21. What's Wrong With Pointers?


Q: Robert, the other day you went on a bit of a rant about spiritual pointers. You said that the way people eat them up, pointers must taste like candy but not to you. What is wrong with pointers?

A: I was referring to the words of spiritual teachers that are greeted immediately as “Truth.” For instance, someone will say, “I am the unchanging witness of all that is,”—not, “I feel like an unchanging witness,” but “I am the unchanging witness”—and right away the seekers will nod their heads sagely as if there were no question at all about the truth of that notion, and as if everything worthwhile in living depended on convincing oneself that one really is an “unchanging witness” instead of the poor, frightened, unfulfilled, needy, wounded, suffering human being that one presently seems to be.

Really? Is that true? Am “I” really unchanging, or is myself changing along with everything else? And am I really a witness? If so, what am I witnessing, and how is “myself” separate from what I am witnessing?

I have seen spiritual seekers upon hearing the “unchanging witness” instruction immediately split off part of the ordinary ego, and then call the split-off part, which is really still just ego in disguise, their “witness.”

Since that splitting creates a seemingly separate point of view which can appear “spiritual,” one can be lost in that kind of “witnessing” for years, becoming increasingly isolated from ordinary life, while believing that the more pronounced the splitting becomes, the more “progress” one is making.

The “witness” pointer is only one example. In my view, the one and only thing that really needs pointing to is the hunger of the mind — not my mind or your mind, but the human mind — for descriptions of the ineffable, and explanations for the inexplicable.

Given our genetic history, that hunger for explanation seems reasonable, and I am not saying it can be otherwise. Of course we mammals would like to be able to explain that mysterious noise in the night. Was that just the wind in the trees or is a tiger on the prowl? The survival of our DNA into subsequent generations might depend upon the accuracy of that determination. And DNA, whether we admit it or not, is doing a lot of “my” thinking. In a way, the individual body is only a mortal means for DNA to make itself immortal. And the mind — not my mind or your mind, but the human mind — is well adapted to that project.

Explanations may be useful. I do want to know, for example, what that clanking sound in the engine of my car is all about. That utility, however, goes right out the window as soon as someone becomes cocksure of knowing Truth — I mean, of course, the so-called “Truth” — about the relation between brain and mind, about what myself really is, about why there is something rather than nothing, about whether God exists or not, about what is the original source of consciousness, about what is real and what is only “apparent,” and other such ultimate matters. Topics like that force the explanation factory into territory where, lacking the information required to actually explain anything, the explanation factory morphs instantly into a fantasy factory instead.

That is the usual level of the pointing guru types I’ve encountered either personally or in print. They offer their beliefs, often based upon cultural indoctrination, masquerading as “Truth.” For reasons of their own—the usual reasons: money, power, sex, fame, self-justification—such teachers may overstate their grasp of “reality,” and so intentionally deceive their students, or they may be self-deluded, or both. In any case, the pointers coming from those sources may sound deep or penetrating, but when inspected closely, one may discover thatthey are drivel.

Some questions have no answers. If you ask for the answer to a question like that, all you can expect is drivel, and you will find someone to dish it up for you.

Look, for instance, at the burgeoning non-duality industry. Advaita Vedanta is problematical enough when the original sources are investigated. But once passed through the guts of a parrot, and defecated deftly as droplets of “Truth,” non-duality loses any semblance of relatedness to the human condition. If non-duality grabs your attention, at least read the ancient sources for yourself.

If you hope that the fear, pain, guilt, yearning, and other suffering to which we humans are prone can be vanquished by accepting other folks’ explanations or following a so-called path, it’s not my place to interfere. You have every right to any comfort you can find in life. I have not walked a mile in your moccasins, and it is not my intention to deprive you of whatever you need to believe.

My words in these conversations are self-expression, not dogma. I do not claim that these words are “true,” only that they are said in earnest. I have never followed a path. I don’t even see a path except for my own vanishing tracks viewed in retrospect through the distorted lens of memory. I can see, in a way, what has occurred, but I have no idea what’s next. The future is all I don’t know, and cannot imagine. Still, if you have a structure, a path, or a destination that works for you and brings peace of mind, fine by me. I know my ideas are not for everyone.

Some of you I know only as presences on the internet, others are familiar faces. I have for years now replied to every question as honestly and open-heartedly as possible. I don’t ask anyone to believe what I say. For me these conversations provide a natural pleasure—a fulfillment in and of themselves, regardless of what anyone thinks of me or my words.

So regarding ultimate matters of the kind to which spiritual pointers are expected to point, I say that we human beings are all at sea in the very same boat—the S.S. Human Limitation. No one knows “Truth.” At best, all any of us can offer is a description of our perceptions, feelings, and thoughts in this very moment. Although we try to deny it, in the next moment all of that could change. So why call descriptions of thoughts, which are always subject to change, “Truth”?

A speaker may be clever, impressive, and convincing. Nevertheless, the speaker—any speaker—lacks credibility entirely when it comes to such questions as: Who am I? Why is there something rather than nothing? What am I? Which comes first, consciousness or brains? What happens when you die? Anyone who offers “final answers” to those questions is, I say, a liar or seriously deluded.

And yet, I see people with real interest in these matters, people who are not completely hypnotized by spirituality, people who seem to have sufficient aptitude to discover their own ways in the art of living, still yearning to find the next great pointer, as if hearing a few words could somehow lead them to “Truth.”

If you find yourself in that category, ask yourself this: If the pointers you have heard really led to “Truth,” then why are you still looking to acquire the next pointer, read the next supposedly “sacred” text, attend the next satsang, or acquire the next practice?

I’d think one pointer alone would be enough to turn you away forever from expecting or wanting others to do your work for you. If a pointer can’t do at least that much, it’s only pointing towards further confusion.