Fred Chambers, a member of the Center's Practitioners Group since 1992, had an Awakening on the 2005 Fall retreat. Following is an edited transcript of a talk Fred gave on 29 March 2006 to other Center practitioners in which he shares for the first time the experiences leading up to and following this event.
Consciousness Unveiled: An Account of Awakening
Joel: I just want to say a few words of introduction. Fred first came to the Center in 1992. So he is one of our longest, veteran practitioners. Last year, during our Fall Retreat, Fred came to see me about halfway through the retreat, and he started reporting something. It was kind of garbled, and I didn’t quite know what he was talking about at first. It wasn’t a normal report, like, “Well I am having some trouble with wandering mind,” or “I am having trouble with bliss,” or something like that. And then he started explaining to me what happened. What initially I read was that he had had a very clear insight into the non-existence of the self. And this is a very profound insight to have on a spiritual path. But it is not full enlightenment. It’s really important, but it’s sort of the negative side of the coin, and there are two sides to the coin. The way I sometimes have expressed this in the past is with the story of Cinder in the closet. So I retold the story of Cinder in the closet to Fred.
I said, “Look, this is like this cat I have, Cinder. When Cinder was very young, my wife Jennifer trapped her. She was feral. We brought her into the house and, of course, she would hide in all the places she could hide and even after she became a little bit more domesticated she still loved to go and hide, especially at night. She would climb into this closet jammed with all sorts of stuff and all sorts of shelves with sweaters piled on them. She would get in there and bury herself someplace. She was still a little kitten at this point, so often we wouldn’t find her and close the closet door and she’d be trapped in there all night. So we learned not to go to sleep until we had really thoroughly checked out the closet to make sure she wasn’t in there. We would go in there and feel around in all the places she could hide. And if we didn’t find her in the closet we felt pretty safe closing the door. But we weren’t absolutely certain until we walked out into the living room and saw her, for example, watching the fish in the fish tank. Oh! Now we knew for sure, she wasn’t in the closet.”
This is the other side of discovering there is no self. You can have a very clear experience that there is no self, but then “What is there?” is the question. And the idea here—and it is a crude analogy—is that there is another shoe to drop. So one shoe drops, “no self,” and then there’s another shoe to drop. Dr. Wolff talked about this—it’s not the realization of a Nothingness, but of the absolute Fullness. So I said, “Go out and see if the other shoe doesn’t drop.” Now Fred’s not a man of many words, so he went off, and maybe a day later or two later I looked up at the Cloud Mountain bulletin board where people leave messages, and here was a message for me. I opened it up and it said:
Cinder and I, we are through.
Consciousness is the other shoe.
My first thought was, Cinder isn’t through—but, actually, that is not true. When you are enlightened, every being is enlightened. There are the famous zen ox-herding pictures, ten pictures that represent the ten stages in the spiritual path; in the last picture, after all the fireworks, the guy says something like “I go down to the marketplace and I go into the wine shop and I buy some wine and everybody I look at is enlightened.” So, yes, it is true, Cinder—and not only Cinder but everybody and everything else—is enlightened, is through.
And again, “Cinder and I, we are through.” That’s an interesting pun there. We are through the gate? The title of my book is Naked Through the Gate. Or we are through, as in we are finished, it is done, finished. So it is very rich to have “Cinder and I, we are through.” And then, “Consciousness is the other shoe” refers back to what we had been talking about, that the other shoe has to drop. But “shoe” is “shore” without the “r.” In Buddhism they talk about going to another shore. So you can read it as “Consciousness is the other shore.” You cross the ocean of samsara and you arrive at the other shore. This is a very rich little Haiku. One of the things about enlightenment is that it sparks these very personal expressions of it that you can’t find in a book. That is what a teacher listens for, not just a regurgitation of a teaching that’s been heard; it comes out in a very fresh, new way. When I read that note, I said, “Ah ha! Okay!”
However, over the years I have learned to be a little cautious about these things. People do have genuine gnostic flashes, and even gnostic episodes, but they don’t always stick. So we talked about it a little, as has become my custom, and we decided to wait before announcing this to everybody. When we talked about it again several months later, Fred said he was ready to come out of the closet. I warned him; I said “You may not want to come out, you may want to stay in there,” but he’s already been doing some noticeably crazy things. He’s been singing wildly at our parties, and sending out poems all over the place, and so on. So perhaps it is better to bring it all out into the open before rumors start to spread that he is getting Alzheimer’s or something like that.
So, without further ado, I am going to invite Fred to come up and say whatever he wants to say, and then there will be time for questions.
Fred: I didn’t think I had much to say at first, but then it kind of mushroomed as I was writing things down. I guess it is kind of exciting. I’ve been on the other side of this several times; I sat in the audience and heard Todd’s talk, and Andrea’s and Tom Kurzka’s [ed note: Todd Corbett, Andrea Pucci, and Tom Kurzka are three of Joel’s students who spoke at the Center about their awakenings.]. It was interesting what kinds of thoughts and emotions arose for me: being inspired, “Oh man, I can do that, I want to do it too,” to the opposite, being envious and jealous, “Gee that should have been me, what are they doing up there?”
So whatever arises for you now and afterward, it’s just perfect. I mean, it’s got to be if it arises. It’s just that nobody’s there to make it arise; that’s all you’ve got to realize.
I’ll start with a story about St. Christopher. Joel used to mention St. Christopher every two or three years, this patron saint of travelers. I don’t know why, but I always felt an affinity with St. Christopher. Looking back, I think it was because of the persistence of his search, for one thing, and also because of his arrogance; and, oh, fear, fear too. These are things I can relate to.
I thought he had been de-canonized and was no longer a saint, but the Wikipedia on the Internet says that’s not true, he was just kind of downsized. He’s like a holy helper now. He is still a saint but they took him off the calendar of saints because there was not enough proof of his actual existence. So now he is kind of a mythical saint, which I think is probably better because that lets me take some poetic license with this story.
So anyway, he was a real large character; he was about 18 feet tall in this legend. That might be a little exaggeration, but he was a big fellow and had kind of a wicked-looking face, a fierce countenance. He served this local king and then he decided that he would only serve the greatest king of the land; that was probably his arrogance. He knew he was a great guy, so he was only going to serve the greatest king. So he left this local king and went out searching and he eventually found a king who everybody said was the greatest king in the land. So he started helping the king in whatever tasks he was asked to do.
One day a traveling minstrel came by and was singing a song about the devil. The king made the sign of the cross every time the devil was mentioned. And so Christopher wondered, “What’s going on here?” He questioned the king and found out that the king was afraid that the devil might have some power over him, so he made the sign of the cross to protect himself. And so Christopher says, “My hopes are dashed here; I thought I was serving the greatest king in the land but this king is frightened of somebody. I must go off and search out the devil since he is greater.” So off he went, searching, and in the desert he finally found a band of knights. The leader was a fierce, evil-looking dude who said he was the devil. Christopher said, “Well, I am here to be in your service.” So the devil took him on and they did some evil deeds, I suppose. Then one day they were traveling and came upon a huge cross erected on the side of the road, and the devil just freaked out; he took the whole company in the other direction. Christopher is scratching his head now, thinking, “What’s the deal with this cross? The king was making the sign of the cross and here the devil is frightened of this cross.” So he questioned the devil. Fortunately the devil was a good teacher and told Christopher it was a symbol for Jesus Christ. But this guy Jesus wasn’t even alive, so he was kind of a mystery. Christopher said, “I am going to go and find out about this mystery, it is greater than everything else.” First Christopher had been following the great king, who symbolizes good, and then he followed the devil, who symbolizes evil, and neither one of them were satisfying for him; so now he was searching for the Divine Mystery, which symbolizes something beyond this duality of good and evil.
So he went wandering around asking everybody where could he find Jesus, or the Divine Mystery, and eventually someone directed him to a hermit in the desert. And the hermit taught him for quite a while about Jesus, about God, the Divine Mystery. Then one day he told Christopher to fast. Christopher said he couldn’t fast. Maybe because he was such a big guy and needed to eat a lot, I don’t know. So he said, “Give me something else.” So the hermit told him to wake up early and say a lot of prayers, and Christopher said he couldn’t do that either. And so the hermit was probably scratching his head about what to do with this big guy, but then he thought of the river. There was a river with a dangerous swift current, where a lot of people crossed, and many people had drowned there. The hermit said, “Go there and help the travelers cross; you are a big guy, bigger than everybody else; get yourself a staff and carry people across on your shoulders.” And Christopher said “Yes, I will do that.” And the hermit said, “I hope that Jesus reveals himself to you as you do your service.” So off Christopher went and built himself a little cabin by the river and willingly transported the travelers across.
One day this small child comes along and asks to be carried across, so Christopher puts him on his shoulders and starts across. All of a sudden, the water is rising up and he’s struggling and it is the heaviest load he has ever carried, like a lead weight, and he is fearing for his life, he is sure he’s going to be drowned. Now this is where I am going to use my poetic license to fill in some details of the story. The legend says that the child likely called to him three times before he found him and they started across. But I am guessing that he probably actually had already started across three times with this child, or maybe 30 times, or maybe 300 times for some of us, and he’d started across this river with the child and he’d turned back out of fear every time. You know, he feared for his life, and he would always turn back because it just seemed like an impossible task. I am also thinking that the child was always reassuring him when they were going across, that there’s nothing to fear, “Just come across, it is sweetness, not death, that resides on this journey.” And I think Christopher listened to him, but still he always turned back. He was probably growing pretty fond of the child. The child might have come around twice a year maybe, kind of like a retreat does.
Finally, the last time the child shows up, Christopher is at the place where he knows he cannot do it, even with all of his strength, which is his biggest attachment. He just can’t do it; he knows he cannot get across the river with this child, yet the child is encouraging him, “Come on, keep trying, everything is fine,” and he loves the child so much that he is just willing to try. The child says, “Come on, just see what happens.” So Christopher says, “Okay, let’s go.” The place he’s at, I would guess, is that there’s no hope and no fear. At that point there is no hope that he can make it across; he knows he can’t make it across. Yet there’s no fear; he is just going to do it and see what happens. And that is the point where the Divine Mystery or Jesus or whatever is actually revealed to him.
The legend says that this time they get across, and the child says, “You’ve not only been carrying all the weight of the world, but also Him who created the world.” So another way to say this is that Christopher realized that what he had been searching for was something he was carrying with him all the time. His true nature really is this child, is this God, is this Consciousness, is the Tao, is Buddha Nature, and it manifests as the objects of the world—you know, all the world, the weight of the world, and also as the Creator of the world or just the awareness—awareness and the objects of the world aren’t separate. At that point the child disappears; he has to disappear, he is not separate, there is no separate God out there; there is just the reality. And that is what he was. That is the end of the story of St. Christopher. Actually it goes on but this is a good place for us to stop.
So now I was just going to talk a little bit about my life and path and some slight parallels with St. Christopher’s story. I grew up in the Midwest and my family was quite religious and went to church every Sunday, so I was exposed to the Protestant kind of theology. But the religious scene never really grabbed me and the older I got the farther I drifted away from it. I went to college and I came back and started farming with my dad but I never really felt satisfied doing that either. I just wasn’t happy doing that and so eventually I got the urge to move on. Psychology seemed the thing that I wanted to do. I read these books by Carl Rogers and I had these dreams that I was going to be a great therapist like Carl Rogers and Rollo May. Psychology was actually quite a humbling experience because I didn’t have the communication skills or the temperament to be a good therapist. I could get by but I was never very good at it. So it was difficult for me, and it was really humbling. I realized that my dreams were not going to be lived out.
The next thing was the ecology movement. I got into that, specifically an eco-village in the Oregon forest down by Cottage Grove. There was supposed to be this little eco-village, no cars there; it sounded really idyllic. I could see they had some problems before I moved there, but I was sure that I would be able to turn this place around and I would be the savior, so to speak. But it was quickly apparent that that wasn’t going to happen, and it was kind of devastating; I didn’t know quite what to do after that. Religion hadn’t worked for me; this occupation that I had chosen hadn’t worked, and now this trying to save the Earth hadn’t worked. I was kind of stymied. I didn’t know what the hell to do.
Fortunately, my neighbor was a longtime meditator, Paul Weintraub, who was coming to the Center at that time, and he had a small meditation group that I joined, and that is where I met Gene Gibbs. My dharma brother Gene and I went to that group for a while. One thing led to another and we eventually came up to the Center and heard Joel, and right away I knew this was where I needed to be. Somehow I knew this was the place where I could find all these answers. I’d never really been sure what I had been searching for all this time. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure I was searching, but all of a sudden I knew that this was the place where I was going to find the answers.
That was in 1992. I came to the Center and started doing the practices and saw my life change in small but tangible ways, getting a little more freedom on the path. Like Joel always says, there’s always some little bits of freedom long before enlightenment ever happens. My whole life started revolving around doing spiritual practice, and I actually went back to being a therapist for a while. I still wasn’t very good at it but it didn’t bother me so much.
I’ve always loved retreats. The highlight of my life, I guess, was going on retreats. I probably went on 25 or 30 retreats, and had some profound and not-so-profound insights and a little bit of bliss here and there. I never was a person who had a whole lot of bliss, just little bits and pieces.
So now we will cut to the chase and I’ll talk about last fall’s retreat. The retreat was called “Fire in the Heart: Path of Devotion.” The retreat was about trying to elicit our love for the Divine and eventually let go of that, see what might happen. The first Sunday night, three days into the retreat, was usually the time when I am just starting to relax and to let go of the world and deepen the practice. But all of a sudden I am feeling disillusioned by it all. I think part of it was Joel gave us kind of a foreshadowing that at the end of the retreat we were going to have to let go of the Divine, or let go of this love we were feeling. I had been on so many retreats that I knew where this was all going to end up. I mean, it was going to be the same dead end that it always had been for me. All of a sudden I couldn’t do the practice; there was no reason to do this again. Why go through it again? I thought about leaving the retreat, but that seemed kind of pointless. I love being there, and thought, “Well, I can just hang out here with everyone for the week and that will be as much fun as anything else I can do.” And so for the next three days I went up and down. I would feel disillusioned and then I would hear some little teaching and I’d think, “Oh, that sounds kind of interesting,” and then I’d do it and I’d feel pretty good for awhile, and two hours later I’d think, “Gees, I don’t know what is going on at all—I am totally confused, I am lost, I have no idea,” and then I would hear something and would think, “Oh, okay, okay, that makes sense.” I was going up and down. On Wednesday evening I was in the disillusioned state again, and I went to the Wednesday evening talk. I just listened to the recording of that talk a couple of days ago—I hadn’t remembered anything from that night. The only thing I remembered was when I sat down to meditate I was feeling just a little spark of interest. That’s all I remember actually. But when I listened to the tape, I realized the things Joel was saying that night were exactly what I did in that meditation. I just didn’t know it at the time. There were different phrases I picked out from the talk. Here is one passage from Joel’s talk:
We need to surrender our concepts about the world so we can see the unvarnished or naked truth. Because the world appears to us as we think it is. So notice when the mind starts to tell us what to think, and just let it go.
So I just sat down for the meditation. I really don’t know what happened. I had this image of myself in my mind, you know, kind of like this little figure sitting there in meditation, and all of a sudden it was like a sand figure and it just—whoooosh—just totally dissolved. I was just there. This vast spaciousness was all that was there. Visually it was kind like a night sky or something, little dots of light, or whatever, but what I clearly saw is that this was just a concept. I had had this concept in my mind and all of a sudden there was nothing. There was no emotion there, it was just a fact: there was no self there, there was no body there, there was no mind there, there was no heart there (and, you know, we’d been doing this retreat on the heart). There was nothing there, just nothing there.
I guess it was a place of no thought because I didn’t have any thoughts at all, like “this is enlightenment.” It was just spaciousness. The meditation ended, and I got up and walked out, and it didn’t seem like anything, just “Okay, what do I do now? Time to go to bed, I guess.” Then it was the next morning. I was eating breakfast and taking this bite of food and watching myself chew it and swallow it and all of a sudden I thought, “The food is going to fall on the floor; there is no body here.” I looked and it didn’t fall on the floor. Well, that was amazing. We were saying the precepts; I started to say the precept, and all of a sudden I wondered, “How can I talk, there is no body here, how can I say anything? How can I hear anything?” I was just blown away. Thousands of thoughts going through, too. That was the other thing, thoughts are just churning away, selfish thoughts, kind thoughts, just thoughts and thoughts. I had seen that there was nothing there that could create a thought, so I’d get caught up in these thoughts for awhile but then, there’s nobody here, they are just arising, just arising. Let go of them. So I could always let go of them. It was just a fact that there was no body so these thoughts couldn’t be mine; I don’t know where the hell they came from. I still don’t know where they come from! That was on Wednesday night.
For the next three days I was kind of like that. Then I started thinking, “Well, maybe this is enlightenment. There is no self here, and that is what the mystics say, there is no self.” So I was pretty convinced that this was it—I was enlightened. I went to talk to Joel. I was sure that he would see that I was enlightened. So I was saying things like “If there’s no head how come I get a headache if I think too much,” and some other little cute things; at least I thought they were kind of cute. So Joel starts talking to me kind of seriously. And then he starts telling me this story about Cinder being in the closet and then you gotta go look for Cinder and I say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He says, “That’s okay, just keep looking. Keep looking, and let go of those thoughts.” That was Saturday morning. I went and had some lunch. I had this song I was going to sing for the closing ceremony, the wrap-up, so I wrote this song down and then I went to one of those outhouses there by Diamond Hall, and I sat down to take a pee and I just started pondering what Joel had said. I was thinking, “How could I lose this insight I had about no self, how could I lose that? He’s saying I need to look for something else. How could I lose this?” So I thought, “What about if I die, could I lose it then?” And that was it. It was like, there’s nobody to die; I am this consciousness. That was it.
So then it was just being bathed in the love of God and that was such a sweet feeling. I went out on a walk and that was when that little poem that I wrote down for Joel came, and I just loved it when I wrote it down; it brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know why, I just loved it. Those words just came. I don’t know where they came from; they just popped into my mind. That was that.
The other thing that happened on the retreat was that I had this dream. I was working for Jane Fonda, I was doing some carpentry, and I was nailing floor boards into a dictionary. I was trying to figure out what that could mean, and then when I was driving home it came to me: “work with words” seemed to be what it was. A couple of days after I got home from retreat all these song lyrics came to me. Especially Bob Dylan—actually he’s a pretty spiritual guy. I would listen to his song and then the tune would start running through my mind and maybe some of his lyrics—then all of a sudden I would come up with this whole song of my own. In that first month or two I probably wrote about twenty-five songs. They weren’t all to Dylan tunes but a lot of them were, and there were a few poems. Then when Joel and I set the date for this talk I was listening to Bob’s song “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” and all of a sudden this song came to me about “I Dreamed I Saw St. Christopher.” So I’m going to sing that for you. Joel said as long as it’s coming through there’s no reason not to share it. But then when I told him what a musical idiot I am he kindly suggested that maybe I should just leave it as poetry.
Joel: I speak from experience!
Fred: But I guess I am not quite ready to let go of the music. Poetry always seems more dynamic and lively with music to it, even though my musical talents are limited. So bear with me one more time.
I dreamed I saw St. Christopher
Alive as you and me
With fiery eyes and reddened neck
He bowed so I could see
He showed me all there was to show
And then he went away
And I am left to tell the tale
And join the human fray.
Arise, arise, arise we cry
Awake and you will see
The beauty and the majesty
That’s spread in front of thee
Let’s sing a song of love my friends
Let’s sing a joyous tune
And you will gaze with wondrous eyes
Upon a water moon.
I dreamed I saw St. Christopher
Alive as you and I
He told a tale of woefulness
And how illusion died
He said he did not mind the weight
The world to carry home
So if you’re feeling burdened now
Know you do not stand alone.
The darkness of a stormy night
The brightness of the dawn
Both of them can help you friend
Just keep on keeping on
So listen to the holy ones
Listen and be strong
For you will soon be coming home
Home where you belong.
Da da da da da da da …
So. Any questions?
Sylvia: Have you always been this funny?
Fred: Probably not, no. I probably had a funny streak but I was always afraid to verbalize it. Things seem more humorous now.
Deanna: Did you have any physical sensations around this time?
Fred: The time of the retreat? No, not that I recall.
Vip: Joel used this construction of being out of the closet. That makes me curious how your family deals with it, if at all.
Fred: Probably a variety of emotions, a variety of ways. I mean, there have been some difficult times, upheavals on the home front, so to speak. But, for the most part, it’s gone pretty well. Pretty well sometimes and a little not so well other times. You know, my wife Jo sacrificed a lot for me because of my being stymied, not knowing what to do; I was in a place where I wasn’t making very much money and didn’t think I needed to make much money, and she made a lot of sacrifices for me and for our relationship that I never really appreciated until lately. It is like what I said when I was singing that song at the Christmas party, singing this love song to her, that I had never been able to love her completely before because I was always afraid of losing her. And all of a sudden there is no fear; the fear of death is gone, there is nobody to die, there is no fear of losing anything, so you can be there with someone the way you were never able to be there with them before.
Wesley: You mentioned the body in all this. I’m wondering, when any of us sit in meditation we experience times, maybe just a few moments, when we experience ourselves as spaciousness. We don’t experience ourselves so much as body but as spaciousness with different sensations. What is the difference between that and what you experienced at the retreat and what you experience now? How you experience your body now?
Fred: Well, I mean, it sounds basically similar. I would guess that you probably still have a sense of your own blind being or something that is there, and that really wasn’t there for me, was just totally dissolved. That’s probably the only difference, and now it is not something I think about a lot. It is like what Joel always says, you don’t have to think that you are not a dog because you just know it; it is just a fact of your life; so it not something you think about all the time. It is like our self is always threatening to come into being, it is always arising, but it doesn’t last, it is just something that is arising, and it goes where everything else goes that is arising.
Megan: You mentioned losing your job. I remember once you said that losing your job was potentially the most drastic thing that could happen to you but it turned out to be so positive.
Fred: Yes, definitely, it is another piece, another blow to my arrogance. I had seniority over almost everybody there but they laid me off before all the other people. I was out the door obviously because I wasn’t doing the job the way they wanted it. But it was also freeing. All of a sudden you are thrown out into this big space, potentially you can do anything, you don’t have to go to work everyday. So I decided to build a house. That was a great experience. I loved building that house.
Sharry: Were you at that kind of pointless place prior to the retreat or did that just sort of suddenly happen on retreat, in terms of your path?
Fred: I think it mostly happened just at the retreat.
Sharry: So you moved from pointless on Sunday into some kind of confusion, seems to be the basic theme.
Fred: Well, the pointlessness and confusion were all the same thing.
Deanna: Have you seen any patterns here, anything leading up to the retreat?
Fred: Well, I wrote a song to a Dylan tune the day before the retreat. That was like a foreshadowing. My head disappeared at a retreat four or five years ago. We were focusing on sensations and I was watching sensations in the back of my head when all of a sudden the sensations disappeared and so did my head and there was just space there. That was a similar kind of thing, because it was just fact, there was no head there. There were other insights along the way. I remember one time I just fell into this place that was really blissful, but I didn’t really know what was going on. I was just kind of enjoying myself looking at all these koans and was laughing at the koans, and then I fell out of this place. I talked to Joel and he said, “Well, you are having too much fun there. You need to look, look at what is going on.” That’s always a good thing to do, to keep looking.
Vip: If you graph the awakening of Joel’s students over time, any scientist would say there’s been an acceleration. The other night I think it was Jack and Janet who used a beautiful, metaphorical word, they said it’s getting to be like popcorn. I know that Joel for one hates to get self-consciously prophetic about anything, about this stuff, but do any of you have any sense of what’s going on with this sangha? It’s a fairly fecund environment.
Todd: I had a dream back the August before the Fall retreat a year ago, that everyone at the Center was awake. Then I went on my retreat and after that retreat I realized it was true.
Clivonne: I had a dream once when I was a bell ringer, that when I went to wake everybody up they were already awake.
Kim: This thing that happened to you on retreat, would you say that it was more of a result of things that you did in your life—spiritual practices you chose to take on, or attitudes or whatever—or just something that happened to you?
Fred: Well kind of both, actually. I thought about that, and there’s nothing to teach really, so whatever happens like that, it is not a result of the teachings. But if I had not listened to the teachings, I would still be lost in delusion somewhere and it never would have happened to me. So it is a mystery. I don’t know how this happens or why it happens. I mean all I know is I was on this search and this was the place where I was sure I was going to find my answer, but it was at the point where I gave up searching when I found the answer.
Wesley : In Joel’s talk on Sunday he quoted something from St. John of the Cross. It sounded like awakening is not something that happens to you but awakening is God awakening in you. Does that make sense to you?
Fred: Well, yes. There’s nothing there, there’s no God there, because that’s what it is: nothing. So there’s nothing to wake up and nothing to be lost and nothing to be asleep. I could never figure that out before.
Q: What difference has it made?
Fred: What difference has it made? Well it is one of those things, it is another paradox. I mean, everything is exactly the same and everything is totally different. Because the same kinds of things arise, same kinds of neurotic thoughts arise and sometimes I look at them and say, “What is that doing here? That is enlightenment ?” But that’s the point; there’s no thing that is enlightenment because whatever arises, that is enlightenment. You know that there is nobody there that causes things to arise or needs to worry about things or do anything so in that sense everything is totally different.
Alan: How do you know you are Fred?
Fred: I’m not Fred. Well I am Fred, and I am not Fred. It is just a label. I don’t know what I am. Yet I am still Fred. It doesn’t really have an answer. I mean, you can answer it in any number of ways. Obviously I am Fred. But obviously Fred doesn’t exist.
Kiva: I know you said already earlier that you don’t know still where those thoughts come from but I get the impression that when you see your neurotic thoughts they are the still the same familiar pattern of thought that you had prior to awakening. So it’s like, I think Joel one time said, the ceiling fan keeps turning even after it is turned off. What is that? Even after you realize there is no self, the same pattern of neurotic thinking continues to spin? It is so mystifying. You would think that would go away too.
Fred: Yeah, it totally amazed me that it was still there.
Kiva: That is just so strange to me.
Joel: It is conditioning. What food do you like? What is your favorite?
Kiva: Macaroni and cheese.
Joel: So, why do you like macaroni and cheese? Because you grew up in this culture where they serve macaroni and cheese. Your family served macaroni and cheese and all that. If you grew up in another culture, they might hate macaroni and cheese. Because they weren’t conditioned to like it. And so if you wake up you are still going to be conditioned to like macaroni and cheese.
Kiva: You’d think all that would melt away with the self.
Joel: Well, if you want all conditioning to melt away, you really would end up catatonic; you couldn’t speak English.
Kiva: That’s true.
Joel: English is conditioned. You learn the English language. It’s conditioning. If all your conditioning dissolved on awakening, you wouldn’t be able to speak, you wouldn’t know how to use a knife and fork. You would be worse off than George [ed. note: George is a CSS member with ALS]. At least George knows what is going on even if he cannot do it. But you wouldn’t even know what was going on. So, it is not the conditioning that is the problem, it is self-centered conditioning. I keep trying to make that point: it is self-centered conditioning, not just pure conditioning. That means there is a self in the conditioning. Some conditioning does drop away. If it is just totally based on illusion of self, then just take away the center of it and it just falls away. But not all conditioning falls away, and you wouldn’t want it to.
Kiva: Like the conditioning of Fred being afraid of losing someone; that would be a self-referencing conditioning, and now that conditioning is gone. So now, Fred, if you can imagine Jo gone—have you thought about playing with that in your imagination and what would that feel like? I mean, it would be sad, but how is it different?
Fred: Well the difference is that you know nobody is alive anyway. It sounds crazy, but we are all just Consciousness, we are all the Divine anyway. If I lose Jo or some family member it would be very sad, there would be a lot of sadness there. But you are not so caught up in the whole drama, you have more clarity so you can see all your conditioning and it is just easier to let go of it. Some of it you don’t want to let go of; you are happy with the way things are going. You like this conditioning. But if some things just aren’t working for you or people you interact with, you say “Okay, it doesn’t seem to make anybody happy when I do this.” So you are just freer to change your behavior.
Vip: What about doubts along your path? Did you fall into the “Slough of Despond,” despair of ever reaching salvation? Dry periods? Felt like quitting?On the other hand, did you have any inklings that you would “make it?” Especially in recent times: did you have any premonition before last Fall’s retreat, that this would be “it”?
Fred: There were always some doubts that arose from time to time, but no big despair other than the disillusionment at the retreat. Thoughts of quitting would also arise from time to time, but they would always dissolve fairly quickly. I never had any inkling of anything before last Fall’s retreat. I could see that I felt more at ease in my life and there was more freedom and happiness, but I would also think of the relatively small number of people in the world who are awakened and realize that the odds of it happening to me were pretty slim.
Vip: Aftermath: any big or noticeable changes in your relationships? Your habitual ways of doing things or “doing life?” Did it feel important to keep it under wraps for a while—or was that mainly in consideration of Joel’s cautiousness?
Fred: No big changes in my relationships. The Realization occurred the day before the retreat ended and it felt a little tender and I didn’t feel like talking about it at the retreat wrap-up. Within a few days to a week, I would have been fine with talking about it, but also there really is no need to rush telling anyone about it. For the first several months it felt like on-the-job training. Old situations were seen from a new perspective and I was learning new ways of interacting with the world. It wasn’t anything major, more like watching things arise and pass away and acting more from spaciousness rather than habitual conditioning.
Vip: The bodhisattva/teaching role: are you preparing yourself to be a teacher? Do you experience choice about that? [Joel planned to hunker down with a little hardware store, tend his little garden and live out the rest of biological life in obscurity. Andrea “outed” him and said, “Too bad, you’re not getting off that easy—you just got your first student!” Do you see yourself as a teacher at CSS, or elsewhere? What seems to be involved in taking on the teacher role?
Fred: I agreed to teach the Foundation class this fall, and expect I’ll learn a lot about teaching during that. It is interesting; I thought that after awakening that teaching would be easy—I would gain all the knowledge I needed to be a teacher. But, I gained nothing. I just let go of the false notion that I was a separate self in the world. In a very real sense, there is nothing to teach, so being in the role of a teacher is just that: a role to play, and the more you practice in the role hopefully you get better at it. I am certainly willing to give it a good shot, here, there or anywhere. To put it poetically, I was born out of the sangha, the sangha flows through my veins and showers me with joy, so I’m certainly willing to be of whatever help I can be. I know how much I hungered for teachings and put my faith in them, and they led me to the doorstep of the Divine; so realizing that teachings are all false, really doesn’t discount their value.
Vip: Any advice for your sangha? Here we are, a bunch of seeker-schmucks like you used to be—what can you tell us about attitude, practices, anything in addition to the age-old “hang in there?”
Fred: Perseverance seemed to be an important virtue for me, but when you think about it, all seekers on a mystical path need a healthy dose of pride or arrogance just to believe that we can have a direct knowledge of the divine. It often seems like an impossible dream, yet we stumble onward driven by our longing or perhaps we feel it as a calling. But this movement toward the divine is really the only thing worth doing simply because it is the only true reality, and it has to end in success, because it is the true source of everything and everything must return to the source eventually.
Here’s a poem I wrote:
To be Divine do you aspire,
What God or Goddess do you admire?
The love you seek is in your heart,
So looking within would be a good start.
The God or Goddess in your mind,
The more you look the less you find.
God don’t want you to be uptight,
But what you seek ain’t in your sight.
The divine don’t demand you be a saint,
Spring forth and arise above constraint.
The end is the beginning,
the beginning the end,
No paradox arises that you need mend.
Joel: Thank you Fred for opening up. Even when you are enlightened, it is not easy to get up the first time in front of a whole bunch of people and spill your guts out.
Awake or Asleep at the Wheel
Whatever God gives you, be content. At the very moment you become content in affliction, the door of paradise will open. —Rumi
It seemed like it would be worthwhile to update my experiences since the Realization that occurred in the fall of 2005. Words, by their very nature, often obscure as much as they clarify, but I’ll attempt to accurately relate my experiences.
At the recent fall retreat, the biggest insight I got was noticing the strong resistance to inquiring into the sense of anxiety and insecurity I’ve often felt in life. The resistance was a strong fear of looking at fear. When I simply looked at this fear directly it transformed into bliss and contentment (which lasted 24 hours). But then when anxiety arose again, the fear of looking at it had been greatly reduced and I was able to just look directly at the feelings that arose—fear, anger, sadness, desire, and just by looking directly at them they would transform into wisdom energy. Out of this process the whole pattern of my life became much clearer. The fear of looking at fear had caused me to create all these other coping strategies. Turning inward and being quiet all my life because of anxiety about making a mistake when I spoke, avoiding many activities in life because of fear of being criticized for doing it wrong, an internal sense of entitlement to prop up a feeling of unworthiness, anger directed inward, using sexual desire as a way to feel better because someone else views me as a good lover, etc. It also became clear that even after my realization of the empty nature of self in the fall of 2005, in many ways I continued to act out these patterns. The habits of subtle grasping after pleasant states and aversion to unpleasant states is what continued to give the appearance that there was still someone here “doing” all of this. This caused confusion and anxiety, and then aversion to those emotions would fuel the story more.
And yet, clarity and freedom from these patterns never seemed far away. Emotions and stories would dissipate, and the spacious freedom of Pure Consciousness would once again be in the foreground and shining brightly. This was especially true during daily meditation or on retreats. Distractions would dissolve and everything seemed clear and easy.
What I became aware of is that since my realization of no-self, I still was subtly attached to the story that “I was enlightened” and the flip side of that which is, “maybe I'm not enlightened.” I could rationalize that everything that I did and thought was “enlightened behavior,” but it still had the “smell of ego.” Also, contentment/peace, happiness and compassion were often missing in my lived experience of life; and these things are, at least in my mind, essential elements of someone whom I would say is fully enlightened. I think that much of the lack of peace and happiness was driven by my fear to look directly at the anxiety and anger that was fueling my story. Presently in my life, I am feeling much more contented, happy and compassionate.
Shortly after the fall retreat this year, I commented that I didn’t consider myself to be an Awakened Teacher, but perhaps this was “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” I acknowledge that I’ve seen Pure Consciousness to be the only True Reality, and I’ve awoken from the belief that I’m a separate self. But, I also need to acknowledge that it seems like there are times of “temporary insanity” when old, conditioned patterns aren’t seen through, and actions arise out of old habits of self-centered conditioning. The more honesty I have about all of this, then freedom from these patterns seems easier to attain.
So where does that leave me—awake or asleep? Well there is no one to be either asleep or awake—it is all just the play of the Consciousness expressing itself, so call it what you will. At the moment, putting a label on it doesn’t seem very useful.
What does seem valuable is to do practices like Liberating Thought and Purifying Emotions* at anytime during your spiritual path. Then, even after you have a glimpse of Consciousness Itself, “you” will remember to look directly at the stories and emotions that arise and see them as the Divine Expressions and Wisdom Energies they truly are, and thus avoid the pitfall of sinking back into delusion.
*Purifying Emotions—A practice of freeing emotions from the “story of I,” and seeing emotions as neutral energy that can be seen as manifesting different aspects of Wisdom.
I am the I AM
The body’s laid upon the pyre,
The heart is melted in the fire,
There’s nothing left to call my own,
I AM is found in the sacred OM.
The night after the 2016 CSS Fall Retreat ended, I woke up sometime in the early morning hours, couldn't get back to sleep, and as I laid there beside my lovely wife, I started meditating and exploring that space of our true nature where the Darkness and the Light can be recognized as non-dual — simply two sides of the same coin. I revisited that place of dark emptiness where, eleven years ago, I had a deep realization into the emptiness of self. All of a sudden, boom! — All boundaries fell away! — The Darkness is the Light! — No Duality! The knot was untied, the nut was cracked, the bird burst free of the cage! Actually there is neither bird nor cage — never has been and never will be! Ultimate Truth had always seemed close, but never perfectly clear and immediate. Now, the hazy clouds have vanished and the sun shines in all its brilliance. I am that Great Consciousness indeed.
One amazing synchronistic thing I realized later is that both these Realizations occurred on exactly the same date and day of the week — Wednesday, October 19th, 2005, 2016 — perfectly balanced bookends that were eleven years apart.
I guess I was more or less stuck in emptiness for the past 11 years, but it's not true that the Buddha can't help you in that situation -- it just takes a long time for It to break through.
God plays the wimp,
Out of compassion sometimes,
But the powerhouse returns
When there’s no me or mine.