It is literally right before your eyes in every moment. When you turn attention upon itself and look for the thinker of your thoughts, the absence of any center to consciousness can be glimpsed immediately. It can’t be found by going deeper. To go deep—into the breath or any other phenomenon you can notice—is to start looking out the window at the trees.
The trick is to become sensitive to what consciousness is like the instant you try to turn it upon itself. In that first instant, there’s a gap between thoughts that can grow wider and become more salient. The more it opens, the more you can notice the character of consciousness prior to thought. This is true whether it’s ordinary consciousness—you standing bleary-eyed in line at Starbucks—or you’re in the middle of a three-month retreat and your body feels like it’s made of light. It simply doesn’t matter what the contents of consciousness are. The self is an illusion in any case.
The crucial gesture is to attempt to turn attention upon itself and notice what changes in that first instant. Again, it’s not a matter of going deep within. You don’t have to work up to this thing. It’s a matter of looking for the looker and in that first moment noticing what consciousness is like. Once you notice that it is wide open and unencumbered by the feeling of self, that very insight becomes the basis of your mindfulness.
What Sam described there is indeed something that can be glimpsed in an instant, but he may have overlooked the fact that he’s been meditating in one form or another since the age of 19. Even though he’s right that technically, this kind of awakening is not a gradual, step-by-step process, it might be unlikely that his awakening would have taken hold without the benefit of the foundation he’d already laid with his years-long meditation practice.
He does know the struggle that can be so common amongst us seekers, however: namely, it’s this persistent idea that we’re terribly unenlightened and that we must embark on some multi-step, multi-year process involving meditation retreats and other trials in order to dispel our sense that the self is real.
The non-dual truth is that consciousness is already free of this thing we think we have in our heads—the ego, the thinker of thoughts, the grumpy homunculus. And the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness can be recognized, right now, before you make any effort to be free of the self through goal-oriented practice. Once you have recognized the way consciousness already is, there is still practice to do, but it’s not the same as just logging your miles of mindfulness on the breath or any other object of perception.
Dan asked what practical purpose it serves to see that the self is an illusion, particularly when so few people even consider the nature of the self at all. Sam agreed that it was “a more esoteric concern,” but also asserted that it was a more fundamental one. He made a distinction between mindfulness practices that are meant to illuminate the illusoriness of the self, versus those that are applied in a clinical context (e.g. to help someone’s performance, reduce stress, or in psychotherapy as a means to recover from past trauma). He acknowledged that some people might just want to feel some relief from stress, and that not everyone is motivated to look beyond the sense of self that’s experiencing the stress in the first place. However:
“…if you’re practicing mindfulness or some other form of meditation as a remedy for this discomfort, you are bound to approach it in the same dilemma-based way that you approach everything else in life. You’re out of shape, so you go to the gym. You feel a little run down, so you go to the doctor. You didn’t get enough sleep, so you drink an extra cup of coffee. We’re constantly bailing water in this way. Mindfulness becomes a very useful tool to help yourself feel better, but it isn’t fundamentally different from any of these other strategies when we use it that way.
For instance, many of us hate to be late and find ourselves rushing at various points in the day. This is a common pattern for me: I get uptight about being late, and I can feel the cortisol just dump into my bloodstream. It’s possible to practice mindfulness as a kind of remedy for this problem—to notice the feeling of stress dispassionately, and to disengage from one’s thoughts about it—but it is very hard to escape the sense that one is using mindfulness as an antidote and trying to meditate the unpleasant feelings away. Technically, it’s not true mindfulness at that point, but even when one is really balanced with one’s attention, there is still the feeling that one is patiently contemplating one’s own neurosis. It is another thing entirely to recognize that there is no self at the center of this storm in the first place.
The illusoriness of the self is potentially of great interest to everyone, because this false construct really is our most basic problem in every moment. But there is no question that this truth is harder to communicate than the benefits of simply being more self-aware, less reactive, more concentrated, and so forth.
Dan and Sam went on briefly to discuss the Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra I mentioned earlier. It was during that debate that Dan had learned that Sam was a meditator, and afterwards acquiesced to Sam’s recommendation to go on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. After four or five days of pain and mental drudgery on that retreat, Dan had a pleasant breakthrough:
Dan: it felt as if I had been dragged by my head by a motorboat for a few days, and then, all of the sudden, I got up on water skis. When you’re hauled kicking and screaming into the present moment, you arrive at an experience of the mind that is, at least for me, totally new. I could see very clearly the ferocious rapidity of the mind—how fast we’re hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, wanting—and that this is our life. We are on the receiving end of this fire hose of mental noise. That glimpse ushered in the happiest 36 hours of my life. But, as the Buddha liked to point out, nothing lasts—and that did not last.
Sam: It’s amazing to realize for the first time that your life doesn’t get any better than your mind is: You might have wonderful friends, perfect health, a great career, and everything else you want, and you can still be miserable. The converse is also true: There are people who basically have nothing—who live in circumstances that you and I would do more or less anything to avoid—who are happier than we tend to be because of the character of their minds. Unfortunately, one glimpse of this truth is never enough. We have to be continually reminded of it.
They expanded on this paradox through a discussion of the Pali term dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering” in English but which for scholars has a more nuanced meaning. I liked Dan’s off-the-cuff summation: “The Buddhist concept describes the truth of our existence, which is that nothing is ever ultimately satisfying.”
Sam is a trained martial artist himself, and I suspect that he approaches his own mind training with a similar way. He thinks training the mind through meditation makes sense “because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience. To remain unaware of this machinery—in particular, the automaticity of thought—is to simply be propelled by it into one situation after another in which you struggle to find lasting fulfillment amid conditions that can’t provide it.”
The interview continued with a discussion about the most common psychological barriers to a regular meditation practice. They agreed that the best way to overcome those barriers is simply by experiencing its benefits after starting the practice. However, Sam took some issue with the comparison between meditation and exercise, with the former meant to strengthen the mind and the latter meant to strengthen the body. He explained:
Truly learning to meditate is not like going to the gym and putting on some muscle because it’s good for you and makes you feel better. There’s more to it than that. Meditation—again, done correctly—puts into question more or less everything you tend to do in your search for happiness. But if you lose sight of this, it can become just another strategy for seeking happiness—a more refined version of the problem you already have.
Dan admitted guilt to using the exercise analogy repeatedly in order to “get people in the door.” He clearly feels that non-duality has the potential to become truly transformative in society, and yet he has felt frustrated by how difficult it is to express it in a way that everyone can understand. He returned to Eckhart Tolle, wondering if anybody really understands what he’s saying, no matter how many millions of books he has sold.
Sam used that as the basis to question “how to evaluate the results of a spiritual practice.” He acknowledged that it’s tremendously difficult to judge, but that from the inside, the evidence is clear: “Each person has to run the experiment in the laboratory of his own mind to know that there’s anything to this.”
They continued with a short discussion on the nature of spiritual teachers and gurus in general, and how to assess “whether they’re full of crap or not.” Dan felt that generally, he did not get the sense that Eckhart Tolle was full of crap. Sam replied: “As distinct, say, from our friend with the rhinestone glasses…”
“Correct,” Dan replied. “I think I say in the book that I had no questions about whether Tolle was authentic, although I had many questions about whether he was sane. It was the reverse with Deepak Chopra.”
Sam responded with what he characterized as a once-in-a-decade rise to Deepak’s defense. He acknowledged that Deepak may well have had transformative experiences in meditation that still managed not “to smooth out the quirks in his personality.” He continued: “We will inevitably judge him by the silly things he says and the arrogance with which he says them.”
Sam more or less concluded the interview with the following:
I’ve learned, as a result of my humbling encounters with my own mind, to charitably discount everyone else’s psychopathology. So if a spiritual teacher flies into a rage or even does something starkly unethical, that is not, from my point of view, proof that he or she is a total fraud. It’s just evidence that he or she is spending some significant amount of time lost in thought. But that’s to be expected of anybody who’s not “fully enlightened,” if such a rarefied state is even possible. I’m not saying that every guru is worth listening to—I think most aren’t, and some are genuinely dangerous. But many talented contemplatives can appear quite ordinary. And, unfortunately, cutting through the illusion of the self doesn’t guarantee that you won’t say something stupid at the next opportunity.
I deeply appreciate that sort of humility so clearly stated. It also reflects a character trait I admire. It’s probably logical to surmise that Sam’s ability to see the illusoriness of his self is a direct precursor to his ability not to take other peoples’ psychopathology so seriously and/or react to it overly personally or strongly.
If he can keep that up most of the time, it must have an enormous impact on his interpersonal relationships. Imagine holding that basic fact in the forefront of your awareness as you encounter that BMW driver who just cut you off in traffic, or that customer service agent who won’t show you any respect, or that whining child who won’t stop tugging at your sleeve, or that narcissistic boss who keeps taking credit for your work…