You Are the Happiness You Seek: An Interview with Rupert Spira for Watkins Magazine
David Chuter: First of all, Rupert, thank you enormously for agreeing to take part in this interview for Watkins Mind Body Spirit magazine, to mark the publication of your new book You Are the Happiness You Seek.
Rupert Spira: Not at all, thank you for inviting me!
DC: The expectation is that an edited version of this transcript will find its way into the magazine this July, and the full transcript, lightly edited, will be made available on the website.
Perhaps the place to begin is the book. You are the author of a number of books, but I found this one slightly different. Slightly different in tone, and slightly different in content. One of the things I noticed immediately was that you spoke much more about your own experiences, and you reproduced in the book a number of stories that I’ve heard you tell live. Was this a deliberate decision on your part? Did you want to write a slightly different kind of book, and if so could you say why?
RS: Yes, you’re absolutely right. I’ve written, as you say, a number of books, and they all deal with the same understanding from slightly different points of view. I wanted to make this book as accessible as possible. Over the last ten or twelve years that I have been speaking about these matters, but over the last couple of years in particular, when my meetings have gone on-line, and as a result have been available to a much wider audience, I’ve been receiving questions from a much wider field of people than I previously did, and questions from people who were not necessarily familiar with the non-dual understanding in whatever tradition. I’ve been very touched by these questions and these on-line meetings over the last couple of years, because I’ve had to try to formulate the understanding in such a way as to make it easily accessible to people who are not familiar with the normal terminology that many of us who are more familiar with these ideas take for granted. So I think the book was really an extension of the process that has taken place in my online meetings, to try to make this understanding both more experiential and more available to a larger number of people.
DC: That’s interesting. How far was that specifically influenced by the experience of the pandemic?
RS: I think it was very closely influenced, because, as I say, during the pandemic, people have had access to my online meetings that would never normally have access to my live meetings, so I’ve been speaking not just to the choir, not even just to the congregation, but to the people outside the Church altogether. This has been a very good and very interesting exercise for me, because I have not been able to take for granted any of the ideas or language that I might normally take for granted when speaking to the choir or the congregation. So I think the book has been a parallel process. In fact, I wrote it during the pandemic: the Introduction in fact begins on the first day of the pandemic, the 20th of March. So yes, it was very closely connected with my experience in on-line meetings during the pandemic.
DC: I would certainly unhesitatingly recommend that book if somebody asked me “which book of Rupert Spira’s should I begin with?” It does lay it all out in a very straightforward, very logical fashion.
RS: I’m glad that you say that. People sometimes ask me “which of your books would you recommend?” and then I hesitate, and I say don’t read The Nature of Consciousness unless you are already deeply into these matters, you’ll get lost, you’ll be put off, you’ll think this is very deep and intellectual, and of course it need not be intellectual at all. So I’m glad that you feel that, and I think that when the book comes out, this is the one that I will recommend to someone who comes fresh to this understanding with the question “which book should I start with?”
DC: The other thing I felt was that in terms of tone there is a little bit more of western culture in the book, in some of the authors you have chosen for extracts at the beginning of chapters, and I saw for the first time people like Plotinus and Meister Eckhart mentioned. One of the questions I would love to have asked you in the past—so let me ask it now—is precisely the connection with the western mystical tradition: or perhaps “connection” is the wrong word. Maybe parallels or reminiscences? I think there’s a feeling in some quarters that non-dualism is a fundamentally Eastern—or at least non-Western—idea, and that you have to convert to Buddhism or go and sit in an ashram in India and learn Sanskrit if you are going to understand it. You didn’t actually say this, but I thought that the tone of the book was rather to correct this misunderstanding.
RS: You’re absolutely right. Not that that was my conscious intention, but like you, probably, and like many of our generation, we went East for this understanding, if not physically then at least philosophically. And certainly for me, that involved a degree of rejection of my own culture. This is a naive over-simplification, but what I saw in my own culture and western upbringing was the results of materialist thinking, and I turned my back on that and went to the East, for what I considered to be the birthplace, the origin, the heart of the true non-dual understanding. I went to India philosophically (I did go there once) for a good twenty or so years, before I came back, so to speak, to my own culture, and started reading, particularly some of the Christian mystics and the early Greek philosophers (Parmenides, Plotinus…) and I realised, it’s all there. And not only that, having been brought up in England, and having spent ten years in English boarding schools, going to Chapel every morning, knowing many of the songs and hymns and prayers off by heart; all of this I rejected as being dualistic. But when I came back to these prayers and hymns and psalms, I realised that it’s all there—albeit encoded and less explicit than it is in the East. But once you have the key, so to speak, it unlocks the western tradition. It connected with something, because I didn’t realise how deeply the western tradition was in me, and it unlocked this connection to my heart that I remember feeling as a boy. I remember feeling a sort of innocent, naive love of God as a boy, which I then turned away from, as I began a more rational, investigative exploration of my experience, but I came back to it twenty years later, with the understanding that I had gleaned from the East, and I found that the western tradition was so rich and so poetic, and so directly connected to the heart. So yes, although as I say it wasn’t my conscious intention to bring the western tradition more into the book, it has kind of paralleled a process that I’ve been through in the last ten years, and I wanted to connect with people – to westerners, although the book isn’t written only for them; but it will primarily be read by westerners, and I wanted to help them connect to their own very rich tradition.
DC: That’s fascinating. I suppose the distinction between the two traditions is that in the western tradition, after perhaps the Council of Nicaea, this became very much a minority point of view. Eckhart, of course was accused of heresy, and there is a sense that this is all an underground tradition.
RS: Yes, but, funnily enough, that is to a certain extent true of India as well. I used to think that non-duality was the common religion of India, but actually that wasn’t the case. Ramana Maharshi,
Nisargadatta Maharaj and Atmananda Krishna Menon had a relatively small following in their lifetime, which consisted of a lot of westerners! I don’t know so much about China and Tibet, but, certainly in India, the true non-dual understanding was not mainstream. There were still an awful lot of exoteric religions that predominated there, as they did, and still do, in the West.
DC: This is a question at a slight tangent, but a lot of people come to non-duality and mysticism through an interest in esotericism – the Neoplatonists, for example – and in the western esoteric tradition, which more or less died out after the Renaissance, but has been revived since. So I think there’s an interesting point there, and I hope I’m right in seeing the increasing interest in non-duality in the West as part of a wider change in consciousness.
RS: Yes, I think perhaps the main thrust of the book, and hence the title, You are the Happiness You Seek, is that I, like many people, used to think that enlightenment or awakening was some extraordinary mystical experience that one attained, as a result of effort, discipline and practice, and that it was something extremely rare that only one in a million people were qualified for. It took me years to realise that “enlightenment” is the exotic name for peace or joy. You’re familiar with this succinct Vedantic formula Sat Chit Ananda; Being, Consciousness and Bliss, as it was normally translated—at least as it was when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties. I always thought of Bliss as this extraordinary feeling, but it just means Peace, or even as the Buddhists put it, cautious not to objectify the experience, “the absence of suffering.” So that’s something I’ve tried to do in the book, to demystify enlightenment: not to dumb it down in any way, but to divest it of all the exotic cultural packaging that it acquired from the exotic cultures of India and China and Japan and Tibet, and to show that what is traditionally called enlightenment or awakening is simply the recognition of the nature of our being. Not the being that we might become if we practice hard enough, but the being that each of us is now, but which we do not see clearly, because of its entanglement with the content of experience. So I wanted to bring it very close, right down to earth, and within everybody’s reach.
DC: I think you’ve succeeded admirably in that. It sounds a bit strange to say “demystifying mysticism”, but we know what we mean.
RS: Exactly. I think there’s a nice book title in there: “Demystifying Mysticism!”
DC: You’re very welcome to it! You’ve just used the phrase “absence of suffering,” which I had written down as being my next question. Obviously you talk a lot in the book about happiness, and I’ve heard you talk about it many times elsewhere, as well. What struck me was that you begin by talking about happiness, and then towards the conclusion of your argument you say that in practice this can amount to absence of suffering. I’m not sure whether you see that as being equivalent to happiness, but you certainly mention it as though it might be. So I think there’s a broadening, by any standards, of the definition of happiness from something that we might naively think of—happiness, joy, laughter, that kind of thing – to almost a negative definition of happiness as the absence of suffering. Is that a fair comment?
RS: Yes. Personally, the phrase “the absence of suffering” is not sufficient. It’s technically correct, but for me it doesn’t evoke the felt quality of peace and joy. So what is being referred to is not really an “absence” of suffering. It’s true it cannot be objectified. I think there are pros and cons in speaking positively as “happiness” or negatively as “the absence of suffering.” You could argue both cases. On balance, I would still go for speaking of “happiness” rather than “the absence of suffering, ” although I respect the Buddhists, who are cautious, and prefer not to objectify happiness, because what I am speaking of is not an objective state of happiness that comes and goes, it’s the underlying peace and quiet joy that lies ever-present in the background of experience. I like the word “happiness, ” because it’s the commonly used word. If you were to take a survey on the streets now about how many of the eight billion of us are interested in enlightenment—a hundred thousand at most? If you ask how many are interested in peace and happiness, all eight billion people would say yes. That’s the common name that we know the recognition of our own being by, and so in spite of its limitations, and in spite of the possible dangers of objectifying it as a state, I still prefer to speak of happiness or “peace.”
DC: I can see that. In fact, I wanted to follow up your point about eight billion people, maybe to ask you whether you think there could be some fraying around the edges of that figure. For a start, there are many alternative traditions, aren’t there, which see life as meaningless suffering and tragedy: Bertrand Russell’s remark about a “firm foundation of unyielding despair” as a basis for life. The mental world of Greek Tragedy, the view that human life is essentially tragic and meaningless …
RS: Most people lead lives of quiet desperation ….
DC: Absolutely! I wondered if you were going to say that. And you cite Albert Camus once in the book, and of course he’s best known for his belief that the world is totally absurd and pointless, and that the only philosophical question of any importance is “do I commit suicide or not?” So I suppose my question about that is, given that there is this tradition, is it possible to relate your thinking to it at all? Is this simply a misunderstanding of the nature of reality, is it at one extreme, therefore; completely wrong, or is this sort of view of life, which is very long-established, and very deeply held in some quarters, any kind of attempt to reach what you would regard as happiness? Or do the two things just exist in totally different spaces?
RS: I think these attitudes are the result of materialistic, dualistic thinking. For all their intelligence, many of these people did not penetrate through appearances to the reality in themselves, and as a result, whilst they may have intuited it, didn’t touch their innate peace. And therefore life was just a realm of despair. To take your example of committing suicide. It’s a very extreme example, but why does one commit suicide? In order to free oneself from unbearable suffering. Well, that’s exactly why one embarks on a spiritual path: to free oneself from suffering, in other words to find happiness. So even one who commits suicide is doing so because of their love of happiness, or, stated another way, their desire to get rid of their suffering, which is a negative way of seeking happiness. They want to be relieved of suffering. I call that the search for happiness, and the reason they are committing suicide, with no disrespect—and I don’t mean this in any way judgingly—is because their culture has not provided them with the means of finding the true source of happiness in themselves, and therefore they are in despair.
DC: I can see that. You must have read the Greek classics at your public school, I imagine, and I suppose the same thing is true of “Beowulf” and the Old English poetry tradition, for example. There is this tradition of nobly facing one’s fate, which is dictated by the gods and which you can do nothing about. It’s a very old perception.
RS: Well, I think there is something to nobly facing one’s fate: total openness, total acceptance, total surrender. Whether you call it “nobly accepting one’s fate” or “surrendering to God,” that depends on one’s framework. But I think that there is a place for this openness, this acceptance, and that is a spiritual path. So I wouldn’t criticise this approach.
DC: What I was thinking of, for example, is the idea that you find in epic poetry of just about every culture, that there is nothing after this life, and that the best that you can do is to perform noble deeds and heroic acts, that mean that you will be remembered for ages thereafter. I suppose that at a pinch you could argue that that’s a type of search for happiness, at least to die happy.
RS: I think it’s a perpetuation of the same dualistic misunderstanding in this life. It comes from a basic belief, a fundamental misunderstanding, that what I essentially am is a physical body, and that when this physical body dies, what I essentially am will die with it. That is the fundamental misunderstanding: that what we are is a temporary finite self made out of matter, made out of the body. The idea of leading a good life so that you leave behind something for posterity is an extension—a noble extension—of that same idea. I think it’s based on the same misunderstanding.
DC: Some of what we’ve just been talking about leads to another question I had, because there are people who have devoted part of their lives, at least, and often their deaths, to endurance, heroism and self-sacrifice for others or for an ideal that they cling to. We see that, I suppose in the Heroic Age of poetry. But we also see it in modern times, with political martyrs. Here in France, there’s still quite an important memory of the martyrs of the Resistance; people who voluntarily took on almost insane risks, and in many cases were betrayed, tortured and mostly murdered. People like the great Resistance leader Jean Moulin, who’s a great personal hero of mine, because he was a civil servant! These were people who were not, I think, by any reasonable standard, seeking happiness. They were doing something that they felt was of absolutely overwhelming importance compared to anything else they could do in their lives. Can you somehow accommodate that in your scheme?
RS: Very much so. All these acts that you mention were acts of self-transcendence. What inspired these people to engage in these tremendously courageous and heroic acts was an intuition that the meaning of their lives lay in something beyond their own personal life story. So I think that these acts are in fact inspired by an intuition of the transcendent nature of our essential self. Now, of course I think they wouldn’t formulate it in these terms, but I think that these kinds of acts, these self-sacrificial acts, these acts of great courage where people lay down their lives for a cause that they believe in, are an example of the impulse to self-transcendence. They are transcending their personal lives for the sake of something bigger. They are surrendering their life for the sake of something they consider nobler. It’s an act of self-transcendence.
DC: And the obvious question is how you relate self-transcendence to happiness. Are they the same thing?
RS: Exactly the same thing, yes. Because in order to find true happiness, one must do something – in this context I wouldn’t describe it as self-transcendence; in other words I wouldn’t suggest that to find peace and happiness we had to go beyond ourselves. I would suggest that we have to go to that in ourselves which is prior to ourself as a temporary finite self, prior to anything that defines us as a person. It’s the same. In transcendence, the way I would describe it is that you have to go so deeply into yourself, that you penetrate through all the layers of experience that define us as a person: thoughts, feelings, images, activities, relationships, histories, memories, etc—penetrate through those layers until you get to that irreducible, essential element of yourself which is utterly intimate, but impersonal in the sense that it doesn’t share any of the qualities of yourself as a limited person. That is transcendence. To access this transcendent being, we haven’t gone outward, or away from ourself, we have gone deeply in to ourself. When we travel backwards or inwards, so to speak, to this deepest, most fundamental, irreducible aspect of ourself, and we come to the pure being, that is the experience of happiness. That is the source of happiness: happiness is the nature of being. So I feel that these two movements, the transcendence that is displayed in these great acts of courage, and the inward-facing path that the mystic takes, where they go to that which is prior to all the personal elements of their experience, are in fact two ways of traversing the same circle. Both involve transcendence, one goes outwards, so to speak, beyond themselves, the other goes inwards, to access that which is prior to themselves as a person. It’s the same act of transcendence. So I think they’re very deeply connected.
DC: The obvious follow-up question is that people do sacrifice themselves for all sorts of causes. Some are heroes of the French Resistance, others fly aeroplanes into skyscrapers, and this kind of thing. I wouldn’t say your formulation puts everyone on the same level—that would be unfair—but it doesn’t distinguish motive particularly, it doesn’t comment on motive. People who are reaching within themselves to find the essence of themselves, and do something which results in their own destruction, but in furtherance of a cause, include, if we think back through history, the good, the bad and the downright appalling. Is your formulation to be understood as simply putting to one side moral issues, or the objective of this sacrifice, and whether we regard this as acceptable or not?
RS: I think if we were to take one of these individuals that engaged in one of these horrendous acts, and asked them “what is your motive?” we would find—though they wouldn’t formulate it like this —that they did what they did because it was their happiness to do so. They didn’t do it because it would make them suffer, they believed in it. The people who flew the planes were delighted. It’s a profound misunderstanding, of course, but nevertheless, if you trace back their motive, it was the same. They thought, “this is the path to happiness.” And of course, then, the way they pursued that happiness is profoundly ignorant, because it’s based on ignorance: “I am a temporary finite independently existing self.” But the core motive, I would suggest, is the same.
DC: I think this is a slight tangent, but there has been quite a lot of work done in France on returning jihadists, from Syria, and they’ve been interviewed and asked exactly this sort of question. And beyond the rather adolescent searching for adventure, which I think can be incorporated in your explanation quite well, there’s also precisely a longing for transcendence. They believe they are going to fight in a battle at the end of the world, that will determine everything for eternity. Coming back to your point about materialism, there’s been a lot of worry in western Europe—I’m not sure about in Britain—that we can’t offer these people very much. They’re being offered membership of, I don’t know, the Fellowship of the Ring, or something, and all we can offer them is the consumer culture. So I do think there is something here. It’s very badly expressed in our society, but I do think some of these people are fumbling towards some of the things that you were talking about.
RS: I agree. Of course, we have to be very delicate the way we express this, not in any way to glorify it. But I think you’re absolutely right, that the people who behave in these atrocious activities are at the deepest level motivated by an intuition that transcendence gives their life meaning. Even if it means blowing yourself up with a suicide vest and then entering into a realm in the afterlife. That gives them meaning. Their lives in this world are impoverished and miserable, so they think that by engaging in these actions, they are going to transcend the misery and poverty of this world, and enter some glorious afterlife. The impulse is to transcend their suffering.
DC: This is what they say, and our materialist society finds it very hard to believe them.
RS: Well, of course our culture in England, our culture in Europe, cannot in any way be compared with the jihadist world view, but it’s true that our culture doesn’t have anything substantial to offer in terms of true understanding or lasting peace and happiness. We have, as you say, a kind of consumer mentality, that the more you have the happier you will be. And this is obviously not the case. As I say, I’m not equating this with a jihadist viewpoint at all, but I think many people—let’s not be as extreme as jihadists—many people in our culture now feel that our culture is kind of meaningless. The extent of the despair and sorrow in our culture comes because the younger generations have inherited the fruit of materialism, and they understand, even if they don’t formulate it in these terms, they understand that it cannot give them what they truly want, which is peace and joy. And for many people this leads to despair, and in a few cases something more extreme, but it leads to despair, to drugs, to suicide, often to violence, and our culture of course condemns such behaviour without really understanding how it has contributed to such behaviour, and, at least at the moment, isn’t able to offer profoundly satisfying answers to these disillusioned people.
DC: I presume you’re familiar with the whole “Disenchantment of the World” argument since Max Weber, and Charles Taylor, people like that, which has always seemed to me to be very coherent. Our ancestors lived in a world that meant something. One can exaggerate the degree to which ordinary people were conscious of it, but our ancestors lived in a magical world. We no longer do.
RS: I think to a degree that it’s true that our ancestors felt a less clearly defined sense of individual identity: that the boundaries of their self was more porous than is ours. They felt a deeper connection with their community, and with their environment. Nowadays, the individual is sealed up, so to speak, in a shell of independent existence, and so the sense of separation, both from one another and from the environment, I think is generally much stronger now than it was for our ancestors. And of course the extent of the sorrow that people feel on the inside, and the extent of the conflict we witness between families, communities and nations on the outside, is a direct consequence of this feeling of being an isolated separate individual.
DC: That’s interesting. I think you’ve already anticipated the question I had about suicide, but I think that really is a logical continuation of what we were just discussing: the sense of despair. I think we’ve all met people who say things like “I hate myself, I hate my life and I want to die.” I still remember somebody I knew at University, who said, “every morning I wake up and open my eyes and I think, Oh God, not another day? How am I going to get through it?” Which is probably not an entirely twentieth century phenomenon either—I think people have been feeling that for some time. Would you say that your remarks on suicide have more or less covered that angle, or would you want to add anything else about depression and the feeling that there’s no point in living any more?
RS: I think unhappiness in general, but deep depression in particular, comes from feeling locked-in to oneself as an isolated individual. All you’ve got are your own personal thoughts and feelings. The access to your being, your own essential being, prior to thoughts and feelings—it’s never completely cut off, but it’s almost completely cut off. So all that one has, is the content of one’s experience, the content of thoughts and feelings, with no access to one’s being, which lies behind that, so to speak, and which is inherently peaceful. And this feeling of being cut off from one’s essential being is enough to induce despair and meaninglessness.
DC: Do you think—perhaps this is an unfair question—but do you think that an awareness of non-duality could have an actual healing effect?
RS: When you say “an awareness of non-duality …?”
DC: Well, I’m carefully not trying to imply that non-duality actually could be a form of therapy, although you may have views on that, but clearly the beginning of the recognition of one’s true nature, for example—which is a phrase you often use—could at least in theory have a therapeutic effect. I don’t know whether you’ve had any experience of that happening?
RS: Absolutely! Let’s imagine that someone comes to you in the grip of suffering, overcome with emotion. Now, in many cases, it’s not appropriate to ask such a person “what is it that is aware of your experience?” Some more relative approach is better. But because you’ve asked the question, let’s imagine that someone was to come to you in such a condition, and you felt that it was appropriate to say to them, “OK, you’ve told me now, you’ve been speaking for five minutes, about your circumstances, your feelings, your relationships. But what is it that is aware of all of these? ” And this person was to pause, and, in that pause, instead of their attention being lost in their feelings, their attention relaxes. They ask themselves the question “but what is it that is aware of my feelings?” At that moment they cease being immersed in their emotions and they take a step back, so to speak, they touch in themselves, they visit, their essential nature, which is awareness. Now, it may be very brief: the habit of emotion may immediately return again, and obscure this brief glimpse, but the question you asked would have just introduced a pause in the stream of their suffering, which would give them brief access to the background of awareness. And in that moment, there would have been relief from their suffering. All you need to do is ask the question again next time you meet this person: “what is it that is aware of your sorrow?” They pause, they go back to the background of peace. And once you’ve had a taste of the nature of that which is aware of our experience, our interest is awakened. Then you can begin to say to someone, “well, stay there.” Don’t be so interested in what you are aware of. Give your love and interest to that which is aware. What are its qualities?
DC: That’s interesting, because the original conception of philosophy, back in the time of Plato and Aristotle, was that it was a kind of therapy.
DC: And people went to the Academy, or wherever, as they saw it, to be cured.
RS: Yes, it was deeply connected with our actual experience. It wasn’t an abstract process of reasoning.
DC: One thing you say often, and you say it several times in the book about happiness, is that we shouldn’t assume that objects, relationships etc will necessarily bring us happiness. I’d just like to—I wouldn’t say push back—but ask you to comment on what I think is a reasonable argument, that there’s nothing wrong, given the choice, in acting in such a way as to naturally be made happy, as opposed to naturally be made unhappy. For example, while I was making these notes up, I remembered the last art exhibition I went to, which was the Botticelli in Paris, which is absolutely mind-blowing, and coming out of the gallery feeling as if I had just looked Beauty in the face, and seeing a pile of rubbish bags on the pavement, which had not yet been collected, and were disgorging some of their contents. Now there are purists, and I’ve read them, who would say you should be indifferent to external events of all kinds, and everything is fundamentally the same. But I would prefer, if I had the free use of my time, to pursue Botticelli rather than some sordid urban landscape. Am I making a mistake?
RS: No, I don’t think you are. Ultimately, yes, of course, everything is of the same nature—Botticelli and the rubbish bags. However, a work of art—or what I consider to be a true work of art—has a specific function in society, namely to reveal reality, to take us to the experience of reality. And that’s what you experienced. I couldn’t improve on your description, you said “I felt I looked beauty in the face.” Well, beauty is one of the names of reality, and the purpose of a work of art is to take us, not intellectually, not rationally, but to take us viscerally, as Cézanne said, to give us a taste of nature’s eternity, to give us a taste of that which is eternal, or real in nature. And that is the purpose of a work of art. Now, it’s not the purpose of a pile of rubbish bags. The purpose of a pile of rubbish bags is to collect rubbish from peoples’ homes; It doesn’t have a sacred function. That doesn’t mean to say that, in the ultimate analysis, the reality of the rubbish bags is any different from the reality of a Botticelli painting, but at a more relative level there is a profound difference between them.
DC: Now, if we take that argument a stage further, we’re not always talking about high art, we’re not always surrounded by beauty. But we may be surrounded by things which are more or less pleasant to experience. I was writing some notes for this interview listening to some undemanding music, such as was not going to interfere with the process of thought, and if someone had suggested, well, why don’t you listen to some, say, Norwegian Satanic Death Metal, or something, I would have said “no thank you very much.” So it’s not necessarily a case of high art versus rubbish bags. I just wonder if there’s room in your way of thinking for the sort of choices we make pretty much every day: being with this person is more pleasant than being with that person, or experiencing this music is more pleasant than experiencing that music, or this film and that film, without any real sense that one is doing anything transcendental, but one is pursuing, perhaps wrongly, I don’t know, just a slightly happier life, a slightly more pleasant set of experiences. In other words, we don’t necessarily have to go to your concept of beauty, but just to experiences that are happier or more pleasant than others we might alternatively choose.
RS: Yes, but there’s a difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is an experience that is pleasing to our senses, and it’s very often mistaken for happiness, but it’s a very different experience. One can be miserable lying on a Caribbean beach, and one can be blissfully happy sitting in a bus-stop in the pouring rain. So I think we have to make a distinction: a pleasurable experience is one that is tailored to the body, it is pleasant to the body, It doesn’t always equate to happiness. Sometimes they coincide: they’re often mistaken for one another, but what we really want is not pleasure, it’s happiness.
DC: I suppose my question is, is there anything wrong with trying to organise your life so that you have more pleasurable experiences than unpleasant experiences?
RS: Not at all. In this approach, I don’t suggest that desire, for instance, is wrong: that one shouldn’t desire, as you say, a pleasant experience, be it a relationship, an activity, or a place to live. No, there’s nothing in this approach that would suggest that is in any way wrong. What I would suggest, is that it would be mistaken to seek such an experience or object for the sake of happiness. It’s quite possible, for example, that a desire comes from happiness, is initiated by happiness. It does not go towards it, but it comes from it. If we approach any object with the expectation or demand that it will produce happiness for us, although when we acquire the object or the substance or the relationship, it’s true that the search for happiness comes to an end. Why? Because we’ve got the object we were seeking, and as a result of that, we experience happiness. We wrongly attribute the happiness experienced to the object acquired: we don’t realise that all the object did for us – the object we acquired, the substance, the relationship – all it did for us was to put an end to the activity of seeking. And when the activity of seeking comes to an end, the mind comes briefly to an end. And as a result, our true nature of happiness, which previously was hidden by the activity of seeking, shines, and we experience happiness. But we don’t realise that the happiness experienced is a taste of our own being, we think it is given by the object. So as a result, after a while, the capacity that the object has to put an end to seeking diminishes, seeking rises again, because its source has not been clearly seen and cut off; seeking arises again, we remember:“oh, last time I went for that object, that substance, or that relationship, I felt happiness, so I’ll go for it again. This time, I’ll need a bit more of it, and, sure enough, when we get the object or the substance, the activity of seeking comes to an end, our true nature of happiness briefly shines, we wrongly attribute our happiness to the object or the substance acquired, and, in this way, a cycle of seeking, the acquisition of the object, satisfaction and addiction slowly builds up. But we never, no matter how much of the object, the activity or the substance, it never gives us what we want, which is not just moments of happiness, but lasting happiness.
DC: I can see that. I guess that’s enough happiness. Perhaps we could say a word about suffering. I’m going to quote one of the sentences in your book that struck me. “One with a deep interest in truthful reality does not see suffering as something incorrect, wrong or problematic. Rather they welcome it as a reminder that they have invested their happiness in objective experience.” Which is rather what you were just saying in relation to happiness. What made me slightly hesitate was the use of the word “suffering” and the use of the word “welcome” in the same few lines. I wonder if there’s a risk of encouraging the belief that some people have, for example, that they are born to suffer or that they are born to be tragic victims, or indeed a sense of neurosis, and a belief that you find on the fringes of some religions, actually, that suffering is good, that you want to actually seek out suffering, because it’s good. I know that’s not what you mean ….
RS: It’s definitely not what I intended. I think that when I said, “such a person welcomes their suffering, ” I then qualified that by saying because it allows them to see that they’ve invested their happiness. But yes, you’re absolutely right, I do not mean, and I hope I didn’t imply, that one should simply, passively, accept one’s suffering as one’s lot in life, and so simply try to welcome it. That is not what’s intended. Actually, it’s not really possible to “welcome” suffering, because suffering is, by definition, resistance. And resistance is the opposite of welcoming. So, if we were to stop resisting … let’s take a particular situation in our life, in a relationship, for instance. We resist what is taking place in our relationship, as a result we suffer. If we were to cease resisting what was taking place in our relationship, and we were to embrace it, or welcome it, then our suffering would come to an end, because our suffering is only contained in our resistance to the situation. It’s not the situation itself that causes the suffering, it’s our resistance to it. So if resistance is replaced with welcoming, there’s no question of “welcoming suffering,” because there is no longer any suffering to welcome. So sometimes you hear people talk about “welcoming suffering.” Well, if you can welcome the suffering, why not welcome the situation that is causing the suffering, and then there would be no suffering to welcome or not.
DC: Here, you come back inevitably, I think, to things like martyrdom and to the more extreme forms of the lives of the saints of different religions, and to extreme forms of asceticism. We tend to think of suffering, certainly the way you describe it in your book, as being mental suffering, resistance to situations we don’t like. There is, of course, the other type of suffering, which is more common in the world.
RS: Yes, I make a clear distinction between psychological or emotional suffering, and physical pain. And whilst I think that psychological or emotional suffering … it’s source is the overlooking or forgetting of our true nature, and ultimately therefore it’s referred to in the Vedantic tradition as “ignorance”—not in the pejorative sense, but coming from the ignoring of reality: it’s essentially a mistaken belief, a mistaken sense of one’s identity. Whereas physical pain, I would suggest, it’s a sign of intelligence, it’s not a sign of ignorance, it’s the intelligence not only about pain, but about danger as well. If one is in danger, or if somebody in one’s care is in danger, one’s resistance to it is not a sign of ignorance, it is a sign of intelligence. So for this reason I make a very clear distinction between them: they are both resistances. Pain is physical resistance which is an intelligent response of the body, whereas suffering is also an intelligent signal in the mind. So pain is to the body what suffering is to the mind. When we feel pain or danger to the body, it’s a signal that the body requires attention. Even if it’s the experience of hunger, that’s a mild experience of pain, or at least discomfort, which signals “it’s time to eat or drink.” So that’s an intelligent signal from the body. Suffering is a symmetrical situation in the mind. When we are suffering, it’s an intelligent signal from the mind, telling us “you have overlooked the nature of your own being, and as a result, you have invested your desire for happiness in objective experience. Pause, instead of just seeking satisfaction in the object, which can never fully satisfy you, pause, investigate the source of your suffering.”
DC: I suppose it has to be said that there’s a third type of suffering, the suffering of those imprisoned or tortured, subject to the evil activities of others: there’s a lot of that in the world. And there are some people who have risen above that, there are people who have written memoirs of their time in concentration camps and that kind of thing. Whether they would see that as something that they welcome, or whether they would see it as something positive, I think it depends very much on who you are, and how strong you are psychologically. But obviously there is an ultimate kind of suffering that I think most of us would sensibly seek to avoid.
RS: Yes, but all those are extreme examples of where physical pain, discomfort, danger, abuse …. so the kind of resistance one would feel to such an experience is entirely legitimate. I wouldn’t begin to judge that kind of resistance.
DC: That’s a very useful clarification. Another subject you cover in the book, and I’ve heard you speak a lot about, is time, or rather the non-existence of time. You say, “the mind imagines time,” and I’ve heard you express yourself very forthrightly to questioners on the absence of time, and the sense in which it is a human construct. I wonder what you think about some of the logical consequences of the non-existence of time. If you have ultimately no time, then the concept of cause and effect cannot exist, because cause and effect requires time; ethics can’t exist either, because there are no consequences, because consequences require time. We can’t learn anything, we can’t regret anything, and so forth. Now, I’m quite prepared to have you say, “no, no, it’s much more complicated than that,” and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t, but when you subtract the dimension of time from our understanding of the world, an awful lot goes with it, surely?
RS: Yes, I don’t deny the relative existence of time for practical purposes. It’s more psychological time, by which I mean the time that is required to have a sense of ourself as a temporary finite separate self, which is made up of its history, its thoughts, its feelings. It’s the psychological time that perpetuates the sense of separation that I’m referring to, not the relative use of, let’s call it, functional time, practical time, that enables us for instance to agree to meet at three o’clock in the afternoon for an interview. That makes relative use of the idea of time for practical purposes, but we don’t have to buy into the absolute reality of time in order to agree to meet at a certain time. Whereas the sense of being a separate self depends upon time for its existence. For instance—and we’re not talking about physical pain, we’re talking about psychological suffering—if you now, let’s say, remove time from your experience. It’s very easy to imagine: just use your memory—you don’t have a memory. Would it be possible for you to suffer now, psychologically.
DC: It would be very difficult.
RS: Can you give me an instance of suffering, an example of how you might suffer now, in the absence of memory?
DC: Only by anticipation.
RS: How would you anticipate anything if you didn’t have memory to refer to? Give me an example of something that you could anticipate without referring to your memory. I mean, take dinner this evening, for instance. Could you imagine dinner this evening if you didn’t have a memory to refer to?
DC: No. I mean, clearly you can only imagine that by reference to dinners that you’ve had in the past.
RS: So, when we remove the past, when we remove memory, we also remove anticipation. So now, remove these two. It’s enough to remove memory, because it’s implied that anticipation is no longer possible. Could you suffer psychologically—of course you could be in physical pain or danger, but could you suffer psychologically?
DC: I think only, as you say, if you were already in some situation … if you assume that you had lost your memory, but subjective time was still continuing, then something that happened perhaps a few seconds ago, you’d think “Oh my God, I’m afraid that what’s happening to me now will continue.”
RS: But that requires memory. Remove the possibility of what happened two minutes ago or two seconds ago or two days ago, could you suffer?
DC: No, that would be impossible, because you would have no frame of reference.
RS: We think that our suffering takes place in the now, and we escape from it through thinking, into the past or future. The opposite is the case; the Now is the only place suffering can never stand, it only exists with reference to the past and future. Strangely, tragically, ironically, most of us escape the Now, where we think our suffering takes place, into an imaginary past or future. Really, we should be withdrawing our investment in the past and future and returning to the sanctuary of the Now, which is our refuge, the only place where suffering can’t stand. And this is why the Now, the present moment and so on is such an important element of so many spiritual practices. And even if it’s not stated explicitly—for instance a more relative approach, let’s say, which is not something I particularly recommend, let’s say you were to focus on your breathing. If someone is suffering intensely, perhaps because of a relationship situation, and someone suggests they focus on their breathing, that is actually a kind of half-way stage, it takes their attention away from the past and the future, because their breathing is an experience that is happening now, so that’s a skilful means of bringing their attention to the Now. All that’s necessary then is to take one further step back from one’s breathing, all the way back to one’s true nature.
DC: That’s fascinating. It leads to an obvious question I suppose … you’ve got a double sense of time here, there’s time in the absolute sense, which you say doesn’t exist, and pragmatic time, which exists so that we can make an appointment for an interview. Would it be unfair to say that what really matters to us is how we perceive time, pragmatic time, because we have to live in the world, and we have things to do, we have appointments, we have to get up in the morning, and that this non-duality stuff is all very interesting, but it’s a way of seeing things that doesn’t necessarily have much impact on our daily lives? Now, you’ve given an example a few seconds ago of how it could, in relieving suffering, but first of all do you think these two conceptions of time are compatible, or do you get a headache trying to hold them in your mind at the same time?
RS: No, I think they are entirely compatible. It’s perfectly easy to lead a very functional life, turning up to your meetings on time, and yet not have a sense of psychological time, not have one’s happiness invested in future experiences. And not only do I not think this attitude is compatible with everyday living, on the contrary, it’s the only attitude to me that makes sense of everyday life. If you take the suffering we experience on the inside, the conflict that is experienced between individuals, families, communities and nations on the outside, and the exploitation and degradation of the earth. Take these three factors: suffering, conflict and the degradation of the earth. All three, I would suggest, can be traced back to our mistaken assumption that we are temporary, finite separate selves, separate from one another, separate from the environment, separate from God, by which I mean the ultimate reality. Whereas the recognition of our true nature, and by definition with that recognition comes the felt understanding that we share our essential identity not only with all people but with all animals and all things— that recognition is the ultimate cure for suffering, conflict and our relationship to the environment. So I think it is not only possible to live a practical life with this understanding, I think it’s the only chance we have of leading a decent, ethical, creative life.
DC: Which brings us neatly to the individual, about which you have spoken a great deal. You say in your book “the individual is an illusion, not an entity in its own right.” You talk as you have often talked in your lectures about the apparent or separate self. You’ve just talked about, if you like, overcoming this sense of separateness as a way out of the suffering, it’s something I’ve heard you talk about a number of times, but I assume you wouldn’t deny that it is possible for the apparently separate self nonetheless to feel positive about their separate existence: that as well as suffering, there is joy, love, passion, drama, excitement, meeting challenges, all that sort of thing.
RS: Yes, I don’t deny individuality, I deny, ultimately, individually existing selves and objects. But I acknowledge individuality as a unique expressions of the whole. So, with this understanding, we don’t cease functioning as individuals, we continue to think, to feel, to act, to perceive and relate, but we no longer do so on behalf of the fears, the demands, the expectations, the desires, the neuroses, of an apparently separate self. We do so on behalf of the qualities—if we can call them qualities—that are inherent in our true nature, namely peace, love, joy, beauty. So all our faculties as an individual remain, and in fact the individual functions much more sanely, much more intelligently, because its activities are no longer thwarted by the tyranny of separation. So we continue to function—we function much better in the world. Our individuality is used in the service of truth, and love and peace. It’s no longer used in the service of the neuroses of the separate self.
DC: Yes. Again, as with time, we are talking about different ways of looking at a concept that we have been brought up to think of as one concept. I don’t think there’s anything in my upbringing, for example, which would have encouraged me to think in the way that you’ve just described. It’s something—I wouldn’t say alien—but it’s something which takes a little getting used to.
RS: Yes, this understanding, it’s not—I say not yet—mainstream, implying that hopefully one day it will be more mainstream, and indeed I think it will. How many people fifty years ago had ever heard of meditation, yoga? Fifty years ago, these activities were … mindfulness had not yet become common, yoga was not yet common, no-one had ever heard of Zen. Now, mindfulness, yoga, some kind of meditation practice … these are everyday household words. So our culture has changed a lot. I know that what I’m speaking of is even one step deeper than what people normally consider, or associate with mindfulness or Zen, or yoga, but this understanding—Zen, yoga, mindfulness and so on, that is now part of our culture, have paved the way for this deeper understanding that I’m speaking of, and certainly, if my experience is anything to go by, the number of people—I’ve been speaking about these matters for what, ten or twelve years—the number of people that are interested in these matters is growing exponentially. So I feel that this understanding is beginning to—I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s mainstream—but it’s beginning to filter into the mainstream.
DC: That’s very encouraging. One of the problems—you mention mindfulness, and there’s already a bit of a backlash against mindfulness and yoga and so forth—on the basis that they are turning, ironically enough, into commodities, that they’re turning into precisely what you’ve always warned against. I don’t think that’ll happen to non-duality, and I certainly hope it doesn’t, but there is a danger that all of this will be banalised, and will simply be absorbed frictionlessly into a consumer society, by people who’ve been selling us mindfulness and selling us yoga.
RS: Yes; well, it’s true that the ego can appropriate, almost anything, if not anything, and use it to perpetuate itself, and that will probably happen, in fact it is already happening. I see it to an extent with the non-dual understanding, and I think that is just an inevitable consequence of this understanding going out more into the mainstream. But that doesn’t mean to say it will become corrupted by the mainstream. I don’t think it will. My experience, for instance, these last couple of years, where I’ve been holding meetings online … until two years ago, I was speaking, as we were saying at the beginning of the conversation, if not to the choir then certainly to the congregation. In the last two years, I’ve had conversations and interviews with the Metropolitan Police Force, the Nationwide Building Society, Alcoholics Anonymous, sports personalities … people way outside the field within which I was accustomed to speaking. And that’s because this understanding is finding its way … I mean, can you imagine, the Metropolitan Police? They have set up an organisation now within the Metropolitan Police to deal with mental health issues in the police, and they are regularly asking me to contribute. Nationwide Building Society, Alcoholics Anonymous … so these are signs of this understanding finding its way into areas of the community which, even five years ago, would have been unheard of.
DC: That’s great news. I’ve listened to some of your podcasts with, I must admit, some quite surprising hosts, but nonetheless very interesting and useful discussions.
RS: Yes, and you’ve probably noticed, these are people … they’re so sincere. I’m so moved, talking to these groups, who very often have no prior understanding of the non-dual traditions, nevertheless they’re struggling in their lives, and they so far haven’t found a remedy for their suffering. They’re so open, they’re so sincere, they ask such profound questions, and there’s no sense that they want to somehow appropriate this understanding. They’re genuinely open to it. I’ve been touched, deeply touched, on a number of occasions, by the depth and sincerity of the people in these groups.
DC: That’s very interesting. I suppose—this is the last topic I was going to put to you—I suppose this all comes together. We talked about concepts of time, we talked about the individual, about suffering and happiness, and so forth. Some of the writers you have instanced from the western tradition … I get the impression that they try to explain these things, or they see themselves as trying to explain these things, and beyond a certain point they throw their hands up and they say “I can’t do it.” Plotinus, if I remember correctly, wrote entire books about how he couldn’t write anything. And there is, it seems to me … there’s a real question, when we were talking about the difference between the two concepts of time or the two concepts of the individual, and so forth, about how much it is reasonable to expect language to do, and how much it is reasonable to expect human concepts to do. I don’t know what your experience is of talking to ordinary people about these things. It’s often difficult … I think more and more about Wittgenstein, saying, “look, you know, there are some things we just can’t talk about, so let’s be mystics instead.” The consequence of that would be that, as well as the teaching you do, which you do —I’ve always found this—in a very clear, very structured, very organised fashion about some of these issues, is there nonetheless a dimension, a component, which cannot be transmitted by language?
RS: Absolutely! Yes. There’s a difference between words that try to describe reality, and words that try to evoke reality. Words cannot describe reality, because reality is whole and words by definition fragment. Words describe the fragments, the parts, of the whole. So really, if one wanted to speak honestly, truthfully, about reality, one would remain silent. One cannot say a single true word about reality. Does that mean that we should never speak about these matters? In my opinion, no. Some people do think so, and they remain silent. I respect that. As a Zen master said—you may have heard me say this, I don’t remember who it was—“If I speak, I tell a lie. If I remain silent, I am a coward.” Picasso said the same thing: “all art tells a lie, but it leads us to the truth.” So I’m one of those that believe that it is valid to speak about these matters. I would acknowledge straight away, upfront, not a single word I say is absolutely true. Nevertheless, if I had not heard the words of the non-dual understanding, I would have remained suffering. It wouldn’t have helped me. So I think all teachings, even the highest teachings, make a degree of concession, but if one isn’t willing to make a concession to language, then one should not speak. But I think that it’s valid to make that concession, not in order to describe what reality is, but in order to evoke in the listener the taste of reality, the taste of their true nature, a taste as Cézanne said, a taste of nature’s eternity, to lead us to the experience, rather than the idea of reality, and I think that’s a valid—in fact, I can’t think of anything as a human being that would be a higher endeavour than to explore the nature of reality, and, to the best of one’s ability, express it in some way, knowing that one is always going to fail to describe it.
DC: I’m pleased you say that, and I think we’re all grateful that you have taken that step, and you’ve succeeded, I think, very largely. I can imagine it’s not always easy writing books like yours, particularly this one, which is in fact quite systematic and descriptive, and where you have to deal with some of these questions head-on. It can’t have been a very easy experience.
RS: It’s not an easy experience, but I’ve learnt, really these last ten years or so, of teaching—for want of a better word, although I don’t ever think of it as teaching—but if somebody asks me a question that I asked ten, fifteen, twenty years ago then it’s relatively easy for me to answer; the way I imagine it to myself, it’s like someone asking the question is lost in a particular place in the forest where I was once lost. I know just how to get home from that place in the forest. However, over these last ten or twelve years or so of speaking about these matters, I’ve been asked many questions by people who are lost in the forest in a part of the forest that I never visited. I didn’t ask those questions, because I was of a different make-up. My resistances, my objections, were different from theirs. That wouldn’t normally matter unless one is in the position that I’m in, where one is responding to questions, teaching. And there, I have had to—the first thing I have to do is find the person, find where they are. It’s not a place that I’ve necessarily been to. So I first have to venture into the forest to find them, and then I have to walk back home with them, along a path that I may not have walked on myself. So the whole process of teaching has taught me a lot, in terms of listening to others, and in terms of tailoring my understanding, such as it is, to questions that were not the questions that I asked, and this has really expanded my repertoire beyond what I needed during my own sadhana. I hope that this book is the fruit of that.
DC: That’s certainly how it comes over, I think. I’ve got a fair number of books on non-duality—you will, I’m sure, know them all. A lot of them are questions followed by gnomic answers. They’re interesting and they get you thinking, but if you come from a tradition where you quite like to have things laid out logically and sequentially, then such books are less common. I was very impressed that you managed to do that, with all of the difficulties that we’ve been talking about, of understanding and so forth. I think it’s a great success in that sense.
RS: I’m very heartened that you say that. I was under a misapprehension, as I think many people are. They go to a teacher, as indeed I did, thinking that a teacher is a bit like a maths professor, or a history professor, that has a kind of store of marvellous, enlightened knowledge, which they just dish out in response to questions. I didn’t realise that nothing could be farther from the case. When I go into a meeting, I go in empty of knowledge, and I have to listen carefully to the question, and very often feel the question behind the question, and then to respond in the moment, and to tailor my understanding, such as it is, very uniquely to that question. And one doesn’t reach into one’s past for a response to such a question, one reaches into the depths of one’s present understanding. And then you have to marry your understanding, such as it is, with the question, and it provides a unique pathway, in the moment, for the questioner. And this is what keeps the non-dual teaching alive. It doesn’t become a series of dogmas and practices. Of course, one cannot re-invent oneself from one day to another, so, you know, I have my repertoire of metaphors and language. But to the best of my ability, I’m always trying to respond in the moment, and bring a fresh understanding. For instance, people sometimes say to me “you must get bored of hearing the same question over and over and over again.” I’ve never heard the same question twice! Every time I hear a question, I hear it like for the first time, and I try to answer it as if for the first time for that particular person, at that particular moment in their lives. And I hope this keeps the teaching fresh. It’s the traditional teaching, it’s been around, there’s nothing new in what I’m saying, it’s the perennial understanding, but I’m tailoring it, to the best of my ability, to the moment in which I find myself. So it’s both the ancient perennial understanding, but expressed in new ways that are tailored to the moment.
DC: There must be, I suppose, particularly if you’re someone like Plotinus, an enormous intellectual temptation to play games with this. It’s so full of paradoxes, and paradoxes are so delightful, and you can’t say this, but even if you could, you can’t say that, because … and you lose yourself totally. You, in my experience, have resisted that temptation.
RS: I don’t feel it as a temptation, because I’m not interested at an intellectual level. I’m not really interested in having debates with people about non-duality, and arguing with people. I’m motivated really by the heart, peoples’ hearts. And I find actually that very very few people that come to me, come to me to debate and argue and prove me wrong. People that come to me, they come … they’re so sincere, they’re either suffering terribly, or they have a profound interest in the nature of reality, that is not just an intellectual curiosity. It’s a burning question for them, and it always has been for me.
DC: I’m very glad to hear you say that. I think … yes, it’s a fascinating intellectual exercise, but in the end it leads nowhere.
RS: Yes, exactly.
DC: A purely intellectual approach to non-duality leads round and round in ever-decreasing circles.
DC: I’m sure I speak for tens of thousands of people around the world when I say that we are very glad that you have the approach that you do, that you deal with these issues from the heart.
RS: Thank you!
The full audio from this interview is available on Rupert's podcast channel.