Total Obedience

China Camp grasslands
January 9, 2020


Imagine you are a musician. You are onstage improvising with another musician.

As the other musician plays, you are thinking: “I don’t like that combination; it reminds me of an unpleasant event in my childhood.” Or “That is not a real scale. My tradition alone knows the proper scales.” Or you are feeling: “It’s too much trouble to collaborate. I’d rather get all of the attention for me me me.”

When it is your turn, you just play according to your own limited rules and desires as if the other musician is not even there!

This is how most of us live. We doggedly follow all kinds of limited concepts and rules. We are tossed about by aversions and compulsive pleasure-seeking. We have been trained to experience the present as conditioned by something that happened long ago, and so we reinforce stale narratives.

The result is loss of continuity, loss of intimacy, loss of true communication.


As Anandamayi Ma said: “God makes the impossible possible and the possible impossible.”

Abhinavagupta describes svatantrya—the Lord’s total freedom of self-expression— in nearly identical language.

Which is possible, that becomes impossible. Which is impossible, that becomes possible. That is the svātantrya of Parabhairava. ~Abhinavagupta’s Paramarthasāra: Esssence of the Highest Reality revealed by Swami Lakshmanjoo, Verse 15.

What they mean is that Supreme Self, our real self, is not bound by rules and conventions. The desire of the Self is objectless. It spontaneously overflows with the impulse to self-express and is totally unconditioned, even by linear time.

When we engage in spiritual practice, we are trying to rediscover our real nature, that which has total spontaneity and freedom of self-expression. Our real nature is in a constant state of unlimited improvisation.


Paradoxically, from one perspective, the only way to learn to participate freely in the cosmic play of improvisation is to practice total obedience.

Our attachment to the misconception that we are independent, self-willing individuals must be completely dissolved.

This sounds scary when we don’t have a precise understanding of the difference between U.S.-style individualism and the view of traditions such as Trika Shaivism.

Modern Western concepts of the individual pit the presumed self-determination of the ordinary self against some notion of herd mentality or manipulation by a powerful other or even enslavement.

But in Trika Shaivism and related traditions, concepts of autonomous self-determination and the separate, self-willing individual are what enslave us and keep us in a state of ignorance about our real nature.

The counterpoint to the separate self in these traditions is the creative, vibrant, profoundly intelligent ubiquitous, continuous Self, full of natural wisdom. When we do enough spiritual practice, we discover that we have been this Self all along. And that Self enjoys the only inherent freedom: freedom of self-expression.

Listening and Following

Being a student of wisdom traditions and their teachers is like being an apprentice to a master improviser. We are listening intently to our teacher, to the wisdom of each moment, and to the wisdom speaking to us from our own bodies, energy, and heart.

All three of these are the same if we are able to develop our sensitivity and tune in properly. Then we follow the promptings of wisdom speaking to us through these forms.

We must follow completely if we want to learn to improvise freely.

But how exactly do listening and following lead to freedom of self-expression?

Joining the Play

Seemingly for my entire life, I have been doing my utmost to follow the directions of any form of wisdom, any prompting of wisdom, to which I have access.

Not that I have done this perfectly, absolutely not. Stumbling is the way. But I can say that I have understood the necessity of obedience to natural wisdom and have tried mightily to listen and follow.

I couldn’t possibly list everything I have learned and all that has changed as a result, but here are some highlights.

I’ve learned that on the other side of the fear of following, or simply the desire not too, is deep relaxation, greater confidence, a greater understanding of how reality works.

I’ve learned that thorough following is like Kālī’s sword: the powerful stroke that divests us of dogma, limitation, and fear.

I’ve learned that following a real, felt sense of wisdom can never lead one astray.

I’ve learned that any amount of stumbling can be rectified the moment one returns to open-hearted, sincere following.

I’ve learned to freely change or give up any plan and adapt to circumstances as they arise.

I’ve learned patience with myself and others.

I’ve learned the joy of deep listening.

I’ve learned how to receive and share the grace that is always coming toward us.

I’ve learned that this is all a game, but it’s the game Nature is playing.


Despite the times and how we have mostly been trained to disconnect from a felt sense of wisdom, that wellspring is not far from any of us.

It is the infallable voice, the infallable touch, coming from both within and without. It tastes of the deep sweetness of life, the goodness of the self, the mercy and compassion of God.

I hope you already know what I’m talking about. Even a whisper of yes will show you the way to follow.

Much love,

This article was inspired by a conversation with Laura Stelmok.