20. The Universe Begins Right Now

Q: First I fight with you, then I want to appease and impress you. Echoes of father and mother—push and pull. The wanting to kill them off, while still yearning for their approval. Is there no end to this damn thing?

A: We all have mom and dad inside us. That’s part of the human condition. The best way I know is to let go moment by moment of whatever self-assessments may arise, negative or positive. Such judgments are fraudulent because the image of “self” as an entity that can be appraised, evaluated, and stamped with approval or branded with stigma is a fiction—a character in the story I tell myself about myself. Meanwhile, life goes on as it must, and sooner or later each of us exhales the final breath, ending all judgments. If someone can end them sooner, while still breathing, mazel tov.

Q: Yeah, I get that. I know that this is just more of the same old same old, and yet, I still keep wanting to ask you what should I do?

A: It’s not a question of doing anything in particular, but of noticing that no matter what one “does” about it, the feeling of “myself” cannot be made to disappear. That “myself” — the felt myself — must be here in one way or another. If that feeling goes absent while one’s attention is otherwise engaged, it will return. Even the, in some circles, highly sought after nirvikalpa samadhi of the Hindu meditators, which they consider “absorption without self-consciousness,” lasts only so long until self-consciousness returns. If that state were endless, there would be no one to speak of it.

In each instant, things are just as they are. There is no way of improving upon that. In the next moment, something else arises. The moment and its contents are inseparable. They are one and the same flow. That flow cannot be stopped or controlled. If a feeling of dissatisfaction engenders a desire for improvement, then “desire for improvement” is this moment—is the suchness of this moment.

No one controls desire. No one controls thought. You may imagine a separate thinker who is doing thinking, but that thinker is only a by-product of subject-verb-object language structure. Thoughts, thinking, and thinker are mutually co-dependent. If one disappears, they all disappear. They cannot be separated except linguistically. The apparent controller of thought is also a thought, no different from, and no more empowered than, any other thought.

The illusion of being a thinker who has thoughts depends upon belief in a separation between self and world which can be imagined, but does not in fact pertain. One can imagine a borderline between the French Alps and the Swiss Alps. That borderline can be drawn on maps. But in the physical world, no such feature exists. The Franco-Swiss border exists in law and custom, but not in fact. The same is true of the imaginary boundary between “myself” and “the world.” When this is seen — not just theoretically, but evidently — the feeling of self remains, but that feeling is nothing like the tormented discomfort of which you complain.

Q: Having projected some all-knowing father figure, which my father wasn’t, onto you, it seems I want to attack you (him) and bring you (him) down, and test you (him) to see if you (he) will still love me in my rage, accept my rage and not reject me for it. I want him, as Donald Winnicott put it, to allow me to say “fuck you” and still hold me. All very primitive and psychological. And the spiritual quest is bogus, because what I want is not liberation but acceptance and unconditional love, a love which takes me as I am in my imperfection. That is why I cling to the idea of God the father, even though He shows no sign of turning up.

A: My father wasn’t all-knowing either. Far from it.

Q: Did you find a substitute?

A: For a while. Not a father exactly, but a mentor.

Q: Does that heal the wound?

A: No. The “myself” that judges itself wounded is not an entity to be healed, or even a condition to be healed, but a kind of ongoing fantasy story — The Story Of Me — constructed of memory, custom, and habit. Your story may seem to be the history of a wounded “me” looking for acceptance and love, but from my point of view, the story itself is the wound. Having to carry around that stale and tired story, rehashing it continually, and defending it when necessary, is the wound.

“Myself,” I say, is better understood not as a story at all but as the mirror of mind that reflects instantaneously whatever comes before it. That mirror was there when I was a child, and it is here now. To that myself, The Story Of Me seems a mere repetitious fixation that is not “me” at all. Upon seeing that, any necessary “healing” occurs naturally and effortlessly.

As Charlotte Beck put this, “A door that has been shut begins to open. As the door opens, we see that the present is absolute and that, in a sense, the whole universe begins right now, in each second. And the healing of life is in that second of simple awareness.”

Now, having practiced psychotherapy for years, I cannot deny there is a kind of healing that depends upon being seen, heard, and understood by another human being, but this is not that kind. This is not about being seen, but about seeing. This is about suddenly tumbling into the recognition that everything seen, heard, thought, and felt is me. It’s all “myself.” In that comprehension, the universe begins right now.

Q: That’s a relief then. Actually, I gave up on therapy some time ago. I can trot out all the lines about oneness and all the rest of it, but I really do feel like a separate long-lasting independent entity trapped in a body. No matter how I try or what I listen to, it doesn’t shift.

A: Ideas like that cannot be made to shift. They are self-sustaining by their very nature. At least you realize that the pain originates with what you feel, a perspective far more expansive than blaming the world or other people. The next step is to grasp one’s lack of control over thoughts and feelings. No one is making thoughts and feelings, and no one can change them. Thoughts and feelings simply arise as they do, and their source is completely mysterious.

The “trapped myself,” which is an idea — a concept, not an entity — has no way of changing anything or escaping from its alleged trap. So, this is not about making efforts to heal or escape, but only noticing in a “second of simple awareness,” as Charlotte put it, that “myself” is a kind of fantasy, not an entity with powers.

Q: Yeah, I have a very strong sensation of hanging on with white knuckles, refusing to let go.

A: Yes. How ironic. You are hanging onto nothing. In the “second of simple awareness,” everything, including the sense of self, is still here just as it was, only without the judgment, fear, craving, and the rest of that burden. Simple awareness is timeless. “The whole universe begins right now, in each second.”

Q: Excellent. And I’m sorry for attacking you, but I did feel dismissed.

A: No worries.

Eighteen months later:

Q: Hi, Robert. A burning question. I know the following may appear dualistic, but please bear with me.

The sense of self, which Paul Hedderman calls a sense of being “a separate long-lasting, independent entity,” is, he says, an activity generated within the brain. According to Hedderman, neuroscientific enquiry suggests that certain modules and functions within the brain contribute and form a sense of “I, me and mine,” and that these very functions are what give rise to this sense of being a self.

As Hedderman points out, self is not an object, not a noun, but a verb, an activity that he refers to as “selfing.” Thus, it is plausible that certain activities and practices which undermine this activity may eventually lead to a collapse of this identity in an event referred to as satori or awakening. Some of these practices, as described by Nirgun John and Rupert Spira, amongst others, may involve placing the attention upstream of phenomena. I may turn my attention from involvement with my thoughts, associations, memories, feelings, sensations, and perceptions towards that, which knows these phenomena. This activity of attention is what Douglas Harding refers to as the “turning of attention through 180 degrees” from the usual engagement with the content of either the inner or the outer world, towards its source, to the ground from which all phenomena emanate, the noumenon.

From this it follows that if I meditate and pray, or engage in selfless giving and sacrifice, as exemplified in the Christian tradition, or in devotional practices for long enough, or effectively enough, I will change the way in which my brain operates. I will, in other words, dismantle the “I, me, mine,” put a stop to the activity of “selfing”, and so end my delusion of separation, fragmentation and isolation. This will end the unnecessary suffering I subject myself to in the course of living.

So, Robert, to a materialist, the above will seem fair enough. However, if the truth is that all phenomena, from quarks to galaxies, to living organisms, and including myself, are dreamed figures in awareness itself, then Hedderman’s theory cannot be true.

After all, how could a dreamed figure do anything to realize its own absence? The brain I am trying to change in order to see my own true nature has no independent existence of its own. It is as if the character in a novel decides one day to meditate, and having done so successfully, comes to the realization that he is merely a character in a novel. Something is absurd here. Can you shed any light on it for me?

A: I would not say that “all phenomena, from quarks to galaxies, to living organisms, and including myself, are dreamed figures in awareness itself.” Phrases like “dreamed figures,” and “awareness itself,” are tropes popular with spirituality buffs eager to finesse ordinary suffering by convincing themselves that “life is but a dream.” I’ve seen plenty of that. But unless the definition of the word “dream” is stretched all out of shape by taking it to mean any and all perceptions whatsoever, where is the evidence for that view?

Why assume brains are only a materialistic dream in awareness? Who says so, and why do you believe that? And even supposing there is something to be learned from that idea, is that really the ultimate understanding? Is adopting that idea really the end of the road? Is there nothing more to see and understand?

So many people seem eager to glom onto final answers, to rush to judgment, to arrive at the spiritual finish line, but awakening, I say, never ends.

Calling the brain a “phenomenon,” begs the question. When I say “begs the question,” I do not mean the unfortunate recent usurpation of that phrase to mean “raises the question,” but its original usage, for which, unfortunately, there is no substitute. Used rightly, “begs the question” means the logical fallacy of assuming a statement to be true without evidence other than the statement itself.

It means “beggars” (impoverishes) the question by assuming an answer before it is even asked.

So, when the brain is called “a phenomenon,” that begs the question, implying, on no evidence, and as if there were no question about it, that brains arise as objects subsequent to and dependent upon so-called “awareness itself.” In that view awareness is the only thing that “really” exists, and the brain is an illusion or a “dream figure” in awareness.

But what if it is the other way around? What if awareness is the phenomenon? What if awareness does not produce brains, but is produced by them? What if awareness is a result of material interactions in the neurons of brains? What if a neural network of sufficient complexity is the precondition for awareness, so that without a brain there is no awareness? Actually, there seems to be more evidence for that view than for the “dream figure” one, but no one knows. How could anyone possibly know which comes first, brains or awareness? Perhaps the true arrangement involves something we cannot even imagine.

So you walk in on your wife having sex with your best friend. As Henry Miller wrote in Quiet Days In Clichy about his own cuckoldry, you feel as if you just lifted the lid on the trashcan and found it full of maggots. But being cognizant of Vedanta, or at least the pilfering of it that so often passes for spiritual teaching, you tell yourself that your wife and your friend are only dream figures in awareness anyway. Do you feel just peachy now? If you do, that is not, I say, an enhanced form of “selfing,” but dissociation, which is a maladaptive, archaic psychological defense mechanism, not “enlightenment.”

Or you see a defenseless animal being abused, as so often occurs in this cruel world where for some reason overfed people equate bacon with the ambrosial food of the gods. Suppose that ugly sight causes you to suffer, never mind the animal. Do you then tell yourself that pigs are just dream figures anyway, and the anguish in the feedlot is not “real,” so full speed ahead to the buffet? Personally, I have heard enough of that nonsense to last me not just a lifetime, but probably for the rest of this entire yuga [in Hindu cosmology, many thousands of years—Ed.].

If “I am only dreaming anyway” really is the best defense one can find when faced with pain and sorrow, OK. I am not in the habit of kicking out crutches except by request such as yours. But when some “dream teacher” tries to foist off that foolishness upon a bunch of “dream students,” in exchange for “dream money,” or “dream prestige,” that is about as much of that style of “selfing” as I care to witness.

This matter is entirely straightforward. It is a simple noticing of what is always already here, and demands no special knowledge of how the brain functions, nor any practice or method of “changing the brain,” which is changing all by itself just like everything else, and will continue to change until the maggots in the trashcan are consuming it. Trying to avoid suffering by defining “myself” as separated from actual, moment-by-moment experience (pain, sorrow, fear, longing, etc.), is like trying to clean house by sweeping the dirt under the rug. The house may appear clean, but you really know the mess is still there.

When “a character in a novel . . . comes to the realization that he is merely a character in a novel, something is absurd here” you said. Yes, of course. Absurdity, contradiction, quandary, and dilemma must arise as long as one tries to follow paths in a pathless land.

If you want to know the true self, there is no path to it. What you seek is here now. Just stop encumbering this moment with theories, as if more conjecture and discussion would eventuate in “truth.” It won’t. That’s what you called “hanging on with white knuckles, refusing to let go.”

Go ahead, man. Let go. You know nothing about ultimate matters, and no one else does either. “The whole universe begins right now, in each second.”