A Finger Pointing at the Moon: Spiritual Experience as Hazard
It’s been a busy two weeks here, as I’m sure it has been at your house. I hadn’t actually intended on personally writing another column this quickly, but there was a mix-up on dates, and a deadline was missed, so here I am. One of my New Year’s resolutions, however, is to get back to doing more of the writing for Awakening Clarity, so I might as well do the first post of the year. I have a number of people already booked, and I’ll carry through with those as planned, but then I think we’ll see a change in format. I’m spending a good bit of time doing One-on-One work, so I simply have less opportunity to spend recruiting, organizing, and editing material. I still have a wife, a furry family, and a book business, all of whom deserve my attention. So, as ever, we’ll stumble forward and see how it goes.
I spent a good part of Thursday morning talking to my friend Jerry Katz for his audio interview program, Nonduality Street, and also on YouTube under NondualityTalk. It’s completely off the wall, with topics addressed ranging from the apparent egoic drive behind this website to my views on the current recovery scene.New Nondual Film
Joel Lesko, of Bright Age Films wrote me a couple of weeks ago to bring my attention to a new film he’s just brought out, Tears of the Buddha. Joel describes himself as a long-time meditator, and film-maker, has taught meditation, and has generally been involved in our community for a long, long time. He sent his movie to me to evaluate, and I’m pleased to say that it’s an altogether excellent video that highlights what I see as a weakness in some Nondual teachings, which is the failure to even marginally address “personal psychology” and its attendant emotions. There is a human being here prior to awakening, and there is a human being after awakening. How that embodiment is seen changes completely, but the human unit is still present. Nonduality is not about bypassing that experience, it’s about embracing it. All of it.
Somewhere along the way someone started a rumor that Nonduality made “this over here” important, and did so by making “that over there” unimportant. That’s just more dualistic thinking. Nonduality encompasses the One Whole Thing. We may initially see that we “are not the body,” but if we investigate further we’ll find that oh yes we are–we’re just notexclusively the body, the mind, or that intricate weaving of the two: emotions. Here’s a link to my review of Joel’s film on Amazon. It’s available for purchase there, and at Bright Age. My review can also be found on the News & Reviews page, where unlike this post, it won’t be sucked into the archives a fortnight from now.
After watching the movie with it’s twelve teachers–Gangaji, Rupert Spira, Jeff Foster,and a flock of others, I had assumed he filmed it at the autumn SAND Conference. As is usually the case with my assumptions, I was dead wrong. I asked Joel for more information on the making of the movie, and this is what he sent:
I filmed the interviews over the course of about 8 months, traveling from Ashland [Oregon] to Maui, Seattle, San Francisco, and Edmonton [Alberta, Canada] for individual interviews. Then, in San Diego at the Gathering, I was able to interview 4 of the teachers on one long day. In each location, I picked up local crew to help me with the shoot, but I always brought my own gear so that I could keep the look and feel consistent. The film was shot on a Panasonic AF-100 hi-def camera.
As you can imagine, the real work began after the interviews were in the can. Transcribing, poring through the interviews, finding what’s similar, what’s different….. It was a challenging project because the various teachers will use the same words, but often with very different meanings. Because I asked the same questions of each teacher, I was able to make a qualitative study of the field for viewers to compare and contrast teachings, and ask new questions about the impact of spiritual teachings in daily life.
Thank you, Joel, for an important addition to Nondual culture and understanding.
And now, let’s move onto our main post…
A Finger Pointing at the Moon
Spiritual Experience as Hazard
The Spiritual Stumbling Block
I want to tell you about something I’ve noticed in working with clients. It’s important enough that not only have I written this article, but I’ve also just cut a new companion video on it, titled Spiritual Experiences 101. There is a strong commonality between the people who seem to have the most trouble coming to an initial experience of the the Understanding, and those who appear to come and go at “having it,” meaning those on the pendulum swinging between clarity and cloudiness. The problem often lies in our expectations. Let me explain.
Defining a Spiritual Experience
First, let’s talk about what a spiritual experience is. We can say that it’s a non-ordinary event that comes dressed in what we might call spiritual clothing: energy, light, visions, auditory messages, something like that. There is probably an aha! moment that occurs where we suddenly see or understand something we did not previously understand, or we understand it in a different way. It is generally pleasurable, and can be the most pleasurable event that a human can have. If we’re lucky, it comes in loud, wide open, absolutely clear, and employs about the same subtle tactics as a pair of gunmen in a home invasion. We areforced to see/be the truth, so to speak.
These are the bones of a large and profound spiritual experience. We can report when it began, we can report when it ended, and it’s clear that we had zero control over it. No need for us to “be present,” when we are made to be. That easy road is just the one we want to be driven down–all day every day.
We could graph a spiritual experience if we were so inclined. We can also report who it happened to: us. Spiritual experiences, even the best of them, still happen to an “I.” If they didn’t, we couldn’t report them. In the absence of a sense of “I-ness,” events cannot be recorded, or reported. They can happen without any “I-ness,” but only “I-ness” can record or report. The witness may be impersonal, and it may be way back in the background, but it’s there. Few if any experiences will incorporate all of these facets, but they will include one or more. We can have a little “pop,” and that, too, is actually a spiritual experience, but we tend to downplay such things and relegate them to the shelf labeled “insights.” Insights do not approach the coolness status reserved for spiritual experiences precisely because they lack the coolness element of glamour.
So, that’s the experience, that’s the vehicle. However, what we as seekers tend to do is confuse the vehicle with the payload.
Separating the Payload
The starting point for deeper spirituality is generally considered to be The Glimpse–where we come face to face with our true nature. It’s sort of like losing our spiritual virginity. I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t care about a big awakening, I would be happy with just a littleone!” This is actually a negotiating position they’ve adopted in lieu of getting what they want. It’s like a gambler having moved from making the big score to just getting his money back. They don’t know it when they tell me this, but it’s not the truth. They’re certainly telling me the truth as they know it, but it’s not the truth. The proof is always in the pudding. I’ll get back to that.
I will share my experience with you: it’s all I’ve got, so I might as well. It’s limited, but it’s not insignificant. In the last couple of years since I’ve been sharing this thing in a broader, more public way, I’ve had the good fortune to be present when, in a manner of speaking, a fair number of people got their first good, knowing look at their true nature. I’ve seen them “pop,” as it’s sometimes called, in person and on Skype, and I’ve heard them pop over the phone. In other cases, I’ve had the good fortune to be “recently removed” from thepoppee, and to perhaps get an excited report via email.
Now, when I first started teaching, I thought that having someone awaken, however briefly, either while they were with me, or as the delayed, yet fairly obvious effect of having encountered this teaching, would be rare. Instead, I find that it’s rather common. I don’t mean ordinary, when I say common, as if I’m taking it for granted; I simply mean non-rare. No one could be more surprised at these non-rare occurrences than I am. For a while it completely shocked me. Today it delights me, but it doesn’t shock. With this in mind, I will repeat what I’ve said here before: in my opinion the rarity of The Glimpse is completely oversold. We’ve talked about some of this before, but stay with me; there’s new insight coming up.
In the beginning, I thought that perhaps these awakenings would prove to be permanent, or that many of them would be. I was quite wrong there. I quickly found out that spiritual seekers are like other addicts, such as over eaters and smokers: the quitting ain’t so hard, but the staying quit is a bitch. Seekers are addicted to their thoughts, and they simply cannot stand not taking them seriously for any length of time. I have been totally stunned to speak with people who’ve been awake in my presence, but who later cannot even recall it. I understand not being able to recall what it was that they “knew;” we call that oscillation, “I got it, I lost it.” But I was totally unprepared for people who cannot remember at all what they cried over and thanked me for. I conveniently forget that I did this as well. I not only forgot it, I in fact denied it! The whole phenomena is damn amazing, let me tell you. Man oh man, what a dream it is! My hat is off; there is nothing maya cannot do, exceptbe real.
Holding Out for a Spiritual Experience
So, if The Glimpse isn’t as difficult as it’s been made out to be, and you haven’t had one, the question has got to be WHY? Or, if you’ve had what you knew to be The Glimpse at some time in the past, but that’s not your present experience, and you just can’t seem to conjure up another one, the question again has got to be WHY? Our Nondual Shakespearean chorus will now chime in to tell us that “there’s never an answer to a ‘why’ question.” As always the chorus is right, but again as always, they’re only right from the absolute perspective. Just for the moment let’s pretend there is an answer. It may not be the only answer; there may be others. But the following, I promise, ranks high among The Apparent Causes of Apparent Long-term Separation.
I can report that the people I have had the least success with are people who think just like I used to think! I suspect that like attracts like in this case. I didn’t put this all together until quite recently, but these folks A) Have a preset notion of what reality should look like for them, and B) Have a good idea of how that seeing should arrive. This was my exact position, and my precise predicament for a long, long time. Grace eventually engineered an override for me, so to speak, but I wouldn’t bank on that happening for you, and I wouldn’t wait at striking out in a new way on my own.
What reality “should look like” to these folks is inevitably something other than this. And that thing-looking-other-than-this “should arrive” with a bang and holler that just happens to look exactly like a classic, in-the-books, big-time spiritual experience, even if in their middle-of-the-night negotiations with the universe they’ve mentally pared it down so that a “smaller, quieter” version of that has been deemed acceptable. This is sort of like a mental manifestor “training” on conjuring a Ford, until they get the Ford, at which point they’ll go for the Mercedes. I say that, because everybody who ever got a glimpse immediately wants another one, and it “should be” both bigger and permanent. That’s the mechanism.
The only problem with this approach is that it’s generally fatal to acquiring the Understanding. If we inisist on holding to this, then in the absence of grace, there’ll be no more glimpses glimpsed, whether it’s a first-time or a next-time. Awakening can happen any time it wants in any way it wants, but I really like dealing with the “Law of Large Numbers-paths” of awakening; those that are most common. There’s an exception to every rule, but the reason they call it an exception is because it’s not the usual experience.
Taking Old, Sound Advice
I have heard this phrase attributed to numerous sources; I don’t know where it originally came from, but I know that it’s true, so I’ll share it. “The ignorant reject what they see and believe what they think. The wise believe what they see and reject what they think.” There it is, folks. If you’re having one of the problems referred to in this column, this is almost surely why. But here’s what happens. We read a crystal clear truth like this, which is totally open and above board, and then we scratch our heads and go looking for the hidden meaning.
Only there is no hidden meaning. Our eyes are telling us, “Here, you are, look around. This is it: this here, right here, right now.” Simultaneously our minds are telling us, “Thiscan’t be it.” And therein lies the rub. There is a disconnect between what our eyes are telling us, and what our minds are telling us, and there arises a choice about which we are going to accept as truth. We typically opt for what our mind is saying, and I’m suggesting this is not the way to go. I’m not talking about consciously developing a new belief system,I’m talking about developing the strategic foundation from which we will conduct all of our further inquiry. Nonduality is not about answers, it’s about questions.
This strategic choice declares where we are operating from: as confused Awareness, or sure ego. We tend to go with the sureness, and we tend to be WRONG. I am far, far better off to accept this ancient observation as sound advice, and elect to throw my lot in with the wise, however confused I may be. Now I am not searching for something new to happen, I am simply washing the window through which I peer at the world. Sometimes I tell my clients: “These sessions are simply to keep the glass clear; they’re not about making anything happen.”
The Key Change
When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change, and the easiest way to change how we’re looking at things, is to change from where we’re looking at them.
If we’ve not had a glimpse, it might be more important to investigate our secret expectations–or demands–before we go look at what fresh bit Amazon or YouTube may have to offer us. Then it’s fine to go to Amazon or YouTube, but go as Awareness open to something forgotten, not a seeker in search of something new. I’ve had more than one person turn directly away from awakening, because reality didn’t meet their expectations. Honest to goodness, I’m telling you the truth. Sometimes reality doesn’t begin to knock us off our feet until we’ve spent a little time with it. That doesn’t seem like the way things “should be,” but it’s nonetheless the way things are.
In a similar vein, if we have had a previous spiritual experience and think we are not now awake, then we have confused the delivery system with the payload. The bells and whistles have pulled our attention away from the fact that what was shown to us during the The Glimpse was that we’d always already been awake, could not, in fact, NOT be awake, that there’s just one thing going on, the seeker is the sought, and that anything in opposition to that is pure invention, utter fiction. We have once again invented the problem of separation, and now we are holding out for the fiction of our deliverance!
Standing as Awareness, however cloudy we may feel, cuts the legs out from underneath our story of future. What reality is going to look like, and how it’s going to arrive–first time or “next” time–are both versions of that future story, which is a sure block to our path. It’s completely absurd. And it’s completely human. It’s what we do. Until we don’t.