Stephen Fulder – Awakening Arrives By Itself
Interview by Iain McNay. Conscious TV
Iain: Hello. Welcome again to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay and my guest today is Stephen Fulder. Hi Stephen.
Iain: And Renate and I are always scouring different publications, reading books, looking at things on YouTube, responding to suggestions we get every day, and to see who are the guests who are really pulling us these days.
And we both belong to an organisation called The Scientific and Medical Network, and they have a magazine called ‘Network’ that comes out every three months or so. And I always have a look through the articles and there was an article written by Stephen. And the last two lines of the article really pulled me, and I’ll read those lines to you:
That spacious, groundless sense of being needs to become part of our nature, to be familiar territory, and then awakening arrives by itself. The ultimate cannot belong to anyone, nor can there be someone who is awakened.
And I thought ‘that’s the kind of person I want to talk to on Conscious TV’. And so, here he is.
Stephen: It’s wonderful to be here, thank you, Iain, for the invitation, and for picking that up.
Iain: So you live in Israel, in a community there, and you – but you were born in England, weren’t you?
Stephen: Yes, I was born in London, in 1946, and then grew up in London and went to Oxford and became an academic after that. But, even as a child, there was something behind the scenes that I really, really wanted to discover and I think I was quite an introspective child, a dreamy child, imaginative child. I was really seeking the universe even, in a sense, as a child.
Iain: Because you read a Rudyard Kipling book that really touched you and really challenged your view of reality?
Stephen: Ah yeah, I must have been 6 or 7 years old and I remember reading this book again and again and again because, if Mowgli in ‘The Jungle Book’ thought he was a wolf, it was because his parents told him he was a wolf, namely the wolves. So, if I think I’m Stephen because my parents brought me up like that then it just happens to be like that, so there’s no real necessity for a Stephen to exist. It’s simply a combination of circumstances that convinces me that I’m Stephen. So, therefore, what is reality, other than that?
And I grew up with that sense ‘well I don’t have to be a somebody’, it just happens to be like that. The whole world happens to be like that. And I was living with that from a very young age – 6, 7 years old.
Iain: It must have been a big relief.
Stephen: I think it was. It helped me to stand against lots of different adults that took themselves very, very seriously. Including my parents that were orthodox Jews. And, in a sense, I could look at that orthodoxy from the point of view of ‘well, it just happens to be like that because that was the way they grew up and that was the conditions that created that’. And so it did give me a sense of inner freedom, where I didn’t have to buy in to sets of belief systems.
Iain: And did it confuse you at times?
Stephen: Oh yes. And it made me lonely at times.
Stephen: Because everyone seemed to believe – and they still do! I mean that’s one of the paradoxes of the spiritual life: everyone believes that they exist as a fact in the way they are and there can be nothing else.
So someone that looks behind the scenes, has a realisation that things don’t have to be like that, but can often feel lonely, a bit cut off from the, sort of, herd. The way the herd is, the herd instinct or the herd assumptions. And I felt that as a child and sometimes I feel that until today.
Iain: Mm. I think it’s especially hard for children because the peer pressure, obviously, is be like, or better than, the others, and the loner has a hard time a lot of the time.
Stephen: Yes. But the loner has a huge place, like the Buddha said, the refuge is a fundamental Buddhist statement, I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma. The truth is a refuge, it’s a place that you can lean on. W you’re running with the herd you’ve got no place to lean on, but if you rest in a deeper truth then you suddenly find yourself supported, like, held by something much bigger than yourself. And that’s always there as a bigger support, where you can really rest on something much bigger than yourself, and bigger than the herd, and bigger than the assumptions around you, and bigger than the toxic mind states that people seem to get themselves in.
Iain: Anyway, to carry the… so we just carry the story on a little bit longer… So you went to Oxford, had a pretty wild time there, and then, in 1965, you went to America, to Stanford University, for a summer vacation job. And that’s where you took LSD for the first time – when it was legal, I hasten to add – and that gave you another realisation, or a similar realisation, didn’t it?
Stephen: Yeah. It was in the same direction, the realisation, but infinitely more powerful, of course, and I just, really, landed in the forests above Palo Alto where someone lent me a house while I was there at Stanford University and there was lots of wild guys, sort of proto-hippies – it was the early stage of the hippy period – living in the forest. And I just took LSD because someone gave it to me and said, “This is a sacrament, this is a spiritual journey, would you like to go on it?” and it really was.
And what made it very strong for me is very simple: taking a minute quantity of some chemical and looking at a tree, the tree was no longer a tree, the tree was a mass of dynamic, moving colours that could not be identified as a tree any more. So what was really going on? Was it a tree? Or was it that I learned to see a tree but the reality was there is no such thing as a tree, it’s just a mass of dynamic moving energy?
So this created the same kind of question, which is ‘What is reality?’ Is it a mass of moving, dynamic, free energy or is it the things that I’ve learned to see, called ‘tree’, ‘person’, ‘Stephen’, ‘sun’, ‘moon’ and ‘stars’?
So it was part of that quest really. I see, and I saw it then, as totally sacramental, and Timothy Leary was, sort of, my guru of the time. [both laugh] And its power was, for me, very significant.
Iain: So when you say “its power”, it was the power of the realisation, the power of the reminder.
Stephen: Exactly. For 6 or 8 hours, until I was left high and dry, when the effect wore off, it was utterly, utterly powerful and convincing that the reality was not what I assumed it to be, or what human beings normally assume it to be.
There is a nice Buddhist story I just want to put in here of a magician standing at the crossroads. And he’s doing magic for all the audience. And all the audience is totally captivated and believing in all the tricks that he’s doing. But someone with curiosity, insight and a little bit of courage will go behind the stage and look and see what he’s doing and realise that the whole thing is a trick, is a construction, is false, and everyone’s taken in. But, once you see that, you can never be taken in again.
Iain: Mm hm.
Stephen: And that was, in a way, the LSD was like going behind, and so were all my other experiences. And, in a sense, until today the spiritual life is going behind the façade of so-called reality, which we might call ‘Maya’ inSanskrit, and seeing that it’s just a façade, things are not really like that. And the LSD was just doing that very strongly, very powerful.
Iain: And you also had a very adventurous quality, practically in life, because, I think, a year or two later, you travelled over land and you hitchhiked from London to Pakistan and back, went through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan… You couldn’t do that, obviously, now, but it must have been an amazing adventure when you did that.
Stephen: Yeah, yeah, it was with a few friends from Oxford and we just hitchhiked from London in this crazy 60s way, with endless adventures on the journey. And the high point, I think, for me was living in the caves at Bamian Valley, in Afghanistan, which were tragically destroyed recently.
And living in those caves, which were caves carved out of the hillside by Buddhists hundreds of years ago, and sitting on top of the Buddha, who had a flat head, and watching the Bamian Valley and really, from there, the whole of Afghanistan. And the Buddhas were so high and so majestic there above, watching the whole landscape. My height was the same height as the height of the finger, of the toe of the Buddha, I was that high. They were so huge and so dramatic. And, for me, that was the high point of the trip.
Iain: And these were the ones that were blown up a few years ago?
Stephen: That’s right, yeah, yeah.
So, you came back and, I think, you moved back to Oxford and you had an interest in plants and how they could be used in a holistic way and you started some research, didn’t you, which, I think, culminated in 14 books altogether that were published.
Stephen: Yeah. I think one of the big issues for me was, after my PhD in the National Institute of Medical Research in London, I went to India. The British Council sent me to India to be a lecturer in Indian universities, in, actually, Varanasi.
Stephen: And, in India, I really was captivated by two things. One was, I would say, spirituality in the high street. It was streetwise spirituality, which was so different from the West, but it was inherent in the culture. The same Mayathat I talked about, that there’s a greater reality that is underneath things, was daily life in the Indian street, and that was really strong for me. And, secondly, I understood how beautiful the deep cultural understanding of the holistic life, and what the Indians would call ‘sattva’, meaning a rightness of a way to live, and all the depth and sophistication of what to eat, and how to eat, and what’s good for you, and what’s right for this person, and the subtle energies of a human being, and so on. That really convinced me to use my science for the sake of alternative medicine.
So, when I came back to England, I started to write books and do research, using my science to do research on medicinal plants, on herbs... And I started a few organisations that became pretty significant – I co-founded organisations like the Research Council for Complementary Medicine in the 80s, which, I would say, were significant organisations in the founding of alternative medicine in the UK. And that was the key, the key was my experience in India.
Iain: And you also spent time in India, I remember you telling me, by the Ganges?
Iain: You were very drawn there, weren’t you?
Stephen: I was utterly drawn, in Varanasi, to the Ganges. I would sit there, by the side of the Ganges with the sadhus, who were a bunch of crazy, weird, somehow spiritual, somehow, some of them mad, some of them just old, retired folk wandering the streets of India, and some of them criminals. But they were so… it was such a revolutionary, wild, kind of, spiritual brotherhood.
So my students found it hard to find me. I was supposed to be teaching them, PhD students, in the laboratory, the biochemistry laboratory, in Banaras Hindu University. Instead, I was round by the Ganges all the time. So they used to come and try and find me. And they would say, “Come to the laboratory!” and I would say, “No, no, you come to the Ganges because this is where your real life is! Come out of the laboratory. You’re stuck with your biochemistry textbooks but here is real life by the side of the Ganges right under your nose. Here is where you become a wise person. As a scientist as well, come out here and stay with us and watch what’s going on. It will open your minds to things right underneath your nose.”
They sort of… they couldn’t completely dismiss it because I was their professor, but they couldn’t accept it either. They were, kind of, ambivalent.
Iain: And you’d go swimming, daily, in the Ganges?
Stephen: Every day in the Ganges. Yeah, I’d swim. And even, at some point, with dolphins, Gangetic dolphins, which was magical. There was a lot of magic there.
Iain: And around this time, I think, you discovered S.N. Goenka, who was a Buddhist teacher, or master, and you went to one lecture with him, or one workshop with him to start with.
Stephen: That’s right. Well, just before I left India I felt – actually, I needed a little bit more system, in all this wild spirituality, of the sadhus and of my past, I really felt I needed something that was repeatable, was systematic, was reliable. Basically, I needed practice.
So, I went to a Goenka retreat and it was really beautiful, and Goenka is an amazing teacher, Buddhist teacher, Burmese Buddhist in style, and a 10 day very, very intensive retreat. And I really found this sense of diving into inner space with the same curious, open, steady mind. Just began to open many, many doors inside. So my motivation was still curiosity, trying to see, in a way, what’s behind the magic tricks of the magician, but, here, in a very systematic way: Buddhist, controlled, timetabled, no speaking, 12 hours meditation a day, etc, etc, etc.
And then, when I came back to England, I did many, many more of these retreats, with a Burmese lady called Sayama, and she has a centre in England, and I did many, many more retreats with her. I must have done 15 retreats in that style during the 80s.
Iain: One of the things that I was reading in the notes that you gave me, I read before the interview, was that you could see that there was so much wisdom there, and also with your birth religion Judaism, you could see there was wisdom there but it’s so covered up. And it’s a real art, isn’t it, to dive down and find the base of the teaching, the real core of the teaching.
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. There’s an old aphorism that says ‘don’t practice what the religion tells you, practice what the founders of the religion tell you’. And I think that the gift of Buddhism – I would like to wipe out that word ‘Buddhism’, I said it but now I want to wipe it out and I want to replace it with another word, which is ‘Dharma’. Dharma being a deeper truth that underlies… the Buddhist inspiration, shall we say, is the deeper ultimate truth that’s underlying all that. ‘Dharma’ means ‘the way things are’, ‘the nature of things’, ‘the nature of reality’. And the way it’s been preserved in the Buddhist tradition for 2½ thousand years is extremely beautiful. If you go back to the sources, they’re as meaningful now as 2½ thousand years ago. Because the teaching of the Buddha, basically going back to that authority, is very pure, is very practical, and is not covered in the layers, the layers came after that, of the monks and so on.
And the same with the Jewish teaching, by the way. The problem with the Jewish teaching is it’s very hard to unpick the deepest sources. You have to go right back to reading ‘The Song of Songs’ or ‘The Book of Job’ or ‘The Book of Jonah’ or ‘The Wisdom Books’, which are also 2½ thousand years ago, to find that same source inside Judaism. And it’s almost impossible today, in Jewish life, to really unpick all of that, it’s just too much. And the same, in a way, Buddhism is just too much.
So, really, the blessing is, that in the Western World, pioneers, maybe including myself in a way, have drawn out that teaching and made it available to the Western World and renewed Buddhist teaching to become a, kind of, a Western Buddhism, which is very, very true to the original words of the Buddha. And that’s a real renewal and makes it available and easy for people, whoever they are and whatever culture they are in the West, to actually tap into this. It’s user-friendly, basically.
Iain: How did you find you started to change when you started to do these retreats? Because you did a lot with Sayama herself and then you went off with other teachers, expanded your knowledge there and saw what else was there.
Iain: But what was actually – because you’re an interesting case in one way, because you had this realisation when you were very young, it was confirmed, expanded by the LSD experience. So you, kind of, in a way, you knew reality somehow, much more than most people. You had a basis of who you really were. So how was this teaching – was it refining your personality, was it furthering your deeper realisations? What was actually happening in terms of that?
Stephen: Mm. That’s an interesting question.
When I moved out from the Goenka tradition, largely through teachers like Christopher Titmuss and Stephen Batchelor, and so on, it was, to some extent, a breath of fresh air because the Goenka tradition is very technical and systematic.
In the Goenka practice, it was largely a process of purification. That means unpeeling or unpacking disturbance that was hiding that original understanding that I had from my childhood and after that of things not being quite as they seem to be.
Iain: Can we say – we would normally say the disturbances, the effects society has had on us, our conditioning and such…
Iain: … our personality conditioning. Is it the same?
Stephen: Yes, I would say that’s conditioning, but also on a very deep level. For example, when you hear a sound your immediate association is ‘that’s a plane going over’. It happens so fast and so quickly. But the meditation, including the Goenka meditation, allows one to just see it as hearing, to give you a certain freedom, you don’t have to immediately automatically interpret it as an aeroplane, give it a label and be stuck in ‘me and the plane’. And then of course other thoughts ‘oh, it’s disturbing noise’, ‘I wish it would leave me alone’…
So that’s what I call archaeology. Undoing not only social conditioning but undoing the basic fundamental mental neural networks that fix life and give it a certain fixation, and shape, and definition.
Stephen: And, when that happens, then underlying freedom can just appear because the stamp you put automatically on everything is, kind of loosened, is looser. So we hear sounds, it’s just sound, doesn’t mean it needs to disturb you. It can be the most difficult sound, doesn’t need to disturb anything, it’s just sound arriving and there’s a sense of inner space that is receiving that sound, as it is, and nothing’s disturbing anything. Who is being disturbed? There’s no need for it to be defined as disturbance.
And the same with everything in life. Your most difficult patterns, or conditioning reactions, or the buttons that people press on, you know, when they annoy you. All that, kind of, dissolves because it doesn’t carry the same automatic reactivity. There is instead a sense of freedom in which these things arise and pass away by themselves, and they don’t disturb an underlying sense of spacious awareness.
And that, to me, is the path, which began with Goenka but then extended out into a much bigger Dharma teaching, which is around this issue, of course. And more or less what the Buddha was saying was that if you’re not caught up, attached – attachment is the number one issue in Buddhism, in Dharma, shall we say. If you’re not attached to an automatic interpretation of the world, to believing your conditioning, to believing who you seem to be – to believing the magician and his magic tricks. If you’re not attached to that then awakening happens by itself. The third Noble Truth of the Buddha is ‘Awakening appears when attachment is dissolved’. It’s not that you chase after awakening, it’s that you just don’t disturb it.
Iain: Mm hm. Was this a smooth process for you? Because, for many people, there’s a difficulty in this letting go. You know, you calling it ‘peeling’ but then, because you… you start to realise that you’re not so sure about who you really are and that can be, can bring up all kinds of things for people.
Stephen: I think it needs… this is where we need to be skilled, we need to be stable, we need to have our feet on the ground. Spiritual journey is for people, basically, that can have clarity about ‘one step in front of another’. It is not instead of some other wild trip. It does need stability inside, it does need a sense of trust and confidence, it does need a teacher and a teaching that is encompassing, that will help you to deal with the difficulties that come up.
For me, of course, there were challenges and, shall we say, ‘dark night of the soul’ that I had to go through and, obviously, there were periods when I was struggling with a sense of being lost or, indeed, pain of ‘who am I really?’ And pain that I felt from others, that I felt overwhelming and submerged, under the pain of others, through empathy and compassion, bit overwhelming sometimes.
But that’s where, I think, until today I really believe in the power of a full teaching, which, for me, the Dharma still represents. That it can really hold you, in all these different situations, and guide you on the path, which is full of rocks, and full of precipices, and full of places that you stumble, and full of beautiful gardens, and beautiful fountains and pools. But the teaching needs to guide you through. So I really appreciate the Dharma as a, sort of, very complete teaching that will help you in all different situations that you might come up with in the spiritual journey.
I’m not very happy with a, kind of, instant, New Age version of spirituality because it can leave you high and dry, it can leave you stuck with your suffering and you don’t even know that you’ve got it. It can lead you on all sorts of by-ways, it can lead you into belief systems, which is not the reality and not the spiritual world, it’s just another lot of belief that sound very nice.
So, I really trust the Dharma here because it’s such a full teaching system that guides you, so reliably, into a deeper reality.
Iain: But we all have to find our own way, don’t we?
Stephen: Er, yeah. We have to find our own way and there’s a lot of accident in that, and a lot of karma, if you like to use the word, that a certain person with a certain teacher, and all that’s fine… But, nevertheless, I think you have to keep your eyes really open. Find your own way but be careful. Keep your eyes open. Don’t settle for second rate teachings, don’t settle for, sort of, puffed up gurus. [both laugh] Don’t settle for promises.
Iain: It was interesting when we were having a little lunch beforehand… you mentioned that, on Conscious TV, we had quite a few advaita teachers, and that tends to be the early days of Conscious TV, when Renate and I were really exploring that. Because Conscious TV has, very much, been our own journey and it’s been very exciting, at times, to look at different areas of teaching, and meet different people with different ways.
Iain: And, you know, in a way you’re touching on this point already that, sometimes, with the advaita way it can seem that it’s almost a jump to a place and you have a realisation, and, suddenly, you realise that’s the way things are and everything is hunkydory. But, of course, it isn’t always like that, is it?
Stephen: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I have such a deep love for advaita teachers. I’ve been reading Krishnamurti – I actually translated talks of Krishnamurti into Hebrew and, with help, into Arabic, first time. Many years ago. And had them distributed in Israel and in Jordan. So I really love Krishnamurti teaching. I was actually one year in the Krishnamurti Centre in Varanasi, as a teacher, in the school there and in the Krishnamurti Centre. And I love Nisargadatta Maharaj, I read him every day: ‘I Am That’. And so, great love for advaita teachers.
However, I think you have to be careful and that means if someone, in satsang, tells you “You are the ultimate” and “Your suffering is illusory” and “Your real self is atman and totality”, there’s not that many people who can really take just that, as a statement, and run with it. For many, many people it can leave them high and dry, it can sometimes leave them worse off because they don’t legitimise their pain then. The genuine suffering of life isn’t touched. The genuine experience, the lived experience isn’t touched and, instead of that, you’ve got a nice, pink cloudy layer, kind of, covering life. And we have to be careful of that.
And that’s why I keep going back into the Dharma, because the Buddhist teaching goes all the way to the same place as advaita, it isn’t different from the advaita, but it also tells you “where you stand, that’s where you start”. And with many people they need to start, like I did, with Goenka, or with a system, or with “OK, sit down, shut up, meditate, watch your breath and look at your limitations, look at who you are”. Not to cover it with a, kind of, belief that ‘I am god’ already.
And so we have to be very careful. And I really trust a full system that is both step-by-step and offering ultimate realization.
The Buddha was talking advaita, as well, pure advaita. He was saying, for example, “How do you recognise an awakened person? You recognise an awakened person because you can’t find them”. [both laugh] How is it you can’t find them? Because no language fits any more, no descriptions are possible any more. I mean, he went right to the end, right to that same place, but also offered step-by-step, according to the person that he talked to, the person sitting in front of him. And that’s the way, I think, teaching’s really effective: to see the person, where they are and who they are, and, from that place, you know where to go with the teaching.
Iain: Yeah, there’s a quote, which I really like, which I pulled again out of your notes “teaching happens when people mirror or reflect back to you something you said or did and, at some point, the word ‘teacher’ becomes irrelevant”.
Iain: It’s like, I take that in my language as a, kind of, it’s the connection that’s one of the most important things.
Stephen: Yeah it is. It’s the connection, it’s the flow, and it is something subtle in that, there’s something between the lines in which, you could say almost, at this moment when you and me are sitting here there can bethe audience watching us together, the words are heard, the speech is heard, words are given, but there’s an awful lot between the lines. And between the lines there is some kind of agreement or understanding, or a trust, or a longing for something bigger. And that’s like a vessel that’s holding this conversation. It may be subtle, it may be unconscious, but it’s holding this conversation, it’s giving it its context.
And I think that’s what teaching is, there’s the context, which is kind of invisible, and then there’s the language and the words, that are trying to say something useful, not always succeeding. And the two together is where teaching happens.
So mirroring is really saying, “Yeah, how do you see this moment? How are you in this moment, right now? Who are you in this moment, right now? Let’s have a look at that”. And that’s a moment of teaching.
Iain: And also, for you, meditation is fundamental – again I read you’d done 20,000 hours of meditation, that’s a lot of meditation. And through that – it requires discipline and, I think, a lot of times people have difficulty with the discipline that’s needed to do that but there’s big rewards, isn’t there?
Stephen: Yeah, there is. Meditation’s very, very important because as Einstein said, “You can’t solve problems with the same mind that created them”. You need another mind to be able to look at your life and be able to open doors that are hidden, to be able to see the ocean and not just, kind of, the ocean packed into bottles, which, you can say, is our ordinary assumptions about life. To see the ocean, and to feel the sources of your life, you need another way of knowing. Meditation is diving into the ocean. All sorts of strange fish and new fish are seen there, so it’s a very interesting process, it’s not boring, it’s not tiring, it’s… Once you overcome an initial motivation – you need some staying power at the beginning – but then it becomes interesting, it becomes the most interesting thing you can do, so it feeds itself.
But it’s very important because it touches another way of using our consciousness, rather than the way we’re trained to use it by our parents and our schools and our society and so on, which is functional. This is non-functional, this is a sense of existential way of using our consciousness, instead of functional, and that needs effort, a bit, intention, and persistence. But, as I say, although that’s difficult at the beginning for some people, it feeds itself because it’s just the nicest thing you can do. It’s just stopping and it’s so beautiful to stop and to look, and just to stand and to look and say, “the whole of life is here right at this minute, nothing is missing. It’s quiet, it’s present, it’s soft, it’s loving, that’s the moment”. And when you, kind of, touch that place, “aahh” [relaxes], and then you want to do more of it.
So, to people who are watching this, I would say: Trust the process, trust a good path, and keep touching that place, without too much pressure to get it right, or to have certain experiences, or you have to do it because it’s good for you. It’s not functional, like in the Western world we’re busy trying to… it’s not coaching, it’s not functional, it is just dropping into a place of rest, of deep rest and deep knowing, just being, which is our birthright, actually, it’s where we come from. So, it’s a place of rest and, if you can see it like that, and enjoy it like that, it gets much, much easier.
And, yeah, I’ve done… I’ve no idea how many hours. For a research project they asked me so I tried to calculate and it was more or less 20,000 hours, I think, but…
Iain: We’ll come onto the research in a minute but I wanted just to first touch on – there’s so much to cover in your life that it’s really just a very potted history…
Stephen: Sure, sure.
Iain: … and people have to explore you more, and maybe spend time with you if they want to learn more.
But one of the things that touched me was you have your own community, which you helped form in Israel. There are 500 people living there. And one of the things that you and your teachers do there, is you have reconciliation between Palestinians and Jewish people, Jewish kids. And I think that is so important. And I just remember that… Renate and I we went to, a few years ago, when I was researching for an interview, we went to a meeting at the London Jewish Centre. And, actually, it was a lecture by Jo Berry and Pat McGee – Pat McGee was formerly an IRA terrorist, and Jo Berry was the daughter of someone he killed. He blew up a hotel in Brighton, which killed 5 people, and her father was killed. And they now do reconciliation courses and meetings. And, it was really interesting, and that evening at the London Jewish Centre there was a live satellite link to both a Palestinian community and an Israeli community. And I didn’t realise, and it’s so obvious really, there was no contacts between these two communities. So the Palestinian kids hated the Israeli kids, and vice versa. But the kids didn’t know each other. And, it seems, what you’re doing is you’re bringing them together.
Iain: I know I’m talking, maybe, a bit too much here but I want to get this in because, for me, it’s touching and very important. You say you never forget what one young Palestinian boy said after a workshop, in which he’d found himself in dialogue with young Israelis, who were also soldiers: “Only I now understand that there is also goodness in the human heart.”
Such a depth in that statement.
Stephen: It’s so beautiful.
I’ve been involved, really, for the last 20 years in projects to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. And part of it is just the way we live, and that’s the village that I live in, where Arab kids and Jewish kids are around. But a lot of the actual projects that I’ve been involved with, and I’ve started a couple of charities that are based on Dharma, that use Dharma tools to try and make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A lot of those meetings were dialogue meetings with Israelis and Palestinians, who, otherwise, would never meet each other. We’re bringing them together and doing a number of different programmes, either dialogues, or peace walks. We also started a holistic clinic for Palestinians – Israeli doctors and therapists coming to treat Palestinians who didn’t have any medical help.
So we did a number of these projects and it’s so possible, and actually almost easy. Once you bring these people together, as people, they say, “Well, how is it that we never managed to talk before?” But, it has to have the will to do that and 99% of the Israelis and Palestinians don’t know how to do that and are not ready to do that. So we’re talking about those Israelis that are willing to meet Palestinians, Palestinians ready to meet Israelis. And then peacemaking is actually possible, easy even.
They’re living in the same piece of land, they’re eating the same food. You hardly know when you’ve passed from one… from Palestinian to Israeli areas, they’re all mixed up. It’s crazy that it’s in the mind. The Israelis are enemies, the Palestinians are enemies. Stories in the mind. And the Dharma, by the way, works very well with stories in the mind. So we were able to use mindfulness, and various other techniques based on the Dharma, to try and heal the mental structures that are the real enemy. Neither of them are enemies to each other, it’s mental conditionings, the structures. And the other-ing that is the real enemy.
And so we’re doing a lot of work and this quote is one result. We have brought hundreds and hundreds, thousands maybe, of Israelis and Palestinians together. But it’s a drop in the ocean, peace still isn’t there. We did what we can. But I believe in… it’s a little bit like, you know, in a gas burner, you sometimes have a small pilot light. And you have to keep that pilot light going. And then, when the hot water turns on, the pilot light lights the big fire. So the peace work we’re doing is like keeping a small flame going, and when the time is right, or the karma is right, I believe it will light the big fire and peace will be possible.
Stephen: At the moment, it doesn’t look very promising.
Iain: Well you say, again to quote from your notes, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way”.
Iain: And that has to have the right conditions, I guess.
Stephen: Yeah. You just have to keep going with it. And, by the way, not to be too busy measuring outcomes. And I think Dharma teachings are very important in that respect. You’re not in control, all you can do is offer what you can. There’s a word in Pali called ‘dana’, dana is generosity. So your life is dana. You are given your life as dana, you didn’t ask to be born, you were given your body, dumped into this world ‘here’s your body, go and make the best of it’. That’s dana. And so, in a way, your life is giving, is based on generosity, and your actions are based on generosity. So, with that spirit, all you can do is give your life to what’s needed and then the rest is not up to you.
We’ve got about 10 minutes left and I’d like to cover the research that was originally the catalyst for me inviting you.
Iain: So it’s best if I leave that to you, rather than interfere too much, so… I just found it very helpful in terms of… you did crystalise it all down to three basic parts, if you like, or conditions. So if you want to talk us through that.
The spiritual experience is an experience of limitlessness, of course. It’s an experience that knows no boundaries – like I mentioned unfindability. A realised person is unfindable, he can’t be pinned down, the same with an experience. The spiritual experience is one of infinite connectivity and being. To describe that, to research that, is really, really difficult. What language do you use and what kind of structures do you use?
So I’ve been connecting with a few scientists – I’m a scientist, originally, myself so I’m quite, you know, supportive of that – and we decided to have a look at the experience of ‘non-self’. Namely, what is it like and what is the exact experience of not having boundaries called ‘I am here and I’m the subject of my experience, it’s all happening to me and all happening here within this body-mind and the world out there’. That duality, exploring what that is, and then exploring the spiritual experience of non-duality, meaning no boundaries, no self, the world and me are one, the universe and me are together, and the limitlessness of that.
So we worked on the idea of how to do that. And we decided that the best way of approaching it is to explore boundaries. And so I worked with scientists on developing ways of describing the indescribable, but giving it some sort of parameters, based on boundary and border.
So what happened was that I was asked, as the subject, as the ‘guinea pig’, to meditate inside the boundary of the body-mind and the self, expanding the boundaries of the body-mind and the self, the second stage, and then limitlessness, no body-mind and no self in the third stage. And to do this voluntarily at the request of the researcher. And then, while in those three stages, to answer questions on the details of the experience.
So it’s, basically, the details were, more or less, like this:
in the choosing to be within the boundary of the body-mind self, there is an experience of me as the centre, there is an experience of me as the controller, I am the agent, meaning if I decide to do something, to move my hand, it’s me moving the hand, there is agency and there is physicality, and some definitions: here’s my leg, here’s my hand. All of that is in this first stage.
Iain: Is this how most of us live most of the time?
Stephen: second stage is where things are more boundless and there is a sense of spaciousness. And this is, for many, many people this is a great relief, this is an intermediate stage, if you like. Where the boundaries are not so clear, I’m not so full of my self, the self is much lighter, the subject-object is not so tight, as a duality. The flowers are there and I am here and I am looking at the flowers and defining them as flowers, and I define myself as a Stephen watching flowers. That duality is softer, is more open. And there’s a sense of spaciousness, the boundaries are not so obvious and so clear. The legs are not sure where they are, the hands, you’re not quite sure where they are, and the agency is not so clear, namely ‘who is doing this action?’ well it’s, kind of, ‘the hand is doing it’. It’s not ‘me moving my hand’, it’s ‘the hand is moving’. And thoughts are moving across the mind, they’re still thoughts but they’re moving and they’re rather spacious. So all that sense of spaciousness is a bit like being under the ocean. And that was second stage. Third stage is limitless, where you really don’t have a sense of boundary at all and that’s a limitless stage, and maybe that does need some thousands of hours of meditation practice. And the world and you are basically dissolved one into another.
Iain: But you also, didn’t you have that with your LSD experience? Also when you were a child, to some extent?
Stephen: Yeah, but that was very, very quickly went back to zero again.
Iain: You had a taste of it, didn’t you?
Stephen: The taste of is was there but this is voluntary, this is intentional.
Stephen: An intentional sense of dissolving into the universe, it’s an intentional act. The researcher said, “OK, now be in stage three”. And ‘whoop!’
Stephen: There, it happened. The universe and yourself are just one. It’s like the universe is looking out of your eyes, at itself. There isn’t anything else other than the universe looking out of your eyes at itself. Basically, you are not there as a separate being but there is only beingness. And that’s when the boundary’s dissolved. In that same space, I was able to give a description, and I don’t know how that happened. The words seemed to come out by themselves, without a controller and without a, kind of, a boss. And agency… things happened by themselves. Moving the hand was because the hand moved, it was happening by itself. In that spaciousness of… limitlessness, things happen by themselves; there’s no person saying what should happen or controlling anything.
Iain: But just, again, looking at the notes from the article, you do say in that stage, “There is still a witnessing happening and that witnessing is what’s left of me”.
Stephen: That’s right. That’s the delicate leftover of the self and even that does disappear sometimes and there is no witness. The witnessing is what’s left over, yes. And you could say that’s a knowing quality. And the Buddha talked a lot about this. I mean, even knowing… you use the word ‘consciousness’, even the word ‘consciousness’ when you use it and try and understand it, you’re back, in a sense, into a world where something exists called consciousness.
Stephen: So I think this, sort of, spiritual life is not really in the world of definitions at all because it’s much more in the world of beingness, totality, where it’s really hard even to say what is witness and what is consciousness. It’s just not easy to give it any label at all. It’s almost like you don’t know if it exists anything separate from the universe.
Anyway, that was the research and I’m very happy that it happened, and it was published in a proper academic, psychology consciousness journal. And then I wrote a, sort of, brief summary of it, which is the one you picked up.
Iain: And you can find it online, because I found the whole thing online somewhere.
Stephen: Yeah, you can.
Iain: If you tinker around enough with your name and…
Stephen: It’s on my website also, of course.
Iain: That’s right. I found it there.
Stephen: Yeah, yeah.
Iain: Unfortunately, our allotted time in the finite world is… we’ve got about a minute left. Do you want to say anything in the last minute?
Stephen: Yeah, um, it’s… We really need to acknowledge that things are much bigger than they appear to be and it just, basically, saves our life. Our life is painful and a struggle and it doesn’t need to be. And if we just allow that sense of something unlimited behind… and we just experience it, not just believe it but experience it, even a little bit, even 1% of that, that relief empowers our whole life, our life is changed through that. So I really would just invite everybody watching this programme to trust that little 1%, little window, to open a small window, and let in the breath of fresh air of something unlimited, which is part of us, not somewhere else. It’s part of us, it’s in our nature. Just open a small window and have a look.
Iain: Thank you.
Thank you, Stephen, for coming onto Conscious TV.
For those of you watching on the Internet, Stephen will now do a short 10 minute or so meditation, which you can watch if you’re interested.
And thank you, again, Stephen, for coming along.
Stephen: OK. Iain, it’s wonderful, thank you for inviting me.
Iain: Thank you.
Stephen Fulder – Meditation
So, I am Stephen Fulder and I would like to offer a short meditation for Conscious TV, and I’d like to invite all of you to share with me this period of about 10 minutes when we’re going to practice together.
We can start by paying a little bit of attention to the way we’re sitting. Posture should be primarily relaxed and easy and soft. But, at the same time, feeling a sense of steadiness. So, if we’re sitting in a chair you might like to have your two feet balanced onto the ground and a strong sense of the support from the ground. If you’re sitting on the floor sit on a cushion, with as much contact with the ground as possible. And at the same time a little bit of a sense of openness in the body to allow the breath and the energy to flow freely and not be collapsed or hunched up. A sense of open flow in the body. And we might like to close our eyes, just to limit the input, the amount of stimulation that we’re receiving.
And, immediately, get a sense of arriving. We connect with what’s really happening right now. We arrive into this moment, leaving behind everything that was. There is the body; there are sounds, maybe, outside; there is the touch of the hands; there is, maybe, a few thoughts passing by in the mind; but all of that is known and experienced in the now, and that’s our home. So this sense of coming home into this moment. And relax and feel that journey: coming home into this moment. A place of ease, where nothing needs to be done, and nothing needs to be changed, and nothing needs to be fixed, and there’s nowhere to go, and nothing missing.
And we can benefit from having a gentle focus on part of our experience, as if we’re picking up the beauty of a lotus in the pond. So the lotus, perhaps, can be our body and our breath. And so just allow the body and the breath to be in the forefront of our attention. The breath arriving and leaving, the rising and falling of the stomach, and the sense of bodily life flowing through our legs, arms, our tissues, our cells. Alive, vital, peaceful.
When thoughts arise, they don’t need to disturb us. They can be like small waves in the ocean, they can be in background, that pass by. And we may notice them coming up, presenting us with a picture, changing and passing by. They’re not a problem, they’re also part of our lived experience. Just let them do what they need to do, the thoughts. Let them come and let them go.
And keep giving a gentle priority to the breath and body. Rising and falling of the abdomen, the touch of the hands, the weight of the body sitting on the cushion or chair. And, behind it all, a sense of being, present, here, awake.
We can feel, perhaps, at this moment a sense of softness with ourselves, a sense of kindness. That we are, through meditating, through being present with ourselves, it’s an act of kindness. A present that we give.
As we are experiencing the breath and experiencing the body, we can go a little deeper. Try and get close to the experience. How is the breath now? How are we with our body and bodily life? And how are we as the witness of this? A gentle sense of knowing, or knowingness. We know the breath, we know the body. That standing behind a quality of awareness, just give it some space. There is awareness that is knowing the body, is knowing the breath.
And we can invite a small insight. That this awareness, that this experience that we are experiencing right now, doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s just itself. Bodily life is flowing through the body, the breath is coming and going, the knowing of it exists, it’s just happening by itself. We are less in charge. It’s a place of relaxation, of ease. It’s just happening, this life flowing through us. Just rest in that place.
And then we can take a deep breath, and then intentional breath, and another deep intentional breath. And open the eyes gently. And, before we come back into ordinary life, just take a moment to reflect, to ourselves, what it is we learnt in this meditation. What it is that we might have realised. What is new for us, or interesting for us, in this experience.
And thank you.
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