Paul Harris ‘Postcards from Beyond’
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello, welcome to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay and my guest today is Paul Harris... So, someone wrote in about Paul suggesting we interview him; and he sent me a lot of notes about his life which I found interesting; and he sent me his book “Postcards From Beyond”. So we are going to talk about his life, about his experiences, how he went from a very low place and found Buddhist meditation really helpful, and found a degree of completion in himself. And we’ll also talk a little bit about his work in the monastery, which he now runs in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, in the UK. So, Paul, hello...
Paul: Hi Iain.
Iain: ...and welcome to conscious TV. You sent me some notes before the interview, and it seems like your childhood was not very happy. You were depressed quite a lot and didn’t really connect with life as such.
Paul: Yeh, there was a deep sense of something being wrong, a sense of dissatisfaction. I have to admit to being quite a bad-tempered little boy, so I don’t think I endeared myself to people around me very much. And there was just this terrible sense of something missing, a sense of lack, which came out sometimes as anger, but there were times - even when I was a little boy, where I felt lost.
Iain: And when you were a teenager you enjoyed playing the guitar and listening to Indie music.
Paul: Yeh, that was possibly one way of losing myself, losing myself in music. Learning to play the guitar was a way of absorbing my mind in something other, so I wasn’t focused on those other things. And of course also trying to play the guitar, there’s also that self-image thing built-in where you are trying to create this image that is going to be attractive, especially to females, so there was that whole side of that as well. There was that desire. I always had a part of me that wanted to stand out in that way.
Iain: Yeh, and also you told me that when you were playing guitar, it was just you and the guitar. Like the world disappeared, and there was something very absorbing for you there.
Paul: Yeh, absolutely, and I think it was a precursor to learning to meditate, because you develop a focus. You’ve got that one-pointedness, you’ve got that absorption in something other than your neurotic preoccupations. So all that was left behind, there was just the music. Especially when I started to get good at playing the guitar, I mean to the point where you actually forget that you are playing the guitar, to the point where your fingers know where to go. Then there is that delightful sense of ease and spaciousness. And I imagine (I don’t know, but I imagine) that’s why a lot of people learn musical instruments, because it does give you a temporary sense of freedom.
Iain: It takes you out of the mind, doesn’t it?
Paul: Yeh, it takes you out of your ‘self’, out of your self-created narrative.
Iain: So somewhere, even at that early age, you found a way to do that, albeit on a temporary basis. Obviously now, when we get onto the story more...
Paul: I think people do. Why do people do extreme sports and things like that? It’s because they have to concentrate. They have to be in the moment, because if they are not, if they start worrying about something, they are going to get into trouble. So, I think a lot of people find ways of ‘losing themselves’, you know: movies, music. A lot of our culture is based around just getting into something else, isn’t it, so we can forget ourselves for a while.
Iain: Yeh, but is it losing ourselves, or finding ourselves? If you’re doing something you really, really love and you’re engrossed, there’s a kind of passion; there’s an engagement; there’s a connection. There is almost like a oneness, isn’t there, in one way?
Paul: Well yeah, absolutely, but in that temporary oneness there is a lack of self-referral. That’s what we want to lose - that narrative. Because that’s the way the mind holds up the world, isn’t it? We hold up the world with ideas about the way it is, and where we are within it, and that’s where all the dissatisfaction lies.
So, by absorbing yourself in something else... it is a love. To absorb yourself in the other is love, isn’t it? In that place we feel peace. We feel a lack of restlessness. And it’s only subsequent to that, when we have to go back into the daily grind, or whatever, that that sense of dissatisfaction remerges.
Iain: I’d like to go back to your story...
Paul: Yeh, ofcourse.
Iain: ... because I think a lot of people can identify with the things that happened to you. So you worked in a bank, which you didn’t find too engrossing? (laughing)
Paul: Well, how I did that for four years I don’t know! I think it demonstrated the extent of my confusion, just trying to fit in with what you believe the culture demands of you, what’s expected of you and what people just take for granted as ‘this is just the way you live your life.’ When I was at school, and I had careers advice no one looked at my profile as suggested: "You would make an ideal Buddhist monk"! It never happened, so I found my way into the bank and worked there for four years, and I have very little interest in money. (Laughing:) So I don’t quite know how that worked, but it taught me a lot, I learned a lot. And I certainly learned that I wasn’t really interested in earning pot-loads of money, that just wasn’t my thing.
Iain: Interesting, I just remembered, I haven’t thought of this for years, but just before I left school there would be someone come into the school to advise you on your career. And academically I was not very good at school; I was 16 and about to leave school, and they advised me I should get a job in a bank. But I never did, fortunately! (Laughter:) So I managed to avoid that, and actually did some quite interesting things with my life.
Paul: Well it all works out, doesn’t it? I mean, it had to be that way. It was the culture I was born into and everything, but eventually I realised that you’ve just got to follow your nose.
Iain: So you followed your nose, left the bank and went to work on a farm. Which was an improvement but still wasn’t quite…
Paul: Career-wise, no!
Iain: ...still wasn’t quite it. But that was important, because somebody you met on the farm suggested you go to India.
Paul: Yeh... You have to understand that the sense of restless dissatisfaction, the sense that something was wrong followed me all the way through. I mean it’s not to say that I didn’t have good times, but they were good times. They came and they went, and this sense of dissatisfaction was like a constant sub-tone in the mind. It was always there, and life on the farm was hard. There was lots of socialising but towards the end, again after about 4 years, that the dissatisfaction came back really, really strongly. And it was at that point that this happy coincidence, or synchronicity, where a friend of mine and his girlfriend were going off to India in the October; knew that I wasn’t very happy, and said “Why don’t you come with us?” And it’s just one of those moments when the penny drops and there was just no argument. There was no necessity to think about it, other than in practical terms. I was going. That was what I was going to do next. I don’t know where that comes from, but it just felt like there was a rightness about it.
Iain: There is a great freedom in that, isn’t there, when you kind of know something needs to change, and then something appears. And then it does sometimes take courage for people to follow it, but in your case, obviously you were not happy and so you just decided to do it.
Paul: Yeh, I mean you have to shake things up, don’t you, sometimes? And clearly I could not see a future in what I was doing, so why not? I didn’t know anything about India then, and despite having an upbringing that was Christian, having rejected that I wasn’t thinking in spiritual terms. I wasn’t thinking about going to India to get spiritual. I was just thinking about going to India to live with a backpack, to have plenty of money in my pocket; and to be in a place where that would go quite a long way; and be able to just hang out, and have new experiences.
Iain: And what did you find in India, in terms of the new experiences?
Paul: Oh, it blew me away! It blew me away, and I think one of the main things that became apparent was that it did kindle an interest in meditation and spiritual matters. I grew up going to dank, cold churches, and came across this form of spirituality that was so colourful, and so gregarious. It was wonderful, it was lovely. I felt very at home in India. Very at home. When I went to Varanasi/Benares, especially, by the Ganges there. I just felt like I’d found a spiritual home there, really. I felt very comfortable there.
Iain: So something in you was opening to a new world somehow. A new possibility?
Paul: Yeah, I think... There was lots of other stuff as well. The partying that goes on in India and so forth, but I think underlying it I was just picking up these new signals and that, on some subconscious level, was beginning to transform my outlook on life.
I mean, when I went to India I thought I was going to leave all my troubles in England, and when I went to India, within a very short space of time I realised they had come with me. And that was really quite transformative, because that was the time where I first realised that it wasn’t anything external that was the cause of my dis-ease and my unhappiness. So really, that’s where I started to consider meditation. Because I started to realise that actually it’s everywhere I go - the one common denominator is me.
Iain: Was that quite devastating when you realised that?
Paul: I don’t think there was one moment I can say that I cottoned on to it. The truth of that gradually percolated through. And going back to what you were saying, it actually felt like a new horizon; it felt like a new opportunity. It felt like a new beginning, not necessarily a ‘terrible revelation’. I have to say that it was on my second trip to India when this really opened up, but on that first trip was where the groundwork was laid.
Iain: So when you started meditating, did you feel there was a ‘spiritual future’ there, if you like? Did you feel that there was a path that was starting to emerge at that point? Or was it later when you really realised the importance of the commitment to meditation?
Paul: I think it was later. I think there was a burgeoning interest. It’s a bit like someone taking up a new hobby, but that hobby hasn’t really quite caught hold yet, so you dabble with it. And it was a point later on where it really became essential, absolutely essential. I had two trips to India, and it was the period between my two trips which was really transformative, and we can obviously talk about that. It was on my subsequent trip to India where it was really explicit, and really a conscious search.
Iain: This interests me, this whole thing about dabbling and essential, they are good words that you’ve used. A lot of people dabble at times. I don’t say that as judgment. It’s just the way things are, that in our society there is often so much going on, it’s hard not to dabble. But when it starts to become the thought “it is essential,” then something changes with the commitment, doesn’t it?
I’m just pulling out a quote you sent me here, that I think sums this up very well, that you were “in a deep spiritual crisis”, and no matter what you did, or where you were, you realised “there was always an unbearable dissatisfaction underlying everything. It felt like I’d been trudging an endless path, trying to find lasting happiness, and it just never, ever happened.”
Paul: That was the point where I was living in Tooting...
Iain: Tooting! (laughter) Okay...
Paul: ...South London. After I’d come back from all this travel - and I’d been travelling for a year backpacking- I’d come back to England; didn’t know what to do with myself, and it was a spiritual crisis. That was a specific event that was utterly transformative, and it was everything that I’ve quoted there.
It was a point where I could not go forward. I had to stop; but all I’d ever had was my own thinking; but my own thinking had only every brought me to this point. And I’d never dealt with that restlessness that lay underneath, and that dissatisfaction. And it’s like it just overwhelmed me. It just came up really, really intensely, and really strongly, and I just could not avoid it any more.
Playing the guitar was not going to do it! Travelling was not going to do it. It was something so deep and so fundamental to being alive - to my life - that I had to finally look at it, and it was awful. It was horrible.
Iain: You also said: “There had to be a reason behind all this. There had to be, because life was completely pointless otherwise.”
Paul: Yes… Yes, because all it is, is getting up in the morning, and going to work, in order to get some money to feed yourself, in order to get up the next day, to go to work... It is pointless, unless there is a deeper truth to life. And, in a sense, I am very grateful for my upbringing, because it gave me enough of a spiritual nous to know that suicide wasn’t the answer.
Iain: Did you consider suicide?
Paul: Well, what alternative would there be, if you had realised the pointlessness of the round? Why would you go on?
So, that was beautiful, because that prevented me going down a very wrong way, and it opened up, then, the opportunity for what happens next. Because I could not trust my own thinking any more, but all I had was my own thinking. So I was in this deep spiritual, psychological cat’s cradle. I just could not move psychologically. I was absolutely stuck, and it was horrific.
Iain: Absolutely, yeh.
Paul: And there was a point of recognising that I couldn’t trust my thinking. I had to abandon my thinking. But I was my thinking, wasn’t I? ... “I think therefore I am,” so if I can’t trust my own thinking, what can I trust? And there was just this moment of complete surrender. I surrendered the whole problem of being. I just completely gave up, and it was just this most deep and wonderful catharsis. I just absolutely opened up.
I don’t know much about the chakras, but I guess my chakras just opened up, all at the same time. There was just this sense of complete and absolute release, where I was no longer Paul sitting in a bed-sit in Tooting. That just wasn’t. It had gone, completely, and there was just this most wonderful sense of release.
Iain: When you say you gave up, just talk me through that more. A lot of people give up, “Oh, I give up!” but this is obviously far, far deeper. What does it actually mean, you “really gave up”?
Paul: That is very difficult…
Iain: It is important though.
Paul: It is... hugely important... to try.
I think, throughout my life I had always been the captain of the ship. It was always my ideas, my judgements, my comparisons, my attempt to find happiness on my terms. So it was wilful, it was volition, it was me being the master of my life and reaching a point where I had realised that that had brought me nothing. It hadn’t resolved anything, and this deep ancient sense of distress was still there.
So it was a total surrender of will, of ‘Paul making decisions.’ It was a total surrender, in that sense, of self view. And that manifested itself as…
It’s so difficult to put it into words...
So, yeh. When people normally give up, they just go and switch on the telly, don’t they? But that’s not giving up, that’s just finding another way of avoiding the problem. So it was just, like, really facing reality in that moment, and then letting reality win. Rather than what had always happened previously, which was that I would try something else. So I gave up trying, completely. I can’t explain why that happened in that way as it did, only in a very general sense.
Iain: But it produced an opening somehow?
Paul: Hugely, yeh. Transformative. I was never the same again!
Paul: It was beautiful, when it happened.
Iain: I’m just seeing here - I’ve highlighted certain things, and your notes say “I was reborn”! (laughing)
Paul: Yeh, it felt like that. It felt like this terrible awful deep crust of crap had just gone. It was just a total renewal. A total renewal. It was like a genesis, or however you want to describe it, but yeah it was fantastic, and for quite a while after I just felt brilliant.
Iain: You went back to India?
Paul: Yes, now with a different...kind of...
Paul & Iain: ...agenda.
Paul (laughing): Yes. Yeh, that was fun... Because now... you have a different... I mean, essentially, whatever that was, I wanted to get it back. I wanted more of it. I wanted to experience it again. And so, suddenly, having had, in my life, no real idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, suddenly I had ‘this’, and I just wanted to know more about it. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to re-experience it. So finally in my life I had a trail, I had a route through life.
Iain: But you found out you were still contaminated by suffering?
Paul: Yeh, I mean looking at it from a Buddhist perspective, it’s like I had dealt with, inadvertently, a lot of the things that cause us to suffer. But what that does is, it means that more deeply-rooted causes of our suffering then come to the surface and we start seeing it. So I was in a bit of a bi-polar situation where some days I’d have this wonderful vision of life - of life being wondrous and mysterious and intensely beautiful; and then I would flip to experiencing extreme lust and craving and hatred of things, and disliking people and things. And it was very difficult to find a balance between these two states. I wanted, obviously, the mystery and the wonder and the beauty, and I didn’t want the intense lust and hatred that I found were manifesting for me. So that was kind of hard to bear.
Iain: And in India, you were looking for a spiritual teacher who you could learn from?
Paul: Definitely yeah, and I met loads of good people. But you’ve heard the expression “the teacher appears when the student is ready”?
Iain: So they say, yeh.
Paul: I wasn’t ready. I met lots of people who I think either that they were enlightened, or that they could at the very least show me a way, and get me started, but I didn’t have enough wherewithal to really, (even though I would have studied under them), I didn’t really have the maturity yet to really see them for who they were. So I kind of missed a trick of two.
Iain: Anyway, we are just going to follow the sequence for a bit, then we can broaden more and more: what came out of that in terms of your realizations, and now, your teaching.
You came back to the UK. Your mother had cancer, which was very difficult, and you helped her a lot. But then this urge in you arose to become a Buddhist monk, or certainly to explore Buddhism more.
Paul: Yeh. Had my mother not been ill I would have gone back to India. I would have tried that route again. Because she was ill, and up until the time she died, I felt very much that I needed to be around. After she died, I started to attend Buddhist retreats, and it was on one particular retreat the thought just arose “I could do this full-time”. Now that particular organisation was a lay organisation, they didn’t have a monastic wing, so I then had to cast around looking for a suitable place.
But there was a point. I was thinking in terms of “How do I ensure that I am practicing right livelihood?” I think that was the thought, and then the answer came “Well, you become a monk. That would ensure it, wouldn’t it?” Now, when I did become a monk, I realised there was a right and wrong livelihood for monks, so I still had to work at it, but by that point I had really fallen in love with meditation. I loved the fact that you could just sit quietly and look at what was coming up, and deal with it.
Iain: Did that come easy for you, meditation?
Paul: I think, looking back, things like playing music was helpful, because it does give you that sense of being in the moment, and that kind of absorption, and that focus. I think meditation in and of itself is a difficult practice if you are doing it properly, because you do have to face your demons. So, when I did enter the monastery and I did start practising properly, I was then starting to look at all that greed, and lust and hatred that was getting in the way...
I love meditation. I love the practice of it. I love everything that surrounds it. I loved being a monk – it was still hard though!
Iain: Yes, so you made the commitment. You found Aukana, this Buddhist monastery in Bradford on Avon, in Wiltshire, and you went to meet the guy who was running it.
Paul: Alan James, who became my teacher.
Iain: You read his book, and you listened to some talks and were very drawn to him.
Paul: Yes, I was living in Bristol. So I had gone all the way to India to try and find the right teacher and the right way, and I was living in Bristol, and found my teacher was living 20 miles away, which was quite amazing! I read his book and thought “this guy knows exactly what he’s talking about, I really need to meet him.”
I met him, and within an hour I had agreed to give up my worldly life and enter into the monastery. I mean, I went to ask him if I could become a monk. I had no prior involvement with that particular centre, I didn’t know anything about them really. It was all factored on the man who I knew, when I met him, he was my teacher. I think I’d matured enough by that point to recognise the teacher when he appeared. And yes, in a sense I fell in love with him, in a spiritual sense. I just knew that he wasn’t going to put up with any of my nonsense. He was authentic, and I could learn a huge amount from him. So it was a really humble moment.
In a sense, the whole path is about humility. It’s about the surrender of egotism. And I realised on meeting him that I wouldn’t be able to pull the wool over his eyes or anything. He was the man I had absolute respect for, and I was only too happy to actually find somewhere, under somebody’s wing, where I could stay and develop as a human being.
Iain: And what kind of commitment did you make to start with, in terms of time-wise?
Paul: They asked for a 2-year minimum.
Iain: You go inside, so, you live in the monastery?
Paul: Yes. I had to be... There are certain stipulations: you have to be free of debt; you have to be free of any kind of responsibilities for children, or anything like that; you can’t be married; you can’t be wanted by the police or have visits to the court outstanding. You have to be in that sense free to go in, which I was. I was done and dusted with the world in 6 weeks. I got a little bit of help. People helped me out with a little bit of money so that I was free of any debt, and I was able to go in. I had 3 months as a novice, just to make sure that I was suitable - that I was going to fit in with the community, and then I ordained in the October and that was, yeh, a minimum commitment of 2 years.
Iain: And so once you get in there you are meditating how many hours a day?
Paul: It varies, but 4 or 5 separate hours of seated meditation, plus the development of mindfulness in all your waking hours, in all your activities. From the moment you get up in the morning, until the moment you go back to bed.
Iain: So mindfulness – this term mindfulness is used a lot, but in the Buddhist traditions my understanding is, it is really awareness. Awareness of what you’re doing?
Paul: Choiceless awareness.
Iain: Choiceless awareness, yes.
Paul: Yes. In Buddhism, we always talk about it in combination with clear comprehension. So it’s not just being mindful for the sake of being mindful, it enables a close exploration of your conscious experience in order to understand how life is put together, moment by moment.
Iain: Yes. And then the meditation, you are just, you are looking at a wall? Is it Vipassana where you look at a wall?
Paul: No. It is Vipassana. We don’t look at a wall. We close our eyes, we sit in chairs. The thing I love about the centre that I ended up at, was that it is a Westernised form of Buddhism that understands that you can adapt the way that you approach the Path, according to the conditions of the culture that you are in. So, generally speaking, Westerners sit in chairs to do anything, so we sat in chairs to meditate. We had 3 square meals a day because our climate requires it. So there were these subtle adjustments to the things that you can adjust in the Buddha’s teaching, but an absolute commitment to the fundamentals of what the Buddha taught.
Iain: And what kind of things came up for you in terms of – you mentioned, I think, greed... and that lust comes up?
Paul: Yeh... Well obviously, you live a very ethical life as a monk, which forces you to confront these issues. So for instance lust, yeh, extraordinarily strong. My nature, my conditioning, is very lusty. That’s why its choiceless awareness, you don’t get to choose what comes up. You have to look at everything, but in learning to mindfully observe what comes up you can understand it. You can learn what its true characteristics are, and so you can come to an acceptance of life as it is.
Iain: When an issue comes up, from your sub-conscious presumably, if you look at it, do you always understand why it’s come up, and how to focus it?
Paul: No, no! You have to do it the hard way. You have to start from being thrown around by that mental quality again, and again, and again. And gradually your mindfulness improves, your comprehension improves; and gradually it’s like you just detach from it. It’s a bit like de-clutching in the car, you just come out of that gear and you are able to then examine it, and look at it. So, there’s a whole progress of insight that occurs with Buddhist meditation, that leads you to the point of being able to recognise, say, a greedy state of mind for what it truly is - which is “not me, not mine, not myself”. It just arises due to conditions, and if you don’t fight it, if you just accept it, it arises and it passes away.
So, you have to be willing - that’s the thing about the Buddha’s teaching, you have to be willing to look at your suffering. It’s not an escape from suffering. It is that you look at your suffering in order to understand how you create your own problems, how you create your own suffering. So you have to be willing to look at it, to then finally come to understand what it is that you’re doing to create the problem.
Iain: Are you doing this all on your own, or are you conversing with other people sometimes?
Paul: No, it’s a very social experience being a monk. Yes, you spend time alone, but you are part of a community, and there’s a large emphasis placed on service in our particular centre. So when I wasn’t meditating I was engaged in some kind of service to the community, and the other meditators that support the community. So when there were retreats on I would clean loos, I would hoover; I would sweep paths; eventually I started teaching... so there’s a very strong service ethic there.
Iain: But when something comes up, an issue that you struggle with, do you try and resolve it on your own, or do you talk to another monk about it?
Paul: No, I had Alan. I would talk to Alan.
Iain: You would talk to Alan about it?
Paul: Absolutely, because he was the one person that I’d met in my life who understood where I was coming from...
Paul: ...so that forged a very deep devotion and faith in him, and he never, ever, ever let me down. He was always there for me.
So, you do study. You study the Buddhist texts. The Buddhist texts then inform what you see in your meditation practice. It gives you a language to enable you to understand what’s taking place and then you can go and talk to a teacher, and together you reflect on your experience, and you are able to then bring out the patterns, what’s actually taking place. And then you go back and you sit in meditation again, and you practise mindfulness, and you get more information, and the whole thing grows, and grows, and grows. And what you’re developing is your wisdom - wisdom into the true nature of reality as it’s unfolding. So yeh, there was absolutely discussion with my teacher, definitely.
Iain: Okay. And then... Something that interested me in the notes you sent me, was that you got to the point where there was no witness behind events. So, as I understand it from my knowledge – not so much of Buddhism I haven’t got so much knowledge, but if we’re practising mindfulness, there’s somebody practising mindfulness, so you could call that the ‘witness.’ Somebody who’s watching what’s in the mind, and what’s going on, and maybe has a view about it. I guess the view would be the mind, but there’s someone always at the background who is looking at everything which I call the witness. Now, am I right in saying that there was no witness behind events, the witness collapsed as such?
Paul: No, there never was a witness.
Iain: You never had experience of the witness?
Paul: No, that’s not what I’m saying. There was always the assumption of ‘myself’ as being behind events, but through the careful observation of experience it became apparent that there is no witness. There is no duality, there is no... There is hearing, there is seeing, there is tasting and touching, and there is a subsequent moment of consciousness that knows the hearing, knows the seeing, knows the tasting, knows the touching, but that subsequent moment of consciousness arises and passes away. There is nothing permanent in experience at all.
Iain: So there’s not a temporary phase you go through, where you have what could be called the witness, which, as I say, is the one that knows that they’re not the mind? They know that... the one that gets engaged, but there is still somebody, or something, watching?
Paul: No. No, you see, because that’s not really the Buddhist way, that’s... I presume that’s coming from more of a Hindu background?
Iain: It’s coming from my experience. (laughter)
Paul: What I discovered through meditation - and the Buddha said “I use the terms but I’m not confused by them,” so we can self-reference in talking about this - but what I found in my experience was, that what we take to be the conscious witness is only, simply, the arising of a moment of consciousness that knows mind, if you like, but it arises and it passes away.
In Buddhism we have, as a fundamental tenet, the idea of conditionality - that one thing arises only because of a whole set of conditions, and that thing arises and passes away immediately. There is nothing that extends through time, at all. Conventionally, we have the idea of myself as ‘a witness behind events’, if you like. But when you look closely at your reality - this is the insight path, this is what it shows you - that there is no enduring entity. There is no conscious witness behind experience at all.
Paul: It’s just the arising and passing away of impersonal processes, including moments of consciousness.
Iain: You see... what I actually found with your book, ‘Postcards from Beyond’...
Paul: Big yellow thing.
Iain: I haven’t read the whole thing, I just glanced through it and picked out bits and pieces and I remember the page number, 122, as I read it to my wife last night. I found that quite helpful where you talk about... there is two levels, okay? Ultimately there’s not two levels, because ultimately there is only the absolute, I understand that.
Paul: Well, there’s only this.
Iain: Yes, on the other hand, there are certain rules, laws, whatever you call them, that are applicable on the human level, and then there’s the absolute reality, which is the interconnectedness, or the oneness, or the nothingness, whatever we call it, depending on which...
Paul: Yeh. You see, we talk about there being a ‘conventional’ and an ‘ultimate’ level of reality and it kind of equates – I never use science to back up any of this, but just using, like, Newtonian physics and Quantum physics as an example.
Iain: That’s the example you used on that page, yeh.
Paul: It works fairly well. The whole problem is how do you get it all to fit together, and I think that if you clearly delineate conventional reality as one way of describing this nameless experience, and ultimate reality is just another way of describing the same experience, then you see that you can have more than one way of describing the world. Just as you have a quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics. They don’t need to cancel one another out, you can have both.
Iain: Absolutely, that’s what I thought was useful when you talked about that.
Paul: So, what I discovered was that the conventional reality of ‘things’ - it’s that these ‘things’ have no inherent existence. They are empty of inherent existent, so it’s like a dream. So Conscious TV is a dream. And the Buddha’s teaching shows you how to come out of the dream, but you can still go back in the dream and enjoy the dream.
Iain: Yes, but if you want to stay alive as a human being, you need to drink water. This is all jolly useful.
Paul: Yes, it’s all part of the dream.
Iain: It’s part of the dream, but what I am saying is, I actually thought you explained this quite well in the book,
Paul: Better in the book, than now? (laughing)
Iain: No! (laughing), but that it’s necessary to survive as a human being.
Paul: Yeh, yeh, absolutely.
Iain: Otherwise you have a real dream, you’re imagining a glass of water you don’t have! It’s kind of... you need it. We need certain tangible things for our survival.
Paul: Absolutely, I mean, we all need a roof over our head; we all need food in our belly, clothes on our back. And that’s the beautiful thing - it’s not that life changed at all. It’s just your understanding of life changed, but that fundamental change in your understanding changes the whole of life. So it’s the same life that you were living before and yet it’s completely revolutionised. It’s a completely different way of understanding life.
Iain: Yeh. So you got to the point, just to follow the story for the moment, you got to the point where you are saying “Is this enlightenment?” You got to a certain point, or something had got to this point...
Paul: Well quite!
Iain: ...or nothing had got to this point, and the question “Is this enlightenment?”
Paul: Quite. And the fact that I was asking the question meant that I knew I wasn’t. And this was the wonderful thing about having my teacher there, because he tortured me...
Iain: He tortured you?! (laughter)
Paul: Well, not literally!
Iain: Not literally.
Paul: ...because I had this one, last, final question, because I was seeing life... Every time I described life in these terms, I was going “Yeh, yeh that’s it; that’s it; that is it; that’s definitely it”, but I was still asking myself “Well, is this enlightenment then?” So I was still holding up this comparison; I was still upholding this duality, this sense of me as separate from the rest of life.
And my teacher would ask me questions - I would go and see him with great reluctance, because this was a very confusing time for me, and he would ask me questions like “What is it that you do that an enlightened person would never do?” And I would think “What? This doesn’t mean anything! How am I supposed to answer that? I can’t answer that because I’m not enlightened. How can I know how an enlightened being sees the world?”
What he was doing with me was, he was getting me to the point where I would finally give up again. I was still chasing this idea of enlightenment as a real thing. That was the whole purpose of the Buddha’s teaching, so ofcourse I would. It was only when I got to a point where I realised deeply that I had done as much as I possibly could, and that I was never going to make it happen, that I just let go of the pursuit of enlightenment, and that was the last thing to go for me. That was the last thing that the mind was grasping after and hanging onto, in the belief that it was real, because everything else had turned out to be empty of any inherent existence, but I still hung on to the idea of enlightenment as being a real, tangible thing that I could obtain. And that was the last thing.
Iain: So what is enlightenment then?
Paul: You can’t say. (laughing) I know that’s not terribly helpful.
Iain: It gets talked about an awful lot in the world.
Paul: It does, and I’m really not one for descriptions. I mean, when I describe things in the book, what I’m describing is conventional reality. The reality of feeling great contentment, and happiness and peace, but all these states arise and pass away, whereas it’s the realisation of the timeless, unchanging, unconditioned that is the real perfection.
You can’t describe that, because the moment you describe it you’re delineating something with a beginning and an end. So if you say that it is peace, or its happiness, or if it’s contentment, you’re delineating something that is not timeless. You’re delineating something, and you’re creating a moment of experience in that. So you can’t actually describe it. So what I prefer to do is to show people not how to become enlightened, but how to remove all the obstacles that prevent someone from coming to that same realisation themselves, because you can’t put it into words.
Iain: Okay. So are you always peaceful now?
Paul: Well, you see, there we go! That’s the difficulty. I live in Wiltshire, and I come up for the day to Battersea... (laughing)
Iain: Downtown Battersea! (laughing)
Paul: ...downtown Battersea, very beautiful! So, in that sense, there are ups and downs, and changes. I run a meditation centre. I am concerned and worried for the meditation centre - that it’s run in the right way, you know, that it’s providing the right things for people. So, in that sense I can’t say my life is just this sort of endless peace. But underlying it, in the depths there is just this most blissful contentment that sometimes rises to the surface, especially when I’m on my own and I’m not wanted by anyone else for anything else. There is just this astonishing sense of absolute perfection and peace. But when you’re dealing with the dream, you’re dealing with the daily round that isn’t necessarily always consciously present, because you’ve just got to get on with life.
Iain: I am looking at my notes, because yesterday I was sitting in a place where I didn’t have access to my computer, so I handwrote things out your book, and I really like this, which you’ve kind of just touched on, and maybe we can talk about it more.
“Life is perfect as it is. There is an awesome quietness within every experience. Even the most chaotic of situations are contained within a profound stillness. But in a place of stillness we know only disquiet.”
(That can’t be quite right, that can’t be your quote - I’ve got that wrong at the end somewhere...)
You talk about this “profound stillness, that’s even in the most chaotic situations.” So when you say you have a concern, or you worry about a meditation course that’s going on, would you say that that’s on top of a profound stillness?
Paul: Yes. You see, this is the problem with describing it, because I think even in that chapter I say, I contradict myself, and I do it deliberately because no description - and that’s why it’s called ‘Postcards from Beyond’ - because no postcard, no description, is really giving you the experience.
It’s so difficult to put it into words.
There is the arising and passing away of sounds, and tastes, and touches, and smells; of thoughts, of feelings, of perceptions, and the mind no longer grasps after them. So they happen, because that’s just conditions arising and passing away, but there is no expectation of anything occurring, or not occurring. There is this underlying sense of, yeh I guess you could call it ‘perfect stillness’, if you like.
Iain: Well you did! (laughing)
Paul: Yes I did, didn’t I?! This is why I’m not one for descriptions so much. You have to describe it, if you’re writing a book, of course...
Paul: You have to describe it, and you have to inspire people. You have to come, somehow, to bridge the gap and try to express the inexpressible. So yeh, even in this moment; even as this is unfolding, there is just the most delightful sense of quietude, and peace, and perfection. Yeh..?
Iain: Yeh. Do you feel it now?
Paul: Yeh, because it’s not really a thing. It’s more of an understanding, an understanding which transcends all these things that are arising and passing away. I mean there’s quietness isn’t there? I mean, there’s the buzzing sound of the equipment, and the lights, and so forth; in our bodies we might be feeling relaxed or tense, warm or cool, but there is just this wonderful understanding of it. It’s just an understanding.
Iain: But doesn’t that involve the mind?
Paul: No, it’s not an understanding of the mind.
Paul: It is an understanding of mind, which is part of the conditioned and conditioning universe. There is no separation between mind and an external universe. There is just the arising and passing away of, I like to call it ‘the flow of conscious experience’. So there is this wonderful flow of conscious experience, and yet there is this understanding, which is at all times separate from that conscious flow, and yet is nothing separate from the conscious flow.
(We are really getting into the problems of description here.)
It’s not thought out. It was always there, but it had always been ignored. It is always there. It’s not the case that there’s a moment where you put 2 and 2 together and go “Aha! Now I get it, now I understand.” It’s not something that you store in a memory. It’s not that kind of understanding.
It is an understanding which is available to everyone at all times, but that is simply not looked at. It’s ignored.
Life is entirely self-explanatory. It requires no explanation. It’s so simple. Life is so simple. It’s unbelievably simple, but because people ignore it they try to find their happiness somewhere else, and that’s when they create the noise, the psychological noise: “I’m not happy”; “I want this”; “I want that...”
Iain: Don’t you find the detail of life quite complicated?
Paul: Yeh, and I personally try to keep things as simple as possible...
Paul: ...but life itself is utterly simple. The reason that the world is so complicated is because of passionate craving – wanting life to be different than it is. That’s what creates all the complexity.
I enjoy the complexity of science and what science is showing us, and what we can accomplish through that complexity, but at root, life is entirely simple and self-explanatory if you don’t ignore it.
Paul: Because this moment, this moment now, it’s entirely explanatory, isn’t it? It doesn’t need explaining. It’s got its own... It’s just... What is unfolding now is really quite simple isn’t it?
Iain: Well, I always look at things differently. I look at how I feel. And you can say that’s ‘me feeling something’. Or you can say it’s just a feeling there. I don’t know. Maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s another thing, but it’s like...
Is there a flow? Do I feel good? Do I feel that I would like it to be different? I am looking for something. I’m kind of looking for a flow for a meeting, and it’s not quite there at the minute. I guess it’s me, I don’t know.
Paul: Yeh, I don’t want a... There isn’t anything that I want from this.
Paul: So I’m just enjoying the process.
Iain: Is there someone there that feels completion now? I don’t mean, necessarily, in the interview. I mean in this moment ...that feels completion?
Paul: Yes, it’s not ‘somebody who feels complete’. It’s the absence of division. There isn’t a sense that there’s something wrong...
Paul: ...at all.
Iain: Yeh. So, one of the things I know Buddhism looks at a lot is attachment, and how attachment is attachment to cravings, to anything we want, somehow is keeping us trapped. Can you talk more about the attachments?
Paul: Well it’s more about the view that ‘This thought is myself’; or ‘I am this thought’; or
‘I am this feeling’; or ‘This feeling is myself’; or this glass, or this book, or this recording studio is ‘me’, or is ‘mine’, or ‘it belongs to me’. It’s that deep-rooted assumption of self-hood in the things of life that arise and pass away.
So for me, you know... Going back to that incident between trips to India, there was this recognition that my thoughts were never leading to happiness. It was just going round in a circle. The problem was an attachment to thinking. The problem of the attachment in the belief that I am my thoughts. And it was the surrender of that. It was the surrender of the notion that a thought is me.
A thought isn’t me. A thought arises due to conditions and then ceases. Our attachments stop us from seeing the truth, that there is no self required at all, in any way, for experience to arise. So it’s getting right back to the point before we assume ownership/the mind assumes ownership of experience. It’s getting right back to that point and examining the truth of experience as it unfolds.
So, yeh... If somebody has attachments, that blinds them to - they won’t allow themselves to see - the truly owner-less nature of the experience, because they’ve got a vested emotional interest. They’ve got a need, yeh? That just perpetuates this constant searching and craving and thirsting after life, without ever really coming to a point of completion.
It’s not so much that you reach a point of completion. It’s rather that you realise that there was never a need to complete yourself in the first place. That you’ve always been whole.
Iain: Okay. I’m looking at the clock and we need to complete the interview. I’m sorry.
Iain: Thank you Paul. I think we’ll do a very short Part 2, where you can maybe do a meditation, and talk about the meditation centre which you now run yourself. We didn’t actually cover that, but just for a few minutes afterwards, so those who are watching on the internet can watch the Part 2.
Iain: So Paul, thanks very much for coming along to Conscious TV. It’s been a really interesting interview and I’m just going to plug your book again: ‘Postcards from Beyond,’ and good luck with your work. We are going to do a short Part 2 now I think, just talking about the centre and with a short meditation.
Part 2 Aukana Meditation Centre & Guided Meditation
Iain: So welcome back, this is Part 2 of the Conscious TV interview with Paul Harris, which will be quite short, talking about the monastery that he runs called ‘Aukana’ in Bradford on Avon, and also he will do a short meditation. Just to remind you he has this book out ‘Postcards from Beyond’. So Paul just tell me a little bit. If somebody’s been watching Part 1, and they’ve enjoyed hearing about your story and your wisdom, what could they expect if they come? Are there weekend retreats, or week-long retreats, how does it work there?
Paul: Well, we do week-long retreats and weekend retreats. We run, as a meditation centre for a local community of meditators that meet regularly on a Wednesday, we run classes and workshops, one-day Saturday workshops we do as well.
Yes, people come on retreat. We have a maximum of 7 people on a retreat which means that everyone gets personal instruction. So, we meditate together in a shrine room; we sit on chairs to meditate; we meditate for an hour at a time. We practise Buddhist Vipassana meditation and bag that up with Metta, loving-kindness meditation. Yeh, it’s an opportunity to learn to look rather than chase life, and chase experiences. It’s an opportunity to learn to stop, and look at how life actually unfolds moment by moment, in order to develop wisdom.
Iain: And people can ask questions, and share what comes up for them?
Paul: Yeh, we have two different types of retreat. One is a silent retreat, so you only talk to the teacher during meditation interviews, and obviously there’s an opportunity then to discuss everything that’s taking place; and then we also have integrated retreats, which is more sociable in that in the afternoons you are given work duties to do, to help encourage mindfulness in working situations, and that obviously gives an opportunity for more interaction.
Iain: Okay, well thank you. We also talked about you doing a short meditation for about 10 minutes, for people at home and want to just get a taste of the type of meditation you do - so you best not make it a silent meditation! So, if you could talk them through it a little bit.
I think the most important thing with meditation is to realise that we are not trying to accomplish anything. We are not trying to cause certain states of mind to arise. We are not trying to become ‘someone’ or something other than we already are.
It’s more about creating a window that you can look through and observe the mind; observe our physical experience; observe the flow of conscious experience, just simply in order to know and understand, and gain wisdom into the true nature of our experience.
So, it’s not about becoming, it’s about learning, and so we practise choiceless awareness. We don’t pick and choose what it is that we are going to experience. We’re accepting, we surrender, we allow whatever wants to arise, to arise.
Another mental quality that is really helpful is curiosity, being interested, allowing experiences to arise, taking an interest in them.
The way that we do it is: we sit in chairs to meditate, we close our eyes. We sit comfortably, but with an attitude of alertness and wakefulness, with the sensation of the movement of the abdomen as our main focus for the meditation. But what is critical is, when we find the mind running off track and we’re beginning to think about other things, that we include those thoughts within the meditation. They are a part of our conscious experience. We’re not trying to remove or reject any aspect of our experience.
So to begin with, we turn our attention to the breathing process. Perhaps taking a few deep breaths, just to help locate the movement of the breath as it occurs at the abdomen...and we just see if we can trace the movement of the breathing process with our mind’s eye.
It might appear to be a contraction or an expansion;
It might appear as an up and down movement;
Or it might appear as a figure of eight.
However it appears to you,
Just see if you can follow with the mind’s eye;
Just following that movement.
It may very well be, that in the course of doing that, the mind becomes distracted;
You find yourself thinking.
When you become aware that the mind has become distracted,
Just note what kind of thinking it is,
And then very gently, but firmly,
bring the attention back to observing the breathing process.
And again you might find that the attention wanders;
Where does it wander to?
When you become aware that you’ve been thinking,
Just note the kind of thinking that it is.
Is it daydream? Or is it planning?
So when you become aware,
Just label the thought,
And then return the attention back to the breathing process;
And again, you might become aware of external sounds,
We include those in the meditation.
You might become aware of some bodily discomfort,
And again we include those in the meditation.
So we practise surrender,
We just allow whatever wants to be there, to be there.
We can note those sensations; those feelings,
And we just let them be,
And each time, return the attention back to the breathing process.
And again, if we sense that we are becoming agitated or irritable,
We just allow those mental states to be.
We don’t fight with them,
We just allow them just to be,
To arise and to pass away.
Each time, we return the attention back to the breathing process;
We’re not trying to get anywhere;
We’re not trying to become anything.
If the mind feels light we can note that;
If the mind feels dull we can just stay with that dullness,
Not seeking to change anything,
But noting our experiences.
And perhaps the mind runs off into thought
And perhaps it’s thinking about the past,
We note “thinking about the past”, and bring the attention back.
If it’s thinking about the future,
Again, we note “thinking about the future”
And just bring the mind back to observing the breathing process.
And as we’re watching the breathing and noting our experience in this way,
Perhaps we begin to become aware that the sounds don’t last,
They arise and they pass away.
That there are sensations in the body,
And they arise and they pass away.
The thoughts you were having a few minutes ago,
Where are they now?
Perhaps a few minutes ago you were feeling anxious or irritable,
Where is that anxiety now?
Is it the same?
Or has it changed?
So keep observing the breathing process.
Perhaps we can follow the attention of the breathing.
Is the breath the same for two moments,
Or is it always in a state of flux and flow?
Do things last?
So we keep observing our experience,
Bringing the attention back each time;
Bringing it back to the breathing process.
Being very allowing;
Accepting that the mind will wander;
And learning to bring it back each time,
Noting our experience.
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