Awakening Never Ends

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When Martina, editor of The Baja Sun , asked me to write something about "awakening" in Baja California, I thought for a while about what I might say. There is a lot in my experience that I have kept private all these years, only sharing with a very few friends who might possibly understand, and later, as I will explain, with some psychotherapy clients who ended up coming to see me not as a therapist but as a spiritual teacher. I am not keen on autobiography, so I tried for a while to write what follows without referring directly to my "own" awakening, but that was not working at all. Next, I tried to beg off entirely from writing anything, but Martina is pretty good at insisting, so here goes.

Lao Tzu began the Tao Te Ching by warning that, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao," but then immediately followed his own warning with eighty-one more chapters devoted to speaking about the Tao, so I will forgive myself in advance for trying to speak here about the unspeakable. But Lao was correct. I have already referred to "my" awakening, but that's not right. When awakening happens, it doesn't happen to anyone. It just happens. But what happens? Suddenly, something that was seen to be "me"--the ego--is recognized for what it really is: no more than an habitual way of receiving and processing sense data which focuses upon one particular interpretation, while excluding all other interpretations. To analogize, at this moment you are interpreting a bunch of luminous dots on a screen as if they were words. You can see the dots that way, but you don't have to. That illusion can pass as soon as you like. All you would need is a magnifying glass or a copy of Photoshop.

Years ago, when I was working on a masters in counseling psychology, a guest lecturer came to Pacifica Graduate Institute, my alma mater, and spent three hours touting the newest fad in psychotherapy, so-called "brief therapy." The idea was that most problems could be addressed in a course a very few sessions instead of the sometimes prolonged therapies which were common then. Now we students, armed with the emperor's-new-clothes attitude enjoyed by newcomers to a profession who still have no real stake in the business end of it, immediately saw "brief therapy" as a creature of the insurance companies who were reluctant to pay for the deeper kind of psychotherapy which could go on for months, or even years. We also understood immediately that a few meetings would never be enough to allow for the kind of depth approach we were being taught, and so, over a few drinks, we began to lampoon the lecture we had just endured. "Brief therapy is like this," joked one of my classmates. "Sit down, please. OK, ready? Snap out of it!"

This may not sound so funny in the retelling, but at the time it cracked us all up completely (maybe the wine had something to do with it too). After all, Pacifica is a noted center of what is called "depth psychology," and all of us were learning the culture of entering deeply into the world of the client in order to develop a relationship of mutual trust--the therapeutic alliance"--which then could be used to explore the struggles of the client as if hearing a dramatic narrative. The therapist's "empathic attunement" to the client's drama, we were taught, would be healing in itself because being seen, heard, and understood would help to fill in missing areas of emotional development, and meanwhile the narrative could be rewritten--"revisioned" was the catch phrase--so that the troubled, problematical story which the client had been telling him/herself quite habitually--so habitually that it now seemed undoubtedly "true"--might be replaced by a better version, one which might foster self-forgiveness and self-understanding instead of working against the client like a litany of self-criticism. I am over-simplifying, but that's it in a nutshell.

I was already living in Todos Santos--this was the mid-1990s--when I finished my Ph.D., and began my private psychotherapy practice, which I conducted very much along the lines I have just laid out, working, that is, by entering into the egoic dramas of my clients, and then helping each to accept oneself as the central character, the protagonist, in that drama, but in a new way which would "work better." Most of the therapies went well, and my practice soon filled up to the extent that I was spending entire days meeting with one client after another--a success you might say, but there was one problem with it. By that time, my own experience had nothing to do with seeing myself as any kind of character in any kind of drama, nor with getting anything to work better, and I felt a nagging sense that I should be sharing that experience--my authentic experience--with my clients as well. You see, I had met my spiritual teacher, the late Walter Chappell, some twelve years earlier. Walter was a tough but loving figure, very much in the tradition of George Gurdjieff with whom Walter's teacher, Willem Nyland, had traveled and studied, just as Walter did with Willem, and I did with Walter in turn. Walter's mode of guiding me through the ego-illusion was tough love: demonstrating to me repeatedly how foolishly vain and absurdly frightened the ego of which I had always been so proudly defensive, really was. Under his powerful influence, the awakening began, and then never stopped.


George Gurdjieff

Willem Nyland

Willem Nyland

walter chappell
©1987 Robert Saltzman
Walter Chappell

Often, the beginning of spiritual awareness is compared to waking from a dream, but in my case the first signs of awakening happened in a dream. One night after having spent the entire day in the dark anyway making prints in my darkroom, I dreamt that I was rowing a small boat on a vast ocean. The sky and the sea appeared almost the same shade of grey so that I saw no definite horizon line. It was like being inside a vast, featureless, infinite globe. In the paradoxical dream language, I was facing not backwards the way one normally rows, but out to sea, looking into infinity. I felt compelled to turn my head to see what was behind me. There, not so far away, but rapidly receding, was a headland, a tall, crumbling cliff with an old building standing on the edge of it. That structure was vast, enormous, and it was mouldering away. The floor, walls, and roofs were in a state of collapse, and the building was only standing at all due to a complex system of buttresses and supports that had been arranged all over it, and which extended onto the eroding cliffs. Still in the dream, I knew immediately that I was looking at the ego, a structure always in imminent danger of collapse, and that I was leaving it behind. No more maintenance work--just let it go and row away into the vastness. I awoke absolutely stupefied. The whole experience had been so graphic, so unmistakably both a message and a statement of my actual situation. I'd never had a dream like that before, and never again since. Later that day, Catanya, my wife, returned home to find me sitting naked on the kitchen floor, eyes closed, laughing uncontrollably.

robert saltzman
©1984 Robert Saltzman
Self Portrait Shortly Before "The Dream," Taos, 1984

Soon after, in Walter's company, I realized with sudden clarity what I am, what all of us are--everything which is not ego. My seeking stopped, the false duality of self/other disappeared, and I saw things as they are for the first time in my life--or for the first time since early childhood anyway. My gratitude for Walter's help is beyond measure. A spiritual teacher is a friend, yes, but more than a friend. Walter, you will live forever in my heart.

Walter Chappell and Catanya
©1985 Robert Saltzman
Walter Chappell and Catanya, Santa Fe 1985

Several years later, while at the height of my popularity as an artist, I fell ill with a strange and rare disease which almost ended my life. I spent more than a year in fever and delirium, sleeping alone in a sweat-soaked bed. When I recovered, Catanya and I left New Mexico, and moved to Todos Santos. I had been planning to get back to the darkroom, and even went so far as to make one here in Todos Santos, but, in the event, I could find no more inspiration for creating any art, and that is when I began my psychotherapy work.

So there I was, having seen through the egoic illusion myself, but still providing a form of therapy based on helping clients to improve the integrity, form, and function of that selfsame illusion. I felt conflicted at times, but usually explained it to myself in these terms: "The people who consult me are not ready to see through that illusion, but they will be eventually. In the meantime, my work with them, tacitly informed by what I see, might hasten the hour of their awakening." In addition, every once and awhile when it felt right, I would open the bag a bit, and if I did not actually let the cat out of it entirely, at least her paws would show. One day, that was not enough. A client, who had suffered greatly, and whom I dearly wanted to help, said this to me: "Robert, you are not like anyone else I know. You never seem to change. You are always here, always the same. Always smiling. Always calm. How do you do that?" So I told her honestly how things appeared to me.

Two Zen monks meet in the road. "Where are you, Brother?" asks the first.

"I'm in the place where nothing ever changes," comes the reply.

"But I thought everything was always changing."

"Yes, that never changes either."

A few days after that rather electric therapy hour, I met with my dear friend, Dr. Robert Hall , ex-psychiatrist, and lay Buddhist priest, who also lives here in Todos Santos. Robert knows a lot about psychotherapy, and makes no bones at all about spiritual teaching. His Sunday dharma talks draw large audiences, and he travels also in the Mexican mainland giving talks and workshops. Previously, Robert and I had spent a couple of years of intentional weekly meetings aimed at sharing our understanding of awakening, so all that had been thoroughly hashed out between us already. I told him what I had just done, and I wondered if perhaps I had strayed too far beyond the accepted bounds of psychotherapy. "Robert, he said. "You are not just a therapist. You are also a teacher of non-duality. So just go for it." Since then my therapy practice has changed. I continue to offer the kind of supportive, empathic psychotherapy in which I was trained, but now I am always open to taking it to another level, just as Walter did with me so long ago when I thought I was learning advanced print-making, and got something else entirely.

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©2005 Robert Saltzman
Robert Hall, Todos Santos, 2005

That conversation with Robert illustrates something important about this whole matter: Awakening never ends. Enlightenment is a process, not a destination. In truth, I had awakened to my true state long before ever meeting Robert, but that was not the end of anything, which is really the crux of this story. Awakening is not an attainment, but a flow, a melting away of illusion moment by moment. Enlightenment is not a new point of view, but the dissolution in each instant of any habitual point of view or identity at all, including the identity called "teacher." In truth, am not a teacher of non-duality, which role implies a duality: teacher/student, but an experiencer of it, a confessor of it. In fact, no one can make anyone else awaken. It just happens when it happens. The best a "teacher" can do is show, not tell. Non-duality belongs to no one. It is nothing I can explain. Rather, I am that. We all are if we only knew it. I suppose Walter always imagined this would happen, just as it happened for him after meeting Willem, and for Willem when he met Gurdjieff. This awareness stays alive as it passes from living person to living person in a way which is beyond comprehension. The wheel turns, and we, the living, occupy the places of those who came before.

So what is non-duality? What is it like to be in an awakened state? In all the days we spent together--watching images appear like magic on paper in the darkroom, camped out on the bare ground of the Arizona desert, swimming under the full moon along with Catanya in the cold Rio Grande, meeting with stuffy museum directors, sharing food and drink--Walter never tried, not even once, to describe enlightenment to me at all, he just lived it in my presence. The experience is indescribable anyway, so I won't even attempt it. If I did try, it would be like trying to explain a joke. You might try to laugh a little, but it wouldn't be a real laugh. So I won't describe, but instead point out, as Walter sometimes did ("That's not it, Robert") some of what awakening isn't.

Robert Hall would tell you that I am a natural contrarian and confirmed skeptic who loves to question anything "spiritual." I guess he's right, but based on what I see in my therapy practice, I have a good reason for this exercise in neti, neti (not this, not this, not this). More and more of the people I see in therapy come to me with spiritual needs which neither religion nor philosophy seem able to fulfill. More and more of them tell me of experiences--perhaps just brief ones--which they cannot understand, or which have left them upset or depressed, and these cannot be touched by any ordinary therapeutic techniques. Some of my clients have not found much of anything in ordinary life worth pursuing, and are yearning for something "spiritual."

Barrel Cactus

©2010 Robert Saltzman

Unfortunately, there are those who manipulate spiritual hunger for their own benefit. Whether knowingly pursuing money, power and fame, or simply lost in dreams themselves, these supposed "teachers" often become wiseacre-hypnotists, and no matter the motive, the seeker is always the victim. This kind of charlatanism is not unique to the spiritual-teacher business of course. There's plenty of quackery among psychotherapists as well. My website ( provides numerous case histories of such incompetent bungling or even frank abuse of clients by their therapists. Nevertheless, spiritual teaching so easily degenerates into phony theology, or preposterous nonsense, like the old drivel about how many angels could stand on the point of a needle. "Experts" produced exact figures for the number of angels, and who could dispute them? Whew! I guess Robert is right, I am a contrarian, so if you are someone with a dog in this fight, you might like to use the mouse right now and start reading something else.

If you are still with me, here are some of the things I say awakening is not:

1. It is not religion, and has nothing to do with "God." God, as an idea, is a creation of the ego. When awake, that is readily apparent. And as for the non-religion religion, Buddhism, its sutras were meant to be used the way a thorn is used to remove another thorn from your foot. When you get the offending thorn out, you throw both of them away.

Neither is it about "faith," which is just another word, a nicer sounding one, for "credulity." The Buddha himself (Buddha means "awakened one") advised that no one take anything on faith or because it had been spoken by some authority.

2. It has nothing to do with magic, pseudoscience, or the rejection of scientific logic. If messing around with astrology, crop circles, faith healing, 2012, intelligent design, etc. seems "deep," you are about as hypnotized as a human being can be, and you have endless material to keep you that way for as long as you like.

3. It has nothing to do with mystical experiences like that time in the meditation hall when you "merged with the all." Mystical experiences are produced easily by any number of techniques. A week of silence and fasting will engender plenty of altered states, as will whirling in circles, eating a psilocybin mushroom, or sitting in an isolation tank. But none of that has anything to do with seeing things as they are.

4. Awakening does not come from kind of "practice." Procedures such as prayer, chanting, meditation, etc. just give ego more jobs to do so as to postpone awakening--postpone seeing ego's delusion. Perhaps some traditional meditation will calm you down enough to be able to notice your thoughts at all, but once that happens, any further "sitting," becomes, in my experience, just another project in strengthening the ego, not seeing through it.

A student is showing off for his teacher by sitting perfectly still for hours. Eventually the teacher
cannot stand watching this performance any longer. He picks up a loose floor tile and begins to polish it.

"What are you doing, Master?" ask the student.

"Well," replies the teacher, "I am making a mirror."

"But you will never be able to polish that tile into a mirror," the student says.

"True," replies the teacher, "And you'll never become a Buddha sitting on the floor that way either."

What I can recommend--and this is hardly a "practice"--is just to be quiet internally. You don't have to sit in an ashram. You can be quiet in the middle of Grand Central Station. Stop clinging to habitual viewpoints, opinions, judgments, desires, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. Just let all of that noise recede into the distance, and then see how empty and formless "me" is. When you actually see that, you are awake.

5. Awakening does not mean suddenly knowing all the answers to every question, gaining extrasensory powers, or ability to manifest any desire just by wishing for it. All that is just a fairy tale, the kind that the Buddhists call "giving yellow leaves to a child to stop her from crying for gold." An awakened person is not a "god," and certainly neither omnipotent nor omniscient. The cool thing though is that when awake, you do not even want answers to questions or supernatural powers either. When this comes up in my work, I like to tell this story:

The emperor of the central country hears reports and rumors regarding a Zen master who lives a great distance from the
capital city. This man is revered widely for the depth of his wisdom and the breadth of his understanding. Aching for the answer
to his most burning esoteric question, the emperor has the old man summoned, and when he arrives at court, commences to question him:

"They tell us that you are a great teacher of Zen, a Zen master," begins the emperor.
The old man just bows.
"Well, if you are such a great Zen master, tell me this," commands the Emperor. "What happens when you die?"
"I am sorry, sire," replies the old man, "I cannot say what happens when you die. I may be a Zen master, but I am not a
dead Zen master."

5. Awakening has nothing to do with where you live. Perhaps this will not please those who moved to Baja California where I live, and now like to imagine that they are living in "paradise," but Baja California is not nirvana. Don't get me wrong. Todos Santos has been home for almost twenty years, and I like it just fine. San Ignacio, Cataviña, magnificos! I'm just saying. . .

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©2006 Robert Saltzman
Afternoon In Cataviña

6. Awakening is not what you think. Like many of us, I had heard and read about enlightenment, and had my ideas about what awakening would be like. Some of these were fueled by the bizarre fantasies in books, and some were just my own wild and romantic imagination. All of them were wrong. They were so wrong, in fact, that when I did awaken it was like a gigantic joke on me. This is so simple! I was here all along, but just did not see it! It can't be explained, and there is no "how to." It is only when awake oneself that one really understands the words of the awakened. Paradoxical, isn't it? We understand the words only when we no longer need them for anything.

Truth is a pathless land.


7. Awakening is not about what you do or don't do. It is not about the clothes you wear, what you eat, what you do for a living, whether you prefer football or the opera. None of that. It is not even about doing good, saving the planet, or being a nice person. This does not mean that when awake you will not work to save the whales, or whatever--you might very well do that, or not do it. It just means that the doing or not doing happens because that is what happens, not because "you" do it.

For many people, some of my students among them, this seems to be the greatest impediment to awakening. In a way, one wants to awaken. Something in us really does want freedom, sanity, and unconditional loving. But we fear that if my "me" disappears, everything I most value will be lost: my relationships, my goals, my interests, my intellect, my good name, my work, my money, my self-control, etc. And, indeed, some of that may be lost. But any true love in ones life--I do not mean attachment, or habit, but true love, whether for a human being or anything else--does not disappear when awakening, but is all the better expresssed because now one is free, for the first time really, to love unreservedly.

robert saltzman

Robert and Sombra, Todos Santos, 2011, by Catanya

8. Awakening will not happen by reading the next book or by attending the next satsang. You awaken NOW, not by adding anything, not by changing anything, but simply whenever ego is seen as the illusion it is, just as you might now see these apparent words on the screen as a bunch of pixels which you have been unconsciously transforming into words by habit, and because you like reading. To stay with this analogy, if you now continue to read the words while knowing and remembering that your screen is really just a grid of dots, you would be awakening to the reality of your computer monitor.

9. Awakening is not about wisdom, not even the "perennial wisdom." The wisdom concepts may be OK for navigating the vicissitudes of ordinary life, getting a handle on pain and loss--all that kind of thing--and hearing the words of masters may even arouse a taste for a deeper awareness, but just as the good is the enemy of the perfect, knowing too much intellectually can be hypnotic in and of itself, and one can spend a lifetime learning precepts. Better to notice that what you know is nothing much, and that you--the egoic you--are not wise at all, but pretty damn foolish. As Gurdjieff would tell his students repeatedly: "What an absolute idiot you are! I rarely come across an idiot as idiotic as you, you idiot!"


George Gurdjieff

10. This list is far from complete, but I will close here with one final item. Awakening won't get you anything. If awakening got "you" something, it wouldn't be awakening at all, but just more of the same old dream of getting and becoming. Awakened, you will not feel that you have attained or gained anything. Life will go on just as it always did.

Before awakening, chopping wood and carrying water

After awakening, chopping wood and carrying water

Life simply unfolds as it must. Krishnamurti called this "choiceless awareness." Good words. The world appears very much the same as before, but you find that you see things as they are, not as the ego wishes they were.

Probably you will feel empty and alone, while meanwhile feeling no separation between "myself" and anything else. Strangely, this won't seem to be a paradox, but simply truth.

©2005 Robert Saltzman
New York, 2005

If you are one of the many who seeks enlightenment because you imagine some kind of almost unbearable pleasure--like a sustained orgasm, perhaps, or a life with the angels in heaven, or the power to get whatever you desire, or to know the secrets of the universe--you will want to discount my words as simply the ravings of some doctor guy from Todos Santos, and that's OK. But in case you suspect that the foregoing might really be about something, let me back it up with some words from that most famous awakened one himself, the Buddha. Before I quote Siddhartha Gautama however, I must have one last word. I do not quote Gautama because I consider him an authority, but because you do--or if you do not, you instantly understood everything I just wrote, and did not need to read it in the first place. When awake, you will know beyond a doubt that you and the Buddha are exactly the same. You and the Dalai Lama are exactly the same. No essential difference at all. And no essential difference between you and the drunk homeless guy sitting in the gutter either. Seeing difference where there is none is exactly what creates the very bars of the prison called "myself."

Subuhti said to the Buddha, "World Honored One, when you attained unexcelled, perfect enlightenment, is it true that nothing was attained?"

"That is so, Subhuti. That is so. There was nothing for me to attain in unexcelled perfect enlightenment. That is why it is called unexcelled perfect enlightenment."

-- the Diamond Sutra

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