"To be enlightened is to be intimate with all things." Zen Master Dogen
How is it possible to remain as awareness in more demanding situations, without taking a step back, without separating yourself?
Instead of knowing yourself as the witnessing presence of awareness in the background of experience ("2nd possibility"), you know yourself as the light of pure knowing at the heart of all experience ("3rd possibility").
In these two possibilities, I use two different metaphors. For the 2nd possibility, we describe awareness as kind of an empty space, and thoughts, feelings, sensations, all take place within this space. So awareness is slightly removed from the objects – independent, free, in the background of the object.
In the 3rd possibility, when we know ourselves as the knowing that all experience is made of, forget the image of a space-like awareness in which objects appear. Go to my favorite metaphor of the aware screen. Imagine a screen, a TV screen without any borders. The screen is watching a movie taking place on it. The movie is not being watched by someone sitting on a sofa. Now before the movie starts, the screen is just empty. You can go to Netflix and choose any movie you like. All possibilities, the screen is just pure potential. And because it is colorless, all colors can appear on it. If the screen had a pinkish hue to it, then only pinkish images would be possible. But it’s because the screen is colorless, it has no color of its own, that all images are possible. So you go to Netflix and you choose a thriller, the thriller starts, the thriller is being watched by the screen. The image is not appearing on the screen. In fact screen and image are two names for the same thing. There isn’t screen plus image, like in the 2nd possibility - the space of awareness and object. In this understanding, there aren’t two things. There is not awareness plus it’s object. There is not screen plus image.
To begin with, we think that the screen is behind the image. It’s not. All there is to the image is screen. Now screen is pure knowing. It is the knowing that pervades all experience. Now even that is not right. We can’t say that the screen pervades the image. Because that suggests that there is one thing called an image and another thing called a screen that pervades the image. No. It’s just a way of speaking, because language is limited. So it’s not that all experience is pervaded by knowing. It’s that all there is to experience is knowing – like all there is to the image is the screen.
Now you’re at work, surrounded by people, the phones are going, your boss is being unreasonably demanding, there’s full, demanding life going on in your office – and it consists of thoughts, feelings, sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, - this multicolored, multidimensional experience.
All there is, all you know of all of that, is just the knowing of it. Is there anything there other than the knowing of it? Now you are that knowing. The same is true now.
Take the sight of this room, which thought perceptualizes as an object out there, separate from me which is in here - the seer in here, and the seen out there. That’s what thought says about experience. But actually, all we know of this room is the experience of seeing. Look around – it’s just the experience of seeing. And if we touch the stuff that seeing is made of, what do we find? Just the knowing of it. You are that knowing. In other words, you find yourself everywhere. You, not you a body-mind, you this pure knowing, pure awareness are the substance, not just the background of experience, but the foreground of experience, the substance, the reality of all experience.
Look around you now, at your thoughts, your feelings, your choices, your sights, do you find anything there other than the knowing of it? When your boss is yelling at you, is there anything other than the knowing of it? When you are choosing what to do, in that choice, which is a thought, is there anything other than the knowing of thinking? In other words, this knowing only ever comes in contact with itself. It can never know another, or an object. It just knows itself. And there, this knowing finds itself completely intimate with all experience – not with just this little corner of experience called my body-mind, equally intimate with all experience – totally in love. This is what William Blake meant when he said ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’ This knowing is so close, to all experience. Closer than close. One with – not even one with because even when we say ‘one with’ it suggests that knowing is one thing and experience is another thing, and that knowing and experience are one. They are not one – they were not two to begin with. This complete intimacy with all experience is what is called love. That is the way you, pure knowing, lives 24/7.
So we find ourselves as this pure knowing totally at the heart of all experience. Not just this little corner of experience, but all experience, totally intimate with it, but, at the same time, free of it. In just the same way that the screen is totally intimate with whatever’s playing on it – the good guys, the bad guys, the people that are right, the people that are wrong, everyone and everything, equally intimate with all appearances. At the same time, the screen is completely unaffected by what takes place in the movie. So it is this combination of absolute intimacy or love, and at the same time, total freedom. The freedom doesn’t have to be found in the background of experience – I the aloof witnessing presence of awareness and all the objects of the body-mind world over there that can’t touch me. That’s a half-way stage. This is something else. This is right in the midst of experience, at the heart experience. Even in difficult situations, at the office, at your job, as a teacher with pupils: everything’s going on, ten thousand things going on, it’s far too much for your body-mind to cope with – this kid is screaming, that kid is throttling somebody out, this one’s tipping paint everywhere etc. You’re trying to handle it, it’s far too much, you’re going crazy. At the same time, all there is to your experience, is the knowing of it, and you are that knowing. You are the substance, the reality of everything that is taking place, totally one with it. So you can just give yourself totally to the chaos, to all the kids, to the chaos.
Sometimes you do the right things, sometimes you do the wrong things. In other words, you just do your best all the time. In hindsight, you would have thought ‘Oh I shouldn’t have done that, it would have been better to tell James no.’ But you did your best at the time. So you can give yourself totally to the chaos of the situation. You don’t have to practice being the witnessing presence of awareness. That’s not a good idea for someone teaching kids – you don’t have that time. And if you did, you wouldn’t be a good teacher. To be a good teacher, you have to totally be in there, in their midst, right at the heart of the children’s chaos and noise. So you can be there, totally one with, to know yourself, everything you see, you are that. The child that is behaving like an angel in that corner, the child that is behaving like a nightmare in that corner, everything that’s going on, you are the reality, the substance of all that. You give yourself totally to that. But at the same time, you are not stained by it, you are not harmed by it, you’re not hurt by it. Like the screen – the thriller is taking place; the guy is strangling his next-door neighbor; the screen is one with it, but the screen doesn’t die. The screen is not being hurt. The screen is not stained by the activity. The film ends, and the screen just remains as it always is. So you are like that. You can give yourself totally to experience.
Questionner : I understand what you mean, but for me it’s a process.
Rupert Spira : Yes, it’s a transition between these two possibilities, you’re right. So when you’re at home, in the peace and the privacy of your home, you are abiding as the space-like presence of awareness – the sounds are flowing through you, thoughts are flowing through you, sensations are flowing through you, you’re this open, empty, space-like presence of awareness. And then, as you do that at home, take a sound, and see that the sound is not an object that is flowing through you. All there is to the sound is the awareness with which it is known. So in that way, bring the sound closer. See that it’s not actually an object, and you are not a subject. It’s a transition between the 2nd possibility and the 3rd possibility. You are starting with ‘I am the open empty state of awareness and these objects have got nothing to do with me. They just float through me. They just pass by like the sound of the traffic.’ That’s the 2nd possibility, and it’s a valid stage. ‘I am the witnessing presence of awareness. This open, empty, borderless, space-like presence.’ But then, take a sound, and think, 'That’s not true. The object is not separate from me. All I know of this sound is the experience of hearing. And all I know of the experience of hearing is the knowing of it. In other words, the sound doesn’t just pass through awareness, it is made out of awareness.' That is the way, having separated yourself from the objects of the body-mind world, in order to establish your true nature. This is the way of bringing them close again. But this time it isn’t just the body-mind that is experienced as close, intimate, myself, it is the entire realm of experience is experienced as equally close, equally intimate.
So you can first of all explore this when you are at home in peaceful circumstances, then, as circumstances begin to get a bit more demanding, your husband comes in, and things are just a little bit more difficult, a little bit of agitation starts, but again, explore that, and see that nothing that your husband does or says, however pleasant or unpleasant, harms you. You can respond appropriately, if he’s unreasonable, you can say ‘No, that’s not acceptable’, you can still say ‘No’, it doesn’t mean you have to smile at everyone and everything, it’s still possible to say ‘No, that’s not OK.’ But you don’t do it as a result of separating yourself from the other. So then you practice it on the metro on the way to work. It’s even a little bit more difficult now, a little bit more demanding. And then, it gets really difficult when the class starts.
So it gets more and more difficult, more and more demanding, but at each stage you see that all you ever come in contact with is this knowing. And if you really realize that nothing can harm you. You don’t have to defend yourself against experience in order to maintain your peace. We first find peace in the background of experience, as the witnessing presence of awareness, but then we find peace in the midst of experience, in the foreground of experience. And yes, you can experiment with making this transition from the 2nd possibility to the 3rd possibility, until you just feel stable in all circumstances. Rupert Spira