30 years.
"The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there
is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation
of a being who had a language of his own."