James Swartz - How To Attain Enlightenment
Interview with Iain McNay
Iain: You have written a book called How to Attain Enlightenment, which is quite a provocative title in one way. We are going to use our time as effectively as we can with this interview. So we are going to start with some biographical information about yourself. About your story if you like, or part of your life, and how you got to this point. So let’s go back to when you were quite young. You were quite a rebel at school, weren’t you?
James: Yes, absolutely. I got thrown out of two schools: high school and one university; and I barely made it through a preparatory school.
Iain: So what was going on in your head at the time? Why were you such a rebel, do you think?
James: Well, there was no obvious reason. I came from a really good family and my parents were loving and kind people. I just had a bit of the devil in me from the day I popped out of the womb! I was continually testing the limits and getting knocked down, but it didn’t bother me at all. People told me there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t feel that way. I actually thought that there was something wrong with everyone else. So I continued to push against the grain and get myself in hot water on a regular basis.
Iain: So you were testing the limits. You felt that things didn’t quite add up, I guess?
James: My mother was quite an intellectual and a cultured person. She gave me an appreciation of knowledge and the vastness of the world. It set up a great hunger to experience things. And I could not stand the constraints of living in a small provincial town. I wanted out. When I was seventeen I precipitated an event that accomplished my purpose. I was fascinated by the world. I did not want a family or a job or anything that anyone else wanted. None of that appealed to me. I hated the idea of being tied down, so I was constantly rubbing against the rules, getting in trouble.
Iain: I think you got thrown out of the first college. And you left the second college about six months before your graduation.
James: That is correct.
Iain: Because you wanted to make some money in the world.
James: I fell in love with a married woman!
James: I was going to school at the University of California in Berkeley during the ’60s when the big political, social and psychedelic ferment was taking place. I met a gorgeous, wealthy married Filipino woman who gave me a lot of money and told me to come to Hawaii. So I just dropped out of school. I left the door to my flat open and the TV running and the shower on and caught a taxi for the airport.
We needed a cover story to explain our relationship, one that would be acceptable to her husband, so we went into business together, although I had no experience at all. I became quite rich and successful at a very young age. Unfortunately, I was not really happy, although everybody was telling me I was Mr Success. People were patting me on the back and could not wait to be my friend.
On the surface it was all very wonderful, but inside I was rotten because I was not living the right life. I was an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, a meat-eater. And even though I didn’t steal anything physically, I was capable of conning people out of their money. I cut a lot of corners. I was a liar and a cheat and, of course, an adulterer. So to come down from a quality background to the gross world of business with all its lusts and conflicts put a big strain on me.
Iain: I should mention that your autobiography is available on your website. The whole book is a racy read, actually. There is certainly sex, drugs and even a bit of rock and roll in there as well!
James: Yes, sex, drugs and rock and roll. I did it all. Absolutely.
Iain: And then at twenty-six years old you were living in Hawaii?
James: I was. I had a chain of stores and a factory and an import company in Honolulu, Waikiki.
Iain: And one day you were in the post office and something significant happened.
James: On a lovely tropical morning, after a drunken and debauched night with a woman whose husband was out of town, I was sluggishly lumbering through the International Market Place on my way to the post office. The pavement was glistening from a light morning shower and the sun was playing hide-and-seek with big billowy clouds, as tropical flowers sprayed their erotic fragrance in the air and the gentle trade winds rattled the palm fronds.
I noticed a jaunty old man, a vacationer attired in Bermuda shorts, aloha shirt, tennies and a straw hat, perusing his mail as he ambled my way. As he got closer, I realised we were on a collision course and sent a message to my feet to move left - but nothing happened! Panic stricken, I tried to move out of the way a second time, but the body wouldn’t respond! I had completely lost control of it. A couple of seconds before impact, the bodies stopped face to face, and I heard a sweet voice speaking through me. “Excuse me, sir, may I ask you a question?” it said.
Someone else had taken over! Since I had no idea what the voice was about to say, I tried to apologise, but the words wouldn’t come. I wasn’t connected at the mouth either! The old man looked up, unaware of my distress, a kind smile on his wrinkled face. “Yeah, sure, sonny - shoot”.
Then the voice - which I would soon realise was the voice of God, flowing like nectar from a deep place within - resumed. “Out of curiosity, sir, how old do you think I am?” Since I already knew the answer and didn’t have the slightest interest in the opinion of the doddering old codger, I was completely flabbergasted. Certain that I was going mad, I ran frantically around inside my mind looking for the control panel. But reality, which had a mind of its own, was completely uninterested.
The old man stepped back, pulled on his pipe, gave me the once-over, and judiciously replied, “Well, sonny, I’d say you’re forty-three”. A long history of untruth meant I could spot a lie a mile away: he was deliberately underestimating my age to spare my feelings. “Well, yes, thank you very much”, the voice said sweetly. “Don’t mention it, sonny”, he said, proceeding on his way. I seriously considered the possibility I was losing my mind, but the experience was permeated with such a sense of clarity, I didn’t indulge my fear.
And then I regained control of my body and proceeded towards my mailbox, the mind settling on the concerns of the day. But as I entered the foyer I lost it again! Instead of proceeding into the post office proper as programmed, the body confidently turned left, entered the men’s room and parked itself in front of a big mirror over the wash basins, eyes glued straight ahead, feet welded to the floor. “Oh no, not again! Am I flipping out?” I thought anxiously.
But I wasn’t going mad. I was having a good look, courtesy of God, at what I had become. I don’t know how long I stood there, unable to move a muscle - perhaps a full five minutes - aware but unaware of the stares of the men coming and going, the flushing toilets and the irritating flicker of the neon light over the mirror.
But it didn’t matter because a brand new world had miraculously opened up, an inner world illumined by a powerful light in whose presence I saw every last bit of the sin and corruption that I was. The moment of truth in the post office lifted a monstrous weight. Though I still looked a wreck, overweight and run-down, my face etched with deep pain lines, I felt young again, inspired by the conviction that I might find an exit from my dark labyrinth. And for the first time in my twenty-six years I realised there was a compassionate God.
Iain: And how did you feel about it? Did it feel good? Were you scared, apprehensive?
James: I am not a fear-oriented person. It is not in my nature. I felt thrilled, excited. I thought, “Jesus, this is it!” It is like being let out of prison when you see the Self and experience who you are. You suddenly realise all the possibilities and the freedom that’s inherent in that. And I saw how far I was from actualising what I had seen. I saw that I was living in a sewer when there was this beautiful thing that I am inside me. And I thought, “How am I going to get these two things together again?” They are in different dimensions.
Iain: You talk in your autobiography a lot about the process afterwards. And you still did a lot of drugs and you were still into lots of women, it seems. And there was one particular stripper, I think, called Linda, whom you met. And she said some very significant things to you, didn’t she?
James: Yes, she did. At that time, I wasn’t really into LSD, but I was smoking pot. LSD came shortly after. I got pretty high and got visions of reality of the truth through LSD.
James: But just before LSD I met a woman who was a follower of Wilhelm Reich. You may have heard of him?
Iain: Of course, yeah.
James: She had one of his orgone energy accumulators in her room and she taught me about the energy. She told me that I couldn’t get high on drugs forever. She said I had to get it naturally.
Iain: I think you met her in a strip club.
James: Yes I did.
Iain: Strange place to meet somebody.
James: Spiritual awakening happens to all kinds of people in all walks of life. It’s going on everywhere from the highest to the lowest levels of existence.
Iain: And she planted a seed in you, didn’t she? She said that you didn’t really know who you are.
James: That’s right. She said that I had experiences of who I was, but that I didn’t really know who I am. She said I had to figure it out. I couldn’t understand what she meant. I was a gross businessman, not used to subtle thinking. At the same time I was fascinated by what she had to say. I knew then that I had to go on this quest for enlightenment.
Iain: So you went to India and had adventures getting there and you stopped off at various places. When you got to India, at one point you lived in a cave on the banks of the Ganges for a few weeks.
James: Yes, indeed. I met Nisargadatta Maharaj before he was famous. He told me to go to Rishikesh, a holy town on the banks of the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas. I met a kundalini yogin there who taught me a bunch of strange practices. But it wasn’t working, so I asked him for the ‘real deal’. But he kept putting me off. I have always been an aggressive confident person and I knew he liked me and maybe even needed me in some way, so I pushed him a bit and threatened to leave. He caved in and gave me a proper sadhana, a serious technique. He said it was the method that gave him enlightenment.
I needed an isolated place, so I moved to a cave upriver beyond Laxman Jhoola, and discovered after a few days that I was the roommate of a three-foot cobra! I was crazy with spiritual fantasies so I took it as a good sign, as the vehicle of Lord Shiva! The cobra was nice. He came in from hunting in the morning when I got up and he went out to hunt at night when I slept, so our schedules didn’t conflict.
Iain: But living in a cave is still quite an extreme thing for an American used to a western lifestyle.
James: Yes absolutely. I was a hippie... in those days we were called ‘heads’ because we took psychedelics and expanded our minds... and I liked the lifestyle of these sadhus who were very cool; the original hippies, you might say. So I wanted to be like them. They lived in caves and enjoyed themselves, and I thought that was very cool.
Iain: But you had a realisation, didn’t you, towards the end of the time in the cave?
James: Yes, I had a vision of Mother Kali. And then I left my body and had a transcendental experience where I could see the whole universe appearing in my awareness. It was extraordinary and not drug-induced. I had experienced the same thing with drugs, but now I realised that through kundalini yoga I could access this state of consciousness that I was striving for. I hit the jackpot!
When I went back to the ashram to thank my guru, I discovered that he was not in that state at all; he was a total fraud. He played it cool and I played it cool so as not to rock his boat. I just picked up my stuff and left and moved on.
Iain: But you had the intent, didn’t you? Somehow you were committed to your path and that was stronger than the false guru.
James: Yes, absolutely. When you see the truth like I saw it, you don’t settle for anything less. You just can’t. I was ready to suffer a lot to get that experience back... and I did get it back. These experiences fortified my faith and gave me courage to go on. Because to pursue this path to freedom wasn’t easy. I was crazy with divine inspiration, which helped, but there were many setbacks. People thought I was mad. I wasn’t mad. I knew the truth existed, but from outside it looked like I had gone ‘round the bend’ as you say over here. It is always that way when you follow your heart.
Iain: So after a time you went back to the US? And how was that?
James: I became disillusioned with the whole spiritual thing. I would experience the Self and I would be happy for a while - and then I would come crashing down. And then I would set out to get it back once more. All the yoga and meditation I did! And yet at the end of the day there I was, just a normal guy sitting around picking my nose and worrying about paying the rent. I decided to bag it. I thought, “To hell with this whole spiritual thing! I am going back to university, finish up my degree and become a normal person”. I figured I would eventually get a job, the wife and kids, and do the whole thing normal people do.
James: That very day, through a miraculous series of events, I met this great sage from India.
I got up, went into the bathroom, hung a little mirror on the shower wall so I could trim my beard when it was soft, turned on the shower and thought about my day: after lunch I would head over to the campus and pick up an application for re-admission to university.
In the middle of this very ordinary stream of consciousness, my mind suddenly went blank and I experienced powerful vibrations coming from the solar plexus. An unearthly silence, thick as a morning fog, descended and I heard the mantra, om namah shivaya, rising spontaneously out of the depths, bringing deep peace, inundating my soul with sweetness. I looked in the mirror and saw a face bathed in an otherworldly radiance. In the space between and above my eyebrows a tiny jet-black dot appeared. The mantra continued churning as the spot expanded to about the size of a dime, opened up, and became a hole! The flesh on the forehead liquefied and cascaded into the hole at an incredible velocity. My whole face, including the eyes, became a shimmering vibrant river of energy and dissolved into nothingness!
As I observed my body disappear, I found myself in my soul body speeding purposefully into the unknown. In nanoseconds my small bundle of consciousness burst its skin and dissolved. I was not without a self, but I was no longer a limited bundle of consciousness. I had ‘become’ what I always was, a limitless eye seeing in all dimensions in a realm of endless spiritual light! Simultaneously, a fine strand of consciousness miraculously connected me to a body towelling off in a shower on a tiny planet in an insignificant solar system somewhere in one of myriad galaxies stretching endlessly before me.
The body dressed itself and walked out to the road. A car pulled up and the driver, a complete stranger, whom I recognized as my Self, offered a ride. “I’ll drop you off at the Bayshore”, he said as the little me nodded in agreement. His mind was immediately overcome with peace and we sat comfortably all the way down the hill, intimately connected but silent, like an old married couple. No sooner did I step out at the San Francisco on-ramp than another car pulled up and the driver cheerfully offered to take me to the city. He dropped me off downtown and my body aimlessly wandered the streets, guided by an unseen hand.
Somehow I had a kind of all-knowingness. I saw the history of everyone who passed, and the energy that I was carrying raised the vibrations of all those around me. People woke up to something higher and proceeded on with renewed purpose. The real ‘I’ did more good in the space of minutes than the little ‘I’ had done in its lifetime. And all the while I was completely hidden, inconceivably minute, yet expansive beyond limit.
As evening fell, I found myself walking up Market Street, totally in the moment, a great joy welling in the heart. An out-of-service bus pulled up. The door opened and the long-haired driver said, “Get in. I’m off duty - I’ll give you a ride. Don’t tell me where you’re going - I will know”. We drove through the streets for about ten minutes when the bus stopped in the avenues east of Golden Gate Park. He dropped me off, and the body walked on its own down the block and up the steps to a small house - and into a life from which I would never return.
I opened the door and noticed a crowd of about thirty sitting quietly facing a raised platform. When I entered heads turned, as if I had been expected. I took a seat in the second row, the silence deepening to such a point that a few shuffled and coughed nervously. I tuned into an orange-clad Indian yogi sitting directly in front of me and realised we were in the same state! He got up to speak and I realised that a dream I had had six months before had become a reality. I had met my teacher. When you let everything go, the higher power takes over, and it wanted me back on the path, so that is what happened.
Iain: It had top billing again!
James: It had top billing. But I knew without a doubt that this time it was going to work. I was going to get what I wanted.
Iain: And what did you actually want?
Iain: What did that mean to you at the time?
James: It meant freedom from ‘me’. Freedom from all my desires, from the sense of incompleteness and inadequacy. You know, all the stuff that human beings suffer. Owing to my epiphanies I knew better, but I still thought I was a human being. So I had all the stuff that goes along with that. And I was always doing something to try to complete myself, but the things I achieved always abandoned me, leaving me back where I started.
Iain: It wears off.
James: It wears off, and then you are back to the same old guy again. And I just wanted freedom from that cycle of desire and action. Buddha called it the Samsara Chakra, the wheel of Samsara.
James: So you found a teaching that you felt resonated with you that could help take you there?
James: Yes, absolutely. The problem was that I had been chasing enlightenment as an experience. I thought that freedom was some kind of amazing, mind-blowing, incredible, transcendental experience.
Iain: But you were getting that sometimes?
James: I was getting it, yes, but the question was, why was I losing it?
Iain: That’s right.
James: I couldn’t make it permanent. I had the desire to do so. I am a smart guy, but I couldn’t figure out how to make this experience permanent. And this teacher was saying that the problem is you don’t realise that you are awareness... that you are the Self... And that when you do understand, you will see that you are always free without doing anything at all. He was saying - and this had never occurred to me properly, even though I had read it in books - that this is a non-dual reality.
If I am a small person and the world is something other than me, then I am in duality. I am a subject and some object is there and I am trying to milk the object for happiness, even if it is a subtle object like enlightenment. But my teacher said that is not how it is.
Iain: So he was saying, it is not outside you. It is inside that you need to look.
James: Absolutely, and the problem is that I needed to know something; I didn’t need to experience something that I don’t have. I had had enough liberating experiences but they did not set me free. My understanding of reality was not correct.
Iain: I would say that had to do with the integration of experiences. Would you put it in those terms?
James: What do you mean by ‘integration of experiences’?
Iain: An understanding and maybe also an adaptation of your life. Living a truer life with the foundation being on the inside, rather than based on something else.
James: That’s correct. The foundation would be the knowledge of myself as awareness.
Iain: Explain more what you mean by ‘knowledge of yourself as awareness’.
James: Most people think they are what they think and feel, their sensations and what they do. And that is not a good basis for happiness, a secure foundation, because these things are shifting sands. So if I am identifying with what is happening to me and what I am thinking and feeling, I am going to be just going round and round and round all the time. I had had enough of that.
But if I am awareness, I never change, because awareness doesn’t change. My true nature is eternal. It is limitless and completely beyond time. So if you see yourself as awareness and not as this body-mind entity, you get peace. You get freedom. That freedom is the result of understanding that you don’t have any limits.
Iain: Now your book is called How to Attain Enlightenment, and I want to ask you... because people are going to be thinking... who is this teacher that he met? What is the system? So, do you want to tell us a little bit more about that?
James: Yes. It is called Vedanta, a means of knowledge that ends your quest for knowledge. We are all trying to figure things out that will make life work for us. We get bits and pieces through our experience. We call this kind of experiential knowledge lower or relative knowledge. You can get a certain degree of satisfaction with this kind of knowledge.
But Self-knowledge is eternal. It’s absolute. Once you get it and you are clear of what it is, then you stop questing for things in this world. And Vedanta is a complete means of knowledge. Since ignorance of my nature is hard-wired and responsible for my cravings and fears, I need a comprehensive, profound and effective means of knowledge, something other than the experience-based words of an individual like a prophet or a mystic who has had some epiphanies; something that can systematically attack all the wrong notions I have about myself and the world.
Iain: OK, now Vedanta is a very ancient means of Self-knowledge.
James: Yes it is. It has persisted because it works.
Iain: I guess what attracted you to Vedanta was, you felt it was practical. Even though you have a western lifestyle, you felt it could still work for you, coming from that background?
James: Absolutely, because it is the only thing that really made sense to me. I knew I didn’t want any more worldly experiences and I knew that you cannot make spiritual experiences permanent.
This knowledge comes from experience, from observation of both the subjective and the objective worlds. It was revealed to various sages independent of each other; and the knowledge was gathered together and the big picture emerged. By that I mean the knowledge of consciousness... what it is that ties everything together.
Vedanta shows how the material world works. It explains how the psyche works. And it reveals what awareness/consciousness is and how it relates to the body and mind and the world. And once you have the complete understanding, the big picture, then you see where you fit in it. Or, to be more accurate, you see that everything fits into you. And you don’t try mess with anything... your body or mind... when the knowledge is firm. But until you see the big picture you never know where you stand in this existential soup. Or to take it to another level, that the existential soup exists in you.
Iain: One of the things that I think is confusing in this whole non-dual world that we have been exploring on Conscious TV is that certain words mean different things to different people. People use the words ‘awakening’, ‘realisation’ and ‘enlightenment’. Could you briefly take us through those words, what they mean in Vedanta?
James: Yes. Vedanta is clear about the importance of words. If the problem is ignorance of my true identity, then the only thing that is going to remove it is knowledge. Words can be used to convey ignorance or knowledge. Vedanta uses words in such a way that they convey the knowledge of who I am.
Iain: So what is awakening?
James: Awakening is like that experience that I had in the post office. You are asleep to your true nature. You are living in this world, just going about the business of life. You don’t know there is anything more. And then suddenly, when you least expect it, you have a mind-blowing epiphany and you realise or awaken to the higher power. It is an experience.
Iain: Right. And does that always come by the grace of God, or is it something that you can work towards?
James: Well, you know, it is the grace of God. But why does God shower grace on you? In my case I believe that it was because I needed it, because I was living completely contrary to God’s laws. I was so thoroughly wilful, so wrong in my thinking and behaviour, that I hit bottom - and then I had the breakthrough. God takes pity and wakes you up.
Iain: Wow, that is not always the case! There are a lot of people who…
James: Well, that is true, but most people - middle-class people particularly - never really test the limits. They sort of evolve a way of coping with life and never really hit the bottom.
Iain: OK. It is interesting that you say that, because that was very much what came through in your childhood: you were testing the limits. So you felt by going to extremes you had to have an extreme awakening, something that you would really take notice of.
James: Yes, because what we are seeking is present all the time. Maybe I was so dull that I needed a big shock. But many people live placid little uneventful lives and have epiphanies too, like Ramana Maharshi, so it isn’t just how you live. There are other factors: the culture of your soul... how evolved you are as a human being... and the type and quality of your intelligence. It is hard to say exactly.
Iain: And what is enlightenment?
James: Enlightenment is the knowledge that you are awareness and not this body-mind-ego entity that you think you are. But it is not quite that simple. It is, but it assumes that this knowledge cancels your ego... your desires and fears... so that you are no longer motivated by them. By ‘cancels’ I do not mean that these impulses do not appear in you... they may... but they are rendered non-binding when your knowledge of who you are is steady.
Anybody can say, “I’m enlightened, I’m consciousness”. You hear this all the time, people claiming they are consciousness and then behaving just as they behaved before they awakened. They still have all kinds of small self-centred desires and they keep right on acting them out. And when you ask them, “Well, if you are enlightened, why are you lying and cheating and stealing and doing all the stuff you were doing before you were enlightened?”, they say, “Oh, I’m just playing in the consciousness, I’m just playing in Maya here. I’m not really doing it because I’m not really here”.
Iain: So you are saying that once you really know who you are, your neurosis, your conditioning will drop away?
James: Yes, it will happen gradually.
Iain: Drop away because you are not reinforcing it?
James: Correct. Because it is the belief that your limited self is real and that it is sick that is the problem. We have all these ideas about who we are. “I am a this. I am a that”. Not identifying with these things allows them to purify. And you just remain as you are, as awareness, as the seer. Awareness is a witness, is a seer.
Iain: So the ego, personality, whatever we call it, goes through a kind of cleansing process - is that it?
James: Yes, a purification. In the Bhagavad Gita it says there is no purifier like Self-knowledge. You can do yoga and eat all kinds of pure foods and you can pray and meditate and do religious practices to purify your body and mind, but there is no purifier like knowing that you are awareness and not this body-mind.
Iain: Yes. The term ‘Self-knowledge’ to me and many people means learning, and learning means using the mind. But you’re talking about something different here.
James: Absolutely, yes, sir.
Iain: Explain more what you mean by Self-knowledge.
James: Well, knowledge is what you can’t negate.
Iain: You know it fundamentally to be true.
James: Yes, and Self-knowledge can’t be contradicted or negated. What is always true? That I am; that I exist is always true. I can negate my body. I can know that is not me. There are conditions where my body does not exist - in deep sleep, for example. I can negate my beliefs, because my beliefs change all the time. They are not real, they are not me either. But the one who knows - the awareness or the consciousness that knows - is eternal. Try to negate yourself, try to remove yourself from this equation. You can’t do it.
There is nobody higher than you... even God... who can remove you. Why? Because reality is non-dual. So once you understand that, you are free. And all your neuroses and hang-ups that were the result of your ignorance drop off.
Vedanta is beautiful because the knowledge it brings depersonalises your suffering. It shows you that you are not suffering because your mommy did this to you and your daddy did that and your big brother abused you and your teachers didn’t like you and government was after you and the society had it in for you. It points out that you are suffering because you are a victim of ignorance of who you are. And this realisation depersonalises suffering and it doesn’t sting so much. It removes the self-blame and self-judgment that we have picked up from society. It removes self-esteem problems because you see that you are not responsible for your self-image. You understand that nobody would be what they are if they could help it. At the same time it reveals who you really are.
Iain: And so, for yourself, for James, how did this come about? You speak in your autobiography of your realisation through Swami Chinmaya in India. That was a deep realisation, but presumably it still took time after that for that to refine and to integrate more. Is that right? Or…?
James: It came about through self-enquiry. To make an enquiry you need help. Most people are egocentric and think they can figure it out on their own. But if you could figure it out on your own, you would have done it. We need help in enquiry. Vedanta is a complete, systematic means of self-enquiry. It teaches you how to think so that your thinking is in harmony with reality. It is not opinions or beliefs of mystics or prophets. It is not religion. It is just a clear analysis of what reality is. Once you are clear about it, you can analyse yourself and destroy your own ignorance. Because the purpose of enquiry is to get knowledge. Why would I want knowledge? Because I am ignorant.
I needed a little help. So I stayed with my teacher for two years from four a.m. till midnight every day. I sat ramrod straight and paid attention to everything he did and said. When there was no class - we had three classes a day and two satsangs - I was in my room either meditating or studying scripture. I only thought about enlightenment. I was not chasing women or anything else. It was a pure life with a saint.
He was a great man with thousands of devotees. He was respected and admired by many. It was very intense. He was a very tough and uncompromising guru, the kind that gets under you and lifts you up, not the kind of guru who only sits there and rains down the truth on you, although he did that too. They have a saying in Vedanta, bhakta baktiman. It means the Self - or God or the Lord or whatever you want to call it - is the devotee of the devotee. So he was like a mother/father/brother to me. He cared, but not in a sentimental way. He paid attention to my progress. And when I got in a pickle in my thinking or whatever, he’d be there to help me sort it out. I didn’t need much help, actually, because I was clear about what I wanted and I was totally dedicated, but he was always there for me. He also fed me and provided a place to stay for two years. All I did was pay my transportation.
Iain: Can someone do it without a guru?
James: It’s possible. It’s pretty rare. People who are exceptionally pure, perhaps. But I didn’t have a resistance to being taught. It’s the best way for 99% of seekers. I admit that I was an arrogant bastard and wanted to think that I could do it on my own, but when I saw how radiant and pure he was and the clarity of his thinking and the power he had over his mind, I just surrendered. I just said, “OK, you can teach me. I haven’t been able to crack the code, so you show me”. I was open to it, but occasionally people do get it on their own. But they are not any more spiritual than those who have a guru, however.
Iain: You were open to it. You made it your number one priority.
James: That’s right.
Iain: And I think he said - I don’t know if I can find it in my notes now - he said, something right at the end, he said something like, “No one has tried harder than you, James”.
James: Well, that’s right. Vedanta says there are certain qualifications for enlightenment: determination, dispassion, clarity of mind, devotion, forbearance and burning desire for liberation. If you have that burning desire… honestly, I would have preferred to die to living another day in this world as I was... you will succeed.
I understood that if I cracked the code at thirty I would have a fabulous life. So I went for broke. And because of that attitude the Self put me together with this teacher and gave me Vedanta, this amazing means of Self-knowledge. All these factors came together and it was just like being on a magic carpet, really. If you get on a bus or a plane for San Francisco, you are not there yet but you know you will eventually land in San Francisco; so you just kick back and enjoy the ride. It was a great ride.
Iain: So what is your advice to someone who is watching this and who is quite inspired by you, because it is an inspiring story? Do they have to go and find the best teacher they can?
James: No. It’s good not to try to find teachers. As you may notice in my story, the teacher didn’t come until I had given up on the whole seeking thing. Do your duty. Do your life 100% right. Get this purity of motivation, know what you really want and be really honest with yourself about what you are actually getting out of life. Don’t just gloss it over and try to make it look good when it isn’t that good. Don’t think you are spiritual because you have done some yoga or been to India or attended some neo-advaita satsangs. Don’t settle for less than complete freedom. Once that clarity of intention is there, the teacher will come to you. It will just happen. And the teacher should not be one who hangs out the shingle and advertises, “Please come to me - I will save you”. That won’t be a teacher. That will be some kind of ambitious do-gooder or someone out to get something from you.
We have a very strict definition of what a teacher is in Vedanta and wanting to teach is not part of it, although you should have an aptitude for it. You need to be established in the Self as the Self and you need to have command of the means of self-enquiry. Then you wait until the Self sends someone who is sincere.
My teacher was like a friend. The relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita is a model for this style of teaching. There is mutual respect and admiration, even though they know that the teacher knows something extra. The teacher doesn’t lord it over the student and insist on personal devotion. They communicate straight across. That’s the style in the Upanishads too, the source of this knowledge: a conversational style between somebody who knows and somebody who wants to know.
Iain: Do you have times when you lose it, when you feel you look back over a period of a few minutes or seconds and think: “Oh, I lost it”?
Iain: So you are always in this state.
James: No, I’m not in ‘this state’ - that’s incorrect. If it is a state, I can lose it. If it is an experience, I can lose it. But if it is me, can I lose it? Can you lose yourself?
Iain: Well, I can.
James: Well, if you are awareness, you can’t. There is no time when you are not aware.
Iain: No. But James, for me it is like sometimes I feel that I am awareness but other times I may be awareness, but I am also something else that is interfering with my fundamental realisation that I am aware.
James: That’s right.
Iain: That is the question I am asking.
James: That could be a confidence problem. You are awareness, but when you are not 100% confident in that knowledge and when the old patterns come up - the “I am Iain” pattern, or some desire or some little fear maybe creeps in - you identify with that. And then your knowledge of yourself as awareness disappears and you re-identify with Iain. Isn’t that correct?
Iain: Absolutely correct, yes.
James: So it’s just confidence. That is the beauty of the teacher. I knew who I was, but I didn’t have 100% confidence until I saw my guru, who had absolute confidence. You can be confident because awareness is you. As long as you define enlightenment experientially - as a state that you can enter and leave - you will never be confident, because experience isn’t under your control. No human being controls experience; it is controlled by factors that are beyond humans. The macrocosmic mind produces all these experiences and nobody - including Sai Baba and all the big guys who are claiming to have yoga powers and all that - controls experience either. The vasanas or samskaras cause experiences.
The Self is beyond experience. If you say you are enlightened, you are wrong, because you are saying that you had some special experience which is different from non-enlightenment experience. I won’t say I am enlightened nor will I say I am unenlightened, because the whole topic of enlightenment doesn’t apply to me, to awareness. I am speaking now as awareness, not as James. This is not to say that I can’t speak as James, but I know James is just a character in a play or a dream. He is an appearance that awareness is making here in time and space. He is not me.
So no, you can’t lose it once you know. That is why it is said in the Vedas, “What is it, knowing which, everything else is known?” You can’t lose it because this knowledge is not memory-based. That is the interesting thing about Self-knowledge. Most people think that knowledge is intellectual and is based on memory.
Say you commit a crime and are sent to a desert island for fifty years with no one to talk to all that time, so you have no reason to speak your name. Then after fifty years they come to get you and they say, “Iain McNay? Are you Iain McNay?” And without checking with your memory you say immediately, “Yeah, you bet!” The knowledge of who you are is right there at the tip of your tongue. It is there because it is you.
It is the same with the Self. It is never apart from you. So once you understand who you are, you can’t forget it. But if it is only an intellectual idea, you can forget it. If it is experiential, you can lose it. But if it is knowledge - and we said earlier that knowledge is what can’t be negated - then you can’t lose it. So no, it’s the wrong question!
Iain: Well, it is a good answer to the wrong question.
James: Yeah, it’s a good answer to the wrong question.
Iain: So, James, we have two or three minutes left now. On your website there is a wealth of information; you have six books, one of which is your autobiography that I have been referring to, and five others. And you also have a printed book, called How to Attain Enlightenment, which is quite a provocative title.
James: Yes it’s provocative. I wanted to be provocative and thank God the publisher went along with it. It is a little misleading, but not really. It is misleading because you are already awareness - but it is not misleading because you can rediscover yourself as awareness.
If you go to India and are lucky enough to have access to the highest levels of Indian spirituality, you will meet many enlightened people. This whole thing about consciousness and enlightenment is not a mystery. The rishis, the sages, are alive and kicking and this knowledge is definitely available through the sampradaya, the tradition, which is still cranking out enlightened people. Well, it’s not exactly an enlightenment factory, but it is a science and it works.
I try to present this science clearly in my book and I think it is the first time that someone has actually done it in this way, someone who learned the tradition from within, who was set free by it and who has a western mentality and who is actually a writer. Most enlightened people are not writers. Their books are just transcriptions of their words. I start right from the beginning with the enquiry into motivations and develop the whole logic of Vedanta right through to the end. At every stage you are asked to sign on to the logic. In other words, if you can’t sign on to the conclusions in chapter one, it is useless to try to understand chapter two. And if you assimilated the knowledge in chapter two, you can move on to chapter three. In this way the book itself becomes a spiritual path. Nobody has done it this way, Indian or western.
Iain: It is like a manual.
James: Yes, exactly. It is pure Vedanta, not ‘my’ teaching or ‘my’ enlightenment experience. It is my gift to the tradition. So if you can assimilate this knowledge carefully, you can attain enlightenment through it. If you are qualified... there is a chapter on the qualifications for enlightenment... Even younger people in their thirties can assimilate it in a relatively short time and live free as the Self, not to mention more experienced older people. It is definitely possible.
Iain: OK, James, we need to finish. It has been fascinating - thank you very much.
James: Well, thank you for inviting me.
Iain: I hope the new book does well and I can’t wait to read it myself. I have only read one chapter so far.
James: Well, please do. Tell me what you think; I would be interested to hear your opinion on it, what you think about it.
Iain: And I would also invite those of you who have any questions for James to look at his website and maybe email him.
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