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RICHARD SYLVESTER
Interview with non-duality magazine

 

NDM: Can you please tell me about your childhood religious belief systems. What did you learn about 'God' from your parents, school and society in general. What was the impact of this religious indoctrination had on you?

Richard Sylvester:  When talking about nonduality, questions about our personal history can be misleading. Liberation is impersonal, and as such has nothing to do with the story of the individual who is reporting on it. As soon as we start to tell this story, we may be thought to be implying that there is a causal path that led to liberation, where no such causal path can in fact exist. Why any individual's head is caught in the tiger's mouth is always a mystery.

Nevertheless I'll answer your question in the spirit in which it is are asked. My parents were  agnostic humanists who brought me up with no creed. The concept of 'God' had little meaning in our house other than as a philosophical concept or a superstitious idea. At school the dullness of assembly greeted me every weekday morning – the dreary hymns, the mumbled prayers requesting God's favour to fall particularly on our ruling class, the empty words of the address given by an unenthusiastic teacher in a black gown.

In spite of the tedium of school assemblies and Christian Sundays in England before the loosening of the Sunday trading laws, I did have a brief flirtation with Christianity when I was about sixteen. This was partly because my school was very strict, and the local church youth club was one of the few places we were allowed to go where we could meet girls. A pushy young curate at St Nick's got hold of my soul and I was actually confirmed – I guess to the horror of my mother. But the God vaccination failed to take properly, and by the time I left school there were other opportunities for meeting girls. Christianity fell away from me shortly afterwards.

NDM: Can you tell me about your pre-awakening period and your early spiritual seeking? How did this begin? What kind of methods did you try, what gurus did you follow, and what books did you read? What results, if any, did all this bring?

Richard Sylvester:  I'm sorry to be so picky about language, but I would not call it 'my pre-awakening period'. Liberation is the dropping away of the person, the seeing that there is no one who has ownership of anything. Neither the story before awakening nor the story after awakening is owned by anyone.

But again, I'll enter into the spirit of your question, and write a little about my spiritual roller-coaster ride, which was like many other people's at the time. First, a major acid trip in my early twenties revealed that there is, as it were, an intimate connection between consciousness and reality. This everyday reality, and the nature of time and space within which it unfolds, is only one possible version of reality. Tinker with the chemistry of the brain with a small quantity of L.S.D., or some other drug, and a quite different reality emerges.

In some ways this powerful acid trip was like being kicked in the head by a mule, and I do not recommend it. Nevertheless the trip, combined with a certain amount of existential despair and some reading of Alan Watts, led me into some amateurish and failed efforts at the practice of Buddhist meditation and an interest in Yoga. Then, at the age of thirty, after a broken relationship had added a little more despair to my life, I stood one sunny May afternoon on the doorstep of the Transcendental Meditation Centre in Pimlico holding a bag of fruit and feeling pretty foolish.

Transcendental Meditation, like acid, was a revelation. In that first meditation, having handed over my bag of fruit, I felt as though I was bathed in warm honey and experienced a freedom and free-floating happiness that I had never experienced before.

I became a fanatical meditator, sometimes turning up at dinner parties and demanding a spare room to meditate in before I would join the other guests for soup. I talked frequently to my friends about Transcendental Meditation, and a few of them paid large sums of money to learn it but got little or nothing from it. I went on TM retreats and determined to 'de-stress' as much as possible. I considered giving up my reasonably paid job as a lecturer in order to train as a TM teacher. Then, after two years, I heard the words 'Guru Raj Ananda Yogi' and fell in love with My Guru.

'The Teacher Who Is The Yogi King Of Love' was a short round charismatic man with dark limpid eyes. I have given a brief account of his career as a guru in my book 'I Hope You Die Soon'. He taught very powerful meditation techniques, involving mantras and candles and mandalas and chants and a huge Tibetan gong, and I became one of his teachers. Then, after about three years, the scandal hit the fan and his organisation imploded.

Cast adrift, I looked around for another guru to fall in love with. I hung around Muktananda's ashrams for a while but never felt any pull towards him, nor towards either of his pair of young replacements after he died. And soon scandal engulfed them too. Scandalous revelations were becoming an occupational hazard of being a guru, and several guru cults self-destructed at about this time. Although I'd accumulated three spiritual names (two Yogic and one Shamanic), the Guru Raj years proved a complete inoculation against any further involvement with gurus. I continued meditating for many years, and even now practise tai chi which might be considered a replacement, but I never spent quality time with a guru again.

After a few years of following gurus and doing spiritual practices, it became clear that yogic meditation techniques were very effective at stirring things up, but not so effective at dealing with the psychological and emotional after-effects. So like many other people I became involved with psychotherapy, firstly through 'POPS', or 'Psychologically Orientated Groups', such as EST and Self Transformations, then through personal one-to-one therapy, and finally through training as a Humanistic psychologist and therapist.

I was always drawn in therapy to a mixture of Transpersonal and Humanistic approaches, and I respect those therapies that combine the two, such as 'Spiritual Encounter'. Without the transpersonal, humanistic approaches can eventually hit a wall, and without the humanistic, transpersonal approaches can suck you into an endless round of visualisations and forgiveness processes. The temptation for some of us to float away into spiritual realms without doing the work of bucketing out the mud and silt from the bottom of our well, to use Robert Bly's wonderful image, can lead to what Eva Chapman calls “Sugar on shit.” This is why, under the aura of love and peace, some spiritual people often seem so irritable. By the way, I strongly recommend Robert Bly's book 'Iron John' to anyone who either is a man or who knows a man.

NDM: In your book 'I Hope You Die Soon' you refer to seeing that there is no separation. How is this "seen" exactly and what does seeing it mean?

Richard Sylvester:  From the time that self-consciousness first arises when we are very young children, most of us feel that we have a separate identity and exist as a subject in a world of objects. The thoughts, feelings and perceptions that arise seem to be my thoughts, feelings and perceptions, and consciousness seems to be coagulated here in my individual being, although by extension we assume that other people have their individual consciousness as well. In other words we live in a world of separation and differentiation.

At any moment it is possible that this sense of separation into an individual identity may simply drop away. If it does, it is seen that there is in fact no separation and no differentiation, that there is only emptiness out of which all apparent phenomena arise. The Buddhists describe this very well when they speak about “Empty phenomena rolling by.” I will quickly add, in case this sounds existentially depressing, that when liberation is fully seen, the emptiness from which everything apparently arises is also seen to be full of love. In other words, every phenomena is the outpouring of love.

NDM: When you write "the sense of vulnerability and fear that attaches to the individual falls away" does this mean that vasanas, samskaras and karma, also fall away at this time?

Richard Sylvester:  My charismatic guru gave some exciting and colourful talks about vasanas, samskaras and karma. These talks were very sweet and inspiring, because at the time they were listened to by a mind that wanted to believe in them and the evolutionary path to enlightenment that they implied.

 

I Hope You Die Soon.

 

'Vasanas', 'samskaras' and 'karma' are stories that seek to make sense of the mystery of being. Many other stories seek to do the same, such as the stories of the Kabbalah , of Buddhism, and of salvation through the love of Jesus. If you want one of these stories, have it. But while you are following it, the wonder of presence is being missed.

Particular personalities will be attracted to particular stories, but in general all minds seek for meaning, and many minds are attracted to stories that seem to explain injustice and to promise justice, if not in this lifetime, then in the next or in the one after that. This is why the story of karma is so delightful. The mind hates the idea that it can get no purchase on liberation, that where liberation is concerned it is in reality helpless and none of its stories count for anything.

By the way, the stories of vasanas, samskaras and karma are excellent ones for explaining certain psychological tendencies and processes that go in on people, just as Freud's stories or Jung's stories provide excellent modern alternatives which require fewer metaphysical beliefs.

NDM:  You write “Liberation cannot be described in words. It cannot be understood by the mind. It cannot be seen until it reveals itself. Then no words or ideas are able to express it and no mind is able to grasp it.” However Vedanta says the exact opposite. The Vedas - the secret forest teachings, and the Upanishads - the Chandogya, Kena, Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Katha, Mundaka, Taittriyaka, Brihadaranyaka, Svetasvatara, Isa, Prasna, Mandukya and the Maitri Upanishads, all say the opposite. The writings of Adi Shankara, Ramana Mahârshi, Jńâneshvar, Vasishtha, Ashtâvakra, Nisargadatta, his Guru Siddharâmeshvar Mahârâj, Yajńavalkya, Nâgârjuna and many others all describe exactly what liberation is and even how to attain it step by step. They lay out a clear-cut method, through self-enquiry, Atma vichara, and Karma, Bhakti and Jnana yoga, of how to do this and they say exactly what liberation is with words and concepts, so that the mind clearly understands it. In fact they say that if the mind does not understand it, liberation is not possible.

What are your thoughts on this?

Richard Sylvester: Perhaps some of us have too much respect for the words of dead Indians. Others of us may have too much respect for the words of dead Hebrew prophets or dead Italian Cardinals. Therefore we do not recognise how over the centuries the mind builds complexity on complexity on top of an original insight into ultimate reality, like the monstrous temple built on top of Nasruddin's dead donkey.* The original seeing of liberation could never in any case have been put into words, as the Buddha recognised.

The idea that oneness would need to follow a particular path with prescribed procedures in order to reveal itself is utterly absurd, an invention of the mind and the egos that attach to it. And you cannot put enlightenment in a box and sell it. Oneness is neither a petty bureaucrat nor a door-to-door salesman. Oneness is the lover who is constantly whispering in our ear “I am here. I am closer to you than you are to yourself. Notice me.”

There have been many hints of the real nature of liberation in many cultures and at many times. Some of the clearest are from the Upanishads, for example:-

“The Scriptures even proclaim aloud: there is in truth no creation and no destruction. No one is bound and no one is seeking liberation. No one is on the way to deliverance. There are none who are liberated. This is the absolute truth, my dear disciple. This, the sum and substance of all the Upanishads, the secret of secrets, is my instruction to you.”

Usually these hints have been misunderstood or ignored, because they offered no purchase for power or wealth to be built on them. They were instead the purest expression of anarchy. Some who hinted at this were murdered by the sects and creeds that held power at the time. I'll quote from just one of these, Marguerite Porete. Before being executed by the church in the early fourteenth century, she wrote “Now this soul has fallen from love into nothingness, and without such nothingness she cannot be all”, and “If you do not understand, I cannot help you. This is a miraculous work, of which one can tell you nothing, unless it is a lie.” Perhaps you recognise an echo of the Kena Upanishad here - “Advaita is not an idea. It is! The lightning flashes, the eye blinks... Then? You have either understood or you have not understood… If you have not understood, too bad!” Nor was Marguerite Porete impressed by those who sought sanctity through morality, writing “the annihilated soul is freed from the virtues”.

*One day, Nasruddin's father, who was a famous spiritual teacher with a huge temple and many thousands of followers, became so fed up with his wastrel son that he sent him packing with just the clothes he stood up in and his decrepit and aged donkey for company.

Nasruddin roamed aimlessly till he was far from home in a strange country. He was miserable and tired and to make matters worse, his donkey suddenly keeled over and died. Nasruddin was so downhearted that he just sat down in the dirt beside the dead donkey and sank his head into his hands.

After a while, a group of travellers came by. They saw Nasruddin sitting wretchedly by his donkey's corpse and they said to each other “This poor man has been so saddened by the death of his donkey that he does not even have the heart to bury it. Let us out of charity bury the beast for him.” So they set about burying the donkey and then proceeded on their way, leaving Nasruddin sitting silently by the burial mound.

After a while some more travellers came by and seeing Nasruddin and the mound, they thought that perhaps Nasruddin was grieving the loss of a friend. They too took pity on him, saying “See. This poor unhappy man is so saddened by the loss of his friend and travelling companion, that though he has buried him he has no strength to erect a little memorial for him. Let us build a small pile of rocks on the burial mound to comfort the wretched fellow.” So they built a little cairn of rocks and went on their way, leaving Nasruddin sitting silently by the cairn.

Some time later another group of travellers came by. Seeing Nasruddin, the mound and the cairn of rocks they thought that perhaps a rather important man, perhaps a teacher, had died and that Nasruddin might be his devoted follower who would not leave his grave. So they determined to build a little mausoleum over the grave to show respect. Nasruddin watched them without saying a word and continued to sit there after they'd left.

After a while, another group of travellers came by. Seeing Nasruddin and the rather impressive little building, they thought perhaps that Nasruddin might be a teacher and the mausoleum his temple, built maybe by some followers of his. Out of respect, they added a wing at both ends of the temple, and then sat down by Nasruddin to imbibe his wisdom.

Gradually, more and more travellers came by. Each added a little more to the temple, then sat to drink in the spirit of this master, until there was an enormous temple and there were hundreds of followers. Still Nasruddin hadn't said a word. As Nasruddin's fame spread, the hundreds of followers became thousands, until word even reached his father, far away in his own temple, about this great holy man who had so many devotees.

Nasruddin's father determined to travel to this teacher to see for himself his great spiritual aura. Eventually he reached the huge temple, and after pushing his way through the great throngs of people he was astonished to see his son, the wastrel Nasruddin, sitting on a great velvet cushion on an ornate golden throne, still not saying a word.

As soon as he was able to, his father approached Nasruddin in private and said “My son. I'm amazed. Tell me, how did you become such a great teacher with so many followers?” So Nasruddin told him everything, starting with the dead donkey and finishing with the mighty temple and the crowds of devotees.

When he had finished his father looked at him in silence for a moment and then said “That's incredible. Exactly the same thing happened to me.”

NDM: You write “Language by its nature describes duality. There is no language to describe nonduality.” What about vedic sanskrit? What about the poetry of the Sufi mystics such as Rumi, or the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, or Zen Haiku? What about dance and theatre and art? What about the following:-

“Crossing long fields,

frozen in its saddle,

my shadow creeps by.”

Richard Sylvester:  There is Emptiness, No Thing, the Absolute, out of which Fullness, Everything, the Relative, pours forth in unconditional love. Of course the Relative is not different to the Absolute – it is No Thing appearing as Everything.

Words can only describe phenomena, the stuff that happens. There are no words to describe No Thing. Even words like 'emptiness' and 'silence' can only be pointers to the seeing of liberation. Nevertheless, as you suggest, poetry and prose, theatre, dance and the visual arts as well as humour can all sometimes point towards liberation in a beautiful way. One of my favourite pointers is this:-

“How can we ever lose interest in life?

Spring has come again

And cherry trees bloom on the mountains.”

(Ryokan)

 Another favourite of mine, perhaps because I am quite lazy myself, is the following:-

“Among a thousand clouds and ten thousand streams,
Here lives an idle man,
In the day time wandering over green mountains,
At night coming home to sleep by the cliff......
How pleasant to know I need nothing to lean on,
To be still as the waters of the autumn river.”

(Han-Shan)

NDM: When you write 'the sense of self suddenly disappears. I do not live, I am lived. I do not act, but actions happen through me, the divine puppet', are you referring to not being the doer or the actor?

Richard Sylvester: Yes. It is seen in liberation that there is no person who does anything. “Actions there are, but no doer thereof” is a traditional way of putting this. But we should also beware of this phrase 'the divine puppet'. It is only a metaphor and of course there is no puppeteer. If we do not recognise this, we are likely to gallop off after another story of meaning and significance.

NDM: Then you say: 'However during the next year the self-frantically tries to reassert itself, sometimes apparently very successfully as issues manage to re-emerge, as boredom, emotional pain somehow still have to be experienced.' Do you still experience emotional pain, boredom, irritation, anger, anxiety, frustration and so on?

Richard Sylvester: These words refer to a period which is sometimes known as 'the desert', which can be experienced between awakening (a sudden glimpse of the emptiness of the self) and liberation (the seeing that there is both emptiness and fullness and that the nature of oneness is love). In this desert, all the stories about personal seeking have been seen through, but the separated seeking self still seems to remain a reality. This often results in a sense of hopelessness and despair.

The seeing of liberation has no necessary implications. Anything that occurred before the seeing of liberation could occur after it. It could not be liberation otherwise, for liberation is all-embracing. Nevertheless, liberation is a profound energy shift, and there is a tendency for certain feelings to lessen or to drop away entirely. For example many feelings have a distinctly neurotic element to them, such as irritation and anxiety. These might disappear. Other feelings, which could be described as more natural feelings, might actually get stronger, so instead of a long period of neurotic irritation there might be a short period of natural anger. Liberation has been described as living with the blinkers removed – everything is more raw and immediate when the person is no longer in the way filtering and toning down experience.

The topic of what experiences happen here is not very interesting. But since you've asked, I'll report that boredom and depression are now unknown. Boredom is unknown because this, presence, is seen not only to be all that there is, but also to be enough, so the ordinary and the everyday becomes fascinating. Depression is unknown because there is no longer a person here suppressing natural feelings and draining the colour out of life.

NDM: And what about contentedness, joy, or happiness? Do you feel any of these?

Richard Sylvester: These feelings, like any feelings, can come and go. Liberation is the seeing that they do not come and go for anyone.

Dudjom Rinpoche said “Even in the greatest yogi, joy and sorrow still arise.”

NDM: What about problems - external problems like paying the bills or internal problems like fear?

Richard Sylvester: Before liberation, paying the electricity bill. After liberation, paying the electricity bill.

Fear is a natural feeling. Without it we would long ago have been wiped out by sabre-toothed tigers.

NDM: You write 'Liberation does not bring unending bliss. For that try heroin, prozac or a lobotomy.'  What do you mean by bliss?

Richard Sylvester: For many people, bliss is the ultimate pot of gold at the end of the spiritual rainbow. We might notice that the end of any rainbow retreats from us at exactly the same speed that we try to approach it.

As long as we are searching for bliss, we are missing the wonder of this. Bliss is another experience, another feeling. Liberation is neither an experience nor a feeling. In liberation it is seen that bliss has no more meaning or significance than any other experience. Liberation is so far beyond bliss that they are not even within the same paradigm.

But as long as we feel a sense of separation, as long as we feel incomplete, it may seem natural to search for bliss.

NDM:  Lao Tzu wrote 'Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.' If this is the case then why write books about this at all? What is the point of trying to articulate the ineffable. Is it, as Alan Watts said, to try to take some of the effing out of it?

Richard Sylvester: Your quotation from Lao Tzu is pithy and pointed. Of course if we take it literally, we wipe away the Upanishads, the Buddhist sutras, and everything else ever written about this. Maybe that would not be a bad thing. The Buddha said “Believe nothing, no matter who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I know that this saying is authentic because I found it printed on a bar mat in a pub in Wales.

Liberation does not need scriptures or gurus or priests to make itself known. One moment there's somebody crossing a field, the next moment there's nobody crossing a field yet it's seen that crossing a field is still happening. The non-existence of the person is seen in that. Nothing written or spoken, nothing studied and no technique, can have any purchase here.

Let's be clear, there is no reason to write books about this and there is no point in trying to articulate it. Nevertheless, oneness obviously sometimes enjoys attempting to write or talk about itself in as clear a way as possible.

Please excuse the personification of oneness in that last sentence. It's not intended, it's just a  consequence of the nature of language.

It is part of the madness of the mind that it always looks for a point to everything and for reasons why. The mind rarely regards anything as sufficient in itself. The mind takes an instrumental view and treats most things as a means to an end.

I love Alan Watts' remark. I hadn't come across it before. If anything I've effing written has taken some of the effing out of the ineffable, I shall be very pleased.

NDM:  What is the difference between doing psychotherapy to purify the subconscious mind and deal with the shadow, and doing self enquiry or jnana yoga?

Richard Sylvester: Quite probably there is no difference, except that the techniques used are sometimes different. Eastern philosophy, unlike modern Western philosophy, has always been very practical. It is probably best to regard advaita vedanta and Buddhism as psycho-philosophies, as combinations of psychological and philosophical insight. The effectiveness of certain ancient Eastern practices in dealing with psychological and emotional problems is now being acknowledged within our mental health services, where, for example, techniques derived from Buddhism are being used with patients to very good effect. Many mental health workers have now been trained in mindfulness.

NDM:  Do you believe in cause and effect? Or is everything a-causal?

Richard Sylvester: In your dream last night you may have waved you hand at a taxi in the street, causing that taxi to stop and pick you up. But when you woke up you could see that actually nothing had happened – there was no taxi, no street, no waving of your hand.

Or a week ago you may have gone to see a film in which Humphrey Bogart's steady gaze and proferred cigarette lighter caused Ingrid Bergman to fall in love with him. But you know that this was an illusion, just flickering light falling on a screen.

Perhaps these metaphors are useful, perhaps not. But in this waking dream it is much the same. In this dream of time and space there seems to be cause and effect. In liberation this is seen through and it is known that there is only this, presence, in which the dream of cause and effect arises.

NDM. What about Dharma? What about Morality?

Richard Sylvester: The idea that we have a special dharma is a story which is very appealing to the ego of the person. But when it's seen that there is no person, there can be no dharma because there is only this.

Morality also belongs to the person. If you want to concern yourself with morality, I'd suggest that all that is needed is the golden rule. This is so simple that a child of seven can understand it. Perhaps that is why there is a version of it in many different cultures. It simply says “Do not do to other people anything that you would not want them to do to you.” That's pretty comprehensive.

NDM. What do you mean when you write about liberation being 'seen'? What about 'knowing'? What about 'understanding'?

Richard Sylvester: There are no good words for describing this. I could have written 'sensed' or 'known', but 'seen' seems to me to be the nearest that words can get.

The trouble with 'understanding' is that it implies that concepts about liberation are relevant here. But they have no relevance at all. It is possible to see liberation with no understanding of it, or to have an exquisite understanding of liberation but without seeing it. The first is like enjoying a cake without knowing what the ingredients are. The second is like knowing what the ingredients are without ever tasting the cake.

NDM. Do you have a an aversion to Indian gurus and wisdom traditions because of the negative experiences with your own 'guru of the single malt' which you write about in 'I Hope You Die Soon'.

Richard Sylvester: My experiences with my 'guru of the single malt' were overwhelmingly positive. That was the most enjoyable ride that I went on in the Spiritual Fun Fair.

But when the person drops away, all stories of becoming, all stories of evolutionary paths to enlightenment or other forms of salvation, are seen for what they are, as simply stories. So they lose their fascination, and it becomes difficult to hang around them any more except for the sake of old friendships or for the sheer colour and entertainment offered by some of them. I prefer to walk round the park and drink coffee by the lake now.

NDM: You write about words being pointers. But in traditional Vedanta words are more than pointers, they deliver knowledge and remove ignorance. For example, the word 'awareness' is not a pointer, it is awareness.

Richard Sylvester: We will just have to agree to disagree about this one. The word 'awareness' is just a word. Awareness itself can never be put into words. We're back to Alan Watts and the effing ineffable.

NDM: Some of what you write sounds very close to existentialism. Are you an existentialist? If not, what are you?

Richard Sylvester: An existentialist is someone who has seen through all the stories about meaning and purpose but still feels themself to be a separated person. This often leads to depression.

In liberation, all the stories about meaning and purpose fall away because the person has been seen through. This does not tend to lead to depression. Instead, for the first time, the glory of presence is seen.

I am, perhaps like you, a very ordinary bloke. I am, as you are, also the light in which everything arises, and so is Lizzy and Tommy and Jimmy and Anne. It would be more accurate to say “There is only the light in which everything arises.”

NDM: When you speak of liberation, what are you liberated from?

Richard Sylvester: I am not liberated. No one is liberated. There is no such thing as a liberated person. Anyone who claims to be a liberated person, or to be an enlightened person, is by that very claim disqualifying themself from having anything authentic to say on the matter.

Liberation is seen, impersonally, when the person drops away. It makes as much sense, by the way, to say that there is in any case only liberation, that being awake and being asleep are the same thing. However, in being awake they are known to be the same thing, but in being asleep it is believed that there is a difference, and therefore it is thought that there is a pot of gold to search for.

NDM: What are your thoughts on neo-advaita?

Richard Sylvester: I've come across the suggestion that there are three kinds of advaita. According to this description, in traditional advaita there is both liberation and a path to liberation, in neo-advaita there is liberation but no path to liberation, and in pseudo-advaita there is neither liberation nor a path to liberation.

The idea that there are three  kinds of oneness, or three kinds of not-twoness, is very entertaining. It generates a great deal of heat on the internet, which even spills over into 'web-rage', the internet equivalent of road-rage, at times. But it has no importance.


For more info about Richard and his work please visit  www.richardsylvester.com 

Also see his interview with conscious TV.  Click on the non duality tab.