Value of Headlessness

On the Value of Headlessness

Recently, a friend asked my opinion on the value of Douglas Harding’s work. Specifically, how could a method relying on perception be an “experience” of the Absolute? In other words, what is the ultimate validity of an experience that occurs through the body? Is such an experience an artifact of the body, and therefore destined to vanish with the death of the body?

This is a valid question and one I asked when first exposed to a Harding workshop. If it takes my eyes to see I have no head (that I am the space in which all occurs), then what will I be when I have no eyes? How will I know of my spaciousness? Of course, Harding has developed experiments for the blind, but still the experiments rely on the senses.

This line of thought leads to the question, “What technique does not utilize the body?” Everything we do is accomplished through the medium of the body. Every experience requires a body, a mind, an “I” in order to be known.

Therefore, I do not equate the experience of Harding’s Seeing of Headlessness with the Absolute/Final Realization/God/Truth. However, the Seeing is a doorway to an experience that is not an experience. All doors are formed of the body and mind. All doors are of the human dimension. Yet where does a door lead? A door leads to another place; in this case, a place that is not a place at all. A door leads out, away, and beyond. The body may recognize that which is beyond itself. The body may stand at the edge of the void, and come to accept that it is not the All, that the body is but a tiny thing and that home is through the door.

For some, the body may not accept so easily. Harding’s experiments may instill the Great Doubt that haunts the body. With the Great Doubt comes the great search and with great honesty may come the undeniable presence of truth. The body is carried kicking and screaming, by the mechanism of one’s lifestyle and an uncontrived acceptance, into Headlessness.

I now recognize that I have no head and that where I had a head is now infinite depth — a depth that leads to utter silence and dark waters upon which no thing moves. Painted upon this is the world of experience and of all things — which are but a part of me. Do not take my word. As Harding says, “Look for yourself.”

Douglas Harding Experiments

Here are three imitation Douglas Harding experiments:

The Point That Doesn’t Exist
An experiment in headlessness by Shawn Nevins

Recently, a friend shared some of Douglas Harding’s experiments in headlessness. In one classic experiment, we pointed to a wall, then the floor, our feet, knees, stomach, chest, then pointed to the space out of which we were looking. If you are honest about what you see when you point at the place where you assume there is a head, you may be surprised by the change in perspective.

After the experiment, I somewhat absentmindedly pointed to the wall again, then — skipping the intervening steps — rotated my finger 180 degrees. I was immediately struck by the evidence presented by this simple movement: where was the point at which the first-person view (awareness) ended and “the other” or “the wall” began?

This experiment works best for those who have already experienced some of Harding’s experiments. Here it is in detail:
1. Point at a wall or any other object. Notice that the object seems to be “out there,” a thing apart from you.
Douglas Harding experiments2. Next, slowly rotate your finger 180 degrees till you are pointing at that space from which you look out. That feature-less, all-encompassing space. Who you are at center, as Douglas would say.

3. Finally, slowly rotate your finger back toward the wall. Watch very carefully and try to locate the point at which the “other” begins. Try to find the point at which you are no longer pointing at awareness, but are instead pointing at something else. Is it when you are not pointing at the “center” of your center? Is it when you point ten degrees off of dead center? twenty degrees? twenty-seven degrees?

Is there “the other” or does the first-person awareness extend outward and encompass all things? Try as you might, can you ever find where “you” ends and “other” begins? Isn’t pointing outward the same experience as pointing in?

Here is an extension to this experiment provided by a reader:

I followed your link to your discussion of Douglas Harding about pointing at the wall and then at– well, at what? I liked your suggestion to gradually move the finger that is pointing at your own face and see where it changes from pointing at “me” to pointing at “other.” When I was pointing the finger at my face, it was as if, in order for this to make sense, my consciousness had to re-locate to my finger so that my face could become “other.”

Then I did something weird… and I’d like to add this mind-blowing suggestion to this sequence: while pointing at your own face, get a real sense of being the finger pointing at that which seems to be “you.” Then with your other hand, point at the wall. You now have one hand pointing at your face and one hand pointing at the wall. Where in this are you? Is your awareness now located in your two hands?

Behind and Beyond
Another experiment in headlessness

Some friends and I had a retreat that included several of Douglas Harding’s experiments. I don’t know the name of the experiment, but it’s the one where each person draws their self from first person perspective. You draw exactly what you see of your self (not what you imagine) and all wind up with a headless drawing like (or somewhat like) this:


Next, we stood in a circle and each person placed their drawing in the circle, the drawing’s feet facing outward and the headless portion facing inward. What you discover is a representation of the Atman and Brahman: people emanating from the Void; sharing a common source. It is a powerful experiment, yet one we modified in two ways.

First, everyone turned around so we were still in a circle, but facing outward. We combined this with the inward pointing finger: looking inward, pointing at our true self, what was behind us but shared space? It was viscerally real, like experiencing Wren-Lewis’ description of the back of his head being sawn off and open to the dazzling dark.

Next, someone suggested we reverse the pictures so the feet faced inward and the headless portion faced outward. The people in the circle once again faced inward. For some, this variation was more suggestive of the true state of things. “Nothingness sitting on top of a body dropping out of a Void,” is how one friend described it.

These modifications of Harding’s work were not planned, inspiration just appeared in an open, playful mood and we “gave it a try.” I suggest others do the same, and keep sharing.

Heads Everywhere and Nowhere
A further experiment in headlessness

For some time, I couldn’t reconcile Harding’s teachings with the fact that I could feel my head. It seemed pretty obvious, on present evidence as Harding would say, that something was sitting on top of my shoulders. When doing Harding’s spectacles experiment, for example, the spectacles would eventually collide with something solid which seemed to be a head. Here’s an experiment for those of you who share my hard-headedness.

1. Close your eyes.

2. Hold out your left hand and make a fist. Focus attention on your fist. Now touch it with your other hand. Feel free to explore with your sense of touch.

3. Now touch the arm or seat of your chair. Give it a good feel.

4. Now touch your supposed head. Is there any difference in where these three feelings (touch experiences) occur? Is your head any more at the center of your being than the arm of your chair or your fist?

5. The evidence suggests to me that all these feelings occur in the same space. I either claim all touch experiences as my head or none of them. I’m either multi-headed or headless.

6. Just reading this won’t make any sense. You have to do the experiment.

Harding headlessness

Alexander Smit recalls Nisargadatta Maharaj

An Interview with Alexander Smit recalling Nisargadatta Maharaj

September 1988. Location: the kitchen of Alexander Smit’s house on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.

We were busy going over the translation of THE NECTAR OF THE LORD’S FEET (Dutch title SELF-REALIZATION) by his Spiritual master Nisargadatta Maharaj and he wanted to do an ‘interview ‘for a change, as a sort of practice. The interview has survived a computer crash, break-in and theft, because luckily I had typed it out and printed the tape previously. I have preserved this as a treasure for years. Until now.

Alexander met Nisargadatta Maharaj in September of 1978. In the beginning of September of that year Jacques Lewenstein had been in India and come back with the book I AM THAT and tapes of Nisargadatta.

Alexander: That book came into the hands of Wolter Keers. He was very happy with it, because after the death of Krishna Menon (Wolter’s spiritual master) he had not heard anything so purely advaita. After Wolter had read the book he decided to translate and publish it ‘because this is so extremely good’. Wolter gave me the book immediately and I was very moved by it. Then there was an article in Panorama or The New Revue: GOD HAS NO TEETH. A poorly written story by the young man who did Showroom (TV). There was a life-sized photo of Nisargadatta’s head in it. That was actually my first acquaintance with Nisargadatta. By then Wolter had already told me: ‘I can not do anything more for you. You need someone. But I wouldn’t know who.’ But, when he had read I AM THAT he said: ‘If I can give you a piece of advice, go there immediately.’ And that I did.

What were you seeking?
I was seeking nothing more. I knew everything. But, if you had asked me what I had learned I would have said; I don’t actually know it. There is something essential that I don’t know. There was a sort of blind spot in me that no one knew what do with. Krishnamurti knew nothing that he could say about it. Bhagwan was for us at that time not someone that you would go to, at least for this sort of thing. Da Free John was also not it. Those were the known people at that time. I had a blind spot. And what typifies a blind spot is that you don’t know what it is. You only knew that if you were really honest with yourself, if you really went to the bottom of yourself, that you had not yet solved the riddle.

For the first time in Bombay?
A little staircase going up to an attic room. First came my head, and the first thing that I saw was Mrs. Satprem and Nisargadatta. There were maybe three or four people there. ‘Here I am’, I said. And he said: ‘So, finally you came.’ Yeah, that is what they all say, that I heard later, but for me it was the first time that I heard it. I did have the feeling when I went in that now it was really serious. Now there is no escape possible, Here something is really going to happen. Naturally I had already met many of these people: Krishnamurti, Jean Klein, Wolter, Swami Ranganathananda, Douglas Harding, and also some less well known Indians. I was naturally too young for Ramana Maharshi and Krishna Menon. They died in the fifties. I was 7 or 8 years old then. That is not the age to be busy with these sorts of things. It held also true for us at that time, ‘wait’ for a living master. And I had a very strong feeling that this was the man that I had been looking for. He asked if I were married, what I did, and why I had come to India.

What precisely did you want from him?
Self-realization. I wanted to know how I was put together. I said: ‘I have heard that your are the greatest ego killer who exists. And that is what I want.’ He said: ‘I am not a killer. I am a diamond cutter. You are also a diamond. But you are a raw diamond and you can only be cut by a pure diamond. And that is very precise work, because if that is not done properly then you fall apart into a hundred pieces, and then there is nothing left for you. Do you have any questions?’ I told him that Maurice Frydman was the decisive reason for my coming. Frydman was a friend of Krishnamurti and Frydman was planning to publish all of the earlier work of Krishnamurti at Chetana Publishers in Bombay, And that he had heard from Mr. Dikshit , the publisher, that there was someone in Bombay who he had to meet. (I AM THAT was of course not yet published at that time because Frydman had yet to meet Nisargadatta). Frydman went there with his usual skeptical ideas. He came in there, and within two weeks things became clear to him that had never become clear with Krishnamurti. And I thought then: if it all became clear to Frydman within two weeks, how will it go with me? I told all this to Nisargadatta and he said: ‘That says nothing about me, but everything about Frydman.’ And he also said: ‘People who don’t understand Krishnamurti don’t understand themselves.’ I thought that was beautiful, because all the gurus I knew always ran everyone down. It seemed as if he wanted to help me relax. He didn’t launch any provocations. I was able to relax, because as you can understand it was of course a rather tense situation there. He said; ‘Do you have any questions?’
I said; ‘No.’
‘When are you going to come?’
‘Every day if you allow me.’
‘That’s good. Come just two times every day, mornings and afternoons, for the lectures, and we’ll see how it goes.’
I said: ‘Yes, and I am not leaving until it has become clear.’
He said; ‘That’s good.’

Was that true?
Yes, without a doubt. Because what he did — within two minutes he made it clear, whatever you brought up, that the knowledge you presented was not yours. That it was from a book, or that you had borrowed or stolen it, or that it was fantasy, but that you were actually not capable of having a direct observation, a direct perception, seeing directly, immediately, without a mediator, without self consciousness. And that frightened me terribly, because everything you said was cut down in a brutal way.

What happened with you exactly?
The second day he asked if I had any questions. Then I began to ask a question about reincarnation in a more or less romanticized way. I told that I had always had a connection with India, that when I heard the word ‘India’ for the first time it was shock for me, and that the word ‘yoga’ was like being hit by a bomb when I first heard it on TV, and that the word ‘British India’ was like a dog hearing his boss whistle. And I asked, could it mean that I had lived in India in previous lives? And then he began to curse in Marathi, and to get unbelievably agitated, and that lasted for at least ten minutes. I thought, my god, what’s happening here? The translator was apparently used to it, because he just sat calmly by, and when Maharaj was finished he summarized it all together; ‘Maharaj is asking himself if you are really serious. Yesterday you came and you wanted self-realization, but now you begin with questions that belong in kindergarten’… In this way you were forced to be unbelievably alert. Everything counted heavily. It became clear to me within a few days that I knew absolutely nothing, that all that I knew, all the knowledge that I had gathered was book knowledge, second hand, learned, but that out of myself I knew nothing. I can assure you that this put what was needed into motion. And that’s how it went every day! Whatever I came up with, whether I asked an intelligent question or a dumb question, made absolutely no difference. And one day he asserted this, and the following day he asserted precisely the opposite and the following day he twisted it around one more time even though that was not actually possible. And so it went, until by observation I understood why that was, and that was a really wonderful realization. Why do I try all the time to cram everything into concepts, to try to understand everything in terms of thinking or in the feelings sphere? And, he gave me tips about how I could look at things in another way, thus really looking. And then it became clear to me that it just made no sense to regard yourself — whatever you call yourself, or don’t call yourself — in that way. That was an absolute undermining of the self-consciousness, like a termite eating a chair. At a certain moment it becomes sawdust. It still looks like a chair, but it isn’t a chair anymore.

Did that lead to self realization?
He kept going on like this, and then there came a moment that I just plain had enough of it. Really just so much … I would not say that I became angry, but a shift took place in me, a shift of the accent on all authorities outside of myself, including Nisargadatta, to an authority inside myself. He was talking, and at a given moment he said ‘nobody’. He said : ‘Naturally there is nobody here who talks.’ That was too much for me. And I said: ‘If you don’t talk then why don’t you shut up then? Why say anything then?’
And it seemed as if that is what had been waiting for. He said: ‘Do you want that I should not talk anymore? That’s good, then I won’t talk anymore and if people want to know something then they can just go to Alexander. From now on there are no more translations, translators don’t have to come anymore, there is no more English spoken. Only Marathi will be spoken, and if people have any problems then they can go to Alexander because he seems to know everything.’ And then began all the trouble with the others, the bootlickers and toadies who insisted that I had to offer my apologies! Not on my life. Yeah, you can’t offer excuses to a nobody, eh?!
And to me he said; ‘And you, you can’t come here anymore.’ And I said: ‘What do you mean I can’t come here anymore. Try and stop me. Have you gone completely crazy? ‘ And the translators were naturally completely upset. They said nothing like this had ever been seen before. And he was angry! Unbelievably angry!. And he threw the presents that I had brought for him at my feet and said: ‘I want nothing from you, Nothing from you I want.’ And that was the breakthrough, because something happened, there was no thinking because I was.. the shift in authority had happened. As I experienced it everything came to me from all sides: logic, understanding, on the one hand the intellect and on the other hand at the same time the heart, feelings and all phenomena, the entire manifest came directly to me from all sides to an absolute center where the whole thing exploded. Bang. After that everything became clear to me.
The next day I went there as usual. There was a lecture, but indeed no English was spoken. I can assure you that the tension could be cut with a knife, because I was the guilty party of course. He wanted to push that down my throat and the translators just went along quietly. There was not even any talking. And the next day, there was not even a lecture. He arrived in a car, and drove away when he saw me and went to a movie… Then I wrote him a letter. Twelve pages. In perfect English. I had someone bring the letter to him. Everything was running over. I wrote everything. And his answer was: let him come tomorrow at 10 o’clock. And he read my letter and said: ´You understood. This confrontation was needed to eliminate that self-consciousness. But you understood completely and I am very happy with your letter and nothing happened.’ Naturally , that cleared the air. He asked if I wanted to stay longer. ‘From this situation that took place on September 21, 1978, I want to be here in love .’ And he said; ‘that is good.’ From that day on I attended all the talks and also translated sometimes, for example when Spaniards, or Frenchmen or Germans came. I was a bit of a helper then.

So actually you apply the same method as he did: the cutting away of the self-consciousness to the bone and letting people see their identities. Was that his method?
Yes. Recognizing the false as false and thereafter letting the truth be born. But the most wonderful thing was, MY basis dilemma, and if I say ‘my’ I mean everyone in a certain sense, is that if at a certain moment you ask yourself: what did I come here for, that seems to be something completely different from what you thought. Everyone has ideas about this question, and I had never suspected in the farthest reaches of my mind that the Realization of it would be something like this. That is the first point. The second is, it appears that a certain point you have the choice of maintaining your self-consciousness out of pride, arrogance, intellect. And the function of the Guru, the skill with which he can close the escapes from the real confrontation was in his case uncommonly great, at least in my case. And for me that was the decisive factor. Because if there had been a chance to ‘escape’, I would certainly have taken it. Like a thief who still tries to get away.

Did he ever say anything about it?
He said that unbelievable courage is needed not to flee. And that my being there had almost given him a heart attack, that he no longer had the strength to tackle cases like mine as he became older. So I have the feeling that I got there at just the right moment. Later he became sick. He said: ‘I have no strength anymore to try to convince people. If you like it, continue to come, maybe you can get something out of it, but I have no strength anymore to convince people like him (and then he pointed to me). I am so grateful to him, because it only showed how great my resistance was. There has to be a proportional force that is just a bit stronger than your strangest and strongest resistance. You need that. It showed how great my resistance was. And it showed how great his strength was, and his skill. For me he was the great Satguru. The fact that he was capable of defeating my most cunning resistance — and I can assure you after having gone into these things for 15 years — my resistance was extremely refined and cunning, was difficult for him even though he knew who he was dealing with. That’s why I had to go to such a difficult person of course. It says everything about me. Just as he said in the beginning that it said everything about Frydman. But I have never seen the skill he had in closing the escape routes of the lies and falsehoods so immensely great anywhere else.
Of course I have not been everywhere, but with Ramana Maharshi you just melted. That was another way. With Krishna Menon the intellect could just not keep it together under the gigantic dismantling, but by Nisargadatta, every escape was doomed to failure. People who came to get something, or people who thought they could bring something stood naked outside the door within five minutes. I saw a great many people there walking away in great terror. At a certain moment I was no longer afraid, because I felt that I had nothing more to lose. So I can’t really say that it was very courageous of me. I can only say that in a certain sense with him I went on the attack. And what was nice about it is that he also valued that. Because, he sent many people away, and these really went and mostly didn’t come back. The he would say: ‘They are cowards. I didn’t send them away, I sent away the part of them that was not acceptable here.’ And if they then returned, completely open, then he would say nothing about it. But during those happenings with me, people forgot that. There was also a doctor, a really fine man, who said; ‘don’t think that he is being brutal with you; you don’t have any idea how much love there is in him to do this with you.’ I said: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that.’ Because I didn’t want any commentary from anyone. After all, this is what I had come for! Only the form in which it happened was totally different from what I had expected in my wildest dreams. But again, that says more about me than about Maharaj, and I still think that.

So, his method was thus to let you recognize the false as false, to see through the lies as lies, and to come to truth in this way?
Yes, and that went deeper than I could have ever suspected. The thinking was absolutely helpless. The intellect had no ghost of chance. The heart was also a trap. And that is exactly what happened there. That is everything. And I know that after that day, September 21, 1978, there has never been even a grain of doubt about this question, and the authority, the command, the authenticity, has never left, has never again shifted. There is no authority, neither in this world or in another world, that can thrust me out of the realization. That’s the way it is.

Did Maharaj say that you had to do something after this realization?
I asked: ‘It is all very beautiful, but what now? What do I do with my life? Then he said: ‘You just talk and people will take care of you.’ And that’s the way it has gone.

Did you go visit him often?
Various times. As often as I could I was there every year for two or three months. Until the last time. And when I knew that I would never see him again there was entirely no sadness or anything like that. It was just the way it was. It was fine that way,

Did he do the same with others as he had with you?
Not as intensely and not so persistently.

You get what you give?
Yes, that is so. In a certain sense he did that with everyone, but if someone was very sensitive he approached it in a different way. Naturally it makes difference if an old nun is sitting in front of you, or a rebel like myself, who also looks as if he can take quite a bit. The last time he said; ‘He will be powerful in Europe. He has the knowledge. He will be the source of what I am teaching.’ And then he directed those headlight eyes of his towards me. That is still so wonderful… It is ten years ago now, and it seems like a week. I have learned to value his words in the passage of time. The things I questioned in the past I see becoming manifest now. At first I thought; the way he has put this into words is typical Indian conditioning after all, but the wonder is that all the advice that he gave taught me to hang on to them. I didn’t follow them a few times and that always lead to catastrophes.

For example?
For example he said to me: ‘Don’t challenge the Great Ones. Let them enjoy.’ And I have to admit that I had trouble with that. But knowing my rebellious character — and naturally he saw that immediately — he still had to give me that. And every time that I see that, that aspect of my character wants to express itself, I hear his voice: ‘Don’t challenge the Great Ones.’ He anticipated that. I know that for sure. And in that way he also said a number of things that suddenly made sense. Then I hear him. And Wolter always said: ‘After the realization, the only words that remain with you are the words of your Guru. All your knowledge disappears, but the words of the Guru remain.’ And I can now confirm that that is true, that it is like that.

Was Wolter also a disciple of Nisargadatta?
No, but he was there often.

I have understood that you find the Living Teaching very important. Is that especially true for Advaita?
The objection to books about Advaita, including the translations of Nisargadatta’s words is that too much knowledge is given in them. That is an objection. People can use this knowledge, and especially the knowledge at the highest level to defend and maintain their self-consciousness. That makes my work more difficult. Knowledge, spiritual knowledge, can, when there is no living master be used again to maintain the ‘I’, the self-consciousness. The mind is tricky, cunning. And I speak out of my own experience! Because Advaita Vedanta, without a good living spiritual master, I repeat, a good one, can become a perfect self contained defense mechanism. It can be a plastic sack that leaks on all sides, but you can’t find the leak. You know that it doesn’t tally, but it looks as if it does tally. That is the danger in Vedanta. Provided there is a good living master available, it can do no harm. But stay away from it if there is no master available! Provided it is well guided Advaita can be brilliant.

Do you mean that people could act from their so called ‘knowing’ as if they are more than the content of their consciousness? That they therefore assume that the content is worthless?
Yes. That is why up to now, I have never wanted to write a book. But, as long as I am alive there are Living Teachings. When I die they can do whatever they want to with it, but as long as I am alive I am there.

To take corrective action?

Do people have a built in defense mechanism?
At the level of the psyche there is a defense mechanism that prevents you from taking in more than you can cope with, but at a higher level sooner or later you have an irrevocable need for a spiritual master who can tell you certain things, who has to explain things because other wise you get stuck. Whoever doesn’t want a living master gets stuck.

Books could lead to people becoming interested and going on a search.
To a good spiritual master of flesh and blood. Living!

Did Nisargadatta foresee that you would manifest as a guru?
I think guru is a rotten word, but he did say: ‘Many people will seek your blessings.’

So you couldn’t do anything else. It happened by itself.
He said; ‘The seed is sown, the seasons do the rest.’

Isn’t that true for everyone?
Yes, but some seeds fall on good soil and something grows, but other seeds don’t grow. Out of million sperms only one reaches the egg.

At Nisargadatta’s bhajans were also sung and certain rituals done, especially for the Indians. Did you also participate in that?
I participated two times. The bhajans I thought, were really special…

What is their goal?
Singing bhajans has a purifying effect on the body, thinking, and feeling, so that the Knowledge can become manifest and finds its place there. I don’t have any need of it, but I see that the singing offers social and emotional solace and thus I am not against it. In addition prasad was distributed and arati done.

What is arati?
A form of ritual in which fire is swung around and camphor is burned. Camphor is the symbol of the ego. That burns and nothing remains of it. Just as in self-realization nothing of the self-consciousness remains. It is a beautiful ritual. It makes you attentive to all kinds of things. The fire is swung at your eye level so what you see may be beautiful, at your ears so that what you hear may be pure, and at your mouth so that what you eat may be pure. It is Hindu symbolism that has become so common in India that it has mostly become flattened out and routine. It has something, as a symbol , but Westerners shouldn’t try it unless they understand the symbolism completely. I find the singing of OM good, that works, that is a law. It works to purify the body, thinking and feeling, so that the Knowing that it is can be manifest and find a place in your life.

Did Nisargadatta follow a certain tradition?
But of course. The Navdath Sampradaya. The tradition of the Nine Gurus. The first was Jnaneshwar (Jnanadeva) from the 13th century, who became realized when he was twenty and also died at that age. Nisargadatta was the ninth.

Are you the tenth?
No. I always call Maharaj ‘the last of the Mohicans’.

Still you always talk about the tradition.
I work following a traditional background, because there lies the experience of a thousand years of instruction. Instruction that works! I have learned to value the Tradition. I am totally non traditional, but in my heart I am a traditionalist. When I talk about ‘the tradition’ I mean the tradition of Advaita so as that became manifest in the Navdath Sampradaya.

What is the importance of tradition?
The importance of a tradition is just as with violin playing, that you have had predecessors who have done it in a certain which you know works. But many traditions have become dead end traditions because they don’t work anymore. That is why you always see renovators like a Buddha, a Krishna, Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi in a certain sense, and Bhagwan (Osho) and Nisargadatta. The way Nisargadatta said it is after all quite different from the way his Guru said it, and the way it is here made manifest, is after all also very different then at Nisargadatta’s. It is about the ‘essence’. Just as consciousness is transmitted by means of sex, enlightenment is transmitted by the Guru.

Did Nisargadatta teach you the tradition?
You can’t learn a tradition; you can only become self-realized. And that is what happened. I know what I know. Done.

And then a tradition is born?
Yes, precisely, you say it very well.

We are now busy with book ‘Self-realization. What do you think about that book?
It is no easy book. It is no easy bedside companion.

In one way or another, translating the book has done much for me.
You have been busy with these things for a long time, thus the reading of a relatively direct form of Nisargadatta’s words must have an effect, But even you found it to be a difficult book. The theme of the book — who were you before the conception, before body/thinking/feeling appeared and before the forming of words in the mind — is not simple to say, but by repeated readings, and talking with each other and all kind of other things, a few things have become clear.

It has to be digested?
Yes, especially digesting it is important. You can eat a lot, but it has to be digested.

Did you just see him sometimes in the daytime, like here in the kitchen?
He lived in that house and everyone went to their hotel or family, or to friends, or had lodgings with the translators. Someone always stayed to care for him a bit, but everyone simply went their own way. There was nothing like an ashram in the usual sense, a care institution, a salvation army for seekers. Absolutely not.

How was he between the acts?
Changeable, from extremely friendly to grumbling.

Did you find him to be a nice man?
Never thought about it for a second.

Would you like to be his friend?

That cannot?
No, Odd question.

I don’t agree, you could at least say ‘he is my Guru, but as a human, as a person’… if you at least could still see him as a person.
Just a whopper of a person, but yeah, there are no meaningful words that can be said about it.

I don’t believe that.
Really not.

Did you ever eat with him?

Did you ever listen to music with him?

Did you ever just chat with him about little things?

How was that?
Normal, just like with you.

Did you find that scary?

Never? Also not in the beginning?

Did he have a normal householder’s life?

Was he married?
Yes, he had children.

What kind of a father was he?

What kind of husband was he?
I don’t know because his wife was dead.

Did he have girl friends?

Did he sometimes speak about sex?
No, never.

What did he do in his spare time?
He had no spare time. All his time was spent on the ‘talks’. Or he slept or took walks, or he looked outside, and he smoked a little beedee.

How did he experience being sick?
He didn’t think about it. It’s just something of the body, a little something.

What was his attitude towards women ‘seekers’?
The rule for Indian women was keep your mouth shut and listen. Ask no questions. Unless they were very brave, then he allowed it from time to time and answered them, just as with them men. Western women he just answered, just like with the men. But with Indian women he was very traditional: ‘just keep quiet.’

What did he think about Bhagwan (Osho)?
It varied. It depended who was asking the question.

Now, Ok, you don’t want anymore. I give up.
(laughs and turns of the microphone.)

Interview by Belle Bruins appearing in Amigo, March, 2002

Introduction to Franklin Merrell-Wolff

“An Introduction to Franklin Merrell Wolff”

From a preface written by Dr. Richard Moss

When I recommended the writings of Franklin Merrell-Wolff to publisher Yvan Amar some years ago, I did not know that I would one day have the honor of writing this forward to introduce Dr. Wolff to the French public. The book you are about to read is the most eloquent description of the awakening process I have ever come across. It is a statement charged with the immediacy of direct personal experience, remarkable in its eloquence, depth and clarity. And because I feel it needs no interpretation by me, what I shall undertake to offer the reader, and rejoice in doing so, is a small sketch of Franklin Merrell-Wolff, the man. He was someone I knew for nine years and grew to love. To this day, I value our relationship as I value Truth itself.

Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s life began in the late Nineteenth century and spanned most of the Twentieth. He was an American philosopher, mathematician, sage, and mystic. His conscious spiritual quest began in his early twenties while studying mathematics at Harvard. There he attended a series of lectures on Vedanta given by Vivekananda, a disciple of the great East Indian saint, Sri Ramakrishna [a reader pointed out to me that Vivekananda died in 1902. He did lecture at Harvard in 1896, so perhaps Merrell-Wolff read a transcript of the lecture – SN]. Vivekananda was one of the first of the Indian sages and scholars to bring Eastern teachings to the West. The young mathematician came away from those lectures profoundly moved. He was convinced that if there was a transcendent reality, it could not be merely accepted as an intellectual fact. He made the decision, there and then, to renounce his academic career and completely devote his life to confirm this truth for himself. The story of that confirmation–the event that became the basis for his philosophy and nearly half a century of his teaching–is the subject of this book.

Dr. Wolff, as he liked to be called, or Yogi as some of his students affectionately referred to him, was eighty-nine years old in 1977 when I first met him. I vividly recall that first meeting. It was only hours after the onset of the enormous energetic opening that would change my life forever. I was in a nearly overwhelming state of openness and while I had not consciously come in search of a teacher for myself, life in its intelligence was providing one. Suddenly, I was in the presence of this man whose very being brought calm to the forces.

It had been a small pilgrimage to visit him that first time. The journey began some months before when I wrote requesting a meeting after reading Pathways Through to Space. His wife had written back confirming a date and including the directions to their home. They lived on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, the great range of mountains that divide the fertile western regions of California from the high desert that stretches east for a thousand miles. The trip had taken the better part of two days to drive from San Francisco.

Leaving the small desert town of Lone Pine behind, I began to climb toward the base of the Sierra. As I drove the last miles up a washboard dirt road, I was stunned by the view. On either side stretching north and south for as far as the eye could see lay thousands of hectares of sage and scrub growth. In front of me to the west, the late afternoon light silhouetted the majestic escarp of the High Sierra and the fanning spread of the sun beams gave me the distinct feeling of entering a great natural cathedral. Behind me to the east, the land sloped gently downhill, descending over two-thousand feet to the base of the Owens Valley and then rising again to the soft contours of a second range of mountains, the older Inyos. With 14,000 foot peaks on either side, Owens Valley is the deepest valley in the United States. I had driven about a dozen miles in this vast empty landscape without a dwelling in sight when seemingly, in the middle of nowhere, appeared a simple gate with an aging sign: Association of Man Ranch. I passed through it.

Bouncing over and around boulders along a barely usable road, I soon drove past a small cluster of houses and an old orchard nearly reclaimed by the desert. I knew from Dr. Wolff’s directions that these were the homes of some of his oldest students. In another half mile, the road came to an end. There sitting alone, nestled in a small oasis of trees and twittering birds was a simple white, one-story house. There were no telephone lines, no power lines. As I stood on the front porch, I could see for over a hundred miles to the north and south. The other houses were now invisible, swallowed by the undulations of this vast landscape.

The door was opened by Gertrude, Dr. Wolff’s second wife, a woman in her late seventies. She graciously invited me inside. The house was crowded with books, paintings, photographs, antique furniture, a grand piano, and it was very warm. I could hear the purr of a diesel generator, their source of electricity. I soon learned that one of Dr. Wolff’s on-going challenges was to keep the temperamental machine running. They used it for a few hours each night for light and to enable Dr. Wolff to watch the evening news on television. He took this basic responsibility of maintaining some awareness of current affairs very seriously. He believed that such awareness on the part of a person of realization lent some degree of stability to the world.

But to return to that first encounter, the man who emerged from his study to greet me immediately impressed me with his sense of dignity. I noticed that his walk was a little unsteady, but there was no mistaking the vitality in his eyes. He was eighty-nine years old at the time. He had a trim beard that came to a sharp point below his chin and a full head of dark gray hair. He was wearing a tie and a rumpled and somewhat threadbare dinner jacket. I would learn that he always dressed this way even when relaxing alone in his home. But the most unusual quality about him, which deserves special remark, was his deep voice and the old-world elegance of his use of language. He spoke very slowly, carefully enunciating every word. It was soon evident that he used a rich vocabulary, very precisely and sparingly, even in ordinary conversation.

And then he pulled out a cigarette, which somewhat surprised me. It was an unfiltered Pall Mall, as potent a cigarette as exists in America. He carefully fit the cigarette into a plastic holder that contained a filter and with a slight tremor, lit it. Even smoking took on a sense of refinement with this man. In those days I still enjoyed an occasional cigarette. Not having any of my own with me, I asked him if I might have one too. Quite willingly, he passed the pack to me and then with the wry, sardonic humor I came to love so much, he remarked, “More friendships are based on commonality of vice, than on commonality of virtue.” I knew I was going to like this man.

I learned that he and Gertrude had built this house themselves when Dr. Wolff was already seventy-eight years old and she was in her sixties. She designed it and he cleared the site and did most of the construction, even the plumbing and electrical wiring, with help from some of his students. This was just after Sharifa, his first wife to whom he had been married for more than forty years, had died. It was with Sharifa that he had begun and developed most of his teaching work. But after her death, a strange phenomenon occurred which he described as etheric hemorrhaging. He felt certain that if he could not contain this energetic bleeding, he would die. To his relief, this energy loss stopped when he was near Gertrude who was one of his students. When they decided to marry it caused controversy in the community as she was not considered one of the more advanced disciples. But for him it was a matter of necessity. Not wanting to live in the house he had shared for so long with Sharifa, they chose to build a new home on the ranch.

The original decision to move to such a remote place had been made by Dr. Wolff and Sharifa in the late 1920’s when Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi sage, told them that the spiritual center of a country was its highest mountain. At that time, Mt. Whitney was the highest peak in the forty-eight states. They had chosen this ranch because it would bring them as close as possible to it. Relaying this bit of his history, he then laughed at the tricks life plays. How could they have known at the time that Alaska would later be admitted to the Union becoming the forty-ninth state and bringing with it a new highest summit, the great Denali?

In 1982, five years after that first visit, I purchased a ranch in Lone Pine which became the center for my own teaching work. From that point on I saw Dr. Wolff quite regularly and learned much more about his life. He was born in California in 1888 and as a child he used to travel to church for two hours by buckboard with his father, a Lutheran minister. He did his undergraduate studies in philosophy at Stanford University, and then continued his study of mathematics at Harvard. During World War I, he was a conscientious objector who worked as a medic. His family owned large tracts of orchard land along the coastal areas north of Los Angeles, and in a mostly arid valley known as the San Fernando. Later this same valley would receive water via a controversial aqueduct making the land extremely valuable first as a great citrus growing area and later as suburbs for the rapidly expanding Los Angeles. It was by gradually selling parcels of this land after moving to Lone Pine, that Dr. Wolff supported himself financially. Indeed, from his late thirties until his death at the age of ninety-eight, he never needed to work for money. Good karma, I guess.

Earlier, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Dr. Wolff spent long periods alone in remote parts of the California foothills mining for gold. His mining efforts were relatively successful as he managed in this way to support Sharifa and himself and protected their property from forced sale. During this period he learned how to work with dynamite and rock. This skill would prove invaluable later when he and his students began the long undertaking to construct a sacred site he called the Ashrama. It was meant to be the center piece of their school. The Ashrama is a remarkable building made of hand-laid granite rocks constructed in the shape of a balanced cross, like a Red Cross emblem, fifteen meters in width. Built at 2800 meters altitude, it perches on the top of a ridge in the mountains high above the ranch on land leased from the National Forest Service. Each summer for over twenty years his students came to Lone Pine to work on the Ashrama with Dr. Wolff and Sharifa. It took eight years just to build the trail and the small aqueduct that routes water to the site and thirteen more years to complete the walls and roof.

Dr. Wolff took pleasure in remembering that the dangerous task of working with explosives fell to him as he was the only one with any experience. One of his students from those days recounted how Dr. Wolff, who was already in his late fifties when the project was begun, could exhaust four men at a time. Their task was to mix cement and gather appropriate sized rocks, while he single handedly set each stone of the great walls and massive fireplace into place. Working in such a setting, without electricity or running water, using mules to haul equipment and food, must have been an extraordinary initiation into a teaching about Fundamental Realization. On Sundays they would rest and Dr. Wolff and Sharifa would give talks, presenting the formal teaching. I have seen old film footage without sound, of course, of the construction of the Ashrama with vignettes of some of the Sunday teaching gatherings. The students themselves, also made presentations, and there were small concerts, and theater productions. This was how Dr. Wolff worked with his students.

Ultimately, the Ashrama was never fully completed. When Sharifa grew too old to make the arduous horseback ride-she was thirteen years older than Dr. Wolff-he abandoned the work. After she died, he never again visited it. I asked him about this and he said that it had been a means of sharing the teaching. With Sharifa gone, that form was finished. He felt no attachment to it. Over the years, hunters began to use it for their base camp and tore apart the wood interior to make fires. Slowly the Ashrama was falling to ruin. Around 1980 the United States Forest Service condemned it for demolition, but a group spearheaded by his grand-daughter, rebuilt the roof and petitioned to have the Ashrama preserved as a historical religious shrine. This was eventually granted, and the building still stands.

During the 1980’s, I regularly led groups up to the Ashrama for special ceremonies and rituals. I also would bring a few students to visit Dr. Wolff. As a very old man, it was remarkable to watch him become focused and invigorated on these occasions, especially in the presence of certain women. He would literally draw on their shakti in a kind of delightful mutual seduction of spirit and soul. It always gave me great pleasure to observe his vitality return as he responded to their attention. At such times one could feel a little of the old fire that had been so strong when he was in his full powers earlier in his life.

I know that Dr. Wolff had some frustrations about his teaching work, and that Sharifa was very impatient with the students; she thought many of them worthless and was prone to tell them so. For himself, he never really understood why the students would continue to engage what he felt was the lesser emotional dramas of their lives. He wrote in a personal journal that I only saw after his death, that it would be his preference, like Hercules’ task to clean the Aegean Stables, to take a great river of energy and wash the students clean all at once. But this did not seem to work for very long. The students would be inducted into higher states by his strong presence, expand their vision for awhile, but they could not maintain it. It was his fear that he would have to enter the stable with them and he wondered whether doing so would mean perhaps sacrificing or otherwise diminishing his own state.

I don’t believe he actually ever did enter the stable. His approach was mostly through the conceptual. He offered those who would listen a clear map of higher consciousness. His teaching and insight draws primarily from his own realization and from Buddhism, Mystical Christianity, and the work of Sankara who he regarded as the greatest influence on his own thought. But he never really developed any practical teaching for helping students understand and work with their emotional and psychological dynamics even though he saw that this was where most people were caught. One came to Dr. Wolff to experience the clarity of his mind and the unquestioned purity of his heart. And, of course, there was his presence.

In the years that I knew Dr. Wolff up until the very end of his life, every Sunday he opened his home to students or anyone pursuing the Perennial Wisdom. The only exceptions to this ritual were those few days when he was ill or when he went on his yearly visit to the redwood trees of the northern California coast which he so cherished. At precisely 10 A.M. (one of his eccentricities was that he never changed his clocks for Daylight Savings Time), he would put on his black professorial gown and slowly amble to his special chair. There after a few minutes of silence he would turn on an old reel to reel tape recorder and play one of about sixty lectures that he had dictated while he was in his early eighties. They are scholarly and insightful discourses on everything from Blavatsky and Theosophy to Sankaracharya, from Buddhism to mystical Christianity, from Love to the High Indifference, the latter, as you shall read, being the apex of his own realization. The necessity for taped presentations grew from his recognition that he no longer had the strength to speak extemporaneously.

For the most part in these discourses his voice is emotionless, each word is slowly and carefully enunciated, each thought perfectly linked to the next. But occasionally when he was recounting key moments of his own awakening or invoking the solemn responsibility accepted by a disciple of truth, his voice would fill with emotion and his words carried a profound invitation. It seemed to me at these times, that he had tapped, once again, into some of the energy of his original recognition. Often as the tape recorder played, he would fall asleep with the ash growing longer and longer at the edge of his cigarette. And with the hypnotic quality of his voice, and the heat of the room, it was sometimes difficult for me and others to stay awake, as well.

I questioned myself about why I came to see Dr. Wolff at these Sunday gatherings in his extreme old age, often hearing the same taped discourse over again. The answer was that I loved him and by being present I honored his lifelong commitment to Truth and to the Teaching. I respected him as my predecessor in the lineage of spontaneous realization. He did not believe in founding a school to survive him; he asked no one to carry the mantle of his work. He felt that the full reality of realization could not be passed from one man to another, that a realized person could assist a student in many essential ways, but realization had to come spontaneously of itself as it had for him. And when it came each person would express it uniquely. For him this was the tradition of enlightenment that is ever renewing, that stands outside all dogma, that can never be institutionalized.

Dr. Wolff was very private about his personal life. It was only after his death in 1985 that a few of us had an opportunity to enter his bedroom. Gertrude had died seven years earlier, and we were touched to see that her personal things, her hair brush and jewelry, were still sitting on her bureau exactly as she had last left them. To me it was as though Gertrude was still with him; a relationship that perhaps had begun from necessity, had grown into deep love and mutual respect. Indeed, within days of her death, he had had a heart attack and didn’t want to live any longer. But a clairvoyant who he had known and respected for many years channeled a message from one of the Ascended Masters saying that his presence on Earth was still needed. These beliefs, part of his earlier years in the Theosophical movement, were very serious to him. Upon hearing this he immediately recovered, saying, “One does not refuse the call.”

It was also soon after his death, while organizing his private papers, that we came across some of Sharifa’s journals. They are quite remarkable in that she writes about the energetic phenomenon at the time of his realization from her point of view. She describes the distinct feeling that she was suddenly living with a divine being. The energy pouring from him was so powerful that it regularly inducted her and his other students into states of extraordinary ecstasy and peace. Even more poignant was her confession of her own sense of jealousy at his supreme achievement. She felt as though she had gained a god and lost a human companion. She felt abandoned, and because they had devoted their lives together to achieve realization, she felt that she, herself, had failed.

In many ways we owe this book to her. As she watched Dr. Wolff entering deeper and deeper into the supernal state, she felt that he could not sustain such energy for much longer, that he would die or translate to another plane. Indeed he was hardly eating for he felt no need for anything of this world. Therefore she urged him to force himself to attempt to describe what was happening in writing. After some resistance, for he felt no need in himself to do so, he relented and began to chronicle his Pathways Through to Space. The effort seemed to ground the energy and slow the process. Indeed, he himself admitted that had it not been for making the effort to write, which meant to some extent stepping outside the power of the opening and beginning to witness it more objectively, that he might not have found the ability to master the energies. It was this stepping back from Nirvana, that he referred to as the Great Renunciation. We can all be thankful that he did make this step.

I was with Dr. Wolff in the last hours of his life. Waiting outside his hospital room for his nurses to finish their tasks, I had randomly opened a book by Sri Nisargadata. My eyes fell upon the statement, “Let me tell you how my Guru’s Guru died. He announced he was dying and stopped eating. On the eleventh day of his fast while chanting between one hand clap and the next” Suddenly I realized that Franklin, as I called him, was about to die. He could no longer swallow food or water without choking. He was being fed only intravenously. In effect, he had been fasting for ten days. When I entered his room, I stood silently at his bedside, gently holding his hand. I could feel his energy, exquisitely fine and open, but nearly gone. He didn’t seem to be conscious. Reaching deep inside myself, I began to speak softly to him. I told him that his work was now complete, that his body had been prepared for release by the illness and was now ready. Then I was silent for a long moment and told him from the depths of my heart, “We all thank you.” Suddenly, he roused himself, and with what seemed at once like genuine sincerity and the old mischievous humor I loved so much he replied, “You are all entirely welcome.” These were his last words. He passed away peacefully a few hours later.

His body was brought back to his home where he was dressed in his finest teaching suit and laid on the couch in the room where for years he had had his Sunday meetings. Then, because it had been his request, I and two of his oldest students began to whisper the First Bardo from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead repeatedly into his ear. He had been quite clear that he wanted to have the First Bardo read to him, and only that Bardo. The words instruct the “Nobly born” to receive the Pure White Light of Consciousness-without-characteristic of any kind. For him it was to be the Pure White Light or nothing. We took turns reciting the First Bardo for six hours until dawn.

In those hours and throughout that first day after his physical death the energy that radiated from him became stronger and stronger. It was like standing before a door onto the Infinite. I realized then that we can do our deepest work in service to Consciousness, as the Tibetan Buddhist’s teach, in the final moments of life if we can release all self-contraction and become transparent to the Infinite. Forty-nine years before, exactly half his lifetime ago, this is what happened to Dr. Wolff at the time of his realization. Now it seemed it was happening again in the hours after his physical death.

My wife and I keep a picture of Franklin on our altar in the conference room where I teach, and in our home. His memory is never far away. But the deeper memory is wordless. I find that Franklin lives in my heart in the silence of my being. It is a rare privilege to have known such a man. Now it is a great joy to commend him to you in this volume.

Bernadette Roberts Interview

This Bernadette Roberts interview is reprinted from the book Timeless Visions, Healing Voices, copyright 1991 by Stephan Bodian ( In this exclusive interview with Stephan Bodian, (published in the Nov/Dec 1986 issue of YOGA JOURNAL), author Bernadette Roberts describes the path of the Christian contemplative after the experience of oneness with God.

Bernadette Roberts is the author of two extraordinary books on the Christian contemplative journey, The Experience of No-Self (Shambhala, 1982) and The Path to No-Self (Shambala, 1985). A cloistered nun for nine years, Roberts reports that she returned to the world after experiencing the “unitive state”, the state of oneness with God, in order to share what she had learned and to take on the problems and experience of others. In the years that followed she completed a graduate degree in education, married, raised four children, and taught at the pre-school, high school, and junior college levels; at the same time she continued her contemplative practice. Then, quite unexpectedly, some 20 years after leaving the convent, Roberts reportedly experienced the dropping away of the unitive state itself and came upon what she calls “the experience of no-self” – an experience for which the Christian literature, she says, gave her no clear road maps or guideposts. Her books, which combine fascinating chronicles of her own experiences with detailed maps of the contemplative terrain, are her attempt to provide such guideposts for those who might follow after her.

Now 55, and once again living in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised, Roberts characterizes herself as a “bag lady” whose sister and brother in law are “keeping her off the streets.” “I came into this world with nothing,” she writes, “and I leave with nothing. But in between I lived fully – had all the experiences, stretched the limits, and took one too many chances.” When I approached her for an interview, Roberts was reluctant at first, protesting that others who had tried had distorted her meaning, and that nothing had come of it in the end. Instead of a live interview, she suggested, why not send her a list of questions to which she would respond in writing, thereby eliminating all possibility for misunderstanding. As a result, I never got to meet Bernadette Roberts face to face – but her answers to my questions, which are as carefully crafted and as deeply considered as her books, are a remarkable testament to the power of contemplation.

Stephan: Could you talk briefly about the first three stages of the Christian contemplative life as you experienced them – in particular, what you (and others) have called the unitive state?

Bernadette: Strictly speaking, the terms “purgative”, “illuminative”, and “unitive” (often used of the contemplative path) do not refer to discrete stages, but to a way of travel where “letting go”, “insight”, and “union”, define the major experiences of the journey. To illustrate the continuum, authors come up with various stages, depending on the criteria they are using. St. Teresa, for example, divided the path into seven stages or “mansions”. But I don’t think we should get locked into any stage theory: it is always someone else’s retrospective view of his or her own journey, which may not include our own experiences or insights. Our obligation is to be true to our own insights, our own inner light.

My view of what some authors call the “unitive stage”is that it begins with the Dark Night of the Spirit, or the onset of the transformational process – when the larva enters the cocoon, so to speak. Up to this point, we are actively reforming ourselves, doing what we can to bring about an abiding union with the divine. But at a certain point, when we have done all we can, the divine steps in and takes over. The transforming process is a divine undoing and redoing that culminates in what is called the state of “transforming union” or “mystical marriage”, considered to be the definitive state for the Christian contemplative. In experience, the onset of this process is the descent of the cloud of unknowing, which, because his former light had gone out and left him in darkness, the contemplative initially interprets as the divine gone into hiding. In modern terms, the descent of the cloud is actually the falling away of the ego-center, which leaves us looking into a dark hole, a void or empty space in ourselves. Without the veil of the ego-center, we do not recognize the divine; it is not as we thought it should be. Seeing the divine, eye to eye is a reality that shatters our expectations of light and bliss. From here on we must feel our way in the dark, and the special eye that allows us to see in the dark opens up at this time.

So here begins our journey to the true center, the bottom-most, innermost “point” in ourselves where our life and being runs into divine life and being – the point at which all existence comes together. This center can be compared to a coin: on the near side is our self, on the far side is the divine. One side is not the other side, yet we cannot separate the two sides. If we tried to do so, we would either end up with another side, or the whole coin would collapse, leaving no center at all – no self and no divine. We call this a state of oneness or union because the single center has two sides, without which there would be nothing to be one, united, or non-dual. Such, at least, is the experiential reality of the state of transforming union, the state of oneness.

Stephan: How did you discover the further stage, which you call the experience of no-self?

Bernadette: That occurred unexpectedly some 25 years after the transforming process. The divine center – the coin, or “true self” – suddenly disappeared, and without center or circumference there is no self, and no divine. Our subjective life of experience is over – the passage is finished. I had never heard of such a possibility or happening. Obviously there is far more to the elusive experience we call self than just the ego. The paradox of our passage is that we really do not know what self or consciousness is, so long as we are living it, or are it. The true nature of self can only be fully disclosed when it is gone, when there is no self.

One outcome, then, of the no-self experience is the disclosure of the true nature of self or consciousness. As it turns out, self is the entire system of consciousness, from the unconscious to God-consciousness, the entire dimension of human knowledge and feeling-experience. Because the terms “self” and “consciousness” express the same experiences (nothing can be said of one that cannot be said of the other), they are only definable in the terms of “experience”. Every other definition is conjecture and speculation. No-self, then, means no-consciousness. If this is shocking to some people, it is only because they do not know the true nature of consciousness. Sometimes we get so caught up in the content of consciousness, we forget that consciousness is also a somatic function of the physical body, and, like every such function, it is not eternal. Perhaps we would do better searching for the divine in our bodies than amid the content and experience of consciousness.

Stephan: How does one move from “transforming union” to the experience of no-self? What is the path like?

Bernadette: We can only see a path in retrospect. Once we come to the state of oneness, we can go no further with the inward journey. The divine center is the innermost “point”, beyond which we cannot go at this time. Having reached this point, the movement of our journey turns around and begins to move outward – the center is expanding outward. To see how this works, imagine self, or consciousness, as a circular piece of paper. The initial center is the ego, the particular energy we call “will” or volitional faculty, which can either be turned outward, toward itself, or inward, toward the divine ground, which underlies the center of the paper. When, from our side of consciousness, we can do no more to reach this ground, the divine takes the initiative and breaks through the center, shattering the ego like an arrow shot through the center of being. The result is a dark hole in ourselves and the feeling of terrible void and emptiness. This breakthrough demands a restructuring or change of consciousness, and this change is the true nature of the transforming process. Although this transformation culminates in true human maturity, it is not man’s final state. The whole purpose of oneness is to move us on to a more final state.

To understand what happens next, we have to keep cutting larger holes in the paper, expanding the center until only the barest rim or circumference remains. One more expansion of the divine center, and the boundaries of consciousness or self fall away. From this illustration we can see how the ultimate fulfillment of consciousness, or self, is no-consciousness, or no-self. The path from oneness to no-oneness is an egoless one and is therefore devoid of ego-satisfaction. Despite the unchanging center of peace and joy, the events of life may not be peaceful or joyful at all. With no ego-gratification at the center and no divine joy on the surface, this part of the journey is not easy. Heroic acts of selflessness are required to come to the end of self, acts comparable to cutting ever-larger holes in the paper – acts, that is, that bring no return to the self whatsoever.

The major temptation to be overcome in this period is the temptation to fall for one of the subtle but powerful archetypes of the collective consciousness. As I see it, in the transforming process we only come to terms with the archetypes of the personal unconscious; the archetypes of the collective consciousness are reserved for individuals in the state of oneness, because those archetypes are powers or energies of that state. Jung felt that these archetypes were unlimited; but in fact, there is only one true archetype, and that archtype is self. What is unlimited are the various masks or roles self is tempted to play in the state of oneness – savior, prophet, healer, martyr, Mother Earth, you name it. They are all temptations to seize power for ourselves, to think ourselves to be whatever the mask or role may be. In the state of oneness, both Christ and Buddha were tempted in this manner, but they held to the “ground” that they knew to be devoid of all such energies. This ground is a “stillpoint”, not a moving energy-point. Unmasking these energies, seeing them as ruses of the self, is the particular task to be accomplished or hurdle to be overcome in the state of oneness. We cannot come to the ending of self until we have finally seen through these archetypes and can no longer be moved by any of them. So the path from oneness to no-oneness is a life that is choicelessly devoid of ego-satisfaction; a life of unmasking the energies of self and all the divine roles it is tempted to play. It is hard to call this life a “path”, yet it is the only way to get to the end of our journey.

Stephan: In The Experience of No-Self you talk at great length about your experience of the dropping away or loss of self. Could you briefly describe this experience and the events that led up to it? I was particularly struck by your statement “I realized I no longer had a ‘within’ at all.” For so many of us, the spiritual life is experienced as an “inner life” – yet the great saints and sages have talked about going beyond any sense of inwardness.

Bernadette: Your observation strikes me as particularly astute; most people miss the point. You have actually put your finger on the key factor that distinguishes between the state of oneness and the state of no-oneness, between self and no-self. So long as self remains, there will always be a “center”. Few people realize that not only is the center responsible for their interior experiences of energy, emotion, and feeling, but also, underlying these, the center is our continuous, mysterious experience of “life”and “being”. Because this experience is more pervasive than our other experiences, we may not think of “life” and “being” as an interior experience. Even in the state of oneness, we tend to forget that our experience of “being” originates in the divine center, where it is one with divine life and being. We have become so used to living from this center that we feel no need to remember it, to mentally focus on it, look within, or even think about it. Despite this fact, however, the center remains; it is the epicenter of our experience of life and being, which gives rise to our experiential energies and various feelings.

If this center suddenly dissolves and disappears, the experiences of life, being, energy, feeling and so on come to an end, because there is no “within” any more. And without a “within”, there is no subjective, psychological, or spiritual life remaining – no experience of life at all. Our subjecive life is over and done with. But now, without center and circumference, where is the divine? To get hold of this situation, imagine consciousness as a balloon filled with, and suspended in divine air. The balloon experiences the divine as immanent, “in” itself, as well as transcendent, beyond or outside itself. This is the experience of the divine in ourselves and ourselves in the divine; in the state of oneness, Christ is often seen as the balloon (ourselves), completing this trinitarian experience. But what makes this whole experience possible – the divine as both immanent and transcendent – is obviously the balloon, i.e. consciousness or self. Consciousness sets up the divisions of within and without, spirit and matter, body and soul, immanent and transcendent; in fact, consciousness is responsible for every division we know of. But what if we pop the balloon – or better, cause it to vanish like a bubble that leaves no residue. All that remains is divine air. There is no divine in anything, there is no divine transcendence or beyond anything, nor is the divine anything. We cannot point to anything or anyone and say, “This or that is divine”. So the divine is all – all but consciousness or self, which created the division in the first place. As long as consciousness remains however, it does not hide the divine, nor is it ever separated from it. In Christian terms, the divine known to consciousness and experienced by it as immanent and transcendent is called God; the divine as it exists prior to consciousness and after consciousness is gone is called Godhead. Obviously, what accounts for the difference between God and Godhead is the balloon or bubble – self or consciousness. As long as any subjective self remains, a center remains; and so, too, does the sense of interiority.

Stephan: You mention that, with the loss of the personal self, the personal God drops away as well. Is the personal God, then, a transitional figure in our search for ultimate loss of self?

Bernadette: Sometimes we forget that we cannot put our finger on any thing or any experience that is not transitional. Since consciousness, self, or subject is the human faculty for experiencing the divine, every such experience is personally subjective; thus in my view, “personal God” is any subjective experience of the divine. Without a personal, subjective self, we could not even speak of an impersonal, non-subjective God; one is just relative to the other. Before consciousness or self existed, however, the divine was neither personal nor impersonal, subjective nor non-subjective – and so the divine remains when self or consciousness has dropped away. Consciousness by its very nature tends to make the divine into its own image and likeness; the only problem is, the divine has no image or likeness. Hence consciousness, of itself, cannot truly apprehend the divine.

Christians (Catholics especially) are often blamed for being the great image makers, yet their images are so obviously naive and easy to see through, we often miss the more subtle, formless images by which consciousness fashions the divine. For example, because the divine is a subjective experience, we think the divine is a subject; because we experience the divine through the faculties of consciousness, will, and intellect, we think the divine is equally consciousness, will and intellect; because we experience ourselves as a being or entity, we experience the divine as a being or entity; because we judge others, we think the divine judges others; and so on. Carrying a holy card in our pockets is tame compared to the formless notions we carry around in our minds; it is easy to let go of an image, but almost impossible to uproot our intellectual convictions based on the experiences of consciousness.

Still, if we actually knew the unbridgeable chasm that lies between the true nature of consciousness or self and the true nature of the divine, we would despair of ever making the journey. So consciousness is the marvelous divine invention by which human beings make the journey in subjective companionship with the divine; and, like every divine invention, it works. Consciousness both hides the chasm and bridges it – and when we have crossed over, of course, we do not need the bridge any more. So it doesn’t matter that we start out on our journey with our holy cards, gongs and bells, sacred books and religious feelings. All of it should lead to growth and transformation, the ultimate surrender of our images and concepts, and a life of selfless giving. When there is nothing left to surrender, nothing left to give, only then can we come to the end of the passage – the ending of consciousness and its personally subjective God. One glimpse of the Godhead, and no one would want God back.

Stephan: How does the path to no-self in the Christian contemplative tradition differ from the path as laid out in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions?

Bernadette: I think it may be too late for me to ever have a good understanding of how other religions make this passage. If you are not surrendering your whole being, your very consciousness, to a loved and trusted personal God, then what are you surrendering it to? Or why surrender it at all? Loss of ego, loss of self, is just a by-product of this surrender; it is not the true goal, not an end in itself. Perhaps this is also the view of Mahayana Buddhism, where the goal is to save all sentient beings from suffering, and where loss of ego, loss of self, is seen as a means to a greater end. This view is very much in keeping with the Christian desire to save all souls. As I see it, without a personal God, the Buddhist must have a much stronger faith in the “unconditioned and unbegotten” than is required of the Christian contemplative, who experiences the passage as a divine doing, and in no way a self-doing.

Actually, I met up with Buddhism only at the end of my journey, after the no-self experience. Since I knew that this experience was not articulated in our contemplative literature, I went to the library to see if it could be found in the Eastern Religions. It did not take me long to realize that I would not find it in the Hindu tradition, where, as I see it, the final state is equivalent to the Christian experience of oneness or transforming union. If a Hindu had what I call the no-self experience, it would be the sudden, unexpected disappearance of the Atman-Brahman, the divine Self in the “cave of the heart”, and the disappearance of the cave as well. It would be the ending of God-consciousness, or transcendental consciousness – that seemingly bottomless experience of “being”, “consciousness”, and “bliss” that articulates the state of oneness. To regard this ending as the falling away of the ego is a grave error; ego must fall away before the state of oneness can be realized. The no-self experience is the falling away of this previously realized transcendent state.

Initially, when I looked into Buddhism, I did not find the experience of no-self there either; yet I intuited that it had to be there. The falling away of the ego is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it would not account for the fact that Buddhism became a separate religion, nor would it account for the Buddhist’s insistence on no eternal Self – be it divine, individual or the two in one. I felt that the key difference between these two religions was the no-self experience, the falling away of the true Self, Atman-Brahman. Unfortunately, what most Buddhist authors define as the no-self experience is actually the no-ego experience. The cessation of clinging, craving, desire, the passions, etc., and the ensuing state of imperturbable peace and joy articulates the egoless state of oneness; it does not, however, articulate the no-self experience or the dimension beyond. Unless we clearly distinguish between these two very different experiences, we only confuse them, with the inevitable result that the true no-self experience becomes lost. If we think the falling away of the ego, with its ensuing transformation and oneness, is the no-self experience, then what shall we call the much further experience when this egoless oneness falls away? In actual experience there is only one thing to call it, the “no-self experience”; it lends itself to no other possible articulation.

Initially, I gave up looking for this experience in the Buddhist literature. Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, “All thy rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed.” And there it was – the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bulls-eye. It was a remarkable find. These lines are not a piece of philosophy, but an experiential account, and without the experiential account we really have nothing to go on. In the same verse he says, “Again a house thou shall not build,” clearly distinguishing this experience from the falling away of the ego-center, after which a new, transformed self is built around a “true center,” a sturdy, balanced ridgepole.

As a Christian, I saw the no-self experience as the true nature of Christ’s death, the movement beyond even is oneness with the divine, the movement from God to Godhead. Though not articulated in contemplative literature, Christ dramatized this experience on the cross for all ages to see and ponder. Where Buddha described the experience, Christ manifested it without words; yet they both make the same statement and reveal the same truth – that ultimately, eternal life is beyond self or consciousness. After one has seen it manifested or heard it said, the only thing left is to experience it.

Stephan: You mention in The Path to No-Self that the unitive state is the “true state in which God intended every person to live his mature years.” Yet so few of us ever achieve this unitive state. What is it about the way we live right now that prevents us from doing so? Do you think it is our preoccupation with material success, technology, and personal accomplishment?

Bernadette: First of all, I think there are more people in the state of oneness than we realize. For everyone we hear about there are thousands we will never hear about. Believing this state to be a rare achievement can be an impediment in itself. Unfortunately, those who write about it have a way of making it sound more extraordinary and blissful that it commonly is, and so false expectations are another impediment – we keep waiting and looking for an experience or state that never comes. But if I had to put my finger on the primary obstacle, I would say it is having wrong views of the journey.

Paradoxical though it may seem, the passage through consciousness or self moves contrary to self, rubs it the wrong way – and in the end, will even rub it out. Because this passage goes against the grain of self, it is, therefore, a path of suffering. Both Christ and Buddha saw the passage as one of suffering, and basically found identical ways out. What they discovered and revealed to us was that each of us has within himself or herself a “stillpoint” – comparable, perhaps to the eye of a cyclone, a spot or center of calm, imperturbability, and non-movement. Buddha articulated this central eye in negative terms as “emptiness” or “void”, a refuge from the swirling cyclone of endless suffering. Christ articulated the eye in more positive terms as the “Kingdom of God” or the “Spirit within”, a place of refuge and salvation from a suffering self.

For both of them, the easy out was first to find that stillpoint and then, by attaching ourselves to it, by becoming one with it, to find a stabilizing, balanced anchor in our lives. After that, the cyclone is gradually drawn into the eye, and the suffering self comes to an end. And when there is no longer a cyclone, there is also no longer an eye. So the storms, crises, and sufferings of life are a way of finding the eye. When everything is going our way, we do not see the eye, and we feel no need to find it. But when everything is going against us, then we find the eye. So the avoidance of suffering and the desire to have everything go our own way runs contrary to the whole movement of our journey; it is all a wrong view. With the right view, however, one should be able to come to the state of oneness in six or seven years – years not merely of suffering, but years of enlightenment, for right suffering is the essence of enlightenment. Because self is everyone’s experience underlying all culture. I do not regard cultural wrong views as an excuse for not searching out right views. After all, each person’s passage is his or her own; there is no such thing as a collective passage.