Rupert Spira: The Direct Path to Freedom
The renowned teacher's no-nonsense approach to spiritual awakening.
Posted November 10, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Rupert Spira is an internationally renowned master of the direct path whose elegant style and artistic ethos are unique among today's spiritual teachers. A celebrated potter and ceramicist whose work is in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Spira brings the same precision and grace to his teaching that he once trained on his potter's wheel. Non-sectarian and dogma-free, the direct path he outlines is tailor-made for our skeptical, scientistic age, free of lingo and esoteric distractions, and focused on experience over faith.
Drawn to exploring the nature of reality from an early age, Spira spent 30 years studying with a variety of spiritual masters before embarking on his teaching career and now offers retreats and meetings to his sizable following around the world. He is the author of The Transparency of Things: Contemplating the Nature of Experience, Being Aware of Being Aware, Presence: The Art of Peace and Happiness, and other books, and lives in Oxford, UK, with his wife and family. In this conversation, we talked about Spira's spiritual beginnings, the importance of testing ideas for oneself, and why the direct path is so well suited to contemporary life.
Mark Matousek: Let's begin with your personal background. How did you first embark on a spiritual path?
Rupert Spira: Quite naturally, in fact. My mother and stepfather belonged to something called the Study Society in London, which followed classical non-dual teachings of Advaita Vedanta [a classic system of spiritual realization in Indian tradition], so I didn’t have to go far to find it. You could say that it was handed to me on a plate. By the time I was 15, I was reading Rumi, and that became my first heart awakening. Because I had a Christian upbringing, the devotional approach to Vedanta was a natural step for me. Then, in my late teens, I realized that this approach was satisfying my heart but not my mind.
For the next 20 years, I embarked on my life as an artist and also engaged in an intimate relationship. Loving beauty, relationships, and the world as I do, did not make me a natural renunciate. In my mid-30s, I was introduced to the Tantric path and realized that these two loves (of truth and beauty) were really the same love. The Vedantic approach of self-inquiry has made a great contribution to the path of turning away from the content of experience towards pure consciousness. However, it is not as strong on turning back to integrate our lived and felt experience. This is why I ended up with a balance between these two approaches, known as the direct path.
MM: Why is the direct path particularly useful for how we live today?
RS: The direct path requires no affiliation to any particular teacher or tradition. There is nothing to subscribe to, there is nothing to believe in or commit to. It has nothing to do with Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, or any other religion. It is just a clean, clear contemporary formulation of the great understanding in a way that is consistent with contemporary language and contemporary life. The direct path is the essential [spiritual] understanding that has been divested of all its local, temporal, and cultural traditions. For a very long time, these teachings were only given in special, secret circumstances. I do not think it a coincidence that they have become widely available now when our world culture is ready for them.
To answer your question, yes, I feel it is the path that is most suited to our era, and it may not have been possible in the past. Humanity, up until now, may not have been ready for this very direct approach.
MM: What attracts people to this path in the first place?
RS: Eighty percent are motivated simply by the wish to be happy. They have tried everything else to ease their suffering and have now turned to spiritual life as the one unexplored avenue. The more intellectually inclined come because they want to know the nature of reality; they've realized that sense perceptions impose severe limitations on understanding the nature of things.
MM: Are they seeking enlightenment?
RS: Enlightenment is a word I rarely use. It’s so laden with associations. Those of us in the West who have traveled to India may acquire a rather romantic and misguided sense of enlightenment. We may come to believe that if you work hard enough, and meditate long enough, you’re going to have this incredible experience, which will put you above the fray from then on. Of course, this is mistaken.
The early stages of self-investigation require facing one’s suffering and embracing it, rather than turning away from it. Very often, we’re so busy escaping from our suffering, seeking solace in substances, activities, and relationships, that we don’t even feel it. In time, we recognize that our true nature is inherently peaceful, inherently fulfilled before it is qualified or colored by experience. If one is in touch with one’s true nature, one feels its innate peace and joy, and this brings about a reduction in our suffering. We get in touch with that which lies behind identifying ourselves with the content of our experience. After a while, our essential being becomes our new identity. We remain in touch with its innate peace in the midst of experience. As a result, suffering arises less and less, and in time, simply ceases arising.
MM: What's your objection to New Age adaptations of classic non-dual teachings?
RS: While it’s true there is no individual separate self, I find it unsatisfactory to respond to every question with, “There’s nobody here and there’s nothing to do.” Like a lot of New Age teaching, there’s truth in it, but it’s not an appropriate answer to every question. It feels dismissive to questions about the nature of consciousness, questing toward having more happiness, or how to deal with loss in one’s life. Teachings need to be simple, direct, and easy. They need to provide clear guidance that anyone can follow so they have direct experiences for themselves.
MM: Do you feel fear over the world today and what might be coming?
RS: I don’t feel afraid, Mark. Obviously, I see that the world is in a state of upheaval. Who knows what’s coming? But I don’t feel afraid of it. I live in a benign place (Oxford) compared to, say, Beirut, so I’m not being confronted on the streets on a daily basis by the kind of upheaval and danger that I know many are facing. I do feel concern for my 21-year-old son. I think of all the people his age, coming into their adult life, and feel for all of them. Will there be jobs for them? How are they going to manage? We have no idea what the world will look like in 5 and 10 years’ time, but I don’t feel afraid of it. Whatever happens, I will face it moment by moment.
MM: One last question. In a dangerous world like this one, what does hope mean to you?
RS: Hope is such a loaded and complicated term. I’m with T.S. Eliot, who said that hope is always hope for the wrong thing. If we’re hoping for something in the future that will finally bring us peace or fulfillment, this hope betrays the fact that our desire for peace and fulfillment is still invested in objective experience. If our desire for peace and happiness is invested in objective experience, we are destined for disappointment. What we long for is present now. Fulfillment lies in our being. In order to access it, we need to recognize the essential nature of who we are. This instills a different sort of hope, which is more like a prayer, that a significant number of people recognize the truth that we are speaking of. I pray for such a situation.