Where is the Boundary?
An Account of AwakeningDavid Cunningham has been a member of the Center for over twenty years. This is an edited transcript of David's account of his spiritual path and experience of Awakening in 2016. This talk took place at the practitioners meeting on the evening of July 25, 2018, in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks to Sheila Craven for performing the transcription of the recording.
Joel: Welcome, everybody. We have a special program tonight. Our long-time Center practitioner David Cunningham is going to give us an account of an Awakening he had in the fall of 2016.
I’m going to give you a little background because some of you don’t know David. He is really one of my oldest students. Back in 1988 or 1989, he was living in L.A. and he went to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore where I used to work. He asked them, “Do you have any books by Western mystics?” Somebody had remembered me and gave him a copy of my spiritual autobiography, Naked Through the Gate, which had just been published. So David read it, and he wrote me a letter. I wrote him back, and we exchanged a few letters. Then in 1990 he came to Eugene for our person-to-person visit, and we had a good talk then. Somewhere around that time David and his wife Bailey moved up to Anacortes, Washington. In 1994 he started coming on retreats that we were having regularly at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center. He estimates he came on about thirty retreats between 1994 and 2013. Also, during the 1990s, David and Bailey hosted Jennifer and me in Anacortes for a couple of 3-day mini-retreats. They very graciously put us up at their house and invited a bunch of people over for a little seminar with meditation. We continued to correspond over the years. Every once in a while David would write me a letter about what was going on in his path. We’d set up a time to talk and have a conversation. So, he really had a sort of correspondence course relationship with us.
Generally, when this happens with someone in our community, if you all ask them to be a teacher, then they become a teacher at the Center. But I don’t know what our formal relationship with David’s going to be after this, if any, since he still lives all the way up in Anacortes, and he’s not about to move down here. That’s a good thing, because we already have a lot of teachers down here, and we don’t have any up in Anacortes. But we may have some sort of informal relationship with David.
We’ve talked about the Center’s teachings, and he doesn’t disagree with any of our teachings, which is important. I would certainly recommend him as a teacher to anybody who is interested in the mystical path, whether they’re associated with the Center or not. Maybe this being posted on the Internet will let people know that he’s available, maybe people in his area. So, if you know people in that area—how far is it to Seattle?
David: Seattle’s about 75–80 miles south. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive.
Joel: It’s doable, anyway. We’ll see what happens. It’ll grow organically. So, with that recommendation, I will turn this over to you, David, and you can tell us your background, the highlights of your path, what your Awakening was like, and maybe you’ll mention a few things, like what’s happened in your life after.
David: Hi, everybody. So, with that introduction, I’m going to fill in a few in-between spaces.
I got interested in spiritual things at a relatively early age. I think a lot of that was because my family life when I was a kid was very disrupted by a parents’ divorce and all the things that happened around that. It led to a source of real emptiness, or a hole in my life. I think, like a lot of us, something happens that just makes you go, “This doesn’t feel right. This is not working.”
My family was pretty well-off financially. We had a lot of the stuff that you’re told in America you need to have to make you happy. But I wasn’t. So I knew at an early age that the so-called American dream wasn’t true. That made me think, “I don’t feel right. I don’t believe the dream. There’s got to be something else. I don’t know what it is.” So I started looking.
One day, around age fifteen or sixteen, I had a guitar teacher who was into different things. He said to me, “I think you might want to read this book. This is pretty interesting.” It was Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. So I read it, and I understood maybe ten percent of it. A lot of it completely escaped me. But I was sort of awestruck, and it gave me this idea that there is some other approach to life that might bring some happiness in a different way.
Then I finished my senior year of high school, and Swami Muktananda was going to New York in the Catskill Mountains where they had a retreat center. I was able to put together enough money to go and spend the summer there. So, I lived at the Ashram, worked, cleaned dishes, did yard work, whatever. I did all the meditations and retreats. They had a lot of pretty intensive things. I spent the summer doing that.
After I came back home, I started college in Santa Cruz. There were spiritual teachers there that were profoundly influential for me. I spent a lot of time around them for a couple years. They gradually caused me to sway away from Swami Muktananda because I believed that they were enlightened, but they were talking about it to me in English, and I didn’t have to go through all the cultural idioms and the Hinduism and guru worship and all that stuff. I found that really attractive. That went on for a period of a few years.
Then I moved to San Diego, and then back to L.A., where Bailey and I met. I had lost touch with spiritual teachers at that point, and I walked into this Bodhi Tree Bookstore and asked the clerk for a book by a Western mystic. He gave me a copy of Naked Through the Gate. It just really blew me away. It was a story of somebody I felt I could relate to—somebody who was from my culture, spoke my language, a contemporary, roughly. He lived a life I could really relate to. He wasn’t from the Himalayas, wearing robes and all that stuff. That was just really inspirational to me. And I loved the story. I could really relate to it.
So, I wrote to him and we corresponded. Then in 1990 we moved from L.A. to Anacortes, Washington. In late May of 1990, I was headed back to the Bay Area for a short family get together, so I’d be passing through Eugene. I called him and asked if we could meet and chat for a bit on my way down. And we did. One of the biggest, most important things he said to me at that meeting, right off the bat, was a question that I realized subsequently drove the next 26 years of my path. We were talking about no-self and selflessness and all that stuff—which of course I had no real understanding of—and he asked me, “Where’s the boundary between you and me?” The question just stupefied me. I had no idea even what it meant, much less how to answer it. I remember holding up my arm and saying, “Well, I don’t know, uh ...” He sort of giggled and said, “What, your skin, or something?” I had no clue. That question arose later and proved to be really powerful.
My first retreat with Joel was in 1994, and then I’d attend anywhere from one to three retreats every year thereafter until 2013. In-between retreats, the correspondence continued—me asking for help about this or that and reporting whatever experiences I’d had.
In 2001, I started to feel like I’d run aground again, in a different way, but I recognized—especially from some of our conversations—that I was way too much in my head about the teachings, the practices, everything related to that. I didn’t know how to stop that, how to get unstuck there. I had no idea what to do about that. But, I have learned over the years that every once in a while, this flash of intuition will strike that says, “Do this.” I got one of those, and it was to start practicing Tai Chi. So I’ve been doing that now for seventeen years as well. That proved pivotal because it proved to be something that helped me get out of my head and understand the teachings in a really different way.
There’s an exercise you do in Tai Chi called push hands where you go back and forth with a partner. You’re trying to be very subtle, and yet move your partner from their fixed step or position. When you’re working with somebody with forty or fifty years’ experience, and you’ve got one or two and you’re just completely lame, you’ve got a steep learning curve ahead. And I did. Really quickly, I realized he’s saying do one thing, and I’m doing something really different. And I don’t know how to stop that. This is where the parallels with the spiritual path really started to become prominent to me. And the way I learned to stop it was by thousands and thousands of repetitions. We just kept practicing over and over and over. We’d meet privately once a week and work for an hour-and-a-half. You can get a lot of repetitions in that hour-and-a-half just going back and forth and back and forth. So hundreds and hundreds of times, he’d say, “Did you see that mistake? Did you see that mistake?” And it can be a really humbling experience. But on the other hand, it’s a gift—and I really felt like it was a gift. Eventually, it taught me how to pay attention to sensation. I had no problem paying attention to thought, but I had a lot of problems getting out of my head and into any other of the fields. When you’re working with somebody with a lot of experience, and they can show you how your attention is lagging—because he started to do X and I went Y—it becomes obvious: I’m missing something. I don’t know what I’m missing, but I know I’m missing something.
Over the course of years, what happened was I learned to pay attention to sensation without thinking, “He’s doing this, so I should do that.” But it took thousands of repetitions to do. It proved vital to my spiritual path. It was the ability to attend to arising experience and just watch it without having thought jump in and attempt to manipulate it, understand it, you know—fill in the blanks. That was one thing that actually proved really important to me.
I continued to go on retreats. At each retreat, especially for people who don’t live in Eugene, Joel would meet with you privately to just talk about how things were going. And the last several retreats I attended, up until 2013, we would talk, and Joel would smile and listen and nod and say a little thing or two. But, what he was saying decreased each of those meetings. And at the last one, he said, “You know, you’ve pretty much heard everything I have to say. It’s kind of up to you at this point. I’m happy to talk to you, but I don’t have anything new to say.” And that caused me some distress, honestly. I really started to think about it, and I just didn’t really know what to make of it or anything. Then, in 2013, things changed. I was all packed and ready to go to 2013 Fall Retreat when I get a phone call. My mother had died. That cancelled that retreat. And then the retreat after that, some work issue arose, and then somebody else’s health issue arose. For one reason or another, I couldn’t go to the next three or four years’ worth of retreats.
So I sort of buckled down. One of the things that I did was to memorize the instructions for effortless contemplation, which is the last page of The Way of Selflessness. It’s the very last thing in the book before the notes. I would go on walks and repeat it to myself as I was walking, especially the first stanza. The first time I read it, it took my breath away. (Gasps.) So, I knew there was something really important there for me. But I did not know what that was.
Then, one day in 2014, I was walking and repeating that first stanza to myself, which goes like this:
Without fixing your attention on anything in particular, just consider this:
Is there consciousness of sights?
Is there consciousness of sounds?
Is there consciousness of sensations?
Is there consciousness of desires, aversions, emotions?
Is there consciousness of thoughts?
This very Consciousness, which is here right now,
is that eternal, self-luminous Reality
you have been striving to Realize all along.
However, since this Consciousness is already here,
your striving is unnecessary.
And that day, on that walk, at that moment, when that last word went through my head, it was like somebody hit me with a sledgehammer. I became furious with myself—practically a rage. Because I realized what I had just repeated said this Consciousness right now, just as it is, is what you’re looking for. I’m thinking, “What the hell are you doing?” I had spent forty years looking for altered states—divine bliss, divine knowledge, yada yada yada, despite knowing this teaching. I realized this seeking is just complete BS.
For the next two years, that anger became like a gasoline poured on a fire of inquiry. I realize now, the question from twenty some years earlier—“Where’s the boundary?”—really became the guide. The stanza says, “It’s this very Consciousness right now,” and from all these retreats and teachings, I knew intellectually that what the boundary was, was this idea of a self. So, rather than looking for all this other stuff, I’m going to try to find the self that I’m so damned sure exits. That’s the boundary. The only way I could figure to do it was to inquire into sight, sounds, sensations, etc.—the things that actually arose in experience from moment to moment—and to just ask of every one of them, “Is that me? Is that thought me? Is that sensation of my foot hitting the ground me?” And the obvious answer every time was “No. It can’t be. Because it’s gone and you’re still here.” So, for the next two years, whether I was in sitting meditation or walking or at work or going to sleep or whatever, I was engaged in this inquiry constantly. In retrospect, I know what I was doing was destroying every image of something that came to mind that could have been a self.
One day, about two years later—I don’t even know the day, but it was, say, in September 2016—I was walking on the same beach, and doing this inquiry, just walking and paying attention to one step, and the next and next. On one step, one foot hit the ground. “Is that me?” Sensation. And, then, before the next step, before the next foot touched the ground, it was like attention just collapsed inwardly, like it was sucked into a black hole. And there was just an instant recognition. Then a few seconds later, thoughts came up that said, “It can’t be. There is no such thing. There never was.” Those were the words, the thoughts, but there’s just … (gasp) …there’s just vast wide open empty space. There is no such thing as self. It’s just mind-numbingly obvious. Any notion of such a thing just seemed laughable. And I was laughing out loud. Luckily, I was on the beach by myself. Because I’m sure I would have looked like an idiot, but that’s also kind of how I felt. It was like, this is so obvious! How could I have spent the last forty-two years missing this? But I did. And at that moment, that just seemed like the funniest joke the universe could possibly be playing.
Looking for the boundary between you and me, anything and anything—if you actually look for it in your experience—you just don’t find it. I don’t know how many thousands of times you have to do that before your belief that such a thing exists just collapses.
Anyway, that’s probably more or less it. Yeah.
Joel: Very good.
David: Am I forgetting anything, Bailey? You’re supposed to be prompting me. Nothing of any significance? (Laughs.)
Questions and Answers
Joel: Are there any questions? Are you ready for questions, David? Don’t sit down. You’re not done yet! You’re just at the beginning, let me tell you!
Q: Could you say more about the two-year period of time between when Joel’s words hit you like a sledgehammer and when you stepped in the black hole?
David: Yes. What happened in that two-year period was sort of like I recognized that … This is my subjective way of talking to myself, like, “You idiot! What have you been doing? This is what the passage said. How many times have you read this? You’ve memorized it. It’s pointing to now, to present moment experience. Not what you think about it, not that. A sound arises and passes. Okay? So does a sight, etc.” It was like I had to scrap everything. Subjectively, it was like that sledgehammer moment burned down my entire practice. And all that was left to do was constant inquiry. And even meditation, which I did continue to practice, was just a more concentrated form of that. Everything else burned up in that moment. I remember thinking at the time, “You are done, boy. You have spent forty years at this point in some form of practice or another. And you have, in some way or another, bullshitted about a whole lot of it. And now, this is the most rigorously honest thing you can do. Just look at each instant of experience and say, “What is that? Does that prove the self you believe in, or does it not?”
Q: What kind of practices did you have throughout your path?
David: I meditated generally at least twice a day. Twenty minutes or half an hour each time. I did the precepts, the Fundamentals, the whole shooting match. Went on retreats a couple times a year most years. Occasional correspondence. I journaled. All the typical kinds of things, I think. Different times I did mantra practice. Interestingly, up until that moment of running into the wall at high speed, I had never really found a form of inquiry that rang my bell. “Who am I?” just never quite clicked for me. I think because it presupposed there was an “I” there that I’d have to find an answer for. I had to get even more primitive and just look and say, “Okay, this experience is arising right now. Is that me?” Getting that primitive was really helpful for me, because whatever it was would always pass away. “I can see this hand, and now I can’t. So I’m still here. So that isn’t me.” So I spent two years subjecting everything that arose in my experience to that kind of inquiry. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s like a story I’ve heard you tell on retreat before, where there’s this giant brick wall you’re trying to get over, around or through, and it’s too big to go over and too long to go around, so all you can do is start pulling out the bricks one by one. You never know when it’s going to happen, but there might come a time when you pull out one brick and the whole wall comes down. That’s kind of how I think about it. Or, another one of my favorite analogies is somebody once asked Michelangelo, “How did you make the statute of David, such a tall and huge sculpture, out of a block of marble?” His answer was, “Easy: I just chipped away at everything that wasn’t David.” (Laughter.) Right? Turns out in my case, now there’s nothing left but space!
Q: How did your inquiry practice affect your functioning in the rest of your life? Did you have to take a break from it in order to go to work, for example?
Q: How did you deal with the self who’s asking that question?
David: I didn’t. I think that’s a great question and my answer is, I didn’t. Because by that point in time I’d had enough experience with this. I saw it as just a thought, in this case, of another thought. “Who’s the person who’s doing this?” Well, that’s a thought. So, what I would do would be, I’d say, “Okay is that thought me? Is that thought, of that question, me?” And I’d watch and it would also go. “Well, no. It can’t be me.” I didn’t presuppose that there was such a thing, the person who’s asking that question. That was great because it meant everything was fair game. Do you know what I mean? Am I making sense?
Q: So, did it kind of start out like a belief that who I am doesn’t come and go, so that can’t be me. Is that how you got to this? Was that a belief?
David: What was obvious was that awareness was still here. Now, I knew enough of the teachings, at least intellectually, to recognize they were pointing to awareness as being the essence of who and what we are. There’s something about this notion of self that’s like an added extra: The one who “owns” that awareness. That’s what I realized I’m here to explore: Is that really true?
Q: It seems like you started out with this—it was either a belief or a knowing—that you’re not anything that might come and go.
David: I think it was a knowing. Because there’d been enough retreat work and enough meditation that I was pretty confident that awareness was always present. I could never point to a time when it wasn’t. Right? Does that make sense? So, lacking anything else, I just went forward from that point. That was a given as far as I knew at that moment. After all the other practices blew up, from that point on, I was sort of both bereft, but sort of marvelously free too. All that BS just fell away, and I felt sort of aimless and lost and kind of free. Because there was just a knowing inside that this is the only thing that’s left for you to do: Just fanatically investigate every moment you can of arising and passing experience. Not investigate in the sense of trying to figure it out, but just notice, it just comes and it goes. And ask myself, “Is that the boundary between you and me?” And I thought the odds of succeeding at this are about a million to one. But I’m going to die anyway. So, well, what the hell. Just do it. There’s nothing else left. You’ve explored all these nooks and crannies in thought until your head was about to drop off. No more. So there was a sort of knowing underneath, at least: it’s this or nothing. I’m done. And all the rest of it just died in that moment for me. I’ve often called it my moment of running into a wall at really high speed. And it blew up everything. And that moment felt like shit. But it was one of the most important moments on my path.
Q: There’s something you said about your final moment that reminded me a lot of Annie’s report of her Awakening. She said something like, “How can I be completely gone and still completely who I was, at the same time?” And I remember saying, “Could you say more about that?” And she said, “Uh, I can’t.” I’m hoping you can.
David: You know, over the last couple of days I listened to the talks that Todd, Annie and Fred gave after their Awakenings, and I also watched Luke’s. Some crafty guy in the audience asked, “What did you attain?” I just giggled when I heard that. You get absolutely nothing. I have less than I’ve ever had before. I don’t even have me anymore (chuckles). Yet, there’s this body-mind, and I’m aware of it just like I’m aware of that one. You can get really picky with words. You can try and speak really precisely, but it gets incredibly tedious. You could say there’s awareness of the body-mind here, and of one there, and all that awareness looks like it always did. There’s awareness of thoughts and feelings and sensations. There’s just nobody there anymore who owns them. So all that stuff kind of looks the same, but doesn’t belong to anybody anymore. You’ve often talked about the hurricane metaphor—the wind spinning creating the spinning creates the sense of I. Right? Well, my experience, at least so far, is that upon Awakening, some of those winds die down really fast. Some of them keep going for a while, and some of them are still going. I don’t know if all of them ever stop or not. It kind of doesn’t matter. Because again, they don’t belong to anybody, so ... Did I answer at least one of your questions?
Q: You did. I have another question. When I think about my self, an image that describes it is that it’s like an ice tray or some container that water flows into. It has a certain shape, the water takes on that shape, then the water is gone. The water isn’t me, but the container seems like me because it has a more constant kind of feel to it. Even though the content changes in impermanence, that shape—those qualities that everything is cycling through—seems more like a self than the content of the specific sensations or whatever.
David: So, going with your metaphor: What in your experience is the ice cube tray? And, see, what happened with me was I just kept asking that question thousands of times.
Between those two steps, there was not one iota of a shred of an intimation that I was on the verge of anything. Nothing. And the next instant (claps). It’s done. It just so completely awoke in me an understanding and appreciation of what Joel has always said about that moment: there’s nothing you can do to cause it. I had no sense of having done anything that did anything to cause that. It’s just sort of thinking about it objectively afterwards, I thought, “Well, you know, it’s likely that all that inquiry had something to do with it.” I mean, it probably disemboweled the belief system if nothing else.
Q: So, when you asked that question, did you ask it and allow Spaciousness? Did you ask it grasping for an answer? When I ask, sometimes there’s this grasping, or I should make this happen, I should make an answer. And yet sometimes I could ask it and, like, I’ll make spaciousness for myself. Or did you simply ask it with nothing.
David: The latter. The latter.
Q: Without even trying to have no expectation.
David: Right. You know, that moment of running into that wall … I was walking on the beach and I was mentally reciting a passage from the instructions for effortless contemplation from the end of The Way of Selflessness, and in repeating that, there was an instant when everything inside came to a crashing halt, and it was like something just sucked the life out of me and my path, except I was furious at myself for having been such an imbecile for so long, and not paying attention to the words that were right there on the page. And that fury is what powered that inquiry for the next couple of years. It was just ferociously focused. I had no expectation of any success, because when that moment happened, it was like, you’re done. Just, you’re going to do this because there’s nothing else in life for you to do. But your odds of success are like one in a million. So I had no expectation that anything was ever going to happen. If anything like that had arisen I would have just watched that and made that also an object of inquiry. “Oh, little sense of reward coming in the future … What’s that?” It just got really brutally merciless, sort of. It wasn’t like I was enjoying myself.
Joel: Hey, you’re really encouraging these people!
David: Yeah, well, this is how my teachers have affected me. (Laughter.)
Q: So … would you say that you were surrendered?
David: Well, I guess looking in retrospect, I’d probably say that that’s sort of a sensible way of putting it. I never thought about it like that. There was no juice for thinking about that. You know what I mean? It’s like everything else burned up, except I knew I had to do this. And the rest of it was just fluff, gone. So I didn’t think about surrender. I didn’t think about devotion, I didn’t think about bhakti. All I thought about was, “Is this me?” My wife, Bailey, and I talked a lot about this, and this question, “Is this me?” doesn’t really work for her. I think, fine, it was just the weird way I ended up asking a question that could direct my attention to specific phenomena arising and passing. And that is what I think really made a difference. Because I’d been doing this long enough that I knew I didn’t want to get caught up in thinking about my thinking about my thinking. There’s a thought. Watch it come and go. If it’s gone and awareness is still here, that isn’t me. Didn’t matter what it was.
Q: I was fascinated by your expression that there is no self, that there is just awareness. I wanted to ask if there was anything more you could elaborate on that. My next question was how you lose that central illusion.
David: “You” can’t. (Laughter.)
Joel: Oh, you’re in trouble! You are in trouble. (Laughs.)
Getting back to an earlier question—the me that’s asking, or the me that’s watching—at that point there was no tolerance for that kind of nonsense. I knew enough to know that that was thought going on about thought, just spinning its own web endlessly. Now, I spent decades doing that so I was really good at it. So I recognized it. At that point, I just didn’t put up with that. It didn’t fool me anymore. Earlier, it had always captured my attention as an important thought to have: “What about the one that’s watching this? What about that?” Well, it’s nothing other than another thought about another thought. What about it? Who cares?
Q: (Bailey) What would “new Dave” tell “old Dave”?
David: Yeah, we rehearsed this a little bit. (Laughter.) The way she asked it the first time was: “What would the new Dave say to old Dave, because the old Dave is sitting out here in the audience?”
Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never surrender.” I removed “surrender” and inserted “give up.” My life is as normal and pedestrian for this culture at this time in our history as you can find. I’m sixty-one, married, got two adult kids. I’ve worked basically my whole adult life, it just looks as normal as normal can look. I haven’t been to the Himalayas. I haven’t gone to Thailand and meditated for years at a retreat center. But I’ve done what I’ve described. And all this occurred in that context. Ultimately it worked, whatever that means.
Another thing I would say to the old me is—and I’ve only come to appreciate this recently—is the path is really about doing, not understanding or trying to figure out anything. In fact, if you’re trying to figure out anything other than how to do your practice properly, you’re probably wasting your time. So, pick your core practices—whatever they are, meditation, inquiry—and learn how to do them right. There are directions, it’s not like you have to be fanatic about it because sometimes you have to vary them, but stay with it. And if there are teachings that really move something deep inside you—like there was with me with this passage in the instruction for effortless contemplation—take the time and trouble to commit it to memory. Then you can carry it with you wherever you are. Whatever you’re doing, you can bring that teaching to mind and see how you can put that into practice in that moment. For example, let’s say, here I am at my computer, trying to figure out how to get the ballots to the ballot printer on time. Is that a thought? Is it arising? Where is it? It’s in awareness. Now it’s gone. Next. I really didn’t understand this until late in the game. Doing, the path is about doing. Not figuring out anything. If you’re really involved in figuring out something, then good luck.
Lastly, I would say, give it your all. Whatever it is that mobilizes all your resources, find that. Even if it’s something that normally we would label negative, especially on a spiritual path. Like, anger’s verboten, right? Well, that anger that I felt at that moment and that powered me for two more years was critical. It gave me a single-pointed ferocious concentration that just went on unremittingly for two years.
When the whole house of cards collapsed, I didn’t have any thought that that was going to happen before it did. So, give up thinking that things have a way they have to look. Grace could drop on your head in the form of having your path blown up in one instant. You might feel like shit, but that might be the last doorway you have to walk through, and you just didn’t know it.
The last thing I want to say about that is—as most of you have probably heard Joel say a hundred times—nothing I did at that last moment before Awakening caused anything. I’d heard him say a hundred times, it’s just Grace. And I have absolutely no better word to use for it than that. You can’t cause it. All “you” can do is blow up the idea that there’s a “you” in there doing anything. And then the rest is just up to God.
Q: Just for clarification, about your practice: After you hit the wall, you paid tremendous attention to your thoughts and sensations, and you always did a reminder to yourself as it passed, “That’s not me.”
David: Not exactly. I asked myself, “Is that me?” It was a really simple question. And, again, several people who I’ve spoken with about this have said, “Nah, that doesn’t quite work for me.” I would say, great, I’m weird and it’s a weird question, and you shouldn’t think you should adopt that question. But find your own. What that did was it directed my attention to the present moment and whatever was arising in that moment. And when that phenomenon vanished, it’s like, oh.
Q: You also reframed each of those moments from your normal conditioning, which would think “That’s me.” You reframed it by asking that question.
David: The point of the question was to inquire, “Is it true, this belief I have in a self?” And I couldn’t quite find something somewhere in here that I could point to specifically and say, “Well I think that’s me.” I just couldn’t find it, so it left me with dealing with only what arose. That ended up being great because then I didn’t have to figure anything out. Something is always arising, right? There’s always a sound, or sight, smell, whatever. Some years ago I started paying attention as I was falling asleep with my eyes closed. I would pay attention to sound in the distance. I could hear a car go by a couple blocks away. Then I’d pay attention to the sound of a little ringing in the ears. And I’d ask myself, the sound of car out there, ringing in the ear, where is the boundary? It’s just sound. It’s just hearing. And I don’t find the boundary. The more I did it, the more I started to think, this is weird. Why do I arbitrarily say, that car’s out there and that’s not me, but ringing in the ears is me or mine? Based on what exactly am I drawing that boundary? There’s just sound arising and passing in both.
Q: When you say that anger fueled you for two years, did it stay with you, or did you tap into it when you needed to?
David: It was with me really strongly for a while, then it did attenuate or slip into the background. But the mindset that went with it—just the brutal “only this”—that didn’t go. It’s like the visceral emotion was there long enough that it sort of shaped the whole mental outlook.
Q: Do you feel like, in retrospect, some practices during your path were more supportive of having that ferocity of attention in your last two years?
David: I don’t know. I often thought of myself as a not-very-good meditator. I got distracted easily, the attention didn’t stay for long, I’d fall asleep. And yet I knew meditation was vital, and I wasn’t going to give it up. Then there’d be retreats where I’d just pick up these really profound experiences meditating. So I do think meditation probably played a really important part. Probably the biggest part it played was in deconstructing significant parts of the way I thought things were. There was a retreat where Joel said, “We’re going to meditate now. Then part way through the meditation, I’m going to ring the gong and Tom’s going to hold up another, smaller one. When that happens, I’ll instruct you to look up at the gong. And then we’ll talk about it afterwards.” So all that happened, and Joel asked everybody to share. I was the last person to share, and I was reluctant to share because people had talked about a number of experiences they had, and some of them sounded pretty cool. And mine wasn’t. (Laughter.) At the end I raised my hand and said, “You know, when you said look at the gong, Joel, I looked up and I didn’t know what to do. I really didn’t know what to do because as I looked, I didn’t know what a gong was. I saw light over here, and a form here, and color here. But what part of all that was the gong? But those thoughts weren’t really going on. What there was, was confusion.” Joel later said, “That’s significant.” That was fairly late in the retreat. I think meditation at that point was de-constructing experience to a level where my brain couldn’t even really function at that moment in a normal way.
So, objectively, I would have to say, yeah, probably decades of meditation played a significant part. In the end, certainly for me, inquiry played a vital role. But that depended on the set of circumstances that I described. Where all the BS was blown away, and I just had this ferocious concentration. Earlier, I think, in part it hadn’t been so powerful for me because I was so much in my head. When that stuff was all destroyed, it became really different.
Joel: What about Tai Chi? You mentioned that you thought that was important for being able to actually experience sensation without the overlay of thought.
David: For me that was critically important, I think.
Joel: So, if you hadn’t done the Tai Chi, would you have been able to do this last inquiry?
David: I don’t know, because it didn’t happen that way. So I don’t know. Intellectually, I could speculate that, well, maybe something else would have led to that because ultimately meditation did start to reveal it. But the reason I started doing Tai Chi was because I realized that meditation wasn’t doing it. I remember a retreat where we did a lot of walking meditation. That was really powerful for me. I needed something visceral to capture attention so that attention could notice it’s possible to attend to something and not think about it, to just let the experience arise and be whatever it is. Tai Chi did play a really important role for me in that regard.
Q: In your inquiry, when you’re asking “Is this me?” of everything that’s arising, what was your definition of “me”? Was your definition of “me” what is unchanging, or what is always present? Could we substitute the word “real”? How could you look at those things and say, “This is not me?”
Q: I was just curious if dreams played a role in your path.
David: That’s another practice I was just awful at. Dream practice. There are Center members who are really good at that, and I listen to them and I listen to Joel’s dream work, and I’m just awed. I’m crap at that. (Laughter.) For years I haven’t slept great, so I often don’t even remember dreams. So, basically, no. I wish I could report otherwise, but I can’t.
Q: Just out of curiosity, I’m picturing you being so immersed daily, hourly, by the minute, paying attention to your sensations during the inquiry. Bailey, did he seem different? When he was doing the practice, did he appear sort of distracted or more present? What did that look like with him so tenaciously paying attention to inquiries?
Bailey: I definitely noticed that he was intent, but he’s always been pretty intent on his path. That couple of years it was more apparent that he was bringing more focus. There were times where I felt like I might be interfering with what was going on. We never really talked about this. But he was so hyper-focused that sometimes he would be a little short with me.
David: A little? She’s being very kind! (Laughter.)
Bailey: And he’d actually bring it into our relationship as well, and ask me very pointed questions. We’re both on this same path, so it was really interesting to watch him go through it. We’ll talk later (wink) … (Laughter.)
Q: It’s interesting to hear what you’re describing it was like from the outside.
David: I was the advertisement for the good guy from the other side because she did notice it after. When the Awakening happened, I said nothing to anybody—her included—for six, eight weeks. I didn’t call Joel. Talking to Joel hardly ever even crossed the radar screen. It was just—this is so obvious. How could you possibly miss this? What’s the need to even say anything about anything? And then some friends came to stay with us, the Cravens, and we started talking one night, talking about spiritual experiences and stuff, one thing led to another and it sort of came out, the whole story. And Sheila said, “I think you probably ought to get ahold of Joel and let him know.” And then I found out last night that, behind my back, she actually said something to Joel before I even wrote my letter to him. Damn! (Laughs.)
Q: I’m curious if, in this process in the last couple years, as you’d gotten more intent, did you find that at times you went down a dead end or a distraction, like for instance did you find yourself experiencing more bliss?
David: No. Bliss was not a factor at all. (Laughter.) It was miserable some of the time. There was no bliss, at all.
Q: I was curious because when my meditation gets on track I’ll tend to start feeling more blissful, and that can become a distraction. I start expecting that. So you’re fortunate that you didn’t.
David: I do now think that I was fortunate that it was a mercenary frame of mind.
Q: But did you feel more and more a gradual sense of this “don’t know mind”?
David: When you get to the point where absolutely nothing is answering the question, it’s just like, what the hell? What am I? Even if you ask me “What am I?” now, I have no clue. But it’s okay. There’s nobody here anyway to own it.
Q: Part of what you’re saying reminds me of Kenosis. Is that part of your experience toward your Awakening?
David: Sometimes I think there’s sort of a two-year protracted Kenosis. Nail driven in for two years or something. I would actually say that, if you’re going to be technical the way Joel talks about it, Kenosis was like that instant between the two steps. But in a very real way, at least for me, at that point from where I come from, it was a burning down of an awful lot of stuff. So in some ways, yeah, with respect to that quality.
Q: It sounds like you had a really one-pointed focus during those two years. Did you find the worldly things distracting? The stuff with your mother? Politics?
David: Not much. I run elections in the county where I live. That’s a very distracting thing. Never more so than now. So there were things that required my attention, and I had to give them my attention. I suppose ironically I had more attention to give them, because it just shifted. But then when that was over, it went back. And it might have just been at any given moment picking one thing, like that sound, and then one sensation. And it’s like each one just did its little bit of eroding away any concept that anything was ever going to answer that question. But I never thought about it that way as it was going on.
Q: Was this really different for you, from what it had been, say, five years ago?
David: Yes. It was. And this was another thing that I considered to be grace: that running-into-the-wall moment. Before, I was great, I was walking on the beach, I was having a good time. I love the beach, I love this piece of writing. I was saying it, and then … (Clap!) You’re toast, boy.
Joel: You didn’t love it so much anymore, huh?
David: No! (Laughter.) That stanza is still one of my all-time favorite teachings, because for me it’s one of the most succinct pointing instructions that I know of. Because it’s pointing to how we live every instant of our lives. And just saying look, this is it. It’s already here. So what are you doing?
Joel: I just have to say one thing here, because the teaching there is not completely original. It’s an adaptation of a Dzogchen teaching that I’ve just updated for our culture and time and place, and it’s put hopefully into words that will speak to someone from this culture.
David: Which is why I signed up in the first place, right?
Joel: Well, that’s true.
David: That’s what I was looking for. Somebody that could put it to me in a way that I could feel organically, if you will.
Q: Would you consider teaching at a Cloud Mountain retreat?
David: Uh, sure, I’d consider it, if I was asked. It’s just going to depend on my schedule. I’m still working. I still need to work. But, yes, I would.
Joel: In fact, let me ask you this: Are you open to communicating with people, through email or something?
Joel: So if any of you all want to communicate with David, why don’t you afterwards ask for his email and talk about how you go about that, and go from there. Do we think he’s going to be a good teacher? (Clapping and cheering.)
Joel: Now you’re really in for it! So, the Center’s board will talk about what kind of formal relationship we’ll have, or it might just be informal, like our relationship with Andrea. But in any case, David is willing to teach and the only way that happens is if people ask him questions, so it’s up to you all. And if you know anyone in his area, you can turn them on to him and we’ll see how it goes.
Thanks so much for coming down, David. We really, really appreciate it.
David: Thank you for having me.