Stephen Snyder - The Transformative and The Transcendent
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello, and welcome once more to conscious T.V. I’m Iain McNay and my guest today is Stephen Snyder. Hello Stephen.
Stephen: Hello Iain.
Iain: And Stephen has co-written a book called “practicing the Jhanas” which is quite a slim book, and it’s quite an evolved book in many ways but it is fascinating how you can progress through practice and end up in quite an amazing state. So were going to look at Stephens life and find out about him on more of a human level, and find out more about his work, and his wisdom. So the first thing I wanted to ask you was about your childhood, because you were very connected with nature, that was very important to you, and that kind of produced in a way your start to meditation.
Stephen: It did, I grew up on an island near Hawaii, so spent a lot of time in the jungle hiking and seeing nature in its fullness there.
Iain: And there was a way that you found a way into yourself, wasn’t there? Because that was the catalyst for, eventually the catalyst, because you found a piece in nature and you wanted to find that piece not just in nature and that was your gateway, I think to meditation, begging of meditation, because you meditated for forty two years. That’s such a long time.
Stephen: I have, yes it’s true. In nature both the sort of sense of wonder and also the connectedness was really what I was in touch with and I just really wanted to find a way that I could feel that same connection without having to go to nature.
Iain: Yeah, I think you talked about, when you explained it to me, like a groundedness like a coming home.
Iain: And that what we all want really isn’t it? To find a coming home.
Stephen: It is.
Iain: And there’s so many ways to come home, and in a way your lucky that you found it through nature at an early age, because it gave you a clue, didn’t it?
Stephen: It did, it was very lovely to have it, to learn that way and also know internally what I was looking for.
Iain: Yes, so what form did this take, how did you actually, what meditation did you start with?
Stephen: Well is started with Zen meditation and that grew out of visiting Japan, Tokyo, when I was about three in 1960 and seeing Zen monks running around Tokyo and feeling a sense of identity seeing them, like a recognition seeing them. And then when I was nineteen I gravitated to the Zen practices and the few books in those days.
Iain: So at three years old somehow you could recognize there was something special about the monks?
Stephen: Yes, my sense at that age was “there I am”.
Iain: So, that meant. What did that mean “there I am”?
Stephen: Somehow there was a recognition in seeing them and just seeing the shaved heads, and the black robes, there was a way that I just felt like I knew what that was.
Iain: Well, that’s a great start. And then when you were around nineteen you read this book “ the three pilliars of zen”? Which was a catalyst in kinda giving you more of a clue to a form of meditation I guess.
Stephen: It was, I began with mindfulness of breathing, which is counting the breaths and I was counting them in the area between the nostrils and the upper lip, which was actually what we teach now, so I did that for several years to get stability in meditation.
Iain: So, that is basically, when you say you are counting your breath.
Iain: So just talk more about that.
Stephen: Sure, in those days the way it was done was each inhalation and exhalation was counted and so inhale one and exhale two, and then you would count to some predetermined number like ten and then back down again. And you could see pretty quickly if you went off the breath as you’d be either at four, you’d be stuck at four or you’d be at thirty two, so that told you when you weren’t present.
Stephen: Or told me when I wasn’t present.
Iain: Yeah, and what did you feel you got from meditation?
Stephen: Well, really the first time I sat down on a zafu to meditate, and I think I could meditate for five minutes, that was the maximum I could do it those days, but I just felt like there was a coming home, a grounding in a way I didn’t have in my life and I felt like I got it immediately and I knew that I’d be doing this for the rest of my life.
Stephen: Apparently, that’s true.
Iain: Yes, yeah. And then, I know from what you told me, we had dinner the other night that you had quite an opening when you were twenty eight years old, so I guess you had been meditating then for about nine years.
Iain: So tell us, just talk us through what happened.
Stephen: Sure, I’d been meditating and was reading the books of the day, there was a Zen text, pretty well known, on the Chinese sixth patriarch of Chan which became Zen, and in reading the book, it talked about how he was illiterate but was passing someone who was chanting a sutra, a talk by the Buddha called “the diamond sutra”, and there was a line in the sutra that he heard that said “produce the thought that is nowhere supported” and that landed in me , it sort of wedged in me in a way that I couldn’t pick it up and I couldn’t put it down. So that began a sort of meditative journey over a period of about a month of tracking what produces a though and I started with the senses, you know, with touch, taste, smell, sound etc. and went to its origin, let’s say the beginning of each sense, and when I got the last one there it sort of exploded into this sense of I am not who I believed I was, I’m not the personality, and really I’m not anything. And so that was really a very liberative experience for me. And it was immediately followed with a oneness experience of I am nothing and everything else in nothing and it is all one. So it really culminated in a way that was very profound to me at that age and still, in some ways, I feel a little bit touched even speaking about it.
Iain: I think you also told me that even thought you had teachers at that time they hadn’t really had this experience themselves so they could maybe talk to you about it but not from a personal experience of that. So it left you a little bit, kind of on your own with it.
Stephen: There probably were teachers that had experiences like this, I didn’t have access to them. There were so few teachers in that day, and many of them were people that had gone to say Japan for a year and lived in a monastery and then came back to teach and they may or may not have an awaking experience, so they could speak about it conceptually and they had maybe had touches but not in a way, for me it was profoundly life altering.
Iain: Well absolutely, yeah. So when you say you looked to the origin of thought. What did you find about the origin of thought? Cause that the fascinating thing, isn’t it, where we’re all thinking most of the time, when we sit and meditate, I know when I sit and meditate, it takes me a time but I can get to a place where at least I’m not completely absorbed in the thinking, I might think I’m not thinking but if I think I’m not thinking, then I’m thinking I’m not thinking. Doesn’t really count. So what did you discover about that?
Stephen: Well at that age I began realising, that a lot of my thought came from sensory input. So that’s when I began exploring sight, hearing, touch. All these different senses to find their origin, to go back to, probably the consciousness for each sense organ. And when I got the last, and in a way I kind of got a post it when I got to each one, when I followed, for example sight got to the sight consciousness, I had a little mental or meditative post it I put there. And when I got the last one there that’s when everything exploded.
Stephen: Cause I realised that there was nothing that was actually producing a thought.
Iain: And, I know we’re jumping forward to now but we’ll go back and cover some past ground in a minute. Is that still with you that space where you have no thought or you feel you have no thought sometimes?
Stephen: Certainly, there are times where I have no thought. It depends on how engaged I am in the world like everone. If I’m on the computer and talking to people a lot then that’s going to be more active. And if I’m in more silence, more… and also for me it works being out in nature more again. If I’m in a more remote area that seems to really support the stillness, the silence and not needing to turn to thoughts and speech as quickly.
Iain: And you see, the thing that is the, the thing that I just touched on now, the dilemma is that if you’re thinking you have no thought, of course that a thinking process. So it’s almost like the no thought is discovered after time when you realise thought comes back.
Iain: Then you realise that there has been no thought for a time because the was no activity.
Stephen: But there is something, there is an energetic impulse prior to thought. And we can get to where that will direct our actions. Like I’ll know when I need a sip of water. I won’t have to form the words. There’ll be an energetic impulse of “thirsty water” and so that’s how the functioning can happen without thoughts.
Iain: But where’s that coming from?
Stephen: That’s a good question, I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I think that’s part of the mystery for me.
Iain: Yeah, so it’s almost as if the body it’s self can look after itself to some extent and it knows it wants a drink so it just goes there without you constantly thinking cause the messages, the chemicals are getting to the brain saying it wants water.
Stephen: And there is a famous Zen story about someone being told to develop non-thinking, and asks the teacher “how do I do that?” and the Zen master says “think, non-thinking”.
Iain: Is that a joke or…
Stephen: No, that’s an actual Zen story.
Iain: You think non… but how do you think not thinking?
Stephen: Well, thinking non-thinking. You start with the thinking of it. The conceptualising and at some point that will get exhausted. And then perhaps one can put it down even momentarily and see that there is a stillness and silence that always here in our consciousness and we can turn to thinking like a computer.
Iain: Right. Right. Ok. So I’m looking at my notes and it took you many years to discover the Jhanas. Why don’t you explain? I don’t want to go into a lot of the detail in the book because you really have to, I think, have to have sat and done some practice and not everyone watching this might not have necessarily have done that practice. But can you maybe explain for the beginner, or relative beginner, how the practice of the Jhanas works?
Stephen: Sure, the Jhanas is a concentration practice and it’s in a body of work we call in Buddhism we call purification of mind. And so we’re taking the breath between the nostrils and the upper lip as our soul object of meditation to the exclusion of everything else. And so that begins the journey. And that starts what we call momentary concentration. Which just means you’re with the breath moment by moment. And it develops, gets more concentrated in what we call access concentration. And that’s a deeper concentration and it has some beneficial goodies. We get feelings of joy and bliss and concentration. And if that continues and we stay with the breath that can lead to the non- dual state of Jhana.
Iain: Ok, so it’s a question of sitting with your eyes closed or your eyes open?
Stephen: Eyes closed.
Iain: Eyes closed.
Stephen: It’s an interiorized practice, so we’re turning away from the senses and sensory stimulus.
Iain: Right, so your focusing on this area here, (pointing to his upper lip) you’re not necessarily focusing on the nostrils.
Iain: Or this, or the flesh here, your focusing on the gap in between, not the gap but the space in between.
Stephen: Really the breath.
Iain: The breath.
Stephen: The breath, we’re knowing the breath as it passes that area.
Iain: So you watch the breath as it comes in.
Stephen: I tend to suggest to people that they be with the breath, like for example we’re being together here. We don’t have to do anything to be together. The same with the breath, we can be with the breath without a doing happening.
Iain: Ok, well maybe we can do something afterwards in the programme. You can just talk people through briefly the begging of that practice. So if they want to they can get a practical feel for that.
Stephen: Be glad to.
Iain: So, you studied law. You’re a lawyer aren’t you?
Stephen: I am.
Iain: Yeah, so how does that fit together being a lawyer and being a Buddhist practitioner? And I know you run seminars in different countries teaching the Jhana meditation. How does that fit together?
Stephen: Well I first was drawn to the law because I could see that the Buddhist organizations in the states, in terms of organising, they were sort of flopping around a bit, with how to organise and what was the best. So I really felt a calling to the law initially so I could be a service to the Buddhist community in helping set up the corporate structures and the running to the Buddhist centres. So that was my motivation going to law school. As a lawyer and a practitioner, when I was younger I thought I had to keep these very separate, and if I combine them I would be too soft as a lawyer, it just wouldn’t work. But actually I found the opposite, as time went on I couldn’t keep them apart. They began to just intermerge, and I found my lawyering did better. People related to me better. I was more successful in my work. So bringing all of me to it made a difference.
Iain: Yeah, that an interesting thing because I know over the years, I’ve spoken to so many people that have said they love meditating, it’s very important to them. And then they go to their work environment and they almost have to forget it and it’s completely different. It’s stressful and maybe they have a boss or they have their own business and the pressure with that. But I know for myself having meditated like you for many many years, that actually the opposite is true and somehow I think probably you’re the same, it’s like the most important thing when you’re in some kind of profession is the ability to listen. What people want so much is, you must be with your clients, is that they want to be truly listened to, if they are truly listened to somehow there’s a connection and a feeling that that person really gets me, understands me and will be there for me when I need legal advice, or court case or whatever. I just think that more and more, it’s almost encouraging people not to think their practice is different from their everyday life, but it’s not.
Stephen: No, It’s an artificial separation. I think the other thing along with the listening is the ability to be present. Because for meditating, we’re meditating in the present moment, like right now we’re very orientated in this moment, we’re not anywhere else. So it assists our connection and our communication by each of us being present with the other. And to ourselves of course.
Iain: Do you find that you can maintain that presents most the time?
Stephen: I do, I don’t consider it a maintaining, rather I don’t resist it. It’s always present. It’s sort of me going into thinking and excessive personality workings that crowds out presents, crowds out that sense of contact.
Iain: Yeah, and when you lose it does it come back fairly quickly?
Stephen: As soon as I relax.
Iain: As soon as you relax, yeah. So this book, we talked about it. This book about the Jhanas. That was actually written after you did a two month retreat, see if I can pronounce it, the venerable Pa Auk Sawadaw. Is that right?
Stephen: Sayadaw, but yes.
Iain: So you found him after you had been meditating, was it twenty years?
Stephen: Probably more than thirty at that point.
Iain: More than thirty years.
Iain: And the notes that I had, which you gave me before the interview, it said after thirty years of meditation you were still rough at the edges.
Iain: So what did that mean? How did you know you were rough at the edges?
Stephen: Well, I had the good fortune, or good kamma, to have access to some good teachers, and found that I had a lot of contact with the transcendent, beginning at an early age, in childhood, but I felt that it was difficult to integrate and live from the realisation, the insights, the experiences. So I was still acting in a sort of an awkward way, the way most humans do, even though there was this beautiful and great depth available, I didn’t know how to function from it very well. So that led me to exploring different options and I ended up going to the diamond approach. Diamond heart.
Iain: So when you say the transcendent, you mean the absolute reality. They talk about in Advaita, where we’re all one, we’re all connected. That’s reality which can often discourage us from exploring the world of humans, which is complex to say the least, at times.
Stephen: Right, and I think in Buddhism we have a theory that if one has a, let’s say large enough realisation, that it will in some serendipitous way blow out the personality to where at least the awkward aspects of the personality, the undigested material will get blown out. And in my personal experience and my observation with the teachers I have been around I have never met anyone where I felt like that happened. So I knew that was a nice idea but probably wasn’t a reality. And I also witness being an attorney for a number of Zen masters and groups, I saw a lot of the bad behaviour that was going on in terms of their, basically acting out of their dysfunction around their families and students and the problems that caused. So I could see that following the Zen path continuing, it wasn’t going to help me integrate and live from it in a way that didn’t cause more harm.
Iain: Yeah, it’s almost as if the teachings, the Buddhist teaching, it’s almost an ancient teaching. It came from a world that was very different from our world now. Especially our western world, it’s so complex in so many different ways. And life, I presume, all those thousands of years ago was much simpler.
Iain: And much more traditional, and so it was easy, much more easy to integrate, I suppose, your realisation of the absolute reality with your day to day life.
Iain: Now there’s so many things you have to look at in day to day life.
Stephen: We’ve seen some studies that show that the modern person has about 35,000 thoughts a day. And most of those thoughts, like 90% are the same as the ones we had the day before and the day before. When the measured the thoughts of some of these indigenous groups that are tucked away, away from civilisation, they have between 800 and 900 thoughts a day. So that goes to your point that probably that’s what we need to function on, but we use these repetitive thoughts again and again each day that really don’t get us anywhere.
Iain: Well I haven’t heard that before, that’s fascinating. So what your saying is people that live simpily, I suppose its obvious in a way, just think a lot less than people that live a busy complex life.
Stephen: Well with all the electronic we have today and the fast pace, were constantly in contact with that and being disturbed by it.
Iain: So you mentioned diamond heart which I have also been in for many years, which is a, its actually proved to me to be so helpful in so many ways because as you say it does look at the psychological and the personal as well as focusing on the absolute. It’s like nothing is excluded. There are many, many teachers and tradition that just look at the absolute reality and ignore all the levels below which we need to somehow find a way to balance because we’re living as human beings in , as we were saying, quite a complex world.
Stephen: If I can make one point on that which is also in the Buddhist world it was viewed people would move in to being monastics. So they wouldn’t have to function with spouses and children and mortgages and cars and all the rest. This world is mostly lay people now. So how do we live from that is really the big question.
Iain: so you felt that with the teaching, that you had been taught, that it only partially helped people in terms of their journey.
Stephen: Right, so we began exploring, my teaching partner, Tina Rasmussen and I began exploring, introducing more of the psychological to what we’re seeing work with and helping them understand, let’s say, personality patterning more. So they could unhook, it could become more neutral about the compulsiveness, of that the personality patterning, the thinking patterning. What we call in Buddhism the hindrances and the defilements.
Iain: Yes, and how do you do that on a practical level. So you’re working with them in a workshop or one to one basis. So how does that come up in a practical way?
Stephen: Well, let’s say on retreat, we just finished a two week retreat in Italy a few days ago. And as one is being with the breath to the exclusion of all else, what you’re going to experience is a lot of the mind patterning. The things that compulsively get your attention, good, bad or indifferent. So by turning to the breath again and again we develop more neutrality toward the patterning and the compulsion and that helps people in their lives by in effect purifying the mind.
Iain: Ok, let’s look at it more, sort of the nitty gritty of, let’s say someone has financial problems. They’ve overstretched, they’ve spent more than they have earnt, they are in debt. It’s put pressure on their marriage, their children want the latest devices but they can’t afford them. These are problems that many people have. How do you solve that in terms of meditation?
Stephen: Well the meditation is going to at least bring more serenity and tranquillity to the person’s consciousness. And by bringing I don’t mean it’s coming from anywhere. It’s coming from their consciousness. So we can start by relaxing them a bit and possibly there will be an opportunity to see into, through discussion with them to see what the drivers are. What’s driving their need to spend so much, to please the family so much, and if that’s understood more then there becomes options. It’s kinda like we’re going down a certain road in our lives and by slowing down with meditation we can see some of the cross streets that we normally can’t see when we’re moving forward in this busy life we lead.
Iain: The problem is as well that’s almost the consensus thinking of western society. Spend more and more. And want more and more to try and find the illusive happiness which is looked for outside. When you and I know that the key is somehow inside.
Stephen: It is indeed.
Iain: And that’s not easy for people to see at times.
Stephen: No. That’s part of the beauty of the absolute is that it gives us situations where we encounter suffering. And the suffering is really the catalyst for us to say “what can I do about this?” and that’s where some of us are drawn to spiritual practice to search for answers.
Iain: Ok. So what your saying is that the absolute, the kind of the almost top of the tree if you like, in terms of our spiritual journey, that is actually giving us, you think there’s something there in the absolute that is giving us suffering or things that could make us suffer.
Stephen: Well the absolute is producing, is manifesting all form. So everything that we experience comes from the absolute and of course it’s our psychology and our upbringing and various things that cause friction when we come in contact with it. So I view it that its part of the intelligence of the absolute creating these situations, we have free will, but we create these situation that put us up against the places that were not digested, less refined and that creates the frictions that can lead us to a spiritual journey.
Iain: Yeah, and it is often, I think, for most people that they start the spiritual journey because things don’t work and they haven’t got solutions. So we need so suffering to propel us on the path.
Iain: One of the things you talk about in the book is purification of the mind. So how do you see that exactly?
Stephen: Well purification of mind, we see as having two aspects. One would be transformative, which would be more the maturing of the personality to be in alignment with ones level of realisation. And the other is transcendent, which is the orientating towards the mystery and that’s what we do when we turn to the breath, because of course we can trace the breath from this body up to the absolute. So both orientating towards the mystery and also trying to live whatever our level or interior experience or realisation is. That becomes purification of mind.
Iain: Ok, it sounds simple when you talk about it but purifying the mind, It’s a lifelong process really?
Stephen: It is, It is. And that the important thing to realise really, no matter how much we dedicate ourselves to spiritual practice we’ll never fully penetrate the absolute, the mystery. And in some ways, for someone like me, that’s really good news, because then I’m not rushing to find a finish line. I understand that process is important, not completion.
Iain: Process not completion. So what do you do with your human drive that I think a lot of us have, to complete something? Is it like it’s always creating something else because it wants to complete. Or can it get to a point where it rests.
Stephen: I feel at this point in my life I feel as though it’s resting, for many years of my life it was a drive for me. And of course I got validation in my life from teachers and parents for succeeding. So that was my orientation. And I was orientated to what we call a striver in Buddhism, I was trying to reach the goals, I was trying to attain. That can work for a certain amount of momentum. But ultimately we have to surrender and we have to open ourselves to grace in order for the mystery to revel it’s self in our consciousness.
Iain: So we were talking just now about the diamond heart process and working on the personality, not just relying on, trying to find the absolute truths of reality, but realising we’re human being with our human programs and that’s all part of the parcel if you like. I know there’s people, I feel any way, who kind of get too stuck in this examining the human side of things and it’s almost like it’s a challenge of finding a balance of the transcendent, which is who we really are, and clearing debris away trying as you were saying, trying to clear, to purify the mind and that process of trying to find the purification in mind can be an endless process.
Stephen: I think it is an endless process and again that’s why it’s helpful to me that there’s no goal, there’s no finish line. Because if we do purify, let’s say from the outside in, the more dysfunctional aspects of our behaviour then we get more and more refined but we’re always going to be finding these little places and little memories or experiences that needs some exploration, investigation or inquiry.
Iain: But how is that for you in your own process? How do you, do these things come up automatically or are you still looking? Does something happen and you have a reaction about something? Do you then look at what might be the origin or the reason for that reaction?
Stephen: Sure, of course I watch for reactivity around interacting with other people most particularly. But I find for myself that what I’m ready to work with comes up naturally in my process, either meditation or inquiry. It arises spontaneously. So that makes it a little bit easier I don’t need to go looking, but if I do find something that I feel like I think I didn’t handle well that something I’d wanna explore more.
Iain: Right, You also talked about, in some notes I had from another interview you did, that there needs to be a willingness to be transformed. And it’s interesting isn’t it, because in a way, as we discussed earlier we’re trying to get away from this ambition, this doing, this wanting to achive and yet there’s still the need to be some impulse here where, I don’t know what level it comes from , if it’s more the ego level or deep down, this willingness to change.
Stephen: Right, That’s quite important because we can, most of us when we start this journey, we want the transcendent and we don’t actually want to change. But as it starts landing we can realise that we’re not functioning from it as fully as we experience it and that’s where it ends up being a rub that seems motivating to try and figure out how to address the various ways we behave that are not congruent with our inner understanding.
Iain: Yeah, but is that always easy to spot?
Stephen: No, I think it’s not and initially, because we’re so identified with the behaviour, really we see it as subjective. “This is how I am, this is my behaviour, this is what I do”. But as we start exploring more and more there gets to be a little bit of a space, a room in there where we can start seeing ”this is how I behave. This isn’t necessarily who I am”, then it becomes objective, and when it becomes objective we can work with it. When it’s subjective it’s very hard to work with.
Iain: Yeah, but there’s something I don’t have clear for myself, we’re all human being as well as translucent being, both is still true. And, this thing of a human being, and I’m always drawn to the real characters. Now that character might contain a degree of excess. I don’t always personally mind because I find the characters like that, I find them stimulating, they’re the people that are going to discover something new, whether it be something in life practical, or another way to look at the spiritual journey. Another, if you like another path up the mountain. They’re the people that are going to go outside the norm. They’re the people, the way I see it they’re somehow, maybe through a root that isn’t completely clear, they’re the ones in some way, in touch with the absolute. Cause they’re pulling something in that isn’t the normal, it isn’t the norm.
Stephen: Right, well I think also it’s what speaks to your point to me is we all have a profound uniqueness to us, there’s no one who’s been made in the world quite like you nor will there ever be. So there’s something that’s beautiful about that to me and also then we don’t need to become homogenize robots, the clones of the world, we can be very individualistic expressions, but we can also express ourselves in ways that aren’t dysfunctional, that aren’t harming ourselves or others. So I think to open to the creativity as your talking about, and the uniqueness is very important, and I think it’s necessary for us to maintain that. Otherwise we, look at all traditions, Buddhist traditions there are ways people behave uniformly, if you go to centres you’ll see people walking similarly and behaving similarly because they’re modelling themselves after the teacher. But you see the most senior students and there not doing that, there very much their own person. And their own expression of whatever level of realisation, whatever level of purification of mind they’ve established or worked with.
Iain: Yeah, but aren’t people that are doing that, walking in a certain way and behaving in a certain way, isn’t that the rules of the monastery or rules of the centre, aren’t they being told to be doing that?
Stephen: Sometimes, sometimes there’s specific ways we do formal walking for example and meditation, but I’m meaning more as people talk and people walk. I heard a story once about the lead teacher at diamond heart A. Hameed Ali, he was favouring, using a toothpick during his sessions with students, and apparently shortly thereafter, most of the teacher began using toothpicks when they worked with students. Hameed was doing it for himself, it wasn’t something he was emulating or suggesting they do but because people want to mirror their teacher in some way, they thought well maybe this makes a difference.
Iain: Ok, well that’s a specific example, I don’t really want to go into that but it does seem that in a way I suppose I’m challenging you and your teaching which is maybe a good thing to look at. How can you be a teacher and you know that there’s a kind of a certain structure which is beneficial to the student and if they’re not somehow following that structure at least to some extent, they’re not going to understand or experientially get the value of the teaching, but how can you combine that with someone not giving their power away, which happens so much in spiritual communities, or loosing as we just discussed, their unique essential individuality.
Stephen: Well that’s a big question and I think that initially people will try to model themselves after the teacher. Tina and I discourage that. We encourage people to be themselves, to follow their own heart in their practice and that seems to help, and also as a teacher it’s very important to recognise that it’s a function, it’s a role it’s not an identity. When you take it on as an identity then that’s when a lot of the problems begin. Because you want to get that reinforced by the student which puts them into a certain behaviour with you, a certain relationship which may not be very healthy so its encouraging them to be uniquely who they are at the same time realising that the absolute is going to present to them whatever they need to work with and where ever they are on the path. So we don’t need to manipulate that as teacher, we can just recognise where they are, and one last point on this is that you’re quite right that there needs to be an established sense of self. We need a solid ego before we can move in to transcending the ego. So some people need more ego development, they perhaps need therapy to clarify the ego in order to take on a deeper spiritual practice.
Iain: Yeah, that reminds me when I was quite involved with the Rajneesh movement several years ag,o and I got a lot out of that I really did and I know there was a lot of controversy around it, and I don’t want to comment on all that, but personally from my involvement, and doing the workshops and meditation and listening to teachings, I got a lot, and then it was time to go, I was clear it was time to go. Not because there were chaotic things happening, I quite liked the chaos at the end, but it was time to go. But there are people now and I still have friends who are still so involved and they still kind of don’t want to see or, let’s just say they see it differently in terms of how things were and what went on. For them it’s not a point where you need to move out and find your own way again and I know through my history, I won’t go into all the details of that, it’s kind of been there done that as totally as I can, I felt at the time anyway, got what I can and then it’s over somehow, not in a negative way but it’s like, what’s next? And it’s, I’ve done this maybe five times with teachers and moved on. Conscious T.V. is the basis of teaching now as we meet so many fascinating people but I think that does tend to get lost and I don’t know why I’m saying this to you, you’re a teacher. Obviously it’s up to you how you erm… but would you ever throw anyone out of your teaching if you felt they got to the end, would you encourage someone to leave?
Stephen: Sometimes, there are people who as I mentioned before might need more ego development before they take on the deeper practices. So that can happen. And sometimes there are people where we might feel that they might be suitable at that time to take on some other practice, for example, engaged in diamond heart or other specific meditation. Sometimes it’s just; it feels as though someone is ready to move into something else for a while. And we don’t know if we’ll see them again or not. But speaking about it from the teacher’s perspective, a teacher has to be willing to take on the idealisation and the transference of the student, that’s part of the process. But you can’t hold them as real. You have to hold them as they’re projecting because it’s there process. They can’t yet hold that they can have these experiences themselves, that they’re worthy of having these experiences.
Iain: So talk more about this idealisation that you mentioned.
Stephen: Sure, well for example Tina and I, we were among the first westerners to complete the samatha program under our teacher. At that time there were only a couple of males, monastics had done it, western male monastics, but virtually no one else, so in doing that people project a lot that makes us special or unique or out of their league, we have some special ability that they don’t have and so for a while that helps them to project that, but at some point we want them to integrate the practice as their own and realise their own authority about it, which is how we confirm the practice as people get to different landmarks of the practice, the progression. Well confirm the landmarks, and we’ll say to them “this is your experience now, you don’t have to believe our book, you know it’s true for you” and that’s how we, in our minds were helping people become autonomous and independent too. Because we don’t want them dependent on us, that’s not the goal.
Iain: Absolutely, but it does seem to happen sometimes. Dependency is encouraged.
Stephen. It can be.
Iain: So this book, its written based on a two month experience in a retreat and for both of you, both you and Tina, your teaching partner, an awful lot happened. How much of that was to do, do you think to do with your past experience with mediation. I know that Renate, my wife, is going to interview Tina next so we’ll hear more about her side but she was obviously a long term mediator and even did a year silent, a year of silence, which is extraordinary, in the west these days. And you had done twenty years mediation.
Stephen: About thirty actually when I did that retreat, right.
Iain: Thirty years, so how important was that preparation do you think. Or do you think someone who is relatively, a relative novice could also get the same results with the commitment.
Stephen: Well I’d say anyone can take up the practice, we certainly have student who do it as a home practice, and of course we teach retreats. One needs a sustained retreat to do this practice to its dept. Because we really need silence, which is really the rocket fuel for the journey. And in a retreat container, we can hold that better. So I think that’s important. For me I think that my experience meditating for thirty years had a lot to do with it. For example, I knew how to conduct myself on retreat. Also on that point I had already had the awakening, so I didn’t have a firm belief in the sense of self, so as the consciousness approaches the non-dual state, most people have a certain amount of existential angst. The personality gets it’s not going into the non-dual state and it begins to put on the breaks, and for Tina and I, we’d each had an awakening beforehand so there wasn’t the same resistance or the fear of the non-dual state.
Iain: Those awakenings that happen, it is often a grace of god isn’t it. You can do the work if you like, you can do the practice, the meditation but you can’t force the awakening. It either does or it doesn’t happen.
Stephen: Meditation is nonlinear, so when we’re meditating we’re not creating a result. We’re really kind of tenderising ourselves, softening, being more receptive, being less reactive, less resistant. And so some of it is simply that and getting to a point that we can, from inside we can let go. We can surrender. And that’s where the opening can happen.
Iain: Let go and surrender, what does surrender mean to you.
Stephen: It means offering everything. For me it’s a part devotional, where I feel, when I’m deep in this practice or other practices, surrender for me means letting go of everything, all the good experiences, all the difficult experiences, anything that’s coming up in my consciousness. I’m just letting go, I’m offering up to the absolute. Not in a dualistic way, just I’m not, putting my hand in the river and letting the water flow, I’m not trying to grab anything.
Iain: You’re putting your hand in the water and letting it flow and not trying to grab anything. But the mind always wants to grab.
Stephen: It does.
Iain: So do you watch it grabbing in the mind?
Stephen: If it’s present I will. And if it’s not present then of course I won’t.
Iain: And who’s watching the grabbing of the mind.
Stephen: Of course the awake awareness is watching.
Iain: Awake awareness. Yeah. But that, is that the transcendent? Or is there a stage in between.
Stephen: I think it’s an expression of the transcendent. It’s a way that, basically it’s the universal consciousness; we can say it that way as well.
Iain: Ok. So one thing that you are, we had our dinner. You talked about the 51 percent rule. Which I had heard before, but you did say that you came up with that. So obviously another person had taken it from you.
Stephen: I am not sure I would be that bold but I would say that Tina and I came up with that about 10 years ago in our teaching. And really that was meant to communicate to people, for most of us, when we make contact with the transcended it’s glimpses, it’s the little moments , the little flashes of insight and understanding that we have, and the 51 percent rule just simply means that as we have these glimpse, they can accumulate, they can collect. And when it seems to be when we get to that 51 percent, when it’s more than half, then that’s when the next glimpse turns into a life altering, a foundation shifting experience to where we don’t believe the personality anymore and we understand that we are our deepest nature , which really is a personalisation of the absolute.
Iain: So, for people that are not necessarily know this terminology, so 51 percent. So what your saying is at 51 percent is when someone has enough experiences of let’s say oneness or absolute reality, that they then are able to pretty much , integrate that or start to integrate that into their daily lives so they’re not caught in the dramas, or if they are caught they get out a bit quicker. And there, they have a different value system in their life shall we say, is that, am I summarising that correctly.
Stephen: Right, it’s the start of the shift that then does the whole process of understanding what their realisation has been and how to live from it in the place they were not successful in living from it. We’re basically clunky humans.
Iain: So 51 percent doesn’t mean that you’re enlightened.
Iain: So basically it mean you’re, you got to the point where you know who you are, you know you’re not just a human being, individual. But you know you got work to do and you trust that life is gonna guide you with situations that come up and then you look deeper in these situation, is that right?
Stephen: Yes, I think that’s well said.
Iain: Looking at my notes..
Stephen: Could I mention one more thing about diamond heart?
Stephen: I think one of the big values for me was being able to work with the ego deficiency, because in Buddhism we don’t really have a way to work with that at all. I mean the Buddha of course was teaching 2600 years ago, and depth psychology is probably 150 years old so wasn’t available. But that was an important piece of work to, was working with that when it came up. So rather than that operating and really being problematic in terms of integrating transcended experience, when that gets resolved, and of course in the diamond approach it has to do with the development and emergence of what’s called the pearl, which is the personal essence the personal uniqueness of us as a manifestation of the absolute.
Iain: Yeah, we should explain at diamond heart is also known as the Ridhwan school. It’s a head is A.H. Almaas also known as Hameed Ali, he’s written many, many books, probably about 20 books and if anyone is interested they can google diamond heart or Ridhwan school and they can find it and you can go, you can go to introductory evening and maybe you can commit to joining a group. Something you got value from and I certainly got enormous value from over the years.
Iain: Its something about, you know, I think we’re going to do a separate program that’s going to go on the end of this interview anyway, with Tina and Renate, my wife. We’re going to talk more about this practical thing. It’s the integration of these experiences that’s so important isn’t it.
Stephen: It is.
Iain: Without the experiences you’re never going to really find out who you really are, you’re never going to really understand that because you’re still going to get caught in your human separateness, but the realisations themselves are only pointers. They’re only kinda there, they’re gateways, and they come and go.
Stephen: They do. Well for Tina and I this is really how we see the current state of affairs that we’re in this model now where more of us are living as lay people in the world. We’re in relationships, we have families, and we’re not retreating to monasteries or nunneries anymore. At least not in the volume that once was true. So it really becomes how do we live from our experience, how do we function as ordinary people who are actually quite extraordinary, and that’s true for everyone. Everyone is extraordinary, but how do we live from that and express our uniqueness in a way that connects us rather than divides us.
Iain: Yeah, probably a good place to finish.
Stephen: It sounds good, thank you so much for having me, it’s been a pleasure.
Iain: Well, Thank you Stephen for being on our show. The book again, practicing the Jhanas by Stephen and his working partner Tina, which you can get on amazon. And if you’re on the internet and you want to know more stay tuned, and thank you for watching conscious T.V. goodbye.
To watch the original video
interview click here. This programme has been transcribed on a voluntary basis. If you would like to offer to transcribe a video on the same basis, then please
All text copyright © Conscious TV Ltd.