Rupert Spira - The Transparency of Things – Part 1
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Rupert has written a book, published by Non-Duality Press, called The Transparency of Things, subtitled Contemplating the Nature of Experience. I guess the first question is, what is the reason you wrote this book?
Rupert: There wasn’t a reason. I was on a train for six hours travelling to Edinburgh and I just started writing. I simply started writing a description of experience, a contemplation of my actual experience as it was appearing in that moment. The book developed from there. It wasn’t written with any particular purpose or audience in mind. It was just the enjoyment of looking at, exploring and expressing the nature of experience.
Iain: The first line in your Foreword is, “This book is a collection of contemplations and conversations about the nature of experience. Its only purpose, if it can be said to have any purpose at all, is to look clearly and simply at experience itself.” And of course that’s how you started, looking at experience itself.
Rupert: I’d forgotten that first line and I’m glad to hear that it’s accurate! It’s precisely what the book is, a collection of contemplations on the nature of our experience, because all we have at any moment is simply our experience.
We know nothing outside experience. In fact, there is no evidence of a world outside our experience of it. So, if we are interested in the nature of ourselves and the reality of the world, all we have is our experience of our self and our experience of the world.
Where and when does that experience take place? It always takes place here and now. Not ‘here’ a place and ‘now’ a time, but rather ‘here’ and ‘now’ in the placeless, timeless Presence of Consciousness.
So, if we want to know the reality of our self and of the world, all we have to explore or investigate is this current experience, whatever it consists of, from moment to moment.
Iain: I am interested in the wider context of your development and I know that you actually started to meditate at the age of sixteen, which is really young, and I just wondered what led you to that.
Rupert: At the time I was studying science with the intention of becoming a doctor or a biochemist but, as my studies went on, I became increasingly disenchanted with them.
I came across the poetry of Rumi who, at that time, in the mid- 1970s, hadn’t been translated by Coleman Barks and others that we are familiar with nowadays. He was only available in more classical translations. However, I loved his poetry and went on to learn the Mevlevi turning which was part of the Sufi tradition. I also learned Gurdjieff’s ‘movements’.
At the same time I came across the non-dual teachings of the Advaita Vedanta tradition, which were being given by the Shankaracharya of the north of India, and under him I learned to meditate.
I had a voracious interest in the nature of reality and I read everything I could find by P D Ouspensky, Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, the Early Fathers of the Orthodox Church, Irina Tweedie, and others.
Iain: And this was all at sixteen years old?
Rupert: Well, it started when I was sixteen and continued through my teens, twenties and thirties.
Iain: You must have been so different from your contemporaries…
Rupert: In one respect perhaps, but I was also just a regular teenager.
I left school and went to art school, which I hoped would be more sympathetic to my interests, and in some ways it was. However, it’s true that during my late teens and twenties my interests were not mainstream interests.
I was deeply interested in who I really am and what the world really is. I had started to meditate and was studying the non-dual teachings of the Shankaracharya, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta in particular.
When I read them something at the heart of myself said “Yes!” There was a deep resonance in me. I knew that what was being spoken was true. In one sense I knew it but in another sense I couldn’t make it my own. So for twenty years or so, I carried on under the Shankaracharya, meditating, studying, contemplating, practising.
Iain: Did you have a teacher at this time or were you doing it primarily on your own?
Rupert: Yes, I spent a lot of time with a group in London called The Study Society, which had been started by P D Ouspensky and carried on by Dr Francis Roles. It was Dr Roles who had made the connection with the Shankaracharya after Ouspensky’s death, and it was under his guidance that I learned to meditate. I also went to meetings once or twice a week every week during these years. So throughout my late teens, twenties and early thirties I was very involved in exploring the classical non-dual teaching.
Iain: And were you able to integrate that practically in your life at the time?
Rupert: To an extent, but for a long time I felt that there was a connection that hadn’t been made, a feeling that something was still missing. There was my deep interest in spiritual matters on the one hand, and then there was life in the world, relationships, my love of beauty, earning a living, etcetera, on the other.
Iain: It can be quite a challenge to bring those together.
Rupert: They didn’t always sit comfortably together, particularly as, at that time, I had some preconceived ideas about the shape that this understanding should take in the world and I tried to superimpose these ideas on myself. Of course, it didn’t work, so there was an uncomfortable relationship between my understanding, such as it was, and the world. There was some theoretical understanding but it hadn’t really penetrated to the core of my life.
Iain: I think a lot of people have this situation where they have a teaching they are really drawn to and then they have the practicalities of everyday living. And bringing those together is the ultimate challenge in one way.
Rupert: Yes, and I think it was exacerbated for those of us who went to India for inspiration, literally or metaphorically, because the Indian teaching, the classical non-dual teaching, was packaged, as are all teachings, in a particular cultural form.
India is an exotic or at least a foreign culture compared to our own, and therefore the teaching came packaged in an exotic or at least a foreign form. It was difficult to discriminate the essential understanding from the cultural packaging through which it was being expressed, and this led to many misunderstandings.
Above all there was, for me, always a sense of distance, an inability to bring the teaching deeply and intimately into my own lived experience.
Iain: India is completely different.
Rupert: Yes, and in those days there was good reason for going there for the non-dual understanding. It was only just becoming available in the West.
Iain: What kind of work were you doing at the time?
Rupert: I was a ceramic artist.
Iain: And you learned this at art college?
Rupert: I had been to art college and later trained with a man named Michael Cardew. Soon after that, in my early twenties, I set up my first studio and started earning my living as an artist and craftsman, which I enjoyed very much.
Iain: I imagine it is also a wonderful way to express an inner process.
Rupert: Yes. I had an unformulated belief and feeling that beauty was somehow closely related to spirituality. Although I couldn’t equate the two, I had an intuition that beauty was a direct revelation of the nature of reality, in the same way that love and intelligence are.
So my work was involved with beauty. It was an investigation at a very physical, tangible level into the nature of reality and how that might be expressed in form, how it might take shape in form. So yes, they were closely connected.
Iain: And did you feel that people who bought your work responded to that? Did they realise that there was something deeper going on in what you created?
Rupert: I don’t know. I think it’s very difficult to say what is going on when we respond to a work of art. There are so many levels on which we respond. There’s the immediate physical level of the form, the shape, the colour, the rhythm, but there is also a deeper communication taking place. We may not be aware of this deeper communication and may well not be able to articulate it, but that is not necessary.
What is necessary is that we are touched. For instance, if we hear a piece of music, the communication is sometimes so powerful, so intense. We don’t have to be able to articulate what’s going on. In fact we have no idea what is going on, but what is important is that whatever is being communicated is received, and it is received in the heart, so to speak, unmediated by the thinking mind.
Iain: Yes, what triggered the question was a memory of reading about someone who had seen a certain painting and ended up in a mental hospital. There was something about the craziness of the artist that came through so powerfully in the painting, that affected the viewer’s state of mind. And I know there are other examples of people who have stood in front of a painting or a work of art and been moved to tears, without knowing why. One presumes that is because of the emotion, the love, the beauty that is expressed in that piece of art.
Iain: So I would imagine that your work actually has a powerful, positive effect on people.
Rupert: We could say that every object bears the signature of its origin. It expresses the ‘place’, as it were, that it comes from. It expresses what has gone into the making of it, physically, psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, in every way. All these things are present in the final form.
So an object that comes from, for instance, a feeling of alienation or despair tends to express and evoke a similar feeling in the viewer. An object that comes from love will somehow touch the place of love in the viewer.
So whatever goes into the making of a work of art - the intelligence, the love, the tenderness, the anguish - remains somehow embedded within it and is somehow communicated by it.
But just as in ordinary life our deep understanding and feeling is expressed through our thoughts, feelings and actions, so what we are at a deep level goes into the making of a work of art. It is what we truly are that is the real content of the object that we make, that shines through the form of the object.
And I think, in the example you give where someone is moved by an object, the source from which the object came is somehow being communicated. It is not communicated to the mind although it goes through the mind. The form is always conditioned just as the body and mind are conditioned. But that which is being expressed through the form is not conditioned.
We are silenced or moved to tears, because it touches something in us, it dissolves something in us; it dissolves our mental, conceptual knowledge.
I went to a film last night called Man on the Wire about Philippe Petit, the high-wire walker. I wept! It was so beautiful.
Iain: Philippe Petit is a high-wire walker who walked back and forth seven times across the Twin Towers before they were destroyed. He had to smuggle all the equipment in because he couldn’t get permission, so it was all done illegally and, of course, the police were on the top, trying to get him off, and he would just run from one end to the other!
Rupert: The love, the imagination, the feeling that anything is possible, was so beautiful. I felt that watching the film, the majesty of his love of life, its mystery and playfulness, and how he could express this in the most extraordinary way, lying on a wire, suspended in space, a thousand metres up.
Long after the images of the film had receded, I was left with a feeling of openness, awe, beauty and love. It was a true work of art.
Iain: And also tremendous courage.
Rupert: Yes, it was such a beautiful expression of egoless action, action in which the personal entity was not present.
Iain: There’s also a drive. He said he felt, two or three times, that he had to do this.
Rupert: Yes, a sense of impersonal destiny. Something that has to be done. ‘You’ don’t do it.
And yes, you’re right about the courage. Courage comes from a French word, meaning a large heart. It was true courage, not an individual being brave, but this sense of vast possibilities, fearless. A fearlessness that comes from being utterly one with the universe, knowing that your action is its action.
Iain: I also had the feeling that in a way he was being held by the universe.
Rupert: Exactly. He was the universe and the universe cannot hurt itself!
Iain: He didn’t talk about non-duality or being a part of something else, but he just knew and felt that he was expressing on behalf of the universe. And that somehow there was no risk. Of course, he was also incredibly fit and well-trained. You saw him training for it, how he would stand on the wire and see exactly how far he could lean before he started to fall.
Rupert: Yes, and there was that beautiful part in the film in which one of his assistants described the incredible power of concentration when he was training.
Rupert: At one stage he described Philippe Petit as being like a sphinx. They showed a close-up of his face and you could see there the utter impersonality of his deed. He was like one of those statues of the Buddha carved in rock, absolutely motionless.
You never worried while watching the film that he would fall. He was absolutely fearless, at one with the moment, just doing what he had to do in the right place at the right time, effortlessly smiling as he walked along this wire.
Iain: I think you were also involved in the Gurdjieff movements, when you were younger - is that right?
Rupert: Yes, I practised Gurdjieff’s ‘movements’ at Colet House, the home of The Study Society, for several years.
Iain: Was this to the Hartmanns’ music?
Rupert: Yes, but by the time I went to Colet House, aged seventeen, the influence of Ouspensky was on the wane and Dr Roles was really trying to usher in the Shankaracharya’s non-dual teaching.
Iain: So Francis Roles became your first teacher?
Iain: And then I think you had a turning point in the mid- 1990s?
Rupert: Yes. I had spent twenty years at Colet House and loved the Shankaracharya’s teaching, and throughout that time I was studying Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi on a continuous basis. However, I still felt that something was missing. And then in the mid- 90s I met Francis Lucille, and that was really the turning point.
The first thing I heard him say was, “Meditation is a universal ‘Yes’ to everything”.
Now that’s the kind of thing you might hear on the non-dual circuit or reading a book, but at that moment something clicked and I clearly remember feeling, “I’m home. I’ve come home. This is what the last twenty-five years have prepared me for, this encounter.”
Iain: So it was just that phrase that triggered…
Rupert: Yes, just that phrase. It was literally the first thing I heard Francis say. It was at the beginning of a retreat. I had never met Francis before. I heard this sentence and I remember a shiver going up my spine and thinking simply, “I’m home”. That was the phrase that came to me.
Iain: So what was the feeling inside you when this happened?
Rupert: I felt that I had made the connection. All these years I had been searching, practising and meditating, longing to find something. There was always…
Iain: You felt that something was missing in a way…
Rupert: There was a sense of lack which at times grew in intensity but was most of the time just a low-grade feeling in the background that drove my life. When I met Francis, there was a feeling that this lack dissolved. I’m not saying that it just vanished once and for all, but there was a feeling that it had dissolved. I spent a lot of time over the next ten years with him, exploring that sense of lack.
So, the first encounter was very important. I knew that it was a turning point. I couldn’t formulate exactly why at the time but I knew that this was an encounter with what I had so deeply wanted all these years.
At the time I expressed it by saying that I had found my teacher. However, I realised as time went on that the teacher is not the person. The true teacher is Presence, not a person. But that wasn’t obvious to me at first. As time went by it became more and more apparent that it wasn’t the person of the teacher that I encountered that day, it was a recognition of my own nature. It was Consciousness, my self, recognising itself.
Somehow, and I don’t know how, this recognition first took place as a result of that meeting with Francis. At the time I attributed this self-recognition to the encounter with the teacher, with the person of the teacher, and in some ways that’s true. Later on I realised that the presence of the teacher is truly the same as one’s own, that the Consciousness ‘in’ the teacher is the same as one’s ‘own’ Consciousness.
I came to see that Consciousness projects the apparent other outside of itself, in the form of a person, as a teacher. However, as the relationship develops, Consciousness withdraws that projection and it becomes clear that, when one meets a true teacher, it is Presence recognising itself in the so-called other. This is not a strange or extraordinary experience. It’s what we know as love or friendship.
But that took some time to become clear. The recognition happened immediately and then I forgot it and the old habits of thinking and feeling on behalf of a separate entity returned. There were many subsequent recognitions, at first in the company of my teacher and then later on it wasn’t necessary to have the teacher present.
Each time it took place it was clear that Consciousness, that which we truly are, knows that it is not dependent on anyone or anything outside of itself for this self-recognition to take place, although the meeting with the teacher seemed to be its initial cause.
Iain: I understand what you’re saying. It seems there had to be an integration, an absorbing.
Rupert: Yes, I remember having a conversation with Francis several years later about intimate relationships, and at one stage in the conversation he said that for true intimacy to take place in a relationship, there can be absolutely no hierarchy.
Iain: No hierarchy…
Rupert: And then, there was a pause and I remember him looking at me and saying, “Exactly the same thing is true of the relationship between the student and the teacher”. For the true intimacy, for the true friendship, for the true love, to be felt, to be expressed, there can be no hierarchy. There can be no sense of “I’m a student and you’re a teacher”, ”I don’t know and you do know”. There can be no difference.
What he was saying is that the true relationship between a so-called student and a so-called teacher is truly the relationship between Presence and Presence, which is no relationship at all, because Presence doesn’t have a relationship with itself. It is itself. There is nothing besides Presence, nothing for it to have a relationship with. The true content of an intimate relationship, or the relationship between a student and a teacher or between lovers or friends, is the sharing of this Presence. That is what the experience of love is: the recognition that we are one.
Iain: I understand. And you’re still working in ceramics now?
Iain: You’re still creating and pouring out whatever’s inside into your art form.
Rupert: Yes, but I make no conscious effort to express what we’re talking about here in my work.
Iain: I understand that, but it must be intrinsically expressed somehow…
Rupert: I think so. I hope so. In fact it is inevitable, but it’s not something I’m trying to do. It’s not something that goes through the intellect as it does when we use words, when we use abstract, conceptual ideas to try and express something which is not abstract or conceptual.
Rupert: When we express something in form - say, a bowl or a painting or a piece of music - we bypass the intellect. That’s the beauty of it and that’s why it’s so efficient! It doesn’t get tangled up with concepts and ideas. In some sense we could say it’s more direct, although words can also be very direct. However, there’s no attempt to work out how to express what we’re talking about here, through form.
Iain: No, I understand. Thank you.
We are going to stop there. We have a part two with Renate which be will be a more experiential programme.
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