Sundance Burke - Free Spirit: A Guide to Enlightened Being
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Sundance, you’re visiting from America, and you have a book out called Free Spirit: A Guide to Enlightened Being, which I’ve read and enjoyed. And I think I’ll start this by asking you what happened when you were thirty-two years old, because in your book you talk about being on the edge of despair. I think you were working as a lawyer in the States and something happened, didn’t it?
Sundance: Yes. It wasn’t a deep, deep despair. I would call it the ‘garden variety’ despair that many young people experience as they’re moving into the adult world. In my twenties, I had a really blissful, happy, positive life. Everything was going beautifully. After I got out of school and started working as a lawyer, I just wasn’t very happy and I was growing more and more unhappy with being an adult and living in the programming and conditioning of what life is as a grown-up.
Iain: So I guess what you had, many people were striving for - you were successful in your career, I think you were married at the time, is that right?
Sundance: Yes, yes.
Iain: So you probably had a nice house with a couple of cars and...
Sundance: Yes, yes… like my father had. He basically had the surface reality of success on every level. He had a wonderful family, he was a surgeon with high esteem; so he had wealth, he had power, he had the love of his family and his children. But I could tell he wasn’t a happy man. And I was originally named Donald Russell Burke the Third.
Sundance: I think from the time I was young, I thought it was strange to be called ‘the Third’, and I always felt there was something up about that, you know. Once I started getting educated, I felt like there was something that I needed to learn about these ‘Donalds’, and being a person, being a man, and being who I really am. For some reason the name always created a situation in me that was like, “Who am I? I am Donald Russell Burke the Third - but who am I?”
Iain: So this question was coming up at that time?
Sundance: Again, in retrospect, when I look back, after all this time and all these events and all this internal change, I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was going on. It was a process in motion within me.
Iain: Because, again, picking up on the notes I made from the book, you said you felt you had this underlying sense of dread and there was an anxiety, a vague fear you had.
Sundance: [sighs] Yes, almost as if something was going to happen. I actually didn’t think I was going to live very long.
Sundance: Yes, and somebody showed me my lifeline [holding up palm of right hand], and it is really, really short [laughing]. But it was vague, it wasn’t clear - and yet, it was always there. I was kind of aware of the sense of unease in my being, as I was that way even as a child, not really that confident. And, as I say, in my twenties, I had a very confident period that lasted for about a decade and then started to break down. It started to fall apart, and that concerned me. Being aware of my own self, I started to feel some concern over that and, about the age of thirty-two, I was feeling like something’s got to give here, something’s got to happen. And something did happen: I met my conscious quest for the truth of who I am.
Iain: That’s a big statement: “You met your conscious... ?”
Iain: ...for the truth of who you were.
Iain: So how did that happen?
Sundance: Well, I guess this may be helpful for some people. It’s a personal experience and everybody has a different story, but the themes are often the same.
I never could stick with anything. I always felt like I hadn’t really found my road. So everything that I tried seemed like it wasn’t going to work out, seemed like it would be temporary. Even my practising of law felt that way. At this particular time, I was feeling that I don’t think I can stay here that long, but my conscious self didn’t want to admit to that. I’d invested an enormous amount of energy, time and money to be this professional person, so there was a big conflict. One part of me wanted to continue with life as it was, and another part knew that there was something going on that was lacking integrity.
So one day, in 1982, I was in my law office dozing, with my head on my desk - which I did a lot as a lawyer, I often had a hard time [laughing] with that job!... And at that particular moment, I felt like I needed to get out of town. So I called some clients who I had down in California and I made an excuse to come down and do some work with them. I booked a flight for that day...
Iain: This is really spontaneous stuff then?
Sundance: Very spontaneous. I booked the flight for later that day, decided I should shave off my beard, went home, met with my family, let them know what I was about to do, went into the bathroom and started to shave. I’d never had a beard before, so I didn’t actually know how long it would take to shave one off...
Sundance: And I was running behind time to catch my plane, so I couldn’t get it all off. I got like half of it off and then had to leave to catch my flight. Before this, I’d called my client and, instead of my client answering the phone, an Asian man answered the phone. I didn’t know who he was and I asked him to let my client know when I would be arriving and requested that he pick me up at the airport, if he could. So I got on the plane half-shaven, which I thought was kind of silly [laughing], and when we landed my client picked me up. I asked him about the man who answered the phone and he said, “Oh, he’s an enlightened Master and he’s staying with us at our house!” Then he started telling me all these fantastic stories about him.
Iain: Did the words ‘enlightened Master’ mean anything to you at that time?
Sundance: Well, he might not have even said ‘enlightened’ - he might have just said ‘Master’. Yes, because I was interested somehow. I was raised Catholic, so I always had some background in spirituality, Christ-consciousness. I wasn’t completely ignorant that there were states of love, states of peace, states of being that had been emanated by some beings on earth in the past. And I had done some reading - Carlos Castaneda, you know: the tales of Don Juan, those kinds of books. I had experienced conversations about the occult and about psychic experiences - in fact, with this particular client.
Iain: So you had a personal relationship with your client to a degree as well?
Sundance: Yes, I tended to be that way. I was very personal with all... throughout my life. I made it a point to have personal connections, no matter what I was doing. And so to make a long story a little shorter... I was feeling some trepidation, as he told me about this man. Part of me was really excited to meet him and another part was scared. So when we got to my client’s house in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and this Master wasn’t there, I felt relieved for the moment.
Iain: Oh, this Master, yes.
Sundance: So I went into the house, got acclimatized and decided I would shave the rest of this beard off. I went into the bathroom and, while I was in the bathroom, the doorbell rings. Nobody in the house seemed to be answering it, so I decided to answer it. I went out and, as I got to the entry hallway, my client was already there at the open door. I see a smallish Asian man in traditional Eastern robes standing there. He looks at me and he says, “I think I know you”. I’ve got a razor in my hand [laughing] and shaving cream all over my face, and I just said “Ah-ah”. I really didn’t know what to say.
So I went back into the bathroom and I am looking in the mirror, shaving the beard off, and asking myself, “What am I doing here? Why do I have this beard? Why am I shaving it off? Why is that little man out there saying he thinks he knows me?” I finish shaving, go out into the living room - and there’s a whole group of people sitting there. Before there was no one - now there’s a whole group of people sitting around this Master, who is sitting in a big chair. I had tried to meditate on my own in law school and always felt that I could without training. But, in this particular moment, he was leading everyone in the room in a guided meditation and I felt a little uncomfortable.
After about two minutes of it, I just couldn’t do it, so I opened my eyes. And right at that moment, he opened his eyes as well. He focused on me and asked, “How’s it going? How’s this working for you?” I explained I was having some difficulty. He came over and sat next to me on the couch, and I felt a rapport and a real ease with this being. Before long, with my eyes closed, he was guiding me in a breathing technique and, pretty soon, the people in the room pulled me onto the floor. This breathing technique continued, and he was leading me back through my life, all the way prior to birth.
Iain: So he led you back...
Iain: ...like a regression.
Sundance: ...consciously taking me back.
Sundance: I know what these things are now, but at the time I didn’t know what was going on. I was doing this really forced breathing - I think they call it ‘rebirthing’. And so I was really breathing hard and I was struggling. This went on for fifteen, twenty minutes. And I’m lying there, with my eyes closed. I’m just letting everything happen. I’m surrendering to whatever this thing is, to have this experience.
And just when I’m about to quit, I start to feel this energy enter into me. It got really intense, my whole body became electric and I had a sense of touch way outside my physical form. I was lying on the floor and my arms spontaneously rose to the sky, as I’m engulfed in this total electric experience.
Next, my consciousness starts going into a conscious dream about my parents and me, the three of us. I had a difficult childhood, as my father had a lot of rage and anger and, when he drank, he would get quite violent and abusive. Yet I adored him, and my mother as well. But during this vision, I could see clearly that they had no escape from being as they were and that I had no escape from being involved. Somehow, I became forgiveness and love in that moment. I became totally accepting. And I could see that it was unconscious, that it had never been personal, that it had never been about separation, that it had never been about me and my father, or my mother, or any separate individuals. It had been this aberration of beauty and love and, in that moment, there was this enormous forgiveness and healing of pain and hurt.
Eventually, this experience dissipated and I just felt totally at peace and loving of everyone in the room, all strangers. I felt euphoric and peaceful.
So that was my beginning or turning point. And after that experience - which I realise is not a full enlightenment event - I knew that a new life had begun for me. I knew that I would be continuing to meet with this person and experience whatever it was that he had to share with me. In fact, that did happen for a period of three years.
Iain: So, I guess, something had changed in your reference point and you realised you weren’t what you thought you were. But it wasn’t a clear answer - it was...
Sundance: No, I still thought I was me, you know.
Iain: You did?
Sundance: Yes. I just had a real healing experience. This was the first of many, many spiritual experiences - too many to actually go into, each deeper than the next - over a number of years with two or three key teachers that I always had a direct relationship with. And some experiences happened to me spontaneously, when I was not with a teacher. It seemed that I just fell into this path of being a seeker of true love, peace and authenticity of being.
Iain: Did you feel somebody or something was guiding you? How did you feel in the ongoing process?
Sundance: Well, the guide seemed to be both within and without. I saw the teachers and the settings as without, and I felt an affinity within to embrace the experiences and participate fully. I had resistance come up for me during various levels of the experience and teaching, and I felt that resistance and dealt with it as it arose. I also became a huge observer of the teacher, myself, and all the energies and the interactions of the relationship.
Iain: So it’s as if there was something in you standing back and watching what was going on? Were you watching your thoughts as well?
Sundance: Well, there’s something in all of us that is always aware - it just depends upon our interests. I mean, our attention goes where our interests lie. Because I was very interested in this new life, this new way, and in this unusual being who, quite honestly, exhibited supernatural, unbelievable powers.
I was thirty-two, I was young and I was a normal guy, you know. I loved a party, I loved to dance, I loved to play, I loved working. I loved everything that normal people do. And this guy, this teacher, was also thirty-two, except he’d been around the world about three times and he operated completely differently. And I could see that. I could feel that, I could sense it - and I was curious. “How did you get like that and what is that?” And I’d never met anybody in my entire life like this guy, and I was fascinated. So it was natural for me to pay attention. And because the real subject matter of this encounter was internal, there was a lot internal going on, a lot of self-observation.
But I was also taught from the get-go. I was introduced to the teachings of Gurdjieff and Osho (formally Rajneesh), which were all about self-awareness and consciousness. Gurdjieff spoke of self-observation and self-remembering. I was pointed to a whole library of spiritual books to read: Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta, Buddha, the Himalayan Masters...
Iain: Yes, you were really absorbing yourself in a lot of…
Sundance: And this is probably common with a lot of people who are seekers.
Iain: Sundance, was there a particular point that you felt something radically shifted, looking back on it, that was very significant?
Sundance: I had many radical shifts, many. Some of them were like what Renate was talking about. I used to travel outside of my body. It’s very radical for that to happen, because then you realise you’re not your body... [laughing]
Iain: That’s a very big realisation.
Sundance: Yes, it is, and I used to love it. It was fun. An energy would start in the bottom of my feet, sometimes when I was in bed, and it would run right up through my body. And as soon as it rose through the crown of my head, I was out, and I would go to other worlds which were as real as this one. I mean literally as real as this one, except they operated with different laws; they weren’t as physically bound.
Iain: How did this impact you day to day, when you could leave your body, realising you were not the body, or not only the body?
Sundance: My day-to-day life shifted, because I gave all my attention to this process of awakening, this process of finding out who I am or experiencing this new realm of being that was new to me. So if I made a lot of money on a law case, I would spend six months focusing on this kind of stuff. I would leave my everyday world and would go into this world with these encounters - which seemed kind of crazy to my friends and family...
Iain: It’s not what lawyers normally do, is it?
Sundance: You know, I was the only one happy with it, really... [laughs]
Sundance: Everybody else was a little freaked out by it.
Iain: I can imagine.
Sundance: But I couldn’t stop: it was a compulsion and I had to go that way. Whenever I fought going that way, it was hopeless and I’d have to go back to exploring.
Iain: You mention in your book... I’m just going to read a sentence here. There came a point where you realised that “Awakening had always been and always is 24/7”. That must have been quite something to realise?
Sundance: [laughing] Well, all that does for me, now, is make me realise the absolute presence of this. Because, as a seeker, you’re trying to merge with this, but with realisation there is no story to it anymore - there’s only the fact of it.
Iain: Explain the difference, because this is something that is very difficult for some seekers to understand, the difference between the two - like they’re seeking and trying and knowing they’re not happy. They think, “Well, I’ll do another workshop, I’ll do another meditation or whatever, and something will change and I’ll be at peace”. But then something can happen that is actually completely different than you imagine it’s going to be.
Sundance: Well, the whole dilemma isn’t resolved until I’m not the body at one level - and I’m not the mind at the biggest level - is realised by direct experience. It took me seventeen years of trial and error, before my mind gave up latching on to who I am.
Iain: So I understand this: for seventeen years you had a degree of realisation, you were in this ongoing exploration and process, and then at some point you were able to...
Sundance: I was trapped until one particular moment that I didn’t realise had happened until maybe six, seven months later, where the thinking mind no longer could trap me. All doubt went away, all confusion went away, because I was no longer going into the mind at all to find out who I am.
Iain: OK. So the mind would operate, it would still do its... whatever it does...
Sundance: Right, right.
Iain: ...right. There was something else that’s watching the mind go on?
Sundance: And that’s who we are… awareness, pure light, the essence, the core, the centre, the source out of which everything flows, which can be described, and has been, as stillness. But it’s beyond the mind.
So often what I see with seekers, as I was a seeker, is that there’s a level of freedom from glimpses of this. People can experience in a spiritual gathering of high quality, ‘no mind’, let’s say, for a while; presence, the state of awareness without thinking. And then maybe they can’t maintain that presence because they still, in their own experience, in their own investigation, are carrying identification with thinking, with mind. So there’s still that thought, that image or mind-made self, that continues to pull them back into ego, into duality.
Iain: So, Sundance, when you’re looking at me, you’re in the studio, you’re aware of the studio here… what’s your reality?
Sundance: [Silence... then laughter] Well, see, it’s multi-dimensional. I guess that’s the best I can say. On the one level there’s the words ‘me’, ‘you’, the ideas, and on another level there’s just being… [pause] …and light, and silence. And you can go as deeply as you want here, if you really want to see the answer to that question. It’s within you; the answer is within. And it’s the only true answer. You see, nothing I could say to ‘you’, using that word lightly, will be your answer. It can only be what you know directly, and that is within each of us. So that it’s the real truth, a direct truth - not a borrowed truth, not an imitation.
Iain: One of the things that really, really interests me - like with the previous interview on Conscious TV, where your wife, Katie, was interviewed by Renate - is this. Her primary awakening was very sudden and she had not really done any spiritual work. Yet something happened and - boom! [clicks fingers] - she had, as I understand it, a completely different reference point of who she was. And that reference point was no longer the personality, it was “no longer her story”, I believe were the words she used.
Iain: There was something, how I would describe it, way, way back that was real to her, as her. Now with you it seemed... This is quite fascinating, because it was completely different… There was a slow process over seventeen years, and over that seventeen years, you have arrived at a similar reference point. And you know that reference point is tangible and real, no matter what happens. I’m kind of speaking for you [laughing], but I’m trying to crystallise this for people who are watching. So that reference point is so real; it can be partially obscured or hidden, but it never really goes, is that right? I’m trying to put it into ordinary words.
Sundance: The only thing or words I have to deal with are ‘reference point’, because ‘reference point’ loses its meaning in this. This is being, direct being, pure consciousness, without bringing in a reference point. See, if the mind is no longer involved, there is no reference point, because that’s where reference points come from.
Iain: But there’s still something, somebody, watching everything.
Sundance: Well, awareness is manifest and unmanifest, and you don’t need to know it consciously for it to be.
Iain: No, I understand that.
Sundance: Yes, yes. It is. It just is. Now I guess the first reference point would be the appearance of consciousness itself; that’s the very first reference point. In other words, the beginning of ‘you’. And this beginning can actually be seen. One particular place you can see this is when you are dead asleep and then you wake up. At the moment of waking, it’s possible to see the birth of consciousness, and to exist formlessly as that witness and see consciousness move into images and forms.
Iain: Let’s look at that, because I think it’s very interesting and possibly very useful for people. I know this space: you wake up, and somehow it happens very fast. I know this from my experience. There’s degrees of information streaming in, but then there’s a moment when I wake up. I don’t know anything and yet, somehow, I’m awake. I don’t know I’m awake and then there’s a point, “Yes, I am”. And information comes in that gives me a series of reference points to this sense of being. But at that initial point, that’s right - there’s just ‘awakeness’. And I think that’s something that we all experience in our own way.
Sundance: Yes, and since we’re talking at such a source level, at the point where manifest life begins, let me say that the mind is looking for this in experience. And what I’m talking about now is that, in this place of pure witnessing, you realise that you are not an experience of any kind, because all experience is mental and it comes, has a beginning, a duration and an end. It comes and goes, it all comes and goes. So you’re no longer identified with experience, no longer seeking the experience, as it’s no longer important. See, before, as a seeker, you were seeking experience, and the mind thinks that it should be a permanent experience; permanently peaceful, permanently loving, permanently wise. But there is no experience that can capture the totality of who you are.
Iain: So what you’re saying is experience is a reflection or an observation or an interpretation of something that happens, because the happening itself is real? But I think you’re focusing on the word ‘experience’ - is that right? Like I’m sitting here with you and I’m just talking...
Sundance: Well, how real is it? How real is a happening? How real is a dream? It happens, but then it’s gone. Essentially, no one is denying manifestation, but it certainly isn’t who you are. It would be a big mistake, maybe not a conscious mistake, to identify yourself with the ephemeral, the temporary.
Iain: But isn’t that part of the adventure of life, which is the adventure of consciousness as it manifests in our incredible world? The bottom line seems to be that everything is consciousness, we could probably agree...
Sundance: Well, you’re the source [laughing].
Iain: …we could probably agree on our human level, and then everything is a manifestation of that. And isn’t it what we do with that manifestation? Because the manifestation itself is just manifesting.
Sundance: I’m not quite sure, Iain, what you’re asking at this point. Can you...?
Iain: OK, if I personalise it more. So, I find for myself that, more and more, I feel I’m living as an expression of life. Now part of that is coming through patterns, things that I have learnt. And I am this certain way because I’m programmed to be so. But I’m also increasingly aware of something that is very authentic. I feel it talking now: it’s very authentic, very real - that is, just here being with you. I’m not really observing what I’m saying - I’m talking, obviously, and the talking is partly what I’ve learnt. But I’m just being here with you, and that is consciousness for me being authentic, being real. I’m living. I’m not necessarily experiencing, because I’m not reflecting on what I’m saying, I’m not analysing what I’m saying. And we all seem to be unique human beings who are living our lives.
Sundance: Yes, we’re a happening, you know. It’s just happening, we’re happening.
Iain: I feel now we’re meeting at a different level as I look at you. You’re quite still and I’m excited, but there’s a meeting here, which we can call a happening, I guess. [silence] Do you have any thoughts, as you look at me? What is happening from your side?
Sundance: OK. When this integrates very deeply, there is a non-dual emptiness, a beingness that we are, that we share. The way this manifests when it’s embodied and integrated is that your life becomes like you’re describing, very spontaneous. You’re not thinking, you’re not in your thinking mind. You’re not in time, in the past. You’re not in memory or expectation. You’re not in anticipation, you’re not in the future. You’re just this. This is allowed to be as it is, and it goes unnamed, unlabelled, uncategorised, unmemorised, not put into the storehouse. So, in an embodied way, you live life thoughtlessly. In other words, you eat without thinking, you walk without thinking, and you work without thinking. The psychological self is out of the picture. Life goes on: “Chop wood, carry water”. But there’s just that… just that, very simple, very direct, very uncomplicated and very pure.
Iain: Yes, but isn’t there also intelligence there, in so far as... when I eat...?
Sundance: Not a thoughtful intelligence.
Iain: ...but there’s still... there’s a quality. It’s not analysed, so when I eat, I try to eat reasonably healthy food, because my body functions better on that. It’s not like I think I must have healthy food, blah, blah, blah… but there’s still some intelligence operating.
Iain: You call it naturalness?
Sundance: ...an authenticity, presence.
Iain: Presence in itself has all these qualities which include intelligence?
Sundance: Very creative, very diverse, no pattern, the pure manifestation of a creative form happening. But it’s not eternal; it comes and it goes. There’s something deeper that we are, more essential, that is the source. And what Katie and I are trying to share is the realisation of that source, because that’s where the doubt drops and the clarity is. Only when you are directly encountering the source nature of who you are. And there is no substitute for discovering that directly. You must finish the job. That’s why it took seventeen years.
In fact, I always wanted to share, but I never dared, because I was honest with myself. I knew I couldn’t share because I wasn’t complete in the understanding. I see so many people now sharing enlightenment, just because they’ve had a glimpse, and they haven’t really been truthful with themselves to look within and be honest to know when they’re finished. You will know.
Iain: So when you say “You must finish the job”, who is the ‘you’ that must finish the job? Where does that come from?
Sundance: Well, that’s when that dual self, that mental self, drops away, and before that you can kind of know intellectually. You can know that the ego must go. Intellectually, you can say, “I really have to get over this fictitious self that keeps driving me, owning me”. You pretty much know your dilemma. You can know that there is this ‘one’ that is in the way. Now, you can’t use that ‘one’ to get rid of it, but you can continue to deepen your inquiry, you can continue to contemplate the nature of that false one. And the more you learn about the false one, the easier it is for it to no longer hold the sway.
Iain: Yes. Is the false one totally false?
Sundance: Yes and no. Yes, it is totally false - and no, as an experience, it’s coming from source. It’s all one.
Iain: So it’s still somehow a creation of consciousness in itself?
Sundance: Well, that’s all there is [laughing].
Iain: Yes. It’s a subject that intrigues me. If everything is a creation of consciousness, then what is false?
Sundance: Well, you know, as humans, we’ve been very unconsciously addicted to body and mind as being who we are. And we haven’t really looked at the elemental aspect of who we are that is so obviously here: consciousness. It’s like we somehow can’t grasp the unbelievable nature of the fact that we know anything at all. It’s the knowing that is so clearly more than the names and forms that we identify with and attach to through our conceptual thinking mind and the sensory experience of the body. The sensory experience needs to be known. The thinking needs to be known. By whom? Who is that? Who is the knower? Is the knower the thinking mind? Is the knower the body and the sensory apparatus? Or are we really missing the essence of what we truly are and have always been?
Iain: That’s the question, isn’t it? What we really are and always have been. And that’s something that you’ve realised and you’re absolutely clear on that.
Sundance: Yes. And we are even beyond manifestation. See, everyone wants to continue living in this form, in this manifestation, because they have not completed the journey of finding out who they are. But what can I, or anyone, find in life that equates to or equals what I actually am, which has no way of being described? So it’s like you’re awake in a dream. You know it’s a dream and you’re awake as that which is sourcing the dream.
Iain: So, now, we’re going to have to stop. Our allotted time is over, I’m afraid.
Sundance: No [mimicking shock]!
Iain: Your title is very good, Free Spirit [holding up book], because I think that’s how you would see where you are: you’re a free spirit, basically.
Sundance: Yes. It’s That beyond the body and mind - the spirit, the consciousness, the awareness, the ‘I’ that is our essence, yes.
Iain: Great. Sundance, really appreciate you coming in and talking to Conscious TV.
Sundance: Thanks for having me, Iain.
Iain: I’d like to recommend Sundance’s book, Free Spirit: A Guide to Enlightened Being.
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