Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of conversations with spiritually awakening people. We’ve done over 650 of them now. If this is new to you and you’d like to check out some of the previous ones, go to batgap.com, B-A-T-G-A-P, and look under the past interviews menu. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers, so if you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there are PayPal buttons on the website and there’s also a donation page which explains some alternatives to PayPal. My guest today is Stephen Gyotso Snyder. Stephen began meditating daily in 1976. He has practiced since in the Zen tradition as well as extensive practice in Theravada Buddhism. He is a lineage Zen teacher as well as a lineage Theravada teacher. He was also influenced by Diamond Heart teachings and practices. That’s A.H. AlmaAs. I’ve interviewed Hamid Ali a couple of times. He combines the ancient Buddhist heart practices with awakening practices of the Zen tradition into a heartfelt journey of realization and embodiment. Stephen has written several books, three of which I read, two of which I have here, “Demystifying Awakening,” Buddha’s, here it is, “Buddha’s Heart,” and let’s see, what was the third one?
Stephen: That’s called “Trust in Awakening.”
Rick: “Trust in Awakening,” good. I don’t have a physical copy of that, but he sent me the file. That one’s coming out in November or something, isn’t it Stephen?
Rick: September, okay, good. So, let’s see, it’s usually good to start with a little bit of a biographical sketch, just so people get a bit familiar with who it is we’re talking to. So, you started meditating in ’76. How old were you at the time?
Stephen: I was 19.
Rick: 19, and what motivated you to start?
Stephen: I think just the usual teenage angst, not knowing who I was, not knowing where I was going, feeling like most of life was overwhelming, and just having an idea that if I could meditate, if I could settle within, that I could learn some things about myself, and I think just was drawn to meditation. I had traveled as a youth. My father was a sales executive with Pan Am back when there was a Pan Am, and he spent his career in Asia, so we traveled in Asia pretty extensively. So, some of the first religious people I saw were Zen monks in Tokyo when I was about three. I was quite struck by them. Yeah. I think that stayed with me.
Rick: And I guess it was some Zen book that first inspired you to learn meditation.
Stephen: It was. It was. I read a survey book of meditation, and the Zen section of the book just really spoke to me. I just felt an aliveness to it and a strong attraction, and so I began meditating five minutes a day at the start.
Rick: Yeah, Zen kind of inspired me to start, too. I remember I read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones one night, and I was like high on LSD, and I thought, “These guys were serious, and I’m just screwing around.” I said, “That’s it. I’m gonna stop taking drugs and learn how to meditate.” So, I did. I didn’t learn Zen, but I got into meditation.
Rick: Yeah. So, I like the theme. We’ll get into it in some detail, but I like the… Zen has kind of, at least from my uninformed perspective, has kind of a dry, austere, stern, you know, feel about it. But, you know, you wrote a whole book about the Buddha’s heart, and, you know, in the bio that I just said, you speak of a heartfelt journey of realization and embodiment. Is that a fair characterization? I mean, is Zen a little dry, and you’re trying to have a more heart-oriented approach?
Stephen: I think it is a little more dry in the sense that the heart practices really aren’t too discussed. Some of the teachers of my generation are introducing mindfulness and heart practices, but it certainly isn’t systemic that it’s happening. And when I was a student, I found that some of the difficulties in the different Zen centers were happening really because there wasn’t a lot of compassion, a lot of connectivity. So, the teachers had… were awakened to emptiness, but they hadn’t awakened to unity or love. So, they’re their wisdom was quite dry and could be very unfeeling. People could get very hurt in the teachers.
Rick: So, they weren’t behaving compassionately?
Stephen: A lot of them were not. And with the realization only of emptiness of the nothingness that is at the source, it gives a kind of, or it gave a kind of freedom where these teachers, if you would point out something to them, you know, “Hey, the way you interacted with so-and-so really seemed off the mark to me”, then they would say something like, “Well, it’s all empty, so it doesn’t matter.” And my response was, “Well, if you’re standing on my toes, it matters to me a lot”.
Rick: Yeah, how about if I punch you in the nose? It’s all empty, it won’t matter, right?
Stephen: Right, right, exactly. I don’t think that would have been too welcome.
Rick: That’s an interesting point. Are you familiar with Ken Wilber’s “Lines of Development” model?
Stephen: You know, I read some of his material very early on, but it’s been a number of years, so I can’t say I can recall that.
Rick: Yeah, basically he just says that, you know, we’re multifaceted beings. We have intellects, we have hearts, we have senses, we have, you know, minds, we have all these different faculties. And then there’s consciousness, and all of these things could be considered lines of development, and there’s no guarantee that they’re going to develop, you know, in a balanced, coordinated way. And some lines can get way out ahead, and we can be quite stunted along other lines, and that can cause all kinds of problems, which I think is what you were just describing.
Stephen: Yes, well, and I’ve really come to land a lot in the importance of the heart practices with the book Buddha’s Heart, and working with students. And I’m gonna say, you know, I work predominantly with Westerners, so people outside of Asia, so there may be differences in some of the Buddhist countries to what I’ve experienced as a teacher, but as Westerners, we really need a lot of heart practice. We’re walking around, most of us, fairly wounded with a lot of armoring, and to try to drop the sense of self to experience the source, the absolute, requires a lot of trust. And unless our heart is in a stable enough place, an open enough place, with strength and sensitivity, the awakening is going to be difficult for it to happen, and it’s gonna be difficult to embody.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve also heard it said by many people that you really have to have a healthy, well-developed ego or sense of self before you can really think about dropping it. And if you haven’t even developed that, it can be either counter-productive or even problematic, dangerous, depersonalizing.
Stephen: And that’s why, you know, today I really encourage the folks who are wandering, trying to figure out their identity in relation to gender and sexuality, that it’s important to land. Because, as you say, unless they’re landed and there’s a solidity to it, you can’t transcend it.
Rick: And by land you mean what exactly?
Stephen: Well, to be clear about your identity, who you are, you know, all the various aspects of that, who you take yourself to be. Because we can’t begin to put any of that down unless it’s stable enough. You know, we really need a very well-constructed container in order to hold the absolute.
Rick: Yeah, that’s actually a big social issue these days, because, you know, some people are saying, well, kids should be who they really are in their heart of hearts, who they really want to be. And then others are saying, well, they’re nine years old. Are you saying they should have gender modification, hormone therapy, and stuff like that? You know, they don’t know who they are. I mean, this speaks to that, and I’m not about to offer any ready answers. Do you have any?
Stephen: No, I don’t really. I certainly understand the discussion, and I guess what I would contribute to it is most of the people that I know that are landed in gender and sexual identity, if you ask them when they became clear about it, most of them were quite young. They’ll talk about being five years old and being attracted to so-and-so, and that’s really what started their journey. So I feel that those folks have just as much right to land where they need to be as the rest of us. You know, if we were the minority, if the heterosexuals were the minority, then it would have a different perspective for us. We’d want people to value and honor our orientations and where we land in these things.
Rick: Yeah, so there’s an interesting paradox here. We’re talking about, you know, there being no self and having the realization that there’s no self, and at the same time we’re talking about developing a healthy, you know, personality and sense of self. So how do you reconcile that paradox?
Stephen: Well, there’s two ends to that. One is the transcendent aspect, where to have awakening experiences, we do transcend the normal self. I talk about it as absence of self. I like absence as a term better than emptiness, because emptiness implies nothing is there, but absence there suggests that something may be there, but it feels like nothing’s there. So there’s a difference in that regard, that we need to have the transcendent opportunity, and we need to feel safe enough to let go of this body and even this life to have those experiences, deep experiences like cessation. The consciousness and awareness shut off. I call it a lights-out experience, and there is a moment when the merger is happening, when the awareness and consciousness realize, “I don’t know how to unmerge” and that’s a real question. So we have to have enough stability and enough trust in order to go into the absolute, but also how do we embody? And if our hearts and our identities aren’t landed enough, it makes it really difficult to do that, and that’s where we end up with teachers who are behaving badly, because they’ve resolved certain aspects of the personality and the dynamic of that, and others they have not. So you see them acting out with money and with relationships in ways, and power in ways that are unhealthy and harming people.
Rick: Yeah, I helped to start an organization, which you might find interesting, called the Association for Spiritual Integrity, and has over 400 members now.
Rick: And it’s all about what you’re just saying there, which is we have a whole code of ethics that we spent many, many hours drawing up, comparing other things like spirit rock and other places who had drawn up codes like that. But the basic principle is that ethical behavior is an important component on the spiritual path, and these sort of excuses for unethical behavior, like, “Oh, God is doing it” or “There is no doer” or stuff like that, just don’t cut it.
Stephen: No. No, again, if you’re standing on my toes, my toes still hurt. Right. So whether you perceive it or not is irrelevant in that regard. But we all have to be careful with what we’re doing. We’re dealing with, and as teachers, we’re working with people who are trusting us. They’re opening their deepest selves to us, and letting us give some guidance, and we have to take that very responsibly.
Rick: Yeah, one of my favorite quotes, which I’ve said on this show many times, was supposedly from Padma Sambhava, who apparently said, “Although my awareness is as vast as the sky, my attention to karma is as fine as a grain of barley flour”. And by karma, we mean action, my behavior, impeccability.
Stephen: Right. Yeah, that’s a great line. There’s a similar koan like that in the koan series of a teacher who didn’t believe that realized beings were subject to karma, and so ended up having to live 500 lives as a fox. And in Asia, the fox is similar to how we would say the weasel in the States. So it’s a crafty, sly figure. So he had to come and for 500 lifetimes be a fox before he could come back, and had to realize that even though the realization is unconditioned, we’re still functioning in a conditioned world.
Rick: Yeah. Would you say that either in your own experience or in your understanding of what the experience of an enlightened being is supposed to be, that it’s multi-dimensional in the sense that, you know, one can simultaneously be everywhere, nowhere, and right here, and there’s no conflict between those rather different modes of experience or perspectives?
Stephen: Yeah, I’d say that’s true. And it’s really because we’re talking about a territory that’s non-conceptual, and what you’re describing are his concepts about time and space. And if those aren’t real in the sense of being part of the absolute, part of the source of the universe, then, you know, we’re dealing with conditioned events.
Rick: You’ve used the word “absolute” quite a few times, so let’s define that. And at some point in one of your books, you went into a cosmology, as I recall, of sort of the steps of manifestation. Or maybe that was something else I was listening to. I don’t know. I listen to a lot of things. But, yeah, what do we mean by “absolute”?
Stephen: The absolute is the source. It’s the source of the universe. Think of it as the deep silence before the Big Bang. So it’s got that potentiality to create. And in my experience, the absolute has two functions. An unmanifest, which is the part that’s dark, and absence is the main quality we would encounter there. And along with that, there’s things like peacefulness, stillness, silence there. And the other function of the absolute is manifestation. And that’s where we would have, in contrast, this would be really bright white, a brilliantly white quality. And the chief characteristic is presence with pure love. And pure love is simply a love that doesn’t… it’s not conditioned in any way. So the great aspect of the heart practices is they’re all derivatives of the manifest absolute, of pure presence and pure love. So if you and I have some ego deficiency, if we have some places of shame and guilt, it doesn’t matter to the absolute. It’s not judging anything. So we don’t need to earn our way in there, nor do we need to fix everything about ourselves in order to make contact with this. And that’s really one of the great presentations of the Brahma-Viharas, as we call the heart practices.
Rick: When you say the manifest aspect of the absolute, did you say?
Stephen: I did.
Rick: It’s pure love and pure presence. So the way that struck me is there’s a level of the absolute which is just so absolute that there’s nothing going on. And then there’s a kind of a warmed up aspect of it where it starts to manifest or starts to express, which is still so close to the absolute that you could call it absolute. But it’s begun to percolate. Is that what you’re getting at?
Stephen: Yeah. And the manifest is what is what moves into creation. So everything we can see, including ourselves, are expressions of the manifest absolute. We are pure love. We are pure presence. That’s what makes up everything. But at our core, we’re the unmanifest. We’re the absence. So you’re quite right in your framing of it.
Rick: Okay. What would you say to the notion, as some scriptures like the Mandukya Upanishad say, that the creation only appears to manifest and in fact never has or never does. Like the rope appears to be a snake but it was never a snake.
Stephen: Yep. There’s different positions. I mean, to me it’s based on direct experience. That’s what has to lead our understanding. And if we have that understanding, if that’s their understanding, then that’s perfectly fine. And to me it’s legitimate to have that view-point. I mean, every view-point that’s not harming others is a correct view-point.
Rick: Yeah. And I guess different people resonate with different view-points, which is not to say that there are as many ultimate realities as there are view-points.
Stephen: Well, there’s one mountain but there’s a multitude of paths up that same mountain.
Rick: Right. Yeah. So what you said, there was a key thing you just said in there, which is experience. I think, you know, a lot of the stuff that we are talking about today and that people talk about in spiritual circles might sound metaphysical or philosophical but I think the key thing is, can they be experienced? And if not, why are we even talking about them? What’s the utility unless we can actually realize them experientially?
Stephen: Yeah. And that’s part of the teacher-student relationship. If you’re working with a student having an experience, if the teacher has had that same experience, they can not only help guide but they can also confirm.
Stephen: Because it resonates in a particular way. If I’m with somebody who’s had a Kensho, an awakening experience, there’s a certain way it resonates in me, in consciousness, that I can feel. And so that’s how the teachers work. Those that are realized have that experience. Everything I teach, I’ve experienced and that way I can validate it and confirm it for students.
Rick: Do students sometimes say to you, “Well, what about this?” And then you answer, “Well, I don’t know because I haven’t experienced that.”
Stephen: Yeah. Not too often. Sometimes people will bring in other practices like you’ve mentioned, that one perspective. I’m not familiar with that. So if somebody raised that to me, I would just tell them, “I don’t know about that”. Or if someone says, “Oh, in this tradition or this lineage, they do it differently.” I would say, “That’s perfectly fine for them”. I just tell them, sort of jokingly, that I’m a union member in the lineages I’m in. And so you’ve got to present, to some extent, what’s in conformity with the union or with the lineage.
Rick: Yeah. That’s good. I’ve sometimes said to people that I think if you’ve got the Buddha and Jesus and Krishna and Muhammad and all the rest into a room together, they wouldn’t have anything to argue about. They’d say they would just, they’d be in full agreement just having grown up in different cultures.
Stephen: Right. Quite right. There would be enough similarity of realization that they would have commonality to discuss, and they would realize that their particular expression is different. You know, if I’m meeting with a Christian teacher, there’s going to be a very different orientation for how they’re teaching than how I am, because they’re working with a model of God and Jesus that is a different setup. And in Buddhism, the Buddha is not our Savior. He’s an example.
Stephen: But we don’t pray to him in the way that Christians pray to Jesus.
Rick: Although it seems like some Buddhists do make a big fuss about him. They’ve kind of deified him in a way, and it’s gotten very ceremonial and ornate.
Stephen: Right. Yeah. Well, then, as you probably know, Rick, virtually every major religious leader that you just mentioned, part of their teaching was, “Don’t make statues of me.” When I’m gone, no pictures, no statues. And of course, what do we have, but we have a plethora of all the above.
Rick: Well, I think people need a focus of attention. You know, you can’t pray to the absolute.
Stephen: Yeah. Buddha Dasa, the famous teacher in Thailand, used to put things like a big boulder or a giant mirror on the altar instead of a Buddha.
Rick: Yeah. Okay. So, let’s get back to you a little bit. So, you started meditation when you were 19, I think you said, in ’76. And I remember hearing you say, at first, you could only do about five minutes a day, or a session, anyway.
Stephen: Yeah. Right.
Rick: And what were you, kind of like bouncing off the walls during those five minutes?
Stephen: Yeah, it was like trying to contain a live wire. But over time, I did settle. And you know, Rick, really the interesting thing was, I didn’t tell anybody I was meditating. And maybe 18 months to two years into it, my co-workers began commenting on how peaceful I was, and how accepting I was. And so, they were seeing change that I wasn’t even seeing in myself. And that’s with the importance of relation. That’s where we really see our practice.
Rick: Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. Yeah, I mean, that takes me off on a tangent, which is that sometimes I hear people saying things like, “Well, you know, you can be enlightened and still be a real SOB, or be drinking, or, you know, a lot”. Or, yeah, I mean, Shogun Trump or Rinpoche was, died of alcoholism in his realized, and they cannot be done with their personal work. Okay. So, you know, there’s different levels of realization. In the deeper levels of realization, you have to work the personal material. That has to be in conformity. Otherwise, the deeper realizations won’t arise.
Rick: So, let’s talk about that. Yeah, let’s talk about levels of realization, because sometimes you hear people say, “Well, I had my awakening in last September”. And I always think, “Well, what did you have exactly?” Because my understanding is that there are these levels of realization, and they perhaps are unending. So, how do you see that?
Stephen: Yeah, in my book, “Demystifying Awakening,” I present both the Zen model and the Theravadan Buddhist model of awakening. In the Theravadan, there are four stages — stream-entry, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant. And in the Zen model, I identify three stages of realization. The first, Kensho, which is really a kind of generic realization. Most any kind of realization would satisfy that. And then a deeper realization being Satori. And the difference between those two is how much of consciousness wakes up. If it seems to be, if it’s more than 51%, then part of what happens is the personality gets dislodged as the foundation, and true nature becomes the foundation. And then there’s a deeper realization called Daigo-te-te, which is the realization that’s considered the final realization, although I don’t think that’s actually true. But it’s a realization where we have to resolve the core ego deficiency in order to have the realization. And when that successfully happens, then the absolute becomes the foundation, even rather than true nature. And I make the distinction between absolute and true nature. True nature is simply the absolute in a particular consciousness. They’re both the absolute.
Rick: Yeah, it’s kind of like Brahman and Jiva in the Hindu model. Or rather Brahman and Atman, I meant to say. Yeah, so this thing about 51%, would it be a good analogy to compare it to like when you wake up in the morning? You know, initially you’re awake enough to look at the alarm clock and know what time it is, but you couldn’t recite Shakespeare or, you know, do anything very complicated. You have to wake up more degrees. But it is awake.
Stephen: Yeah. Well, what happens with the smaller Kenchos, typically somebody will have a few seconds or a minute or two where they will flash into awakening. And as I teach it and confirm it, there need to be three components to awakening. The first is a deep experience of absence of self. And we mostly experience that if I were to ask you who you were, you would normally self-reference. You’d turn in and you’d talk about your likes and dislikes and things like this, your personality. But if you’re in absence of self, you literally would have no answer. It would feel like you look in and there’s just nothing. There’s a question mark. And so it’s saying, “I don’t know who I am.” And that’s the start of the absence of self-experience. And then there needs to be a realization of true nature. So not just seeing and recognizing true nature, but it’s got to be recognized as your true identity. “That’s who I am, I get it”. And then the third is there has to be a love or unity experience. Everything is one or everything is a part of a fabric of oneness, which must include us. It can’t be just I’m looking and the world around me is this one love, but I’m not included. It has to be include me too. If you have all three, then I think you have a significant Kensho experience.
Rick: So it sounds like you’re saying that there may be two factors. One is duration and the other is clarity. That might be one way of looking at it.
Stephen: Yeah, duration or depth. I think clarity or depth, we could use the either term.
Rick: Right. And so there could perhaps be brief clear flashes or long foggy periods.
Stephen: Yeah. But ideally we want, you know, ongoing abiding clear one, the clear state. We get what we need. And like in my experience, I had a lot of little Kenshos for years. I’d have little flashes of seeing true nature or seeing absence of self and seeing true nature, but they would last a minute or two minutes. But I got to really develop a trust that this is real, that exists, I know, based on my experience. But I wasn’t really mature enough in order to really have a sustained experience. Because when you have the sustained, the Satori where it’s 51% or more of consciousness, then the integration becomes very different, where you begin to see not only your attitudes, your beliefs, but also your behavior. You know, and what I tell those students is your outside has to match your inside. And that’s what you watch for is incongruities, what doesn’t match anymore. And you have to make adjustments in your life to fit your realization, to have it be expressed more fully. So it’s an ongoing journey of, and not always easy, because we’re often challenged by the way we’ve been our whole life, our certain attitudes or I’m this kind of person. Well, you’re not anymore. You’re not a person exactly anymore. You’re the absolute functioning as a person.
Rick: Yeah. And I’ll bet that, you know, during those years when you would have, you know, little Ken Joes here and there, when you weren’t having them, I’ll bet the state you were in was very different than the state you had been in prior to 1976.
Stephen: Sure, sure. I agree with that 100%.
Rick: Yeah, so the whole thing had been lifted up, but then there were still little waves and, you know, moments of insight and stuff, but all on a higher platform.
Stephen: Yeah, and also I just had to mature emotionally. I was, you know, I hadn’t done therapy. I hadn’t really worked on myself at all. I was working under the Zen model that everything was empty, so why work on it? And when I, you know, saw that I was still behaving badly, that’s what really prompted me to engage not only in therapy, but to do things like Diamond Heart, where you’re working explicitly with the personality and the personality material in connection with realization.
Rick: Yeah. Is that a, I mean, is that an ongoing problem with Zen? Do you find that in Zen centers where people have just done Zen and nothing else, and they’ve been doing it for decades, that there’s still a lopsided development? Or did they somehow come around to a more holistic development?
Stephen: It really depends on the tradition. Some traditions are really, some lineages are a lot more traditional, where they wouldn’t explore that very much, and others, as teachers of your and my generation, are coming into authority. We’ve been doing therapy. We’ve been doing personal work, so we’re bringing that into our work with students. So the culture is changing, for sure, but there are some places that are still, again, very traditional. They like it that way. They think they’re honoring their roots, which I understand the perspective, but you know, we have to work with our wounding. We have to work with our armoring in order to really be as full of expressions of the absolute as we can be.
Rick: Yeah, my observation is that the spiritual community in general is getting less and less tolerant of lopsided development and teacher misbehavior and all, because there have been so many scandals and so many articles in Tricycle and places like that about these things, and so many people have gotten burned. It’s like, all right, we’re just not gonna tolerate this anymore. We have to find a way of making this go away or, you know, address what we’re not addressing.
Stephen: Right. Well, and when I was a young student in the Zen centers, they didn’t have any rules of ethics. They didn’t have any complaint procedures. If you had a problem, it was your problem. And, you know, now if something comes up, there’s processes. There’s people who can be, could meet with you and help understand, is this my issue as a student or is this an issue of the center or the teacher or both? So I think that’s helped and that’s part of what you’ve contributed to.
Rick: I’m not really, you know, well versed in Buddhism, but my understanding of it from what I’ve heard and read and people I’ve talked to is that an ethical foundation is very much a part of traditional Buddhism. And perhaps Zen considers itself a pared-down, bare-bones approach which, you know, gets rid of a lot of baggage that kind of a broader style of Buddhism feels is important.
Stephen: I think that’s accurate. And the Theravadan sila, which I translate as wholesomeness, is a huge part of the practice. One, you know, you take the precepts as you do even in the Zen world, but you really work with it a lot. It’s really a common issue to work and like my Theravadan teacher, Paul Cido, believes that part of our meditation is affected directly by our sila, by our wholesome behavior. And if we’re not acting in wholesome ways, that’s going to condition our meditation and our realizations.
Rick: Yeah, that’s a great point. Swami Sarvapriyananda, who’s in the Ramakrishna traditions, often says you can have ethics without enlightenment, but you can’t have enlightenment without ethics. Yeah, if you’re misbehaving, it’s actually going to handicap you in terms of realization.
Stephen: Yeah, agreed.
Rick: Yeah, I suppose a deeper way of looking at it is it’s not necessarily the misbehavior itself that’s handicapping you, but the underlying samskaras or whatever you want to call them that are causing misbehavior.
Stephen: Yeah, something’s driving it. Something’s driving that I need you to look at me in a certain way or I need you to be in relationship with me in a certain way. So it’s the teacher’s unresolved material, unconscious material that’s coming out. I mean, there was one teacher who actively was inappropriate with students and when someone asked them about it, they said, “I just felt lonely at the top.” And to me, it’s like that just screams that there’s work to be done. If you’re the teacher and if you’re feeling lonely and your teachers need to, your students need to fix that, there’s a huge problem.
Rick: Yeah, and that points to another thing, which is these days a lot of people are saying things are too hierarchical. If some guy’s at the top and everybody else is looking up to him and you can’t call him on his stuff or give him feedback or if he’s unwilling to accept it because he feels it will destabilize the hierarchy, that’s not a healthy model.
Stephen: Right. Well, I think any teacher who is defending themselves, you have to look at and I’m not saying you shouldn’t defend yourself, but if someone has a question about my teaching, if I attack them verbally to defend myself, there’s something that’s not happening with me. I’m defending some position rather than if someone says, “I think this doesn’t make sense to me.” Well, what does that mean, “doesn’t make sense to you? Tell me more.” And I had one person on a group call who said, “I have doubt in you as a teacher.” So I said, “Well, let’s unpack that. Do you believe I’ve had these experiences?” “Well, yeah, I do.” “Do you believe I understand what I’m teaching?” “Yeah, I do.” “So where’s the rub?” And it was effectively, we got down to there was a transference going on. They were projecting their doubt onto me, but the fact is I was willing to work it with them and it’s fine if they have doubt about me. That’s, you know, that’s maybe part of their process, but it doesn’t affect me in terms of my stability or what I’m in contact with.
Rick: Yeah, I think it’s a healthy thing to be able to air one’s doubts in anything. I mean, even in college or anything else. When I was teaching meditation, I would sometimes just start lectures or talks by saying, “Okay, bring up all your doubts.” And I wasn’t saying that I was some kind of example of anything, but just the doubts about the teaching, you know, what bothers you? Where are the gaps?
Stephen: I think that’s a brilliant approach because you’re gonna get to places where they need some more information.
Rick: Yeah, I mean, you’re actually gonna get what they need most, I think.
Stephen: And you’re gonna build trust because if you’re willing to wade into their doubt with an open mind, then you can look at it from their perspective and help them see. And some things they have doubt about, well, you’re gonna have to sit with that and work with that. That’s, you know, your issue right now.
Rick: Yeah. Okay, so I have like outlines here of your several books that I read, and I highlighted some things in yellow. Let’s go back to you again for a minute, and then we’ll get into that. So you became a lawyer, and you have any good Buddhist lawyer jokes?
Stephen: Afraid not. There aren’t too many of those.
Rick: Two Buddhist lawyers walked into a bar?
Stephen: Make me one with everything? I don’t know.
Rick: Yeah, that actually is a good one. And then so the hot dog vendor gives them his hot dog, but the guy had given him a twenty, and he’s not getting any change. And so he says, “Hey, where’s my change?” And the vendor says, “Change has to come from within.”
Rick: So how did you find being a lawyer, and yet being a serious spiritual practitioner for all those years? I mean, you have to deal with some messy stuff when you’re a lawyer.
Stephen: Yeah, and when I started off, I was young enough that I really thought it important to keep my spiritual life and my professional life separate. So in my mind, I did that. I had sort of a wall I built, and I was in lawyer mode, or I was in spiritual mode, but I thought I was keeping them separate. And I found that the longer I did that, the more difficulty there was for me. And at one point, I finally got to where I just can’t keep this up anymore. And so I effectively put down the wall, which I’m not sure existed, but I sort of embraced both sides of myself. And when I did, everything began to work better. My clients liked me better. I was more successful as a lawyer. I was happier. But I really had the idea that I would show too much softness if I showed my spiritual side, and then the other lawyers would be taking my lunch money. So that was my approach. But again, I found that to be a… it was an idea I had. It wasn’t a reality.
Rick: Yeah, it seems to me that spiritual development would be a great training for lawyers and a lot of other professions.
Stephen: I actually have a book called Stress Reduction for Lawyers, I wrote, which is introducing some basic meditation skills to lawyers.
Rick: That’s great. As a lawyer, did you ever have… I mean, did you ever have to defend somebody that you knew was guilty? Do lawyers do that? And did you have ethical qualms about that?
Stephen: Well, I didn’t practice criminal law defense, so I didn’t have to do that. I did civil litigation, which was, you know, a different animal. But you sometimes, as a lawyer, have to put forward arguments that you don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s your client’s position. So the ethical guidelines are that you must zealously represent your client. And that’s where that falls into. So there are lawyers that defend, say, criminals who they either know or suspect are guilty, but they look at it that it’s their job under the Constitution to require the police and the prosecutors to make their case and convince the judge or jury. And if they do, then the system works. And if they don’t and the person goes free, that’s how our system is designed. That there’s some expression that nine guilty people should go free rather than one innocent person be found guilty.
Rick: Interesting. Which they sometimes are. I mean, there have been people on death row who were innocent.
Stephen: We’ve seen that in recent years. They found a handful of folks who were innocent and are on death row. Some have been already killed.
Rick: Yeah, yeah. Interesting. Well, they won’t be born as foxes. They’ll get some…
Stephen: They won’t. They will get a break on that for sure.
Rick: Yeah. Okay, so I don’t know how much… I know a lot of times Buddhist people don’t want to talk a lot about their own personal experience. It’s sort of an ethic in the tradition. So…
Stephen: No, I’m fine.
Rick: Okay. So, it’d be interesting to talk about the evolution of your experience rather than just talk about what all the jhanas are and all that.
Rick: Talk about what these stages are in terms of how you have experienced them.
Stephen: What do you want to start with?
Rick: Oh, well, there was your first awakening and I don’t know if you’ve elaborated on that yet. You were talking about brief kenshos. Was there one that really stood out because it was unlike anything you’d ever experienced?
Stephen: Yeah, there was one that was a big one. It would be a satori experience. That’s what I consider the first awakening I had and that was… It was interesting. I was listening to you interviewing our friend Henry Schuckman and you talked about this, about, in effect, using the senses as a portal, an entry. And really that’s how it ended up for me. I was reading a biography of the sixth patriarch of Zen, Hui Ning, who was very famous and respected. And he… There’s a line in there, “Produce the thought that is nowhere supported.” And when I read that, it just hit me like somebody smacked me in the forehead and it became my koan. I couldn’t put it down. And I began just sort of mulling this over constantly. And finally I realized, “Okay, well, how does thought come about?” Well, it comes about from sense data. So I began tracking each of my senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, etc. and chasing them all the way back to the part of the brain. I don’t know if this was real or not, but in my meditation it felt like I was going back to the source. And then I would sort of conceptually put a little post-it at the beginning of each one of these. And when I did the last one and got to the putting the post-it on that one, that’s when the satori happened. It was just this big explosion that I realized I was nothing. I was completely, you know, emptiness. And also I was everything. So it was both the unity and the emptiness experience co-joined. And everything changed after that. I was just not the same person. And it was early enough in Buddhism in the West that there weren’t even many teachers around I could go talk to. Or even it was years before somebody finally heard this and confirmed it.
Rick: That’s interesting. As you know, I was a TM teacher. And the principle of that was that all the senses sort of have their origin at some very, very deep level and then radiate outward like the spokes of a wheel. And it used a mantra in that technique as a mental thing. And it’s considered that thinking is a subtler aspect of the sense of hearing. And so what you’re essentially doing is taking the sense of hearing to finer and finer and finer levels of its emergence and eventually reaching the sort of source from which it emerges and then transcending it altogether. But theoretically you could do that with any of the senses. And it kind of sounds like that’s what you did in a way.
Stephen: Yeah, and this was, there was no book or anything. This is just what unfolded. So it was quite natural. And you know, again that was a big experience. There was still a lot of behavior that I was doing that was incongruent. But it took me a long time to start being able to work the behavior because I didn’t understand. I hadn’t done therapy enough to understand my motivations. And you know, I hadn’t really looked at family history and other things. So over time that happened and I got to understand more and more and you know, release the pressure points of my psyche, let’s say. So that they weren’t running automatically.
Rick: I’m gonna pop a few questions in here that are coming in and then we’ll keep coming back to the main track that we’re on. But this one is from Turiya Ganesh in India. And incidentally the word Turiya means fourth. It refers to the fourth state or the transcendent state that underlies waking, dreaming, and sleeping. But Indians name their kids that way. But anyway, his question is, is asceticism mandatory to experience the truth?
Stephen: No, I don’t think you need to be an ascetic and live a homeless life to have those experiences. I do think that people need time away. So you need retreat time for certain. And that’s going to be a more austere experience because you don’t have the comforts of home and the relationships of home.
Rick: I was just reading an article about the merits of foregoing short-term pleasure for the sake of long-term good. And a lot of times things that are pleasurable immediately, like let’s I think I’ll eat half a dozen donuts, have negative consequences later on. So asceticism doesn’t necessarily mean beds of nails and you know bathing in ice water. But it could mean just not being overly hedonistic or indulgent.
Stephen: Well I certainly in that context, I certainly think moderation is a great rule to live by. And the Buddha talked about the middle way between both extremes. So I would probably fall in that camp myself. That I think we need, we do need to learn delayed gratification most definitely. And it’s like going on retreat. People will come on retreat and they have expectations of what they want to have happen. And one of the things I say in retreat to folks is having done you know almost 50 years of retreats, I understand that I always get the retreat I need. I may not get the retreat I want. So we have to understand that there’s something happening in its own time that we’re a part of.
Rick: Yeah and Turiya who asked the question might remember those verses from the Gita where Krishna says this yoga is not for him who eats too much or too little, sleeps too much or too little, is too engaged in activity or not enough engaged in activity. So he’s essentially saying the middle way there too. Same thing balance.
Rick: Okay Cedric Orange from Sacramento is wondering I am new to Vipassana meditation and have experienced a place of stillness, calmness, focus and deep concentration. Might this place be the same as before physical birth and after physical death?
Stephen: Good question. It’s hard to say with just that information. It sounds like he’s getting concentrated in his meditation and we can make the connection to the absolute in that but it’s not the same as the experience of the absolute directly. So I would say that it’s probably a great confirmation of his meditation but I would probably hold off on confirming that as being the same as a realization.
Rick: So, when one has a realization, or when you have had realizations did they include the clear sense or conviction that this is timeless and will it proceeded and will succeed my physical existence?
Stephen: Yeah, it’s outside of time and space so it’s happening in the eternal now as I call it and it has that quality where that becomes something that’s timeless. I understand the absolute functioning in this particular location isn’t going to die. This body has a bad knee and a bad back and a variety of things but and this body is going to die at some point and turn to dust but the absolute will not.
Rick: Right and in fact even now the absolute doesn’t have a bad back.
Stephen: Right it’s doing fine.
Rick: This is a question from Giovanni Spampinato in Philadelphia. I have a question about Maya, the foggy confused state most of the human beings live in and experience life. Once they recognize they are trapped in this illusion the realization work begins. What is the purpose of being trapped into such a state of confusion? I think he means why we end up all confused and messed up to begin with. Why not just pop in here all nice and happy and enlightened.
Stephen: That’s a good idea. Well I think you know the Buddhist model we talk about the first noble truth being dukkha which I translate as dissatisfactoriness. It’s sometimes translated as suffering and we need the dukkha in order to propel us to practice because if everything you know in Buddhism it’s believed there are different realms of existence and one of the realms is a deva realm, a realm of say angels and there there’s no suffering and they have everything they want in adequate supply. Everyone’s happy and joyous but nobody practices because they are so content and happy. So it’s offered that in traditional Buddhism that one might aspire to be reborn in a deva realm but to be in the human realm this is where we can become realized and we can’t in some of the other realms.
Rick: Yeah, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used to say the same thing. He said that angels have no motivation to evolve because they don’t even want to close their eyes. They’re enjoying so much.
Stephen: That’s a great line.
Rick: Yeah. Okay so back to you. So you talked about your first awakening. How many years in was this?
Stephen: Good question. Probably I’d say about happening or some you know reinforcing progress going on or you wouldn’t have hung in there that long I would imagine.
Stephen: Yeah well really the first time I meditated for my shaky five minutes I was really clear that I was plugging into a grounding cord. Something about this was like I’m home. Yeah. And so that’s always been that way. I tell people I meditate because I like to meditate. I don’t expect anything to happen or not happen.
Rick: Yeah I could say the same. It’s never taken discipline. I look forward to it. It’s enjoyable.
Rick: And I imagine you’ve done you did a bunch of heroic retreats. I mean Buddhists are famous for these.
Stephen: I refer to that as my show-off period.
Rick: Oh yeah.
Stephen: Well in the Zen Session there was always a kind of Marine Corps sort of approach to it and we would sort of vie to be the first in the meditation hall and the last to leave. So being you know the most hardcore and so I was definitely guilty of that.
Rick: Yeah yeah, I was kind of a maniac like that too.
Stephen: I’m not sure did us any good but.
Rick: In fact I was on this six-month course and Maharshi started out the course and said all right this is a contest I want to see who can purify the fastest. So I just went bananas. I was like fasting like crazy and you know just meditating constantly. It had a springback effect. I ended up like down in the kitchen at 6 in the morning gorging myself on.
Rick: Because I pushed it too hard.
Stephen: Right that’s the thing you have to have the psychological and emotional stability in order to really progress along there and if we push too far that’s the thing. I had Zen teachers that would say I drive them crazy or I drive them to enlightenment and I would say that’s the only two options.
Rick: I remember Adyashanti who was also a very dedicated practitioner but he was finally on some retreat and he was just he felt like he was at the breaking point. He was gonna go crazy and he left which wasn’t like him and he went to his little hut that he had built in the backyard of his parents home and went and just sat down in the hut and said I give up and boom that’s when he had his awakening.
Stephen: Yeah, very.
Rick: Yeah. So concentration. I sometimes think of concentration as a result rather than as a means. When you say concentration meditation involves concentration I mean it’s not, I presume it’s not the teeth-gritting, you know, forcing kind of thing. So where does it lie on the spectrum of effort versus effortlessness.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s a great question and in traditional Buddhism and Theravadan Buddhism there are something like 40 meditations that are in the concentration meditation basket. Among those include the heart practices that I teach and also what’s called the jhana practice that I co-authored the book practicing the jhanas on that and really it’s a it’s a balance. There needs to be what I call proactive effort where there’s a doing like in the in the first practice people are assigned in Theravadan Buddhism is breath awareness so they’re aware of the breath in the area between the lip and the nostrils and that’s it. You stay with that with that sensation of the breath. You’re not trying to analyze it. You’re not trying to figure anything out. You’re just being with the breath as like we’re being together here and over time that gets you get more and more concentrated. There’s three levels of concentration. Every meditation has the first two momentary concentration where’s your concentration this moment and then access concentration. Once you begin to stay with the meditative object for 10 or 15 minutes without serious interruption we would say that’s access concentration and with access concentration can show up these things called jhana factors. There’s five jhana factors and things like bliss and joy and one-pointedness. So when we get that concentrated staying with the meditative object becomes very easy. It’s almost hard to get away from it and then in concentration meditation topics there’s a third level of concentration called absorption or jhana and that’s where it’s a no self-experience in a non-dual state. So you could talk about things like Tibetan Rigpa being similar to that except Rigpa is an outward oriented and jhana is an interiorization of experience.
Rick: So in all these forms of concentration let’s start with the beginner one where you’re concentrating on the breath. Would you say it’s the kind of concentration where, like, you’re driving a car and you’re basically looking at the road. You know you’re not, kind of, just going like this talking to the person next to you because you’ll crash the car. So you know you might glance briefly but you’re focused on the road and in this case glancing briefly wouldn’t in case of meditation wouldn’t even be an intentional thing because you really want to stay with the breath but you might find yourself listening to the birds outside or car goes by or you know fire engine goes down the street or something but then you’re back to the breath. But at no point are you straining or forcing or beating yourself up for having your attention wander.
Stephen: Yeah that as you’re implying that’s that’s counter-intuitive. That’s going to be not helpful. So just by doing a kind of exertion of energy which people do try, it’s, and eventually they get exhausted so they have to put that down. So it’s a matter of showing up and it’s prioritizing that meditative object over everything else in your awareness or perception. So I can hear the fire engine but I don’t leave the breath. I’m aware of the room and somebody unzipping their jacket but I stay with the breath. So it’s not like I’m unmindful I’m just not going to the thought I’m not going to the hearing or whatever I’m letting it all happen but I’m staying with the breath.
Rick: And if you’ve completely forgotten to stay with a breath and, you’re then you just, whether it’s been five seconds or five minutes you just come back to it and just resume.
Stephen: Yeah and ideally without self-judgment or criticism right because that just adds layering of difficulty. You come back the same way you would if you were teaching a two-year-old to walk down the sidewalk – “no, honey, this way, not in the street. No, honey, this way, not in the street”.
Rick: Yeah and I mean if you did come back with all kinds of self-judgment and criticism then you’re not with the breath anymore you’re with self-judgment and criticism.
Stephen: Right and then you feel bad and then you feel like I’m, I don’t deserve this, I’m lousy, everyone’s better than me, all of that.
Rick: Yeah yada yada.
Stephen: And you got to work through that to come back to the breath.
Rick: So what you said a minute ago about it gets to a point where it’s so blissful that you would it would take effort to get your attention away from it. That’s kind of what I was alluding to, where, when I was saying that this concentration, the means or the effect, in a way it becomes the result of this effortless attention thing and eventually becomes really concentrated and absorbed but we’re not concentrating. Would that be fair to say?
Stephen: Yeah, I think what you’re pointing to is the releasing of effort and I mentioned the proactive effort the doing part of meditation but once we’re with the breath then we have to shift over into a receptive effort or more receptive, where we’re just simply being with it. And I sometimes use the example of somebody who’s kayaking in a river and they hit the current and the current’s going the same way they are, then the skill becomes not over-paddling. And that’s what we have to do in meditation is not overdo if it’s working, if you’re with the breath, if you’re settling just relax and enjoy it and when you appropriately relax the meditation deepens. So there is something important about the releasing of effort.
Rick: Yeah, “row row row your boat gently down the stream…”
Rick: I sometimes use the analogy of like if you had a pan full of water and the water was sort of agitated there ripples and waves and you wanted them to stop you wouldn’t start pushing on the waves because you’d create more ripples, you have to just sort of let it let it settle.
Stephen: Right no great example
Rick: Yeah yeah, very much so. It’s interesting how, I mean I come from such a different orientation than you in terms of this. In fact I was gonna join that Zen Center up in Rochester when I was a new meditator because the meditation I had learned seemed so easy and I thought well this couldn’t be leading to enlightenment, it’s too easy. So I wrote to the Zen Center and they said you had to study with a local Roshi for six months first and get his recommendations. So, I was in Connecticut, I went into New York City and met with a Roshi, and had the car towed away, we spent half the night in Times Square trying to get a check cashed and all we were finding was prostitutes who said “my man don’t take checks anyway”. I finally decided I was gonna stick with what I had learned and it was working.
Stephen: That’s wise.
Rick: But anyway I’m pleased and and interested in the parallels between what you’ve been doing and what I’ve been doing.
Stephen: Yeah, well, that’s what I’m saying. All of these, all of these are just different approaches up the same mountain, different paths. But you have to, there’s a point in realization when you have to awaken out of your tradition and awaken out of all traditions where you realize that the source, it’s the source of all of them. So to say that Buddhism is better than Christianity I can’t say that. It’s one path, it’s a path that works for me but it’s not the only path and I certainly respect all paths. I’m, I even attended an interfaith seminary years ago for this very reason because I really got the importance of the mystery schools of all the major religions. We’re all very similar.
Rick: Yeah, there was a point at which I left the TM movement about 20 years ago, and now I do this in which I talked to somebody from a different tradition every week and it’s all one big happy family from my perspective.
Stephen: right, yeah, get it.
Rick: okay so I’m occasionally bringing it back to you here. So about 10 or 11 years you said you’ve been practicing including some rather intense retreats. I can only imagine the pain in your knees and stuff.
Stephen: unspeakable pain.
Rick: oh god now that’s one thing where my path would have differed — it was like be comfortable you know because if you’re in that kind of pain, that’s gonna be an impediment
Stephen: right well people can get injured people can get injured that’s the problem
Rick: Yeah, they can have a problem
Stephen: sciatic nerve damage and other things. Yeah, my my knee problem is from running. I used to be a runner but I can’t sit on the floor anymore, I sit in a chair.
Rick: Yeah, I remember Henry Shookman saying when he was on these long Zen retreats they had, you know, a break of, I don’t know how many, 5-10 minutes or something in between meditation sessions and he would jump up race to this lake which was there jumping the lake and then jump out and race back
Rick: sounds like fun
Rick: Yeah, so 76 years, so you’re going on 50 years almost and and so that was your first awakening and so then what? Take us through some more of these stages of awakening
Stephen: Yeah, well there were a lot of different awakenings. I practiced in the Tibetan tradition so I did several Dzogchen Rigpa retreats and experienced Rigpa with those
Rick: what is Rigpa?
Stephen: Rigpa is a Tibetan practice where you you are recognizing the non-duality and you’re realizing it in real time. It’s an eyes-open practice so basically you start by concentrating with a concentration object. And then when you’re concentrated, then you drop the object and stay with the concentration. And that’s called the shamatha – without support – and then you either do a turn to look at the awareness that’s observing your awareness or you do a backward step and you… basically most people have the sense that I had this awareness sort of here, like this parabolic shield around my head, but we move back into the larger awareness at some point. We realize our awareness is non-existent, that’s just a concept, and so then the awareness becomes one and that’s really the the function of Rigpa as I understand it, So it’s very similar to to Jhana in that it’s a no-self non-dual experience but it’s again Rigpa’s eyes-open Jhana’s eyes-closed, and you’re interiorizing with Jhana you’re moving into the deep interiors.
Rick: When I was listening to your books – I listened to because I turned them into audio books – but there were so many different techniques and I thought, “wow I would, if I tried to do all these it would be too much, I would get confused”. So, I mean ,are you offering it like a smorgasbord and people just sort of pick out the things that jump, that really appeal to them
Stephen: no no, I don’t do it that way. I offer retreats – like I’m leading retreats starting Friday on my book demystifying awakening. So one of the main practices we’ll do with that group is the innate goodness meditation, which is a real lovely meditation of just getting in contact with that unconditioned quality of goodness that each of us carries. And so that becomes helps create kind of a buoyancy, and then we’ll do a Zen practice in Japan called Shikantaza. I use the Chinese Chan description which is silent illumination meditation but it’s where I’ve identified three stages, and basically unifying a body and mind, unifying of inside-outside and then opening to the vastness, opening to the absolute and that’s really one of the great practices with that practice you can do a lot. I mean with both the Brahma viharas the heart practices and with the silent illumination, they really can open a lot of doors.
Rick: So in other words, even though you might know about dozens of techniques that you could potentially teach, when you teach a retreat or something you just have two or three things that you’re gonna focus on with those people
Stephen: right right
Rick: okay and probably different things on different retreats
Stephen: Yeah, different retreats, or I have folks I’ve worked with solo. I’ve had a couple of Buddhist teachers come and want to learn either the heart practices or the Jhana practice and so I’ve led them on a solo retreat where they’ve done the practices. So in that instance they’ll do progressive practices – like if they do the Jhanas there’s eight Jhanas, so they’ll do one through eight in different ways. We approach it in about 10 or 15 different ways to have the full experience.
Rick: When you have a retreat do you select the people so that they’re roughly at the same level of expertise?
Rick: Is that a problem? Maybe some people might have 20-30 years of experience and others are just starting out?
Stephen: Yeah, the retreat I’ll do next on Friday will probably have some people I doubt it’ll be their first retreat, but some people probably who are a year or so into meditating, and others have been doing it longer than I have. And I find that the people that are attracted to the retreat belong there. It’s very rare when somebody isn’t in sync with the retreat.
Rick: This works out?
Stephen: Yeah I did a retreat in Croatia in June and had folks from all over Europe and it just was a beautiful retreat. It went really well. People just had great experiences and you know, one woman was a very first retreat, and others – one man’s been on 10 or 15 retreats with me alone – so really a cross-section of people.
Rick: Nice. You just used the word progressive. There’s this debate about the direct versus the progressive path. Are you conversant with that?
Stephen: Yeah yeah, enough I think to have a mild conversation.
Rick: Yeah I have a kind of a both-and attitude toward it but what do you think?
Stephen: Yeah I’m with you. There absolutely can be a progression we can follow like with the jhana practice. There’s absolutely a progression of practice. With the other practices there can be two, like say with a heart practice there’s the making contact with the meditative object which is usually a certain quality we’re getting in touch with, and we’re also using people – so we’re using, like, say I’m using a mental image of you. You’re my object and I’m doing a practice on love, so I’m looking at you and I’m feeling that love and connection to you. Well at some point when I get concentrated enough, I can put down your picture, I can put down any supporting phrases I’ve been using, and I can just be directly in the felt sense of that love and that becomes my vehicle. But I’ve got to be concentrated enough to where I can put down that that image, that person, and the support phrases that are traditionally used to help stay focused.
Rick: Yeah, just to dwell on this a bit more.. so the way it’s often presented, some people say they say okay the direct path is you can just directly realize, you don’t have to spend years and years and years. There’s a way of short cutting all that and, you know, basically you’re done. And most people are gonna hear that and think, “well, I like that idea, that sounds good, I don’t want to have to spend years if I can get it right away”. And we started out today talking about how, you know, a person can be realized and yet have a lot of work to do in terms of their personality and purification of various kinds. So I guess my take on it is that, I mean, like you the very first time I meditated there was a direct realization of something. It could have been deeper and clearer but it was great. And then over the years it’s continued to unfold. And so I kind of feel like it’s not an either/or choice really that…
Stephen: it’s both
Stephen: well it could really if, you know, in Buddhism we have the sort of ideal that the Buddha meditated had this amazing realization and it blew out all the personal stuff, all of his personality stuff, and his difficulty with his family etc. But we don’t actually know that’s true. And my experience, what I tell students is I’ve never met a teacher that was true for, I’ve never met anybody that their awakening was so large that they resolved all the personal issues and all the psychological issues they had before the awakening. So I think there is an integration time and it’s an important time to work with these different aspects of ourselves and that’s when we begin to see them more clearly and see their difficulty. So I think there is a direct and I think that that ends up with us doing a progressive path too.
Rick: Yeah, and we know, I mean, the Buddha busted his butt for years before he had his his realization. It wasn’t like “Oh enlightenment, I think I’ll go for that, okay I’m done”. Yeah, he went at it much more arduously than most of us ever could. Yeah the one reason I dwell on this a bit is there is a stream of people in contemporary spirituality who keep emphasizing the end of seeking, and giving up the search, and you’re already enlightened, and, you know, practices are only going to reinforce the sense of a practicer, and they keep saying things like that. I just, I’m skeptical…
Stephen: Yeah, I don’t think what they’re saying is untrue, but I think it’s a very narrow band they’re talking about.
Stephen: and and I think it’s people who have somehow done personal work and had a deep realization, because we need to have both. Otherwise you have this crack container holding this amazing nectar it’s gonna start leaking out in places that are unexpected, and and that’s what happened in the Zen world in the 80s and 90s was a lot of these Zen teachers were acting out in inappropriate ways because they hadn’t done the personal work. They just believed it wasn’t wasn’t necessary to do. They believed in the direct approach that everything was resolved by the realization and it’s just not.
Rick: Yeah, Jesus said don’t pour new wine into old wineskins
Stephen: Yeah yeah, that’s basically we’re talking about
Rick: Yeah, and I think it’s also – a lot of time I forget the way you phrased it a minute ago – but I think a lot of people just don’t want to do a lot of practice. They haven’t found a practice that they enjoy or that that they can that appeals to them. And so, you know, if I can just convince myself that I’m enlightened already and there’s nothing more to do I’m good. You know, that it’s kind of the McDonald’s approach in a way
Stephen: I tell my students the opposite. I tell them I’m a work in progress I view that there’s no end to realization, and there’s no end to unconscious material. I keep working both. And I realized the teachers I’m friends with are the teachers that, like me, see themselves as lifetime students
Rick: Yeah, I keep saying the same thing
Stephen: we teach but we’re students
Rick: Yeah, exactly. I think everybody’s in work-in-progress. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who isn’t, and I’ve met some pretty impressive people
Stephen: Yeah, you have, you have.
Rick: not that I can judge. My experience, you know yeah – I don’t claim to be able to judge anybody’s level of consciousness. But I just never gotten the sense that anybody is finished, and including some great teachers. you know that… Like Maharshi for instance, that I spent a lot of time with, definitely a work-in-progress.
Stephen: Yeah, well, and the question is, you know, what’s the teacher revealing about that? Are they revealing that no I’m done? Because that sets a different model up for the students then. If you tell them, “no I’m, my feet are of clay too, I may have realization but I’m still figuring out the day-to-day stuff every day”, that’s how it works.
Rick: Yeah, a woman who had had, let’s say, relations with Maharshi wrote a book called “robes of silk, feet of clay”, since you just used that phrase…
Stephen: that’s a good title
Rick: Yeah. Do you know anything about Kundalini? Somebody’s sending a question about it.
Stephen: I did, I got asked about that recently. I had a Kundalini experience when I was young, young teenager, never practiced yogic practices but I did have the Kundalini rising.
Rick: so let me ask this question and see if we can handle it. Let me see if I can pronounce the woman’s name Dinadayalan Subbaaj from India. “What is the difference between prana rising and Kundalini rising? Is there something called slow Kundalini rising”?
Stephen: Yeah, that would be outside my my knowledge base, so I couldn’t answer that.
Rick: okay. Dina, I would recommend that you watch – I’ve watched I’ve interviewed several people on the topic of Kundalini – Joan Shivarpita Harrigan is probably the most authoritative, Bonnie Greenwell and – forget the other guy’s name. But anyway there’s a categorical index on batgap. If you look under there, you’ll see a category for Kundalini, and if you click on it you’ll go to a list of people on that topic. But Joan Harrigan is one of the best, and she’s written a couple of very thick books all about the whole science of Kundalini. Believe me, it gets very very detailed and sophisticated, so that would be a good resource. Okay, so even as we’ve been talking then are is there anything that’s we flirted with that you thought, “well, we should really talk about that more but we haven’t yet”? Not that we’re done but I just want to make sure we get it to everything that is important to you.
Stephen: No, I think we’ve talked about a lot of important things. Well I think the only thing I’d add would be that for a student looking for a teacher, you want to have a teacher that you trust, and you want a teacher that you feel like they’ve had the kind of experiences that you’re feeling drawn towards. And the other tip would be, look at their senior students if their senior students are acting in ways that you think are inconsistent with the realization they’re talking about, then it’s probably not a good place for you to practice.
Rick: Yeah, those are great points. I mean one way of putting it i
Stephen: do I want to be like this guy, you know, I mean if I practice this for 30-40 years as he has been doing, would I be happy if I ended up the way he seems to be? And if not, then what do you do in there?
Stephen: Yeah, perfect question.
Rick: Yeah, because what often happens – and this touches upon the Association for Spiritual Integrity that I mentioned earlier – is a teacher will be behaving reprehensibly, but students will sit there and think, “well that seems pretty weird, but he’s supposed to be enlightened and I’m not, and so what do I know, so I’ll just go along with this” and the whole thing just goes farther and farther off the rails.
Stephen: And that’s how that was the view of the students really. In the early days in Zen, I was guilty of that, where I thought my teachers were completely enlightened. I thought they were living Buddhas so everything they did was enlightened action, and if they did things that were harmful or hurt people, I viewed it that they were doing it for their own good, they were helping. So and this is part of what gave these teachers license and permission to continue, because we as students were very immature. And today that’s changed a lot where students really have a lot more sophistication and understand the fact that the teachers are human, they have their regular lives, and you can’t expect perfect behavior it’s just it’s an unrealistic expectation.
Rick: Yeah, well we know when we’re young we tend to be naive and idealistic. And I did the same thing. I would, sort of you know, get all starry-eyed about some teacher.
Stephen: Well, I remember that I remember the excitement about Maharishi when he first came here, and oh my God it was just incredible. It was like the Beatles coming to town.
Rick: It was because of the Beatles that, they’re the ones that made him famous and actually around the time you learned Zen, it was when he was going on the Merv Griffin show and there were like 50,000 people a month learning TM in the US.
Stephen: Fun time I bet.
Rick: Yeah, it was fun. I mean, I don’t regret any of it I feel like it was the most beneficial influence in my life. But I have just a nuanced attitude about it all in terms of I’ve learned a lot you know.
Stephen: Yeah yeah, it’s good.
Rick: Yeah, older but wiser.
Stephen: I’ll do mention one thing. My newest book called Trust and Awakening which you’ve read is coming out in September, and that’s sort of a follow-up to my book Demystifying Awakening which is really exploring the path of awakening different realizations, different resistances. And that’s one of the big things in my teaching that’s different from other teachers is, I identify and work with the resistances to awakening with folks that makes a big difference. But the book Trust and Awakening is a reworking of what’s considered the first poem of Zen – a poem from the 600s -and I’ve sort of modified some of the language to be more accurate with my teaching and then I’ve given commentary on the poem itself. So but it’s a great poem. I’ve used it for decades to open and read, and find some stanza or some section that just speaks to where I am or feels like it explains something I need to do. So I think it’s a really interesting book and it’s different than my other books where they’re more practice manuals. This is more direct teaching we call it in Zen.
Rick: let’s talk more about tha,t but then also you just mentioned resistances to awakening. What are some of those?
Stephen: Well, the the biggest ones are related to aspects of fear. In Theravadan Buddhism in the Vipassana section, one of the last stages before one approaches or awareness approaches cessation is terror, and that’s what people feel. Not necessarily terror but absolutely fear, anxiety. All of that will come up when they’re getting to a point when the personality is going to go dormant. It’s very unnerving for people, and what I’ve realized is there’s two aspects people can feel it as though they’re going to go into a kind of non-existence, or that they’re going to lose their mind in a way that they’ll end up without a family a job and be homeless. So it’s the idea of losing everything in some way, but it’s every possibility you can imagine. And resistance – it’s mostly around fear or loss of the personality or the personal life in some way – I’ll become a blob on the couch, I won’t be able to do anything, I won’t be able to relate to other people – all of these things.
Rick: Yeah, I have this friend down in Austin and she’s she’s going through this beautiful shift. I mean, the quality of the openings that she’s having is just sublime but she’s been going through exactly what you described. I mean, she, you know, for one thing anything can trigger it. And so she as she’s driving she’s afraid to look at the sky because the vastness of the sky I’ll just put her into this vastness and she’s afraid she won’t be able to drive. And then like she said the other day she was sitting in the living room just gripping the coffee table because she felt like she was just merging into unboundedness and she doesn’t want to be unable to take care of her son and things like that. I found this beautiful Khalil Gibran poem that just perfectly – let me see if I can quickly find that – perfectly describes what she’s going through. Here it is, I’m gonna read it. It says, it’s called Fear by Khalil Gibran. He said, it is said that before entering the sea, a river trembles with fear. She looks back at the path she has traveled from the peaks of the mountains, the long winding road, road crossing forests and villages. And in front of her she sees an ocean so vast that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever. But there is no other way; the river cannot go back nobody can go back. To go back is impossible in existence. The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean but of becoming the ocean.
Stephen: well and actually realizing it’s always been ocean
Rick: Exactly, yeah. Isn’t that nice, beautiful?
Stephen: Yeah yeah. Would help your friend if she can, if she has a teacher she can talk with. This is where a teacher comes in really handy.
Rick: Yeah, she’s been talking to some people.
Rick: Yeah, and she’s worked through a lot of it now, she’s kind of gotten more into being comfortable as the ocean.
Stephen: good, yeah. Sounds good.
Rick: so what more do you want to say about the trust and awakening book?
Stephen: just I it’s a really interesting, I think it’s an interesting book. I’m getting some good feedback from… the early reviewers are reading it. And it’s a direct pointing book, so it’s really, I’m pointing to the absolute using this other poem. I didn’t originate the poem of course, but also with the commentary I’m trying to point people to the direct experience of the absolute. And like in my own teaching I’ve started doing it where I really focus and stress on people to practice the heart practices first, to really get comfortable with those as a meditation. And then I teach them as off the cushion practices too, because as lay people we need this to be able to move into our lives and in our function. So taking things like compassion off the cushion and really using it in life is really helpful. And then once people get well established and they resolve some of the heart wounding they’ve accumulated, then they can turn more towards the awakening practices. Because with the buoyancy of the heart and the heart being the rudder, it becomes a lot easier to navigate the awakening material. And like next year I’m doing two mentoring groups – I’ll do a six-month Buddha’s heart so heart practices mentoring group, and the second half of the year will be a demystifying awakening awakening mentoring group. And those have been really wonderful to have to work with people one-on-one to do readings, and I have questions they post and all that but it’s just wonderful seeing them develop over the course of the year. I think it’s a good combination of practices in that way and and then also I just plug – I’m doing a two-week retreat in Croatia next year April 2nd through 16th. We’ll do a week of Samatha practice, so concentration practice, then a week of awakening and I think that also will be a tremendous retreat. We’re keeping that to 20 people so it’ll be very small and I’ll be able to work with folks pretty closely.
Rick: you seem to have a lot going on in Croatia.
Stephen: I do.
Rick: that’s good. Is it by the seashore?
Stephen: it is, it’s this resort is you you have a view of the Adriatic, it’s half mile away from the ocean, from the Adriatic Sea and it’s just lovely setting. Croatia is a beautiful country. I mean, it’s right there on the water, it’s across the water from Venice. So it’s, you know, just a lovely area and I just like the people and the food and all of it sounds great.
Rick: did you ever, over the course of your spiritual practice, did you ever go through phases where you became somewhat dysfunctional – it was hard to go to work, it was hard to deal with your family, you became too detached or discoordinated, or, I don’t know, anything like that?
Stephen: I think so I think it was, you know, I would say that I was believed believing my own press you know I had some realizations and I was really very caught up and somewhat arrogant about the realizations, that I was special and and that’s one of the rest, one of the issues we have to resolve is when we have these realizations, the “I’m special, I’ve had an awakening, I’m, you know, I’m cool” – we have to resolve that, and digest that to where we put it down and we’re very ordinary. Because otherwise it just creates another spiritual – in effect- self-image that we’re then trying to live up to and of course we’re gonna fail
Rick: and the bigger they are the harder they fall.
Stephen: oh yeah, if you have a family they’ll do you the good service of pulling out pins when you have a nice big inflated ego, so that balloon gets popped.
Rick: Yeah, Ram Dass said if you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your parents
Stephen: exactly, exactly.
Rick: Do you have any recommendations for integrating? Like if a person feels they’ve done a lot of spiritual practice, but they feel spacey or on, you know, ungrounded, that kind of thing.
Stephen: Yeah, I really encourage folks to do the heart practices. Particularly in my book I have one innate goodness meditation, and it’s one that’s really good to plug into, the folks that have the Ken shows I’m working with they really I stress the innate goodness practice which they do a lot. And then I have them journal and keep track of the times of the day when they act in ways that are incongruent. So you know, in effect, like they went to a restaurant and yelled at a waitress over a glass of milk and they got home and said “what the heck was that, who did that”. Well it begins to show something’s getting triggered, so we can often trace that back and we can work through that and resolve that particular issue, so it’s not pressing anymore and in fact it becomes liberated. But that becomes the job after realization as we have to start watching our behavior, our thoughts, and seeing what we’re actually doing, and that’s where we can see where we’re not walking our talk in certain places.
Rick: Yeah, it’s interesting. In advance… and if there is no person, then I guess the question is who is the doer? And you know some teachings say that well it’s God is the doer or the gunas of nature are the doer or, you know, some larger intelligence other than the individual is the doer. And yet, and in fact some people will do bad things and then blame it on God because God is the doer. But there’s… how do you how do you treat that? Would you say that if a person is sort of off the beam in terms of their behavior, then don’t blame God – I mean, it’s, there’s something that hasn’t been purged or purified.
Stephen: right, right. Well, think of it this way, Rick. It’s like we’ve opened the tap on this amazing mountain crystal stream, and this incredible water is flowing through. But if it’s flowing through an old psychology, it’s like going through a dirty filter. So the fact that we’re gonna get some dirty water once in a while isn’t surprising. But we have to get to the filter and work on the filter, to clean the filter until the water can be as pure coming out as it is going in. And that’s a lifelong job.
Rick: right, and is that why you you emphasize the heart practices, are they primarily filter-cleaning things?
Stephen: they are that. We work a lot with the wounding and the armoring, which is really what gets liberated, and because it’s unconditioned qualities of true nature we’re sitting with aspects of our true nature. So that becomes an exercise in seeing that there’s nothing bad about it and we can develop some trust in our true nature.
Rick: Yeah, a lot of people in the spiritual community seem to be interested in trauma these days, and healing trauma. The people who do the Science And Non-Duality course recently did a whole movie with Gabor Matei called The wisdom of trauma. And there’s a guy named Thomas Hubel who is German with an Israeli wife, and he’s been working on healing the trauma between those two cultures. But it seems like a lot of people are aware of the notion that trauma both in the individual and in the collective consciousness is holding us back.
Stephen: it is, and we have to work with that. In the psychological world they’ll talk about some of the structures, and one in particular the inner critic or super ego is one that we have to work with. And that’s the one that’s the critical one you make a mistake and that voice says “oh here the dumbest person, there is, you know, that was the stupidest mistake”. So we have to work with that. And what I found working with folks is, if they’re sort of normal trauma survivors, which is the majority of people, you can work with it with some assertion – you know stop, knock it off. And the folks that are severe trauma sufferers, if they’ve had particularly severe childhood trauma that doesn’t work. They actually have to show love to their inner critic or super ego, because if there’s assertiveness even it feeds the aggression of the super ego. So that even there there’s a distinction in whether somebody is a severe trauma survivor or just a normal trauma survivor.
Rick: do you have certain therapists that you recommend to people, if they’re working with you?
Stephen: I have, I don’t always because I don’t always know people in their location. But there’s, for example I know somebody who works a lot with trauma folks who’s somebody who’s had an awakening, and I work with her periodically, and she’s somebody who will begin I’ll start referring folks to her, who have had severe trauma. I’m talking about really the horrible stuff that we hear about sometimes.
Rick: Yeah. Do you feel that therapists to really work in conjunction with the, with a Buddhist teacher, need to understand the Buddhist world I mean because there are probably some therapists that just don’t really get spirituality it’s not a not in their wheelhouse you know.
Stephen: Well I had one student contact me recently and they’d been doing therapy and they were concluding therapy, and the therapist said to them well you know you’re almost done with therapy you don’t need meditation anymore. and they said to me, “well I’m doing therapy because I want to go deeper into meditation”. that’s the point, but but the therapist didn’t understand the spiritual world and only saw it from the secular side of becoming a better ego and that’s certainly helpful. but in the spiritual world we’re also, we’re wanting to experience ourselves as God and that’s the way it’s actually set up so you know those of us that are called that’s the only thing that’s gonna scratch that itch.
Rick: Yeah. in your teaching or even in your own personal view of things – maybe you don’t bring it out a lot in your teaching – do you have a sense of what the world is going through? and you know there’s sort of a mass psychosis or something perhaps to a certain extent and…
Stephen: I think we’re in a big shift, in a big positive shift, and they’ll talk about it as a step up in consciousness I think that’s where we are. And the pendulum is swinging back to really get in contact with all of the fear and distrust before we make the move into this newer level of consciousness, which is already beginning to happen. We’re just not there yet.
Rick: Yeah, I think that too, but I also wonder about the efficiency with which the shift can take place.
Stephen: let’s not talk about that.
Rick: Yeah, I mean, it could be rough or it could be smooth and maybe it’ll be rough for some people and smooth for others, but I think one way of looking at… I think what a lot of the spiritual teachers have been trying to do for the last half century is, I mean a lot of them have explicitly predicted that there’s a big shift coming and they’re trying to grease the wheels as much as possible so they don’t you know jam as these changes take place.
Stephen: right, yeah. And to me a lot of it comes back to the heart practices and realization the more people that can wake up, and the more people that can be in touch with their authentic heart – the Buddha’s heart – the better the world’s gonna be.
Rick: Yeah, so your books.. I’ve read them but you can you explain how they contain techniques, the kinds of techniques you’re alluding to here, and could persons just, you know, read your books and get quite a bit in terms of knowing how to do certain practices and doing them? Or are the books just supplementary to actual in-person or online courses?
Stephen: Yeah, good question. Well, I think there are certainly people that do read the books and can put into practice what’s in there. For example, in Buddha’s heart I have all the steps for all the meditations so one could certainly do it themselves. Most people like to work with a teacher just because the teachers experienced in it and can help guide them if they get stuck somewhere, you know. I’m a fan of retreats that’s how I grew up and how we’ve always done it in Buddhism, so there’s something about sitting in that field with other people and the teacher where you really get contact with the felt sense of what you’re practicing and the same is true of my book Demystifying Awakening. I go through all the practices, I explain them all how they work, and I think there are people that could actually do them at home without a teacher, but I think a lot of people do better if they have a teacher to help, you know, check that what’s going on and let them know what’s important and what’s not important.
Rick: Yeah, I also think it’s hard for most people to get a deep routine established at home, because there’s so many distractions you know Dogs need feeding and this and that and the other thing and even trying to do online retreats I imagine it must be a bit of a compromise compared to an in person one.
Stephen: Yeah, I’ve been done the online retreats. I do day longs which is the most I do online and those work very well. But the retreats I still like the in-person retreats, there’s something about sitting together again being in that field and living together, and for me I can watch people I can see them in meditation hall, I can see them walking around, I can get a sense and I’m interviewing every other day with them, so I can get a real good sense of where they are and what’s happening and so it really it works well that way too. And that’s one of the things I’ll just throw out – in the old koans people don’t realize that a lot of people in the koans were had been living in the same monastic community for sometimes decades, so for them to have this little exchange where someone awakens – I mean imagine if you and I lived together for 20 years and you said past the Cheerios that might be enough to do, boom you know we have the awakening. So it’s important to understand that context I think in the read it when one reads the koans.
Stephen: Yeah, I think I might say past the granola but anyway…
Stephen: that’s the granola, excuse me.
Rick: do you have retreats in the US?
Stephen: I do, I teach a cloud mountain in Washington. I’m going there Friday for demystifying awakening, and I’ve got a bar movie horrors retreat in October. They’re both sold out but I’ll have I’ll have four one-week retreats there next year I’ll be doing in April I’m doing a heart practice, May is demystifying awakening shall I am gonna do a new retreat I think called entering the absolute, and then October another heart practice retreat, and then Croatia for two weeks in April.
Rick: cool you’re having fun.
Stephen: I am.
Rick: Yeah, you had a stroke, you mentioned towards the end of one of your books…
Stephen: yep yep, have a couple head injuries, had a stroke about four years ago.
Rick: did the head injuries cause the stroke or…
Stephen: no, there’s no relation that I know of, doctors have said they just… I was in a couple car accidents and something fell on me another time, so but they they were actually great gifts… I, they all helped me in that they dislodged my normal personality and functioning in a way that I couldn’t continue to be me the personality and so I got to see the tenuousness of my personality and what didn’t go away. So it was great teachers for me. I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody else but I learned a lot from those experiences, a lot of humility also
Rick: you probably read Jill Balty Taylor’s book right?
Stephen: which book
Rick: is “My stroke of insight” I think it was..
Stephen: I have.
Rick: she was the neuroscientist who had a stroke and…
Stephen: Yeah, I saw her TED talk online too.
Rick: Yeah, well I’m glad they were minor strokes, they must have been because you you seem totally normal and…
Stephen: Yeah, I’ve got some vision issues and some other things like I can get overwhelmed if there’s too much visual stimulation, but you know it’s all manageable, it’s like anything with aging, you have things that don’t work quite as well but you make do.
Rick: Yeah, good. okay, is there anything else that you want to conclude with before…
Stephen: yes, I really enjoyed this it’s been really really fun to do and you know you’re an interesting intelligent guy, so I appreciate the questions and the thoroughness of your interview.
Rick: thanks, there’s a lot of trust in the process because I often don’t know where we’re going with it and it just, you know, kind of rolls along one thing comes up…
Stephen: Yeah, but it was, well you know, it’s like with with my Zen teacher it’s like that, and I tell him I said I I call when our conversations Zen jazz, we never quite know what’s gonna happen, or whose mouth that’s gonna come out of.
Rick: but, and of course jazz has, there’s certain chords that you have to use and all but then there’s a great plenty of room for improvisation. I think of life that way, actually I’ve lately been thinking of life as like a play that’s loosely scripted with plenty of room for improvisation, and you know something will happen you’ll think, “well that’s interesting, I didn’t see that come clever clever plot twist there”.
Stephen: yeah yeah, well it’s really our how do we receive it and respond to it, that’s what matters.
Rick: yeah good. well, thanks so much Steven.
Stephen: thank you Rick.
Rick: I’ll have a page on batgap with you know, links to your website and to your books, and if you, like, when your new book comes out in September send me the…
Stephen: I’ll send you a vacation…
Rick: …so I can… well, I don’t need the book itself. Let me know when it’s available because I can put the Amazon link on there.
Stephen: oh great, okay, I’ll do that. That sounds wonderful, thanks, and I’ll be sending out this to my email list as well.
Rick: yeah, and speaking of email list, if people listening to this want to get on that email list – that’s a good way of being kept informed of what you’re doing.
Stephen: right. good, thank you very much.
Rick: you’re welcome, nice getting to know you..
Stephen: you too..
Rick: and thanks to those who’ve been listening or watching. there’s an upcoming interviews page on batgap which lists who we have scheduled. We have some interesting people scheduled in the coming weeks, so check that out if you like. And there’s a little thing that you can click to be notified, and your calendar which, – whatever kind of calendar you use – when an interview is coming up, so you can tune into the live one if you want to. And other things on the website – audio podcast, various other things if you check out the menus. So thanks a lot and we’ll see you for the next one. Thanks Steven.
Stephen: thank you, bye Rick.
Rick: bye bye