There is one question I am asked often. In various ways people ask what they can do to help them wake up. In this episode I answer that question using the Book of Ecclesiastes as a source. I explore three ways of awakening: Self-inquiry, God-inquiry, and Life-inquiry.
There is one question I am asked often. In various ways people ask what they can do to help them wake up. It is a very direct question. But it cannot be answered in the way people want it answered. People want me to give them a special insight or recommend a spiritual practice or a book or a mindfulness technique. They want a method or a series of steps one can take. The reality is that there is nothing we can do to wake up because the self that is asking cannot wake up. One wakes up from the self, and the self can’t do that.
There is nothing that we can do to wake up because what we truly are is already awake. It is just a matter of noticing this and shifting our attention and identifying as this reality. Yet one still has to try to do something. You can’t just wait around and do nothing. That is why Buddha gave his disciples the eightfold path. It gave his followers something to do.
Jesus likewise gave his followers something to do. He told them to follow him and to seek. He said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” That is what the Buddha meant in the eightfold path by right intent and right effort.
There is nothing we can do to bring awakening about, yet it seems that awakening is often preceded by certain practices, even though these practices do not cause awakening. In my book Experiencing God Directly I mention two practices. I call them self-inquiry and God-inquiry.
Self-inquiry is best known as way of Ramana Maharashi. One inquires “Who am I?” until one exhausts all the possibilities. All the false selves are eliminated, and one finally recognizes True Self or No-Self. It is like the way of Sherlock Holmes, who in solving a case said: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This way of self-inquiry seems to be an effective method for Westerners who are so self-centered and self-absorbed.
In the book I have another chapter on a second way I call God-inquiry. This approach can be helpful to religious people. People from theistic backgrounds like Christians can ask the question: Who or what is God? We go on a relentless search for True God. I took this path, ruthlessly deconstructing my Christian religion with the help of the New Atheists and some old atheists, until I saw through the fake gods that Christianity and all other religions create. When one smashes all mental idols one finally is left with nothing. In that nothing one sees God that is not a thing, God beyond God, Being Itself, the Ground of Being, God beyond all mental images.
There is a third way, which I would like to talk about today. I am calling it Life-inquiry. In the Hebrew Scriptures this wisdom path is represented by the Book of Ecclesiastes. After the famous “vanity of vanity” prologue of the book, the author starts off his book saying, “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven…. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” That sums up the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes relentlessly searches for meaning in all the activities and possessions and values of the world, including power and pleasure and learning, and he comes up empty. That may sound discouraging but it can pave the way for awakening. Ecclesiastes is traditionally attributed to Solomon, although the book does not say that and there is not a biblical scholar outside of fundamentalism who believes Solomon really wrote it. In the book the author is called in Hebrew Kohelet, traditionally translated as "the Teacher" or "the Preacher." Maybe that is why I identify with him. The Latin translation of Kohelet is Ecclesiastes, hence the name of the book. Most biblical scholars date Ecclesiastes to the 3rd century BC, many centuries after King Solomon.
Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books in the Bible, right up there with the Book of Job. I have come back to this book during the difficult times of life more than any other. The book is an autobiographical account of a man looking for the meaning of life, which is one of the major themes of wisdom literature. He engages in what I am calling “life inquiry.” He examines everything about his life and others’ lives.
In the book he observes repeatedly that life is suffering, “For all his days are full of sorrow,” he says, echoing the Buddha’s first noble truth that life is suffering. His conclusion is that life is hebel, a word meaning "emptiness", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory", "fleeting," or "mere breath." It echoes the Buddhist idea of impermanence, the transitory nature of life. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity,” the KJV says.
The preacher Ecclesiastes is searching for truth, meaning and purpose in life. He is looking for what does not die or fade away. He is looking for liberation from the meaninglessness and transitory nature of earthly existence. He is looking for what is Real and permanent. He is looking for Ultimate Reality. Unfortunately this process did not result in what we might call enlightenment or awakening. That is important because it shows us there is no foolproof method. Instead the Preacher’s search results in something more like what we might call stoicism, like what we would find in Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. It is a profound way, but it is not spiritual awakening.
For that reason some find the book of Ecclesiastes depressing. I find it refreshingly honest. I think we all feel like Ecclesiastes at some time in our lives. Today it is often called depression. But instead of accepting the truths that depression can teach us, too often we quickly label it as dangerous and mental illness and treat it in order to get happy again, without learning its secrets.
I am not suggesting that you get off your meds. There is such a thing as clinical depression which needs to be treated. And it can kill people. If you are thinking of harming yourself, please get help immediately. I just read a blog by Justin Foster distinguishing between meltdowns and waking up. If you are having a meltdown, get help. But if you are having an existential crisis, then see it through. Kathleen Norris has a wonderful book on this called Acedia and Me. She calls it soul-weariness, sees it as holding spiritual treasure.
There is a soul-weariness, like what Ecclesiastes describes, that has something to teach us, and we should learn its lessons. It reveals the emptiness of life, the illusory nature of life, and if we persevere, it can lead to spiritual awakening. The preacher of Ecclesiastes seems to have gotten stuck in the emptiness of life and it did not result in spiritual awakening.
But in Job, the other major Wisdom book of the Hebrew scriptures, it does result in enlightenment. I have described the enlightenment of Job in another episode so I will not repeat it at length here. Job started off rich and happy, but then went through tremendous suffering and loss of family and grief and trauma. He lost everything including family, possessions and health.
The preacher Kohelet or Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, did not go through that physically. He did not lose anything physically. He had everything, but everything became worthless to him. He went through an existential crisis and made peace with it without going beyond it. Maybe that is the difference. Job was not willing to make peace with it. Job railed against God and demanded that God reveal God’s true nature. Kohelet didn’t. Furthermore Kohelet didn’t give up everything voluntarily like the Buddha did and Jesus did. Maybe that is the difference.
Buddhist tradition says Siddhartha was a prince who had everything and was protected from seeing anything bad. Then one day he saw it all in what is called “the four sights,” which led Siddhartha to give up everything he had for his spiritual search. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes did not. He thought he could have the world and the Kingdom of God, to use Jesus’ term. So like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus seeking eternal life, he could not give it all up, so he went away sorrowful, the gospel says.
Ecclesiastes and Job model the way of life inquiry. Job actually combines it with God-inquiry. He is constantly looking for God. When you find God you find the True self, which is self-inquiry. These three ways can be combined in any way that works. No matter which way you choose – or rather which chooses you – they all three point to nondual reality.
They all deconstruct the fabricated mental worlds that we have created about ourselves and life and God. That deconstruction is what we can do. It is the only thing we can do that will help at all. They all ruthlessly investigate every worldly and religious and spiritual and philosophical fantasy that humankind has created.
They see through all of it as impermanent and ultimately therefore illusory. When one relentlessly pursues truth at all cost, that is what Jesus called taking up the cross. Then the curtain of the Holy of Holies is torn in two. One sees beyond the veil. The world and the Divine merge. To use Jesus’ words one sees and enters the Kingdom of Heaven. That is spiritual awakening.