Doing Nothing: Coming to the End of the Spiritual Search

Steven Harrison Interviewed by Howard Peck

Doing Nothing: Coming to the End of the Spiritual Search

July, 1997 and January, 1998

The following interview was conducted by Howard Peck and focuses on some of the issues of spirituality raised in Doing Nothing.

Q: In Doing Nothing you talk about the ending of the “spiritual search.” Should we stop searching?

A: The whole concept of spirituality is a contrivance; it posits that there is a spiritual world and a non-spiritual world. What’s the non-spiritual world? If I wake up and go to work in the morning, is that non-spiritual? What is spirituality? What’s non-spirituality? If you take away the conceptualization of spirituality, then isn’t everything spiritual? Then, what are spiritual practices for? What is it we’re trying to do to get to this spiritual world? There’s nothing wrong with spirituality other than it doesn’t actually exist.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your spiritual search — before you stopped?

A: First, let’s understand that whatever my so-called search was, it was useless. The very premise of the looking — the premise that something was missing, something was wrong with me — was mistaken, so the search was irrelevant. The story of my search is like any other story — it is fiction. I can tell you about the great teachers I met, the terrible austerities I underwent, the months and years of meditation I spent relentlessly looking for truth. That would be fiction.

I could tell you the story of a young man who was much like many of my generation — the baby boomers. This young man grew up in a country racked by political turmoil, social injustice, politics by assassination and leadership by hypocrisy. This was the United States in the sixties and seventies. This young man was involved in politics like many of his generation, until he saw that politics could never solve the problem of the human condition.

This young man saw so many friends who fell along the way, those who gave up, those who gave in, those who succumbed to the world of mental illness and to drug and alcohol addiction. In this chaos, the world of spirituality, with its teachers of surety, the workers of wonders and givers of grace, had a powerful appeal. And, that is what it turned out to be — the appeal of power. In the face of confusion, so many of us chose authority, magical thinking and belief. We were not searching for truth or for love, we were looking for power and control, for safety; we were infants looking for father and mother.

It is easy to see that the search of this young man in that world of teachers of spirit, of magicians and miracle workers, of yogis and lamas, is a fiction. The story collapsed under the weight of its own fantastic need for a happy ending in which I merge with the universe but am still there to tell all of my friends about it. The search for power is not a spiritual search.

So, when you ask about my search, you are asking me to tell a story.

Q: But what took place in your searching that allowed you to realize that there was no longer anything to search for?

A: When I consider that question, it seems to me that you are asking about a point of transformation. There is a period of life before this point, which is in one state of mind. There is the point of transformation. And then there is the rest of the life, which is lived in a fundamentally different way.

I am suggesting that this whole notion of a point of transformation is a myth. This is the enlightenment myth. For me to indicate a point where I realized that enlightenment was a myth, that there was no need for a spiritual search and so forth, would just be another version of the enlightenment fiction. This would just reinforce this lunacy we all seem to be caught up in.

I don’t see a difference in my being now, before, or ever. It seems to me that whatever it is that is here has always been here. There is no causal relationship that I can find between any of the so-called spiritual practices I have undergone and the state of being in which we all exist. Whether you meditate or not, do yoga or not, have a guru or not, the access point to all of reality is always in reach, always available, always here in this moment.

Q: Does your past include involvement with any spiritual teachers and do you align yourself with any teachers or traditions?

A: Early on I was a consumer of a wide array of spiritual teachers. I found that my focus was never on the spiritual philosophy I was studying, but on the transformative powers of the teacher I was encountering. Could this individual actually change me? Could this individual give me experiences beyond what I already knew? Could grace or shakti be imparted?

So, I was an impatient and demanding student, but I did find that most of the teachers were teachers of information but not transformation. But then there were the transformers. This was the paydirt. Now I had found a few people who were able to shift the energy of my psychic field, give me experiences and show me what seemed to be a boundless universal unity.

Then a couple of things happened. The transformers — these powerful teachers — either went power-mad, got caught up with sex scandals or money scandals or otherwise imploded. And, I had a few encounters with individuals who seemed awfully powerful, but they were strangely enough either anonymous or barely public in their expression. They had no interest in manifesting the power that seemed to me to reside in them. They seemed amused at my drive for this spiritual power, my impatience and my demands for demonstration of their spiritual prowess. What was thrown back to me was — what are you afraid of? Well, what was I afraid of?

This was a whole different matter, indeed. The spiritual quest, the noble search, the expression of everything that is good was suddenly reduced to a neurotic expression of my own fear. I wasn’t on a spiritual search, fear was on a spiritual search. This “me” is fear. What could fear possibly find other than more of its own kind? And, lets face it, there is no purer expression of fear then power.

The great teacher-transformers suddenly seemed like terrified children. The spiritual search was a sham. Without the sham, the world is just as it is. Everything is spiritual and nothing is spiritual.

Q: So coming to the end of the spiritual search is coming to this realization?

A: But it isn’t a realization so much as it is the exhaustion of the idea of spirituality. This idea creates the division of the spiritual and the non-spiritual.

Q: You say the central thought of “me” is the basis of our psychology yet you say it goes unexamined. Haven’t we actually attempted to examine this thought structure through therapy and religion?

A: No, we have assumed that it’s there. That is the basic assumption that psychiatry comes from — that there is a central “me” that needs to be cured, helped or consolidated. Who is examining whether this “me” actually exists or not? The psychiatric process is a theoretical process, an intellectual process, it’s not experiential. The interesting thing about the Eastern meditation approach is that it is directed towards an experiential contact with the qualities of the “me” or thought as it arises. Is there a “me”? If so, what is it? Let’s find out about that before we start curing the “me,” helping the “me,” making the “me” happier or giving it psychiatric drugs to make it feel better.

Q: So the therapy that we’re familiar with only looks at the symptoms as opposed to the origin or root of psychological pain?

A: Most of the therapies that we’re familiar with look at how they can bill insurance companies first. That’s their first consideration. Does it fit into the handbook of diagnosis which allows them to send a bill and get paid. The second consideration is how do they get through that fifty minute session without being bored out of their own mind? So many therapists can hardly stand seeing yet one more needy person. That’s the problem with therapy. It’s not honest. The therapist is treating a patient as if there were a disease. Find the disease. Demonstrate it. Where is it? There is behavior that is okay with the therapist and behavior that isn’t.

Q: So then you’re saying these therapies support the false illusions of thought?

A: They are the illusions. They’re the same thing. It’s not that they support illusion, they are illusion. If you have the idea of “me” then the “me” by its nature is separate and has to be in pain or in difficulty. By being in pain and difficulty, it has to find its way to feeling better. To feel better you go to a therapist, you go to a priest, you take on a religion, or a philosophy. If you’re separate, you’re in pain.

Q: And the therapies don’t look at that essential aspect of the “me”?

A: Right, they look at the manifestations, and once you’re in that world, you’re in an endless world. If you go to a therapist and you say “I’m in pain” and the therapist says “You’re in pain because you’re in separation, and you’re in separation because every building block of your life is sitting on a false foundation,” you have to disassemble your life. You have to go through a complete re-evaluation. People don’t go to therapists for that, they go for a fix so that they can maintain their life. If the therapist is that honest, the therapist is out of business. If the therapist is out of business, they have to look at their own life. They have to rebuild their own life, and how many therapists are interested in that?

Q: You describe the concept of emptiness. Can you describe how it manifests itself? Can you give the definition of emptiness?

A: The nature of emptiness is that it defies definition. It’s the absence of, it’s not the presence of. So if it’s the absence of everything, it’s also the absence of definition.

Q: Does emptiness include the angry bosses and crying babies in our lives?

A: In what way are they in our lives? If I have an angry boss, I have to be an unhappy employee. The angry boss is only there if I am somebody in relation to that boss. If I’m nobody in relation to that angry boss, the angry boss doesn’t exist. If I walk into your workplace, and your boss is angry at you, I don’t experience the same thing because I don’t have a role in that. Your baby crying doesn’t affect me the same way as my baby crying, because I don’t have the identity. So if emptiness is the absence of identity, it’s also the absence of the difficulty that comes with identity. It’s not the absence of life. Life is still going on, but that’s the undiscovered life.

Q: So then the emptiness can be described as the absence of a “me” that’s involved at the ego level?

A: It could be, but that would be filling the emptiness with some idea.

Q: If I have an angry boss and I want to relate intelligently to him, why is being in a state of emptiness advantageous?

A: There’s no advantage. The word advantage suggests a position in a strategy. An angry boss cannot be angry in an empty space. The boss has to be angry about something, presumably about you, the employee. You have to take that role to experience that anger.

Q: And if I’m detached from that role, then I can respond intelligently to it and it’s not a catastrophe?

A: I don’t think it’s a formula like that. If you’re detached from that role, you probably won’t be in that role. The fact is, you’re attached to that role. You think you’re an employee. You think that you’re being subjected to an angry boss so you’re in a lot of difficulty. That’ s where you actually are.

Q: Well, I do work there, so I identify myself as an employee.

A: Turn it into a question. Why do I work here? What am I doing here? That question will shatter the framework in which you exist in relation to an angry boss. You work there. Why? Because you enjoy the work, you hate the work, you’re making money. Why are you making money? To pay the mortgage. Why are you paying the mortgage? To have the house. Why do you have the house? To support the kids. It goes on and on. If you follow that question through your whole life, you may not need to be in relation to an angry boss.

Q: So in that emptiness we don’t identify with who we think we are. We are able to be objective.

A: The danger of the way you’re putting this is that you’re creating the idea of being unidentified, and now emptiness is an idea. The fact of our life is that we are identified. Emptiness is something that we don’t know anything about. Now from the identified state we say we want to know about emptiness, but the identified state cannot know about emptiness, it can only know about where it actually is. I’m not suggesting that you create another possibility in your life, I’m suggesting that you consider what you are living, the actuality of where you are, and see its true nature.

Q: In your book, you first introduced the concept of doing nothing as the discovery of psychological conflict. Don’t we want to do something to end this conflict and if attempting to end such conflict, are we really entrenching it in our reality as you suggest?

A: Who’s the doer? You suggest that one should do something. You have this entrenched psychological condition, whatever it is. You’re angry at your wife all of the time because she doesn’t do the dishes. You come up with a program of what to do. You count to ten before you get angry. You say your mantra. You meditate fifteen minutes in the morning. You sit down with your wife and talk about childhood experiences. These are all “doing” things. But, who is the doer? What is the entity that is trying to correct its behavior? Where does that action actually come from? Isn’t the action coming from the same bundle of memories that is the problem? The challenge isn’t coming up with a course of action, the challenge is understanding the nature of the doer.

Q: So a solution can’t be reached by doing something, it’s just perpetuating more of the same, perhaps in a different form?

A: The action of doing is a movement out of the actuality. It’s projecting a future where things will be better and it’s coming up with a mental plan to get from where I am to where I want to be. That’s not what life actually is. Life doesn’t follow a plan of where I am and where I want to be. Life is what it is. The movement to change into what I want to be is the movement away from the actuality and because of this we never experience where we are. We can’t even understand the nature of the problem. We’re too busy mentally projecting where we want to be.

Q: Referring to the example about wife never doing the dishes so I’m angry. What is the dynamic in that of doing nothing? How do you see that as a intelligent approach?

A: What if you don’t take any action whatsoever?

Q: Then I’ll end up doing the dishes all of the time.

A: No, that’s an action. I am now presently in my kitchen, I’m seething with anger. There’s no action. What happens? If there’s no action, there’s only anger. There’s no wife, no object of the anger. There is no causality, no rational that because she didn’t do the dishes, therefore I’m angry. There’s no doer. There’s no holder of the anger — that is, the “me” isn’t there. There’s only anger. What is possible now is understanding the nature of anger. The nature of anger is not causal. It’s not because of my wife. It doesn’t originate in me because there’s no “me.” It’s not from my childhood. It’s not from experience. Anger simply exists in nothing, out of nothing, as energy. I am using clever language here, but the possibility is for anyone to see the nature of this for themselves, by doing nothing.

Q: But, it’s still painful to the experiencer?

A: You’d have to find that out. The reaction to the anger is indeed mentalized as pain. But find that out for yourself, directly, by taking no action, no remediation of that direct experience of anger and see what its quality is. You may not find that it’s painful. If anger doesn’t have a creator or a recipient, it has a different quality. Of course you have to be willing to not get the dishes done. The problem is that most of us are so wrapped up in being productive. You have to be willing to stop, not get the dishes done, not get anything done and maybe end up sitting on the kitchen floor with your anger. Few people want to do that. So, they blame it on the wife or their parents. They blame it on an unhappy childhood or their stressful day at work.

Q: Why do you claim enlightenment as a myth? How do you view historically enlightened people? Are they charlatans?

A: I think that the whole thing is mythic. The historic figures are mythic. The individuals who claim these states are mythic. They probably believe in the myth. I think that these teachers become absorbed in those myths. Those myths are powerful communication tools and so they’re very useful in terms of communication, of building organizations and the whole material aspect of spiritual teaching.

Q: Do you think then that there is an enlightened state?

A: What would that be?

Q: Perhaps an understanding of the thought process and the ego.

A: And what would that person have that you don’t have?

Q: Perhaps a life free of psychological pain and conflict. Perhaps the ability to go into ecstatic states of divine bliss.

A: You can do that by taking Thorazine. So is that person enlightened? If you have a frontal lobotomy, are you enlightened? You’re now in an ecstatic state, you have no problems. People even come and feed you. Are you enlightened? What is enlightenment? This is what I would suggest in regards to somebody who claims to be enlightened: take them out of their context and see what happens.

Q: Out of their environment, their followers, their teachings?

A: Yes. Put them in a convenience store in New York City on the night shift for twelve hours and then see what happens. I don’t think for these teachers that enlightenment exists outside the context of the group, the theology, the belief system. If you’re inside that, it’s an enlightened state, but that enlightened state exists only with the agreement of the two hundred followers or the two thousand followers or the hundred million followers.

Q: And do you equate this scenario with the historically enlightened people?

A: We know a little about the historic figures but there’s not sufficient information to say anything, really. There are scholars who get together and talk about this but what they’re really talking about are fragments of parchments containing stories by disciples of somebody who may or may not have existed. So that’s useful if you are very interested in that particular religion and that particular individual who was supposed to have started that religion. It doesn’t really tell us much about the state of mind of that particular individual. These figures don’t exist historically, they exist in terms of archetypal representations of certain qualities. Jesus represents an embodiment of compassionate love or Buddha may represent non-attachment. This is symbology or mythology.

Q: The fact that their words have lasted all the years — does that speak to anything?

A: If you come back ten thousand years from now there will still be Styrofoam containers with the McDonald’s logo printed on them. Does that give it substance? I think religion tells us something about the human psyche.

Q: That it held on to such teachings for so long?

A: Yes. That the human mind wants a belief system. It wants to have mythic figures. It wants to divide itself from its own potential by projecting a God figure. That potential exists in each of us in this moment. We decide not to accept that because we want our cars, our houses, our stereos, our computers and the rest of it. That what we’re drawn to.

Q: You suggest that the various modes of spiritual practice are irrelevant to the discovery of ultimate truth. Yet these have been used for thousands of years. What practice do you see as valuable in aiding us in the discovery of ultimate truth?

A: There’s no practice that is going to aid us in the discovery of ultimate truth. If you understand that enlightenment is a myth then what practice would you undertake to get enlightened? If the place isn’t there, then how do you get there? The value of these practices is that you can understand certain amounts of technical information about how your mind works and how your body works. That’s as interesting as learning about architecture or mathematics or art history but it doesn’t result in enlightenment. You can be a master of how the mind works. There are people who are masters of how the mind works. But if you are deluded by your sense of self you will simply use that mastery of mind to manipulate people.

Q: So obviously you don’t see any value in petitionary prayer?

A: There is no value in petitionary prayer as a means to becoming enlightened. Does it bring a person temporary relief from pressures that they may be experiencing? Does it calm them? Does it make them feel better? Does it give them a sense of doing something? Probably.

Q: So there’s some relative value to the practitioner?

A: Yes, there’s some relative value to everything. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist. We do things because we believe there is some connection between “doing” and getting some place. We repeat those patterns. We pray to God that the lightning doesn’t strike our house. The lightning doesn’t strike our house. We say, “Hmm, that worked. I think I’ll pray tomorrow.” So we pray tomorrow. “Please don’t let the lightning strike the house.” We do that over and over and the lightning doesn’t strike. It works and then five years later lightning does strike our house. Now we have to come up with an explanation, and theology is born. Those who can explain why the lightning did strike become the priests. The causality of our action, the result of our action is the thing that has to be questioned.

Q: What religion was practiced in your home when you were growing up and how were you influenced by it?

A: I was raised in a Quaker household. Quakers have very little ritual in their belief systems. But Quakers have a great love for Jews and Catholics. If you go to Quaker retreat centers you’ll always find priests, nuns and rabbis. Maybe the Quakers are attracted to the ritual and the ritualistic religions are looking for the simplicity of the Quakers. When I was a child, I was exposed to the work of Martin Buber and Thomas Merton through the Quakers at Pendle Hill. So the Quakers are an interesting bunch of people, very nice people and generally trying hard to be kind and loving. What I learned from being raised as a Quaker was that even as a child I could sit quietly in a Quaker meeting, and ultimately, that I wasn’t a Quaker. I wasn’t a Quaker because I wasn’t a Christian, because trying to be loving wasn’t the same as finding the root of my fear and because even though Quakerism was founded by an ecstatic mystic, I found neither ecstasy nor mysticism in Quakerism.

Q: Do you incorporate any rituals or traditions in your home with your family now?

A: Only in trying to keep some sort of integration with the culture in which we live. For example, Christmas is not particularly meaningful to me, but I don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. With children, that would be pointless anyway. For them it exists because it is all around them.

Q: You have two young children. In relation to your work and in observing them, what have you understood about the development of personality, ego, conditioning and habits?

A: One of our children was born to us, so with him I have seen the extent to which biology seems to unfold specific cognitive and developmental stages. It is too early to say with him whether the way that we interact with him will in some way ease his expression in life. Sometimes it looks like biology, the embedded memory of the genes and cells, is the director and the mind is off in its conceptual fantasy that it — the mind — is running the show. It can look a lot like the sociobiologist’s view — that the body exists for the delivery of the genetic matter to the next generation and not a whole lot more. The meeting of mind and body and the development of the sense of separation and all its aberrations is to me the cutting edge of the exploration of life.

Our other child is adopted, so here we have a whole different exploration, which is about the inherent relationship you discover in particular individuals in your life. This child came into our life with a background, a viewpoint, no biological or cultural connection and with a quality really unlike any child I have come across in our culture. Why did this meeting take place, go deep and touch such love? Why isn’t every relationship like this? Why do we have the capacity to love each other and yet we don’t?

Q: There is so much of the conditioned past inherent in the parent/child relationship — perhaps this is why the relationship is often strained. How do we heal and enhance these relationships?

A: Drop the idea of parent and child when it no longer applies. Parents control their children as if that were parenting. We have a function to care for and protect the child, not condition the child to respond to us in a particular way. Education is not indoctrination, it is freedom to pursue what interests a child. Rebellion grows from the perception of hypocrisy. Responsibility is natural to a child, if the child is given choices and understands the consequences for himself and the impact on those around. To me the healing and the enhancement of any relationship is to recognize the bare actuality of what it is and what we are in the relationship. The resistance to this actuality and the conceptual fog that is the expression of that resistance is the conflict.

Q: How do you relate to your wife within the historical male/female roles? What happens to these roles if we examine our lives with the intensity you are suggesting?

A: Let’s relate to each other as we are, not as a role, as a male or a female, as a wife or husband. Why is it necessary to have this kind of patterned behavior? We have seen that it doesn’t work. My wife is neither “mine” nor a “wife.” She is not under my control, nor is she owned by me. Our relationship is not designed to exclude the rest of the world and we interact vigorously with anyone who is interested. I am interested in relationship with the whole and in that respect, the reality is that there is no relationship with anything, because there is no center to have that relationship. I would certainly not define myself then by a marriage or a nuclear family, or even an extended family, community or any variation of grouping. I am interested in relationship — total relationship — with each person I meet.

What happens when we look at our relationships with intensity? We lose the security of the known pattern. This inherent insecurity in the relationship, this freedom of expression, is the only hope for any relationship.

Q: Do you personally believe in some form of intelligence behind the evolution of life and the existence of the universe?

A: I don’t believe in belief. If you want to take on a belief system, then you could take on, for example, the Christian Creationist belief. You would have to make a jump of faith at the point of creation which is to say, you have to go from ” I don’t know” to “I believe.” Likewise, if you go into the scientific paradigm, you have to make a similar leap from “I don’t know” to “I believe.” “I don’t know how the universe began but I believe that there was a Big Bang.” There is no difference between God created the universe and the Big Bang created the universe. In both cases you have to make that leap from “I don’t know,” which is authentic and actual, to “I believe.”

Q: So belief is not rooted in the authentic and actual?

A: Right. Belief is rooted in the discomfort with not knowing. I would prefer to explore that state of “I don’t know” and see what that is than to short circuit that by overlaying an idea of any sort.

Q: No matter now noble?

A: The thing about noble ideas is that they’re noble only in a certain context. It was very noble for the Crusaders to head off to Jerusalem to conquer the Muslims. Except if you were a Muslim. Then it wasn’t noble. If you were a Muslim, it was noble to fight the Crusaders.

Q: What has been your experience over the years as you’ve share your work with others?

A: It’s a difficult kind of exploration. It’s very challenging to question one’s life. There’s not some thing that should come out of this, that through whatever expression I have that somebody should hear it and do something with it or become something from it. I find that as I explore my own life, it is important to communicate with those around me. I don’t need to change anybody and I don’t need anybody to respond in any particular way.

Q: What moves you to reach out and communicate?

A: Communication is an inherent quality in life because it presents the actual interconnectedness of life. It’s a manifestation of that interconnectedness. It’s not really my communicating to you, it’s really our manifestation of our interconnectedness. That is why the form that seems most natural to me is that of dialog rather than one of a teaching. I am decidedly not teaching anything to anyone.

Q: Do you have any full time students who are engaged with you in an ongoing and intimate way? Do you even offer this?

A: I don’t offer anything and I don’t teach anyone. There isn’t anything to teach. There isn’t anything to do about being, we are already doing it. The recognition of that, the acceptance of the full responsibility of our lives and the relationship to everything is the very nature of this being. That is not the end point of a spiritual search, that is the beginning of the inquiry into the nature of life.

Isn’t life about communion and communication? For me this means contact with the world around me and the expression of my perception. I have books out. I give talks around the country. I meet with individuals. We have a non-profit organization which works with destitute children. There is some consideration now of setting up a residential community.

Anyone who is interested in this life of intensity is welcome to share it, find an expression in their relationship to me. But this is not a requirement or a necessity and I can hardly see why anyone would do so. I am promising absolutely nothing.

Q: You note that we are living in a fragmented world. Do you see any hope for the human race or will we eventually implode and destroy ourselves?

A: Hope isn’t particularly necessary. Hope is a projection of some different state than what we’re in now. I think it would be much more useful to understand where we are, than to speculate on whether or not there’s some other place that we could be. The qualities that are expressed right now in the human condition are clearly painful and destructive. Whether we have the capacity for any other kind of expression — for love — requires that each of us understand where we actually are. Let’s begin here, where we are.