JK: What is the role of a spiritual teacher?
RS: I would say that the role of the spiritual teacher is to address the needs of a seeker who approaches the teacher searching for a pathway towards imagined or fantasized self-transcendence. Let me explain.
Sixty years ago, the great psychologist, Abraham Maslow, devised a hierarchy of human needs, which ranked those needs according to urgency. For example, the first and most urgent need is to breath, so an air supply is the number one need for any living being. Once I am OK breathing, I may feel thirst, so water is second, but I will not even feel thirsty if I am gasping for air. That's why this is a hierarchy. Eventually, Maslow's scheme came to be represented as a pyramid of five levels, each of which had to be fulfilled, at least partially, before the next level could be fulfilled.
Level one concerned satisfying physiological needs---first air, then water, and then food—certainly the big three. And then clothing, shelter, and sex. Physiological.
Level two concerned Safety and Security needs-- my physical security, my health needs, my desires for a predictable environment--things like that.
If I could arrange sufficient security and safety, I could begin to deal with level 3, my social needs—my needs for friendship, intimacy, family, self-respect and the respect of others.
Level 4, according to Maslow, concerned the need for self-actualization, the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming. What Carl Jung called individuation, or Heinz Kohut, another great psychologist, called fulfilling the inherent program of the self.
Up to this point, all these needs are egoic needs. And it is important to recognize that they are real needs—many of them urgent, and the rest at least important. I emphasize this, Jerry, because so many people in spirituality circles attempt to rid themselves of ego, but it is ego which pursues and achieves those urgent and important needs. By my lights, not only is eliminating ego impossible, but the attempt is counterproductive to spiritual awakening, the entire proposition in which such seekers imagine they are involved. When awake, it is not that ego is missing, but that the light of reality—of what really is and what we really are—simply outshines it. Ego is still there, and still functions when necessary, but ego no longer calls the tune. As Vedanta has it, the horse, which was wandering loose and frightened, now has a rider.
But then, having fulfilled many needs, I may begin feel a sense of dissatisfaction. Up until now, I have been ascending the pyramid, and attaining each new level, fulfilling each new need, felt good. There was more freedom, wider horizons. But now, having reached the top, apparently, there is nowhere else to go, and I am not happy, or, if I feel happy, I fear that I will lose that happiness at any moment. Above all, I know that I must die, and this will be the loss of everything.
This is what the Buddha called dukkah, the sense that living is like riding in a cart which has a flat spot on one of its wheels. Things seem to go along fine for a while, but then the flat spot comes around again, the cart lurches, and I remember that, although I may have achieved a lot, and perhaps I even have a lot, still I suffer, and I see no way to fix that. I have tried to end my suffering by seeking all kinds of things: possessions, reputation, sexual enjoyment—everything I can imagine—but still all is not well. This is how we arrive at level 5, which Maslow called the drive for self-transcendence, and which is the level which looks for spiritual teaching.
JK: Question: then what is self-transcendence?
RS: Well, that is Maslow's term, not mine, and it is not one I would use. I would prefer to call the fifth level of the pyramid the need for spiritual awakening, which does not really involve transcendence, but simply seeing things are they really are.
JK: Question: then what is spiitual awakening?
RS: That's a big question, Jerry, but in simplest terms, spiritual awakening happens whenever I see through the illusion that I am somehow separate from life, so that there is a "me" which has a life, or lives a life. When awake, we understand that we are life, which is a total mystery, completely beyond any possibility of description or explanation.
JK: Beyond saying that we are life, what is the heart of what you teach?
RS: The source of all psychological suffering, fear, dissatisfaction, yearning—all of that--and the source of all seeking, whether is is seeking for pleasure, status, fame, wealth--the so-called material desires--or whether is is seeking for spiritual knowledge and so-called "enlightenment," all that seeking arises from a basic misidentification which sees the body and its attendent autobiography as a "myself" which has an existence separate from the the imagined outside world. But the self is not the body, nor any history, it is rather a silent, empty awareness which belongs to nobody, and which is neither attached to nor defined by any fixed point of view at all.
As a result of this misidentification, we live in an invisible cage called "myself," and the limitations of that cage are the principal source of what we experience as problems in living. The great irony of this situation is that most of us struggle mightily to keep the bars of the cage in good repair, while trying to avoid any suggestion that the cage even exists. I see that the cage called myself is nothing solid at all, but an imaginary construction based on a misunderstanding of who and what myself is. Since that is the case, if one really desires freedom—and one must desire it more than anything else, otherwise one does not really desire freedom--one needs to clear up the misunderstanding by seeing things as they really are.
JK: How do you achieve communicating the heart of what you teach?
RS: That's always the chief question, Jerry, isn't it? How? How do I live? How do I cope with this pain? How do I find love? How do I awaken to reality? How do I teach? The most honest answer is "I don't know, and no one else does either," because the question is really the wrong question. As Krishnamurti, one of my great teachers I never met, put this, "There is no how to be free."
I sit with people, I talk with people. In the course of those conversations, some of them awaken to a greater freedom, and some don't. This process is not any kind of fixed method at all, but a deep listening which hears the distress of the seeker, and responds to it improvisationally, spontaneously, in the very moment, with no preconceived formula or theory of my own, and nothing fixed, nothing doctrinaire to teach or impart.
Since we live in a world of words and relativity, this work necessarily takes place on different levels. The most easily explained level is what could be called philosophical. This conversation, for example, is being carried out on that level. The ask dr robert website, and the Dr. Robert Forum function on that level too. That work attempts to raise awareness of the limitations and pain of self-misidentification--to point to the bars of the cage, that is, to indicate what the bars of the cage called "myself" consist of, and to deal with fears about what it would be like if those bars suddenly went missing. Since that kind of expression is limited to language, all it can ever be is philosophical. However, and to my great surprise, even that level of discourse seems to be stimulating awakening in people who are ready to awaken. The work that goes on in my consulting room can be deeper and more comprehensive. The same kind of philosophical elements are part of it, but there are other levels entirely, levels which can only be accessed in a face to face situation. For example, there is a sense of presence that the person called "Robert" seems to embody (and forgive me for referring to myself in the third person, it just feels appropriate in this context). A sense of presence—always someone home—never not present—available--awake--not lost in dreams—unhurried--undefended--comprehensive--I don't know how to put that sense of presence any better into words. I do not intentionally create such a presence, and I do not take credit for it, but often people comment on it, and I can feel it from the inside out, if that makes sense. And I remember feeling that way about Walter, my teacher. He just seemed different somehow from anyone else I knew. Calmer, steadier, indestructible really, deeply compassionate without trying to be compassionate—I am tempted to say realer.
And then there is the ability to hold and contain whatever the seeker might feel, say, or do. No fear, no desire. Nothing to prove, nothing to defend. No fixed point of view at all. Just awareness sitting there listening, hearing, and understanding. I once saw myself doing this work on videotape, and I was impressed. That could sound like some kind of ego trip, I guess, but it really isn't. It's nothing, I personally, am doing, Jerry. It's just what happens when the fear and the desire go away. We become impersonal and open to whatever arises without needing to judge it, name it, pursue it, or protect against it. And often people sitting in such an ambiance find themselves relaxing deeply, and opening to new possibilities within themselves. These are just words, and I am sorry for that, but words are all we have at this point.
JK: You’re a teacher in a current world of nonduality which often claims "There is no teacher and nothing to be taught." Would you comment on that.
RS: Well, Jerry, that kind of statement is what academics call "reification," which means treating a concept, which may or may not refer to anything real, as if it were automatically true just because someone can say it. But words, athough they may point to true experience, can never be true experience. "There is no teacher and nothing to be taught," to me feels like a word-game which has very little to do with the actuality of spiritual teaching--of sitting alone, that is, with another human being, responding to the obvious suffering, and the heartfelt questions of that person. Yes, we must communicate in words—not always, of course, recall the story of the Buddha silently holding a flower and one of the monks being instantly enlightened—but usually we must resort to words. But no true experience can be expressed fully in words, no matter how good they are, no matter how well chosen. As Lao Tzu—my all time fave rave, by the way—put this: the Tao which can be spoken is not the real Tao.
So the word "nonduality" does not describe anything really. It is just a word—a finger pointing towards something which perhaps is real, and which perhaps is not. Only an actual experiencer would know if that words points to something real, and, if it does, what that something is. So where does that word, "nonduality," point? Well, that depends on who is using the word, how that person is using it, and how the person who is listening to the word hears it.
The thinking mind is always dualistic. How could it be otherwise when thought itself is based upon measurement, judgment, and comparison? So when thought hears the word "nonduality," which really attempts to point towards "oneness"--to an actual continuing experience of non-division, of being undivided from anything--it immediately juxtaposes against that idea the opposing idea of duality, so that suddenly we have two separate states: duality and not-duality. From a word which attempted to express oneness, thought instantly creates twoness, duality.
To get the flavor of this, suppose I say "I am a therapist and this fellow here is my client." A nonduality enthusiast might accuse me of the sin of dualism, arguing that therapist/client is dualistic thinking. No, I will reply, "your statement is dualistic, because either you are claiming that therapy does not exist at all, which is nonsense, or you are claiming that there are two kinds of therapy, a nondualistic kind which has no therapist and no client, and a dualistic kind that has a therapist and a client." But that distinction is an invention of thought, and it does not exist in my consulting room. When I am doing the work, I am not thinking "I am the therapist, and you are the client." I am simply attending to a conversation taking place in awareness which exists prior to thought, and which does not belong to anyone. In that conversation there is no feeling of twoness, nor of separation. There is no inside or outside. There is nothing to gain and nothing to lose. There is only the conversation, which is unitary and excludes nothing. In the face of that actuality, to say "There is no therapist, and no therapy to be done," although it sounds good, is to create duality where there was none.
Too often the word nonduality is understood as meaning no-duality, implying that there is no duality in life, and if someone experiences any duality, that person is in error or unenlightened. So, according to that view, since there can be no duality in life, there cannot be a teacher or anything to be taught. But claiming that there is no duality in life is clearly wrong. Of course there is duality. A stick is just one stick, but it has two ends. The human race consists of two sexes. A magnet has two poles. Yes, it is just one magnet, but it does have two poles, and that cannot be denied. Look at the present disaster in Japan: there are benign stable elements, and there are deadly radioactive elements, and they are not at all one and the same. How can that be denied? In my understanding, it is vital not only that the experience of duality not be denied, but that it be honored. If it is not honored and understood for what it is, but ignored, or even worse, demeaned, all kinds of harm can occur. For example, my wife has certain needs, both physical and emotional, and so do I. Some of these overlap, and others do not, so there is duality, clearly. Yet we travel together harmoniously, not by ignoring that duality, but by appreciating it for what it is: life. Life itself, of course, is utterly mysterious, unitary, and indivisible. Our points of view do not have to be. When all points of view are allowed, that really would be nonduality.
Actually, in my opinion, Zen deals with this question very much better than the recent enthusiastic preaching of non-duality. From a Zen understanding, one would say "yes, there is no duality, and there also is no non-duality, there is just oneness which is neither duality nor non-duality, but only life. And life must be lived, not made to fit any definition whatsoever. It is not about attaining anything, but simply being.
So if there is only life, only this, how can there be a teacher? This seems to be a paradox, and I understand that some of the neo-advaita people enjoy playing around with that kind of paradox, but for me it is not a paradox at all. In my experience, all of us are dreaming. One cannot not be dreaming on some level or another. On awakening from sleep and opening our eyes, we immediately dream the world into existence. My "I-Am-ness" creates the world in its own image. We all do this. It is immediate and unavoidable. When I see this—that my I-Am-ness creates the world—that, in other words, I am always dreaming the world into existence, that is awakening, because, oddly enough, when the dream is seen as a dream, I find myself awake. So if someone's dream—a dream of spiritual awakening--includes a teacher, I may be a teacher for such a person. My dear friend, the Buddhist teacher, Robert Hall, refers to me as a "teacher of nonduality," but I don't walk around feeling like one. When I fill in a form with a line for "occupation," I do not write "spiritual teacher," I write psychologist. Nevertheless, if a seeker comes to me for teaching, which he or she imagines will be spiritual teaching, then I have to deal with that. In other words, speaking as a psychotherapist, if the presenting problem is the illusion of spiritual seeking, then the therapy has to treat that problem. And what is that problem? Well, it is the illusion that there is somewhere else besides the here and now, and that if I could just get there, then I would be awake.
Getting stuck in a nonduality bag is no different from getting stuck in any other doctrine. A doctrine, even it is called nonduality, is simply a fixed way of seeing things--but the essence of freedom is non-attachment to any particular viewpoint—any fixed way of seeing things. In other words, freedom notices that my point of view is constantly dying in each moment and being reborn in the next, and that is perfectly OK.
In fact, being stuck in a nonduality bag carries a particular special danger. If I begin to believe that my point of view is all-embracing and and all-inclusive—so-called "non-duality"--and that any alternative to the way I see things is, by definition, incorrect, or non-existent, then there is no longer any possible escape from that doctrine, that point of view. In Zen, this is called "getting stuck in oneness." If a seeker comes to me for help, the worst thing I can do is to approach that person with such a pre-existing, theoretical, unquestionable doctrine of no-student, no-teacher. Who am I do impose my views upon that person? As a therapist I know very well that imposing views in such a manner is injurious per se, in and of itself, regardless of their content or their supposed value.
The marketplace is filled with spiritual teaching. We are living in a consumerist nightmare, and the spiritual supermarket is open 24 hours a day—it would be open 25 hours a day if that were possible! And in that supermarket is a cadre of nonduality advocates who claim that there is nothing to teach— but how does one distinguish between teaching and advocacy, anyway? If I write a book, can I honestly say the book contains no teaching? Do you see the absurdity? There they are, riding the wave of popularity, dispensing nonduality ideas (and how is dispensing different from teaching, by the way?) to an audience of supposedly non-existent students, as if "nonduality" were a new, super efficient awakening method which cannot be taught and which nobody needs to learn. But nonduality is nothing new at all, as I am sure you know, Jerry. Nonduality is the crux of the entire Tao Te Ching, and the core teaching of the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, all three very old sources. In other words, the current nonduality teaching seems to be the same old wine in different bottles—in some cases, baby bottles.
I understand how someone who had been a committed seeker, and then somehow snapped out of that delusion and found himself quotation marks "enlightened," might feel excited by that awakening, and feel that perhaps he should write a book about it or begin giving satsangs—and really there is nothing wrong with that either. All of that is just part of life. It's just not where my interest lies, nor that of the people who consult me. If simply being told that they were already "awake" would have done it for them, why would they need to come to see me? From my perspective, "you are already awake, and no one exists anyway" is too simplistic, too conceptual, too dismissive of actual human experience. There is just not enough meat on that bone for my taste. I much prefer the Zen approach: if you try, the very trying will obscure, but if you do not try at all, there is no difference between you and a rock, so what is needed is a non-trying trying.
You see, Jerry, this is why Robert Hall, calls me a contrarian!
JK: Talk about practice: its value and its limitations.
RS: You know, the real practice begins after awakening, and should not be seen as a path or method which can lead to awakening. That said, for a beginner, some period of formal meditation can be valuable if it helps in noticing that one is living in a wind tunnel of perpetual thought, and that none of that is under control by anyone ever. But once that is seen, the idea of a path which must be followed, a set of precepts which defines that path, and a practice which must be followed in order to stay on the imagined-path, tends to allow or even promote putting off into some perfected future that which is only always now or not at all. As Krishnamurti said, "Truth is a pathless land."
At the risk of repeating something which has been heard often, there is the story of the Zen teacher who sees his student sitting in a perfect posture, unmoving 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 a 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."
That said, there are a couple of simple, generic practices which might be helpful for almost anyone:
First, just discard all opinions and views as soon as they arise. For example, if you find yourself in a political argument, just shut up. If you really desire to awaken, arguing pro and con will only impede that. Defending opinions and views, no matter how valuable or reasonable they may seem, only hardens the bars of the cage. This even applies to opinions and views which you keep to yourself. As soon as they become apparent, drop them. Drop all views, all conceptions, all likes and dislikes whatsoever, and then notice and embrace the emptiness which remains.
Second, there is the practice of self-remembrance which involves reminding oneself as often as possible that "I AM"--that I exist, in other words--prior to any self-definition, bodily awareness, autobiographical information, etc. Whenever you remember to do it, simply say, and feel, I AM, meaning I exist. This may seem simplistic, but many students have found great value in it. In fact, one person, a long time student of Gangaji who had despaired of ever really "getting it"--experienced a profound awakening while walking alone on the beach, practicing I AM. This is a instruction, that Walter Chappell, my teacher, gave me, and I am happy to pass it along.
JK: You have a very active online life it seems with a website and a forum. Tell us about that.
RS: Back in 2004, I created dr-robert.com simply to serve as a kind of online brochure for my psychotherapy practice. I provided my email address which I imagined would be used by local people looking for therapy, but soon I began receiving letters from afar—from all over the world, in fact--asking for advice. After responding to some of them privately, I hit upon the idea of posting the questions with my replies on the website so that others in similar circumstances might benefit. For reasons which I do not understand, a google search for "ask a psychologist" brought my site right to the top, and soon I was flooded with letters. I replied to as many as possible, and now the site comprises hundreds of questions and replies. That site got half a million visitors last year from all over the world, and looks like reaching a million this year.
Because the requests for help were so overwhelming, completely beyond my capacity to reply, eighteen months ago I launched a second website, the dr. robert forum, where people can post requests for advice, or any other inquiries about psychology, psychotherapy, mental health, or spiritual awakening. My principal idea was that since I could no longer reply personally to all the requests for help, at least questions could be posted for public discussion in an environment which I would try to shape away from triviality and towards serious deliberation. In other words, this was an experiment in the intentional creation a specific cultural enclave on the internet. The experiment is suceeding. The forum has a number of intelligent regular contributors who offer sensitive perspectives, and helpful replies to questions, and I jump in when necessary, and when I have the time.
JK: Tell us about your teacher Walter Chappell.
RS: Meeting Walter was a pivotal moment in my life. His influence is impossible to quantify. Let me describe our first meeting. In those days I had a career as an artist/photographer, and I had just mounted a large show of new work. At the opening, a woman engaged me in conversation, and in the course of that, asked me if I knew Walter Chappell who was a famous and great photographer, and who was living only 20 miles to the south. I had never met Walter, but the following day I went to see him. When I arrived, his girlfriend told me that he was away, but was expected back soon, and that I could wait if I liked. He had a wonderful garden, so waiting was easy. A couple of hours later, Walter arrived, and it happened that he had just gone to see my show. "Well," I asked. "What did you think?" "I think you have a living root," he replied.In my vanity, I felt as if he were belittling me. After all I was in the midst of a hot art career, and my current show was a hit. Later—very much later, actually--I understood that for him those words were simply a nonjudgmental, factual recognition of me as someone who could learn from him, and possibly carry on this work.
A few days later, I returned to see Walter, and our friendship began. He was like no one else I had ever met, or ever have met since for that matter, and he was my one and only spiritual teacher in-the-flesh. Walter's teaching was esoteric in the extreme, including certain practices which I have promised not to discuss. A great deal of what he taught me was not expressed in words at all, but by a combination of showing or modeling awakeness, and of somehow--and I cannot explain this--engendering awakeness in me energetically—projecting into me, I am tempted to say. People tell me that they get something of the kind from me, and I observe that they do, but I cannot explain how it happens with me, any more than I can explain how or what Walter did. It's like a kind of "contact high," but it is not really a high at all--more an emotional state of nonjudgmental openness.
Walter and I traveled together, mounted shows of our photographs together, built darkrooms together, sometimes lived together, and all the while Walter's teaching went on continuously. Any movement in ordinary life became also an occasion for spiritual instruction. For example, the process of building the structure for a darkroom became a kind of metaphor for constructing something spiritually—"erecting it," as Walter would put it--and had to be undertaken with utmost seriousness. Often silence was maintained for hours. Once Walter and I drove from New Mexico to San Diego to show some photographs--including one night sleeping on the bare ground in the Arizona desert--without exchanging a single word except about where to stop for gas and coffee.
His attitude toward me was totally uncompromising and radically demanding. I was expected to "get it," and to make any and all efforts necessary to accomplish that. Any laziness at all in the work of "getting it," was severely criticized, and I might be told that if I really wasn't interested, perhaps I should just leave and stop wasting his time. Of course, I never left, but just tried harder. On the other hand, Walter's eyes were often filled with deep compassion and encouragement, and he knew how to laugh with a wonderful freedom. Lots of the teaching was of the crazy wisdom variety, including intentionally acting out in public in order to expose my conventional hang-ups, insulting other friends, pretending to be drunk when he really wasn't, making a mess of my house—he was wild that way. He knew how to suffer too. He never tried to avoid it, but just took it all in. The two sides of life, the ordinary and the esoteric, were always one and the same for Walter, and became one and the same for me too—a kind of radical non-duality in the midst of life.
JK: How do the roles of psychotherapist and spiritual teacher play out in your life? How much have the roles merged and how much separation do you give them?
RS: If we return to Maslow's hierachy, you will recall that there were five levels. The first two levels, physiological needs, and safety and security needs are the realm of social work. The next two, social and esteem needs, and the need for self-actualization are the realm of psychotherapy, and the final level, what Maslow called self-transcendence, but which I prefer to call awakening, or seeing things as they are, is the realm of spiritual teaching.
It's not that clear cut, of course. Often some movement towards spiritual awakening becomes part of psychotherapy, but it doesn't have to be part of it. Psychotherapy can deal exclusively with perceptions within the illusion of a separate self, and that's OK too. I am comfortable working on any level, but, naturally, I feel gratified and happy if someone actually awakens in the context of our work together, so the arrival of a student who seems ready for that possibility is stimulating to me personally, and tends to call something forth. I am sure Walter felt that when he met me. I believe that is what he meant when he told me I had a living root—that there was a chance I might awaken if he helped me, and that he would enjoy the experience of seeing that happen, if it did.
JK: There are traditional psychotherapists and these days nondual psychotherapists. How does one know which to go to?
RS: I'm not sure what a non-dual psychotherapist is, or how to make that distinction. If a non-dual therapist is someone who believes that the solution to any human problem whatever is simply to awaken spiritually, then I suppose I am not a non-dual therapist. I have already said that there is not enough meat on that particular bone for my taste, and that the ordinary world of apparent duality needs to be honored, not transcended. And, of course, I would advise anyone to come to me! After all, why not?
JK: There is training available for psychotherapists in nondual sensitivity. How do you feel about that? If psychotherapists came to you for such training, how would you approach the challenge?
RS: Perhaps I am missing something here, because I don't really know anything about such training, but I would not see this as a matter of training in non dual sensitivity, whatever that is, but of awakening to nonduality itself. Any psychotherapist must be sensitive. Sensitivity to the client's needs is the bottom line requirement in psychotherapy. But I do not see how someone can be trained to be sensitive to nonduality, or to understand nonduality. That sounds so theoretical and experience distant. You either feel the oneness or you don't. If you feel it, that can become a factor in your work. If you don't feel it, it can't become a factor—no matter how much training you may have had. As I said, I don't know much about this, so I may be missing something. I would be glad to hear more about this if someone cares to write to me.
JK: What does it mean to awaken?
RS: What a question! For me, it means that everything I thought I was is seen as a complete and total delusion of the mind, and what is left is emptiness, silence.
JK: What are some of the myths about awakening?
RS: The most difficult misunderstanding about awakening is that awakening is some special state which somehow is attained through effort, or by believing something that one has read or heard. That is totally wrong. The emptiness and silence of awareness already exist everywhere and nowhere. Awareness is beyond description, and no person will ever own it or attain it. And awakeness is not any kind of state at all, but prior to any state of mind or body. Any state at all would arise within awareness, and would not alter it in any way at all. States are temporary, transitory, but awareness is eternal. Awakening occurs when the egoic boundaries of a human personality begin to soften, so that the emptiness and silence become apparent. This can be a sudden dramatic awakening, or an apparently gradual awakening, in which little hints--little tastes--of awareness begin to sneak in around the edges of a hypnotic involvement in autobiography. It doesn't matter. Once that process begins, eventually it will lead to the end of egoic misidentification, and the birth of a new identification of "myself" as awareness itself.
Because awakening is not a state or condition, but a kind of cessation of states and conditions, awakening has nothing to do with mystical experiences, faith in anything, transcending anything, belief in anything, knowing anything, thinking anything, doing or not doing anything, learning anything, or becoming anything. It is silence, and it is here right now. Always here right now.
JK: Would you discern between the intense and true desire to awaken and the fashionable intense desire to awaken?
RS: A true desire to awaken has only one goal: to see things, to the extent possible, as they really are. The person with that desire says only this: "I need to know what is true." If he or she asks for a method, it will be "show me how to wake up. Show me how to abandon my false ideas?"
As for the other kind of seeker, the word "fashionable" says everything you need to know. Truth is not really the goal, but only involvement in the latest method or movement. This person has been a shopper in the spiritual supermarket, and now sees nonduality as the best thing in the store. There may be a lot of talk about awakening to nonduality, but at root, the real motive is attainment of some special state or another which will be mine personally—perhaps even yielding narcissistic gratification—something I do, not an impersonal happening, as true awaking always is. In other words, the fashionable one desires to be known as a realizer of so-called "enlightenment," to gain special powers, to know things that other ordinary people cannot know, and perhaps to be empowered to teach or to preach, or to feel permanently high or turned-on. All of those desires are desires for acquistion or status. That kind of seeking--fashionable seeking--is no different in spirit from wanting to own the coolest car, or have the best courtside seats at the basketball game.
JK: You write, “My entire interest is focused upon whatever is arising now, in this very moment.” How can it be otherwise or does it just appear otherwise?
RS: This is a question of context. Jerry. In the absolute sense, you are quite right, it cannot be otherwise, because there is only this, only whatever is arising now. But I wrote those words not in the context of an approach to the absolute, but in reply to a question about theology and doctrine, in which I was trying to say that theology and doctrine are unimportant to me because I am interested in what I see now, not what I might have thought last week, or in some theory I carry around with me. Nevertheless, your question is a good one, and your implication is correct: everything is arising in this moment, and there really is no other. If we simply couple that fact with one other, we will have the entire essence of nonduality, and nothing further need be said: Everything is arising in this moment, and there really is no other, just as you suggest, and I am that.
JK: Well, then, since you mention context, How important is it to put teachings and confession into context?
RS: That depends upon who is doing the teaching and the confessing. I don't mean to be clever, Jerry, but the answer to your question about the importance of context is that it is a question of context. If some so-called "self-realized master," A Da Free John, for example, or Adi Da as he also was called, sits on a stage proclaiming his own divinity to a crowd of disciples, that is one situation, and he will not and does not need to put his teaching, which is also his confession, into any context. You either take it or leave it. But my work has nothing to do with that. I am quite concerned with context. In the context of my consulting room, I do no proclaiming, very little confessing, but mostly just listening. No one has to believe anything about me or if I have (quotation marks) "awakened" or not. The subject rarely arises. If you come to me to discuss your life, we can have that conversation. Simple as that. That is the context. Yes, I will probably be hearing you from an awakened perspective, but you would have no way of knowing that. If you ask me specifically about awakening or spirituality, we can discuss that too, but I will never raise the subject, and, most likely that discussion will be more about you and your experiences than about me.
This interview, on the other hand, which is, after all, an interview about me and my experience, arises in a different context, and, since your interest is nonduality, I am willing to say that I had a rather sudden, dramatic awakening years ago, and that it changed my entire notion of who and what I am—dismembered it really.
JK: A student or seeker might sit with you, perceiving you as awakened and enlightened while perceiving themself as ordinary, limited, and unenlightened. How do you perceive the coupling of youself and the seeker or student?
RS: Very good question. I want to point out that "I" did not awaken, and so "I" am not awakened. Awakening happened suddenly, and, since the imagined "myself" no longer cares to stand in the way of that or to struggle against it, awakening continues to happen. Actually, as I wrote recently, awakening never ends. I know some people find that distinction annoying—the idea that no one awakens and so no one is awakened--as if I am splitting hairs, but the difference is important. If the non-existence of any fixed so-called "awakened person" is not kept in mind, any words on the subject will just add to the burden of confusion for anyone hearing this, and that should be avoided.
But now, so as not to belabor my reply with repeating that point, let us assume, just in conventional language, that someone called Robert is somehow awake. OK. How do I know that? When it first occurred, it was so sudden and dramatic that I simply had no doubt at all. I was shocked and surprised by the utter simplicity of it. It seemed like a joke really. How could it be this simple? This is crazy. I have literally always been here, but just didn't see it. When you have been asleep in bed dreaming, and you wake up to find yourself in your bedroom, do you doubt it? Of course not. That's how I felt. As the Zen people say, when you take a drink of water you don't ask yourself if it is hot or cold, you just know, and I just knew I was awake. This is impossible to put into words. It is utterly obvious, but at the same time shocking and dramatic. And the awakening had immediate repercussions. Suddenly, for example, the words in the sacred books made perfect sense to me. Everything which had been puzzling before, and over which I had pondered, now was clear, obvious, and undeniable. "Oh, I thought," for example, "that's why the Buddha said that when he awakened all sentient beings throughout time and space awakened simultaneously. Oh, now I get it." But after that kind of awakening, which is exciting at first, and certainly to a seeker a great relief, like the lifting of a burden which one feared might have to be carried forever, life goes on. Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water, after enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water, you know?So here I am still doing just what anyone does to get by here on planet Earth. No difference at all. As the Buddhists say, Samsara is Nirvana. So, regarding how I see the coupling of myself and the seeker: I am the seeker, and the seeker is me. Arising together in the very same awareness, we are not separate, but totally connected. If the seeker is not there, the teacher is not there either. "But," you might say, "surely you were sitting there waiting before the seeker arrived for her appointment with you." I understand that point of view, of course, but it is literally not true. Yes, a body, which conventionally is called Robert, was sitting there before the seeker arrived, but that body was not a teacher and was doing no teaching. The teaching began when the seeker asked the first question, and ended when the seeker left. When the teaching began, the body called Robert could be called "teacher," but when the teaching ended, that body no longer could be called teacher, but something else, whatever that body was doing then. Donkey trainer, perhaps, or gardener or cook. This may seem like a quibble or a verbal game, but I assure you it is not. This is the very essence of what I have to share, the very heart of it: non-attachment to any fixed identity or point of view at all.
Yes, when awakening happened, seeking stopped, but not because anyone stopped seeking, but because awakening is just another name for the end of seeking. They are one and the same. Ending seeking is not something that a so-called "awakened person" does, seeking ends when awaking happens, just like dreaming ends when I awaken in my bedroom. This is why the stategy of non-seeking which I hear recommended cannot work. No strategy for awakening can work. A strategy is seeking, only the name has changed.Seeking stopped, not because I decided to stop seeking, not because some teacher told me to stop, but because, seeing that whatever is, is, and cannot be any different--including what I call "myself"--the entire idea of seeking is meaningless. Yes, in the next moment "myself" will be different, but I am not seeking that, because it just happens, and it keeps happening, and it happens regardless of what I think I am doing or not doing. And it happens whether I want it to happen or not. It happens, not because I do it, but because the entire universe is doing it, or because that's the just the way it is, if you like those words better. That's the way the cookie crumbles. The seeker will keep seeking, just like I did, until the seeking stops. I cannot make it stop, and he or she—the seeker—cannot make it stop. It stops when it stops. If someone approaches me respectfully, all I can do is to respond honestly to whatever I am asked. And that's what I do.