Shawn Nevins – The Way Of Subtraction
an interview with Iain Mcnay
Iain: Hello and welcome once again to Conscious TV. My name is Iain McNay and my guest today is Shawn Nevins. Hi Shawn.
Shawn: Hi Iain.
Iain: Shawn was recommended by Ted Hughes who we had as a guest about three or four years ago, who Renata interviewed who he really liked. Shawn is over from America and he wrote a book called ‘Subtraction, the simple math of Enlightenment’, which is great because it’s a lot his story, and all the wisdom that came out of the story. It has a happy ending, I always like books with happy endings. Shawn is a faceted, multi- talented person in that he’s also made two films, ‘Closer and Close, A portrait of finding our true self’, which is interviewing some teachers some of whom we have interviewed on Conscious TV over the years. Also ‘Meetings with remarkable women’ which is really remarkable women who have had significant openings and found a level of who they really are. He has many hobbies. He’s interested in caving, and has written an e book, which I’ve looked at online, called ‘Adventures in Caving, Kentucky and Indiana’. He’s written a book of poetry with Bob Ferguson doing the images called ‘The Images of Essence’ and has also written a book which I meant to bring with me which I couldn’t find called ‘The Celibate Seeker’. So, we’re going to explore Shawn’s life and afterwards we’re going to do a separate programme in which he has some hints and aids for preparation for a spiritual life. So, Shawn when you were younger than you are today you weren’t a very happy chap, because your book starts when you were living in Kentucky, university there, eighteen years old, and you were pretty miserable weren’t you?
Shawn: I was. It was my first time of being away from home going off to school. I was a very shy person so, being thrown into a new environment and making new friends was very difficult for me. Also, just the usual problems, what am I going to do with my life? Being a freshman in college I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do.
Iain: So how did things evolve. You went to some meetings I think, you started to explore reading different books, how did things move on from there?
Shawn: Really those four years of being an under-grad at university, I had a lot of angst to my freshman year. The next year in school I threw myself into academics basically and decided, right this is what I want to do, the life I wanted to build for myself. I want to become a university professor, and do research someday, have a little house out in the country. I had this image in my mind of what I’d settled on and threw myself wholeheartedly into that. My social awkwardness, these larger questions like what the purpose of life is really, those things faded away, and I just focused on that goal. It wasn’t until I left Kentucky and went to North Carolina State University, went to graduate school, the next step to become a professor, that again those questions arose. I found that being a graduate student and doing research isn’t quite what I thought it would be. It was an eye- opening experience for me and I once again began to question what am I doing? Why am I doing this? I met a girl, which I don’t know about you but that’s like a recipe for disaster. I threw all my hopes onto this person, she is going to be one of the reasons for my life and that very quickly didn’t work out. So, school didn’t work out, the relationship didn’t work out. It really put me in a space that I didn’t know what to do. I was literally walking the campus one afternoon, just depressed and uncertain about my future when I saw a poster that said, ‘What is enlightenment’? It was a talk by Richard Rose. I had no idea who this guy was, or what enlightenment was. I just thought maybe there is something to this, I’m going to check this out. That led me to hearing him. Listening to him talk, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I literally felt he was talking to me, during the talk that he gave. He was trying to tell me something and it was important. I signed my name on the mailing list for that group and started going to meeting and learning more about philosophy and Richard Rose.
Iain: The Richard Rose I’ve heard of and seen a couple of his books, of course he died a few years ago. He was quite a significant teacher on a certain level in America on the spiritual scene so to speak.
Shawn: Yes, he really rose up in the early seventies in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, sort of the Eastern Seaboard, Eastern part of the country. Eventually they had a group out in L.A. He was pre- internet obviously so, he relatively known in the seventies, and then kind of faded away in the eighties. There was a bit of resurgence in the nineties thanks to August Turak, who was one of his students. He started a self- help group called the Knowledge Symposium in North Carolina. I remember Richard Rose said one time “all you people coming up from Raleigh, you’re the last wave”. It’s a rather small wave at that, a dozen to fifteen people, that was the last wave of his students of his.
Iain: You called him August…
Shawn: Yes, some people called him Aug or Auggie.
Iain: You were going to his groups, and he was recommending books for you to read. It was feeding something in you.
Shawn: Definitely. Auggie is a very dynamic individual. He’s very successful in business and he took a lot of his experiences in the corporate world and weave stories of what a person could be if they really threw themselves into whatever endeavour they chose to throw themselves into. I didn’t know about character development, self-improvement or any of these things. Auggie introduced me to… if you apply energy to changing yourself, developing yourself, improving yourself, focusing yourself, you can achieve a lot. He just happened to point that achievement energy towards enlightenment, towards Richard Rose.
Iain: Yes, I think sometimes these things are sometime separated when they shouldn’t be. Personal development is really important to find your potential, because helping to find your potential is as you’ve found out is helping to focus if you’re interested in the spiritual path, then you start to utilise what you find on the spiritual path, rather than floating from one thing to another and not really having a drive to take it where it could go.
Shawn: Absolutely, even though Rose was the enlightened teacher he used to talk about the first steps for a person is having the discipline to literally walk around the block. If you can’t do anything else, just get yourself out of the door and decide I am going to walk around the block every day at a particular time and that’s the beginning of making yourself into someone who can decide to take action and follow through with it.
Iain: I know one of the books on the reading list was by Ouspensky, ‘The psychology of man’s possible evolution’ and that I know had an effect on you. When I read what you wrote about it, it had an effect on me as well. It has a diagram in your book, which I got Renata to draw bigger, so we could show it on camera. That’s the diagram (shows diagram) which wouldn’t necessarily mean a lot until Shawn explains what is behind that diagram.
Shawn: When I first saw that diagram and read that little paragraph by Ouspensky, he was talking about the multiplicity of I’s within the self, how we weren’t actually a unified being. It was the first time I’d ever come across that idea, and it was instantly recognisable. Any time I had a debate with myself, Ouspensky was framing that debate as one I, and then another I. There’s all desires, fears, and wants. The diagram shows thirty or forty I’s that are within us.
Iain: So, you’ve got one thought or feeling there, another thought or feeling there and nothing central is holding them together. That for me is the fascinating bit, because I know as well for myself, all these bits going on. Of course, we feel that there is something at the centre of it but what Ouspensky was saying is that there is nothing at the centre of it, and that’s the rather startling thing. We’re just held together by all these different bits, different sides of our character, personality.
Shawn: Yes, at the time I understood one level of what he was saying, but not ultimately what he was pointing to.
Iain: He says, just to quote him from your book “Each of these I’s represents at any given moment a very small part of our brain, mind, or intelligence. Man must know what he has, and what he has not”. That was the start of unfolding for you, to find out “what you have not”, so what in effect is not you.
Shawn: Yes, the title of the book, subtraction. In retrospect I could see how my way was a subtractive way.
Iain: It’s about letting go, or allowing things to fall away, seeing what was left underneath.
Shawn: Yes, which comes from Richard Rose’s idea of backing away from untruths. We shouldn’t speculate, oh I read enlightenment is like this, once I’m enlightened I will be this way, be peaceful, happy, or I’ll feel at one with the world. That’s all just speculation. The only way to work one’s way towards something unimaginable and inconceivable, is to back away from what is obviously not true.
Iain: What were the kind of things to start with that you found were obviously not true? Just give some examples.
Shawn: Well it began at a very simple level for example, I can describe to you what I looked like back in those days. I wore a trench coat, boots, and had long hair down to my shoulders. I wore lots of jewellery and had this image I had created for myself that I am going to present to the world. I’m this kind of person. I want you to think of me as kind of a tough guy, but he’s cool. A complete fantasy. I had actually no idea what I looked like to other people. I probably looked completely ridiculous, but I thought I was walking around presenting a strong story, picture to the world. I began to see that at a very basic level that, that was not me. I created that and decided to present it to the world. So, I got my hair cut and shaved, just wore regular clothes and shed a lot of posturing that I was presenting to the world. A lot of energy that was going into that posturing was freed up. I was lifting weights to try and build up big muscles so that I would look impressive and all the girls would fall in love with me. I mentioned in the book have you ever seen a body builder posing? They flex all their muscles and the strain of holding that pose is incredibly difficult. I felt like I had released a pose that I had been holding. That was the beginning for me of backing away from an untruth.
Iain: You visited Richard Rose on the farmhouse where he lived, quite a few hours drive from where you lived, and you ended up staying there, and having all kinds of adventures that didn’t always pan out for the best.
Shawn: Yes (laughing).
Iain: One disaster after another really (laughing).
Shawn: If you were to imagine what a spiritual search looked like, that’s not what you would imagine would be.
Iain: Let’s run through some examples. I think one of the first things you did was have a fast for a week, you didn’t eat for a week.
Shawn: We did. I wound up leaving graduate school two years in, because a group of people from the self- knowledge symposium were going to spend the summer on Rose’s farm. I thought, wow, all my friends are going to go up there I’m going to miss out, but I have to stay here and do research for my thesis. I had this tremendous debate, do I stay, or do I go? My father actually passed away that spring and when he passed away it really put into perspective a lot of the hedging I’d been doing, playing it safe. I’ll get my degree and then I’ll look into the spiritual stuff, see what this enlightenment is all about. But, I’ll have my degree in my back pocket in case things don’t work out. So, when he passed away I came back from the funeral and quit, spent the summer at the farm, and did the week long fast. I thought that the week- long fast how we separated who were the serious spiritual students and those who were just playing at this. At the end whoever was left Rose would hand enlightenment to them and that would be it. The fast was a week of misery, despair, and literally laying on a couch in a little cabin with not enough energy to read a book or meditate or anything. Just waiting for the last day of the fast.
Iain: The day after the fast you’d had your meal did you feel you’d got anything from it at all?
Shawn: That’s a great question because… I think this is a kind of theme, because all these disasters, although at the time they seemed like disasters, really each thing that happened, something of value came from it. There really was. The fast, that was the first time I was so tired, so exhausted that it was the first time I saw a thought appear, completely on its own, seemingly separate from myself. I had the distinct thought that if I keep doing this fast, I’m going to die. Then the thought appeared, you’re going to keep doing it. It wasn’t a decision that I made, it just appeared. That was profound to see that and really changed my perspective on thought. It was like a clue.
Iain: So, you were the viewer, the watcher, or the observer watching the thought arise, take form and then disappear.
Shawn: Even though I saw that, that didn’t instantly change my relationship to thought. It was like a glimpse of what goes on. Even after the fast was over I still went back to making decisions in a very laborious way thinking over them, but I had the memory of I saw something about thought and that’s puzzling and interesting. There’s probably something worth exploring there.
Iain: You had work periods. You were working on the farm, a lot of physical work which was probably good for you because it kept you quite grounded. Was it at this point you really decided to commit to staying the long term there? Because you were due to go back at one point I think, to Raleigh where you were living but made the commitment to stay at the farm. Other people left, you said no, I’m staying here.
Shawn: Yes, commitment is a funny thing. When that summer was over I went back to Raleigh and got a job, since I was done with school. Nine months or so later I realised I wanted to be around Richard Rose as much as possible because he had this thing, enlightenment and that was what I wanted to go after.
Iain: How did you know he had this thing, enlightenment?
Shawn: From the very first time I saw him, I thought there is something about this guy that is unique. Rose had an ability, a phenomenon around him, that people referred to as rapport, which I think we all experience to some degree with one another. We use the word rapport. You and I can have a rapport. We feel like we know what the other person’s thinking almost, where this conversation’s going, there’s a Sympatico between us. Rose would have rapport sittings where people would gather and sit quietly and a mood, if you will, would descend in the room. An electricity would sometimes arise and affect people differently. Some people would almost… some people would literally sit there and go why is everyone so quiet? It just didn’t have any effect on them. Other people would feel like the heavens were about to open.
Iain: How did the electricity affect you?
Shawn: The effect on me in that experience was that… I remember what the words were, “he knows”. Those words formed in my mind, he knows. Have you ever had that feeling when you know something is true, your whole body, it’s almost like a vibration, like electricity, it’s like your whole body lights up. There’s something important here. That’s what happened when it got quiet, and whatever that energy was I knew, that he knew that that is what I wanted. I didn’t know what it was, but it was something real.
Iain: The feeling I get from listening to you is before you wanted to work away from something which was your misery, your unhappiness and this was almost the positive. You were going towards something because you felt it energetically. You felt he knew, and you knew. You didn’t know exactly what you knew but you knew that’s where you were going.
Shawn: Yes, and he said that at times that if there was something he could do for people it would be to give them a taste of enlightenment, whatever you want to call it. That taste would essentially be like a hint that something they would know there’s something out there and I want to find it for myself.
Iain: That’s what we all have to do, find it for our self, it’s so important. Anyway, I’m not going to run through all your adventures…
Shawn: That would be a while (laughing).
Iain: We’d be here all day. You did one thing which made me smile because I’ve done lots of things too which haven’t always brought what I hoped they would bring. You decided to do a thirty- day solitary retreat, again on the farm. It was winter I think, not great living conditions, and then again it appeared to be utter disaster. By the second or third day you were already regretting it, but you made the commitment to do it. That’s one of the things that drew me to your book. Once you said you were going to do something, you were committed. I know that for myself, it’s so important to finish something that you felt was important. So, you committed to the thirty days. It was very difficult, but again you got something out of it, afterwards didn’t you?
Shawn: I did. There were some sublime moments in that experience. Just feeling at one with my surroundings and at complete peace, certainly those moments happened. When you’re on a solitary retreat, and you’re literally not going to talk to, or see anyone for thirty days, you face a lot of things you are afraid of. There’s not a lot left except you and whatever you’re up to. It’s an amazing opportunity to focus and really drill down into something. Rose would say you shouldn’t take a lot of books out there with you, take just one book because you don’t want to distract yourself with books. I never did one again. I never did a thirty day again. I was very glad I did it. I would do week long, 2 and 3- day retreats after that.
Iain: So, it was always this way of subtraction which is what you called the book. It was about knowing what you weren’t. You weren’t sure what you were, but you were finding out what you weren’t.
Shawn: Yes, when you really get down to it, Rose talked about the view not the viewer. If we really want to plunge into what is the method here? What is this about? We say subtraction, we say backing away from untruth. We talk about that level of the image you present, but when you’ve worked out some of that, you’ve smoothed out the personality enough so that you’re not bumbling your way through life, then you begin to look at the thoughts that come through your mind the feelings that come up. Where are the untruths in those things? Of course, we have a level of untruth simply lying to ourselves, simply rationalising, that’s were friends come in because they can help us. They can help detect when we’re telling ourselves little stories about why we took particular actions. That’s a level of backing away from untruth, clarifying our thinking process.
Iain: Yes. You say at one point in the book, I think it was on a retreat, you had insights such as I can’t locate the source of my thoughts because I am thought. Could it be that my sense of identity is built on sand? You were raising deep questions about, what is the source of your identity. It’s difficult to find an answer to isn’t it? The ultimate sense of identity.
Shawn: Yes, but I think those questions or that attitude of questioning, that attitude of saying I don’t know, is very valuable because it leaves a possibility open for you.
Iain: Richard Rose I know from your book was very focused on you finding intuition. You felt you didn’t have intuition, so you had to work extra hard at that.
Iain: Still, my native state perhaps you would say is geared toward the logical side. Let me think this through, let me work this out on paper, let me see if this makes sense. Rose did not operate that way. He was very much a person that operated by sense of what to do next, of feeling. He would always say use reason to have a check on that. He didn’t just say you have to throw reason out the door. He would say you have reason and you have intuition, use the two together. I felt my intuitive side, needed work, needed exercise if you will.
Iain: Yes. So how long did you actually stay at his farm altogether? It was a few years wasn’t it?
Shawn: It was probably three and a half years, maybe almost four years. It was too long I always say.
Iain: He also encouraged you to be celibate, didn’t he? You did have quite a close relationship with a woman there called Belle. It never became a sexual relationship. It was close, but not sexual. What do you feel you got from celibacy?
Shawn: The primary thing I got from celibacy was… often times I would think of thought patterns, thought realms that we have. Security was a big thought pattern of mine. I would be worried about financial security, or job security, those kinds of things. That’s like a mass of thoughts in the mind. You could call it an ‘I’, one of those many ‘I’s. That sexual energy, or sexual interest is another one of those ‘I’s. I felt like by being celibate, it put a door - perhaps the kind of word to use- in front of that realm of thought. There wasn’t any point in thinking about that, because I wasn’t going to act on it. So, I didn’t go down the street looking at every girl that passed thinking oh, is she interested in me? Did she just look at me, which is perhaps the normal way a male, I talk about myself when I walk down the street? Every other woman, are they talking about me, are they interested in me? Am I attractive? All that was just gone, because I made a commitment that I’m going to be celibate. So those thoughts sort of died off, just weren’t there.
Iain: It underlines again for me, we spoke of this earlier, the importance of commitment to anything in life, especially on the spiritual search because it’s not an easy path for so many people. Yet, it’s the people who really stay on the path and commit, something normally happens sooner or later. We’ll come onto a little bit later what happened to you, but it’s like you’ve got to keep going, and keep going, and keep going.
Shawn: There’s that quote from Rose, “if I tell you to walk five miles, don’t walk while mile, turn around and come back”. He was pointing to that in a humorous way. I’m telling you all something. I’m giving you some guidelines, go for it, keep at it.
Iain: You did leave the farm. You felt like it was the beginning… he had Dementia or Alzheimer’s. You felt he was losing his memory and…
Shawn: A lot.
Iain: How was that for you when you realised he was mentally losing it?
Shawn: It was extremely challenging. In the back of my mind I would still think, well maybe Mr Rose will somehow… we used to talk about him ‘zapping’ people, He never did this, but there was this idea that perhaps he could transmit his enlightenment experience to you somehow, on a silver platter. Boom! You would be enlightened if you were worthy enough. He didn’t talk about that, but it was sort of floating around in the side conversations around him. Certainly, seeing him, he had Alzheimer’s starting to lose his memory, it eliminated that, that’s not going to happen. He’s not going to transmit an experience to you, but not only that. Now, he’s no longer going to be that source, that feeling that this is real. Being around the man, standing next to the man, talking to him, for me, I could at times feel that there was depth. There’s profundity there that would resonate with me and remind me of how tangible, how close, an answer really was. Now, that’s gone. Somehow, I had to find this on my own. Not only that, what does it mean when the enlightened guy forgets his enlightenment experience? How confrontational that is. Literally the way he talked about his experience changed as his mind, whatever he was going through, his mind decayed if you will, how he remembered that and talked about that as it changed, very confrontational. If you can’t hold onto enlightenment, what’s the value of it? Those sorts of thoughts came up.
Iain: You eventually left the farm and went to see different teachers, many of which I’m aware of and have seen personally. The first one you saw that I was aware of, was Bernadette Roberts. She had two books out a few years ago ‘The experience of no self’ and I think ‘The path of no self’, which I read at the time. Just briefly talk about your time with Bernadette Roberts.
Shawn: Probably the most valuable thing for me about Bernadette was that, I felt the same thing around her that I felt around Rose. This woman, there’s depth to her. Again, she has something, emanates something profound so, it wasn’t just this one person. It’s a little hard to imagine these days, but in those days long ago the mid nineteen nineties, the early nineteen nineties, you got information about teachers through word of mouth, through finding a book in a bookstore. You didn’t go online and type spiritual teacher, decide I’m going to see this person, that person. Here’s their schedule and where they’re going to be. It was a lot harder to find people. I literally found a book by Bernadette Roberts at the bookstore. As I was casting about for what am I going to do, I remembered that. I looked at the book and thought I’m going to find that woman.
Iain: She was very much from the Christian tradition; the terminology was a little bit different from Richard Rose.
Shawn: To this day I don’t really understand Bernadette’s books or her way of going about the spiritual search. She didn’t help me in terms of giving me tools or techniques, but she inspired me to get through a really tough period. Rose is gone. Is this enlightenment real? Oh yeah there are other people out there. She also gave me a little practical personal advice.
Iain: She told you not to do what you were doing, and to do something else (laughing).
Shawn: Yes, which other people had been telling me and I told myself, but hearing it from a complete stranger, was kind of a good slap across the face for me.
Iain: You went to Germany to see Mother Meera.
Shawn: I did.
Iain: Again, someone Renata and I have been to see, how was it with Mother Meera?
Shawn: Mother Meera was an interesting experience but I experienced absolutely nothing being around Mother Meera. Going forward, I think you kneeled before her or something like that.
Iain: You kneeled and then she would put her hand on your forehead.
Shawn: That’s right. It was absolutely a flat experience for me. I remember I got rather cantankerous at the end. The last time I went up to her for Darshan, I thought I’m going to be really angry inside when I go up there and see what that does. It was the same kind of flat experience.
Iain: Then you went to England a little bit later to see Douglas Harding who works the ‘headless way’. I think you got a little bit more out of that didn’t you.
Shawn: I did. A lot of things happened between leaving the farm and going to see Douglas Harding. It was a valuable time for me, before seeing Harding because I really struck out on my own, finding my own way. I moved off the farm. I got a job working with children which was an extremely valuable experience for me, to work around children and be around that energy, working on intuition. That’s when I started writing poetry, it was before seeing Douglas Harding. A real key for me was that Rose had said just in casual conversation one time “learn to sit in rapport with yourself”. I wrote that in a notebook. I had no idea what it meant, and just put it away. At some point I remembered that statement, and I thought there’s a key for finding my own inner guru, my inner guidance. I started to go out into the woods with a notebook and just sit and wait. Feelings started to come to me, words started to come to me. It was really a new way of meditating. Before I was very intense, focused the Vipassana style meditation, watching thought. When does the next the thought come up? Where does it come from? Really trying to work my way to the root of thought. I finally gave up on that. This different way, softer way perhaps, is how I started to look once again for who am I.
Iain: It’s good you said who am I because in a way that’s what you’d be doing for the last few years on this journey, finding out at the deepest level you could, who am I?
Shawn: I was. The question would change at times. Where does thought come from was a big question for me, because I could literally see it appearing out of nowhere. Where does feeling come from? Those were questions that puzzled me and got me to look deeper and deeper at a more granular level, what’s really going on in the mind. Who am I, really?
Iain: You took the time to follow these questions which is really important in our busy world, to give yourself time. You had a job as a sales man for a time. You also hinted that when you were working in the world for a time your psychological health improved. You found a degree of grounding, earning a living and mixing with so called normal people. You had a perspective on things. I guess being on the farm in an isolated environment, you’d lost to a certain extent.
Iain: The farm… many people have said you have to bring this back into the world at some point. You can all sorts of states in your isolation from most of the world you can feel at great peace but then if you walk onto a street corner, how do you feel? That’s a real test of what you’ve discovered. So, I fortunate to have time away from the world and then time in the world, really of my choosing. In that a chose to get a job working with children because I felt that would help with my intuition. It was very valuable, then eventually got a job in sales because again I was curious about what this mechanism can do and how will it react.
Iain: You were good at selling, weren’t you?
Iain: It says so in the book.
Shawn: I was the best sales person in my first month, the top of the heap in my first month. It was challenging for me because to this day, at heart, I’m an introvert. To put yourself out there, to push people a little bit, seeing what their objections are, that’s not my natural way of being in the world.
Iain: Then you found a book that changed everything. It’s a book I read many years ago, which I found quite a hard read. Do you want to talk about the book, what it was and how it changed things?
Shawn: Are you talking about Merrell Wolff?
Iain: I am talking about Franklin Merrell Wolff ‘Experiments and Philosophy’, I think the book is.
Shawn: The book was interesting to me, intriguing to me but it was actually a talk that he gave that was really the piece that drove home for me. That was a talk called ‘The induction’. That was Merrell Wolff that I could relate to. ‘Experiments and Philosophy’ is a very difficult read. I joked about how just reading the back cover of the book I needed a dictionary to understand what the back cover was, much less the four hundred and something pages in between. I don’t know if you want me to go into ‘The induction’ and the paper that I read.
Iain: I’m interested really… as I said I read the book about twenty years ago, and I found it really hard work. It didn’t do anything for me, but you sent away for a course, or a set of tapes. There was a point when you were listening to the tapes when you got something so significant. I’m interested in hearing about that.
Shawn: This was actually the point in time when I’d been to see Douglas Harding, and he really re inspired me. That’s what so many of these teachers did in a way, not so much specific things they might have said but many times, just an inspiration to keep on, to keep looking. Douglas was very much that way for me. Of course. He has those amazing experiments.
Iain: We did a programme on that many years ago.
Iain: Those were very confrontational in a way to me. He’s really challenging me with these experiments about what’s really going on. That was useful, but Douglas himself, again, the depth. He was a person who carried that depth with him. Being around him, I knew that there is something out there. Can I find It? I don’t know but it’s out there. I went to see him. I’d moved to Texas at the time. This is when I started creating the Spiritual Teachers’ website. The internet boom was going on, this was 1998/99. Everyone was putting up websites, I thought I’m going to put up a website and share some of the teachers that I’ve seen, things of value that I’ve come across. As part of that I looked back at Franklin Merrell Wolff, I knew that Merrell Wolff was a significant figure, a profound person even though I hadn’t met him. I thought I’d like to know a little bit more about him – oh there are these talks you can get. I sent away for the transcripts. One talk in particular was called ‘The Induction’. I still remember… I write about this in great detail in the book. If people don’t read anything else in the book, I would say read that one little section because he walked a person though backing away from untruth, at all these levels that we’ve just talked about. It was as if he was there with me talking to me as I was reading that paper. I can’t really get across the feeling of it. It was as if he was a friend sitting next to me saying, “so Shawn let’s begin”. He says something like let’s begin a little analysis, just like that, very conversational. “Let’s look at the body. It may come to you that you’re not the body”. He begins working through the body, and feeling, thoughts. As he walks through each of these levels of who we believe ourselves to be I was nodding my head – yes, I’ve seen this. I know this.
Iain: He took the stages, you are not the body, you are not the feelings, you are not the thoughts, so what are you?
Shawn: Right, and he walked you through, and after the thoughts he said basically what you are is a sense of being. There is nothing closer to you than that sense of I exist. I don’t remember his words exactly but I’m trying to give you a feel for it. Yes, in my heart of hearts, I feel that I exist. But yet he says, but yet you can see that. You can observe that feeling, and therefore it’s not you. So, what are you left with? Your deepest feeling, your sense of I am, this sense of existing. You can see that, and he calls it ‘the slippery ego’, something like that. He says it can slip around, confuse you, because may you have had an experience in meditation of seeing awareness, and suddenly you are aware of awareness, or you’re conscious of awareness, or you’re aware of consciousness, however you want to phrase it. You see observation going on and it seems that, and there seems there’s another observer observing of what going on. He says you can get caught in this going around and around.
Iain: The observer watching the observer.
Shawn: Yes, the observer watching the observer. I’m nodding my head because I know exactly what you mean. You can’t get out of it, you’re just stuck. He said it may happen in a moment. It may dawn upon you that which was never an object before consciousness You may have to have that moment, and the heavens will open, and they did. It was literally as if … I don’t know how to explain it at that point. The room just filled with intense energy. It’s something that you can’t describe in words. That moment was revealed, but it wasn’t revealed to me, in that sense because it wasn’t Shawn there. As I say that instantly the mind begins to conceptualise, oh it must have been like this, it must have been like that. That’s why Merrell Wolff just left you at that precipice, and may be something will happen, at that point.
Iain: I’m going to read a little from the book of how you did describe the process, it’s so key. So, you wrote “… and so it finally dawns. I am never an object before consciousness, as you just said there. I Shawn was ever an object, you Shawn was ever an object and was always a thing to die. Shawn always had to die. In the face of this stark revelation I felt myself fading away, but there was no fight. The runner himself was vanishing. The nothingness I was fading into and had so feared was already inside me. Outside and inside were fundamentally the same. No observer, no observed, just one. I felt I was dying but I was not afraid. The feeling was of slipping into darkness, losing everything I had held onto. A blackness that was motionless yet vibrant”. I read that a few times when I read the book because that is it’s almost as if you want to read the end of the book to get the ending. That is the ending. That’s how it was, Shawn disappeared but he never existed in the first place. That’s why I like this so much (showing Ouspensky diagram) that was the clue from Ouspensky right at the beginning. Just a lot if ‘I’s and nothing to hold it together. You could then understand what Douglas Harding had been saying in more depth.
Shawn: Yes. I like doing the experiments with people, but the implication of what the experiments are really pointing to, what we are at the centre. Many people don’t want to see that or are not ready to see that.
Iain: Yes. We’re going to have to finish in about 2 or 3 minutes. We’re going to do a part 2 which is going to have a practical side of your book. I’d also like to continue a little with where we are in part 2, because you do talk about how you can’t live from the absolute in the world. There has to be a practicality and a degree of personality, and it’s very interesting to talk about. So, I’m going to finish this part by asking you to read something you wrote because you’ll read it better than me. It was a poem, you might not remember it actually…
Shawn: I doubt it.
Iain: That’s what you wrote poem wise (showing) after you’d had that experience which I thought was very beautiful.
Shawn: It’s poetry-like. It says:
God is here.
He rings in the death of all we know
Rejoice, the end begins
A new life, nothing ever the same
We are everlasting
Rejoice, I am free
Behind these words flow everlasting light
It is back there, doors open, look inside
This is my way, no plan
You can’t follow but must try
God is here
God is here Now
Iain: Thank you. I feel God is here in one way too. I feel that energy. So, we’re going to finish part 1. I’m going to show you book again. It’s a funny thin with this book. It’s called ‘Subtraction, the simple math of enlightenment’. As I said at the beginning, half of it is Shawn’s struggle but it’s amazing the realisations he has during that struggle. I notice, I don’t know why I didn’t notice before. I noticed just as he sat down to do the interview, some things written along the edge here. Things like “self + achievements + fame = nought. Effort – self = wisdom”. There are some great things just written around here. It’s multi- faceted in one way. There’s that, and he’s written the other books we talked about earlier, ‘The adventures in Cavings’ as an e book; the one about celibacy; and the book with Bob Ferguson doing the photographs and you doing the poems. There are 2 DVDs of interviews ‘Meetings with remarkable women’ and ‘Closer than Close’. There they are. Thank you again Shawn.
Shawn: Thank you very much.
Iain: I hope we see you in part 2, if not thank you for watching Conscious TV.
SHAWN NEVINS – SPIRITUAL FIRST AID
Iain: Welcome back to Conscious TV interview with Shawn Nevins. We had part 1 which was really Shawn’s story and the realisations that came out of that, and the space he had got to, a very beautiful space in the end. This is going to be more practical. He has a section in the back of his book called ‘Spiritual First Aid’ which is twelve suggestions about practical things you can do on the spiritual path to keep everything as focused as you can. First of all, Shawn just talk about how you started to function in the world. You had these realisations, you knew who you really were. It was palpable, undoubtable, you knew who you were, because you undoubtedly knew who you weren’t. How then did you go back in the world and function?
Shawn: I distinctly recall, I went to work the next day. I recall thinking something to the effect of I’m a perfect robot. That was the feeling. This mechanism, I knew exactly what I needed to do. How to get dressed, walk down the steps, get in the car, go to the first appointment. I remember marvelling at that and how well it functioned. One thing different that I noticed though was my motivation had changed. I was doing sales at that time, but I didn’t care any more about whether I actually made the sale or not. I’d just tell a person here’s what we have, here’s what we can do for you. If you want it great, if not that’s fine. That was a very practical difference that I noted right away. Three, four, five, six weeks later, something like that I came to the feeling that I needed to go to some place. I needed to find a stable environment, or a more familiar environment to be in. I don’t know if that was part of some sort of stabilisation process or something like that, but I wound up moving back the outpost centre where I’d worked with kids before, going back to that environment and staying there about a year. I really had the luxury of reflecting upon what had happened. I did a lot of writing, a lot of reading, books that I’d read before seeing them in a new light. It was very helpful for me to be able to go back and be in that space.
Iain: So, you were kind of remerging into the world in one way. You were doing similar things that you were doing before, but did you feel different or did you just slide back into it?
Shawn: I felt very different which is kind of funny. Again, or a day to day level I remember when I got back to the outdoor centre, I had all these ideas about things I wanted to change, new programmes I wanted to do that I would never have considered before. I wanted to go out and try to recruit different businesses to come and do corporate training programmes with us. I had this idea of getting different donations from companies for outdoor gear. I had all these different thoughts that would never have come to me I don’t think because I was very boxed in about what I can do, what I can’t do. I was much more creative or inspired in terms of possibilities of what could happen. That’s something that’s continued to this day – the films, the writing. I tried playing keyboard, piano for a while, all sorts of things would catch my eye and I would play around with. That was very new for me.
Iain: I wanted in this programme to cover the section at the back of your book ‘Subtraction, the simple math of Enlightenment’, you have this section called ‘Spiritual First Aid’. At the beginning of that you write “the main obstacle to success is that people don’t start”. The second is they don’t persist. The third is they don’t adapt”. That’s what you did in your journey. You started, you persisted, and you adapted. You make these twelve recommendations, if people want some suggestions. It’s to help, again I’m reading from your book “a peeling away of all we are not in order to discover what we are”. You say, “it’s not a step to step guide to enlightenment but what I will offer you are basic principles to apply and adapt as needed”. The first one is to practice honesty which I know Richard Rose taught you didn’t he.
Shawn: Yes. At times when I was putting together that list I thought I could just stop there, just practice honesty. If a person really applied that all the rest of it could flow from that. Maybe it would be helpful to put in a few more suggestions so I did. Rose used to talk about you’re trying to create of yourself a mechanism that seeks truth and that begins with self- honesty. We talked about those different levels form backing away from untruths begins at a very practical level, knowing when I’m telling a lie. Being honest with myself. I just told Iain a story, it wasn’t true. Rose would say don’t take that to mean if a policeman pulls you over and writes you a speeding ticket that you immediately admit that. Yes officer, I was speeding, but there’s an attitude there of knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing and being honest with yourself about it. I just lied to the policeman because I was trying to get out of paying for a parking ticket or speeding ticket, as opposed to the huge stories we concoct. Why? Well it’s not fair that police officers give speeding tickets. They should just let people … in Europe they can drive faster… and it just goes on and on. We tell theses stories. Just be straight about why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Iain: It’s an awareness of what you’re thinking, what you’re saying really and saying to yourself… Byron Katie does this in her exercises, is that really true? The second one “as you practice honesty it will make it easier to remember your natural koan. Explain what the natural koan is.
Shawn: For each person there’s something, some desire or longing in the person. They may say if there are in an environment of spiritual seekers I want enlightenment. I want awakening, but I think there are really very few people that’s what they are really hungering for. They may want to know what really is thought? I have people say, where am I, as a meaningful question for them. There are all sorts of things. Why am I unhappy? Something as simple as that can be a natural koan, something I really want to know. If you can identify that then you can have power, you’ll have energy to get an answer. Something very heady, very conceptual, I want to be enlightened can be difficult to put any real desire and longing behind that. So be clear about what your true desire is.
Iain: So, it’s knowing something about yourself at a greater depth, somehow.
Shawn: Yes, really looking…I’m going back to feeling. What question carries feeling when you ask it? What question really has power for you when you react your whole mechanism perks up, yeah, I want to know about that. I want to find out about that.
Iain: You also say in your description of that, “if your natural koan is not obvious, sit alone and write down the questions that concern you”. It’s not always easy for people to find something like a koan, but it’s what’s bothering them in their life, or not clear with.
Shawn: It will change. It’s not like you have one koan and that’s the thing that will propel you. It will change over time, as you change, that question will change or evolve.
Iain: You say, “that now that you remember you’re natural koan, focus your energy”, which you, certainty did. Talk a little more about the importance of that.
Shawn: This is an extremely practical matter. If you’re trying to start a business, and you’re trying to start 5 businesses at the same time, you’re not going to be as effective. You focus your energy on that one business. In that sense the spiritual path is not immune to the laws of the world, the laws and mechanisms. If you focus your energy, you remove distractions from your focus, your concentration, you will have more power in a single direction. Richard Rose used to talk about, imagine in a house. You’ve got all the water taps, or spigots on at the same time, all the water is flowing out. Imagine that, versus just having one spigot open, all of the force of the water is concentrated in that one tap. It’s that idea. Your life is filled with taps or spigots.
Iain: In this modern world it’s easier and easier to find a new tap (laughing). I know that for myself. Ok, we move on to number 4. You say, “now that you are focusing your energy, realise that you must rise and fall a thousand times if need be”. You did exactly that.
Shawn: Yes, I did a lot of falling.
Iain: You rose again
Shawn: I was very good at falling on my face. That came from experience with people I was on the path with, groups with, and watching other people who would who would put a lot of energy behind… let’s say they were going to do a 30-day isolation and they’re thinking this is going to do it. This is going to push me through to enlightenment, it didn’t, and they would give up. They would just leave, leave the farm, or a group and you wouldn’t see them again. It might be years before they got back on the path, or they got re-inspired. I don’t know except… you get up and try again, or you try from a different angle, or different direction. You just keep pushing and something will happen.
Iain: Yes. “when you wipe the dust off your pants – as you did a thousand times- remember to identify and if necessary repair patterns”
Shawn: I think in a way this is the most difficult of the steps to write about or explain quickly because the basic idea is that we are machines filled with patterns, different ‘I’s. Like Ouspensky said, which of those are real obstacles to our path, to understanding ourselves, and which are minor distractions. Sometimes people get involved in a perfection. They want to create a perfect mechanism, a perfect seeker. They feel like, I need to be very peaceful, or need not have all these desires. They have all these images of what a spiritual person should be. They spend a lot of time crafting themselves into that. There is no end to the imperfections. There is no end to our idiosyncrasies and they don’t all have to be fixed, repaired. There are a few things, I myself, really shy, really introverted. Well that’s’ going to prevent me reaching out for help. It’s going to prevent me from seeking out a teacher, can prevent me from making friends on the path. I should work on that a little bit so that I can have a conversation, learn from other people, not be so afraid. I don’t have to turn into an extrovert.
Shawn: It’s just got to be functioning well enough, so I can help other people, I can be helped by other people. That’s what I’m getting at.
Iain: Let’s lots people can read if you get the book about the details of what Shawn suggests. The next one, “as you work on identifying patterns be sure to develop intuition” which Richard Rose really encouraged you to do, and which we talked about in part 1 of the interview.
Shawn: In the book I lay our different practices which might be helpful for a person to try. Things like celibacy, hanging around with people who are intuitive, people who are very different from you. Rose even encouraged us to do things like experiment reading ESP cards, reading other people’s thoughts, practicing hypnosis, all sorts of recommendations for intuition. For myself, being in nature is really important for me, developing a feeling. When I was 22, literally if you asked me what I felt, I would have to pause and really think about it. What do I feel? A really crude rough level, I wasn’t even in touch with that level of feeling, much less a subtler level of intuition of the profound.
Iain: You also talk about “observation is really helpful, watch your decision-making process”. You mention prayer, “this can be a statement of your intention to improve your intuition”. So, you’ve got lots of practical things, there’s a whole list here… dreamwork, fasting. Ok, and “as you follow that feeling be thankful”, that’s number 7, to be thankful.
Shawn: That was another one that was tough for me, really being thankful. I think Rose clued me into this. I was describing an experience that happened to me, he said don’t go chasing after that. I think I’d had a feeling of being at one in nature. There was more to me than just my little self. I gotten a glimpse of that. He said, “don’t chase after that, just be thankful that, that happened”. That really left an impression upon me. Being thankful takes away some of that thought that I did this, I caused this to happen. I just say whatever is out there, thank you. Not thank you God, or Absolute, just thank you.
Iain: And then, “as you give thanks, look for the source”.
Shawn: We did a retreat last weekend and I was really driving home how you look for the source, what that meditation is like, and really pointing people in an inward direction of, what are you? Where do you come from? Where does thought come from? Where does the feeling of being an individual come from? That sort of interior observation, that’s what I’m getting at, looking for that source.
Iain: Yes. You mention here again which we talked about in part 1, “the view is not the viewer, whatever you believe yourself to be, look to find where it originates”. There are clues there all the time, it’s just a question if you want to spend the time looking at the clues and seeing what you can find underneath.
Shawn: There is a thread to follow there that takes one back to the source, the place from which we emanate.
Iain: I see you give a whole quote here from Franklin Merrell Wolff’s ‘The Induction’, again we talked about it in part 1. Number 8, “find a teacher”. You had a few, one main one.
Shawn: I did, certainly Richard Rose was a key figure. I mention in that section it wasn’t just teachers, Douglas Harding, Bernadette Roberts, it was friends. I got a tremendous amount from just having friends on the path and being open to the little things they would say, little suggestions. The whole thing of working with children that I mentioned before, it was key practice for me. That was a suggestion that came from a friend. Richard Rose very rarely suggested much of anything but there were key little suggestions and inspirations that came from friends.
Iain: Ok. “Do not rely on just one teacher for you must help and be helped”. Helped, and be helped. Balance.
Shawn: That was my take on… Rose had a law that he called the law of the ladder, which is wherever you are on the path there is someone who is below you on this imaginary ladder, who’s in a place that you’ve been before, and someone above you. This ladder is a progression upward towards an awakening. You can be helped by people above you. You can help the people below you, and we’re all lifting each other up. That one was rather mechanical for me for a long time. Rose said I should help other people because I will be helped by helping other people, therefore I’m going to help other people. It was a selfish motivation in my helping other people for a long time. It wasn’t really till I moved to Texas and started working on the Spiritual Teachers Website that I actually had an interior uprising, or compassion, that I just wanted to share some things that I had found that were of value to me. If someone found them valuable then great, if not fine, but I wanted to put that out there. Often, I think of that as one of the first unselfish things that I did.
Iain: You also start this section ‘Help and be helped’ by a quote Jim Rohn ?? ( 1.20) “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. I hadn’t thought of that before. Average… it’s worth thinking about.
Shawn: That was a big part of my path, choosing wisely my associates.
Iain: Absolutely. At the end of that section you say, “another bit of seeming selfishness that pays dividends is to spend time alone”, which you did an awful lot of.
Shawn: I did, and that is the continuation of this idea of focusing one’s energy. So, spending time alone is going to eliminate the distractions of conversation, the dynamics that are going on in your group which we’re always at some level navigating, consciously or unconsciously. It’s just me, and silence, maybe a book or a journal, and a question and a question or an intent. I found that important. If I’m going to spend that time alone, I need to have an intent for it, otherwise the mind will go in all sorts of directions.
Iain: And the only distraction is yourself.
Shawn: Believe me I had plenty of distractions from myself (laughing).
Iain: The last one, you write quite a lot about spending time alone, you did enough of it, so you know a lot about it. You finish that section saying, “lastly you will discover whether you need to learn to tread water”.
Shawn: That in a way related to rising and falling a thousand times if needs be but it’s a little different because I had a lot of depression and feeling like I wasn’t making any progress. It was difficult being around Richard Rose because he as a person was very intense and dynamic. He was the kind of guy who if there were a glass wall between him and the truth, he would break the glass wall down with his head. That kind of intensity. I felt over and over, that’s not me, I don’t have his passion. They talk about in Zen, your hair being on fire, that’s the kind of intensity you need. I never felt that way, I always felt lacking. That sort of holding myself up to an idea of how I should be, many times, comparison would lead to depression. I’m not strong enough, I’m not energetic enough, this is too much. I can’t do this. In those time periods, I had a little phrase “never make a decision in a mood”. It was useful for me and it’s related to treading water. Alright, I don’t see a way out of this, I don’t know what to do. If nothing else, I’m just going to hold my position. I’m going to meditate each day, even though it feels dry, it feels pointless. I’m just going to keep doing it. I’m not going to leave the farm. I’m not going to just quit meditating. I’m not going to take some dramatic action- I’m going to quit this, I’m heading back home. I’m just going to hold my ground, tread water until something comes along, some inspiration. A new current will come along because I know it will. It feels like it won’t, but I know something will come along.
Iain: So, you have to be patient and you have to trust. You have to stay with whatever is happening to you which isn’t always easy, as you found out. You say in that section” never make a decision in a mood” which you just talked about. It’s so important. There’s a lot on this as well. I like the way you finish off this section. You say, “some of these principles may not resonate with you but that’s ok. If I was stuck on a mental desert island and could only take one aid with me, I would choose practice honesty. That is the north star that guides you to discover, adapt and amplify all the other principles”. Practice honesty, it’s a great finish.
Shawn: I hope people take the end of the book as suggestive rather than prescriptive.
Iain: Absolutely. Thank you. I’m going to show your book again ‘Subtraction, the simple math of enlightenment’. Thank you again Shawn for coming along to Conscious TV.
Shawn: Your welcome. Thank you for having me.
Iain: I’ve enjoyed it very much. Maybe we’ll meet again, who knows.
Shawn: May be so. The time flew by.
Iain: The time flew by.
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