LM: Peter, you titled one of your books Intrinsic Freedom. What is intrinsic freedom?
Peter: Intrinsic freedom is a translation of a term that comes from the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition. The Tibetan term is "rang drl", which can also be translated as "self-liberation". Intrinsic freedom is a state of being in which we are free and spacious no matter what our external circumstances or internal condition may be. It is a state of being that cannot be enhanced or degraded by the presence or absence of thoughts, emotions, or any sensory stimuli. In other traditions it is called "ordinary mind", "no mind", "primordial wisdom", "emptiness", "source consciousness", and so on. The Tibetan concept also refers to the capacity for reactive emotions and limiting thoughts to naturally release themselves when they are experienced without any attachment or resistance.
Unfortunately, as soon as we distinguish an experience like this, it immediately sounds very attractive. But if our image of this experience is attractive we are missing the mark. Our image doesn't correspond to the reality. Intrinsic freedom isn't something that we can be attracted to, because if we try and find it, it simply doesn't exist. This is why traditions like Zen and Dzogchen say that enlightenment isn't an experience, or even, that enlightenment doesn't exist. The great Indian Dzogchen master Manjushrimitra said, for example, that, "The state of pure and total presence of the Joyful One does not exist. It is a magical apparition of that state that appears to those who are deluded."
Concepts like freedom, liberation, and enlightenment are terribly seductive. The idea of permanent happiness can stimulate tremendous grasping and attachment. It did so in my own life. For many years I wanted nirvana more than anything else. I was fixated on the idea that I could escape all present and future suffering. I deeply wanted to be someone different from who I was, and this just intensified my dissatisfaction with what was happening for me in the here-and-now.
These days when we share our work we tend to talk about an experience of "spaciousness" or "openness" because these concepts don't carry quite as much spiritual baggage as "liberation", "presence", "awareness", or "enlightenment". It's not possible to hang quite as many expectations on these concepts.
LM: What is enlightenment?
Peter: I appreciate this question because it gives me an opportunity to experience my attraction and aversion to the concept of enlightenment. This is the same opportunity that is afforded us when people project that we are, or are not, spiritually realized in some way.
Generally, we are confined to thinking that we are, or are not realized. We think that there is something to get, or nothing to get. We buy into the extremes positions that enlightenment does, or doesn't exist. We also tend to think about enlightenment in very dualistic terms. We think someone has, or hasn't, got it. This is what Chgyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism".
It would be very convenient if this was the case because if someone was enlightened we wouldn't have to think about the quality of their actions ever again. We would never need to exercise any discrimination. We could trust them totally. When we look for an enlightened teacher, in part we just want to relieve ourselves of the need to ongoingly discern the quality of a teacher's realization. The idea of being able to sit back and bask in a teacher's aura can be very appealing. But, generally it's not as simple as this, because most people, including most spiritual teachers, move in and out of more expanded ways of being.
LM: Is this your experience-moving in and out of more expanded ways of being?
Peter: If I think that I am expanded, that presupposes that there is a state of liberation, and that I'm in it. But as I've just said, this is an extreme notion of liberation because it reifies it as a state that we can have, or be in. On the other hand, if I say no, I'm not in an expanded state, this ignores the fact that right now I don't have any concern about whether I'm liberated or not. And clearly, this is a different state from believing and feeling that "something is wrong or missing".
When people "knowingly" talk about enlightenment, I really don't know what they are talking about. I just figure that they must know more about enlightenment that I do! At this moment, when I look at my own experience there is nothing that tells me if I'm in a state of bondage or liberation. Those concepts don't make any sense because I have no idea what I could be bound by, or liberated from. This certainly isn't a state of bondage, because there is nothing that needs to be changed or liberated. But nor is "this" a state of liberation because nothing has been liberated. Now, if I begin to think that this is a good space to be in, then I do have something to be liberated from-namely, the belief that this is good.
Even though I increasingly live in a space in which there is no preoccupation about getting IT and losing IT, I also periodically think that I have actually achieved something, at which instant I lose whatever it is that I think I had. My eight year old daughter is very good at waking me up in this way, by showing me that "my" experience of unconditioned freedom, is in fact conditioned by very specific circumstances and situations. I can rely on her to do things that I think she shouldn't be doing. Penny also helps me in this way. She lets me see the limits to my experience of spaciousness, by showing up in ways that trigger me to reconstruct the experience that "This isn't how things are meant to be!"
Penny: I think there is also a great flow of experience, so that the moments of coming in and going out, the shifts between clarity and non-clarity don't seem as sharp. We have come to appreciate our flow of experience without getting intense about things being simple rather than complex. Right now it is appearing as an oscillation and yet, it doesn't have to be feeling that it is an oscillation. So there is an ease with things being as they are.
JW: I'm interested to hear you both say that you move in and out of a more expanded way of being, because this sounds a little different from other people's story. Some of those we have spoken to say that something happened, and from then on there has been no sense of a personal self. What you are describing is much more accessible in the sense that the experience you are talking about can be cultivated.
Peter: Perhaps. But again you are beginning to talk about awakening as something that exists and which can be developed. From our perspective the discipline is to observe how we fall into the extremes of assuming that there is something, or nothing to do, from a spiritual point of view. It is true that we can arrive at a space in which nothing more needs to be done because there is no where else to go. You could say, we return to a place in which we see that everything we have ever done to get there was irrelevant and unnecessary because in fact there is nothing to get. Yet, if we hadn't done what we "thought" we needed to do, we would be back in the experience that "something is missing".
We do this, here in the United States and elsewhere, through our dialogues and courses. It takes some skill to open up a space of emptiness but it can be done. The most mysterious thing about it is that in fact we are creating nothing. This really is the challenge in our work because everyone is wanting and expecting "something". We have a tendency to want to reframe the most pristine and natural experience as some esoteric realization. Even when we arrive in a space, where there is nothing to do, we feel we have to do something with it!
LM: More and more people, is seems, are longing for freedom, freedom from suffering. Materialism didn't do it, drugs didn't do it, and psychology hasn't done it. People feel that something is missing and they want to know what to do. What do you have to say to them?
Peter: Over the years I discovered that many of the methods that are offered in Eastern systems of self understanding weren't really doable for many people, including myself. There is a big gap between what one is meant to be doing, and what is actually possible. For me that is a limitation because the gap creates a sense of incompletion. The methods seemed to feed into a belief that fulfillment was dependent on being able to enter a meditative trance at will, perfectly identify with a visualized image, and so on. This is why I have focused more and more on developing a synthesis of the practical wisdom from the East that is doable. When I say "doable", I mean doable in the regular sense of something that we can do. But I also mean doable in that they lead directly into a state in which nothing needs to be done.
It is so easy to focus on fancy concepts such as the union of bliss and emptiness, the clear-light nature of mind, the experience of one-taste, secret empowerments, and mind-to-mind transmissions, and miss the real essence of traditions like Zen, Dzogchen, and Advaita. Also, we listen to these concepts and think they must be referring to far out, cosmic experiences that only buddhas and bodhisattvas can enjoy. We create and recreate that enlightenment is "totally radical", which in a sense it is, but only because it is so effortless and non-eventful.
Buddhism, for example, can be defined as living in a space that isn't disturbed by the eight mundane aspirations of loss and gain, pain and pleasure, fame and disrepute, praise and blame. Texts from non-dualistic traditions such as Dzogchen and Advaita also continually talk about coming from a space in which we neither validate nor invalidate our own and other people's experience. Living in such a space is the real heart of these traditions. But, very often people read about a state of spiritual equanimity and think, "Oh yeah, that sounds great but you need to have full self-understanding, or have realized emptiness before you can be like that."
Yet, if we just focus on such principles it is easy to bring forth a space in which we are neither appropriating nor rejecting the flow of experience that arises for us. We observe our reactions as they are manifesting in the here-and-now. We become sensitive, at an energetic level, to how we make things right and wrong, through agreeing and disagreeing with what others say and do. We become aware of the obvious and subtle ways in which we try to attract attention towards ourselves, or divert attention away from who we are, and what we are doing. By gently directing our attention to how these reactions manifest in our bodies and thoughts we enter a free-flowing space which is free of reactive emotions.
Penny: We also notice our tendency to adopt a very active and "hands on" approach to this type of practice because it can feed right into our need to be doing something. If this is happening we allow a gentle correction to occur without falling into the opposite extreme of thinking there is nothing we need to be doing. In this way we enter a space that isn't biased in favor or doing or not doing.
LM: Often times people hear or read that "There is nothing to do, things are perfect as they are." But this can bring about an experience of hopelessness and despair, because people know they are suffering and "doing nothing" sounds irrelevant or counterproductive. There is a space in which there is nothing we need to do, that is alive, vibrant, conscious, and completely full, but to introduce this as a possibility when people simply can't hear it is stupid and even cruel.
Penny: It is certainly helpful if there is congruence between what we suggest as a possibility and someone's capacity to implement it. There is no point in suggesting that someone should do something that they can't do, since this can make them feel more inadequate.
LM: I agree. So can you work be learned?
Penny: Well, yes and no. It seems that we can become more familiar with an experience of our original, preconditioned mind. Generally, we can't just fall into that experience at will because fear and other emotions often arise in the face of uncertainty. You could say, we learn how to unlearn, or acquire skill in entering that state of not knowing, by realizing that there is nothing to know, and nothing not to know.
LM: Yes, your work does do that. It supports the experience of not-knowing, whereas nearly everything else supports our need to know.
Penny: A rich set of distinctions and sensitivities sit in the background of our work, even when we are in a shared space in which there is nothing to do, or understand. These distinctions are present as a transparent set of possibilities that guide our interactions with people in a way that continues to keep the space open. At the same time we experience that we aren't doing anything special at all.
JW: Yes. And in my experience so far, your work is unique. I don't know of anyone who is doing anything quite like this. Nothing as sophisticated anyway.
LM: Any fixed construction of reality will limit your capacity to be in that space of an infinitely textured openness. For example, believing that you have "something" to teach will distort that space.
Peter: In a sense nothing can distort the space, because the space doesn't exist. The space is the container for whatever thoughts, feelings and perceptions are arising within it. But yes, if we believe that we have something, or nothing to offer, we introduce an agenda into the space in the sense that we push it in the direction of being purposeful, or purposeless. Consequently, we check any tendency to get wired up, or even enthusiastic, thinking that we need to communicate something to someone. But nor do we sit around like stuffed zombies, thinking that we have nothing to say, or do. As you know, our work can shift quite quickly from being very animated to very serene.
JW: Something I've noticed in working with you is that when I see that I am holding what I'm thinking to be true, a space opens up in which everything that is occurring-my body, my voice, other people's bodies and voices, and the space between us-is composed of the same emptiness. Can you say something about that. Should I deconstruct that?
Peter: Deconstruct what? You now are doing what you have just described. You are holding your interpretation about things occurring as an expression of the same fundamental emptiness, as being true, or at least meaningful. Your interpretation comes out of a residual energy to know that is happening. Some level of intellectual inquiry is still entering this space. And as you know, this can settle into an experience in which there is nothing that needs to be understood, because there is nothing to understand. Skill is needed in being able to recognize that state, to point it out, without stimulating any need to interpret it.
JW: It is easy to overlook it.
LM: In working with you some fear arises from time to time. My mind doesn't know what is happening. I drop into an experience in which nothing is happening, and I get scared. I'd like to know what's happening. I feel like all my ground has disappeared, and I'd like you to tell me that this is okay.
Peter: The first thing to notice is that your query is hypothetical, because you aren't actually feeling fearful at the moment. You anticipate that you might, or will, become anxious again in the future, and you would like to feel more comfortable in being with an experience that may never happen. Also, in our culture we want to make everything meaningful. If we are feeling uncomfortable we want to know why.
Fear is a natural consequence of moving into unknown territory. Compared to the experiences you are familiar with through the Advaita approach, our form of inquiry leaves you in a less structured space. Like everything, fear can play a positive and negative role in our spiritual development. Often people only recognize the limiting role of fear. They view it as an obstacle to awakening that must be overcome at all costs. Some texts actually talk about fear as our worst enemy. But fear can be an appropriate reaction to threats to our integrity.
Walking the spiritual path isn't without it's dangers, and fear can signal if we're overstepping the mark. Throughout history, many seekers have jeopardized their spiritual growth by pushing themselves too fast and too far. It is easy to lose our bearings and place ourselves at some physical and mental risk. I have definitely done this.
Some people specifically try to increase their exposure to threatening situations, believing that this is the fastest way to expose their ego, and achieve egolessness. These days some people become fanatical about busting their patterns or living outside the comfort zone, and end up flat on their faces. They over-estimate their capacity to live with no concern for preserving their ego, and end up freaked out and demoralized.
Penny: Rather than view fear as an obstacle, fear can sometimes act as a mechanism that allows people to take care of themselves at a physical and emotional level. If people become anxious around us, we respect their fear because it might indicate that they aren't ready for our approach. If they aren't ready for our work, their fear takes care of them by directing them away from us, and towards something that's more suited to their temperament and experience.
Peter: Also, we appreciate that it is very difficult to inquire into the formless structure of our experience if we're fearful or agitated. When fear is too intense we just want to be somewhere else. So the challenge with our work is to do something to reduce the intensity of our emotions, before we are consumed by them, but also without giving into our need to feel comfortable. We suggest that people neither play it safe, nor put themselves at excessive risk.
On the negative side, fear can be a major handicap to spiritual development, because the message we often read into our fear is that we would have to be crazy to continue in the direction we are headed. Because the spiritual path challenges our need to change, or stay the same, it can trigger a whole range of feelings and emotions-fear, loneliness, anger, excitement, and so on. Obviously, if our main concern is to minimize unpleasant feelings we will actively avoid situations that challenge our beliefs about who we are.
Penny: When we are frightened our mind throws up all sorts of wild and unrealistic projections, that push us in the direction of maintaining the status quo. For example, people often think that if their limiting beliefs dissolve they will become handicapped in some way. We've seen people fear that if they become fulfilled in the moment that they might lose all motivation for action and never get out of the seat they are in!
Peter: Of course, the reality is that as our attention becomes less fixated it increases our capacity for effective action. The deconstruction of our fixed frameworks of interpretation allows for the emergence of more finely textured distinctions. The more space we create the more we can see and appreciate at an energetic, emotional and intellectual level. We develop a richer repertoire of responses. In a quite effortless way we become much more attuned to the impact of our speech, the tonality of our voice, the particular words and concepts that we use, and the way we use our body, so that our relationships can be much more rewarding.
JW: So if we begin to contract from a more spacious way of being out of fear that we are losing our grounding, what should we do?
Penny: The idea of having a fool-proof technique to free up our experience can be very attractive. It feeds into our fantasy about being able to control our lives. But, I'm sure you have also noticed that most of the time we can't implement the different methods we have acquired over the years, when we would like to. Our capacity to self-liberate unpleasant feelings is limited by their intensity. When the crunch comes our methods often won't work their magic. Also, if we have a new tool kit we need something to use it on. If we are attracted to the idea of "deconstructing our fixations" or "naturally releasing our reactive emotions" then we need some fixations in order to use our new transformational technology. If necessary we just declare something is a problem in order to keep ourselves busy.
JW: What I'm doing at the moment is observing how I become fixated in an extreme. I also notice how I could slide to an opposite extreme. I then somehow let the fixation dissolve by itself.
Penny: Uh huh. I am wondering if you have become a little fixated about the idea of fixations, at this point. Taking the idea of fixations seriously is a fixation, in just the same way that ignoring them, shows a bias or fixation. Taking our limitations seriously gives us something to do. It keeps us busy and off the streets! It also keeps the feeling of boredom at bay. The challenge is to neither give our fixations any energy, nor ignore them.
LM: I'd like to return to the experience of "non-self". Many of the people we have been interviewing talk about an experience in which there is the absence of a personal "I" or self, which results in the loss of a doer. How does this relate to your perspective?
Peter: In the space we are talking about the presence or absence of an I doesn't seem to be a problem. I know this is a little surprising given my past involvement in Buddhism. I mean, I have had ample time to acquire a belief in my own non-existence! From my point of view, I am here because if someone asks where I am, this is where I am. I'm not in the next room, or back in Australia right now. But if I try and find where I am, I'm not here, because they is no here or there. So, I'm here and I'm not here.
In fact, there is a lot of misunderstanding about the idea of "non-self" in Buddhism. Many people think that "non-self" refers to an experience in which there is no personal self, but to the extent that people defend this interpretation, it is only a belief. In the teachings of the Buddhist Middle Way, or Madhyamaka school, self and non-self are both extreme positions. These two positions are philosophical expressions of our need to maintain or avoid our existence. In the Middle Way tradition we can't say if there is, or isn't a self.
LM: So what is this loss of a personal self that people who have awakened talk about?
Peter: The experience of "no self" occurs when we look inside (or outside) ourselves and cannot find anything that corresponds to the "I" or self. Also, when people have an earth-shattering insight in which all their familiar frames of reference breakdown, they look for a way of describing this experience. In order to distinguish it from our ordinary experience they can end up saying that there is no self. But it is premature to conclude that there is no self. This is what some Hindu philosophies do. They conclude that the personal or individual self is an illusion and therefore that we are a transpersonal beingness-what they call the atman.
Many Westerners who become involved in non-dualistic Indian traditions end up cultivating a belief that they do not exist. This way of thinking can produce a quite liberating experience, because it disconnects us from the pain and confusion that can be associated with our bodies and minds. When people are dissociated from their mind and body in this way, you feel as though the person talking to you is about two feet behind their actual body.
Penny: It's easy to cultivate this experience by spending time with teachers who offer this particular interpretation.
Peter: Buddhist Middle Way practitioners such as Nagarjuna went one step further than their many of their Buddhist and Hindu counterparts. They said, okay when we try and find the personal self it doesn't exist. We are not our thoughts and feelings. But what about the experience of non-self. Does that exist? Is there really an experience of not having any personal reference point? When we try and discover "what" the transpersonal experience actually is, we discover nothing. It doesn't exist. The experience of being "no one" is just as elusive as the experience of being "someone".
In our own work people often feel they are resting in some form of transcendental insight, such as the experience of "no personal self", or the "I am That" experience of being the universe. When this happens we invite them to look further into the nature of what they are actually experiencing in a way that destructures even their very rarified interpretations. This lets them move into a experience that is even more open and spacious.
LM: But what if people say "no self" is their actual experience; not something that they believe?
Peter: I think it is useful to distinguish between what someone experiences and their capacity to communicate it in language. Some people have very profound experiences, but an impoverished language for sharing them. Other people may have had less dramatic experiences, but have great skill in communicating them. It is also very easy for people to learn to talk the talk. In our own work we are sensitive to whether people are trying to talk themselves into an experience by mouthing esoteric words or phrases they have heard on the spiritual path, or whether they are saying what is so for them in the moment. It can be quite beautiful to hear someone who is completely uneducated in non-dualistic literature, surprise themselves by saying that "nothing seems to have changed, but things are completely different".
LM: Their speech is coming from a fresh place.
Peter: Exactly. And because they have never read what they are telling you, you know that is where they are.
JW: What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Peter: For us personally? Probably the fact that there is no pre-existing model for what we are doing. While our work is continuous with the timeless wisdom embodied in Advaita, Zen, Dzogchen, Mahamudra, the Middle Way or Madhyamaka, and the Perfect Wisdom tradition of Buddhism, we don't defer to any particular lineage or teacher. This is challenging because the only resource we can rely on is the quality of our own awareness in the moment. It is also challenging because we continue to push the envelope in terms of doing more, with less. I suspect that what we are doing is a forerunner to a new style of spiritual work that will become quite significant in coming decades.
Penny: For those who work with us, I'd say that the most challenging aspect of our approach is that we don't feed people's need to know, and be doing something concrete or tangible. The way we neither validate nor invalidate people's breakdowns and breakthroughs also requires some adjustment.
Peter: It is evident to us that the two of you have a good appreciation of our work, just from what you have been saying. We have said a lot, but I'd be more interested to hear what you have to say.
LM: For me it has been enormously helpful to sit in a space that neither validates nor invalidates my constructions of who I am, what I think is missing, and what I need to get. What has been a tremendous eye-opener is seeing the spiritual constructs I was holding. As you would present the opposite position, I found myself adamantly defending my position. In that, I saw that what I has held as "Truth" had been made into a concept. Once that was seen clearly, it was finished. Even though this occured many months ago now, certain spiritual concepts have not been able to take hold since.
The space you create is like a mirror held up in front of me so that I can see these constructions as they appear, simply for what they are. In that mirroring they seem to deconstruct. It brings things back home, to just being here now, being present, as is. There is nothing to do, just being-as is. It is such a pure simplicity that even this feels like saying too much.
JW: The only thing I'd like to add to what Lynn Marie shared about your work is that beyond creating or disclosing a space in which whatever a person brings to it becomes revealed as a bias or a construct, there is also a lot of skill that you apply in terms of first bringing that construct into the foreground of someone's awareness, and then short circuiting the tendency to slide to the other polarity and thereby leaving them somewhat confounded with nothing to cling to. This ultimately reveals the presence of a something/ nothing, that Lynn Marie just spoke so well. Also, what is most remarkable in my opinion, is that this self-correcting mechanism continues on. It is a natural process that is going on all the time, actually. And once this is revealed in your work it continues on its own.
LM: ... naturally and effortlessly.
Extracted from a forthcoming book by John Wins and Lynn Marie Lumiere titled The Awakening West, copyright Clear Visions Publications, 1997. This book includes interviews with various non-dualistic teachers such as Francis Lucille, Gangaji, Christopher Titmuss, Isaac Shapiro and Lama Surya Das.