Interview from 2005
Q. Richard, can I start by asking you what you mean by awakening and liberation?
A. Awakening for this character was a split second event. In that split second what was seen clearly was that there is no-one, there is no person. The personal identity simply dropped away suddenly and completely and what was left was awareness without any person mediating it. Nisargadatta says that seeing ‘I’ am nothing is wisdom.
This is an astonishing event because however old you may be when this happens, for however many years there’s been self-consciousness, there has always been a person present. Every phenomenon that has been registered by consciousness has been mediated and experienced by a person, a person who has coloured each moment of awareness. That sense of a person will not have been noticed precisely because it has been ever present. It’s like living in an environment that you’ve lived in all you life without noticing the scenery because it’s always been there. It’s just taken for granted. This is only a metaphor but in a way that’s what the sense of being a person is like. It’s taken for granted to such an extent that it isn’t even noticed until it suddenly drops away.
When the person drops away nothing changes. What is suddenly seen has always been there. Everything remains as it is, so in a sense this is much less interesting than taking hallucinogenic drugs, or even getting drunk or stoned. These all produce quite interesting phenomena (laughs). But when the person drops away there’s no change in the phenomena whatsoever and yet it is a staggering event. Suddenly it’s seen that the person and their personal experiences are completely irrelevant. There is the sudden seeing that your whole life has been an illusion, a kind of conjuring trick. Oneness plays a trick on itself to convince itself that it’s separate, that it exists in one place which is separate from all other places.
I’m describing awakening as if it’s something that happens but it’s important to stress that, however paradoxical or mysterious this sounds, actually nothing happens. I mean that in both senses of the phrase. For the first time ever in this apparent life nothing is seen to be happening. Nothing is seen to be creating all of this. And so although it has to be talked about as an event that appears to happen in time let me emphasise that it’s not a personal experience because there is nobody there having the experience.
In that split second of awakening it is seen that this is timeless eternity. This is nothing manifesting as everything in timeless eternity. Then a split second later in the story of time the person is back and everything is just as it was before. Except that the person’s mouth may be hanging open in astonishment and they may be thinking “What the hell was that?” And that’s it, it’s over. That’s awakening. It didn’t happen to me. It simply happened and this character is here talking about it. There may be other ways of awakening but that’s how it was here and that’s how I’ve heard other people describe it.
For this character awakening happened in a very spiritual place, at Charing Cross Station (laughs). If people want to make pilgrimages there it was Platform Five. It’s only Platform Five that has this power. What happened for this character is that things were never the same after that. It’s as if there’s an enormous release of energy in that split second event and when the person comes back, although they may still be unhappy and they may still be seeking, irrevocable changes have taken place. Parts of the person never come back.
When Richard came back, Richard was still an unhappy person in some ways and was definitely still seeking, but nevertheless the past was seen through. Although the person was back it was seen that the past is unreal. Out of that seeing, regret and guilt, which had been habitual patterns for this person, lessened. They loosened their grip and dropped away to quite an extent. But there was still definitely a sense of separation here. Part of the problem of coming back was that I had very much been a spiritual seeker. For thirty years I had been seeking, mostly through spiritual means but also through psychotherapeutic means and I had been pretty successful at making my prison more comfortable. Meditation and other transpersonal techniques and psychotherapeutic processes such as forgiving my parents and expressing my anger had succeeded quite well in creating a more comfortable prison.
Spiritual searching had also provided life with a meaning and it had structured quite a lot of my time. I was able to go to meetings. I was able to follow gurus. I was able to give talks to people about spiritual matters. But after awakening all of this was seen through. There was still a person here feeling separate and unhappy but all the methods that I’d used for thirty years to make things better, to make this person feel that they were developing along a spiritual path, were all seen through. I couldn’t engage with those methods any longer and so they just stopped. So now there was still seeking but there was seeking in a vacuum because it was seen that none of the methods of seeking made sense any more.
It is sometimes said that awakening can bring about a feeling that you are in a desert because everything that was previously believed in may be stripped away. In the story of time a year passed by during which I was very much in the desert and still felt separate but it was no longer felt in any way that meditation or psychotherapeutic processes or transpersonal techniques had any relevance anymore. In other places I’ve talked about this as a period of hopelessness, helplessness and meaninglessness. You are without hope because it is seen that there is nothing that can move you forward. You are still unhappy but it’s known now that there’s no process which might bring about an end to your unhappiness. So there’s no hope at all. Equally there is no help. There’s no method which offers help and there’s no person who can offer help. There’s no belief anymore that for example sitting at the feet of the guru will somehow bring about an end to separation. The things that gave meaning to this life before are now seen to be meaningless. So hope, help and meaning are gone.
(Laughs) I could say that this is a very blessed state because hope, help and meaning can be seen as terrible impediments. Perhaps it’s unwise for me to say this because it can sound like a method, a suggestion that you should give up hope, help and meaning. But of course there is no one who can do this. Nevertheless it can be a great blessing if they fall away. But it can also leave you in an empty and painful place.
Q. So can you say something about liberation?
A. What happened about a year later was another event. Again this happened in the most prosaic setting. It was actually in a shop in the country town where I live. I can’t mention its name. They’ve asked me not to mention its name because they don’t want to be besieged by hundreds of people (laughs). They can’t handle the flowers that are laid there. I was standing in this shop when the person disappeared again but this time in a more gentle way and within the story for a longer period of time. Again this was not an experience. It was not something that happened to a person in time but nevertheless we have to use language to talk about it so let me try to describe it even though it’s indescribable.
What was seen in that disappearance was that awareness is everything and everywhere. There is only awareness and awareness arises as everything. So ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘now’ and ‘then’, all lost their meaning. Awareness was seen to be both where the person was and where the walls were and in the space in between. Actually separation was seen to be non-existent so it is misleading to talk about a separate person and walls and the space in between. And there’s no way I can explain the next thing I’m going to say. All I can do is report on it. What was seen as well was that awareness is also unconditional love. Everything is unconditional love. This is undeniable when liberation is seen.
This way of seeing lasted for a certain amount of time during which all sense of localisation ended. So there was no person anywhere, there was simply awareness. There was no sense at all of a separate person. Yet the physical body was able to negotiate space without bumping into things with no difficulty (laughs). Then after a time the sense of localisation returned and there was once more a body-mind occupying a particular space. But the sense of a contracted separate individual, the sense of separation, had ended. I can’t explain this, all I can do is report on it. Although the sense of a localised body-mind returned, there was no sense after that of searching for anything anymore. Seeking had ended. It was seen that there was nothing to seek. What could there be to seek when there is already only liberation and ‘I’ am already that. ‘I’ am already the light in which everything arises and so are you.
Because of various spiritual traditions and their stories about enlightened masters, we may think of a person after liberation who manifests complete equanimity no matter what happens, a person with no likes, no dislikes and no preferences. We may have an idealised concept of a person who never feels anger or fear or sorrow, living in an undifferentiated state of bliss. This is just an invention of the mind. Its purpose, if we can speak of it as having a purpose, is to keep us seeking by reaffirming our own sense of inadequacy by comparison. We know that we don’t live in a state of constant bliss so we feel inadequate and we go on seeking.
What happens when searching ends is simply that searching ends. We could say that the person ends, the person dies. That’s quite a dramatic way of putting it but it has a certain accuracy about it. But there is still a character and also feelings, preferences, likes and dislikes. It is just that these are seen no longer to belong to anyone. So rather than there being a person who gets angry, it’s seen that anger simply arises. Rather than there being a person who likes coffee and doesn’t like tea, it’s now seen that a liking for coffee and a dislike of tea arises, but for no one.
However it is likely that the seeing of liberation may bring about changes in the character that is left. It’s likely, although not inevitable, that what may remain after liberation is a character who manifests less neurosis than they did before. Neurosis arises out of dissatisfaction and searching. When dissatisfaction and searching end and it is seen that this is all there is, that this is already paradise, there’s not much scope for neurosis to arise anymore. Of course anything can manifest in liberation so it’s certainly not impossible for neurosis to arise. But it’s not likely that it will. It’s the same with boredom. It’s possible for boredom to arise in liberation but when this is seen to be paradise everything becomes fascinating, so it’s unlikely that the character will be bored.
Neurosis and boredom are experiences of the personal mind and in liberation these phenomena are likely to die away. But you still might have a character who gets angry if they phone up a company and they are put on hold for fifteen minutes by an answering machine. You still might have a character who feels sad when their children leave home. All of these things may still arise but they don’t arise for a person anymore. They are just seen to be phenomena happening in awareness.
What also tends to be felt is a kind of continuous wonder at the miracle that is everything, the miracle that is a cup of coffee or a leaf falling from a tree in the park or the sound of a car going by. When this is experienced as a continuous miracle, neurosis can’t really get a grip. One way I’ve heard this put which I like is that, although anything can arise in liberation including uncomfortable thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, there’s nobody there who is taking any interest in these things anymore. So they just tend to arise and quickly die away again. Nisargadatta says that the world is full of hoops but the hooks are all ours. And in liberation somehow those hooks simply dissolve.
A. You have said that there is no process that can lead us to liberation. This seems to conflict with all spiritual tradition. How can it be true?
This is a very important question because it really confronts the whole notion of spiritual seeking and the addiction of the seeker to the belief that there is a state that can be attained and that there are methods which can enable you to reach it. Let’s call that state ‘personal enlightenment’. The spiritual seeker tends to believe in the possibility of personal enlightenment and has as an idea that there is a person who can eventually reach this through a process of self-improvement. He or she may believe that this process might take a few years or it might take a few life times. This is the notion that fuels a great deal of spiritual seeking, no matter which path or method is being followed.
The core impulse behind this notion is the feeling that right now I am inadequate. I recognise that I am not enlightened and of course I’m correct in this because nobody is enlightened. There is no such thing as an enlightened person. Neither you nor I nor anyone else will ever be an enlightened person. But the seeker has this belief that there is something called personal enlightenment and that there are holy figures out there, perhaps wandering around in robes looking ascetic, perhaps with long beards or with shaven heads, who have achieved that state.
If I am a seeker I will probably believe that there is a process whereby I, a person who is not yet enlightened, can become one of these saintly beings. Usually there will also be the belief that when I become enlightened I will get great rewards. I will become all knowing, wise and deeply compassionate. I will be respected and revered ……
Q. Charismatic ……
A. Perhaps charismatic. I will have an enormous golden aura. (Laughs) I nearly said “golden ego”. That’s my Freudian slip for today. I will have an enormous golden aura which will attract people to me and they will revere me and sit at my feet and I in my turn will be able to guide them along the path to enlightenment. Perhaps more importantly I will be tremendously envied by all my friends.
Some version of this story is held as a core belief by many seekers. This is the story of becoming, of the treadmill of spiritual paths, of spiritual evolution. The story is that there is a person here and this person, through their efforts, through wiping out their past karma, through their great humility and through the grace of the guru can attain this state of enlightenment.
Actually even in a split second of awakening, if there is complete accuracy in reporting what is seen, without a doubt it is seen that there is no one, that the person is an appearance, a kind of illusion. But when the person comes back they can reject this. Very often they will reject it and go back to their spiritual seeking. Nevertheless what is seen in awakening is that there is no person who has ever done anything.
No person has ever followed a spiritual path because there is no one. No person has ever earned grace because there is no one. No person has ever followed a true guru and received the mantra that will raise their spiritual vibration to the level of enlightenment because there is no one. This is seen absolutely in that split second of awakening. But when the person comes back they can deny this and very often they will deny it. Then they may return to their spiritual path, their guru and their devotion. There’s nothing wrong with this but there’s no person who is getting closer to liberation because of it. This is seen in awakening and after awakening, when the person comes back, it can be acknowledged or it can be denied. It’s completely meaningless which happens. It doesn’t matter which happens but those are the two possibilities.
Then when liberation is seen there is an end to all searching. In liberation there is no possibility any more of there being a person who believes themself to be inadequate and who believes that they can make themself adequate through spiritual work such as meditation or devotion or study or any of the other yogas. What is seen in liberation is that there is no one who could do any of this and there is no one that any of this could have an effect on.
As there is no person, thirty years of meditation cannot purify the person. There is no one to be purified. Liberation brings about the absolute end to searching because it’s seen that there’s no person, there’s no separation and there’s nothing to search for. There can’t be anything to search for when it’s seen that this is all there is. There’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing to find, this is already it. This is already paradise.
Q. But you have said that as long as there’s a person there must be searching. What do you mean by that?
A. When a baby is born it has no sense of separation but it also has no self-consciousness. At a certain point, as soon as self-consciousness arises, the baby becomes a person. They become a person because with self-consciousness a sense of separation arises. From then on there’s also personal fear and vulnerability. As soon as I perceive myself to be separate I can feel threatened by other people or by circumstances. So I need to begin to protect myself, to protect my autonomy.
From the moment of separation it is felt that there is something missing and this is because there is something missing. What is missing is the sense of oneness into which I was born, the sense of unity. And so the person starts searching. What they are searching for is an end to the feeling of separation, an end to the feeling of personal vulnerability and fear. But this search can take many different forms and most of these forms won’t involve a conscious spiritual search or a conscious search for unity.
Instead the search will arise out of a sense of dissatisfaction with whatever is seen to be going on in this, in presence. There will be a search for some kind of comfort and if that comfort is found, dissatisfaction will arise again fairly quickly and then the search will start again for something else. For example the search might be for physical comfort, security, wealth, excitement or a relationship. Most people will go through the standard ways of trying to make their life feel o.k. The fact is that once there is the sense of a separate person, it will be felt that this isn’t it. Everything might even be going along pretty satisfactorily and in that case it will just be felt that this isn’t quite it. It’s almost it but if only I could just tweak it a bit then it would really be it.
We could describe the unfolding life of a person as simply a number of attempts to turn a life which is felt to have something missing into a life which is felt to be full and satisfying. And that never happens. At least it never happens for long. One reason for this is that we have contradictory and conflicting impulses. If life somehow arranges itself so that one of my impulses is satisfied this will more or less automatically mean that another of them won’t be satisfied.
For example at some point in my life I may become aware of yearning deeply for a relationship. There may be a feeling of incompleteness and of wanting to unite with another person. If I manage to achieve this it probably won’t be very long before another yearning makes itself felt which might be a yearning for more independence or to unite with a different person. As long as I’m fulfilling my need for closeness with someone my sense of independence may be threatened. And as long as I’m fulfilling my need for independence I may not be fulfilling my need to be close to someone. You could say that there’s an inbuilt dissatisfaction in the very game itself.
The person will always be searching in different ways to overcome their sense of dissatisfaction or separation. The usual ways of searching include acquiring an education, getting a job, making money, getting into a relationship, creating a home, having children, seeking out adventures of one kind or another, travelling, acquiring goods like clothes and cars. We may go through periods in our lives when we feel that our sense of dissatisfaction can only be healed if we find the perfect IKEA sofa or if we trade in our Ford and buy a BMW instead.
For some people however separation is felt more as a sense of dissatisfaction with their internal state. These people might try to heal this through psychotherapy or personal development. There are so many means on offer now in the personal growth movement and the psychotherapeutic bazaar. The same people at a different time in their life, or other people, might be drawn to following spiritual paths; to meditation, to devotion, to chanting, to sitting with gurus. The list is endless. The list of things that we will try in the hope that they will bring about an end to the sense of separation, this core dissatisfaction with whatever is actually the case, is absolutely endless. They are legion, the methods that the mind will invent, the paths that the mind will tell stories about.
In a way the only difference between my trying to end my sense of dissatisfaction by finding the perfect sofa and my trying to end it by following a spiritual path is that the second involves a more self-conscious searching. In the second there may be an awareness that I have a desire to heal the core sense of separation within me, whereas if I’m buying a sofa there’s usually not a great deal of self-conscious searching in that. I am probably just aware that I want to make my bum more comfortable. But they are both equally valid and invalid, meaningful and meaningless. It makes no difference which I do because neither of them will bring about the healing of the sense of separation.
I’m hesitating over saying the next bit because I don’t want it to sound like a method. I should issue a health warning about it (laughs). If we are self-consciously seeking and we’ve had our psychotherapy and our spiritual healing, devoted ourselves to a guru, practised Buddhism and danced our way around the New Age bazaar, then it’s possible that out of the continual sense of frustration and disappointment that arises and out of the realisation finally that none of this works, that none of this does heal the sense of separation, there can be a giving up arising out of that. And out of that giving up perhaps the simple seeing of this can happen.
But of course it’s unwise for me to say this because it could be taken as a suggestion that there is a method, which is that you immerse yourself in as many spiritual paths as you possibly can until you discover that none of them work and then maybe awakening will happen. And that’s not true. This isn’t a method because there is no person who can choose to immerse themselves in lots of different spiritual paths. All we can say is that meditating on the grace of the guru may arise or it may not. There is nobody who can choose that.
So there is dissatisfaction, the feeling that this isn’t it. There is the sense that this is not the promised paradise, the promised paradise is always sometime in the future. This leads to searching. There’s nothing wrong with any of the different ways of searching. Indeed within the story of a person living a life many of these ways of searching can make that life much more comfortable, whether it’s shopping for a sofa and then finding that your bum feels more comfortable while you’re watching television, or doing psychotherapy and then finding that your emotional life feels more comfortable after you have forgiven your parents, or following a spiritual path and then finding that your daily life feels more comfortable when you’re in touch with the love of the Divine Mother or the grace of the guru.
Any of these ways of searching may lead to a person being more comfortable. But that is all you get. You get a person being more comfortable in their prison. If you are in prison, it’s far better to be comfortable, for your prison to have a soft sofa and incense burning in the corner. But that doesn’t get the person out of the prison they perceive themselves to be in.
Nothing will get the person out of their prison because the person is the prison. When the person drops away then it is seen that there never was a prison in the first place.
Q. Richard, why do you say that it is impossible to describe non-duality using language?
The problem with using language is that language is by its nature dualistic. Language can only refer to phenomena – to thoughts, emotions, sensations and objects. Language describes the world of the appearance in which everything is perceived to be separate. There is no language which can describe non-duality and there’s no possibility of there being such a language. It’s not a limitation of the kind of language we use, it’s a limitation of the nature of language itself. The best that language can do is to describe duality and then say that non-duality is not that. But of course that doesn’t get us very far.
The seeing of non-duality, that there is no separation, cannot be expressed in language. Language can only hint at it. However concepts about non-duality can be expressed endlessly in language with ever-evolving complexity. The more subtle the mind that is expressing these ideas, the more evolved and complex they tend to become. Many of these ideas are profoundly misconceived. The most common of these misconceptions is the idea that there is someone who can do something to heal their sense of separation; in other words that there is a person who is able to discover that they are not a person.
The complete absurdity of this idea is often camouflaged by highly complex and subtle thinking. So you can have a communication which expresses very seductive ideas about non-duality, presenting it as something which can be realised through an evolutionary spiritual path. These ideas have no actual connection with non-duality but they may offer us a very convincing, although completely meaningless, story about it.
Of course most people have no interest in non-duality or in communicating about it. They prefer to get on with things which are more interesting (laughs) such as studying Buddhist philosophy or working out which horse might win the 3.30 race tomorrow. And where non-duality is talked about, miscommunication is far more common than clear communication.
This is partly because miscommunication about non-duality is often more interesting because it can involve wonderful stories about spiritual processes and a person gradually becoming purer and wiser in all sorts of fascinating ways. There is simply a lot more to talk about in the miscommunication of non-duality. We can discuss all the techniques for evolving spiritually, purification through work and devotion, the development of compassion and how to be here now – all the usual stories of spiritual becoming.
If we bring in Tantric Sex or beings from other realms such as spirit guides, gods and angels, these stories become even more interesting. We can fill an entire imaginative universe and this seems much more fascinating than a simple cup of coffee or a leaf falling from a tree in autumn. But of course it is only filling an imaginative universe. There’s nothing wrong with this and there’s nothing right with it. It is simply what it is. It is just what arises for some people.
But none of the paths of spiritual development which it is recommended that a person follow in order to discover that they are unreal has anything to do with non-duality. One of the problems with communicating about non-duality clearly is that there is not very much in it for the mind to find interesting or to get hold of and so the mind is quite likely to find it rather dull. The mind would much rather listen to magical stories about spiritual evolution and adventures on the path towards an imagined personal enlightenment.