The Progressive and the Direct Path

10 November 2023

There seems to be a debate in the realm of spirituality about what appear to be two broad and differing approaches to self-realization:  on one hand there is what is called the ‘progressive path’, and on the other, is what is called the ‘direct path’. 

The Progressive Path is the most common, and it is represented by almost all of what we might consider spiritual disciplines – any perspective like Theravada Buddhism, yoga, psychotherapy, the work using medicinal plants, etc.  Any time there is a sense of ‘work’ – of somehow needing to do something for the person to get from here to there – this is the progressive path.

In the Direct Path, it is recognized that there is no real way, conceptually, for one to move “from” the relative to the absolute.  This is not a journey of any linear sense.  And many would say, this is precisely the problem with the more traditional progressive paths – on their own they are built to maybe not fail, but confound.  At some point, there must be a stepping off, a leaving of the progression, the so-called leap of faith. 

In the Direct Path approach, we recognize that the real nature of Self is by definition something that must be already inherent in our present experience.  To seek it, we can only move away from it. As Rupert Spira says, “you cannot stand up and take a step towards yourself”.  We are already what we seek, and the direct path says that to approach that with a linear, progressive attitude ignores and fails to guide us to directly experience our Self in the here and now.  The direct path suggests that there can be no work, only insight. 

But doesn’t progressive work seem to lead to insight?  And doesn’t the blast of insight seem to require some work to integrate and anchor? 

I suggest here that the debate between these seemingly different paths is merely a trick of perspective:  there are not two different ways here.  You cannot have one without the other.  They are like the x and y axis of a unified graph.  To say that only one of them is right, is wrong. They are the wave and the particle, two perspectives of the same thing. To say that there is one and not the other is to leave experience and speak in pure concept. 

We seem to be always working towards our goal in a linear, progressive way.  But the further along we go, relatively speaking, the more we realize that there is nowhere to go and we are already there.  But there is a deep irony in all of this.  It is conceptually, or philosophically accurate that the Direct path is all there is, or all that is necessary.  But experientially it takes time, work, healing, understanding and integration for that to become apparent.  There is no real, separate self that can be worked on or that can become enlightened. However, until that is clear, there is work to be done. 

It’s like an argument where one person is saying that we need to clear the clouds away in order for there to be blue sky, and the other person is pointing out that the blue sky is always there no matter what clouds may be there.  Both are right.  My question is, do you want to experience the sunny day?  Or do you want to be lost in the tangle of the clouds?  There may be some work to do, some patience, some wading and waiting for the thick storms to pass without getting utterly pulled into it.  But until you have seen a shard of light, so radiant and glorious though it be merely a thin line in a black field – all the more divine because of the contrast of the darkness one had been immersed in for so long – that thin ray of light gives you hope, gives you a taste, let’s you know that there is in fact a sun out there somewhere.  We long for it and we always will – and that is our nature. 

And though that is a flawed metaphor, it serves to illustrate that moving towards the light is never a wrong thing, even though in the end we realize that we are, in our nature, the light itself. 

And so I would like to talk about the progressive path and the direct path as not two things, but as sides of a coin, the x and y axes, the dance of the electron as it orbits the nucleus, the wave and particle, the paradox of time.   

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a very important conversation, but some people get quite hung up on this, so I hope we can clarify things.  In the spiritual community in which I am most connected – that around Rupert Spira – this has become a central focus of discussion, because as time goes on, Rupert is doing less or almost none of the progressive path work that he used to teach. Instead, he is only speaking from a perspective of the ‘pathless path’ which he would say is a further refinement of the direct path teachings.  Lately, he has been speaking as if anything other than this very strict pathless path pointing is a “concession” that he is less willing to make. 

It becomes an important thing to talk about because, though this adherence to truth is admirable and lovely, it quickly become unhelpful and confusing for many people.  We hear that our divine nature is effortlessly available to us, and that all we need to do is rest in that.  But when, for the average person, they are unclear about the pure Being / Awareness that they are being told to rest in, but additionally they are highly identified with heavy psychological material that is loud and active and won’t really let them sit in that quiet space anyway – well you can see that this may lead to frustration. 

And I observe that this frustration in not being able to do what is “obvious, effortless, and one’s inherent nature” leads many people into spiritual bypassing. Conceptually they understand this idea, but it remains an idea instead of an experience, because the progressive work is what is needed in order for that to happen. 

It is a conundrum because from the perspective of the teacher, or any person who is really anchored in the reality of our true  nature, then it is obvious that there is nothing to be done to move towards that self, and nothing that could be done.  From the perspective of the infinite, even speech is a concession to the relative mind. 

Rupert has suggested a lovely and useful metaphor for our spiritual enlightenment:  it is like getting lost playing the role of King Lear in a play, and all we have to do is realize again that we are not the character, but the actor, John Smith, who has merely forgotten himself in playing a part.  It is an almost perfect metaphor, and completely accurate.  In the direct or pathless path teaching, this example is shown as a reference to there being nothing to do but to experience your own real, true being.  But when people are not clear on that, and can’t quite understand what this points to, and they are told that it is obvious and simple – it seems that the mind, instead of stepping out of the role of King Lear back into the authentic actor, people accidentally just take on another role in the play, and it can be even more stuck.  Trading King Lear for Cordelia may feel like a better role.  She is less tortured, for sure.  But it is still not John Smith. 

It takes some progressive work to realize the futility of the work.

It takes some progress until you can experience the unconditioned mind directly. 

One of my observations from working with devoted and insightful people who are interested in nondual understanding, is that they may be taking the pathless path teaching home with them, then deciding on a purely conceptual and cognitive level that there is nothing for them to do, and no work to be done – which is all fine and good until they encounter feelings like anxiety and fear and anger, at which point they may use this conceptual teaching to ignore, suppress, pretend, or talk their way out of the simple experiential reality of it. 

And might I say that I encounter this almost every day in my practice of counselling. 

So while I’m not interested in splitting hairs about what is the best way to do this whole spiritual awakening thing, I do think it is important to clarify things to prevent us from getting stuck. 

All realization happens in the present moment only.  Of course, that is the only place it could happen, and when it happens, it is an insight itself that is one that understands the timelessness of reality.  In true understanding, we cannot talk of time or progression.  And for those who have tasted this and had the insight, they know it is merely a simple, single step back and there is nothing cumulative or preparatory for this, since it is a stepping off completely from the solid land of duality and sequential action. 

It can be easy, from an awakened perspective, to say that there is only a direct path, and it is the easiest thing in the world. For those that have seen the truth, it is indeed obvious, immanent, and mundane.  And while it is true that there is nothing that needs to be done before insight is available to a person, in actual practice, there does seem to be some groundwork that must be done. 

If you want an illustration to this, just look up.  As above, so below.  Everything dances, all apparent objects in the universe move towards each other, intersect, move away, further apart and then invariably, closer together.  It’s all one, of course. It all came from a singularity and will all return.  An atom, a planet that is adrift in the dark – in the grand scheme it is always safe and on its way. It does not need the idea of a sun, it needs a light that it can move towards. 

It is like a celestial body being drawn towards the gravitational pull of a sun that will eventually engulf it. We move towards the source of light, and when we get close, we get a close glance, which recedes just as quickly; all the momentum that took us there takes us past it as well.  But then we are drawn back.  Eventually, in this metaphor, the planet is consumed, like the embrace of a lover, and it is revealed to be made of the same stuff of the sun.

To tell the planet, when it is at the farthest reach of its orbit from the sun, that it is merely made of the same stuff as the sun, so ultimately there is no movement for it to make – it is a merely conceptual truth that is not always helpful or practical to the planet.

Yes, it is true that ultimately in our spiritual journey, there is no movement to make, and nothing that needs to change.  But it may take you some time and some work to fully know this – and not merely to conceptually know – but to feel it, to experience this as your breathed, effortless reality. 

We can always see the sun.  We can always point to it and know it is there.  It is easy for the sun to say, “you are already one with me, just let go”.  I don’t want you to just know that it is there, or to feel its seasonal warmth.  I want you to know it as your very own self.  So fully that you are the source of warmth for others.  You will know this when there is no chasing, nor periods of darkness.  And until then, everything in your life is an invitation, every moment is the magnetic force of love drawing you nearer. 

Every word we speak is a concession.  Every suggestion of movement towards your own self is a paradox.  But that is how love works; it is love made apparent.  It is the force that draws the planets to the sun, that draw the suns towards the center of the galaxy, that draw you and your best friend to unite.  We can say that there is no movement, but until that is your experience, let us keep talking about moving towards truth.

This is the paradox: there is ultimately nothing you need to do to find complete joy, or to fully heal, or to know your true self, or to awaken in enlightenment.  All of these are names for the same thing.  You cannot move towards that which you already are.   But until you fully know it, you must keep doing whatever you can to move towards it, or to keep it in focus, or make it more clear, less obstructed. 

Paradox is Truth’s calling card. 

Capital T Truth is outside of relativity.  It will always look paradoxical to the mind, which is made of relativity and time.  It is the how the y looks to the x axis: completely foreign. The absolute breaks the rules of relativity.  That’s not evidence it is not accurate, it is simply evidence that it is beyond the relative.  

There is nothing to do and no movement to make.  But if you don’t know that, then you must do whatever you can to move towards that knowing. 

Every thing you do is part of your progressive path of healing and enlightenment, even if it looks like the opposite.  It’s the only path there is.  Part of the progression is the release of all ideas of movement or separation.  Let’s embrace this seeming paradox.   Then, let’s just do the most loving, most helpful thing there is to do in front of us.  The best way there is not the same for everyone.  The best way there is just the next most loving step. 

Ultimately, there is only one, pathless path to awakening.  And that path looks like – from the perspective of a finite mind – a dance, or an orbit, that gets progressively closer and more anchored in the awakened Self.  From the perspective of the infinite, there is and could be no path.  From the perspective of the yet unrealized person, there is a movement and growth. 

There is no question of either/ or.  It is both. 

You are already the fullness, already the perfect and infinite awareness that you may think you need to become. If that is obvious, then there is nothing to do but be whatever comes out of your loving being.  If that is not obvious, then keep dancing, keep doing what you can to sift through the illusions.  None of it really matters; it’s just that knowing our true nature is our greatest joy and peace.  We are drawn to it, like a river to the sea. 

The river doesn’t have to do anything to become the water in the sea.  Yet it keeps moving towards it. Embrace your innermost self, just as you are.  Embrace all things, just as they are. Reach for nothing extra, resist nothing that already is.  This is the only way there ever was.  



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