Dear Dr. Robert,
I have read your memoir on Awakening along with everything else you have written on your website and discussion board. Your voice is perhaps the clearest and most honest expression of an awakened consciousness that I have found anywhere, so I hope you will be able to help me with my problem. I have been a serious seeker of enlightenment for more than twenty years. I have read everything I could find from Buddhism and Vedanta to the new neo-advaita gurus who simply say that I already am awake and do not need to do anything. I have traveled to India several times, and even found a guru there who demanded complete surrender and total faith in exchange for awakening. I tried to have faith in him, but in the end I could not. I have tried prayer, fasting, vegan diet, yoga, meditation, everything, but find myself stuck at the end of my rope about this. Still, when I read your words, it seems so easy, as if only the smallest distance separates someone like me, a desperate seeker of enlightenment, from someone like you, a realized being and source of wisdom and truth. I wonder if you could possibly explain to me how someone like you sees the world, and how to jump from here where I am to there where you are.
[name withheld by request]
Yes, you are right. Only the smallest difference separates the way you see the world from the way that I see it. In fact, assuming that you enjoy the same normal human nervous system that I do, there is no difference at all between how I see the world and how you see it. The difference, then, does not lie in what I see, but in how I understand and interpret what I see.
Most of us have had this experience: I am sitting in a theater engrossed in a film. If the story grabs me, I may forget entirely that I am watching a movie, so that the experience of one of the characters becomes my experience. When something "good" happens, I am pleased. When something "bad" happens, I suffer. I may find tears of joy on my face, or find my pulse racing in fear. In short, I have identified with that character. Now, suppose that the projector malfunctions, the sound dies away, and instead of the movie, I see the film melting, and then the empty screen, brilliantly lit. The audience groans. The spell is broken. Suddenly I am jolted into remembrance of the actual situation: nothing in the movie, I realize, ever really happened. My feelings and my responses were real enough--the rapid pulse, the tears--but those feelings and responses were based upon a total fantasy. The world of the movie was not a real world at all, but just colors and light dancing upon a screen. In short, when the projector jammed, the fantasy ended, and I awakened to "reality"--the reality of being a person sitting in a theater in which the projector had broken down.
Now, what "I" am in my human life is the screen, not the movie, and I know it. I am that. You, being an "I," just like me, are also the screen, not the movie, but you have forgotten that. You may know it intellectually--given your long background as a seeker, you probably do know it intellectually--but you do not remember it from moment to moment. You go about your life as if the movie were reality. But the movie is not reality. The events in the life-movie constantly change, but the screen upon which they are projected never changes. That screen was there when you were a child, and that same screen is there now. That screen is what we call "awareness," which is an emptiness that can be filled by anything whatever, and which belongs to no one. That awareness is reality, in which the entire apparent world is arising and disappearing moment by apparent moment.
The objects you see around you, which seem to be "out there" somewhere, are arising within that awareness, and then disappearing. When some object arises in that awareness, we say that we are conscious of it. And, being conscious of it, we imagine that it really exists exactly as consciousness imagines that it exists, but this is a lie. We know from modern science that those seeming objects are not what we imagine them to be, but are really only "patterns of energy," whatever that means. It is the projection of those energy patterns upon the screen of awareness which creates the objects in consciousness, just as the projection of the movie upon the theater screen creates the story in the consciousness of the theater-goer. The very same thing is true regarding other kinds of perceptions which seem to be less like so-called "solid objects." Sounds are not coming from "out there" somewhere, but arise, just like "solid objects," in the absolute emptiness called awareness. That is the point of the Zen koan which asks, "If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to witness it, does it make any sound?"
Because projection of energy upon the screen of awareness creates the objects and perceptions of consciousness, we have no idea of what those objects really are. All we ever really know is consciousness, and that is a total mystery. Science tells us that consciousness arises from activity in the brain, but cannot say how. Consciousness is a point of view--an ever changing one--which interprets and understands the objects arising in awareness. And those interpretations are not based upon "reality," but upon a human nervous system (butterflies see a different world entirely), learning, experience, and shared consensual agreement. For example, a nineteenth century photographer once tried to show the photos he had made to his subjects, Alaskan Eskimos, but the Eskimos could not see any portraits; all they saw were abstract patterns of black, white, and grey. They had never learned to interpret a photograph, and so, seeing one for the first time, and having no preexisting idea of how to see it, they could not see it. If your memory is good, perhaps you can recall being a young child and seeing the world without the preconceptions you now carry with you. Often things appeared "strange," and had to be figured out so that they could be fit into your growing experience of shared "reality." Perhaps that crack in the wall was an insect, or a cloud was only inches from your face--that kind of thing. Later, we learn to reject such interpretations as unreasonable, and our world becomes more and more fixed, static, and logical.
So far, so good. The world "out there" is not really out there at all, but arising within awareness, and we do not know what that world is, but only what we imagine it is. If you get that much, hang on, because now comes the kicker. The very same analysis applies to "myself," which is also just an object arising in awareness. I may believe in a "me" that is a kind of fixed center which experiences the world out there, but this is a mistake, an illusion. Yes, it is a widely shared illusion, but that does not make it true, only widely shared. Everything--objects, perceptions, thoughts, and the feeling of "selfness" itself--is like a movie projected upon the screen of awareness. The movie constantly changes, and is subjected to constant interpretation in consciousness, but the screen remains the same. Untouched, pristine, empty.
From the unawakened point of view--the one from which you say you operate--"I" am the center of everything. I have thoughts, I have feelings, I have perceptions, etc. That "I" seems to be a fixed point, an entity which persists through time, has experiences, and can write an autobiography. But that, I say, is an illusion based on mis-identification, or perhaps delusion would be a better word. And it is not an innocent delusion, but one with extremely painful consequences. If "I" am a fixed point, "I' must be protected at all costs because if the center point is lost, everything is lost. Not only the body--which I think is "me," but which really is simply another object arising in awareness--must be protected, but everything else I imagine I am must be protected as well: my reputation, my self-esteem, my relationships, my beliefs--all of it. And, since I seem to be the fixed center to which the imagined outside world occurs, I experience desires for objects in that imagined world, or I fear them. Sometimes I both desire and fear them simultaneously. All of this is a source--the primary source really--of incredible pain. And the worst pain of all, the deepest fear of all, is that "I" will die.
That fear--the fear that "I" will die--is also an illusion, for the plain fact is that "I" is nothing stable at all, but keeps changing from moment to moment, and, as we have just see, arises continually as an object in awareness just like any other object. In other words,"I' die constantly in every moment, only to be replaced by a new "I." But the unawakened point of view cannot stand that idea—that is why it is called "unawakened"--and so keeps keeps looking for something fixed to which it can cling. Since such a fixed point is purely imaginary and never to be found, the mind suffers constant turmoil which it tries, unceasingly, to assuage or relieve through satisfaction of desires, attachment to beliefs, etc. If the imaginary fixed point is called "Enlightenment," or "Buddhahood," or something high-flown like that, then the seeking for it is called "spiritual seeking," but, call it what you will, it's really just seeking, no different from seeking sex, money, whatever. And this is what you say you have been doing for all these years: trying to escape from what is--empty awareness--by seeking something imaginary. Now, having exhausted yourself in this futile search--"at the end of your rope," as you put it--you write to me asking how to end your search, and how you can find what is real.
It always comes down to the same question: "How?" But there is no how. You already are that which you seek. That which you seek is what is reading these words. You are, as they say in Zen, "riding a donkey looking for a donkey." I remember once looking all over the house for my eyeglasses, and then finally catching sight of myself in a mirror and seeing that the glasses were sitting on top of my head where they had been all along. That's you right now. That's the millions of different "myselves" which have been seeking "spirituality" all these many years. It really is that simple.
"Well," I can almost hear you saying. "If it is that simple, why can't I just do it?" Because "you" don't do it. There is no "you" who can do it. The "doing" happens by itself, not when someone does something, but when perception of what "I" is shifts from the illusion of a fixed center of consciousness called "myself who can do things" (which is an illusion that I call "mis-identification") to the pristine, endless awareness in which all objects and perceptions, including "myself" arise and then come to consciousness by means of learned interpretation. Awareness cannot "do" anything. Awareness exists prior to any doing or not doing whatsoever. If this sounds like gibberish, I cannot help that. As Lao Tzu famously said, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao." But please try to understand that the entire work of awakening can happen—must happen--without any effort on your part, and must happen instantly, suddenly. If and when it does, you will be amazed. You might laugh out loud. You certainly will feel, "This is like a joke. This is too simple. This has always been right here. How could I have missed it? Oh, well, it's just too obvious. That's why I couldn't see it."
By the way, you asked how I see the world. I see it just as you see it. I see the same conventionally accepted consensual reality you see, and I operate just fine within that illusion when necessary. And that way of seeing is even "real" in a certain sense. It is a real illusion, by which I mean an illusion which was not just invented like a cinema presentation, but one which arises naturally and organically by the interplay of inborn survival instincts, the vicissitudes of the nervous system, the necessary organization of any society, etc. The difference is that I can see the other view as well. I do see the other view, and I never not see it.
To illustrate this, here are a few drawings, each of which can be seen in two different ways, but which many people can see in only one way--until, suddenly, something shifts, and they "get it."