Ellen Winner


Many of us start off on the path to Enlightenment because we don’t like what’s happening in our life. We may have heard there’s a way to get free of worry and anxiety and live in a permanent state of peace and love — go to Heaven without dying. It sounds like a good gig — better than working for a living. Enlightened Masters get lots of respect, and your followers give you money and take care of you. 

Not necessarily so. There are plenty of people living ordinary lives with families and jobs that you never hear of who have learned to access enlightened states. You can’t get there by trying, they say, but still most of us have to learn the hard way that trying doesn’t work. 

We seem to have to suffer a lot before we realize we can’t put a stop to the suffering by ourselves. I don’t want to shake my tambourine like a  Salvation Army soldier, but it’s really true that most people have to “hit bottom” to get over themselves enough to be open to connection with the Greater Consciousness.

Lies Hurt

I suffered a lot listening to President Trump’s impeachment trial. I got sucked in. The Democratic side presented evidence of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, and the Republicans responded with false justifications, denials, excuses and irrelevant counter-attacks, lie after lie after lie. (It should be obvious which side I was on.)

I couldn’t help but react with bolts of rage followed by angry tears because it’s wrong to lie! Every muscle in my body contracted — shoulders, back, neck, chest, face, jaw, stomach, thighs, calves and toes — all stiffened into one big, aching, spasm of resistance. This is wrong! And it hurt!

I knew very well that if we want to be happy, we have to accept that whatever is happening is actually happening, but I didn’t see how I could accept those lies without giving up my position that lying is wrong. It’s wrong for the liar, wrong for people being lied to, and wrong for our whole society. 

As humans our main organ of survival is our brain. We don’t have claws or fangs or protective shells. We have to depend on our wits to keep us safe. But our brains can’t help us when they don’t have reliable information to work with. When a liar feeds false information into our brains, it’s like declawing a bear or dehorning a bull. We lose a big chunk of our ability to protect ourselves and we feel violated. Why else do most ethical codes prohibit lying? “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

Imagine how awful it would be to live  a life of mistrust, suspicion and fear in a culture where lies were the norm. 

On the other hand Nature is full of deception, from camouflaged chameleons to cuttlefish, who not only blend in to any background but also produce pulsating bands of color over their bodies to hypnotize their prey into coming closer. 

I try to think my way out

I knew my rationalizations about humans having some sort of divine right not to be lied to were nothing but futile attempts to bolster my hardened position. They certainly didn’t make me feel better. The more I resisted the reality that no one was going to stop the corrupt politicians and their lawyers from lying to the Senate, the more my muscles cramped and squeezed, bearing down on joints and soft tissue with merciless force. The pain was real, though obviously self-inflicted.

It was a vicious cycle. Whether I continued to insist that lying was wrong or accepted it as normal, either way I’d be playing into the hands of corrupt political operatives inflicting their “divide and conquer” schemes on the populace: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” And if you’re against them, as the president’s post-impeachment acts of revenge made evident, you’ll suffer.

I needed a way to transcend these false dichotomies. 

Einstein famously observed that problems aren’t solved at the level at which they exist, that you need a higher, detached perspective to be able to see a solution. The problems only exist when we see the world in black and white, right and wrong, this and not-this. But I was clearly stuck on a dualistic level, believing there were only two possible categories, lies and truth, only two choices available: tolerate lies or insist on the truth.

If I could get above that duality and see that reality doesn’t really present itself as two big buckets labelled “Lie” and “Truth,” maybe I could stop reacting.

Maybe I could see lies and truth as two ends of a spectrum that exists in the experience of all humans; understand that both lies and truth are part of reality and therefore have to be accepted whether I liked it or not, and let go of my death-grip on the truth end of the spectrum.

But it wasn’t that simple. In trying to “get above” the lie-truth spectrum, I found there were many, many different values a person might use to judge these “opposites,” each producing a separate spectrum.

The politicians’ statements, which I labelled “lies,” had other opposites besides “truth,” depending on the values I was using to judge them. If the truth is that a specific thing happened, for example, that a president tried to extort an ally country by threatening to withhold promised payments unless the country took action to harm the reputation of the president’s political rival, opposites to that stated fact would include statements that the thing did not happen or that the lie was told for a good purpose, or that the person telling the lie believed it was the truth, or that he didn’t know the truth, or that he didn’t know the consequences of his lie, etc. 

Some of the president’s lawyers asserted a “good” meaning for what the president did: “He was trying to reduce corruption in the Ukraine,” instead of the “bad” meaning: “He wanted to benefit himself personally.” Or a different, “neutral” meaning: “When he used the words, ‘Do me a favor, though,’ he didn’t intend to be asking for something in return.”

There were statements by the prosecution in the impeachment trial that what happened was important, and opposite statements by the president’s lawyers that what happened wasn’t important enough to warrant his removal from office. 

I thought that to be fair I should take account of all these factors when judging whether to trust what the politicians said. But even so, I judged the apologists for the president to be liars because not even they could have believed what they were saying.

It seemed impossibly complex to reconcile all the particular “opposites” I was judging and accept them all. But it would clearly be insane to take the default position that whatever I liked was right and everything else was wrong. 

I was starting to understand, aided by the pain of my cramped-up muscles, that I had to change my thinking about it. Every judgement I forced myself to make trapped me into a fixed “position” that only increased my discomfort, especially given the fact that the lies were winning out. I wanted things to be different than they were and that never works.

The kind of judgements I was trying to make only made things worse, not better.

Still, when we have to take action, it usually does come down to a black and white choice, e.g.,  either we remove this president from office or we don’t. 

If I think it’s a good idea to remove the president from office because his acts are more motivated by selfishness than by the good of the entire country, I still have to recognize that there’s a counter-argument (which I don’t believe) that if everyone is selfish and looking out for their own interests, society will automatically run smoothly. 

Or if I think it’s a good idea to remove him from office because he’s destroying society’s norms, breaking up our longstanding habits of trust for relating to each other, making us brutal, and creating chaos, isn’t that actually what lots of people voted for — someone who would disrupt the status quo? 

I put a high value on living in a society where I can trust others, and so when it comes time to act by letting my voice be heard, which I feel is the duty of every citizen who values democracy, I will ignore the opposite values, such as: selfishness can be a virtue; chaos is good for the country; and even, it’s a good idea to lie low and not become a target of vengeance. 

When it’s time to act, everything collapses down into a single dichotomy: speak out or don’t. 

I did opt to speak out. But it didn’t help. I still felt angry and resistant, and my muscles still hurt.

I was still making judgements and resisting what was happening. What I should have done was take a step back out of the whole complicated tangle of values that could be used to make those judgements and stop thinking my value as a person had anything to do with the situation.

The Real Reason Lies Hurt

Why did I clench my muscles in reaction to the politician’s lies? Did I think that if I relaxed, they’d take root in my brain like parasites? What if they were to take me over to the point where I would even help spread them, God forbid?

It didn’t make sense.

What really bothered me is what it would mean about me if I stopped resisting. I’d be a bad person. My little me, who thinks she’s a BIG ME, namely, my ego, was worried. She knew she ought to accept All-That-Is, but she really didn’t want to accept the idea that she might be someone who condones lies, or worse, be a liar herself. “I am not a person who could even think for a moment such lies could be true,” she insisted. “It’s not who I am!”  

My ego thought she had to take a position on whatever arose in my consciousness, otherwise what did she amount to? Ego was worried that she might not exist because deep down she knew she really didn’t. She was afraid of finding out the truth — that she was really nothing but a bundle of thoughts. 

In the words of Indian Spiritual Teacher, H.W.L. Poonja (“Papaji”) (1910-1997): 

But when the ego can describe herself, and especially when she can describe herself as better than somebody else, she’s able to feel that maybe she really does exist after all.

My ego thinks she’s the real me, and likes to describe “me” as not having whatever quality she doesn’t like. When she can judge someone as a liar, she’s happy to decree that “I” am not a liar so she can feel good in comparison. But if I fall into her trap of believing that she, the ego, is the real me, then whenever she decides I’m not something, she narrows the scope of who I can be and how I can act. 

So I’m less now than I was before my ego decided I wasn’t allowed to lie. Over time my ego orders me not to be so many things that there’s hardly anything left I can be. (See Blog #1 for a discussion of how this works and what to do about it.)

If my goal is to be One with All-That-Is (and it is my goal), I have to remember that the Universe doesn’t limit itself by rejecting parts of itself the way our egos do. I have to accept everything that’s happening at every moment, even if my ego doesn’t like it.

Reality is Different from Our Judgements About It

The idea that material reality is an illusion is found in many Hindu and Buddhist teachings as well as Western philosophies such as the “immaterialism” of eighteenth century Irish Philosopher Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753). Around that same time, the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757) held a similar view, writing: 

Christian and Moslem teachings, while not denying the “reality” of the physical world, hold that a spiritual, non-physical reality exists in the form of a Heaven vastly superior to the material world.

Many who see themselves as “spiritual” take such teachings, that the material world is illusory or unimportant, to mean they should try to ignore it and concentrate only on the “spiritual.” It’s “beneath them” to care about money, material possessions, and even their own bodies, and they obsessively try to “purify” themselves by denying their sexual feelings and punishing their bodies. 

I never thought I was like that. I value physical reality. I like to move my body and master new skills. I admire competent people who know how things work and are good at fixing them. I’m a scientist by both education and inheritance (both parents were scientists) and love that we can learn how the world works by close observation.

But when I thought about it, I realized that my relationship with material objects has always been troubled.

As a child of three or four I remember feeling frustrated because a baby doll I was given wasn’t real. It was just a hard, dead object — didn’t coo or cry or move around, and wasn’t the least bit lovable. I felt deceived and patronized to have been given such a false version of a real baby, as if the grown-ups thought I couldn’t tell the difference. 

Later, in the glorious 1960s, I took a few acid trips that opened my being to the Oneness of All and got a taste of what the Seventh Dalai Lama meant by “all things a great falsity.” 

Visions of people and objects appeared and disintegrated, looming up in my face as if they were real, unique and separate from all else. It was hilarious they way they presented themselves as something, trying to trick me, then faded into nothingness. I sensed the unseen presence of some larger intelligence watching and sharing my mirth, laughing the silly forms away.

Because our minds select certain parts of our sensory field and discard other parts to construct gestalts (recognizable forms) that we see and identify as “real things,” I reasoned that these “things” must have no separate reality apart from the wholeness of existence. 

What this meant to me was that everything in manifestation, every single thing we perceive as separate, whether a physical object, a thought, an emotion, a sensation, a concept, a process, or even ourselves, is false. Every form we can be aware of asserts the lie: “I am this that you see and sense. I am a separate thing. I am not everything else.” It’s a lie because everything really is everything else. That’s the meaning of “Oneness.” 

Nevertheless, I realized that if I wanted to “get on in life,” I had to at least pretend to conform to the prevailing cultural belief that the “things” of the material world have their own existence separate from each other and us, and separate from All-That-Is. By then I had a family to support, so I didn’t have much of a choice about accepting this cultural mindset. My tripping days were over. But I still wished some great Wizard of Oz would come and open the curtain on our puffed-up pretensions so everyone could see how funny these “things” we were all using to show off with really were. It didn’t happen. 

For a long time after that acid trip, I nurtured an anger at these objects that dared to flaunt their falsity in my world, especially when they refused to conform to my will. They deserved to break! I pretended to be civilized and calm, but quite enjoyed ripping up papers, smashing cans, flattening boxes, and throwing out clutter. There was no room in my house for shredders, trash compacters, or anything that took up more space than it was worth!

The prevailing dualistic, all-or-nothing thinking stoked my frustration, and I let it. If every “thing” really was part of the Whole, why didn’t it act like it? Why did things break and stop working? Either they were part of All-That-Is or they weren’t. If they were part of the Greater Consciousness, why didn’t they cooperate and flow smoothly along in harmony with each other — and especially with me? 

This anger went a long way to explain the painful muscle contractions I adopted in resistance to the lies that came down from the top of the government during the impeachment trial. My anger at Trump and his minions was fueled from beneath by a deeper and more fundamental anger at God and the whole material Universe.

It’s embarrassing to now admit that my anger was based on such a basic error in thinking — one I should have grown out of by the time I was four: a failure to separate my imagination from reality. I had been overwhelmed by the power and vividness of the acid-trip vision, its sense of divine revelation and absolute truth. Of course it actually did hold a true teaching, namely the Buddhist understanding that all things are “dependent arisings,” dependent on everything else for their existence and not existing as separate “things,” even though that’s the way we normally think of them. 

The current Dalai Lama teaches that a “thing,” e.g., a table, depends on three things: its causes, its parts, and our thoughts. It doesn’t inherently exist “from its own side,” but nevertheless it does exist because it functions in the world; it “creates effects.” It is not “nothing,” even though it is “empty” of independent existence. 

It’s a mistake, the Dalai Lama says, to deny that there is such a thing as cause and effect because things don’t exist independently: 

This was the mistake I had made. The part of my brain that distinguishes between mental images backed by real material objects, which can function in the world to cause effects, and mental images produced entirely by my imagination had evidently been put to sleep by the drug. 

My vision of disintegrating faces and objects had been a pure product of my imagination. Those faces and objects had no underlying material basis. I had overlooked the manifested material world around me in favor of an imaginary world I evidently preferred. It was only when I began to feel the serious pain of my anger and contracted muscles and realized I had to make a change in my thinking, that I began to understand my mistake. 

Releasing the Resistance

I wanted stop feeling angry and relax my muscles, but it wasn’t happening. Then I remembered a book I’d read a year or so ago that I thought might help:  Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine, by Twentieth Century Psychoanalyst Hubert Benoit (1904-1992). It was densely intellectual and contained some odd word usages as a result of translation from the original French, and I had found it tough going. I knew I hadn’t fully taken it all in, but did remember the metaphor of muscular contraction the author used to illustrate the point that it is our very efforts to reach Enlightenment that block our progress. 

When a muscle contracts, he explained, nerve commands from the lower brain (the medulla) are what cause it to contract and stay contracted. But the lower brain is unable, by itself, to issue a command to relax the muscle. Only a nerve command to the lower brain from the higher brain (the cortex) can tell the lower brain to stop sending commands to contract the muscle and allow it to relax.

The muscle contractions of the metaphor represent the efforts we make to achieve what Zen Buddhists call satori, in other words, Enlightenment.

Benoit explains that the satori state of being is always here and available to us, but is obscured by our stratagems and efforts to achieve it. We can experience it only when we stop trying. The ego thinks the satori experience will be a great achievement that will bring it glory, but its efforts to get it never work. The ego can’t do it, any more than the lower brain can stop our muscles from contracting. We need a higher consciousness to give the order to stop all the trying. 

Deep down we’ve always known that we are one with the Higher Consciousness, Benoit teaches, but in growing up and developing our ego, we forget. Yet Higher Consciousness remains active in us, and finally when we have endured enough failures to learn the futility of trying, when life has humbled us enough, when we “hit bottom” and our egos give up their efforts to force us to become something, we can relax into being what we always were — One with All-That-Is. 

The Higher Consciousness, represented in the metaphor by the higher brain (the cortex), allows us to notice that our efforts are useless, and it is this understanding that puts a stop to them. We relax and stop trying to be anything other than what we are. This moment of surrender is often referred to as “the Grace of God.”

It happens when we finally realize that even when we get the things in life we always wanted, we’re still not satisfied; when we realize that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to meet the expectations that our parents, our partners and friends, not to mention we ourselves, have laid upon us; when we give up guilt over past wrongdoing and efforts to erase karmas, trying to be good or pure, or even to be evil — trying to be anything at all — when there’s nothing left to us except to simply be.

To get to satori, Benoit teaches, it’s necessary to experience ourselves as simply existing, not as a form, but rather at the split-second moment before we take form, when the Higher Consciousness begins to manifest our form. This doesn’t mean the moment we're born, but rather, because the Higher Consciousness brings us into manifestation continuously, moment by moment, it means at existing at each split second between that unmanifest Higher Consciousness and what is manifested.

This is difficult for us because we aren’t simple-minded enough. “Let us suppose,” he says, “that I ask you: 'How are you feeling at this moment?’ You will ask in reply: 'From what point of view? Physically or morally?' I answer: 'From all points of view together, how do you feel?' You are silent for a couple of seconds, . . . ” Only in the first second after he asks, Benoit explains, are you capable of perceiving your total state of mind, before your mind immediately jumps in and starts producing thoughts and images. 

To experience yourself as pure existence, you don’t have to stop what you’re doing. In fact it only works if you are doing something real in the material world at the time, not meditating or thinking. Then when you turn your attention inward you can feel yourself existing “in the very center of the world of the activity you’re engaged in and the attention you’re paying to it.”

As you look inside, with your mind thinking only of real, material things that are part of your body or immediately available to your senses, rather than imaginary thoughts and images, you can have a quick experience of pure existence. This is why Zen Masters counsel their students, “When we are hungry, we eat: when we are sleepy, we lie down.” And Benoit asks, “Where in all that does the finite or the infinite come in? It is only when the intellect, fertile in restlessness, comes on the scene and takes command that we cease to live and that we imagine that we lack something.”

The focus on the real material world, he explains, “scandalizes the vain egotist who dreams of ‘spiritual' prowess and of ‘ecstatic’ personal relations with a personal 'God' whose image he creates for himself.”

To reach satori, he emphasizes, you must practice this instantaneous “inner gesture” of looking inside to feel your pure existence again and again until it becomes continuous.

Eureka! This was the missing link that allowed me to realize that my attitude to material things had been the result of my mistake in confusing the imaginary visions in my head with the real solid world of material objects. 

The perception of pure existence attained by looking inside to be aware of the immediate objects of our sense perceptions is what Spiritual Teacher Ram Das refers to when he says, “Be here now,” what Eckhart Tolle means by “The Power of Now,” and what Nonduality Teacher Peter Fenner means by “the state of abiding as awareness and recognizing that this is our natural state whenever there is no effort or endeavor to be somewhere else.”

If we resist our immediate experience of the real material world and our inner world in the moment, thinking, “It shouldn’t be this way,” “This is wrong,” “I want something else,” or even, “I want this to last” when we know perfectly well that no experience lasts, we waste our energy. 

Benoit says that these reactions disintegrate the energy that we need to build up in order to experience satori. 

Peter Fenner calls such reactions “fixations” and points out that they can “manifest in our bodies and nervous systems as contractions tensions, movements, gestures, postures and other bodily phenomena” because “energy gets concentrated and stuck in certain parts of the body, causing stiffness, limited mobility, discomfort and even intense pain.” 

When we stop these kinds of judgements energy is released for appreciating what’s really here in the moment and participating in its natural harmony (satori).

In the experience of pure existence, there’s nothing to fear or worry about. We feel it as unlimited and unconditional, that is, nothing we or anyone else does or fails to do can make it disappear. 

Whatever is going on in the material world and in our body is part of the experience. We accept it all and feel with our whole being that even if we could change it we wouldn’t want to. We may go on thinking our thoughts as usual and planning our future, but we don’t become trapped in these thoughts.

All worries about making right choices fade away. We are in the Greater Consciousness, in which there is no duality. All past and possible future outcomes are present within this Consciousness in harmony with each other. 

Worries are obviously irrelevant. Because we are one with the complete consciousness of All-That-Is, which encompasses all things in harmony, whatever is going to happen in the next moment will be part of that harmony. We are sure that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as her vision of Jesus consoled medieval religious anchoress Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). Our bodily pains recede. We are aware of them, but not identified with them. We know ourselves as pure awareness and pain fades, robbed of the fear and anxiety that usually accompanies it. Muscular tensions relax. There is nothing to resist, for all is just as it should be. 

From this state of being, we find it ridiculous to label things as bad or good. They exist, and that is as it should be. If something doesn’t exist, that too is right. All possible realities can be present to our consciousness at the same time. 

Time is now — no longer a line between past and future as we have known it, but a point of entry into multiple dimensions of possibility. The clever old saying, “Time is Nature’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once,” has become irrelevant. Everything really is happening all at once, and we are here to see it.

Our brains may not be up to the task of understanding the full extent of this peace that is always available. But the reality is that it is available, and when we feel it, we find it easy and comforting to keep up our daily routines, “chopping wood, carrying water,” as the Zen masters say, doing our chores, dealing with objects, which we now understand are made, as are we, of the One Consciousness of All-That-Is. Love and compassion flow naturally. We have nothing to fear. There is nothing to resist. We know all things as our brothers and sisters, all our relations, manifestations, like ourselves, of the Greater Self, fingers of the same hand.

There’s nothing we have to do to deserve this realization and stay in the state of satori. It doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do, “This” is still here. 

We’ll probably often forget that “This” is always available to us and slip back into ordinary dualistic consciousness, making judgements and strategizing to make the future better than the now (as if this were possible), but we can always return to “This” by remembering it.

When I succeed in making the “inner gesture” and know myself as pure existence, at first I feel the physical pains in my body, but as I simply allow them to be there, they fades and my muscles relax. Sometimes I even notice the chakra at the base of my skull in back relaxing and opening.

How else can we make this inner gesture? Try the following exercises.

Exercise: Knowing yourself as Pure Existence, The “I am”

Theologian Richard Rohr suggests that we follow the advice in The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, by an unnamed Christian monk in Fourteenth-Century England, a time when the Black Death was raging through Europe. This anonymous monk appears to have understood “God” in the same way as the Zen teachers understand satori and other Spiritual Masters understand Enlightenment. 

To unite with God, the monk says, you should “think in the simplest way” and “realize — not what you are but that you are.” Start by going “down deep in your mind as far as you can go to its lowest level that some by experience call its ‘highest’ point.” 

He counsels us to forget everything, not analyze ourselves or God or worry about what is good or bad. “Think only that you are as you are, however ugly and sinful you feel,” he says,  “Step up and be bold. Taste that medicine.” 

“Lift up your frail self, as you are,” he continues, “and give everything to God and his compassion, as he is. The only important thing is your simple awareness of your naked being and joyfully offering that to God with a willingness to love.” Do this, he tells us, the way you would accept “a plain, simple, soft compress when sick.” and “press him against your unhealthy self, just as you are.”

When I do this, I begin by lying down and asking the Universe for healing. Then I focus on the way my body feels at the moment. I imagine a healing, warm compress filled with divine love and care being placed on my stomach and abdomen to soothe and calm it, allowing my body to relax. 

Sometimes I make Benoit’s “inner gesture” lying down, or sitting, standing, or moving around,  by focusing on my root chakra and feeling the sensations there. I try to connect with energies being born into manifestation just below my root, from a deeper place where I intuit the presence of a potent force I can neither conceptualize nor directly experience, until I feel energy rising through my body.

Take a few minutes to try these techniques when you have a chance.

If you have a stubborn streak like I do, try the following:

Exercise: The Way of Doubt

Author Hubert Benoit refers to the Zen teaching that “Inner peace is only to be had after a bitter fight with our personality.... the fight should rage with extreme force and virility; otherwise the peace which follows will only be a sham.” This doesn’t mean we have to fight our shortcomings to become a better person, as we’re used to doing. In fact, we have to remember not to do that any more, but to keep practicing the “inner gesture” described above until we succeed in reintegrating our consciousness with the formless Source of our being. 

There’s a stage between ordinary consciousness and consciousness after satori, he teaches, that Zen describes as “The Great Doubt.” a state of confusion so complete and so lacking in form it can’t even be described as chaos, but “resembles the transparent purity of an immense crystal behind which there would still be nothing.” That Nothing can never be grasped with the mind. It can only be experienced. 

Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani teaches that the realization of Nothingness will open to us through the “The Great Doubt” which he also calls “The Great Death,” when we press our doubts about “What am I?” and “Why do I exist?” to their limits.

This exercise, adapted from a sermon of Eighteenth Century Zen Master Takusui, involves relentlessly doubting whatever ideas arise as you seek to find out if there is a self (or subject) within you that hears sounds. It is especially suited to those of us who enjoy thinking and for whom doubt is the first place our minds go when we hear or read anything new.

According to Buddha, the sense of being an individual self is just something we make up,“I-making” and “my-making,” and that this is the cause of our stress. His solution: “Regard the world as empty, having removed any view in terms of self. This way one is above and beyond death.  One who regards the world in this way isn’t seen by Death’s King.”

Tibetan Dzogchen Lama Sogyal Rinpoche (1947-2019), asks us to replace our “ordinary doubts” with a “noble doubt,” which is integral to the path to enlightenment, because we can’t afford the kind of contemporary (ordinary) doubts we have of the “vast truth of the mystical teachings handed down to us.” Instead, he recommends that we "doubt ourselves, our ignorance, our assumptions that we understand everything already, our grasping and evasion and passion for so-called explanations of reality that leave out the wisdom the masters, the messengers of Reality, have told us.”

It’s possible to make tense muscles relax by clenching them as up as tightly as we can, harder and stronger than they’ve ever been before. Then when we stop, they’re worn out enough to relax. This exercise in Doubt is like that. It’s all about asking yourself questions and not believing any answer you come up with. Be strict with yourself. Be determined. Don’t accept anything you think as truth.


Read these instructions and then spend some uninterrupted time alone trying to think your way through the question of whether there is a self — a subject — within you that hears sounds.

Ask yourself the question, “Who hears sounds?”

Certainly sounds are heard because something in you hears them. But who hears the sounds? 

You might think the holes in your ears are what hears. But your job is to doubt that. Dead men have holes in their ears but don’t hear sounds. You must keep questioning, What is the subject that is doing the hearing? Possible answers may occur to you, but don’t be satisfied. Keep doubting. Doubt deeply. Gather yourself together with all your strength to focus on this question.

Pay no attention to fancies or ideas. If even one idea arises, your doubt is not sufficiently strong. Question yourself even more intensely.

Don’t strive to be enlightened. Don’t even strive not to be enlightened. Be like a child in your heart. Keep questioning and doubting all answers that occur to you.

Scrutinize deeply. You may think it’s your Consciousness or the Consciousness of All, or God who hears. But doubt such ideas. Where is the Consciousness? How does it hear?

Doubt, doubt. Doubt!

If you see ghostly faces, demons, Buddhas, flowers, if you feel your body metamorphosing into an animal, or even purified into nonexistence, your doubt is still inadequate. In perfect doubt you won’t have such illusions.

Overcome sleepiness and instability. Even if you reach a state of no-thought, and rejoice with the feeling of satori, doubt even harder.

Scrutinize the hearer in you, who is beyond your power or vision.

When you are beyond your wit’s end and unable to think another thought, you are applying yourself properly.

You’ll find that no matter how much you try, you won’t be able to locate the subject that hears. There’s nothing there, you may think. 

Then look deeper right there where there is nothing to be found. Doubt even this. Doubt it deeply, single-mindedly; focus intently, without distraction until you are completely taken over by this nothingness, as though you were dead, not even aware of your own presence.  

Keep pressing on. What is the subject that hears? As you search more deeply, you become oblivious to yourself, empty of all but this Great Doubt about the reality everything. Then doubt even more, unaware of your own being. Strain every nerve. Doubt so hard you almost sweat blood. Until you don’t even know whether you’re alive or dead.

Eventually you’re no longer even aware of being like a dead person, unaware of the process of doubting; unconscious, you know yourself only as a great lump of doubt. 

Only then will the lump suddenly break up and you will awaken, as if from the deepest dream, literally returned to life.

You’ll finally become so fed up with this fruitless effort of looking for the subject who hears, you’ll break through into transcendence, the Great Enlightenment, as though awakened from a dream, or newly risen from the dead. 

Do this exercise; doubt everything until you break, and see what happens. 

The intense frustration generated in the exercise is designed to bring us to the point of realizing our minds are inadequate to the task of finding the answer to the most important question of our lives. We have to “hit bottom” and admit our ego isn’t in charge of the world, or much of anything at all.



Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing with the Book of Privy Counsel, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Translator, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2009. 

Benoit, Hubert, Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine, foreword by Aldous Huxley. Revised edition, Inner Traditions, 1990; available online at, accessed March 14, 2020. See also, “Supreme Doctrine: A recap of Benoit's main ideas,”, accessed March 14, 2020.

Bskal-bzang-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama VII, 1708-1757, and Glenn H Mullin. Selected Works of the Dalai Lama VII: Songs of Spiritual Change. 2nd ed. U.S.A. Ithaca, N.Y.,  Snow Lion Publications, 1985. 

Downing, Lisa, “George Berkeley,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004-2011,, accessed March 14, 2020.

Fenner, Peter G., Natural Awakening: An Advanced Guide for Sharing Nondual Awareness, The Sumeru Press Inc. Kindle Edition, 2017.

His Holiness, the [Fourteenth] Dalai Lama, Jeffrey Hopkins, Ed. and Translator, How to See Yourself As You Really Are, Atria Books, 2006.

Julian of Norwich, Grace Warrack (Ed.) Revelations of Divine Love,, 2013. (An anchoress is a female anchorite, a religious hermit who has herself walled into a small cell attached to a church to live a life of prayer in solitary communion with God and the angels.)

Nishitani, Keiji, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan Van Bragt, University of California, 1983.  

Papaji H.W.L Poonja, Wake Up and Roar, ReadHowYouWant; 16th ed., 2012.

Rohr, Richard, The Universal Christ, Convergent Books, 2019.

Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 25th Anniversary Edition, Harper SanFrancisco, 2012. 

Swami Tadatmananda, Arsha Bodha Center, “Advaita: Non-Dual Spirituality - from Ancient India to our Global Age,” 2019,, accessed March 14, 2020.

“TheVideosForYou, “World’s Deadliest Hypnosis Attack,” YouTube website, 2012,, accessed March 14, 2020.

Ego is the first thought that rises in the morning, “I am Fred” is Fred-thought. . . . “I am doing this; I have done that; I want that; I don’t want this; I know.” These thoughts rise as the ego.

Nothing truly existent, all things a great falsity; 

Sights and sounds I now understand as scenes in a play.

If we investigate a person . . . who appears in a dream and an actual person seen when we are awake, no self-instituting entity can be found for either of them . . . but this does not mean that there are no actual people or that a dream-person is an actual person. This would contradict valid perceptions. [Emphasis added]

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