Peter Fenner - Awakening Unconditioned Awareness
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Peter, you are a teacher of non-duality in the Buddhist tradition, and you’ve also written a book recently called Radiant Mind, and you have a CD out as well. And so today, we’re obviously going to talk about you yourself, your journey to an extent, and also the contents of the book. And the subtitle of the book is Awakening Unconditioned Awareness. So what is unconditioned awareness?
Peter: Unconditioned awareness is awareness. In a way, we don’t have to say that awareness itself is unconditioned because it’s already unconditioned. Awareness itself is different from the contents of awareness: what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, what we’re perceiving. These are conditioned and they change, but awareness itself, that capacity to receive everything, is unconditioned. It’s not something that changes. It’s ever-present. It can’t be found… And in a way its sole capacity or function is to receive things as they are.
Iain: So it’s what we call the never-changing?
Iain: Is it personal?
Peter: It is and it isn’t, because we can be here ‘presencing’ unconditioned awareness, so it’s personal in that way. We can be in the same state, channelling it in a certain way through our body-mind, but it has nothing to do with us. So, it’s impersonal. If you’re presencing pure awareness and I’m presencing it, it’s the same state that’s being ‘presenced’. It’s the same experience, the same state, that’s being ‘presenced’ by hundreds, thousands… tens of thousands of masters throughout history.
Iain: You were saying it’s always there, so it’s a question, in a way, of our availability?
Peter: Yes, but there’s nothing we have to do to be available to this because it’s not a thing; it’s not functioning in a subject-object relationship. So when we say “It’s here” or “It’s everywhere”, we’re not really saying a lot, because it’s not here in a location.
The great thing is we don’t have to do anything to be here in this pure way - in a way that takes us beyond suffering - because when we’re in this moment, in this way, it’s not possible for us to suffer. We go beyond suffering, and the very possibility of suffering. This is the place that’s at the end of the search, at the end of the spiritual path. This is the end of the path because, when we’re here, there’s nowhere further to go; there’s nothing more to achieve.
A question I sometimes ask is, “Can we enhance this space in some way, can we make this better?” We can’t, because this is not a thing. It’s not a material, it’s not a medium, it’s not even a state of consciousness, so we can’t tweak it and make it better. “Can we degrade this, can we move away from this?” No we can’t, because it’s not a thing.
Iain: It’s always easy for me to talk about these things from a more personal point of view of how I experience things. And one of the things that I do notice more and more is that my reference point changes and, if I’m really caught up in a drama in life and I’m not very aware of the bigger picture… Let’s say, I’m running on my personal programmes, and they change over time and they get less dramatic but they’re still... they’re still in operation. And there’s other times where it’s almost tangible, palpable - I can feel it. The reference point draws back [pulling left hand towards body] and I, the personality, the individual, is further away. And it’s like something in the background becomes stronger, and that’s bigger, that’s... In fact, it’s vast in a way, and that becomes a new reference point which isn’t personal, but it’s more aware where I am based. Now is that what you’re talking about with unconditioned awareness?
Peter: We’re talking about the same thing; we’re talking about finding ourselves as what I sometimes call a ‘clearing’ or a space, in which there is no ‘I’ inside of myself as a centre point of my experience. There’s no point I’m looking out from or that I’m experiencing things from. It’s more like becoming space through which life is moving, through which this experience is arising in this moment. If I try to find the experiencer of this, I can’t find myself experiencing it, but it’s all happening nonetheless, so there’s no negation of anything.
Iain: So it’s a movement that includes us, and we’re not really separate from the movement, and we’re also not the movement?
Iain: Yes, I know this space, and I can feel this space now to an extent. And I’d also like to ask you... this is really shifting, but I’d like to ask you how you got to this place. I know it’s a long story but often, on Conscious TV, we do look at people’s lives to see what were the important markers and the big decisions they took. And I know that when you were younger, when you were a teenager, you did have some strong spiritual experiences, didn’t you?
Iain: Can you describe those to us?
Peter: What I was thinking of, as you were describing your own experience, took me back further than my teenage years. Something quite like what you’re describing happened to me at a young age. I guess from the time I was four or five, I had a feeling of there being two of me. I often had the feeling of being aware of myself, at a distance from where I was physically. I couldn’t really say three feet or one metre behind me, but there was a feeling of observing myself. And I thought, “I don’t think other people are experiencing this”.
At that time, it felt as though most of the time people were just doing what they were doing. They were fully immersed and embodied in their activities. There seemed to be a sense of comfort or naturalness in their way of being, whereas I thought I was often accompanied by a witness: by the sense of that witnessing my body-mind. I couldn’t say more about it at that time, I didn’t have labels for it, but something was there. Occasionally I’d meet people, adults, and we would share a particular glance and I’d think, “They know what’s happening for me”. But these glances never evolved into conversations.
Iain: Right, and how was that for you? Was that unsettling? Or what kind of reaction did you have?
Peter: I thought, “OK, that’s part of what’s happening for me”. I thought, “It doesn’t seem to be happening for many other people”. I didn’t have a language for talking about it, so I accepted it as part of my existence.
Iain: Yes, but you gave me some notes from your writing - quite an autobiographical book - and I think you said you felt a little displaced by it.
Peter: I felt different from other people and I became accustomed to that.
Iain: And I think that led you on to do some investigations in... I think you looked at Christian mysticism at a fairly early age?
Peter: Well, when I was about twelve or thirteen, for several months I had an experience at night, when I was lying in bed, of dissolving. This would happen in two different ways. In one my body would dissolve. This was more than just losing my sense of being embodied. I thought I was losing the connection with my body.
Iain: Like you were disappearing?
Peter: Like I was disappearing. And I felt that I needed to keep myself awake to be here, otherwise I might disappear and not come back. It would either happen through a feeling that my body was disappearing, going into a point… So rather than it being however big it was, it was all contracting into one point, into nothing. Or it would just get vast. My body would just spread out infinitely, again losing its differentiation. I became homogeneous, like the universe.
I tried to understand what was happening. I’d never heard anyone describe anything like this, so I kept it to myself. In the library at school, I found the section on Christian mysticism and, while the theistic language of the mystics didn’t touch me, I was comforted by the fact that they were describing different types of states of dissolution, and that these types of experience did happen, even if they weren’t so normal.
Iain: Right, so it threw some light on what could have been happening for you and it triggered a wider exploration, didn’t it, a wider venture?
Peter: Yes, I thought, “OK, this does happen; these types of experiences are known by other people. There is an interior process”. The main thing I gained from the Christian mystics was the knowledge that there’s a process of ‘interiorisation’ in which our experience of who we are and our relationship with the self and the ground of being can be fundamentally different from how it is in everyday life.
Iain: Right. And then you started to look at meditation, explore meditation?
Iain: So how did that first start? What was the first type of meditation you came across?
Peter: My first contact with meditation came through reading a book by Karlfried Gras von Durkheim, the German psychologist who spent time in Japan practising Zen and then brought this back to Europe. I read his book The Japanese Art of Tranquillity, and this opened me to meditation. When I first started to meditate, I didn’t know that many people, in Australia and worldwide, were already meditating. I followed the instructions. The first time I sat it was wonderful, but also lonely. I thought, “This is great, but are other people doing this?”
Iain: So you were doing this on your own?
Peter: Yes, I began on my own. Then, as things happen, I quickly discovered that there was a Theravada community in Melbourne, so I started going to their weekly meditations and weekend retreats. Twenty or thirty people would gather at these events. This gave me a great sense of community and belonging.
Iain: How is the experience of meditation different from experiences with drugs? Because, in a way, both are searching for bliss.
Peter: A big difference is that with mediation everything you do is viewed in the context of the totality of your life. We are looking to create a foundation within which we can constructively evolve our consciousness, over the long term. This includes taking care of how we live our life and behave and communicate with others. Through meditation we can see that our capacity for sustained tranquillity is connected with everything we do in life.
Iain: I’m interested that you were smoking - I think sixty cigarettes a day at one point, which is a very heavy addiction - and in one retreat you were able to give it up, which is remarkable, really.
Peter: [nods and smiles]
Iain: OK [laughing], you’re taking that as a statement of fact. I just wondered... I was interested, really, in how that was. Was it just that it went like that, the smoking? Or was there actually something in you that was still wanting the cigarettes, and you were with your mind just not going to that place?
Peter: In Buddhism, there’s a process called ‘taking refuge’. It happens at a particular moment in time. There’s a ceremony surrounding taking refuge. When someone takes refuge, it means that they commit to relying on the Buddha mind - their own wisdom mind - and that they rely on the spiritual processes discovered by masters and in a community of practitioners. I received refuge from my root teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe. The precise moment of taking refuge - which happened when Lama Yeshe clicked his fingers - was like an electric shock. In retrospect, it produced a fundamental severing of something from the past, particularly my conditioning and habits and so on. And so it was extremely easy to stop smoking. I didn’t have to do anything. I was given a tremendous gift through his transmission. In some ways it produced revolution in my mind.
Iain: It seems like you also had a very clear understanding at the time of the process of what was happening? And I think that’s one of the things that is important. I know again from my experience when I started meditation: there was a lot going on and there wasn’t necessarily the support system, or the explanations for me to put into context, so I could understand it and relax the mind. But it seems you got pretty much straightaway, or very quickly, what was going on with you and what needed to happen.
Peter: [nods and smiles]
Iain: OK [laughing], I’m looking to you for a further answer, and you feel that part’s complete. OK, and then you did something that is for me very… a huge step. You were married and you decided to become a monk and you went to the... Do you want to tell the story you tell in your notes, when you went to see the...? It’s a very interesting story, that.
Peter: Yes. I took refuge as I described to you and then, over the next year, something evolved in me, and I thought, “I really have to do this properly. I’m now on a particular path, I have a connection with an extremely wise and compassionate teacher. I want to do this as thoroughly as I can”. The model that was being offered through Lama Yeshe’s organisation strongly emphasised the monastic lifestyle. His senior western students were monks and nuns. I couldn’t resist the idea of wanting to be a monk. This idea grew in me until it felt like an imperative.
But, as you said, I was married, I had a daughter. I was creating something that was impossible in my mind, but I didn’t have any control over it. I felt a need to become a monk - yet on paper this was impossible. I found myself in a huge dilemma.
One year later, Lama Yeshe returned to Australia and I presented my situation to him. I was quite frightened. I thought he might just laugh at me. Effectively, I was saying, “Lama, here I am - I’m married with a child and I want to become a monk”. I thought he might just think, “Wow, Peter! How did you get there from where you were one year ago when you took refuge?” But without even needing to think about it, Lama Yeshe said, “Yes, we can do that. You’ll become a monk living the precepts”.
Iain: Because your wife... your wife was at the meeting with you, wasn’t she?
Peter: Yes. Lama Yeshe checked this would work for my wife, and then he instructed me to become ordained, live the precepts of a monk and take care of my family at the same time.
Iain: Yes. And you were a monk for nine years, I think?
Iain: So how was that process for you? That’s a long time to make that commitment.
Peter: For the first five years it was really creative. I was trying to bring together two mutually exclusive lifestyles; lifestyles that are normally thought to be incompatible. So it was really creative, and very expanding. My challenge was to bring forth and stabilise the mental and physical discipline required to be a monk, and do this in worldly circumstances. At this time I was studying Buddhism at the university so this made it easier. It allowed me to pursue right lifestyle and created the bridge between monasticism and taking care of my family.
Iain: So for those years you must have felt a big difference inside, in so far as your perception of reality, your relationship with the world, was concerned? There must have been a lot of changes going on, making that kind of level of commitment, I imagine?
Peter: Yes, but I think when things are moving very fast, in terms of lifestyle changes, we often don’t have time to process them or even think about them. It’s just a matter of keeping up with the change that’s happening. So I never thought about this period as being difficult. It was challenging, but I figured life is challenging. It was also exciting.
Iain: Were you aware of your perception of the world changing? Were there particular realisations, or times when you felt big shifts happening?
Peter: Yes, but again in Buddhism specific experiences are not so significant. I had some insights as I studied the traditions and meditated on emptiness, but these types of experiences happen within the larger project of working to becoming fully awake and, more than that, of that becoming awake for the benefit of all. To this extent, we are just players in the cosmic or universal project of the full evolution of everyone.
Iain: That’s a big realisation in itself.
Iain: No, I understand. And then you decided that you wanted to leave the monastic tradition and do something... I think, psychotherapy and healing. I think you were... Is that right, you studied after that?
Peter: Being a monk served me really well for about six years. But then I feel I got caught up in the discipline. I overdid it. Also, I was feeling a lot of creative energy; energy to explore and produce something that wasn’t simply more of the tradition in which I was involved. The changes happening within me loosened monasticism, to the point where I handed back my robes. This is when I began to explore and integrate western psychotherapeutic modalities.
Iain: And I think that’s one of the things that really interests you these days, isn’t it? The way that eastern traditions, eastern teachers if you like, have been... they haven’t really been adapted, but somehow they’re more available for western people to understand and integrate into their lives.
Peter: For sure. If you look at where we were thirty-five years ago, when Tibetan Buddhism first came to Australia, and the situation now, it’s hugely different. It was difficult in those days to access high quality teachings. The people who made the initial connections were often pretty marginal and on the periphery of mainstream culture. Now it’s just so easy. A lot of adaptation has occurred, Buddhism has been integrated and normalised into our culture. Now it’s much easier to gain access to high quality teachings, non-dual teachings inside Buddhism and outside of Buddhism.
Iain: And the west is really benefiting from that to a large degree, isn’t it?
Iain: So, the courses that you do, Radiant Mind: just talk us through how that works in terms of the different stages. Obviously, in your book, you go into a lot of detail on this, but just keeping it fairly simple, what are the stages that you teach?
Peter: Radiant Mind is a nine-month course, so it’s different from a satsang, for example. I was running workshops and retreats and people said, “OK, that’s great, but how can we stay involved with this over a longer period of time, when we’re involved in our daily activities, taking care of families, work and so on?” So I thought, “OK, we’ll do something over nine months”. Radiant Mind is a programme that creates a lot of opportunities for people to connect with me and each other in workshops, teleconferences and phone work. People work with written and audio material. There are lots of ways in which people come together for presence, pure awareness. People create a type of vibrational field, a meeting of minds, that moves people beyond what’s happening at an egocentric level and then they share in the space of pure awareness.
Iain: And you feel that by going through this process - and there are obviously different stages to it - people can reach a stage... a state of comparative stability and unconditioned mind?
Peter: Little bit by little bit. In my work I distinguish between the ‘purity’, ‘depth’ and ‘duration’ with which we can presence unconditioned awareness. Generally, the process is one of deepening the state and then slowly extending it. The more time we spend here, in the place where there’s nowhere further to go, the more familiar we become with this space and the easier it becomes to access it. In a sense, we create grooves in consciousness. So then, when we’re in a reactive state, struggling with what’s happening, with some adjustment in the conditions, we find ourselves back here. It can be as simple as asking, “What is that I think I have lost?”
It’s like being in an elevator. We’re in the basement and it’s dark; it’s not what we want it to be. But if we’ve made the journey into non-dual awareness once, ten times, a hundred times or more, our mind knows that journey, and it starts to make it automatically. It’s like being able to drive to our own home without needing to be aware of any sense of direction or control.
And this process is really enhanced by being in a community that adds that vibrational fuel that assists us in making this journey to include this moment in this pure way.
Iain: So Peter, when you talk about “a place there’s nowhere further to go”, is that really true, that there’s nowhere further to go?
Peter: In this moment, I feel there’s nowhere further to go. I cannot imagine what that could be, because I don’t know where we are at the moment! This is a state of not knowing. Because I can’t say where ‘I’ am at the moment, or what ‘this’ is, there’s no idea of doing more of this, or going forwards or going backwards. This is what’s meant by non-dual awareness: it’s the awareness within which no comparison is possible.
Iain: But isn’t there also infinite depth within the moment?
Peter: In a way. But in this moment, it doesn’t feel to me as though we can deepen this state, because there is nothing more to integrate into this.
Iain: You see, I can say, “I am here now” - and I am here now, but I know there’s... I feel - and I know - there’s infinite possibilities in being here now. It’s another moment, and another moment… And it’s always different. And there’s more and there isn’t more; both are true at the same time.
Iain: Do you understand?
Peter: Yes, I understand. This is continually evolving, so there’s the possibility for integrating everything, every moment, into this. But right in this moment the integration is done, it’s complete. And as you’re saying, now all we have is this moment. We don’t have to work this out. That’s the great thing. We’re beyond the mind. We’re just being here, and there’s nothing more that we need to understand. There’s no object of knowledge here.
Iain: Yes. But you see, at the same time I have got my programmes running, they are not necessarily directly interfering with now, but they’re running. I know from history that there are programmes... there are programmes running – say, a year or two years ago were stronger, so the moments then were different. And I know every moment is different, but there has been a movement overall that affects the moment. That’s what I’m interested in.
Peter: Right [smiling].
Iain: Do you understand what I’m saying?
Peter: No, not exactly.
Iain: OK. So, the moment for me is an experience.
Iain: I have an experience. What I’m saying is, that experience - the capability of that experience for me now in this moment - wasn’t necessarily there several years ago, because I had... [whirling hand in circles around temples] I don’t know if you would use the word ‘baggage’ but conditioning; we’ll use the word ‘conditioning’. And so the moment, the capacity or the potential of the moment, has to change when the baggage is lost, or the conditioning is worked through or whatever. So that’s why I say that... for me it seems the potential is infinite and...
Peter: Yes, I agree. There’s absolutely no limitation in terms of what can be arising within awareness itself, because awareness can’t put any limit on what’s possible. Is that what you’re saying?
Iain: I’m speaking personally. I’m just aware that the potential has changed and it continues to change, and I... I don’t know, maybe I have an inbuilt suspicion of anyone who says that it’s possible to get to the end, because I’m not too sure if there is an end.
Peter: I’m talking about in this moment right now - there’s nowhere further to go. I’m not saying that in the future we will be here, that we will be complete, beyond suffering. Today, tomorrow, next week, I’ll be in a different place than where I am now. Our identities reconfigure. I will become involved in my preferences, thinking, “I like this, I don’t like that”. And then I’ll be back on the path, thinking that something needs to happen to be ‘here’. But right now, we can see that there’s nothing that needs to happen. Nothing needs to be done in order to be here. This is our natural state.
Iain: This is leading me on to something else that I wanted to ask you, and we’ve had quite a lot of different opinions on non-duality... not different opinions but... We’ve had a lot of interviews on non-duality and there’s been different ways of looking at it. And there are certain people we’ve had on the programme who are real, who have been real spiritual seekers. And they say that a significant shift happened, and they realised something beyond the self, and they feel that nothing they did in terms of practice or work on themselves contributed to that shift. It was quantum, grace of God, whatever you want to call it. It just happened, and then life was different.
And there are other people who, I think, like yourself, are saying there’s a more gradual approach. You’re in a process and the process isn’t the same for everybody because we’re all individuals; and there’s openings, and then there’s arriving at a state or place or whatever.
What would be your opinion on that, these two seemingly opposite ways of looking at it?
Peter: Both are true. When we’re here at the unconditioned level we can see that this is ‘acausal’. Nothing needs to have happened in order to be here. This is not a produced experience. It’s not a conditioned state. But there’s a way in which, if we hadn’t done what we thought we had to do, we wouldn’t be here.
Iain: So we don’t really know what contributed and why it happened or it’s...
Peter: Well, more than that. Nothing that we’ve done has contributed as a cause to being here. This is not an effect of anything; it’s unconditioned. But if we hadn’t done what we thought we needed to do, we wouldn’t be in this place. It’s paradoxical.
Iain: Yes. And if I personalise that, it brings another dimension into it in so far as – yes - the shifts or the changes seem to happen on their own; perceptions seem to happen on their own. But the work, if you like, provides often a basis for an understanding of what has happened or is happening. And there’s a tremendous help in that because it helps to diffuse the power of the mind. If something happens and it is a very different way of looking at things; if I get another way of seeing life, seeing how everything fits together, my mind can get very concerned about that. But if it understands, then that helps diffuse that, which allows more of a falling in and accepting of that space.
Peter: Yes, but I also think we need to be careful we don’t ‘create’ conditions by thinking that something needs to happen before we can be here. It’s easy to do that, to think that, before we can be here, we need to do a certain practice, or have a certain understanding, or history of experience. But if we look right now, we don’t need anything to be resting as awareness. We don’t need any understanding to be here; we don’t need to be meditating. This is not the fruition of meditation. Although, in a way, it is the fruition of meditation. Here the result of meditation is realised without doing anything. There’s no action of meditation, no meditator [smiling].
Iain: I think the way that I also see it is that, if we’re not happy with our life, it’s pretty stupid not to try and do something about it. And what we might do might actually take us in the wrong direction, but it’s better to do that than just to sit there and complain and do nothing and be miserable and suffer. I think that’s where I’ve got to these days.
Iain: And, like you, I see the dilemma involved, yes. So what’s your practice these days, personally? Are you still a big meditator?
Peter: It’s more that meditation happens. I don’t sit down in a regimented way, but I do a lot of meditation. I do a lot of work by telephone, a lot of workshops, a lot of travelling, so I have a very rich practice. My practice comes through my teaching, and in living my life so I can fulfil any role I may have in supporting others.
Iain: And you talked earlier about sometimes... and these are not your words - these are more my words interpreting what you said… But you were saying something like, “You lose the space and then you find the space again”. Why do you think you lose the space?
Peter: When something is happening in the conditioned sphere that falls outside the parameters of my preferences – say, a pain in my body or missing a deadline - I identify with the experience. That’s when I can think I’ve lost this [pointing on a place on arm on sofa]. When we’re here [pointing on sofa further along an imagined line], we see that we can’t lose this [pointing back to original spot]. So again, it’s paradoxical. When we are here [pointing to original spot], we see we cannot lose this because there’s nothing to lose. But this inexplicable event happens: we think we’ve lost this, even though it’s impossible.
For me, the path consists of reconnecting with this space many, many times - as I’ve said, ten, a hundred, thousands of times - so that gradually this becomes a more central dimension of our existence.
Iain: Are you aware at the time of the reaction?
Peter: No. I don’t think it’s possible to be aware of the moment in which we lose this. If we were aware, it couldn’t happen!
Iain: Well, you see, I can only personalise it, but I know for myself increasingly that, when I have a reaction, I know I’m having a reaction; but it’s too strong. And I’m not using that as an excuse - these are the words that are coming out now, but there’s such a strength in the reaction - it’s stronger than something else here that is watching the reaction, that is aware of the reaction. I’m increasingly aware of this whole process and it’s... And I have to be patient with myself, really. It’s no good, as you know, judging yourself and saying, “I shouldn’t be doing this”… And then I find balance again, and then something else happens and I’m off again. And it’s just an ongoing thing that seems to get less dramatic, shall we say, and hopefully moving more towards this... Well, let me ask you about silence.
Iain: A lot of the people we’ve had on here - Gangaji was the last person, I think: she talked about experiencing silence and how important that was somehow. Is that something in you that...? Tell me about silence...
Peter: [laughing] Talk about silence - isn’t that great?
Iain: It’s possible, it’s possible, yes.
Peter: Well, one way to be present to the silence of the unconditioned is by seeing that there’s nothing that we need to talk about, or even think about. We run out of subject matter. Then we’re just here - in what? We don’t need to know. We don’t have to put a label on this. Silence happens because we’re not trying to get anywhere. We’re not looking for an end point. There is no end point. And if there’s no end point, we’re just being here without any agenda, with nothing we need to do. Thoughts can still be happening, but we’re not going anywhere with them. They’re just moving through awareness. And then we’re just resting. I think the silence emerges of its own accord in the process of going beyond the mind.
Iain: Well, I feel quite silent. I’m also aware - I’m peeking at the clock behind you - that we have about two minutes left, and I just... Anything you’d like to say in the last two minutes?
Peter: I really appreciate you, I appreciating being here, where we are right now, and I thank you very much for the opportunity of sharing this time with you.
Iain: Thank you, Peter. I’m just going to mention again that you have a book out, Radiant Mind, and a CD set; and I’ll hold these up to the camera. And I’ve read the book and listened to the CDs and it’s very interesting and I found it very helpful at times; I recommend these. And, of course, there are your courses, nine-month courses, and you can find those on Peter’s website.
So thanks for coming to see us and chatting with me, and good luck with your work.
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