Nonduality and the Three Principles Psychology as Teaching Models
An acquaintance from an online forum sent a message to me recently, with a good question about Sydney Banks, who had a large awakening experience and, eventually, inspired what became the Three Principles Psychology movement. His question was in regards to its relation to nonduality teachings (I’d sent him some articles about nonduality student’s experiences):
“Had a good read – very interesting docs. I have been to a Rupert Spira talk. Do you think that if Syd was alive today he would be like Rupert? Rupert doesn’t do coaching or training but my gut feel is non-duality is what Syd was talking about and Roger Mills and George Pransky turned it into a therapy? What do you think?”
That’s an interesting question. Thank you. This is a big topic (one I’ve written many notes on about before but not published), but these questions help to serve as a focus. Here is my (provisional) answer:
Mystics like Sydney are pointing to the same reality as teachers of the nondual understanding like Rupert (Rupert’s teacher was Francis Lucille, who was also my primary recent teacher).
Would Sydney have liked Rupert? Well, Sydney loved everybody. Kidding aside, I’m sure he would have “approved” of what Rupert is teaching in general but I have no idea what he would have said in particular, nor is it of any interest to me to speculate about teachers. However it’s interesting to note that he was known to suddenly get up in arms and tell a practitioner that they “didn’t understand The Three Principles”, that “they are spiritual”. George Pransky at one point threw out all his old books and tapes after one such incident—because they were too much about the details of thought rather than the universal Sydney was wanting to point the world to—in order to start over with a simpler and purer understanding. In another incident, The Psychology of Mind Centre in Australia (based on an earlier form of the understanding called Psychology of Mind)—which during the 1990’s ran seminars for business leaders, did coaching, put out a newsletter, and distributed Syd’s and other’s tapes—was all but shut down after Sydney proclaimed it was not authorized or legit somehow (again, I’m hazy on the exact details of history). Sydney would remind them that it’s spiritual, formless, and they are in their heads or caught in form…
In any case, there are no authorities—Sydney would be the first to say that—and to not listen to him, that it’s not in the words (he said that too). He also said “don’t quote anybody”.
All that being said, the nondual understanding, or what is called Advaita Vedanta in the Indian tradition, is what you could call an advanced teaching. It’s for people that have already been through quite a lot (such as meditation or other practices, or life experiences and insights or “glimpses” and “openings” that have raised their level of consciousness, or have surrendered enough of the ego from suffering or through grace, etc. to be open to it). They are ready for it, are ripe. In other words that have a certain spiritual maturity. It’s audience is very very small worldwide. Unfortunately there are a lot of “Neo-Advaita” teachers that don’t understand it as deeply as they should, and a shallow version gets taught, and it can be abused behaviorally, or just understood intellectually. The truth is, it’s not an easy road.
Nonduality is not a thing or topic but the very essence of, or pointing to, the fundamental truth of the spiritual traditions. As such it doesn’t have any trappings of techniques, rituals, or beliefs (in fact it aims for complete seeing-through of all beliefs). But that essence-hood can make it very hard to understand. In addition there is the phenomenon of seekers “gunning for enlightenment”: an attitude which is goal-oriented and full of expectation (common in an ego, achievement and competition-oriented culture), which ironically keeps one from the goal of realizing true, stable happiness and peace.
Advaita sprang up as a teaching in a culture in the East where non-worldliness was much more acceptable than in the West. One could experience extreme bliss, go sit under a tree, and folks would put garlands of flowers around your neck and feed you. Here you would be put in an asylum (that’s a joke, but there’s a grain of truth to it). We want something more “embodied” that we can live and still run in the world. On the teacher side of the equation, you have those becoming gurus where an ego is still very much involved apparently, as witnessed in the abuses of the exploitation of power (to gain money, sex, trappings of fame, etc). One sees the whole guru game, and the drawbacks of authority and organizations. This happens in both the East and the West, but is facilitated perhaps in the West more.
If it’s truly spiritual, it’s about Freedom. It is freedom, absolutely. There are no rules. You are your own guru, your own teacher. There is in truth only One teacher: Universal Intelligence. This may come in the form of life experiences, teachers, a guru, parents, lovers, kids, dogs, birds, flowers… a sudden insight from out of the blue. A glimpse of truth.
Nonduality in these paths is approached by what’s called the “Direct Path” as contrasted with the “Progressive Path”.
The progressive path is the use of practices and behaviors to purify oneself over time: essentially rid the mind and body of the accumulations of traces of patterns of past ignorance (“ignore-ance in the Sanskrit sense Avidyā — “unawareness” would be a better word for Westerners, to avoid the connotation that it’s about knowledge of the world) until one is (so the story goes) ready to take the final leap and see ultimate truth, the absolute, become one with the One, drop the self, die to the world, however you want to put it. As I see it, this picture is not true: it is not about some future ultimate state, and becoming something. However the work one does on the progressive path is useful for the time when one does get onto the direct path. Nothing is lost.
By way of contrast, the Direct Path says you are already there Now if you only knew it, or rather, realized it, so look at what’s in the way, which is all illusory. There is no path. It’s the pathless path. This is why Zen and Taoism (Lao Tzu’s teachings) are so similar. It tries to cut across time directly to Truth with a capital “t”, which is all-pervasive, eternal and unnamable. But the illusion of being a human and a mind and body and a doer are very stubborn.
In some ways what Sydney was saying in his early tapes reminds me of the Direct Path, in the way he talked about “find it Now” and cutting across time, and that you are what you are looking for, etc. But it came through his limited exposure to spiritual teachings and language. He came to Self-realization by grace (prodded by suffering) and not through some path, from what I know.
The charm of the Three Principles as I see it at moment, is it’s accessibility, it lack of trappings of technique, it’s secularism (it’s not an offshoot of an Indian religion for example), lack of history and therefore freedom from fancy language (like the Sanskrit which gets pulled out, such as to label a meditation and dialogue a “satsang”, which can sound pretentious to some). It is a teaching model associated with psychology, and you can follow it’s history. Syd’s insights “came through” psychology by fate or an accident of history, depending on your outlook. I don’t think anything’s an accident, so apparently it was a good vehicle. You can read about some of that history in Jack Pransky’s book (Paradigm Shift: A History of The Three Principles), or you can look at earlier versions of the model in books like “Sanity, Insanity, and Common Sense” (Rick Suarez, Roger C. Mills, Darlene Stewart, 1987) or Richard Carlson’s many offerings.
In summary, if you want to make money with with a teaching, or be a “coach”, the Three Principles may be more suited to it and more attuned to our psychologically-oriented culture and a larger audience. The spiritual roots are hidden under a secular guise of what looks like technique and psychology and is even sometimes peddled as “scientific”, which it is only in a vague metaphorical sense. The Three Principles appeals to the huge self-help culture of America and elsewhere. But the spiritual foundations are what give it power over psychology, since it is pointing beyond the mind and the personal self, where traditional psychology gets stuck.
Personally, after 20 years studying and using the Three Principles approach or understanding, I felt it was limiting, without embedding it in a larger understanding. To try and untangle some of my issue with it, here they are:
1. It was too complex: there is really only one “principle” in reality, the unnamable Divine one. The notion of a principle tends to obfuscate, to me, rather than clarify. As a description and not prescriptive model, principles serve as metaphors, but are too easily construed as concepts or even quasi-techniques, and often taken aboard as beliefs. Indeed, beliefs are precisely what one wants to drop on the spiritual unfolding of knowing ones true nature. Admittedly replacing one set of beliefs with another can be a natural pitfall of all teachings and paths, but “principles”, though fairly neutral sounding, is a double-edged sword, because they sound quite solid, like things, and are even misconstrued as being “laws”. They are often compared with the law of gravity, which is yet another misunderstanding of science, using a metaphor of “law” in a crude and opaque way. Spiritual reality is beyond all rules, laws (scientific or otherwise) or intellectual understandings.
2. The emphasis on Thought has been taken aboard or misconstrued such that personhood and separation are emphasized. Some symptoms of this are relativism and “it’s all thought” thinking, or trying to change or control thought. This is a basic ontological confusion that completely ignores, is unaware, or does not understand the universality of Consciousness – not as a thing out there somewhere but that implies it’s totality here and now and the non-existence of a separate person-thinker-doer. For example, is Thought, one of the Three universal spiritual principles, universal or personal? The personal mind, where thoughts arise, is only universal in a generic sense that body and everything is part of the universe, whereas Universal Consciousness and Universal Mind are truly universal, timeless and impersonal spiritual principles. (The Three Principles also branched off into the “Single Paradigm” teachers, focusing on Thought as the key to human experience, which further confused the scene).
3. It had become too much entangled in marketing to see the forest for the trees. By the time I saw postings on a Three Principles Facebook forum touting coaching services aimed at helping someone write a Three Principles book, no matter their level of understanding, and at the same time no substantive discussion or dialogue on the forum other than advertising yet more seminars, retreats, online courses, books, etc., I abandoned it as a source to deepen understanding of truth for myself.
4. Inaccurate understanding: as I mentioned above, it is often touted as a “scientific” understanding. This is a misunderstanding of science at a deep level. Western science is about phenomena: that which is observable by the senses or instruments. Spiritual understanding is a subjective, experiential knowing of the essence of reality, invisible to the senses and outside the domain of science. For example, what does science have to say about the experience of beauty, love, or self-evident meaning? You might find neuroscientists claiming they find such things in the brain, but these are hypothesis or stories made up starting from an unproven and ultimately unprovable assumption (namely that consciousness is brain-based), not known facts. These assumptions are pasted onto observations such as CAT scans, which merely shows correlations with mental Phenomena, and not Neumena, nor causality, nor anything about Consciousness (the unseen seer). Spiritual realization is knowing there is no such thing as causality anyway: causality depends on time and space, which are created by universal mind (as Sydney pointed out)! Science is designed to examine that which can be seen inter-subjectively and tested and repeated. It also cannot approach one-off phenomena like miracles and moments of grace. It can’t go there. Period. It’s not the instrument to do it. Science and its handmaiden of technology are about the world — they are very powerful and useful in that domain — not about ultimate questions of philosophy and spirit. In short calling the Three Principles “scientific” is a silly bit of marketing hyperbole in my opinion, or simply ignorance.
A further mistake is equating intellect with ego (ego being the false self, or a thought-created self-image that is falsely identified with as the real self). While the intellect, can certainly be used to defend ignorance (ignorance in the spiritual sense), and feed an ego, particularly if it’s an ego that prides oneself on intellectual knowledge (which is limited and relative, unlike ultimate knowing), the intellect can nonetheless not only be a tool in one’s liberation — using the mind to undo the mind’s false notions — and post-liberation, an entertaining way to celebrate life, in playing with ideas. The intellect is limited to conceptual thinking and tends to think in terms of cause and effect, and is a useful tool in practical matters, but can’t see beyond its own limited way of understanding (indeed permanent happiness has to by nature be acausal or causeless, that is, beyond the world of cause and effect). However it can be used in service to spirit, life, God, however you want to say it, both during the process of transcending the ego and once transcendence is more established. In short, intellectual activity can be either a block or a friend on the spiritual path. Like any tool, it depends on how it is used.
5. I experienced quite lot of an anti-intellectual attitude, dogmatic and fascist in character. Whereas intellectual enquiry is encouraged in Advaita/Nonduality (when taught properly) as a way to cut away false beliefs (such as in a separate self), in the Three Principles world it’s frequently shot down, discouraged or dismissed, often followed with the quasi-compassionate backup notion that “it’s about the feeling”. The psychological truth this reflects however is that feelings can be useful barometers of the quality of one’s thinking, but this understanding got misused socially. This anti-intellect attitude becomes a cop-out with respect to answering good but difficult questions, in my view, and can often be a reflection of a defensive outlook (beliefs or vested interest in a set approach or brand for example). The intellect is an important if not essential tool for the truth seeker. This of course depends on your inclination: some characters are more heart-oriented, thus by way of comparison the Hindus have the Bhakti (unconditional devotion, which is heart-centered) vs. the Jnani (ultimate Knowledge) paths in Indian yoga, among others. They both lead Home. Are the Three Principles a heart-centered teaching? It may be in essence, given Sydney’s inclinations, but it clearly isn’t only devotional in terms of a teaching model.
One must understand two circumstances that factor into the context of what Sydney Banks was trying to do and what he was up against. It can be hazardous duty to try and communicate what were essentially mystical revelations to a broad audience, given how they will inevitably be misinterpreted “when they fall on the ears of the listening mind” as he once said. In addition, he didn’t have an educational background to articulate it in a refined way or a manner that addressed the potential intellectual questions. In fact he was even promoted as being a welder with “only an 9th grade education“, perhaps suggesting an innocence or trustable lack of sophistication. One article in a small Vancouver newspaper from 2009 quotes him as expressing this simplicity of background as the fact that he claims “He wrote more books than he read”.
The philosopher and mystic Franklin Merrell Wolff, Harvard-trained in philosophy (and formerly a mathematics teacher at Stanford before he chose to pursue enlightenment), had some pertinent observations about mystics with limited tools of expression:
“He may even Know, and know that he Knows, without being able to conceive of what he inwardly Knows—for conception in these matters requires the skill of a superior intellect, and it appears that skill of this sort is by no means a condition of introceptive [a third mode of knowing, beyond sense perception and cognition] awakening. Hence we have many inadequate interpretive statements from those who have attained some degree of this awakening.” (Wolff, p. 121).
I also started to see what were essentially religious attitudes in online meetings, promoting and defending the Three Principles or Sydney in an agitated way. Getting religious about it misses the point, and would have upset Sydney no doubt! Getting religious reflects ego and insecurity, is a narrow and rigid way of seeing it, mistaking the form for what the forms are pointing to, which is absolutely universal. It’s just a path, a tool, a model. It’s ultimately a metaphor. It’s not about a person (Syd) nor The Only Way nor We Are Better Than Thou. I realize this does not condemn the whole field or it’s practitioners, it was just my particular experience. The Three Principles model has helped a tremendous number of people, in very diverse fields. It’s an applied or embodied understanding, whereas Advaita and Nonduality can seem extremely esoteric and impractical (it in fact is very practical, especially as taught by my Western teachers – I didn’t really get a foothold in success, peace and happiness until I got involved – but, as I said, it’s definitely not for everyone).
Now that I’ve gotten some of the problems I’ve perceived with the Three Principles (as it has played out in the world) off my chest, I’m going to outline what I think the strengths, utility and beauty of this understanding is.
The Three Principles is a revolution in comparison to traditional psychology and psychotherapy. It’s a 180 degree turnaround from the medical model and the attempts to be scientific that got particular emphasis from Freud. Hundreds of schools of psychotherapy exist, and none have the goal of wisdom. In fact wisdom is not seen or understood. They are all based on various combinations of problem solving, looking at the past, analyzing family dynamics, building coping skills, adding techniques and ideas, labels, diagnoses, finding patterns, trying to change behavior and reactions, manipulating the contents of thinking, or change social or material circumstances… all based on the assumptions that human beings are separate, material or mental entities (albeit social with other separate entities). There is generally, in modern psychology the spoken or unspoken presumption (most starkly seen in cognitive science) that humans are at bottom biological machines, thinking machines, like fancy social robots that evolved through time – nature and nurture – and that is the only real dimension: the one where information is learned, and the biological unit must be improved from it’s flawed state, and must make an effort to be better selves. There is also the unspoken feeling that this flawed-ness, this wrongness, was somehow innate: perhaps a legacy of religious conditioning (original sin).
They also all have in common the fact that they are based on theories: concepts or opinions by theorists and practitioners, the totality of which do not form one coherent, unified understanding of psychology. In other words, all the psychologies were products of the personal mind, spun up from the finite mind and the inherently limited human imagination, rather than (generally) the fact of present unlimited awareness.
Further there is an assumption that if one feels bad, or is suffering, or very disturbed, then there is something fundamentally wrong: one is damaged in one’s substance, or at minimum the programming of the machine is broken, and you either are doomed to a life of patching up that damage (with drugs and techniques and circumstances, etc.) or to make efforts to change the programming.
Now while it is true at one level that when looking at the human as mind-bodies in world, that we are in a sense products of genetics and past “conditioning”, and one can do some useful re-conditioning. However, what is doing the looking? Science has not been able to answer that ultimate question, and usually will not even look at, or admit to the problem. Consciousness is at best, the “hard problem” in philosophy (Chalmers) of “how does it arise from brains” (or programs: mind or content), or at worst, completely dismissed as non-existent (Churchland and other eliminative materialists, analytic philosophy, the field of AI etc.).
In this atmosphere it is understandable that some practitioners (in the 1990s) such as Roger Mills, labeled this understanding and the organizations to teach it, “Health Realization”. They recognized that in reality, we are ultimately healthy and happy behind the screen of Thought, if we could only realize that truth. Nothing can damage or hurt our essential, eternal nature. What we are is imperturbable at bottom. This has been an outstanding realization for many people touched by this understanding. They have found greater happiness, health, creativity, resourcefulness, resilience, and common sense, and are better able to lead happier, more stable and connected lives.
While there are some changes happening at the fringes and the leading edge of psychology that recognize there is some reality and value to a spirituality informed psychology, most psychology sees spirituality as akin to religion: simply a set of beliefs, therefore arbitrary, made up, and optional. So in an almost dismissive or patronizing sense, the person is seen as taking on notions that are comforting or valuable, but only in a personal way. The beliefs don’t reflect reality, and don’t reflect truth, nor are spiritual experiences seen as ultimately much more than some kind of hallucination, though they are sometimes admitted to be valuable, mysterious and even life-changing (such as in psychedelic therapy). There is still nearly always the assumption it’s all brain-based or illusory. Neuroscience is akin to the new religion.
In this context, it can be experienced as a complete revolution to point out the fact that reality, as experienced, is an “inside-out job”, as a function of the power of Thought to create the appearance of form (the perception of phenomena out there, a world, a body, a person, feelings, thoughts…). Also key is the power of Consciousness to light it up and make it a real experience. Universal Mind is seen as integral as well: the unlimited intelligence of what Is (in dualistic terms, the infinite and real, immediate intelligence of God). All three—Universal Mind, Consciousness, and Thought—are different ways of describing the one timeless reality. Furthermore, the fact that these universal powers, which are really One, are ultimately universal unlimited spiritual realities, and as a person one only exists as a thought in the mind of God as it were, is a pretty mind-blowing revelation. It runs counter to almost everything in the therapy and psychology culture.
In a culture awash in materialism and scientism (the religious assumption that science, objective thinking and reason gives us a complete picture of reality) the pursuit of external solutions to suffering and dis-ease—countless schools of therapy, techniques and motivational models, drugs and on and on—the Three Principles offer a simple model for looking within. In the simplicity is the power and sometimes a difficulty for the human mind, given how the mind wants something to grab onto, process, analyze, study, evaluate, compare… the process has to be more one of letting go of assumptions and beliefs than an additive one of taking on more learning of pieces of knowledge. In this respect it is very much like traditional wisdom teachings, which point to one’s ultimate nature and the futility of gaining ultimate wisdom from the knowledge the world outside programs us with. All these wisdom teachings tell us to look within for the answer. But it can be difficult for externalized, extroverted, “make-it-happen” me-oriented Westerners to even make sense of that phrase “look within” for the answer, especially when it can threaten their cherished notions of reality, and who or what they are.
Three Principles teachings also wisely point out that it’s the “grounding” or wisdom and understanding of the teacher — who they are, their love and understanding — that makes a healer and a helper or guide, and not any particular knowledge. Their “presence”, the here-now living, loving openness, their happiness and peace, their real inner freedom, in itself says more than a million words could. You can only give what you know and have, in honesty. This is in parallel with other wisdom schools, which recognize that only someone who has been fundamentally changed and realized truth can actually transmit something, and that what they transmit is often or basically wordless, akin to an “energy” or field of knowing awareness: a higher energy if you will (though that way of saying it starts to sound too New Age to me!)
Another charm of the Three Principles is their accessibility and approachability. The flip side of this is what you could call a diluted wisdom and a commercialization (one friend, a former British Jungian therapist and Buddhist practitioner, and intellectually brilliant, laughed it off, calling it “Bastardized and Americanized Buddhism”). But it at least does not appeal to a spiritual ego as much as esoteric teachings from foreign lands with complex histories and terminology. The “3P” are more easily swallowed, and can be like a spiritual tricycle ones rides until you’re ready for deeper layers, deeper unfolding of consciousness. It allows wisdom to get a foothold via a psychological vehicle (ideally, if one doesn’t get stuck). Furthermore, there are very few bells and whistles to the Three Principles. Some of the original teachers, those who knew Sydney Banks, were influenced by his repeated urgings to keep it simple, and that it’s spiritual.
As I see it, since this wisdom came thorough psychology and psychologists out into the world, there was a tendency to embellish and make it into a psychology. For example there used to be four principles in the early days (useful and revolutionary as they were) that were formulated by Rick Suarez with help from Darlene Stewart and Roger Mills (see the book “Sanity, Insanity and Common Sense“, 1987), and picked up by the popularizer Richard Carlson. To their credit they realized psychology should be based on principles rather than concepts. The ones they formulated were the basis of what was called “Psychology of Mind”:
Levels of Consciousness
These four principles were later refined or simplified into three (by who I’m not sure, but Sydney Banks was no doubt involved): Universal Thought, Universal Consciousness, and Universal Mind. From then on, Sydney talked of the Three Principles endlessly.
In the final analysis, none of this really matters. Why? Because, what’s the goal? It is peace and happiness, freedom from worries, regardless of the path taken. If you were to be asked to pick between enlightenment and happiness, which would you choose? It’s permanent happiness we want, or happiness that’s realized enough of the time such that you don’t care if you’re “enlightened” or understanding some ultimate truth. It doesn’t matter where we see that happiness as coming from, what reason or unreason seems to cause it. What we seek in our being — because at some level we intuitively recognize, like we did as small children, there is some core reality of Love, a God-Self that we are — that real, causeless happiness, because it’s the only kind that can be counted on, ultimately. Happiness, peace, a worry-free nature – is the goal, and this can only happen in the present Now, because one is established in the eternal presence that goes beyond our little self. That’s it. What more could you want? If something still feels missing, you are still seeking, and that’s OK. Every seeming person, even “sages,” have residues of the past. And even when you have realized quite a lot of happiness, truth, beauty, peace and love, it’s still an endless journey in which infinite depths are possible (“There is no end to Consciousness” Syd once said in a talk).
Follow your enthusiasm, your love, not what you “should” do. If it’s boring, do something else. If you are happy doing something (or in not doing something), that’s your path. But if you are doing it for the external rewards, such as professional “success”, watch out, misery-lane lies ahead. If you are doing it for some other object in the future in order to get something or be something that you think will bring you happiness, you are setting yourself up for unhappiness, investing your happiness in something outside yourself. It has to come from the heart. It’s about giving, not a getting. And, not everyone is born a teacher or coach, or even a truth lover. Some beings express themselves as writers, or artists, or car mechanics, or gardeners, or don’t talk about Truth at all, they just live it. There are no bounds, no set way to embody happiness, truth, peace, love: it’s totally free.
Be Happy, Be Free
“Sydney Banks – wrote more books than he read”, by Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun, August 3, 2009.
Paradigm Shift: A History of The Three Principles, by Jack Pransky, Don Donovan, et al. CCB Publishing, 2015.
Transformations in Consciousness: the metaphysics and epistemology, by Franklin Merrell-Wolff. State University of New York Press, 1995.