After a long search, Mark Whitwell discovered that the truth he was seeking could not be found, because he never lost it.
One night about 40 years ago, I was standing on a rooftop in a country thousands of miles from my home in the South Pacific, when I suddenly experienced a sense of wonder. It was sublime—a deep, spontaneous feeling of well-being, bliss, and love. I felt completely nurtured, my whole body fully integrated with everything in the natural world and with everyone around me.
What had caused this wonderful feeling? There was no external reason—no girl, no drugs, and no hit on the head with a peacock feather from Swami Knowitallananda. Yet there I was, under a full moon and infinite stars, blissfully alive and certain of the simplest realization.
“This body loves its breath,” I whispered to the night crickets.
Like a man loves God, like a woman loves a man, like a bee loves nectar. “This exhalation completely loves the inhalation,” I said aloud. “And it’s so easy!”
I’d traveled a great many miles, looking for answers outside of myself, before coming to this realization. Having lived through the usual troubles of a Western teenager, growing up in New Zealand and attending a church-run school, I knew that there had to be something better than what society was dishing up at the time. Our parents had won the last world war and given us free speech and a free life, for which I was profoundly grateful. But I couldn’t shake the feeling in my bones that there had to be more than the commercialism I saw around me, and the academic system that was merely preparing us for the universities. And so I took off around the world in search of wisdom—or something—among the great traditions that I’d heard and read about.
Landing on the subcontinent of South Asia, I sought out the masters of the ancient traditions. There was no Internet back then, and no books had yet been published about their teachings, so I had to conduct my search by a combination of intuition and trial and error. The first thing I discovered was that “spiritual life” was a major industry there. The wisdom teachings that I was seeking were available, in most instances, for a price.
“That’s all right,” I thought, “Everyone needs to earn a living.”
But I found out over time that doing business was more important to most of these “holy men” than the well-being of the people who came to them for teaching—not only Westerners but also the local seekers.
Among the shoddy spiritual goods being sold in the marketplace, I found little that was useful. I had to sift through a ton of sand before I located any jewels. But the painstaking search was worth it. I was able to find a handful of teachers who were as appalled by these spiritual hucksters as I was.
The foremost among these men became my friend as well as my teacher. Indeed, he told me that the true teacher is “no more than a friend and no less than a friend.” In the end, there was no need for a teaching at all, he said, because the universe knows exactly what it is doing with each and every person.
“I have nothing to teach,” this extraordinary man said to me. “I have no message for mankind.”
“Now, there’s a teaching!” I thought.
“The whole world has been seduced by enlightenment,” this man said.
In a single stroke, he undermined the spell—the hoax—that my search for wisdom had cast over me. I’d been determined to know what was really going on, what worked and what did not. What was the key? What was the essential information that I needed—and that the world needed? I had been seduced by the idea that you could attain permanent happiness, and that’s what I was looking for—in a word, enlightenment! Now this man was telling me with authority that looking for enlightenment was itself the problem, because it implied that I didn’t already have it.
“Stop looking and start living,” he told me. “The whole idea of trying to become something is a denial of who you are.”
Having said that, he showed me a physical practice that he followed every day. He also mentioned a word that I had previously associated with a series of acrobatic postures that you do on a rubber mat while wearing a leotard or a loincloth. But I instinctively knew that he wasn’t talking about some system of aggressive exercise for weight loss! His practice consisted of simply participating in the movement of Source Reality through his body and breath. (By Source Reality I mean the power of the universe that moves everything.) It wasn’t about some abstract concept of enlightenment. It was about discovering the natural intimacy of body, breath, and movement. He would move and breathe on the floor with me to show how to participate in life instead of attempting to manipulate life with physical contortions or meditation, like spiritual gymnastics. He would laugh and gossip about the ordinary delights of life, and was always helpful in the most practical ways.
He demonstrated his practice with no sense of effort or strain. Watching him, I realized that the forcible teaching of postures and meditation that I had encountered elsewhere is an imposition on the human system. He was emphatic that most teachers were just in it for the business. Since I had already begun to sense that, I was drawn to his “nonteaching.” This man was so adamant that truth could not be bought or sold. Truth did not belong to anyone in particular or, in other words, it belonged to everyone and everything. It could not be found, because you never lose it—and the very act of looking for it implies its absence. Whereas truth really is intrinsic, and always present in your innate, natural state.
So it’s the act of looking for it that is the problem. All we need do in life is to participate in it. To emphasize this point, he would say bluntly, “Don’t turn my words into a teaching, or me into one of those teachers exploiting the gullibility of the people to look for something they have never lost.” He would refuse to allow people to copyright his words in books so they could be used to make money and exploit people. Sometimes I expressed my wonder at something especially mind blowing that he had said, adding that I wanted to let the world know what he was teaching me. But he used to joke, “Don’t tell people I said these things. Tell them you said it, and you’ll make a lot of money.”
He would also say things like, “To be yourself requires extraordinary intelligence. You are blessed with that intelligence; nobody need give it to you, nobody can take it away from you.”
After having wasted my time, my money, and not a little of my faith in humankind, I had finally found a spiritual master I could believe in.
“Now,” this man said, “life begins.”
Excerpted from The Promise by Mark Whitwell. Copyright ©2012 by Atria Books.