Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and my guest this week is Steve Taylor. Welcome Steve.
Steve: Hi Rick, great to be with you.
Rick: I’ll start by just reading your standard little bio that you sent me and then we can take it from there. Steve is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, which is in the UK, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. For the last two years he has been included, this year at number 38, in Mind, Body and Spirit magazine’s list of the 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People. Hey, I was wondering, did the Pope make that list?
Steve: He was in it, yeah, before he died.
Rick: Was he above you or below you?
Steve: I think he was below me actually.
Rick: Ah, so he should kiss your ring.
Steve: Yeah, it’s a boost for my ego to be more influential than the Pope.
Rick: That whole list seems like a bit of a joke, but anyway, I don’t know who makes it up. His books include Waking from Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, and his latest book, Back to Sanity. His books have been published in 16 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as an important contribution to the shift in consciousness which is happening on our planet at present. Andrew Harvey has said of his work, “Its importance for our menacing times and for the transformation being birthed by them cannot be exaggerated.” Steve is also a poet. His first book of poems, Spiritual Reflections, The Meaning, has just been published. He may read a poem or two during this interview. Steve lives in Manchester, England with his wife and three young children. So you’ve written about seven books as I understand it. I have read portions of two of them. I was reading Out of the Darkness and I think it’s called Back to Sanity, and I was intentionally flipping back and forth, like reading a chapter of one and then a chapter of the other and then back and forth, just to sort of mix it up a bit. They both present interesting ideas I think with plenty of potential for discussion and thought. So what’s uppermost on your mind, having written these books and obviously pondered the topics in them much more deeply than I have? What would you like to start with?
Steve: Well, I think maybe the starting point of my writings and my research is a sense that there’s something slightly wrong with human beings, as most human beings are, and as most human beings experience reality and how we interact with reality. So I think that’s been my, probably since I was 15 or 16 years old and maybe even younger, that’s probably been the main spring of my inspiration, if you like. I’ve had this sense that there’s something wrong with human society, with human beings, and I’ve studied the human psyche to try to explain exactly what is wrong and also to try to heal the pathology of the human psyche. In recent years I’ve been moving more and more into trying to find ways of healing the pathology of the human psyche and investigating ways of moving towards a state of harmony and enlightenment.
Rick: Yeah, I know most of us when we get to be about that age begin to feel that there’s something very wrong with the world, but most of us end up just sort of joining the club anyway eventually and then 20, 30 years later you think, “Well, what happened? I just got all sucked up in it and never really sorted it out. I’ve just become part of the thing that I was criticizing when I was a teenager.”
Steve: Yeah, well for me it was important, when I was about maybe 19, 20 years old I started to be interested in anthropology and I read books about indigenous peoples and later on that led to my book “The Fall” which was published maybe 6 or 7 years ago, which was really a study of the way that indigenous peoples perceive the world and also how that differs from the way that western so-called civilized peoples perceive the world. If you go back into prehistory, I was always interested in archaeology too, and if you go back quite a long way, well into prehistory really, beyond history, you find evidence that the people perceived the world in a different way, that they didn’t perceive the world in a kind of exploitative, object-related way. People in prehistory seem to have had a strong sense of connection to nature and they seem to have had a natural sense of the sacredness of nature, which we’ve lost. That’s certainly true if you investigate many of the world’s indigenous peoples. Most indigenous peoples don’t perceive the world in the kind of separate way which we do. They have a sense of communion with nature. Nature seems to be more alive to them and therefore becomes more sacred and they develop a more respectful attitude towards it. For many of us, for most so-called civilized western peoples, nature is kind of like a dreary grey backdrop to their existence, which isn’t really alive and therefore we’re entitled to exploit and abuse it.
Rick: Do you think that that perspective somehow arose from our western spiritual traditions or do you think that it’s the other way around, that our western spiritual traditions kind of conform to that viewpoint?
Steve: I think it’s the other way around. I think the western spiritual traditions with their monotheistic deities, monotheistic traditions, and their sense that God is somehow outside nature and God is somehow apart from the natural world, that stems from the sense of separateness which pre-existed that. In my book The Fall, I suggest that about 6,000 years ago, beginning about 6,000 years ago and over the following centuries, there was an event which I call the ego explosion. If you look into the archaeological record of that time, there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that that was the point when human beings developed a strong sense of individuality and separateness. There was only certain groups in certain parts of the world, mainly the Middle East and Central Asia, the groups who lived in those areas seemed to be the first peoples who really sensed themselves as separate to the world and also separate to each other. There was a sense that the individuals became more significant than the communities. That was really the beginning of it all, the beginning of the fall, what I call the ego explosion, when human beings developed a sense of separateness and duality to the rest of the world.
Rick: Now it might be easy to regard that as a devolution from a more pristine, innocent, enlightened state, but perhaps it could also be seen as an evolutionary phase that one has to go through, much as you go from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and you have to go through a phase where you lose your innocence and then eventually can perhaps re-emerge in a more integrated state, you think?
Steve: That’s one way of looking at it. You can see the logic of that view, because in some ways the ego explosion was an advance. It was in the centuries and the millennia following the ego explosion that human beings developed the first really advanced technologies. There was evidence of a new kind of logical, syntactical expertise and brilliance. There were lots of technological and intellectual advances which came about.
Rick: One of which is enabling us to have this conversation. The possibility of global proliferation of spiritual teachings has only been there for a short while. People like Jesus and Buddha could reach as many people as they could walk a short radius around their birthplace, but in our day and age this knowledge of this sort is spreading everywhere. People in Mongolia and all kinds of remote areas are tuning in to teachings on the internet which were once very rare and exclusive.
Steve: That’s true. On the one hand, people tend to underestimate the level of technology of prehistoric peoples. They were by no means complete savages. They did have a fairly advanced level of technology. It was just that after the ego explosion it suddenly intensified. If you go back 10,000 years there’s evidence of a culture called Old Europe spread over Middle Europe, Southern Central Europe. They had a fairly advanced level of technology. They used the wheel, they had houses of several stories, they had villages with maybe 15,000 inhabitants. It was just that after the ego explosion there was an intensification of technological expertise. It definitely did have an effect. On the one hand, the negative consequences of that were so massive. It’s about 6,000 years ago that warfare becomes incredibly intense. There’s some evidence of warfare before then but it’s very few and far between. It was only about 6,000 years ago that warfare became incredibly intense and became really pathological. That’s also when the first hierarchical societies developed, the first societies with classes and castes, the first societies where power and wealth was concentrated into a small group of elite people. Male domination began at that time as well. Also, it was the first signs of human beings becoming divorced from the natural world, the first signs of exploitation and abuse of the natural world. In that sense, it can’t really be considered an advance or evolution. What really happened, to go into detail, was a psychological shift. Because the ego became so powerful at that time, people’s, the individual’s, psychic energy became completely concentrated on the ego and all the functions of the ego. Therefore, all of the psychic energy which used to be concentrated on perception and relating to the present moment or to the world was reduced and diverted to the ego. The ego became a powerful center of consciousness and all the perceptual functions which enabled us to perceive the beauty and wonder of the natural world and to feel one with it. All of those functions faded away.
Rick: Yeah. The reason I suspect that it may actually be a necessary evolutionary phase is that, I think as you mention in one of your books, there was a time not too long ago where a large percentage of the population was in constant misery due to toothache and so many things. There was no anesthesia, there were so many areas in society which could totally ruin your life, so many things that could happen, which these days with our modern technology we have more or less solved. Of course, we’ve created new problems. What I’m suggesting is that these days there are people who are fully on top of the technological curve who have come full circle to an enlightened state of consciousness where they perceive the world with that richness and depth and profundity that you’re suggesting ancient cultures did. That’s their day-to-day living, although they might be driving a fancy car and flying around the world in airplanes and so on and so forth. In a sense there are indications at least that we can have the best of both worlds. Yeah, I agree, I completely agree. In the fall, I suggest that over the last few centuries there has been a turning towards a full circle. There has been a movement towards reconnection and reintegration with the natural world. I do suggest that that is an evolutionary advance. Evolution from the beginnings of life has been all about the intensification of consciousness. Even the most simple life forms have a degree of awareness of reality, they’re conscious to a degree. They react to their environment, they react to heat or light or food sources. But as you move through evolution to slowly more complicated life forms, there’s an intensification of consciousness, an expansion of consciousness. So living beings become slightly more aware of their surroundings, they become slightly more self-conscious, they have slightly more ability to adapt to their environment, to change their environment, to control their environment. That continues right through from plants to insects to mammals, right through to primates and human beings. In that sense, human beings are probably the most conscious life forms which exist or have existed. We probably have the most intense awareness of reality, the most intense conceptual awareness. We’re the beings who are most aware of things like death and the complexity and intricacy of our surroundings. But what I think has happened over the last three or four hundred years, probably really beginning in the 18th century, is a further intensification and expansion of consciousness. I think what happened, what became really significant in the 18th century, in the latter half of the 18th century, was a sudden eruption of compassion and empathy which had never really existed for thousands of years. Suddenly people became concerned for the rights of other human beings, they became concerned for the rights of animals, it was the beginning of the women’s rights movement, the anti-slavery movement, the animal rights movement. It was the beginning of socialism, ideas of egalitarianism. All of that began at that time and that was really a manifestation of a sense of empathy and compassion. Is that your dog ?
Rick: yep, continue.
Steve: We were talking about animal rights.
Rick: Right, there we go, this dog has the right to go out.
Steve: We can empathize with the dog. But that was what happened and I think to me that suggests that there was a movement beyond separation, a kind of separate ego which had developed six thousand years ago. People began to transcend the separateness of that ego and that’s intensified over the last few hundred years, the last two hundred, three hundred years. People have become more and more connected, more and more interconnected, there was more and more empathy, and particularly over the last two hundred years there’s this sudden upsurge in interest in spirituality and self-development. So to me all of that is an evolutionary movement, it’s a product of a collective intensification and expansion of consciousness.
Rick: You say two hundred years but I kind of think of the hockey stick curve that they use for talking about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which kind of goes along like this and then all of a sudden it starts going like that, straight up. I would say that we’re on that phase of the curve in terms of development of consciousness. There’s just kind of an epidemic going on, explosive spread of interest in enlightenment and awareness and non-duality, the whole deal. And I think that has exciting implications.
Steve: The paradox is that, well it’s not really a paradox, but an irony if you like, is that it’s technology which has enabled that. Technology was a product of the ego explosion which initially created all of those negative effects but now it’s encouraging this amazing upsurge of spiritual development. I think it was in your interview with Ian McNay that I heard you say something about, you quoted some guy as having said that when entrenched institutions or ways of thinking are kind of met with, when they’re sort of on the verge of extinction, they somehow become aware of it and become more accelerated or more evident. And it might seem to the casual observer that they’re getting stronger but they’re actually in their death throes. Is that what you’re saying, something along those lines?
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. That was a guy called, a Swiss philosopher called Jean Gebser. He had an idea that you can pinpoint certain phases of evolution throughout human history. He believed that we’re moving into an integral phase of human history at the moment where there is more and more interconnection, more and more awareness of spiritual realities, a greater sense of compassion and empathy. And that’s why I believe, and people do sometimes say to me, “How can you say that? Because the world is, there’s global warming, there’s all kinds of political and economic problems we’re facing, and people are becoming more and more materialistic, more and more obsessed with status and fame and power.” But I’m not sure if that is true. I suppose in some ways, people are becoming, in some ways our societies are becoming more materialistic and the media is encouraging people to think of happiness in terms of success and wealth. And it’s definitely true that we’re facing serious problems through global warming and economic and political problems. So yeah, Jean Gebser did say that these are the things which will happen at the transition point. The old characteristics try to maintain themselves just because they’re on the threshold of dying. It’s like a dying person struggles to keep themselves alive. They really fight, they cling to life, or they may cling to life. So it’s a similar thing happening now, that those old characteristics are clinging to a certain self, they’re trying to stay alive.
Rick: Yeah, I think the point is worth making simply because people can listen to the kind of things we’ve been saying and become cynical and be discouraged because, as you say, there are so many problems in the world, the news tells us about them every night, and it might seem hopeless. Huge banks and corporations seem to be running the governments and the environment is going to hell. There are so many different political problems and loose nuclear weapons are proliferating around the world. Any number of things could do us in. So people think, “Well, we’re screwed. There’s no hope.” And it’s easy to fail to see the undercurrent of spiritual development, spiritual awakening that’s taking place because it’s subtle. And yet, if you’re in the midst of it, it doesn’t seem so subtle. It seems very real and tangible, and this other stuff almost seems peripheral. Maybe it’s just an optimistic belief, but you get the conviction that eventually the spiritual upwelling is going to win. Because it being more subtle, it’s more powerful.
Steve: It’s deeper.
Rick: There’s a deeper leverage. Take examples from physics. The deeper you go, the more powerful it gets, and the more you can affect a large change with just a subtle shift this way or that. There are a couple of parallels because, in a way, the individual, I think most human beings experience a kind of discord. We often experience a kind of discord on the surface of our minds, a kind of restless thought chatter of anxieties and worries and responsibilities, the kind of disturbance of our associational chatter, which may trigger negative states of mind or negative feelings. But always beneath that, there’s always a deeper level of harmony and stillness, which we don’t always have access to, but it’s always there. And that’s the true nature of our being. So I think in a similar way, all of these difficulties we’re facing as a species are kind of superficial. It’s like the discord on the surface, but beneath that, there’s this deeper level of increasing interconnection and increasing collective harmony.
Rick: Yeah. I cannot think of all the examples, but there are a number of examples from physics where when a phase transition occurs, like let’s say from water to steam or something, there’s a kind of turbulence that takes place at the point of the transition and then things become totally different. We’re not the first to ponder this, but many people have suggested that the turbulence we’re seeing in the world is just the purging or the working out of stuff that really ultimately has no place in an enlightened world. But it’s going to kick and scream a bit as it gets dismantled.
Steve: Yeah, it’s very similar to the transformation which a person undergoes when they touch into enlightenment. I think there’s a bit of a myth that spiritual awakening is always a blissful, problem-free process. In fact, in my research as a psychologist and also my personal experience, most people who experience awakening go through a difficult period, a period of adjustment and integration. Often enlightenment, I mean this goes into my book
Rick: “Out of the Dark Dome”.
Steve: Yea.I spoke to about 30 or so people who had undergone spiritual awakening as a result of intense turmoil and suffering in their lives. So they were people who’d experienced bereavement, severe depression, alcoholism,
Steve: Cancer , yea, becoming severely disabled, many other extremely difficult circumstances. But for them, their predicament had been a trigger, it had generated a higher state of consciousness. Usually it was at the point where they accepted their predicament. So often, as most people will react, it’s kind of natural for us to resist suffering and difficulty in our lives. We try to fight, we try to resist, we try to get better. But I found that it was when the people, they kind of surrendered to their predicament, they stopped resisting it, they accepted it. That was often the very specific point when they experienced a transformation of consciousness, it was the point where the shift occurred. Most of them could pinpoint the exact moment when that happened, where this shift suddenly occurred. It was just like, one of the people described it in terms of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. That’s why there’s a butterfly on the cover of the book. Because that’s really what it’s like. It’s almost as if there’s a latent higher self inside many people.
Rick: I would say there’s a latent higher self inside everyone. But maybe in some cases it’s ready to hatch and in other cases not so much.
Steve: Yea. The problem I was deliberating over in the book was, when we all go through intense suffering at some point in our lives, all human beings experience intense suffering at some point, so why do some people react by shifting into a higher state of consciousness permanently, whereas most people just react, just suffer negative consequences. Most people suffer even more, they don’t experience any relief or any transformation.
Rick: Hearing you talk about suffering being an impetus to awakening, one immediately thinks of Nazi concentration camps or the fact that there are a couple of billion people in the world who are malnourished and living very, very difficult lives, and you think, “Well, how many of those people get enlightened or got enlightened?” Have you thought about that? What’s your answer to those questions?
Steve: On the one hand, there’s evidence that some people in concentration camps did experience spiritual awakening.
Rick: There was a lady who wrote a book about it, she was having all this divine perception and all kinds of beautiful stuff in the midst of that situation.
Steve: Yeah, there was a German psychologist who did research after the Second World War and he found that some people experienced liberation in concentration camps, others when they were refugees, when they had lost everything as a result of the war, and also soldiers who heard a bomb explode close to them, who were convinced that they would die. He found that there were many cases of spiritual awakening. He explained it as an encounter with death, that when you encounter death, when everything is taken away and everything is reduced to that particular moment in your encounter with death, then you’re so naked, everything is so stripped away, that that’s the moment when a latent higher self can emerge, when the ego completely breaks down and a latent higher self emerges. So yeah, that’s one way of looking at it. I think it’s probably more common than we realize.
Rick: Yeah, you mentioned that in your book, that you felt that “enlightened people” were much more common among us than we realize, and perhaps many of them don’t even realize what it is they’re experiencing, but it is some higher state. I am hesitant to use the word “enlightenment” because it has to be a superlative connotation and rather static connotation. I see it more in terms of many, many stages of awakening, but even a relatively preliminary stage can be dramatic and profound and life-transformational for a person if they’ve been mired in suffering.
Steve: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I’m a little reluctant to use the word “enlightenment” too, partly because it was originated in a Buddhist tradition, so it has a specific meaning in the Buddhist tradition, but people have taken that term and used it in a very general way. Also, it’s definitely not the case that there is a cut-off point between ordinary consciousness and enlightenment. There are lots of gradations, there’s a large gray area in between. Even once people become awakened, then they don’t stop developing, they continue to develop, but in a different way.
Rick: Right, so to take an example from your book, it’s not that some cancer patient suddenly becomes the Buddha, but perhaps the crisis they face just shifts them into a completely different appreciation of life and orientation to life and sense of values and priorities and so on. To them, that’s a night and day difference from the way they had been living up until that time.
Steve: Yeah, they do literally become different people with a different state of consciousness, a different experience of reality, and all of their values change, even to the extent that they often become divorced or separated from their partners because their partners don’t know who they are anymore, they feel that they’re together with a different person. They have lots of friendships come to an end, although they quickly develop new friendships to replace them. Yeah, but it’s almost as if they shift to a different road, but they’re still moving along the road, but it’s a different road, and it’s a state with a completely different relationship to reality. It is certainly an awakened state in many ways, it’s so different to ordinary consciousness, and it’s such a higher functioning state, even though it does come with certain problems, but on every level it’s a higher functioning state, it’s a state of appreciation, it’s a state of increased connection to other people and to nature, it’s a state of increased well-being, and even it’s a state where people become in some ways better able to function in everyday life, they feel a sense of mission, a sense of purpose, together with that strong sense of altruism. So it is certainly a very distinct and different state of consciousness.
Rick: The way you’re describing it now makes it sound like it’s a very specific, definable state that pretty much everyone gets to, but is that so, or are there as many varieties as there are people, and there are just certain characteristics that tend to be common, but what you’re really saying is that suffering in crisis can be a trigger to undergo a shift, but not always a shift to the exact same thing.
Steve: Well I think it has very strong similarities. I think there’s a basic core which is the same. I speak about a self-structure or a psychological structure. I think ordinary consciousness, or the state of consciousness which most people experience, it has a certain psychological structure, it has certain psychological characteristics. One of them is a sense of separation, another is a sense of disturbance and discord because of restless thought chatter, and also deep-rooted thought patterns which may be negative, critical, self-critical thought habits. Those are some of the characteristics of ordinary consciousness, but this state of consciousness, it has certain common characteristics even though it has some variation as well.
Rick: Could you give us one or two examples of people that you wrote about in your book who were really going through a tough time and then underwent the sort of shift you’re talking about?
Steve: One example was a guy called Kevin who I used to teach with at a college several years ago. He was the counselling teacher at a college where I did some teaching. Even before I knew his story I noticed there was something different about him. He had this air of serenity and friendliness about him. He had a very positive atmosphere around him. Later on I found he told me a story. He was an alcoholic, quite a severe alcoholic. About wife left him with the children and he lost his job because the clients didn’t trust him anymore. He’d run an architecture company, his own architectural business, but the clients no longer trusted him because he’d become unreliable. Also there were economic problems in the UK at that time and he lost all his savings, all his business. Basically he was reduced to nothing. He had maybe £200 left in his bank account, no family, no wife, no job. He was actually in debt, £50,000 in debt as well. He decided to spend his last £200 on alcohol and basically drink himself to death. That was his plan. He wanted to commit suicide. He was in a telephone box one evening and he saw an advert for Alcoholics Anonymous for a meeting. He decided he had nothing to lose, he decided to go to this meeting. He immediately sensed something positive about it straight away. He managed to stop drinking for a few days and he went to a meeting twice a day, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a day. After a couple of weeks or so there’s a point in the AA process where you hand over your problem. You say, “This is too big for me to deal with. I’m going to hand it over to a higher power.” He wasn’t religious. Kevin didn’t believe in God. He just decided to go along with this process. He said mentally to himself, “This problem is just too big for me to deal with, so I’m going to hand it over to whatever a higher power means. I’m going to hand it over to this higher power.” As soon as he did that he felt as though something broke through inside him, something gave way inside him. There was suddenly a flood of well-being, energy was released inside him. He immediately felt like he was a different person. He felt a sense of peacefulness he’d never known before, a sense of inner peace and harmony he’d never known before. He expected it to be temporary, but it remained with him for days, for weeks, even for months. It remained with him permanently, this sense of harmony and well-being. He still has that now, 15 years later, more than 15 years now. He still has that sense of inner well-being and harmony. It led him to pursue an interest in spirituality which he’d never known about before. He trained to be a hypnotherapist and a counselor, which is why he became… At that time he was working as a counselor with cancer patients. It totally changed his life. It changed all his values, but most of all it connected him to this source of well-being and inner fullness which he’d never known before. That’s one example. You mentioned earlier a similar theme, that it seems that this suffering pushes people to the point where they realize they can’t do it on their own, or it’s beyond their control or something, and then there’s a surrender or a letting go, and then they fall into a higher state. Does that seem to be a common theme with all these different stories?
Steve: Definitely, yeah. The main factor was acceptance. All of the people who underwent this spiritual transformation, they all reached a point where they accepted their predicament. Sometimes they spoke about a surrender, but it was all a letting go. It was a release.
Steve: It was at that moment of acceptance when the transformation occurred. I’ll give you another example, an even more dramatic example. This was an American author called Michael Hutchison. I think he was quite well-known in the early 1990s. He published a book called Mega Brain, which was quite successful.
Rick: Oh yeah, I heard of that.
Steve: Not long after that, in the mid-1990s, he had a very severe accident and became severely disabled. He was running and he slipped on a rocky path and fell over a bridge onto a river bed. He broke his spine. He damaged several vertebrae in his spine and became paralyzed basically. He was paralyzed from the neck down. You can imagine what an incredibly devastating, depressing experience it was. For months afterwards, he was unable to move. He was in a neck brace and was unable to move. All he could do was just literally lie down and stare at the ceiling for months. He had problems with medical insurance as well. His insurance ran out. He was taken to some kind of psychiatric institute, which was completely unsuitable, where people with psychiatric disorders would scream and be in a very distressed state.
Rick: He’s lying there paralyzed, listening to them scream.
Steve: Yeah, basically. He basically lost everything. He could no longer write. He could no longer go running. He could no longer make love. He could no longer do anything which he’d enjoyed before. He was incredibly depressed. He wanted to die, basically. There was one morning about two years, I think it was around two years after his accident, where he was being taken for a shower in his wheelchair by a nurse. He heard a voice inside his head say, “What are you doing, man? Why are you resisting? Just let go. Just let go.” He didn’t really know what it meant, but he decided to let go, to just release his resistance to his predicament. Suddenly, just like Kevin, he felt this sudden upsurge of energy and well-being inside him, as if something had broken down. A bit like a river that had been dammed, but the dam had suddenly given way, and this flood of peace and serenity suddenly wailed through him. That was a big turning point for him. After that, he felt this incredible sense of bliss. Even though his predicament was so difficult, he felt incredibly appreciative of being alive. He felt incredibly appreciative of being able to see the world around him. That remained. Years later, he was still in the… It’s a couple of years since I’ve had contact with him, but he was still in that same state of bliss and appreciation. Also, fortunately, he did experience some return of movement as well. He became able to use his fingers again. He became able to type. He was preparing to write another book.
Rick: Nice. As I was reading your book, I was thinking from some verse from the Upanishads about bliss, and I couldn’t remember exactly what it was or what Upanishad it was in or anything. Then, as I was thinking of looking it up, the very next day a friend sent me an email with that verse in it. Things happen like that. Here it is. It’s, “From bliss, ananda, verily, all these beings are born. By bliss, when born, do they live. Into bliss, at the time of dissolution, do they enter, do they merge?” from the Taittiriya Upanishad. The reason I thought of it is that from that perspective in that philosophy or way of looking at the world, we’re like little fishies in an ocean of bliss. It’s all bliss. It’s all ananda. My friend and I were discussing this, why should it be bliss? My thought was that there has to be a very powerful force for individuation and specification in order for creation to manifest. The force is understood by physicists as very powerful. There has to be an equally powerful counter force for the awareness to turn within and go back to the unmanifest, and that counter force is bliss or ananda. Like you say, everyone as an embodied being gets individuated, gets trapped, gets bound. Spiritual traditions speak in terms of bondage and liberation. There’s a return journey in which we rediscover our essential nature, and that journey is in the direction of more and more bliss. The return journey obviously is as various as people are various, and I think some people really need some hard knocks in order to kick them in that direction. Other people perhaps, they embark on it willingly and volitionally. They may engage in spiritual practices which can enable them to undergo the same sort of transition quite smoothly, although again there’s going to be turbulence as things are worked out, but without having to go through such trials and tribulations. It’s a little bit glib to talk that way because who knows? Life is mysterious. You think of the story of Job in the Bible where he was put to these severe, severe tests in order for God to prove a point or something.(laughter) But if we step back as far as we can and if we have the understanding that the universe is fundamentally motivated by an evolutionary force which has as its ultimate purpose the living realization of reality in an embodied form, then everything that happens to us can be seen as ultimately benign in our best interests, as horrific as it might seem in the moment. It ultimately serves an evolutionary purpose.
Steve: mmm yea. I certainly agree that bliss is a fundamental condition of life. I think it’s also in the Upanishads it talks about sat-chit-ananda, being consciousness bliss. Bliss is a condition of being in the same way that wetness is a quality of water, bliss is a condition of life. I think in awakening experiences you can sense that. In powerful awakening experiences which I’ve had, there’s always a sense that the whole universe is pervaded with a radiance, a harmony. That harmony is so powerful, it’s like a very tangible electric force which you almost feel, it’s so tangible it almost feels solid, but obviously it’s not, it’s energy which fills the whole universe. But it’s certainly there and it has a quality of love, it has a quality of harmony, and it’s so powerful that it infuses the whole of the universe, every object in the universe, every being, all objects, all seemingly non-material objects and all living beings are filled with this energy, this brahman, this incredibly powerful spiritual force whose nature is love or bliss.
Rick: Yea. It’s said in some circles that the very purpose of creation is the expansion of happiness. You can think of unmanifest creation as being quality-less and flat and without attributes and then the whole thing just explodes. In physics this is called spontaneous dynamical symmetry breaking where the perfect symmetry gets broken and diversity arises. But look what it arises into after 14 billion years, look at the incredibly complex forms that have evolved. These forms are now sitting here talking about the very nature of reality, the fundamental reality which gave rise to them and finding means to return to that reality and yet remain as forms, living, breathing, eating, talking, and yet living in that state of oneness which preceded the manifest universe. It’s fascinating.
Steve: Fascinating yea. It’s interesting that even in our own history as a species that process has unfolded. I think prehistoric peoples and some of the world’s indigenous peoples, I think they experienced a sense of unity with creation as well. So many indigenous peoples had a profound respect for nature and they were aware of a great spirit. It’s very striking that most indigenous cultures, in fact all of the indigenous cultures which I’m aware of, they all had a term for a spirit force which is very similar to Brahman in the Upanishads. They all had a term which could be translated as maybe spirit energy or spirit force or soul force or the life force or the universal force. But to them it was seemingly a common everyday reality. Everybody could sense this spirit force in everything. So the river was a manifestation of this force, all plants, all vegetation, the sky, the clouds, everything was a manifestation of spirit force and therefore everything was sacred and everything was worthy of respect and everything was treated with respect. So I think those peoples had that or maybe still have it in some cases. But when I mentioned earlier the ego explosion, when that occurred people lost that awareness, we lost that sense of the spirit force pervading all reality. We lost the awareness of spirit force and that caused, I call it a redistribution of psychic energy. So all of the energy was diverted to the ego which became strongly individuated, strongly separate. And we lost the awareness of spirit force. But it’s interesting that now we have that strongly individuated sense of self that we are regaining. Collectively we seem to be regaining the awareness of spirit force. So as you say it’s a question of regaining what we had before but together with this sense of individuality and separateness. Well not separateness but a sense of identity and individuality.
Rick: Yeah, and I think we’re going to be regaining it, I think we are regaining it in the context of a much more complex and sophisticated culture. We’re not going to go back to a hunter-gatherer society unless something really catastrophic happens. But you can see that many of the technologies and systems that predominate in our world are symptomatic of what you just said, of all the energies up in the ego. I mean genetic engineering, it reflects a very mechanistic
Rick: mindset where we think we can tinker with these very subtle levels of nature’s functioning which we don’t even understand and yet we think we can mess with them and potentially run the risk of destroying the food supply. Or so many examples that reflect an attitude that we are the masters of nature rather than an integral part of it and that it’s there for our domination and our disposal rather than as a mother that we need, that our very life depends upon.
Steve: Exactly, yeah. Five hundred years ago there was a philosopher scientist called Roger Bacon and his famous …
Rick: Oh, I’m thinking of Francis, were they related?
Steve: Sorry, Francis Bacon.(laughter) Roger Bacon was somebody else. Francis Bacon, his philosophy was that human beings are meant to have power over the rest of nature. It’s our destiny to control nature and even in the Bible, in Genesis it says that human beings are born to have dominion over the fishes and all of the creatures over the surface of the earth.
Rick: Yeah, well parents have dominion over their children but they don’t eat them for dinner, you know? It should be a nurturing relationship rather than an exploitative one.
Steve: Yeah, and while we have the attitude, the end point of the attitude is self-destruction. You can’t dominate everything. If you dominate everything, then ultimately you will destroy everything and you’ll be left alone to have dominion over nothing.
Rick: Well, getting back to your ego point, if you get right down to it, we are the intelligence which is governing the universe. We are the intelligence which animates nature. Obviously here I’m referring to we in a universal cosmic sense, but if we get all individuated to the point where we lose our connection with that and mistake our very tiny pinpointed egos as who we are and function from there, then we end up being completely out of tune with that cosmic intelligence which actually is governing everything. This plays right into the theme of your book. People had realizations when they let go of the grip of tiny individuality and there’s a bumper sticker, “Let go and let God.” That’s essentially what happened to these people.
Steve: Yea. Exactly. I think because the human ego becomes so separate and so strongly developed, it also has a sense of vulnerability because if you’re separate, no matter how powerful you feel in your separateness, you’re still a fragment. You’re still broken off from the whole.
Rick: And you’re always at the mercy of forces beyond your control.
Steve: You can never control reality, you can never control the world. And if you’re separate, you always have a sense of being incomplete. You always have a sense of unfulfillment.
Rick: And fear.
Steve: Yeah, fear.
Rick: There’s an Upanishad which says, “Certainly all fear is born of duality.”
Steve: Yeah, I’m sure there’s also a quote in the Upanishads, “Where there is no separateness, there is no fear.”
Rick: Exactly, probably the same.
Steve: So I think that sense of vulnerability leads to a desire to make the ego even stronger. It leads to a desire to accumulate things, to accumulate power, status, possessions, achievements and so forth, beliefs and so forth. And so the ego becomes even stronger. It becomes covered with attachments and accoutrements. But ironically, because it becomes so strong, it becomes even more separate. It becomes even more alienated from the ground of being beneath, the ground of the true self. So I think what happens when people go through these terrible experiences of turmoil, like Kevin and Michael, who we mentioned earlier, all of these attachments are broken away. All of the accoutrements which collect around the ego are broken down. So the ego has nothing to support it anymore, so it just collapses, like a house of cards or like a building in an earthquake. And when that occurs, when the ego collapses, then there’s a space for a latent higher self to emerge. So that latent higher self suddenly unfolds and emerges and it establishes itself as a person’s normal state.
Rick: Yeah, and I would reiterate that one can choose to embark on this process intentionally and it may not have to get to the point where you need to be smashed down, where you get so calcified that you need a hammer to break the shell. The whole idea of non-attachment and so on in spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean giving up all your desires and your possessions and all that. It just means culturing the awareness of the deeper value of life, which in and of itself is not bound by individual ego, individual identity. And if you can establish yourself there, then you can live a very rich, fulfilling life without having to go through a lot of trauma in order to get there. And you mentioned yourself you’ve had some profound awakenings, perhaps this would be a good point to talk about those.
Steve: Yeah, I think that’s true. Many people do experience sudden transformation after turmoil and trauma, but by no means everybody experiences awakening as a result of that. For many people, awakening is a very gradual and organic process through years of spiritual practice, years of self-development.
Rick: I’m also finding more and more, people get in touch with me who are often quite young people who have had profound spiritual awakenings. They’re just glowing like a light bulb and it’s not really a problem for them. They’re in a very blissful state, but they sometimes haven’t learned to integrate yet. In some cases they’ve pretty much lost the ability to speak and function for a while, like Eckhart Tolle did, or Byron Katie, until they have managed to integrate it. Speaking of an epidemic of spirituality in society, there seems to be this kind of thing happening more and more where people are just waking up without having to go through a lot of hard knocks first.
Steve: Yeah, I think so. I think one of the difficulties is when you undergo awakening, it has to be integrated. You have to be able to, on some level, understand what’s happened to you. If you know nothing of spirituality, if you have never investigated any spiritual traditions, or never met any gurus, or if you know absolutely nothing, then there’s a chance that you’ll pathologize what’s happened. There’s a chance that you’ll go see a psychiatrist. We all know what happens when you go see a psychiatrist.
Rick: Well I interviewed a guy about a month ago named David Gersten who wrote a book called Am I Getting Enlightened or Losing My Mind? We talked about that for the whole time. It’s like so many people go to psychiatrists who have had a spiritual awakening and they just get drugged,
Rick: And in some cases institutionalized.
Steve: I know. That’s why in some ways it’s such a positive development that spirituality is getting more and more attention, it’s becoming more and more of a mainstream media phenomenon, because it will provide people with a framework to understand what’s happening to them, so they’ll recognize the signs. But it is really important to have that framework of understanding, so people who are supportive around you. I found in my research that when people had, if they’d been practicing meditation for a while, or if they had a background in Buddhism, or even if they were just familiar with some spiritual teachings from some spiritual books, that they had a much better chance of having an experience of fairly quick integration, but not too many difficulties, not too much confusion and so forth. But for me personally, you asked about my own personal experience,
Steve: I think I probably was one of the people who were naturally spiritually awakened to some degree from a young age. So for me, maybe from the age of 15 or 16, I experienced what I would call now awakening experiences. I had experiences of unity and bliss.
Rick: Did you do any drugs or anything, or was it just spontaneous?
Steve: That was later on.
Rick: Oh ok.
Steve: I experimented a little later on. But no, at that time it was spontaneous. So I was very drawn to open spaces and to nature. I loved to walk around, to walk in open spaces, and I would feel that sense of connection to reality and a sense of inner well-being, a sense of inner stillness and harmony. But the difficulty was that I had no idea, I had no way of understanding these states of mind. So after a while, I began, I probably began to pathologize them a little bit. I thought, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so different to other people?” I couldn’t talk about it with my family, and I had no background in religion or spirituality, so it was quite difficult. So I did become, for a few years I became quite depressed and alienated. I didn’t really understand what was happening inside me. Although I still occasionally had glimpses of higher states of consciousness, I still had very profound, weak experiences. But it was only maybe when I was 21, 22, I began to practice meditation. I went to a TM class and learned meditation. I began to read books about mysticism. I began to meet other people who were interested in spirituality. So that was when the framework I was looking for began to be established. I began to think, “Wow, there’s not something wrong with me. I’m actually, this is really good. I feel really positive about this. This is something really positive that’s happening.” So yeah, I really began to understand what was happening to me. So at that point, it became more integrated. There were still a few difficulties. I had to work on other areas of my being. I had to learn to function in society, which took me a long time.
Rick: We’re all still working on that.(laughter)
Steve: Yeah, it’s become a bit easier. So by the time I was 30, I felt as though I became really quite integrated. This natural wakefulness I’d been born with, it really became well-established and well-integrated into my being.
Rick: And how old are you now?
Steve: I’m 46 now. And so you’ve just been cruising along ever since then, or have there been some occasional dramatic shifts that seem to be real breakthroughs and that then stabilize?
Steve: Well, yeah, there have been a few changes, a few shifts. One of them was maybe 10 years ago. 10 years ago, I felt as though I’d really made it. I felt as though I was resting in a fairly permanent, ongoing state of awakening. Everything was going really well. I felt really attuned to my deeper self, really attuned to spiritual force outside me or inside me. But I felt really connected and really deeply awakened. But one problem was, at that point, ironically, just as I had that sense of being, I felt almost as if I’d reached the end of the journey. Then a few difficulties arose. I had some health problems and I started to have tinnitus in my ear.
Rick: Ringing in the ear?
Steve: Yeah, I still have it now, but 10 years ago, it’s still the same now, but it was extremely loud.
Rick: Too much rock and roll back in the day?
Steve: It probably was, because I was a musician in my 20s.
Rick: Oh, yeah, me too.
Steve: Were you?
Steve: Oh, I was a bass player and singer. But yeah, I think it probably was connected to the music.
Steve: So for a year or two, it was very disturbing, the constant screeching, very loud screeching in my ear.
Rick: Is that guy in The Who who has to, if they perform, I don’t know if he’s still alive, but he used to have to be in a plexiglass bubble or something during performances because he had such bad tinnitus from having been exposed to so much loud noise?
Steve: Yeah, well, I think it’s quite common amongst pop musicians. And also, about 10 years ago, I started a family. I’ve got three young children now. And everybody who has young children knows it causes some challenges. It makes life a bit more complicated. There’s a whole set of challenges and obstacles. But on the other hand, it brings in a large number of positive effects of that too.
Rick: Yeah. Did you feel that disturbed your awakening or that inner serenity or whatever you call it? Or was it even a way of grounding or stabilizing it?
Steve: Well I feel as though in some ways it disturbed it because on one level you have less time to be alone, you have less time to meditate and so forth. I think in spirituality you can go the way of the monk, which means you isolate yourself from everyday life, you don’t have a family, you don’t have a job, you concentrate all your energies on inner development, you shut yourself away from the world. That’s one way to go. I think I was probably following that path before I had children. I was quite a solitary person.
Steve: I loved to spend time on my own. I was quite reserved as well. But once you have children, obviously you can’t follow that path anymore. You have to become much more worldly, much more responsible, much less self-centered. In some ways, people who engage in spiritual development are sometimes accused of selfishness.
Rick: Sometimes they are. They can become very obsessive about their little routine and their comfort and all that stuff, their food.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. But obviously when you have children you can’t do that anymore. You have to become less self-centered, you have to make continual self-sacrifices. So it becomes another path of development. In some ways it does have similarities with a spiritual path because you’re constantly practicing service, you’re serving other people.
Rick: Yeah, it’s definitely a spiritual path. You know the word “seva” which means service. It’s considered to be a completely important, valid spiritual practice. And parenthood is definitely a form of it.
Steve: Definitely, yeah.
Rick: Do you still do TM? Or some form of meditation?
Steve: Yeah, I have a few different techniques. I still meditate occasionally, maybe two or three times a week. But sometimes I enjoy just walking in the countryside and also just living very quietly and simply when the children are in bed.
Rick: I think one thing that comes to mind is when we talk about this sort of thing, we have to remind ourselves what we’re really talking about. I mean, what is awakening after all? What is enlightenment? There’s a magazine with that title. It’s called Enlightened Next now. Because the terms are thrown around so casually in spiritual circles that I don’t think we all necessarily agree on the same definitions, but we maybe assume we do. There’s a tendency to think of our enlightenment or awakening as just being a sort of a nice, settled state of consciousness that I, the individual, am experiencing. It’s this nice experience I am having. But everyone who undergoes a really radical shift says, “Oh, well, it’s really not the ‘I’ who gets awake.” In fact, I just saw a cartoon recently. It had a person sitting in Lotus and it said, “It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.” But really what one awakens to is the fact that one is not really just this individuality. It’s just a vehicle that’s contained within a much larger reality, the reality of Brahman, and that’s what one is. Anyway, I just thought I’d throw that out there. because everyday life is often acted upon from the standpoint of being an ‘I’, being a separate individual. So it can sometimes take a while to adjust to losing that sense of ‘I’.
Rick: Yeah. I know some people have lost it so abruptly and so radically that it throws them into a state of fear and confusion for a long period of time sometimes because they find themselves still functioning, even pursuing an academic career, raising a child or something, and yet they can’t locate a sense of ‘I’. As long as they keep trying to locate one, there’s fear. I’m referring actually to a book by Suzanne Siegel called Collision with the Infinite, in which she had that experience. But then her resolution was finally, she met with Jean Klein, the spiritual teacher, and relaxed into an acceptance of what had happened to her and realized that it was actually a gain, not a loss.
Steve: Yeah, I read a book by Bernadette Roberts, which was very similar.
Rick: Similar idea.
Steve: She lost the self and she experienced herself as nothing. Sometimes it was an incredibly distressing, confusing experience to have nobody there. But yeah, I think acceptance is incredibly important because the difficulty comes with resisting the predicament, by feeling that there’s something wrong with it. But if you accept it, then it becomes much more positive. Also you have to trust it. The problem is that when you lose the sense of ‘I’, you feel as though there will be nothing in its place. But there is something in its place. There is a kind of a natural, spontaneous flow of experience. But you have to trust that flow to manifest itself. Even in everyday life, the ‘I’ actually does very little. Sometimes so little of our experience is actually controlled by the ‘I’, by the thinking ‘I’. Most of what we do is instinctive, spontaneous, even unconscious. Probably only about 1 or 2% of our actions are actually conscious, are consciously produced by the ‘I’. So really, we can easily function without the ‘I’ being there. I think occasionally you need to deal with problems. You need to make decisions, you need to plan.
Steve: That can be the difficulty, that there’s nobody there to make decisions or to make plans. But still, I think it’s possible to … you can still draw on some kind of intellectual decision-making function in your mind.
Rick: In Sanskrit, there’s a term called ‘leysa vidya’, which means ‘faint remains of ignorance’. The understanding is that without some kind of leysa vidya, without some faint remains of individual faculties, and really the ‘I’ is a faculty, it’s not what you are, it’s a tool. Without that, living wouldn’t be possible. You’d be like some kind of jellyfish. There wouldn’t be any ability to discern, discriminate and decide and all the things that we need to do if we’re going to be alive. It’s just that sometimes the shift takes place so radically that in the largeness, the vastness of the realization that one falls into, it’s hard to discern what happened to the ‘I’. It’s like, “Where did it go? I seem to have lost it. Who am I? Where am I?” It’s kind of like if a guy had been living in a little tiny hut all of his life and then he was told, “This is really not your home. Here’s this great palace. That’s where you belong.” As he begins to go toward the palace, there could be a fear of, “Oh my hut, I’m losing my hut. I better get back to it. It was secure. It’s all I knew.” So I think there’s that tendency to…and again it depends on how abrupt the transition is. If it’s really abrupt, it can be quite disorienting. If it’s gradual and if it’s integrated at every stage of the way, you may not even know it’s happened.
Steve: I think that’s very important. There are some teachers who say, “You must destroy the ego. You must destroy the sense of ‘I’.” But to me, completely destroying the ego, completely destroying the sense of ‘I’ means becoming schizophrenic. It means becoming psychotic. Because that is the main feature of psychosis. There’s nobody there in the psyche to control perceptions, to control the faculties of concentration and perception and memory. There’s nobody there to differentiate mental phenomena from real physical phenomena. There are many similar characteristics between spiritual awakening and psychosis. But I think the main difference is that in spiritual awakening, there is usually somebody there who’s kind of aware of what’s happening, who’s aware that they’re experiencing all of these strange perceptions, these strange disturbances. But when people experience pure psychosis, they’re so immersed in it that they can’t detach themselves and observe it. So even when people experience spiritual awakening, there’s a kind of ‘I’ there which is observing what’s happening. There is some kind of structure in the psyche which can observe what’s happening. Because of that structure, that prevents them from falling all the way into psychosis. It’s that same kind of structure, that same kind of psychological organization which enables us to plan, to make decisions and so forth. We need that to organize our lives. We couldn’t function in the world without it. No matter how awakened you are, you can’t function in the world without organizing your life in some way, without differentiating mental phenomena from material phenomena, and without making decisions and plans and so forth. So we definitely need some sense of ‘I’. The problem is that normally the ego or the ‘I’ is so dominant within the psyche that it sort of controls all of our resources and it becomes the real center of our lives. But really that sense of ‘I’ should have a much more peripheral and insignificant role. I think it does. For people who are spiritually awakened, the ‘I’ is still there but it’s much less significant. It’s a very peripheral role. In fact a lot of the time it may be dormant and it’s only called upon sometimes. But it does need to be there to some degree.
Rick: Yeah, I’ve known people for whom intense spiritual practice has actually precipitated a psychotic breakdown. It’s sort of like they weren’t ready for it or there hadn’t been enough culturing or strengthening of the … I don’t know, who knows what the reason is. There are whole sciences, there’s whole traditions of understanding of what could go wrong with kundalini awakening prematurely or being misdirected, all that stuff you can end up really flipped out. I’ve had taste of that myself in the midst of long spiritual practice, meditating 8-10 hours a day for weeks on end and you can get pretty nutty after a while. If you don’t reintegrate gradually into normal activity you can stay out of balance for months and months. On the other hand, I don’t know, if you visit mental hospitals and so on, you may find some highly spiritually awake people there who are just misunderstood and messed up, not properly integrated. But I think there ultimately is a distinction, speaking of cats, here’s our cat.
Steve: I love you cats. I don’t know where our cat is.
Rick: What I’m trying to say is, there’s a tendency to say that there’s a fine line between insanity and enlightenment, and maybe there’s some truth in that from some level of understanding, but I kind of think that on the other hand they may be, for many people, at least polar opposites, where insanity is a complete breakdown of the mind-body integration and the coherent functioning of the nervous system, whereas enlightenment is almost like a perfection of it, a high level functioning of the mind and the nervous system.
Steve: Yeah, I agree. I think the parallel between awakening and mental breakdown is that the normal structures of the psyche are broken down.
Steve: A sense of separateness breaks down, the boundaries break down.
Rick: The way that one apprehends the world is completely different from the norm, but not identical. I mean, the psychotic is not perceiving the world the way the enlightened person is.
Steve: No, no. But I think the difference is that, you mentioned earlier that when people undergo severe suffering and turmoil, the normal ego can break down and there’s kind of a latent higher self which can emerge and take over the person’s being. I think the difference between spiritual awakening and psychosis is similar, that when people undergo spiritual awakening, the normal ego may break down, but a latent higher self is there ready, it’s kind of well established and ready to assume control if you like. But when people experience pure mental breakdown, there’s nothing else there, it’s just a vacuum.
Rick: So there’s no center, they’re fragmented.
Steve: Yeah, there’s no center. When somebody experiences awakening there is a new center which emerges, there’s a new structure which emerges, a radically different structure, a totally different way of perceiving reality, a totally different way of perceiving one’s own being. But it’s still a well established psychological structure. But if you don’t have that underlying structure to replace the normal self, then that’s when you experience psychosis, there’s nothing there, you just become an empty shell, a bunch of disordered perceptions and cognitions.
Rick: Yeah, and in your book you talk about people, drug victims, alcoholics, people who’ve had serious accidents and so on, and all of those things having been a trigger to some sort of awakening for them. I didn’t read the entire book, but were there some examples of people who had undergone some form of mental illness and that became a doorway to awakening?
Steve: Yeah, there were a couple of examples, people who’d had severe depression and who’d become suicidal. But I think in those cases it’s difficult to distinguish the causes and the symptoms, if you like, because as we’ve said today in some cases spiritual awakening can bring about psychological disturbances, some similar characteristics to mental breakdown. So it’s not really clear whether the symptoms – people were actually experiencing signs of spiritual awakening before they actually awakened. But I think also what can often happen is that when that underlying spiritual self is ready to emerge, but for some reason it can’t, there’s something stopping it, maybe because there’s some confusion, maybe because the person hasn’t accepted it, they don’t understand it, they don’t have the framework, maybe they pathologize it. So when that structure is ready to emerge, when that self is ready to emerge, but it can’t for those reasons, it can cause an incredible frustration. I think I definitely experienced that when I was younger, when there was this innate spirituality inside me, but because I didn’t understand it, because I was pathologizing it, I didn’t accept it, I resisted it, and it caused all kinds of frustrations and disturbances inside me, which I was suffering from depression for a long time. I had periods when I wanted to commit suicide because the frustration was so great. So often those disturbances are actually signs of awakening, or the signs that you’re not accepting your potential awakening. So it’s difficult to distinguish whether the psychiatric disturbances are the cause or the symptoms.
Rick: Interesting stuff. I guess one way of thinking of the whole awakening process is that it really is a reshuffling or restructuring of one’s whole makeup. Even the brain physiology undergoes huge changes, they’ve done some studies on that, but really all this whole sort of inner orientation and methods and ways of functioning get rearranged. Like you say, if one is resisting that rearrangement, there can be all kinds of bottled up pressure that can be problematic, but if one is actually facilitating it in some way and understanding that something good is happening and cooperating with the process and helping it along in various healthy ways, maybe even like yoga or massage or this, that or the other thing, then it can just be an adventure and kind of an enjoyable process. That’s right. I think it connects to evolution as well. We mentioned, we were talking earlier about evolution and the evolution of consciousness and how life is returning to a state of unity after experiencing individuation. I think somehow this new psychological structure of the awakened self is kind of latent. I think it’s becoming latent in more people and in some ways I think it may be the next evolutionary phase of life on this planet. I think in some ways that structure will be the next form which life will take. It’s a movement of consciousness. Because it seems so well established, this structure, it seems so well formed. It’s almost as if it’s somehow been, not designed, but it’s a kind of pre-existing form which has its own reality, its own existence.
Rick: I know what you mean. I think I heard you talk about that in your lecture with Ian McNay, so your interview. It’s almost like the people that are now awakening spiritually are sort of the forerunners or the harbingers of something that we might see quite universally a generation from now or however long it takes.
Steve: Yeah. One of the ideas in evolution, right from Aristotle in ancient Greece, was that higher forms are always latent inside lower forms. So that even in the simplest forms of life, the potential for what they become is already there. It’s just dormant, it’s like a latent potential. I think that’s true of what’s happening to the human race now. I think the potential for this higher self which is slowly emerging is there, it’s dormant inside us. It is latent, it’s a kind of latent self which underlies the normal self. So again, the higher form is latent in the lower form again, so slowly that higher form is emerging.
Rick: Well this higher self we’re talking about, it’s not just some little kernel within the individual structure, it’s the universal reality, it’s that ocean of consciousness that we’re all swimming in and we’re just kind of like instruments which are capable of reflecting it to one degree or another. So I think what you’re saying is that we’re all hardwired to be able to live that consciously and that hardwiring is kind of waking up or realizing its potential more and more commonly these days. I think so. I think it’s also very clear that we can’t continue indefinitely in the present human state. The narrow egoic self is in some ways very pathological, it’s a state of near insanity in itself, which is the subject of my book.
Rick: Yeah, you wrote a whole book about that.
Steve: Yea. So it can’t survive indefinitely. The end point of the egoic self is self-destruction and the destruction of everything, the destruction of the planet. So one way of looking at it is that this new higher self could be some kind of response to the negativity of our present situation, some kind of natural check, if you like.
Rick: Was that the conclusion of that book, basically that realization of the higher self on a more global scale will be the antidote to all these intractable problems we face?
Steve: Yeah, I mean the basic idea of the book is that the discord we’re aware of in the world, all of the warfare throughout human history, all of the oppression and brutality, the domination of women, the slavery and all these things, environmental destruction, all of this external discord is really a kind of outward reflection of the discord inside us. And so my term was “humania”. I said that most human beings exist in a state of near insanity, which I call “humania”. And it’s insanity because separateness is a kind of insanity because we’re never separate, even on a physical level we’re never really separate. We’re interacting with our environment, there’s a flow, a chemical flow, biological flow between us and our environment. There are so many levels in which we’re interconnected, physically, emotionally, spiritual, but we experience this sense of separation which seems strangely real and strangely permanent. And also the constant disturbance of our thought chatter means that we live in a state of inner discord a lot of the time. And this associational chatter produces negative emotions, it triggers negative emotions, negative feelings. And in many ways the discord inside us produces a sense of incompleteness, a desire to complete ourselves with wealth and power and status, a desire to dominate other human beings, a desire to dominate nature, and so forth. So you can see quite easily that it’s the root cause of all of these problems like environmental destruction and warfare and oppression and so forth. So really the only way to create a harmonious world is to create harmony inside ourselves which means transcending the sense of separation, it means quietening the discord, healing the discord of our minds and experiencing a sense of inner wholeness and inner stillness. And really it’s only then that the desire to dominate other people, the desire to accumulate wealth and status, it’s only when we’ve developed inner harmony that these desires will fade away and all of the warfare and all of the conflict, all of the exploitation which these desires produce will also fade away. So really the only possibility we have of living in harmony with the world is to develop harmony within ourselves.
Rick: It seems so obvious when you say it, it seems obvious to me anyway. That was one of the basic TM lecture talking points that individual peace is the basis of world peace and so on. But strangely it’s not obvious to the vast majority of people. They’re looking for solutions, as Einstein put it, on a level of consciousness which created the problems. They’re looking outward for solutions. Obviously there have to be certain outer accomplishments to deal with certain things. You need advanced solar panels, for instance, to have proper solar power and that kind of thing. Those things are valuable. But I would say that what you just said very eloquently is the key to it, that spiritual realization is the ultimate solution to the world’s problems.
Steve: That’s right. But it doesn’t mean that you stop caring about the world, it doesn’t mean that you stop trying to make things better.
Rick: Right. It’s a fundamental component. It’s like, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all else shall be added unto thee.” Or as the Gita says, “Establish in yoga, perform action.” It’s like, we need the solar panels, we need to eliminate child prostitution, we need to feed everybody. That’s all going to take action on relative levels, in particular skills and technologies, and all that stuff is fine. But without a foundation of spiritual awakening it seems to me that it’s like a castle in the air. It’s just not going to have the stability or the … that’s just not going to work.
Steve: Yeah, it can only really work once there’s a foundation of inner harmony. And ironically, it’s when you establish inner harmony that you become more compassionate, you feel more of a sense of purpose, a sense of mission to alleviate other people’s sufferings, to improve the predicaments of other people. So that kind of social action follows very clearly from spiritual awakening.
Rick: It does. As you mentioned earlier, sometimes people think that spiritual people are selfish and maybe they may be at a certain stage, but if you’ve really achieved, if you’ve really realized, then my cup runneth over. You naturally begin to flow in terms of compassionate action.
Steve: That’s true. I found that. I recently, in my role as a psychologist, I did a study of preparing a paper about it at the moment, but one of my findings was that they didn’t become less integrated in the world, they didn’t become less involved in the world, they actually became more involved in the world because they had a sense of mission, they had a sense of altruism and a desire to alleviate other people’s suffering. They became much less self-centered and much more altruistic. And that manifests itself in a desire to serve other people.
Rick: Yeah, good point, worth mentioning. You mentioned, or maybe it was even before we started the interview, that you might want to do some kind of practice or some sort of demonstration or something, I’m not quite sure what you had in mind, but what did you want to do?
Steve: I’m going to do a magical trick.
Steve: No, I’m only joking. Yeah, well actually, it may be a good way to end the interview.
Rick: Yeah, and you also mentioned you might want to read a poem or two, so do that in whichever order you want to do the things.
Steve: Okay, yeah, well I’ll lead, it’s not really a meditation, it’s kind of exercise. And this came from my book, Out of the Darkness, because when I wrote the book, and I did so many interviews with people who’d experienced awakening following turmoil and trauma, I began to think about why were they experiencing awakening, what was actually going on on a psychological or spiritual level. And I realized that it was about attachment, that all of these people’s attachments were being broken down, because when you face death, everything is taken away. There’s no more possessions, there’s no more future, there’s no more past, no more status, no more achievements, everything is taken away. So all of the building blocks of the ego are suddenly withdrawn, and the ego collapses. So that made me aware of how important detachment is in the spiritual process, how important it is to dissolve our psychological, to become aware of our psychological attachments and to dissolve them. So this is an exercise based on the idea that we need to dissolve our psychological attachments in order to uncover that deeper spiritual self underneath. So it’s a kind of meditation, so for all of the people watching this, maybe you can sit in a fairly comfortable position and maybe close your eyes for a few moments. And first of all, I want you to just picture yourself walking along a very long straight road. You can see this road stretching far into the distance, and you’re walking step by step along this road. And you can also see it stretching behind you. If you look behind, you can see this road stretching forever as far as you can see into the past behind you. And at this point, I want you to think of a couple of, maybe one or two significant events that you’re aware of in your future, maybe an appointment or a deadline, maybe even an ambition from your future. And maybe if you can just picture a scene from the future related to that event, maybe place that scene by the side of the road as you walk along. And also, behind you, maybe you can think of one or two significant events from your past or experiences. And maybe picture a scene related to that event or that experience, place them by the side of the road. So you’re aware of those events or scenes from the future and the past as you slowly walk ahead, step by step, along this long straight road. And there, in the distance, you’re suddenly aware of a grey mist which emerges in the distance, a foaming, soft grey mist which emerges and slowly moves towards you. It slowly covers the road as it moves towards you. It covers the scenes from those events and it moves towards you slowly. You can slowly feel its soft, warm glow as it moves towards you. And the mist slowly immerses you, you can feel it over your skin. You can even feel it inside you, foaming inside you, down from your head, into your chest and stomach, into your legs. And it keeps moving behind you until it slowly engulfs the events from your past. And it keeps foaming further away until the whole of the road in front of you and behind you is covered with this foaming mist, this soft grey foaming mist. You can’t see anything, you’re just aware of this mist everywhere around you. But slowly now, just as the sun sometimes begins to shine through a fog in the morning, slowly the mist begins to fade away, to dissolve away. And as it dissolves away, you’re aware that the road has disappeared. There’s no road in front of you, there’s no road behind you. There’s just a panorama, a natural panorama of fields and trees, hills in the distance, the sky above you. And there’s no in front of you or behind you, there’s just a panorama. And as you’re aware of this panorama, I’d like you to make a gentle mental effort to let go of attachment to the future or the past. Just remember that the future and the past don’t really exist, they’re just ideas. And the only thing which really exists is the panorama of the present. So just let go of the future and let go of the past. And now think of any beliefs that you may have about the world or about life, any political beliefs, any religious beliefs, any beliefs about the afterlife or about the paranormal. And remind yourself that all of those beliefs are just concepts or ideas, they have no connection with your essential energy or essential self. So make a gentle effort to let go of all those beliefs, just release your attachment to those beliefs. And now think of all of the achievements you’ve accumulated in your life which give you a sense of status, all of the senses, a sense of status you may develop through your job, through your qualifications, through the role you have in society. And remember that all of those achievements and all of the status you feel you have is just an idea in your head or maybe in other people’s heads, none of it has any connection to your essential self. So make a gentle effort to let go of those achievements and that status, release yourself from those attachments. And the same with any knowledge you’ve built up in your life, all of the information you’ve absorbed through books or through courses, all of the knowledge that may sometimes make you feel that you’re a bit special or significant. Remember that knowledge is really just based on memory, memory of information, it has no connection to your essential self. Even though it can be useful sometimes, it has no connection to your essential self. So again, let go of your attachment to that knowledge, release yourself of that attachment. And the same with your possessions, any money you might have in your bank accounts, any objects or material goods which you claim as your own, they’re just objects which can’t belong to anybody, they just exist in themselves. So again, let go of attachments, let go of your attachment to those possessions or to that self, release yourself from your possessions. And think about your appearance, think about your outer form, the clothes you wear, your hair, your body, the way other people perceive you. And again, remember that this outward form, it really has no connection to the energy of your inner being, even though the energy exists within that outward form, even though it may manifest itself within that form. Your actual outward appearance has little significance. So make a gentle effort to let go of attachment to your appearance. And the same with your age, remember that your age is just a number representing the number of orbits of this planet around the sun. It has no real significance and no connection to your inner being. So let go of any attachment to your age. And even your name, remember that your name is just a sound assigned to you by your parents for ease of communication. It has no connection to your essential being. And now, after we’ve released ourselves from attachment to the future, the past, our beliefs, our achievements, our knowledge, our possessions, our appearance, our age and our name, what’s left at the end of this process is only an energy and a consciousness, the pure essential energy of your being and the awareness which enables you to perceive the world around you. Energy and awareness. And this energy and this awareness exist in a natural state of fullness and well-being which doesn’t require any external attachments. So just for a few moments, let’s rest within this pure essential part of your being and let’s just rest within its wholeness and its natural quality of well-being. Let’s just rest within that for a few moments now. And now, when you’re ready, return your awareness to the sounds inside this room. Be aware of yourself sitting in this chair. And when you’re ready, let’s bring the meditation or the exercise to a close and open our eyes again.
Rick: Thanks, that was nice.
Rick: Do you want to read a poem also?
Steve: Okay, I’ll read a poem. Umm I’ll read one, a very simple poem which was based on, it’s basically a description of an experience I had two or three years ago, a very simple experience, the poem is kind of self-explanatory so I won’t explain it. It’s called “The Alchemy of Attention” and this is from my book, my book of poems, “The Meaning”. When a mist of multiplying thoughts fills your mind, associations spinning endlessly, images jostling and memories whirling, free-falling through your inner space, you can always bring yourself back to now. This morning, making breakfast for the kids, I catch myself daydreaming and with a gentle mental nudge, remind myself of where I am. And straight away the kitchen clutter turns to spacious presence. A mosaic of sunlit squares across the floor, fading and brightening with the passing clouds, the metal rims of stools firing sparks, steam curls floating over cups, reflecting silver spoons, the perfect stillness of spilt coffee grains, the gaudy yellow and blue of detergent bottles, and the window smudges exposed by sun. Everything perfectly still and real, everything perfectly itself. Attention is an alchemy that turns dullness to beauty and anxiety to ease. Maybe I’ll read just one more, this is called “The Meaning”.
Rick: Attention is an alchemy which turns dullness to beauty and anxiety to ease. That’s nice.
Steve: That’s it, yeah. And in a way that’s about acceptance too because we’ve talked a lot about acceptance. And when you accept your present experience, the experience becomes transformed as it did in that poem. But often we habitually think that, especially daily chores like making breakfast or washing the dishes, we’re conditioned to think that those chores are too dreary for us to actually pay attention to. But when we actually do it, the experience becomes transformed. So this is a poem called “The Meaning”. This came from the idea, all through my life people have been saying, “What’s the meaning of life?” People are always asking, “What’s the meaning of life?” And they expect you to put it together into a sentence or a statement. But the idea of this poem is that the meaning is not something expressible in words, it’s something beyond words. The Meaning You can’t explain the meaning, reduce it to thought or confine it to words, break it down to basic building blocks or trace it back to an origin. But when you see the meaning you know it. Just when you’ve forgotten it existed, you’re driving along the motorway and turn your head to the side as if someone’s tapped your shoulder, and it’s there, stretched across the evening sky, filling the spaces between the clouds. You open the door to empty the bin and it’s there, rustling with the wind through the trees, stroking your face softly like a lover. You tilt your head back to catch the rain and it’s there, falling with the infinite silver points that bring down benevolence from the sky. Your eyes spring open in the middle of the night as if there’s an intruder, an unfamiliar noise, and it’s there in the dense rich darkness that fills the room, and the glow of unconscious communion around you and your partner’s bodies. The most familiar forgotten place, your home from a previous lifetime, a mother’s soothing presence and her warm enfolding arms.
Rick: Nice thank you.
Rick: I told you earlier I had a hard time reading poetry because I sometimes aren’t settled enough but I just settled in and really enjoyed those. Your little exercise was very settling also.
Steve: I think in some ways poetry works better when it’s read aloud.
Rick: It’s true, yeah. If you’re just sitting and reading it sometimes your mind will wander off on other things but you can just focus in when someone else reads it.
Steve: That’s right, yeah.
Rick: Or perhaps when you’re reading it yourself it’s good to read it aloud. Even if you’re alone, you just read it aloud.
Steve: Yeah, I think in some ways it can be a kind of spiritual exercise because poetry demands or requires a kind of stillness of being to take in the meaning and the effect of the poem.
Rick: It does. Good. All righty, well, let’s see what we can conclude. I really enjoyed talking to you. I’ve been talking with Steve Taylor. Hopefully this interview will kick you up a notch or two on the list of the 100 most spiritually influential people.
Steve: I’m actually going down because.
Rick: Oh you slipping.
Steve: last year I was number 31, this year I’m 38.
Rick: Oh dear.
Steve: so I’m actually on the downward curve. (laughter)
Rick: Oh dear. Maybe they’ll start a list of the world’s least influential spiritual people and you’ll make that eventually.
Steve: Yeah, that’s what I’m aiming for.
Rick: So in any case, I’ve been talking to Steve and as always I’ll be linking to his website and his books and whatever else is significant from batgap.com. So if you just happen to have heard this interview somewhere or other, if you go to batgap.com you’ll find all sorts of information, not only about Steve and his background interview but also all the other can sign up to be notified by email each time a new interview is posted. There’s a tab there you’ll see. There’s a discussion group which crops up around each interview and I think what we’re going to try starting with Steve’s interview is rather than have the discussion take place right on his page, we have a forum and we’re going to set up a section in the forum for each interviewee and have the discussion take place there. That will tend to make the discussions hopefully more relevant to each particular interview rather than 600 posts being put on whatever happens to be on the top of the page that given week, which is the way it’s been happening. They tend to go way off the topic of the interview. So we’re going to try that. There’s a donate button there which I appreciate people clicking if they have the capacity and the motivation. I usually just pass right over that because I don’t like to dwell on it but my intention is hopefully to continue to keep these interviews free and accessible to all. There are some sort of spiritual shows you can get into on the internet where you have to pay a monthly fee and all. People have suggested that but if the thing can grow enough that this level of donations that come in spontaneously are adequate, we’ll be able to just keep it free. So we’ll see how that goes. And finally, there’s an audio podcast which if you like to listen to things while you commute and so on, you can subscribe to that and get it on iTunes. So that about does it. So thanks Steve.
Rick: Yeah, thanks Rick. I really enjoyed speaking to you. It was great.
Rick: Yea. And thanks to those who have been listening or watching and we’ll see you next week.