How Transcendent Ideals Might Limit Us.

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Joel and Diana are cool.

This past weekend I went to five talks given by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad at Yogaview in Chicago. They are coauthors of The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness and The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

You might guess from the titles of their books that they are radical people, and I think they are. They are also highly personable and vibrant people—delightful to listen to.

It really helped to see them in person. I had been reading The Passionate Mind Revisited with a group, and the material is challenging. It pushes buttons.

One of the things I am walking away from this weekend with is an increased suspicion of concepts of spiritual hierarchy. Joel and Diana seemed to be pointing out that being “without thought” is an unlivable ideal, and many people believe that that is the most spiritual state.

It seems like I hear people expressing disappointment that they cannot seem to stop thinking fairly regularly. In some places that would be strange, but since I am a yoga teacher, these are the kinds of concerns that might and do come up for people.

Being “in the now” is commonly conceived as a state without a future or a past: just being. It is a state without worries, cares or regrets. What a relief to get a mental break like that! And it happens…

But according to Joel and Diana (I am doing my best to share what I heard, but it is best to see them for yourself if you can. Or read their books.) it isn’t healthy to hold this state as better or more spiritual than other mental states that we might pass through.

If we hold the concept of being “without thought” as the highest ideal, then we might find ourselves feeling guilty most of the time, because most of the time we tend to be thinking.

Here are more dangers (beyond feeling guilty) of prizing this transcendent non-thinking “spiritual” state above others:

One danger is that we might find ourselves avoiding things and people in our lives that would benefit from our attention in favor of living “in the now”. Sorry, can’t let the dog (or cat) out now because I’m meditating…

Another danger of prizing this mind-state is denial of this life we are living, and world that we are living in—as in some spiritual traditions that posit the concept that the world is Maya or illusion.

We might also experience non-attachment that removes us from care. I remember a yoga teacher friend telling me that when people said things to him that he was “like Teflon”. Whatever people were saying would just slide off, like a non-stick pan. This bothered me at the time I heard it, and I asked another yoga teacher and he said that he felt the same way. No doubt, there are times when self-protection is helpful, but using our yoga or meditation practice to remove us from our daily interactions to that degree, sounds like it could be harmful to me.

Not valuing memory and future thinking presents problems as we aim for a livable world for our children.

Meditation can be a problem for relationships if it is used as a way to not communicate important things to our partners. An example was given of a couple where the female partner was using her meditation to calm her upset rather than sharing with her partner that she had a problem. In this case when her partner found out, he was really sorry that she had suffered alone.

Meditation can be beneficial also.

I just want to mention this, because I have experienced benefit from meditating. The biggest benefit is I seem to understand my mind better. It can also be calming, ordinary or transcendent.

But I also can see how it might be helpful to be aware of how it might also limit our minds if we don’t have a bigger picture in mind.

A bigger picture.

Learning to get along with other people better in this world might be a better ideal, than a non-thinking “spiritual” state. So Joel and Diana suggested that personal identity needs to broaden to be more inclusive of other people, rather than disassociating from our personalities or egos to be more “spiritual”. We are spiritual right here and now in our lives with other people in this world.

They see this as an important part of the change that needs to happen to allow us to continue to be a viable species on this planet.

How can we live here now, together?

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anonymous May 14, 2011 3:10pm

[…] “Spiritual bliss” as a goal can lead to a self-absorbed life, when what seems to be of high importance at this time for humanity is environmental concerns and relationship concerns. […]

anonymous Mar 29, 2011 6:56pm

[…] More immediately, the man lives in his body—at least while he’s performing. This comes out in the “oomph” of his words; and it’s an important lesson for anybody who speaks or performs in public and wants to make an impact: power comes from your legs, pelvis, belly and lower chest (lower three chakras)—not just from your tender heart, brilliant mind or transcendent spirit. […]

anonymous Mar 28, 2011 12:37pm

[…] the whole premise of Tantra—that you can find transcendence everywhere. And I subscribe to that. So, I think it’s sad. I think it’s just a human tendency […]

anonymous Jan 28, 2011 9:12pm

Sounds like ego protection here coming from people who haven't really "transcended " the ego or gone beyond identification with themselves. So they write books about it and make a living knocking spiritual paths as if they are saying something new when such pitfalls have already been covered in the ancient text themselves. There is nothing new under the sun. Lets get on with it already.

anonymous Dec 5, 2010 1:13am

[…] a word with one of them in mind, I think of how creation comes from constraint—a thought yoga and meditation inspire in me, […]

anonymous Nov 15, 2010 6:57pm

From a Buddhist perspective, it seems that we are able to grasp "form is emptiness" much more easily than "emptiness is form." In the Sandokai it states that the absolute and the relative go together like a box and its lid. Finally, correct meditation instructions tell the student not to suppress thoughts, feelings, etc. but to "keep the front and back doors open" allowing them to arise, pass through, and leave. Body like a mountain, breath like the ocean, and mind like the sky. Just my 0 cents.

anonymous Nov 15, 2010 3:25pm

Yes I wanted to see what, if anything else was said regarding your or mine's comments…from where you quote me I am actually responding to Bob. I responded to Bob in a manner in which I felt may show him that he was a bit judgemental. My comments about " the blog being rife with errors of Buddhist view" was in reference to Bob's blog Bob VS Buddhism.

anonymous Nov 14, 2010 1:47pm

[…] was some of the groundwork offered in a recent talk by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad. They shared that from their worldview, they feel that it is […]

Bob Weisenberg Nov 10, 2010 8:33am

Thank you, Padma. All of your responses are very helpful.

Bob W.

anonymous Nov 10, 2010 7:52am

Bob, My comments directed at the thesis of Brook's blog were not going the route of "illusion". Actually I was attempting to say that this idea, she and others have, that the goal is "Non-Thinking" and that is considered "Transcendental" was at least from a Buddhist perspective not accurate. More importantly people will actually meditate and try to not think. They feel that "not thinking' is meditation and will produce a positive transcendental effect. If this were the case then sleeping and not dreaming would produce enlightenment. I wanted Brook to know that from my perspective thought is inevitable and actually is necessary for authentic realization. That the simple exercise of sitting in a relaxed manner and breathing normally and simply, as if you were a scientist observing, relax your mind and watch the thoughts arise. One after another they come and they dissolve into the next thought. Bob..this is the gate to Buddhism.

    anonymous Nov 10, 2010 7:52am

    That is all there is. If we consider that all the actions of all of the beings, positive and negative, in the universe are born here in the place we call our mind then we are on to something. Thoughts arise from where? And then dissolve into where? And this is where everything that we experience and every action we take arises from. With the right teacher realization can come fast. Why would not the nature of all thought , which is the origin of all action and creator of all phenomena, be of the same nature of this place we cannot pinpoint when we are looking for a given thought's origin?

anonymous Nov 9, 2010 4:06pm

However you view reality no one ever has said that fire does not burn. I would not argue that what I am saying is not conceptual also. But, I will say that if I discuss emptiness, as I understand it, I am not qualified to do so. I will say that as long as I have read the comments here on Ele regarding emptiness and the likes, I will say that there is no one here who has remotely been able to describe it. Your Blog on the subject is rife with errors on Buddhist view. What matters is Loving Compassion, Bodhicitta. Without it there is no realization of emptiness. This would put nothingness completely out of the picture as LOve has no place if it is nothing. The realization of emptiness comes with blessings of the Guru and once authentic realization occurs Bodhicitta is there. Love and Compassion arises for all beings. Hardly this can be called "nothing".

anonymous Nov 9, 2010 4:05pm

You jumped the "gun" on "nothing is real". And I cannot say that the majority of arguments in your above mentioned blog are arguments of which I would agree…except for mine of course. hahaha. Buddhist teachers, of mine, do not say nothing is real. A nihilistic view of the world would allow, as you say, to shoot your neighbor in the head in a sense. Your judgemental use of the word "preoccupation" in regard to your view that I propound nothingness and am silly to do so is off base. I would say that you have a preoccupation with the solidity of the world as you know it and eternalism.

anonymous Nov 9, 2010 11:39am

In all sincerity…the idea of being "In the Now" does maybe help to remind us to check our minds but as for it being some authentic state I am not quite sure. Once again, in Buddhism, we have the three times. Past Present and Future. If we look for the past it is really nowhere to be found. Where is it? Can we point to it? If we look for the future that is also nowhere to be found. Looking for the present, the Being Here Now, that too is where? The present and the idea of the present is forever gone from moment to moment. So then where and what is it? The past and future are both concepts and subject to impermanence therefore are illusory concepts. We cannot find them. Then what is a "present" which only exisits in relation to an illusoiry past and future?

    Bob Weisenberg Nov 9, 2010 11:52am

    Hi, Padma. I think you're forgetting about memories, which exist in every instant of our now and our future too, unless we forget them. It's actually memories that give our present its character–the memory that I just read your comment and typed these words for example. Without memory I wouldn't be able to type even one letter of this reply.

    Bob W.

      anonymous Nov 9, 2010 1:47pm

      Yes Bob, memories are there. I did not forget them. We are still faced with the past not being present, the future not being present, and the present…well where is it? Certainly even from a linear western point of view the present, if measured quickly, becomes this thing we call the past in nano-seconds, or whatever they try to measure time with these days. So certainly the word fleeting comes to mind. I am sure, there will be those who want to discuss quantum mechanics but that is not the point. The point is simply the three times. To argue that memories are evidence of a solid thing we call the past does not stand up. When you dream you believe that you are in that situation. You may even be with people you have never met in that dream yet when you wake you can describe them. Yet are nowhere to be found. Your life may be threatened or you may have great sex. Then you wake up with a hard on or afraid for your life. This is all mind and concepts of the mind whether we are sleeping or awake.

        anonymous Nov 9, 2010 1:47pm

        Yet it is possible to contemplate and meditate on the 3 times and honestly look for them. If you are resigned to think that they exist somewhere then please tell me or show me where. Your memories are only memories nothing more than an echo. What is their nature. Certainly you, right this moment ,cannot recall every memory you have held.

anonymous Nov 9, 2010 9:35am

I am with timful and Padma Kadag. I think the advice being dished out is just for the sake of being contrarian.

    anonymous Nov 9, 2010 10:45am

    How horrible it is! …to be referred to as a “dish”, Betty!

    I respect that people have individual interpretations, experiences and practices. It’s all okay with me.

    In this post I am asking readers to consider possible traps, and not intending to “dish” as you have written.

    Peace to you!

anonymous Nov 9, 2010 6:33am

I have this conversation with myself a lot – I used to think it was a baddish thing if my mind wouldn't quiet down in meditation, but then I stopped that thought process and found if I just let my mind do what it needed I was much happier. At that time in my life I was going through a divorce and embarking on my relationship with my now husband. My head couldn't have been LOUDER, my thoughts were a constant swirl. But as I let them have their head so to speak they eventually ordered up into a stillness of sorts.

So I couldn't agree more, thoughts and stillness are beautiful thing. Love the present.

anonymous Nov 9, 2010 12:20am

The idea that being meditative and transcendental means going into “oneself” and being a recluse is not entirely correct. When we meditate, we realize that we are all part of the same. When we see that we are one, differences disappear and we do more service(seva). There is a difference between non-attachment and dispassion. What you get from meditation and living in the now is dis-passion, the ability to not be feverish. This does not mean you are not doing your daily duties like taking the dog out or doing a job.

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 3:17pm

I have had exactly that "teflon" feeling since beginning a regular yoga practice, and have had some of the same concerns as Brooks. I think the key is to recognize that what you DO is not who you ARE. At first this brings relief from responsibility, when you realize that bad thing you did does not make you a bad person. But, ultimately, it opens the door to more responsible behavior. If it brings you less pain, you will see it more clearly, not defend the self with denial and delusion. If it is only what you did, you can do differently tomorrow. You cannot change who you are, but that's okay because you are perfect already.

And, most importantly, when we let ourselves off the hook this way, we learn to let other people off the hook too. We forgive them for what they have done and encourage them to do differently.

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 10:31am

very interesting enjoyed it

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 9:40am

Yes! Personally, the more I deepen my practice, the more I connect to my self, and therefore to others. We are here now together. (I mean, I'm turning to social change, for f***'s sake, I couldn't say anything different)
I'm with Ben on the "beingness" and I agree, meditation is a tools to quiet the mind and collect the self, so you can be stronger and more focused in the life you live with others.

Thanks Brooks!

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 7:53am

Don't miss the point. Meditation's goal is to increase our power to focus, in daily life. The Dalai Lama, a superb example of a meditative life, says the most important thing now is to develop critical thinking combined with action.

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 7:38am

Brooks…In Buddhism the goal is not Non-thought. Striving for Non-thought leads to a state of dullness particularly for the novice. I have never heard any reference to Non-Thought as being the goal in teachings of the Nyingma school. In fact, the teaching says "accept everything reject nothing". In meditation there is no pushing away bad thoughts or clinging to positive thoughts. Thoughts arise naturally and then dissolve naturally. This is the same for everyone. The Buddha knows this. The difference is the ability to recognize the origin of thought and that all thought dissolves moment to moment. To try and exist in Non Thought is too much trying or effort. It is not natural and will accomplish nothing positive. The greatest endeavor is to recognize the origin of thought, not the psychological concepts which make an individual's thoughts, but all thought. From where does thought arise? Where does it go? No matter how hard you try you can never stop it. The Buddha recognized the nature of thought or mind.

Bob Weisenberg Nov 8, 2010 7:11am

Great blog, Brooks. I'm with you 100%. This is one of the reasons I personally prefer the Bhagavad Gita to the Yoga Sutra. They're both great texts, but the Gita is generally about a life of action and involvement, whereas the Yoga Sutra is more about the kind of meditative withdrawal you speak about above.

For me, focus on the present moment means greater awareness of everything, not achieving a state of no-thought.

Bob W.

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 7:02am

Great article, Brooks. Thanks!

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 5:55am

Very thought provoking, Brooks.

I read something in an interview with a guy called Thanissara in the Sun magazine a little while ago that kind of speaks to this: "The shadow side of Buddhist practice is what I call 'premature nonattachment,' which is actually avoidance masquerading as spiritual attainment."

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 5:42am

I agree also. While learning to observe your thoughts and develop witness consciousness is an incredible tool, to translate that into a goal of "not thinking" is perhaps an understandable simplification, but really counter-productive. Our minds are designed to think. The question is how do we work with thinking skillfully. Obviously given the state of our country today we could really use a whole lot more of that!

If we enshrine "not thinking" as "spiritual," isn't that getting into the same territory as using TV, drugs, shopping, or whatever to escape, zone out, feel "Teflon" (ick – really not what I want as a yoga teacher), etc.?

anonymous Nov 8, 2010 1:07am

I totally agree with you. I believe that the spiritualists beliefs keep us from acting or fighting the injustices in our world Sometimes, I am suspicious of this idea,and wonder if it is not some method of propoganda to keep people under control in an indiscreet manner. On the other hand to remain detached in some situations could benefit some people with behavior issues. Meditation can help these people as well.

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Brooks Hall

Brooks Hall is a Yogic Muse from Chicago, Illinois. In this capacity she teaches Yoga, writes about Yoga, and generally enjoys it. You can find her at: