I was reading the magazine Rolling Stone yesterday, and I came upon something that caught my attention. I presume everybody here knows Pink Floyd, right? The founder, the animating spirit of Pink Floyd was a guy named Syd Barrett. In 1968, Syd Barrett kind of went crazy. He got locked up in a psychiatric hospital. He ended up painting and gardening and kind of being a recluse somewhere here in southern California. He lived until 2006, I think. Syd Barrett was driven crazy, and it seems like he was driven crazy by his meeting with the insanity of the music industry. He was a genius. The guy was really amazing. So in 1975, Pink Floyd issued an album called, Wish You Were Here, which was kind of an ode to the descent into hell of Syd Barrett and what had brought it about. It is a great album, by the way.
The guy who took Syd's place is a guy named Roger Waters. I read an interview with Roger Waters, in which he was talking about the album Wish You Were Here and what had given rise to it, and about Syd Barrett. In the course of that interview, he asked, "The question is, can you free yourself enough to be able to experience the reality of life?"
Can you free yourself enough to experience the reality of life? I'm here to tell you that you can, and it is much easier than you might believe it to be. It's actually the simplest thing you can possibly imagine.
This isn't what I've always spoken about. Carla and I have been doing this work now for over 13 years, traveling around, having conversations with people, trying to get to the heart of the matter in this business of finding a way to be in a relationship with life that is satisfying rather than frightening, safe rather than constantly on edge, and sane rather than insane.
I'm presuming you guys know a little bit about my history, all the interesting stuff like being on the Ten Most Wanted List, and all that. In the beginning, soon after I had gotten out of prison, over thirteen years ago, I would talk mostly about stopping, silent mind, and surrender. Silence, silence, silence. And that went on for about six years. During all that time, I never was satisfied with what I was saying. In fact, there has never been a time, until very recently, when I felt that I had finally gotten a handle on what happened to me, and what it is that I see to be the case, and what it is that I see to be the possibility for anybody of, once and for all, being free of this alienation and discontent with life itself.
The truth of the matter is that I probably wouldn't be doing this at all, except that the circumstances of our life was such that it turned out that there wasn't pretty much anything else we could do. It was the only thing that was available to us to do. After six years of speaking to people, I started talking about self-inquiry, in the manner of Ramana Maharshi. And I talked about that for about six years, too. I would wrestle and try to find some way to speak about this self-inquiry in the manner of Ramana Maharshi that would be at least worthy of the powerful person that Ramana actually was, and of the effect that my understanding of him had had on me. I wanted to steer clear of spiritual words, the spiritual vocabulary that everybody knew, because one thing I knew even then was that for those of us who happen upon the spiritual path and get that vocabulary in our heads, anything we hear is going to be hijacked by our previous understandings of what those words mean.
What I was trying to communicate was not the previous understanding of what those words meant, but something different. I didn't know quite what it was, but I knew it was different. So I would fumble around, and I finally settled on the word vichara, because I felt that nobody knew what that meant anyway, and even those that know Sanskrit wouldn't know what it meant exactly, because the word vichara pretty much means anything you want it to mean. So I stuck with vichara for a while. And in those first twelve years, the years of speaking about silence, and the years of speaking about self-inquiry, strangely enough, some people actually seemed to get better as a result of our conversations with each other, which was an encouragement to me.
Since the retreat here in this room last November , I have abandoned all reference to spiritual concepts. I have abandoned all reference to previous ideas of what the problem of human existence is, and what the solution to human existence may be. And I finally have found a way to speak of these matters directly. I have finally found a way to actually suggest an act — not an understanding, not a belief, not an insight. An act that is so simple, so uncomplicated, and so not spiritual that anybody can do it — whether you are spiritually enlightened or not, whether you have ever heard of the Buddha or not, and whether you are religious or not. No matter what the focus of your attention might be on, you can do this act. Anybody can do this act. It is as simple as falling off a log.
So, let's try to do the act. Let's do this act, and get that behind us. Once you know what it is that I'm talking about, we can move on to the implications and the ramifications of the act. It won't take long. It will take us about five minutes to get through it.
We're going to start by closing our eyes, and moving our attention to our breath for just a couple of minutes. You don't have to do anything special, just notice it as it comes in and out of the body. If you can rest your attention there, you will notice there are different parts to the rhythm of the breath. There's the in-breath, there's the end of the in-breath; there's the out-breath, there's the end of the out-breath. So just watch that for just a moment.
Now I want you to see if you can remember something you have done in the past. Remember some event in the past, in which you were present and awake and doing something. Maybe watching something, moving something, going to the store, going to the movies. It doesn't matter when it was. It could have been yesterday; it could have been when you were five years old. Just see if you can't evoke something you were doing in the past. Put yourself in that picture. Then, when you are there, when you have an idea of what it is you are remembering, just for a moment see if you can feel what it felt like to be you in that moment. And then, see if that is not exactly what it feels like to be you now.
Now, there are other ways to perform this act. You can directly, in this moment, move your attention, looking for the feel of you. And when I say 'you,' I mean the person-ness of you; what it feels like to be a person, you. And that's it, that simple.
What I say, and what I believe to be the case, and what seems to be the case more and more with many, many people — thousands of them now — is that that act is all that it takes. And, upon the performance of that act, the context that previously had been the foundation of your relationship with life is been wiped out. There are thousands of people now who have reported the same results.
I'm convinced that the only problem that causes the vast majority of human beings to feel that there is something profoundly wrong with their lives that needs to be corrected is the fact that the context within which all the mental and psychological structures, which are the only way we have to live life, are formed and shaped and conditioned is a fear of life itself. It's a deep, profound, distrust of life; a sense that life is out to swallow me up. That life is not to be trusted; that life itself is the problem.
Everything that arises within that context is tainted. It's shaped and conditioned by that foundation, that point of view that holds that there is something here that I have to look out for. First of all, there's something missing that I don't have, and there is something that could harm me that I have to be very careful to watch out for, and there is some way that I can get what's missing, if only I keep a sharp eye out looking for what might save me from this horror that is life as a human being. That context is what causes that point of view. That context is what gives rise to the energy of a desperate need to search for a solution. That context is what gives rise and shapes all the neurotic psychological mechanisms by means of which we sabotage ourself, cause pain and suffering to our friends and family, cause pain and suffering to ourselves, seek after things that are of no use to us and can only harm us, and ignore and get rid of things that are actually quite useful, quite fulfilling and quite satisfying. It is that context that causes the psychological structures that form our persona to be the way they are. It's what causes us to be neurotic, to be fearful, to be distrustful, to be hateful, to be antagonistic, all the ways in which we, human beings, have managed to be miserable.
So, what I have come to see is that this simple, momentary act of inward looking, this simple intent to get the direct feel of what it feels like to be me, this movement of attention towards the sense of me is what wipes out that context of fear and distrust. Of course, all those psychological structures and mechanisms, those neurotic reactive behaviors, and points of view, and habits of definition that we have managed to create over however long a life we have lived in this atmosphere of fear, distrust and dissatisfaction don't just go away like that. They will remain for a while. But they have lost their footing. The rug upon which they stand has been pulled out from under them.
Often, what follows the act is a short period of relief. "Wow! That was easy. Yeah, I get it. Everything's cool, now I see." And then comes the storm, which is caused by the restructuring of the psychology, and about which you have nothing to say. There's no use in trying to follow it, or fix it or make it pretty. It is the restructuring of the psychology on a new basis, within a new context that is natural life, the natural relationship of human consciousness to the life in which it finds itself. It is the natural relationship to life, one in which there is no distance from life. Just the experience of the reality of life from moment to moment, but within a context in which intelligence is rewarded rather than stupidity. A context in which harmlessness is rewarded rather than antagonism and aggression; in which curiosity and the natural human intelligent involvement in life is promoted, and nourished, and fortified, and strengthened. So that, over time, life gets easier. Over time, our ability to navigate, understand, and relate to our lives increases, becomes more intelligent, less neurotic, and less fraught with fearfulness, distrust, and dissatisfaction.
We call the period between the time of the looking and the departure from the recovery ward, the 'recovery period.' We have found it useful to think of this problem of the human dissatisfaction with life as a disease, rather than as some misunderstanding, or some ignorance. In some circles, it would be called sinfulness, or something about your upbringing. We've found it to be much more useful to use the metaphor of a disease. This fear of life is a disease that strikes pretty much all of us very early in life. And it is a disease that infects without killing the entire organism and causes considerable trouble and pain, suffering and misery throughout the time of its presence in the organism. Therefore, we think of the looking as medicine, not as a spiritual practice. Not as some psychological maneuver, not as some seeking after understanding, but just as medicine, like an antibiotic. You take it. It doesn't do anything for you except that, as time goes on, the disease that you've taken it to cure goes away, often after a period of difficult recovery, feverishness, chills and fever. And, as with a disease that is cured by antibiotics, this disease of the fear of life, which is cured by this simple act of inward looking, eventually disappears and leaves you here in your life, happy to be here.
I also believe that this disease is the disease of the entire human species. Maybe there are a few exceptions here and there, people who dodged that bullet. But there are not enough of them to make a difference. If you look at the TV, or you look at the newspaper at all, just the barest glance at things going on in the world will pretty much confirm the fact that this disease is epidemic, it infects pretty much the entire species. And, when you see it for what it is, then you begin to see how it explains everything about our behavior, about the madness of the human creature, about the wars, about political infighting, about greed, etc.
Everything is driven by fear, everything. All human bad behavior is caused by fear. Nobody's at fault. There is no villain here. And if you begin to see that, you also begin to see that all of the fussing and fighting over how we should be as human beings, how that person should be, and why it's that person's fault instead of my fault, and why it is the fault of the Republicans, or it's the fault of the Democrats, or it's the fault of the Communists, or it's the fault of the Nazis, or it's the fault of the psychiatrists or the drug companies, all of that goes away. It doesn't change the fact that the world is in a sorry state. But all of that villainization movement goes away.
Everybody's just like you. Everybody is doing what they do, driven by the same underlying fear of life that has caused you such difficulty in your own life. Your response to it has been different than that of some of the villains of history. Your response to it has been your response to it, the idiosyncratic way in which your particular psychology has developed, and found a place where there is some stasis. Not safety exactly, but at least things aren't falling apart. So that, the fact that you are a good person isn't because you are a good person, it's because the circumstances of your life have caused your response to the fear to take the form of good personhood, of being a good guy rather than a bad guy. It's that simple.
Once you're rid of the fear, and you're at home in your life, safe and sane in your own life, not trying to escape from life, not trying to ascend into heaven or descend into nothingness, or anything of the kind, you've got two choices.
You can run. Sometimes, the running isn't even seen to be running, it's just that life is so satisfying. It's like food. If you're a foodie, and you get some really good food, that's what life is like. It's not always sweet. Sometimes it's sour, sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it's incomprehensible, but it's always satisfying.
The impulse to hold life at arm's length goes away. But there's a downside to this, too. And the downside is that the less fearful you become, and the less driven by fear your personality becomes, the less protection you have from the misery and fearfulness of everybody around you. You get in a crowd of people, and it's like being in an insane asylum. We really do experience everybody. We really do. This is compassion. This is feeling the suffering of others, the misery of others. And once you've taken away all the ways in which you have protected yourself in the world, your ability to hold at bay the misery of others weakens. So when you are around a group of people who are driven by fear, you really feel it. Why would you want to hang around with a bunch of nut cases like that? Life is short.
So, you have two choices. You can run for the hills and hide, and that's okay. I mean, that's a perfectly valid choice; there aren't any real moral strictures to this. Or you can do something to try to save the rest of us. You can do something to try to bring this simple act to everybody else. Just to see if it is possible. We live in a really special time here. Not only have we stumbled upon the key, we also have stumbled upon the key in a time when that key can be delivered to everybody within a short time span. Not generations, but years, and that is because of the technology that is available to us now.
Back in 1999, when Carla and I started, we didn't really enter into this adventure because we thought it was a great thing for us to do. We did it because that's all we could do. So Carla and I, we're in this 'till the hubs rub. And other people are joining us, maybe for no other reason than just the excitement. Imagine that we could put an end to human insanity in our lifetime. It's possible. You can argue, "Oh no, this isn't going to work." But what I do know is that this has worked for thousands of people in a very short time. And we are continuously receiving reports from more and more people, often from people that we never heard of before, who heard of this through somebody else, who heard of it through somebody else, who maybe heard it directly from us.
We believe that we can bring an end to human psychological misery, human stupidity, and human insanity in our lifetime. It doesn't take long, once you do the act. What we've seen is that all that has to happen is to get somebody to do the act. What follows is just the case. Once they do the act, it's too late for them to back out and opt for insanity. And all we have to do to put an end to the insanity is to bring this simple suggestion cleanly and clearly enough to everybody, so that it isn't hijacked by any other idea that we've had in the past. This is my opinion, and this is what I claim, and this is what I fight for and strive for.
If we can bring this suggestion to the ears of everybody, to as many people as we possibly can, cleanly and clearly enough that they will just do the act, we believe that that will be enough. We're aiming for seven hundred million (10% of humanity) — which is doable. I mean, there are eight hundred million people just on Facebook, for god's sake. It's not like it's not doable.
Everything we've thought in the past, we've mucked up somehow. All of our great ideas, all of our philosophical understandings and insights, we've twisted them up into the fear, too. All of our spiritual practices, all of our religious activities, we've got them all gunked up with fear, too. All of the words that we've used to describe the things that we've tried to do as human beings to become more human, those also were all tarnished by fearfulness and anxiety, disaffection and discontent.
If you had never done this act it before, and you have just done it this afternoon, you can expect that you will do it again. You may decide that it's a really good thing to do, and do it on your own hook, or you may think that this isn't worth anything and decide never to do it again. Either way, or anywhere in the middle, you can pretty much count on the fact that you'll be doing it again. I'm not at all certain that it requires doing it again, except for the fact that it happens. It is one of the confirming signs that you have actually looked. If you find yourself doing it again, it is a sign that you've done it, because there is precious little in the act itself that gives you anything. It's like antibiotics. If you take an antibiotic, you don't get like, "Phew, boy, that's a relief." It's the same with this act, precious little that it gives you.
And sometimes, you don't even believe you've done it. You don't even believe you've accomplished it, which is really silly when you think about it. We're talking about looking at you. We're not talking about looking at a star way far away. We're talking about getting a taste of you, and the only thing that is constant about your experience of life is you. You are always here. You are like the atmosphere.
We have forums on our website, and they are like nothing I've ever seen anywhere. People are real there. They are really trying to help one another. Some of them are expressing extreme distress, and confusion, and others are helping, and people are always entering, falling into problems and confusion and then getting better and leaving. It's quite a place. It is kind of like a recovery ward in a hospital.
What I've seen is that, once you've done this act, there are two things you can do. One thing that is really helpful is mindfulness training. I used to call it mindfulness meditation, but it isn't really meditation, it's training. It's training in mindfulness, and it involves doing pretty much what we started to do this afternoon with watching the breath. There are different ways of implementing it. The one that I recommend is that you start counting the out-breath and, when you get distracted away from it, you just notice that you're distracted and start counting again. And this, over a period of time, is like strengthening your core. It's like doing Pilates in your mind. It strengthens the foundation of your intelligence. It strengthens your foundation, what you stand on.
The other thing to do, and mindfulness training helps this, is to see if it's not possible to have a direct experience of life yourself, and not resort to abstractions that you have heard from others in the past that seem to ring true. In other words, if you are deeply engaged in your experience of life, and some abstract idea comes up about what that is, just discard that idea. Try to find a way to say yourself, in ordinary words, what it is you are experiencing. This is what I'm calling radical self-reliance. This is training in self-reliance, because self-reliance is the thing that will really see you through. It's the understanding that you are pretty much on your own in your life. You can get help from people, you can get encouragement from people, you can get a certain amount of instruction from people, which is what I'm trying to provide here. But, in the end, it's you in your life. That's natural life. That's you, in your life, experiencing it yourself in this moment.
That move toward radical self-reliance and the refusal to accept the abstractions of others to explain the experience of your own life is the natural outcome of this work. You will get there one way or the other. You can get there kicking and screaming. You can get there with a lot of trying to hold onto the ideas from the past, and that just makes it take a little longer, and it's not nearly as pleasant. But if you just accept for yourself that it is your responsibility to live your life, and it is your responsibility to experience your life, and to understand your life yourself, and if you act from that ground, things are going to go a lot easier in the recovery from this terrible disease that the looking really does cure.
Now we can talk about anything you want to talk about. We can talk about why I believe this to be what I believe it to be. We can talk about its relationship to other ideas that we have had in the past. We can talk about what it is to be human.
Hi, John, I'm Jim.This is me, living my life.
That's you, living your life, you're right.
In your experience of this act, how do you think God fits in?
I don't know anything about God. That's the long and short of it. Just to bring it down to a personal level, Carla and I have been doing this work for thirteen years. And like I said, in the beginning, we were doing it because we couldn't do anything else. If there were any possibility whatsoever of doing anything else and living our life, we would've happily and quickly done so. The whole circumstance of our life together made it impossible for us to do anything but embark upon this adventure, kicking and screaming, not wanting to do it. Not thinking that anything would come of it. I mean, we got spiritual teachers roaming the land like an army of ants. One thing we really didn't need was one more spiritual teacher roaming the land competing for everybody's attention. That's the way I felt about it at the time.
And then, the years went by, things developed, understanding grew, and insights were clarified. What had actually been the case for me began to reveal itself. In the beginning, I had no idea what had happened to me. I've got a story about a great battle with the devil, and hell, and all that stuff back in the joint, but that's nothing, right?
And year after year, we've been meeting with people like you, really wonderful people all over this country and all over the world. And we have learned from that, just by engaging in these conversations. People coming and saying, "What do you think about God?" Or asking, "What do I do about this?" Or, "How should I feel about that?" Or, "What do I want about that?" And, "What does this mean?" And, as a result of those conversations throughout this thirteen-year period, we have moved closer and closer to feeling that it was actually possible to do something useful with this business.
Nothing about those thirteen years was our doing. Nothing about the way in which my understanding of what I did, and what it means, and what it means to other people, nothing about any of that was my doing or Carla's doing. It all happened within this environment of conversation, of suggestion and response, and working together with people. And it kind of knocks the breath out of me. Somehow, we actually have come to the solution. Nothing to do with me, really.
But one thing is certain, and that is that existence itself seems to want something. I don't know what, but it seems to want something. Existence itself, I mean, where did that come from? The existence of anything, where did that come from? One thing is certain to me, one thing that I cannot deny, and that is that there is a force, and that force is existence, I believe. There is a force that is moving in some direction, it's wanting something. And I think it is consciousness. There is no explanation for consciousness. You can explain the material world with the Big Bang. Of course, then you have to figure out where that came from, right? But still, consciousness has no purpose, nothing whatsoever to recommend it. Robots are better at feeding themselves and taking care of themselves than us, conscious human beings. We, conscious human beings afflicted with the fear of life, have a hard time even brushing our teeth without worrying about whether or not we are doing it right, and what it means to me, and what it means about me. And that's consciousness. Consciousness is what that is. But it seems to me that consciousness has about it this direction, this movement of clarifying.
I think that the existence of consciousness and the vast, undeniable mystery of existence itself is what has given rise to our belief in God. There is this that we know nothing about, this that we obviously can know nothing about, that seems to be running the show in the long run. Not in the short run. The tweaks, and so forth, that's us. But there seems to be something that is running the show, and it seems to have a direction, it seems to have a consistency about its intent that is kind of tasteable. And I think it is that which we have come to call God. And, of course, the fact that we denote this mystery as God has itself arisen from the presence of the fear of life. It has itself arisen in a human psychology, distorted and corrupted by the underlying foolishness that holds that life is dangerous, life is treacherous, life is not trustworthy. And, of course, the arising of the concept of God as an explanation for this mystery also fits very nicely into the whole project of the fearful development of the psychology, because then we have the possibility of explaining what happened to us. What happened to us is that somebody sinned against God. This business of sin is deep-seated in us. And it is deep-seated in us not because we so much believe in sinfulness, but because we so much need an explanation for why life sucks so bad. And that's an easy one.
So what I think is that we are a great mystery. Existence is a huge mystery about which nothing can be said. And what we have said about it is God, and immediately upon saying, "God," we have said, "Sin." And here we are.
In your presentation today, John, even though you used the word 'context' often to describe that state in which we are in fear of our own lives, you have gone to great lengths to avoid referring to any outside sources, any other philosophical ideas that would align it with other systems of thought.
Now, this act, which you call the looking, does seem to have a basis in other forms and other experiential human behaviors that have led to some connectivity with what we call the past, and our current self. Now, without going into describing what that phenomenon is that draws those connections, is there something unique about the act itself that makes it different than those other experiential behaviors that people have practiced throughout the years?
The main thing that makes the difference is that it works. You know, I was in the joint for eighteen years, and I had a lot of time to look into religion and philosophy, and I had a long period of entanglement in spiritual aspiration in the Advaita Vedanta realm. And what makes this different is that it works, and that doesn't. There is no question that this will ring bells in people's minds who have some spiritual experience, and it may sound like self-inquiry. But it's not self-inquiry.
Let me start at the beginning. All this happened around 5,000 years ago, maybe 8,000, when we turned away from the idea of forces and spirits and we got a little more sophisticated with our philosophical and spiritual ideas. So, there's the mystery. Okay, there's a mystery, and that means there's God. There's God, and then, there's religion. I also have experience with religion. Actually, I think religion is closer to reality than spiritual practices, to be frank. Not that it has any better chance of helping anybody, but it's just a little closer to reality, because it comes directly from that first misunderstanding, which denotes the mystery as some thing that has something to do with the fact that human life is so difficult.
It feels like the separation from God, the original sin, is the fear that you are talking about.
That's right, exactly. So, now, we got sin to deal with, and we got God to deal with, so we go with religion, and we have great religions arise throughout the world. And, of course, they are some of the most adept at slaughtering and murdering each other, but still... And out of those religions, in the hinterlands of those religions, in the offshoots of the religions, the rejects and the refugees from the religions start looking at things in a different way, and arrive at these advanced spiritual and philosophical insights into the nature of reality.
This happened everywhere, but I am most familiar with the advent of it in India, when the Aryans around the campfires in northern India began talking about these things and ended up with the Vedas, and then the Upanishads, and everything that has come up after that.
Now, here we are, in the 21st century, and we are aware of all of the really wondrous and magical utterances of the leading lights of the non-dual understanding. I'm speaking here primarily of the most recent arisings, people like Nisargadatta, Ramana, Papaji, and some of the others in that crew. But they are all trapped in this context of spiritual understanding, even Ramana Maharshi. And I guarantee you, he knew that he was not communicating anything that was really useful to anybody he was talking to. He knew that because he knew that when he went to the temple on Tiruvannamalai and his friend began bringing him all the spiritual books, like the Yoga Vasistha, and the Upanishads, and everything that he could dream up, his understanding of what had happened to him had been fixed and set in the context of spiritual understanding. So that everything he said, no matter how hard he tried, came out trailing the scent of spiritual understanding and spiritual aspiration. And the people who came to him, likewise, they came to him from a spiritual understanding, and from a spiritual context, and they heard everything he said as spiritual, even when he told them, "No, no." Like this guy, when he asked, "Bhagavan, why am I so this or that?" And Ramana replied, "If I am Bhagavan, you're Bhagavan. Ask yourself."
But no matter how hard Ramana tried, he could not break free of the stench of spiritual understanding, of prior abstractions about what actually had happened to him. So, if I say we're going to do self-inquiry in the manner of Ramana Maharshi, anybody who is familiar with Ramana immediately will think they know what I'm talking about. If I say it in another context, somebody else is going to know what I'm talking about as something else in that other context. So, now, everybody knows what I'm talking about, and anything I say is just bouncing off that bubble. You're right. I am very careful to avoid that terminology and that context. And the reason for it is because, in 5,000 years of effort working within that context, how many have been freed? Not many.
It's always hard to communicate to other human beings without using language that is referential.
Yes. But I'm learning, and you noticed that. Because what we're talking about here, and what Ramana was talking about is not spiritual ideas. We're talking about human life, for god's sake. We're talking about life as a human being, that's what we're talking about. And why is life as a human being so difficult? Is it because of original sin? Is it because Adam and Eve did what they did, and were thrown out of the Garden of Eden? Is it because the devil made me do it? I mean, really, why? I think I know why. But knowing why, even that doesn't do anything.
How all this happened, and how it came about, was that while I was in prison, I gained the awakening that is sought in the realm of spiritual aspiration. I gained that awakening. And I enjoyed a year of total bliss inside of prison. If you have experienced bliss, you know what I'm talking about. It's not what it sounds like, but I had that bliss for a year. For a year, everything was just fine. Everything was beautiful. It was just amazing. And then, after a year, some of my old neurotic psychological structures, which, of course, were just kind of smothered under this layer of bliss, trying their best to get out, came up. One thing led to another, and the bliss went away, and left me in hell, in the deepest despair that I've ever known.
And I was in a pretty good position, because I was in prison. And not only was I in prison, but I had been denied the right to work in prison, except that every day I had to go clean the bathroom in the staff lounge in the morning. That happened because I knew too much about computers, and they wouldn't let me go anywhere where there were computers. So I was in prison, I was in hell, and I had nothing whatsoever to do with myself except obsess and try to do something about that hell.
So I decided that the problem was not that I needed awakening. I didn't need enlightenment. I didn't need any of that stuff. I had had that, and it turned out to be not what I had expected. It had left me in this state. What I really needed was to become armored against the misery of human life. And by that I meant I had to find a way to disabuse myself of any hope whatsoever. I had to find a way to make it so that I could never again feel like there was something worth reaching for that might save me or make me feel better in any way at all. And since Ramana was the one I had the greatest respect for in that entire realm, in my whole life, actually, I decided that I needed to find a way to prove to myself beyond all doubt that what Ramana was trying to communicate was garbage. That it didn't work. If I could persuade myself of that, then I would be free of this endless need to find an answer.
So I decided to take on Ramana's self-inquiry. Not as a thing that I pretended was going to really fix me or anything, but truly take it on. And in doing that, I began to read from the beginning what Ramana himself had reported about his own experiences. Ramana was 16 years old when this happened to him. It was three years after his father had died, suddenly, at the age of 45. Ramana himself was an ordinary teenage boy, who went to the American school in Madurai. And he was lazy, and he played soccer, and he had no particular interest in religion or spirituality. At the time his father died, Ramana was 13, old enough to know what was going on and be frightened by it. Your father drops dead, and he's just 45 years old. Then, the next three years, Ramana spent obsessed with that. And there came a moment when he became overwhelmed with a huge fear of death, and he decided that what he needed to do was pretend to die. And that's what he did. He pretended to die. He lay down. He imagined that his breath would stop, and his heart would stop. He pretended to have rigor mortis; he stiffened all his joints. He pretended that consciousness was leaving his body. He pretended that he was being carried to the cremation pyre to be burned. And, in the course of that, something happened. I know what happened. He didn't at the time. But he got a taste of the actual reality of his nature, which has nothing to do with "Self," or consciousness, or any of that stuff. It has much more to do with the personal pronoun than anything else. And that changed him.
He then he went through a period of pretty intense recovery. After a few weeks, he stole some money and went to Tiruvannamalai, which was a very well-known center of spiritual activity and spiritual thought. He went there and hid in the temple. He said, This is where I have to go, Arunachala is calling to me. He went to the temple there. He stayed in the temple, had a lot of really terrible experiences with other kids, and had a hard time of it. Someone befriended him, and began bringing him those books, and Ramana tells us in his account of it that he read the books in order to understand what had happened to him. This, of course, was his first mistake. But he became extremely informed and erudite in the whole Advaita Vedanta realm of spiritual inquiry and spiritual understanding.
When, after a while, people started to come to him, because in that culture there is a great move to sanctify people and to bestow upon them the credentials of being a god-man, or Bhagavan, or whatever. And he started running away from them. He would hide in the caves of Arunachala. He would hide in a cave for a while, and then they would find him there, and then he would go to another cave, and they would find him there. Finally, they caught him, and they wouldn't let him get away. They built an ashram around him, and he would always talk about the fact that, "I don't know why they do this. I tell them not to do this stuff, and they go out and do it anyway." And he kind of made a comfortable life for himself. He enjoyed getting up in the morning, and washing vegetables for the people.
But when you read Nan Yar, which is the little pamphlet that he dictated to his friend, who was bringing him those books at the very beginning of his effort to understand what happened to him, the little pamphlet that is now called, Who Am I?, you will find that Ramana himself, when he describes what happened to him when he pretended to be dead, what he tells us is that he saw that all that remained was the "force of personality." That's shocking. I don't know how people just kind of skim over that: the force of personality. He didn't say all that remained was silent consciousness. He didn't say all that remained was true self. He didn't say that all that remained was emptiness, or anything of the kind. He said all that remained was the force of personality.
And in the end, it was that that saw me through, because in the end, what I did in that prison was what I tried to lead you through today. In all that intense effort, all that intense trying to get rid of the want, the desire, the yearning, trying everything I could think of to do what Ramana said, there came a time when I remembered this time when I was eight years old, and I had gone to a movie. I remembered the moment when I came out of the movie theater into the hot, New Jersey summer sun. There wasn't anything to it, I just remembered that moment, and I had a really strong feel that just shocked me. I saw that, no matter what was going on there, and no matter what's going on here, I felt the same as I did then. There was absolutely no difference between the way I felt then and the way I felt as a child. What it felt like to be me. And the rest has brought me here, after a long, and difficult, and winding road.
So, that's why I honor Ramana. But I don't talk about him usually, because he really is beside the point to this whole thing. The only point is you. That's the only point to this, you, the person-feeling of you. That's the point. Not me, not Ramana, not self-inquiry, not self-realization, not awakening, not enlightenment.
Just nuts and bolts questions about the act. How often does one do this? Daily? Every hour?
Whenever it occurs to you.
Whenever you're feeling that disconnect from life?
You can do this any time you want to. What I am certain of is that you will do it. You can do it in a way in which you just say, "Well, it will occur to me from time to time to do it, and that's when I'll do it." That's actually perfect. You can do it in a way, and some people do it this way, where they set aside a time and sit down, and they do a little bit of mindfulness training, and then they make a serious attempt to bring their attention directly in contact with the reality of their own person. Some people do it when they get crazy and they say, "Well, I'm going to sit down and do this."
A couple of minutes is all it takes?
I was sitting in my chair, and I flashed through ten things I could've chosen, like the birth of my son. I felt very differently when I was giving birth to my son, or when I first saw him, or was nursing him.
But that's the experiences. That's the sensations and emotional experiences.
I don't understand. Well, it's my first attempt here, I'm a novice. I couldn't separate the painful experience from the joyful, and I heard you say it is not about the content of that experience. But when you said, "the person," all I could get was the consciousness of me. I'm confused. I need more clarification.
That's because you are thinking about it, instead of doing it. I mean, you may have done it, but right now, you are thinking about it, instead of doing it. If you think about it, you will just get confused.
That's about the way it usually happens.
I'm serious. Thinking is good. I think all the time. It seems to have its way with me. But the thing to understand is that thinking about it isn't doing it. You may not even get any sense that you've done it. You may not have any experiential confirmation that anything has happened. But what you're trying to do is get just this sense of what it feels like to be you.
Not joy, sadness, pain, not the emotion I was feeling...
No. Just the underlying feel of you.
That word 'feel' for me goes right to emotion. To me, the word 'feel' is all about my emotions.
The sense of being me. I can do that one better. That one I can do.
If I tell you to touch your finger to your nose, there are a lot of things about that gesture that I have omitted, like all the muscular movements and the synapses that have to take place in order for that to happen. I haven't gone through all that, I haven't tried to direct your brain to make the correct connections, or tell you how it is that you have to separate this finger from the other finger, and then you have to lift it up to the nose level, and then move it toward you. I haven't said that. I've just said, Touch your nose with your finger. And, right away, that's what you did. It's the same. Touch you with your attention.
Got it. When this gentleman came up and said, "I noticed you avoided..." I thought for sure what he was going to say was that you never spoke of death. I was brought up one way; I went through a lot of Buddhist stuff, and this and that, and all over. And I've lost it all. I'm floating around saying, How can I be this old, and have lost everything?
Good luck, maybe. But I wonder if it isn't the fear of death, of annihilation of me, Joanne, the personality. I am not going to be here anymore someday, and I think the fear in life to me is of annihilation, whether it's literally that I'm going to get hit by a car and die, and there's gonna be pain in that, or my lover is going to leave me and that's going to be painful and I'm going to psychologically die, or I'm gonna just lose. It seems like it's all about loss, and the ultimate loss is death.
It's really interesting that you made that connection. The connection between your lover who left you, therefore you are going to psychologically die. What I mean by the fear of life is the sense that life is going to kill me. And that this event here is going to be the one. Oops, no, maybe this event here. No, this one here. No, that one there. No, it's this funny feeling in my chest. Oh, no, it's because nobody loves me.
That's what the fear of life does. It calls everything death. And the really funny thing about it is that what we choose to do about it is we try to die. We seek oblivion. We seek emptiness in the spiritual realm. We seek being drugged into unconsciousness. Even in the most advanced spiritual practices, what we're actually seeking is to return to the womb, to die. We're seeking to go back to sleep. We say, "Let's wake up," but what we really mean is, "Let's go back to sleep, this is too hard; this is too complicated; this is too scary." When we say let's wake up, and then we say, "Ohmmmm," that's not waking up. That's going back to sleep.
Waking up is here in this life, as it is. Not that's it not going to get you, but enjoying the ride. The fact that the death of the body is inevitable does not affect your enjoyment of the ride. The only reason it affects the enjoyment of the ride is because the fear of life has put the fear of death into you.
It's not the other way around?
Say it again, will you?
The fear of life has put the fear of death in you.
So you don't feel fear anymore?
Oh, I feel fear. If I go out there and a truck comes and almost hits me, I'm going to be scared to death. If I go to the doctor, and he tells me, "You've got six months to live," I'm going to be scared to death. But when the immediate cause of that fear goes away, as it always does, it doesn't matter what it is, the fear goes with it. There's nothing wrong with sensible, rational fear. Fear is an organic feature of being conscious. It's a way in which we can have our attention drawn quickly to something that might be threatening. But in a mind that is completely conditioned by the context of the fear of life, the atmosphere itself is the fear of life, and in that mind, everything is elevated to the same level of a profound threat, so that there's never a moment's rest. "Oh, is this it? Oh, no, is this it? Is this it? Oh, wait a minute, I don't know. Am I doing this right? Am I thinking right? No, I got the wrong idea here." That's what I mean. The fear of life puts the fear of death in you.
I sleep pretty well, but some nights I do awaken. That awakening in the middle of the night and the darkness is there, and there is this underlying anxiety, not a fear of anything in particular. Is that the same thing, the underlying anxiety?
That underlying anxiety is precisely the fear of life. That's the main symptom of the fear of life. And it's here always. When we are distracted during the day, we don't notice it. It is just this minor underlying hum. It's what the Buddha called dukkha. And it is what we now call anxiety. It is precisely anxiety. Anxiety is the presenting symptom of the fear of life, that continuous anxiety. I read somewhere recently that 65% of humanity is afflicted with anxiety and mood disorders. And that's only those who have received a diagnosis. The article says it takes an average of five trips to the doctor before you can get diagnosed with anxiety or a mood disorder. The whole species is afflicted with that.
I don't remember ever feeling fear when I was young. I could get angry, and I could be real sad. The older I'm getting, I'm feeling more fear and that really annoys me. I'm almost embarrassed to say it. After all the work I've done, all the seminars, all the religious stuff, the spiritual stuff, thousands of dollars spent, from the EST training to Esalen, and now I feel anxious? At this old age? How is that happening? It's supposed to be the other way. I'm supposed to be more at peace now. And in some ways, I am. But that anxiety, when it comes, I get meta-annoyed. I'm feeling anxiety and then I'm annoyed about the anxiety, which makes me angry.
I will tell you something else that's very interesting about anxiety, and you'll come to see this for yourself. I promise you, you will. That anxiety, that sensation, is actually the life force. It's called anxiety because it is painted by that name by the fear of life. That's what it's called, but it's the life force, which is what we fear. The whole thing is all wrapped up in this knot. But the knot dissolves once you look. Over time, over the next few weeks, you'll see that you will look again. You will go back and do it again. And instead of looking for the arrival of some new experience, some new state, some new way of being, look for things that don't show up anymore. Notice that there are some neurotic tics that just don't show up anymore, because that's what actually happens. It is not that some new thing comes.
Of course, we're all conditioned to look for some new state or understanding to arrive and fix everything. But that's not what happens, because you really don't need fixing. It's the apparatus that needs correcting. And the way it corrects itself is that these neurotic habits and points of view just don't show up anymore. Little by little, they just don't show up anymore. And then there comes the time when the field is mostly just ordinary, human life. Natural life just as it is, kind of our birthright, the experience of life itself. Most of the field is that. And then there are still these instances of neurotic arisings, but they become kind of amusing after a while. They are no longer your enemy. So, keep an eye out for that.
Thank you. How do we keep in touch with you, John? The website?
Go to JustOneLook.org, and everything is there. And you can e-mail me at email@example.com. JustOneLook.org is really easy to remember. There are a lot of podcasts, there are blogs, and there is, above all else, the forum, which is now populated by people who are in various stages of recovery from this disease. And by people who have passed through the recovery and are helping others — without reference to anything else, except this looking.
Thank you for your time and attention.