Alan Watts is, of course, inimitable. Everything from the particularly humorous yet incisive blend of insight he delivers, to the uniquely delightful tone and cadence of his voice, which seems to have been made to be listened to and persist on record throughout eternity, to the human frailty that coupled his profound understanding of Eastern spirituality and which gives his words an intimate accessibility.
But every great spiritual teacher’s insights lie in their ability to communicate profound truths in a direct manner, in a way which makes something in your mind go ‘click’, where something ancient and inchoate it knew but couldn’t speak is unlocked and presented to consciousness. And there are many other great teachers who can do that. Let’s take a look at three other speakers that have a way of communicating the immeasurable. The point is not to go into great depth with any of them, but simply to introduce them if you haven't already introduced yourself. The rest of the journey is up to you.
Krishnamurti’s genius lay in his total emphasis on self-liberation. He eschewed all dependency on and affiliation with organised religion, believing it flew directly in the face of the individual’s need to uncover their own unique and entirely internal path to salvation.
Alongside this self-responsbility, he advocated a direct and immediate assumption of how one ought to live. There is no waiting to exist in the present, but only now. Until we realise this, we never can live in the present, for we will always think there is some other time to do it. And so it is not a matter of being in a better place psychologically, or getting through that to-do list before attempting to free ourselves. There is only the realisation of this need and the commitment to wake up now. And now. And now.
We must understand that the world is a projection of what we hold within, that we are constantly creating it according to our expectations, desires and biases. Until we take responsibility for this, we will remain blind to it, and will continue to manufacture a reality that causes suffering for ourselves and others.
Anthony de Mello
Personally, I have never read a thinker who can so incisively cut through all of the bull shit around spirituality and give you a metaphorical slap around the face. De Mello has an incredible ability to pithily and directly say what the truth is, in a way that you can’t pretend not to understand.
De Mello advocated that we are always overcomplicating things. That we are constantly trying to add something to our experience in order to make it full enough. But in fact, liberation comes from realising that the path is rather a ceaseless taking away. That we are constantly unpeeling: our conditioning, our addictive impulses, our material inclinations. Until we come to a pure and unadulterated relationship with life as it is, without adornment.
His genius is best expressed directly through his quotes, as they are irreducibly brilliant and concise.
“The trouble with people is that they're busy fixing things they don't even understand. We're always fixing things, aren't we? It never strikes us that things don't need to be fixed. They really don't. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood. If you understood them, they'd change."
“One cannot say anything about the awakened state; one can only talk about the sleeping state. One hints at the awakened state. One cannot say anything about happiness. Happiness cannot be defined. What can be defined is misery. Drop unhappiness and you will know. Love cannot be defined; unlove can. Drop unlove, drop fear, and you will know. We want to find out what the awakened person is like. But you'll know only when you get there."
“You become happy by contact with reality. That's what brings happiness, a moment-by-moment contact with reality. That's where you'll find God; that's where you'll find happiness. But most people are not ready to hear that."
It almost feels ridiculous to stick Socrates in any kind of top 5 list, like making Jesus into a Top Trump. Socrates was evidently the man, the forefather of Western Philosophy.
But he is similar to the other speakers in this list particularly for the way he expressed himself. For his ability to cut through assumptions, prejudices and biases to the truth, and in so doing help others to see it.
It is well known that Socrates was the wisest man in all of Greece (and can legitimately hold claim to being the wisest man ever! (Although getting into any serious debate about that is decidedly unwise)).
What is interesting is that this wisdom was based on the notion that Socrates insisted that all he knew was, in fact, nothing.
This insight alone should be enough to grind all of modern society to a halt:
Wait, the wisest man of all, the man who continues to project a great influence over Philosophy and beyond for his deep understanding of the mind and mankind, knew nothing.
What implications might that have for all of our busyness, our semblance of rushing towards progress, of filling our minds with endless data?
Perhaps if we all adopted a little bit more Socratic ignorance, we would understand that most of the time we are just regurgitating inherited opinions according to whatever tribe we happen to have stumbled into. Perhaps we would learn to judge less and listen more. Perhaps wisdom is really nothing but humility before the great mystery of life.
In the end, that’s what all of these speakers are pointing to. What makes them all great is their ability to do so in ways that remain fresh and pertinent, undimmed by time's passage. We will repeatedly forget the simple task of being that is our sole charge within this world. But thinkers like this will continue to remind us through the aeons, pulling us back to mindfulness and simplicity. Thanks guys.
Ronan is a writer, musician and coach, committed to seeking truth, beauty and deepening human connection and community. His mission is to help people come alive to realise their deepest gifts.