by Bart Marshall
As I turned over all those rocks on my spiritual search, I was always trying out recommendations about what I could do to hurry this process along-what I could do, what I could be, to speed things up. Even if the teaching was that there is nothing to be done, I’d want to know what the technique was for not-doing. Always thinking it was up to me whether or not this was going to happen.
But is it up to me? Can this shift in perception, be brought about by the efforts of an illusory individual? Some teachers say there is absolutely nothing a person can do to bring about this experience, so don’t bother. Even teachers like Rose who recommend extreme effort on the spiritual path say that those efforts are not what bring about the experience, if indeed one happens. As Rose says, “There’s no recipe for a lightning bolt.”
Statistically, though, people who report having a conclusive spiritual experience are usually those who’ve spent considerable time pursuing spiritual activities. So of course, like everything else on the “path,” it’s a paradox.
The spiritual path, if we are going to call it that, seems to be a process of maneuvering the mind onto shaky ground, into a state of uncertainty that makes it vulnerable to intervention by an “outside” force. A very delicate contortion. The question is not really “How can I bring about a spiritual experience?” but “How can I become susceptible to Grace? How can I become accident prone?”
From that angle, it seems these general practices are the kind of things that might help maneuver the mind into a vulnerable state. Nothing new here. These ideas are scattered all throughout the teachings and literature. And of course some are in apparent contradiction with each other. In no particular order:
Do the research. Study what’s been said and done before. Turn over every rock, as Rose said, but doubt everything. Let it soak in but don’t believe a word of it. Neither believe nor disbelieve. Neither accept nor reject. Just let it all rattle around in there.
Work out your own salvation. Take responsibility. Be your own disciple. Trust your innermost experience. People give over responsibility for their wellbeing to doctors, and for their salvation to priests and gurus. It makes no sense. Harding: “You are the sole and final authority on what it’s like being you. On what is happening right where you are.” Buddha: “Be a lamp unto yourself. Be a refuge to yourself. Look not for refuge in anyone beside yourself.”
Purify, focus and refine intent. Is Truth what you really want? For most so-called seekers, self-realization is not really their greatest desire—it is a means to an end. We want to be self-realized because we think it will improve our lives in some way—bring peace of mind, power, approbation. Also, we’re too scattered, full of conflicting desires. Beware of conscious and sub-conscious desires sabotaging spiritual aspirations.
Possibly the biggest obstacle to realization is thinking you already know what’s going on. Stop thinking you know anything. Return to the child-like state of wonder, unknowing, mystery. Have only questions, never answers. If an answer comes, question it. Return to unknowing. Only an empty cup can be filled. Become a vacuum of unknowing and God will rush in.
We think we already know 95% of the truth (“I’m a substantive being with my own consciousness in an infinitely vast, infinitely old universe of separate, real objects…”) and just need answers about that last 5%. We don’t want to entertain the idea that the 95% we’re standing on is 100% wrong.
Rose was always asking people, “What do you know for sure?” Always trying to prod them into questioning their beliefs. Knowing is Original Sin—in the sense of the true meaning of the word sin, which is “to err, to miss the mark.” Christianity implies it’s knowledge of sex that kicks mankind out of paradise. No. It’s any and all knowledge. If any knowing whatsoever is present, you are on the wrong side of the gates. You have drifted into illusion. Knowledge is ignorance. God is unknowing.
Investigate Personhood (What am I?)
This is the classic path of self-inquiry. Who am I? What am I? Not an analysis of personality traits, but real inquiry into the true nature of self. Is there a self? Is there a person named “I”? Nisargadatta: “You think you are a person who was born, has parents and memories, and will someday die. You are not.” When I first read that I got chills. I was never again safe from that thought. The only way out was through it.
What is the mechanism of memory? We rely heavily on memory for our sense of self, for our personhood. But what is memory? In Blade Runner,the replicant babe Harrison Ford falls for argues that she is real because she has memories. She tells about seeing a spider when she was 4-years old or something. But her memories are just implants, part of her programming. She’s a robot, fresh off the assembly line, programmed with a lifetime of memories. How is that different from your experience of memory?
Practice Inlooking (Where am I?)
Look directly at the source of looking. Where is the receiver, the processor of the experience now on display? Ask without answering. Ask without knowing or “almost” knowing. Ask without holding onto a base paradigm into which revelation must fit. When you look without knowing, what do you find at ground zero? Where exactly is ground zero? At the exact GPS coordinates of the most intimate pinpoint of your awareness, is anyone home?
Harding experiments like the one we did earlier* are a prime example of this kind of inquiry. There are many other techniques for this and you can make up your own. This type of self-inquiry seeks to answer the question “Where am I?” and uses vision and attention more than thought. The basic idea is to relocate your attention from external objects to the source of looking-to look at the looker.
I used to do this by trying to turn my physical vision around 180 degrees—to stand in front of myself and look back through my own “face.” I just couldn’t make it work using that image. Too many mental contortions.
For me what works better is to keep the same visual position—looking out—but simply reel attention back in until it rests at ground zero of my experience, at the exact GPS coordinates of the source of my view. Attention is not the same as vision, though they are closely aligned when the eyes are open. Separate them. Bring attention back towards you like a target at a pistol range until it comes to rest at the source of looking.
You can do this anytime, anywhere. Look out as usual. I see people, walls, books. My attention is naturally and habitually drawn to objects “out there.” Now let attention come towards you until it rests in the middle distance-in the empty space between the source of looking and the nearest object in front of it. Now let attention rest in as close as it gets-ground zero, zero inches—at the source of all that is arrayed before you. What do you find there?
Apprehend Time (When am I?)
Investigate time in the same way you investigate personhood. Chip away at the concept of time like you chip away at the sense of identity. Step out of the apparent flow of time and take a look at it. Can you catch time in the act? Can you experience duration? Is a skeleton or photograph in the present proof of a past? Where is past and future? Where is now? Where is the exact point that future becomes present and present becomes past? What does that pinpoint of presence feel like? Can you feel past and future?
The opening line of a sutra by the third Zen Patriarch of China reads: “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” Rose called this “betweenness.” It’s a way of holding your head as you go about the business of life. Do, but don’t care. Do without expecting results. It is a kind of surrender. Do whatever you do without expecting good things to come of it.
Mental and physical circumstances have an effect on the amount of time and energy available for the search, so it’s an advantage to maintain a clean, well-ordered life. As Rose used to say, get your house in order. Limit complexities. Tie up loose ends. Arrange your life for clear thinking.
Also, favor intellectual simplicity. Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. Watch how your mind loves complexity. Complexity is in the opposite direction of Truth.
Silence is the medium of transmission. Silence inside and out. You can’t hear if you’re not listening. When silence is an option, choose it. Turn off the car stereo. Turn off TV. Stare into space with no agenda. Listen. Cultivate no-thought.
Zen is sometimes described as “learning how to die.” People reporting a spiritual realization agree that the person they thought they were was not present for the experience. For myself, I can say there was no trace of Bart whatsoever, not a shred, not a thought—so gone he never was, and no one to care to look for him. The mind has no way of labeling this except to say “death.”
Befriend death. An unprepared and overly-fearful mind may fight realization because it seems like death, so it’s often recommended we come to grips with our own physical death as part of our spiritual preparation. Get comfortable with the messy ways bodies die. Meditate on your own death. Read How We Die. Volunteer with Hospice. Anything that might help dilute the fear of death.
*These notes are from Bart’s presentation at the April 2005 TAT conference: “Beyond Mind, Beyond Death.” Visit TAT’s video page for more information.