Catherine Noyce - The Experience of Non-Duality
Interview by Renate McNay
Renate: We are going to have a chat about non-duality. Catherine lives in a non-dual space and we are going to ask her how that is [laughing]. Catherine, could you tell us how it happened to you, that you live in one of the most desirable places there is? You can call it nirvana or non-duality. How did it happen?
Catherine: Well, I’d have to start by saying it didn’t happen to me…
Catherine: …because nirvana, or whatever that state is, doesn’t happen to a person. So I could state a series of events that appeared to lead up to something, but it’s not strictly linear. I think what we’ll probably find during this talk is that almost everything I say will be paradoxical. So, where can I start? I’ll tell you what happened, or what seemed to happen.
Catherine: I was sitting down, sitting listening to someone talking about non-duality, and I was listening in a fairly relaxed sort of way; listening, but not concentrating. When I got up I left something behind. I got up and went out of the room and there was a very strange feeling. It’s very misleading but I have to say there was a lot of light. But do not be misled by the light, please. I realised that the thing that called itself Catherine had gone right to the back, somewhere, and something else had come forward. The Catherine thing, whatever it was, somehow it wasn’t there in the same way - and it’s never come back. We can talk about what is a person, what made Catherine Catherine, or what makes Renate herself, we could talk about that, but…
Renate: So what you say is that Catherine completely disappeared. Or are there times in your life where Catherine is present…
Catherine: Well, there’s another paradox [laughs]! There’s certainly a consciousness of the Catherine thing, I’ve retained most of the Catherine-like attributes, like a sense of humour and I don’t like some things and I do like others...
Catherine: I once came up with a simile: it’s a bit like a web but without the spider. There’s nothing that sort of attaches to the Catherine… [smiling]
Renate: So are there times when Catherine can have emotions, or... something painful going on? What you say is, you are basically observing that, and there’s nothing, neither pain or whatever is going on, can pull consciousness back into Catherine.
Catherine: Oh, I think it’s probably a thing about terminology. Now let’s think… Let’s take pain or fear or gladness, or whatever you like to call it: those things certainly go on. There’s certainly pain and joy and boredom and hunger; and sometimes they’re even stronger than they used to be, in some ways. Because, as my husband pointed out, it’s like there aren’t the filters in place that used to be there. So those things go on, and they go on in a very Catherine-like way, but somehow the thing that called itself Catherine isn’t there. But there’s no real change to the way I behave or the way things are seen. It’s very mysterious.
Renate: So where are you, or who are you?
Catherine: [laughing] Who am I? Are we going to do self-enquiry this afternoon [laughing]?
Renate: [laughing] No, I just… if you’re not Catherine…
Catherine: Who am I?
Renate: What is there… how do you experience yourself?
Catherine: I don’t experience myself. There’s something going on. What there is, is something that is everything, that is all there is. It’s everything that we can see, or we can’t see. Somehow this is experience mediated through the senses. But really, there’s this vastness, and you can’t even call it vastness because if you call something vast it implies limitation…
Catherine: If you call it empty, it’s also completely full. It’s buzzing with energy and yet it’s completely still. And somehow, at the same time and not separate from that, there’s something Catherine-like going on. This… how can I put it…?
Renate: So, if somebody calls you Catherine - you know, you don’t see a person and all of a sudden somebody sees you on the other side of the street and says, “Catherine” – you respond.
Catherine: I certainly would and, if they had a bottle of brandy, I’d go even faster [laughing]!
Renate: So that indicates that there is still a sense of self, because if there wouldn’t be a sense of self in the vastness how could you respond?
Catherine: Well, that’s a very interesting point. And that’s what people always say when they’re not quite sure how to answer a question, because it gives them time to respond [laughing]. But what I would say is that all the ordinary stuff just goes on. Life is no different in a way; I do all the same things, more or less, or all the same things are done… So someone calls my name, I go over, or if I owe them money I run in the other direction!
Catherine: None of that changes; this is why it’s so paradoxical. You need to bear in mind that I’m just an ordinary person, so to speak, I’m not a teacher, and I’ve never spoken in public before about this, so I’m sort of teasing out stuff as we go along.
Renate: It’s interesting because normally when people reach this state of enlightenment or nirvana, or I don’t know how you call it…
Renate: …or non-duality, there is a kind of a yearning to help our fellow humans to wake up. What you say is, you don’t want to do that.
Catherine: I cannot help anyone to wake up. No one can help anyone to wake up because there is no one who can wake up.
Renate: So why do we have so many books about people who call themselves enlightened and want to help us to wake up?
Catherine: Well, Renate, if I was asking you that question in an interview that’s exactly what I would say to you: why indeed? But what we’re forgetting is - and I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter because that sounds callous and unjoyful - but all there is is this. It’s so full that everything can go on, those books can go on, and it’s just this thing, this vastness, doing its own thing.
Catherine: So who cares if people write books? I didn’t mean to be rude there…
Catherine: And I’m a great one for helping people, in my life, but I would never, never presume to say that I could help someone become enlightened, because I can’t. Because the Catherine thing that used to do whatever it did is, for want of a better word, a mind-body organism (I borrowed that from somewhere), but it sees itself as sort of being in time and in space; and that Catherine thing cannot, cannot understand with the mind that vastness, that fullness and that emptiness; it just can’t do it. And now you’re going to ask me what enlightenment is and I can’t tell you [laughing].
Renate: No, actually I wanted to mention an interesting sentence in one of the books I read lately which says, “A stinker before enlightenment is an enlightened stinker afterwards”. So what you’re saying is… When we spoke earlier, you were telling me you can still get angry and, if you go down the road with your bike and a car cuts you up, you show him your finger [gesticulates and laughs]. So what you say is exactly what this sentence says, that you can be enlightened but your personality wouldn’t change, or wouldn’t be affected by the part in you which is enlightened. Is that true?
Catherine: [sighs] …I find that very mysterious, I really do, and I can see you’re puzzled by that as well, because you’d think that if the self falls away, there would be some sort of so-called perfection. But then you think, well, what is perfection in terms of this vastness, of this fullness that is also empty, this truly unconditional love which the mind cannot possibly attain? What is perfect and who, really, is some mind-body organism to say that everything isn’t perfect just as it is? Except that I wouldn’t use the word ‘perfect’ because I think it’s misleading. So I’ve struggled with that, with stinkers, liberated stinkers, but… why should it change? What would your idea be of someone who was liberated and was just perfect in their behaviour? What would your idea be of how would they behave?
Renate: Yes, it’s an interesting question. How would they behave? You know, I have an idea how they shouldn’t behave.
Renate: I’ve met several teachers and, as we know, most of these enlightened teachers have a problem with sex, with money… I mean, they sleep with their disciples, they have problems with money and they have problems with power. Now I believe that, if somebody is in this space of enlightenment and love, he couldn’t do that.
Catherine: I have a problem with that too, it’s really tacky, in my view. First of all, are they... liberated… or whatever word we’re going to use… ? I mean, who knows? What I’ve always found interesting is that one so-called liberated person can’t tell if someone else is, which surprised me…
Renate: Yes. Can you see this, if somebody is liberated?
Catherine: No, no. I think I can sometimes tell if they’re not [laughing]!
Renate: But can people see that you are liberated?
Catherine: No, no, definitely not.
Renate: Isn’t it in your behaviour, the way you react to certain things…?
Catherine: No, I don’t think so…
Renate: …not getting involved in certain emotions, or in pain or in disasters, but being more detached because you know who you are… Now I hear you’re saying there isn’t anybody there who knows it…
Renate: [laughs] …I think it would be obvious…
Catherine: Well, you could ask my husband…
Catherine: …and I think he would probably say it isn’t obvious. I mean it is a mystery to me; I’m not going to fall into the trap that I’ve got all the answers. Heaven knows why it is, but stuff still goes on and, as I said earlier, some things are felt worse or more keenly than before. And it is a mystery to me.
Catherine: So… I could… I could behave very badly. I mean I don’t think I do because I… Despite liberation rather than because of it, I’ve got values, standards, boundaries, all those sorts of things.
Renate: So how does liberation feel for you? How is it, how can you describe the space? I mean you said it’s vast and it’s full and it’s empty…
Catherine: …and it’s paradoxical…
Renate: …it’s paradoxical…
Catherine: How can I describe it? Well…
Renate: Why are we so compelled to find this space if nothing changes? What is this in us?
Catherine: Well, I’m not exactly going to answer your question - I’m going to answer it in a sideways manner. Because what I forgot to say was that I’m no longer seeking. There is no seeking. There’s not that constant worry about am I doing the right thing, have I learned enough mantras, have I been to the right teacher, if I sit up straighter will I become enlightened, if I stop having sex will my kundalini rise and then I’ll be enlightened, should I have sex at all, is chocolate OK? All gone! Now that’s well worth it!
Renate: Yes, I mean those are all the things which show that we never accept who we are in this moment.
Renate: And that is what I feel our basic suffering is. We always want to be different and we think we gain it by not eating chocolate and sitting up straight and so forth.
Renate: Was there actually anything in your childhood which was leading to your experience? How was your childhood, how was your upbringing? Had you already had experiences as a child? What made you become a seeker?
Renate: Lots of questions!
Catherine: Well, to keep the interview going, I can tell you some things that happened, but really nothing leads to liberation - I mean quite literally no thing, nothing leads to liberation. But there were sort of things that you might think had a connection; if you’re looking in space and time, it looks as if events are sequential.
But I certainly remember when I was eight, and in other periods in my life, I had a terrifying, absolutely terrifying, feeling of who is this Catherine thing? What is it? Nothing’s real, how can anything exist, most of all this Catherine thing? And that was very frightening. It wasn’t a thought, it was like a complete shift in perspective. And it was cold and it was frightening and I thought perhaps I was mad. So I always wondered about that.
Renate: Did you talk with anybody about that?
Catherine: Oh no, no, because it started when I was about eight. I honestly thought they’d put me in an institution, if I felt that.
Renate: Yes. You felt very alone with this experience.
Catherine: Oh yes. Yes, but I was a mystery to me to this day. And then I did have a few sort of experiences before… before I disappeared [laughing]! I certainly had a teacher in India and I had various experiences, but they were experiences which really had nothing to do with enlightenment. I did have a couple of sort of precursor experiences, including half-an-hour or so when I really wasn’t there, but they’re irrelevant, quite irrelevant. Very disappointing… sorry!
Renate: Right [laughing]! But you still kept on being a seeker.
Catherine: What I realised on the day that it happened, or it didn’t happen, was that the sense of Catherine being around had got awfully vague. There was a sort of vagueness to the Catherine thing…
Catherine: … and then as I said, I got up, and I left myself behind.
Renate: OK, well, it’s interesting when, as I sit here and look at you, I start feeling this kind of emptiness. It’s almost like my mind goes blank and I struggle to find… [both laugh] to find, to ask you… There’s something I pick up energetically from you which has an effect on me.
Catherine: That’s interesting
Renate: Yes, it is interesting.
Catherine: I don’t know what to say about it [laughing].
Renate: It’s OK. So how do you… how do you live your daily life now?
Catherine: Well, not that much different. I think I’m actually lazier. For two years after it happened I was very, very lazy. I never got round to doing anything. Obviously I work hard in my job, and I’m committed to that.
Renate: I think you’re a nurse.
Renate: You work with… in a hospital or…
Catherine: I’d better not talk too much about my work, just to be on the safe side, but I am a nurse and I’ve always taken that job very seriously and done it to the best of my ability.
Catherine: So that hasn’t changed, except I would say that there’s less of myself putting myself forward in a situation except where it’s necessary. I’ve got more confidence in taking over because sometimes you have to take over, if someone’s ill, and more confidence in just standing back. So work is much the same. I certainly lost my ambition, but that might be my age as well, it’s difficult to say.
Catherine: We’ve got dogs at home and I still look at them and say, “Well, what’s going on in that dog mind?” You know, you still wonder about stuff.
Renate: Do you think there’s anybody there in the dog [laughing]?
Catherine: I still don’t know. I mean, they seem like people to me. But it’s a mystery. There again, it’s the vastness, the fullness, the emptiness…
Renate: Right. So Catherine… you say you are in a non-dual place.
Catherine: No, you said I was [laughing]!
Renate: OK, or what do you call it… nirvana… how would you… where are you?
Catherine: I would probably not say nirvana because it’s got so many connotations and sort of pre-conceived stuff. Where am I? [pause] Well, the thing that called itself Catherine has sort of gone away so… Hmm, where am I…”Everywhere and nowhere, baby [laughing]!”
Renate: OK. Is this in your experience a finite place, or do you experience consciousness so that if we say you are consciousness, is it still expanding…?
Catherine: I don’t even understand that. Sorry!
Renate: Do you still feel there is a process happening for you?
Catherine: Yes and no. In daily life, the Catherine thing, the Catherine emanation, the piece of sugar that is a piece of cotton candy that calls itself Catherine, certainly can progress and develop. That’s irrelevant and it’s got nothing to do with liberation.
Catherine: So, for instance, I’ve recently passed an exam. You could call that development.
Catherine: But it’s got nothing to do with liberation.
Catherine: ...what did I do? Recently took the dog to the vet and felt very sad about it. Still goes on - nothing to do with liberation. I’m trying to learn to do more housework and be slightly better around the house - nothing to do with liberation.
Renate: No, I’m trying to understand something different. In reading a lot of books about other people’s experiences - and also in my own experience - when I go into an expansive state of awareness, or consciousness, there is always a more energetic component with it. There is some higher wisdom coming and I understand who I am and what everything is much better. And my question was, do you have this kind of experience? That when you entered this space and you lost Catherine, that all of a sudden it’s like a light went out and that you were connected to the wisdom of the universe?
Renate: Or you could see colours, or you had energy experience - was there anything like that happening?
Catherine: Those things happen before liberation. No, I can see exactly what you’re asking and I’m trying to think what to say… That’s got nothing to do with liberation but it’s very nice and it’s almost like a taster. But I don’t feel connected to the wisdom of the universe because there’s no ‘me’ that could connect to something called wisdom, which might be there or there or there or everywhere…
Renate: Well, it’s not that we connect or you connect, but connection happens automatically…
Catherine: I don’t know, I think we’re just talking a different language here; it doesn’t make sense to me. The problem is that I’m not well versed in talking about this stuff. So I’d be a really rotten teacher because in the end I’d say, “Well, this is it, this is all there is, everything… All there is, is this and that’s all I can say”. It’s sort of disappointing if what you want is experiences, because there are no experiences; there’s no light, there’s no bliss.
Renate: Are you happy?
Catherine: Well, even that’s not simple because it’s not…. it’s not what you think it is. It’s not what you think it is. I’m certainly not seeking and I can be happy, I can be angry, I can be all of those things but…
Renate: Or maybe happy is not the right word, referring more to a person…
Renate: What is a better word is joy - is there joy in you? Liberation, I feel, would bring so much joy.
Catherine: Well, someone I know who is very definitely liberated, awakened or whatever said, “You’ll be very disappointed when it happens because it can be very flat”. Not flat in a bad way, but it’s not necessarily fireworks, but there’s something… There’s no going back and, how can I say it…? There’s no going back in a very good way, there’s no seeking, there’s none of that sort of anguish, there’s just this. I never thought I would be able to say that: there’s just this, that’s all there is. You don’t have to be happy or sad, there’s just this.
Renate: And I guess pain is just pain and anger is just anger…?
Catherine: Well, I’d rather avoid pain still [laughing].
Renate: But that’s all there is, in the moment, I guess…
Catherine: Yes. It’s still mysterious to me, Renate.
Renate: So is it an experience like living from moment to moment, or do you ever look into the future, or do you look into the past, or do you have dreams about the future or about Catherine…
Renate: I guess you have dreams otherwise you wouldn’t have taken the exam you mentioned earlier. The test you did in something.
Catherine: Oh yes, yes, I’d forgotten my words.
Renate: But you have dreams…
Catherine: Oh, those sorts of dreams! I thought you meant night-time dreams…
Renate: No, no… I meant dreams about your life.
Catherine: Not really, but that’s really interesting you could say that. Now with this exam I did, I just sort of decided to do the course and take the exam and I was just carried along. There are things I would like to do, but I guess on the whole I don’t have those sorts of dreams. I thought you were talking about night-time dreams.
Renate: No, but what about them?
Catherine: Well, that’s a point, because I used to have very interesting psychological dreams - well, they were interesting to me (my husband might tell you otherwise) - and now I seldom have those. The sort of dreams I have are very useful little dreams, like they are telling me about something happening in my life, to have a listen, or something that might happen so just to keep my ears open, but completely different to the sort of dreams I used to have. But dreams and visions of my life, no, no! No longer necessary, not needed on voyage.
Renate: So what would your husband say about you?
Catherine: Oh, oh, you’ll have to ask him, poor chap.
Renate: Why is he a poor chap?
Catherine: Oh, that’s just a joke. I think he would probably say I’m less anxious, I really am less anxious, less worried.
Renate: Were you anxious in your life?
Catherine: Not very, but I’d fuss about small things more, I think. About, for instance, catching trains. We might possibly have been late for this interview, but it didn’t worry me. At one time I would have been tapping my feet and sweating slightly. But still worry happens.
Renate: So would that be because you are more in the flow with life, or you are the flow of life?
Catherine: I wonder which of those two it is… Perhaps it’s more that there’s less getting in the way. Probably, but I’m not sure. As I said, I don’t have all the answers. It’s a great relief to be able to say that… And one thing about liberation is that I can freely say I don’t know.
Catherine: And you don’t need to know [laughing].
Renate: So however hard I try, I will never get liberated.
Catherine: Liberation might happen [laughing].
Renate: Liberation might happen!
Catherine: Yes! And seeking is fun. I mean, it’s not to belittle people who are seeking or say don’t do it, because the seeking, the seeker, the books and everything, it’s no different from anything else; it’s all part of this one thing. You can’t make a distinction and say it’s bad to seek or people are mistaken.
Renate: So, it’s like… consciousness playing with itself, consciousness developed, and I don’t know how that happened… ever happened, how the beginning was… developed… this personality, and it’s just play, it’s just a constant play between personality and consciousness. The personality has forgotten that it is consciousness, too.
Catherine: I suppose so, but I don’t even know if I could agree with that because the personality is the same as the thing that it thinks it isn’t.
And I think the word ‘play’ is interesting because you can use play in two ways. You could use it in the sort of Shakespearian sense where all the world’s a play or a stage… And I suppose you could say that some of the actors have got very immersed in their roles and they’re using the ‘method’ technique of acting and really believe their roles; and other people don’t. But you can also look at it as a play of just delight, as a play with no meaning, as children play with no meaning. It doesn’t mean it’s cruel - it’s just delightful.
Renate: Yes. I somehow get this picture now of when you said, “It’s not really visible if somebody is enlightened”. Let’s say we are all enlightened, which we are, and yet it doesn’t have any effect on the personality. The personality is still a walking nightmare.
Renate: Is there any hope for the planet?
Catherine: Well, first of all, I’m not always convinced that some of these ‘stinkers’ - we’ll call them stinkers, because that’s the word you used - I’m not necessarily convinced that liberation is there. It may or may not be. But I would say that some behaviours probably do fall away because there’s nothing to hang on to them, but… But I think we’re going back to what we think is perfect and what we think is not perfect, and it’s not really relevant in terms of this, this all that is.
Catherine: This thing that is so tiny that it’s tinier than the tiniest subatomic particle and absolutely huge and permeates everything. Who cares if a teacher sleeps with his pupils? I don’t like it personally; I think it’s tacky. But the vastness doesn’t really care because it is the vastness; it’s the vastness sleeping with itself and exploiting itself and being held up to ridicule by itself.
Renate: Yes, that is right, I can appreciate that. But on the other hand, we live in this world, and isn’t it about living in this world but not being of it? And this world has certain rules, certain moral rules, and if we don’t respect these rules, it would be in an even worse chaos than it already is.
Catherine: Well, I’ve probably said this already: personally I would certainly have morals and values and I will stick to them. So don’t think that I’m condoning what anyone else does. But you’re talking from the point of view of time and space, and in liberation it’s a different perspective, it is a perspective shift. So I can’t really answer your question.
Catherine: And I wouldn’t argue with it because, from your point of view, you’re absolutely right. But liberation is a different perspective. At least that’s the best way I can say it. And I will certainly cross over the road and save the chicken, or help people out and try and defuse an angry situation and make people feel better - certainly, absolutely. But that’s not what it’s about.
Renate: I don’t know if you know Adyashanti…
Catherine: I know the name.
Renate: You know the name. I’m much in favour of Adyashanti and what he says. I listen to his tapes and read his books, and on the last CD he was talking about the fact that there are people coming to him who tell him they are enlightened or they are liberated and there’s nobody there. They are saying there isn’t anybody there any more and he says, “Yes, OK, that’s wonderful for you. But why do you still behave like a jerk sometimes?” So that contradicts what you say, Catherine.
Catherine: Yes, it does, I know, and I’ve got no answer to it.
Renate: I have one important question. Can you tell me if there is anything I can do?
Catherine: Anything you can do? To do what?
Renate: To join you in nirvana [laughing].
Catherine: [laughing] No.
Renate: Can you send me an invitation [laughing]?
Catherine: [laughing] I wish there was. I wish there was. Well, no I don’t… There isn’t… But this is how it is, this is all there is. It’s right in front of your eyes, And that’s very irritating when someone says that… Sorry.
Renate: Yes [smiling]. So I think we have to finish…
Catherine: That’s it?
Renate: …our chat. And would you like to say something else?
Catherine: I can’t think of a single thing.
Renate: Besides it’s very ordinary [laughing].
If you’d like to read Catherine’s story, it’s in this book with some other stories of awakened people. This book is written by Sally Bongers.
Well, Catherine, thank you for this interview and thank you for coming.
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