June 15th, 2003 – We converse with Steven Harrison in the library of the Ambassade Hotel during his first visit to Holland. Steven is the author of the books Doing Nothing, Being One, The Happy Child, The Question to Life’s Answers and Getting to Where You Are: A Life of Meditation (published by Sentient Publications), and father of three children.
‘I sought enlightenment, I studied the world’s philosophies and religions. I sought out every mystic, seer and magician I could find throughout the word. I meditated in the Himalayas. Nothing brought enlightenment. Do nothing.’ (Steven Harrison in Doing Nothing)
He is a razor sharp analyst who in his vision tries to point out the impasse of Non-Duality. Maybe the prelude for a term like ‘post spirituality’ or post non-duality’?
Amigo: When you say that existence has a direction, has a purpose that is being created now, there are two points of view: ‘Be careful what you create’, or ‘Let creation create itself’.
Steven: Creation is creating itself.
A: With what purpose or direction?
S: Well, we can look back and try to suggest a purpose, but we can’t really know the purpose because it is unfolding now and the implications are so vast. The instrument that we would use to measure it, our mind, isn’t big enough. It can only look at objects and distinguish between a glass and a table. It doesn’t have anything to measure life by, life is too vast. We only know it’s direction in moments when the mind is silent, and in that, there is a flow that’s apprehended and we can call it consciousness but that’s not it either. So here we are in that flow and label ourselves as a glass, a table, a speaker, a listener, a journalist, but I don’t know what I am.
S: Yeah, or an author… we can call ourselves anything we wish, or we can try to speak through and from that flow, try to capture it on a piece of paper. To me that’s the challenge, to find the form, the expression of that in my life and not in a book, or in words or an interview. The transformation in the contact of the unlimited with form.
A: While reading your book (‘The question to life’s answers’) I noticed that you have discovered and use your own authentic words like: ‘exploration’, ‘passion, ‘amazement’, ‘description, describer’. Is there a drive in you to find an authentic way of telling, of talking?
S: Well, I think that’s what’s left over when you take apart what you’ve heard, what you know and what you’ve been told. What’s left is left to express. Now I am sitting here with you, and am in contact with what is occurring right now. How can whatever I learned yesterday with this master, or that book or that philosophy going to help me? So, I have to throw all that out for this to be alive and current. So it has to be invented right now. We may find out that the universe is dual, and that the goddess Kali needs to be worshipped because she is about to destroy us. So, suppose you find that out, are you then prepared for that, for the appearance of the goddess? Or are you ‘wedded’ to the non-dual? If the goddess presents herself will you worship her because she will cut your head off if you don’t? So, are you prepared to give up what you know?
A: I don’t know?
S: Neither do I, and that’s all we can find every single moment.
A: Yesterday in the meeting you said something remarkable: fear causes resistance to non-existence. That seems to be a pointer. Fear as the driving force, a creating movement in what is, it is creating what is, while commonly fear is seen as something negative. You turned it around.
S: We can feel that the consequences of fear: the holding on, the clinging, the going back, the referencing, is caused by a reaction to the vitality of this moment. What we call fear is the interpretation of that energetic movement. That is interpreted by the mind as annihilation. But if that interpretation is abandoned, then fear is just energy. The same energy that is flowing through life, non-dual. The goddess dies in that. Only the mind sees the goddess as a goddesS: as fear, as Kali. The form of energy and the interpretation of that is energy and is what it is!
We live in the unknown as the unknown
A: You have to go to the brink of non-existence and then amazement comes back into life because every moment is new again. Somewhere you wrote: ‘We live in the unknown as the unknown’. That means that you know nothing and everything is new. Everything is created in this moment. I discover for example that my mind is pasting the word ‘table’ to this… Isn’t it a miracle?
S: But the mind also tries to interpret that. Everything is a miracle. Even the mind creating a fragment called a table that is not the whole, that’s pretty amazing! We sit in a vast energy field in which we can carve out little bits, on which we can sit.
So even the mind is mysterious in how it works and what it is. So even the part we think we understand is a deepening mystery.
That which appeared to be real was not
A: Was there a happening that caused you to begin writing?
A: In your book you write something about your history, that you have been to India…
S: Yeah and I have been to Indianapolis, Indiana too… (laughing)
A: Was there a moment when the seeker or the seeking left?
S: You see, what I call myself and what I was, was always more than one thing. It depends on to whom I am talking. So, if I am talking to my mother, I am a son. If I talk to an employer I am the worker. If I talk to someone who is doing yoga, I am a Yogi. So what story shall I tell? This is a spirituality magazine, so I’ll tell the spiritual story…
A: No, I want to hear what you have to say.
S: There is no such thing as seeker, there is just someone who is fearful, who wants power, who wants control, who believes that through some knowledge it can find some place in the universe.
A: But when did you discover what you are talking about right now?
S: I have always known this. When I was a year and a half I almost died, I stopped breathing, see this scar (points to his neck). So that was the discovery, or maybe it was birth. Somewhere in that first one and a half years. But I don’t remember any of it, so how can I talk about it? Probably something happened that suggested that what appeared to be real was not real. Reality had something unreal about it, that is the mystery.
If you look at your own life, wasn’t there ever a time when reality was so concrete, so clear to you that you said there is no mystery, this (knocks on table) is a table, this is a chair, I am me, you are you… In that sense we all know the question: what is real, since our very first breath. Because, with the first inhalation we also had to give the breath back again (exhalation), and then we needed another breath. We sit in this interchange and so definitely in the body. We are not autonomous. Everyone calls our name and we feel that and respond.
All is the expression of life
A: Somewhere along the line arises the assumption that there is a focal point, which we call a personality or an ‘I’, and then a seeking can appear, or do you not wish to call it seeking?
S: Seeking always takes place, and the personality has built itself up by means of biology, through the suggestions of the parentS: ‘you are such a good boy’, ‘that was good, and that was wrong’, and so on. A personality with; an aggressive nature, a shy nature, male or female. That’s all there is. But the question: what is real, is there also, and that question is part of everyone’s package. We are all seekers, and the question is in fact not a question, it is knowing that what looks to be real, really isn’t so. So we are seekers and finders at the same time, and the edifice of the personality is a sort of information that we use to express that knowledge. So you have become a journalist who reports about these matters and I have become an author. It is all the expression of life. But realization is a complete fiction. Spiritual fiction for good books and lecture tours, or for gathering followers…
A: Why did you start writing?
S: The factual impetus was that I was in Bhod-Gaya (India), waiting for transportation but there were elections and all the means of transportation were shut down and soldiers barricaded all the roads. It was summer, there was no one in town and I had nothing to do. I was sitting there and I had a notebook and a pen, and it occurred to me that I was doing nothing, and in that ‘doing nothing’ was a beautiful ‘space’. There was nothing that I could do; nothing that I wanted to do and I could make anything out of it. So this became a metaphorical expression of the reality of life. So I started writing something and that became ‘Doing Nothing’.
Non-duality, a trap?
A: In your speaking you are appealing to the mind. You use the mind to make it clear that ‘the mind can’t do it’. There are naturally also people who follow their heart; bhakta, how do you see that?
S: Love is a difficult energy for us to handle. It shatters everything. So if there are bhakta there I worship them, bring them on. But if a group of Dutch intellectuals show up then I will express that. That is what then appears.
For that matter, I think the attraction of non-duality is a sort of intellectual clarity. But that isn’t it, it is a trap. Because it stops there, in that intellectual clarity which is just a clarified mind. There is this movement of energy that is so clear and has more to do with a feeling quality. You can’t get to it by thinking. You come there by the total experience of life. That is the Kali experience we were talking about and at that point it is a jump.
A: What would you call the way you talk about it: Non-duality, Advaita Vedanta?
S: I have never been a philosopher or someone who wanted to fit somewhere and I’m learning more here from the journalists than I am from myself. But I see the connection; it is clear that there is no more than one. You can remember more than one thing, but that remembering is also one. That is clear, but what then follows iS: what is life then, what is that? I am not satisfied with ‘well, this is just what there is’ as an answer to that question. And especially because this invites lack of responsibility instead of the taking of total responsibility. If you really see that you are one, then you are also responsible for the whole. And, this is what I see happening with people who just use this as a philosophy instead of living it. Living is complete responsibility for what is, and that is a magical world.
A: So it does seem then that there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’.
S: When we think about it and talk about it and try to use words to refer to it, there is a before and an after. But I don’t think that time exists in the magical world which is the way I see the world. If there is no time, then everything is everything.
A: What is the magical world?
S: We can talk about it, but I’m inviting you to experience it directly right now. So, what’s magical here? Can you touch that? Shall we create world peace right now?
A: … (long silence)… the mind wants to say ‘yes’, but I’m speechless…
S: Yeah, the mind wants to say ‘yes’ but it doesn’t say ‘yes’. The mind can’t say ‘yes’, that’s what I’m saying. What occurs in the magical world is actually seeing our resistance and conditioning. We see things and say: ‘this can’t be’. But, if the mind doesn’t say ‘this can’t be’, then it is so. That is the magical world. So in each of these gatherings, like yesterday, there is human potential. A potential that can make dramatic shifts. World peace is then a fact. But, we resist it, because we say: ‘this can’t, because…. this happens, and that happens, and I happens.’
So, for world peace I have to stop happening. The mind will resist that. That is the magical world, a world that waits…
A: …that waits?
S: Yes, it waits; it pauses, because world peace does not make its appearance in time. So, it is like brushing up against reality, our reality, my reality and the mind that resists that. And, that’s what we call transformation. The question is then: is my life a life of transformation?
A: But isn’t every moment a moment of transformation?
S: That’s right, but we won’t have every moment, we only have this moment. It is dynamic. If you put a dual world into one world, then there is a dynamic, because consciousness in contact with mind is transforming.
That is the fluid universe, which can and will change in whatever form it may be. If we talk about it we divide it into thinking and consciousness. That is how we perceive it.
A: But are not thoughts also consciousness?
S: OK, let me say it another way, consciousness doesn’t exist.
Enlightenment is spiritual entertainment
A: You like to provoke don’t you?
S: Is it provocative?
A: Well, if you look at the titles of your bookS: ‘Do nothing’, ‘the questions to life’s answers’ and statements such aS: enlightenment is a myth?
S: Is the last provocative or just true? I mean unless you have a direct enlightenment-experience that is constant, that you can speak about without its changing, and then if in speaking about it you collect disciples and all the pressures that go with that it still doesn’t change, 24 hours per day, even when you are tired or have jet lag, and it still doesn’t change, then it is true.
A: Is that what you call spiritual entertainment?
S: Yes. I don’t have such an experience. I know nothing about that, and I don’t know anyone who has had that. I do know people who tell that kind of stories, but they have all been followed by scandals. The only people who are constantly in that sort of state are either brain damaged or on drugs.
A: So, then, how do you look upon gurus, masters, sages…
S: …lawyers, accountants, shopkeepers, bus drivers, mothers, fathers… must I go on? (laughter!)
I think these people are ‘inhabited’ by fine people who are doing what they think they need to do based on their identity. This is the human condition.
I was never very interested in the big public gurus. I was more interested in ‘transformers’, and these people don’t appear in public or to great numbers of people. In their case one can speak of an ‘energy-state’. If you don’t feel that kind of electrical current, then all the words, all the lectures, all the cleverness isn’t going to do anything.
A: Yesterday, during the meeting, it was interesting to see how you answer questions with questions and then a very intense dialog follows. It seemed almost as if they were offered to the goddess. Is there an intention behind it? Is it a discovery, or just what is being expressed through you and by you?
S: I think it is both. But, there is also a movement to communion with all beings, is there not? When many people come together, and there is a movement to go deep into that, and to let it find its expression, that is for me the transformation of space. We go deeply into that until we find resistance. That is then explored, because that is what there is. If there is no holding back then whoosh, there we go…
What is difficult iS: ‘why do people come?’ Some come because they are hurting, they have a problem, they are depressed or unhappy. Some come because they have read my books. And, some people come to challenge me, to unmask me as a charlatan.
So people come with all kinds of motivations and initially that is just fine in itself. The people who came for something that wasn’t there will come back.
A: Are you a teacher, and I don’t mean a spiritual teacher?
S: I don’t have a profession. I guess this is a profession, I write and give talks, and I give retreats in the U.S. and Europe.
‘The living school’
A: You have a school where children are taught. Is there a certain ideology behind it?
S: When you speak about it seems to be an ideology. But it came out of having children. If you look at the schools in the American culture, and in your culture also, you see that their goal is not education but conditioning, to break down the individual and to create a person according to a certain model. And that model is exactly what we are trying to get rid off. So, why should we let our children be formed like that? And if we don’t want that, then what? What is the ‘whole’ way to teach a child? How does a ‘whole’ child learn? What is a ‘whole’ child?
These kinds of questions came up, and there were also other parents who were interested and so there was an ongoing dialog. From that came the book: ‘The happy child, changing the heart of education.’ See, ‘the heart’, that is a feeling word, that’s what children do with you. As far as children are concerned you can’t really be analytical. Children bring the heart to the fore and that is a bhakti experience. This is what we have to do when we enter a child’s space.
This is how the school arose, but I would not call that an ideology. I shall tell you which way it seems to be heading. The school is seen as a learning community with children and adults who work, live and learn together. So the school is a part of the community.
A: So there are no formal teachers?
S: No, there is a staff. I will describe the structure, which is always changing, because as a system the school also learns. The school embodies learning. Learning out of its own experience and possibilities. A child has to learn so a curriculum has been set up for that. A number of ideas are presented to them about which they also know at the same time that they are not real. The teachers know that also. In fact that is what we have become, grownups with a certain number of ideas that we know are not real. And then we say: I wonder why I’m unhappy? I wonder why? I’m unhappy because I have this fixed set of ideas, which I know are not true, but from which I am supposed to live. In the meantime the energy swirls around. The central question for the school iS: can the student give direction to that out of their own curiosity and interest? That’s what’s interesting! Interests and curiosity arise at a young age, you learn what you need, what interests you. That forms the education.
Another aspect of it is that the school is organized democratically, so all the individuals have something to contribute, even five year olds. Now, a five year old is not so interested in all the decisions that have to be made. They would rather play outside with a ball, then decide something about the budget. But a twelve year old is more interested, and an eighteen-year will certainly be interested.
Thus we see a diversity of interests, these determine the degree to which one is involved in that democratic process. There is one last characteristic, the school is not closed off from its surroundings, it is a part of the community. So the school is not really a school. Maybe it does have a distinct location, but it doesn’t characterize itself as such.
A: It’s self-teaching and self-organizing where and when necessary.
S: The freedom is to be found in relation to the rest of the community. My freedom is in relation to you. Therefore, not absolute freedom, not freedom in the sense of ‘get out of my way’. In my actions I have to consider who you are. I have the freedom to take action, but I also have the responsibility of seeing where you are in that action.
A: So talking as a parent with two adolescent children, what responsibility do you have?.
S: Adolescents can perfectly well make their own decisions. It depends on the family culture whether you can live with their decisions. For children who are one, two or three years old you are really there as a protector. You create a space in which they can explore and grow. They are a space of love and acceptance.
Five, six and seven year olds are little people who have not yet accumulated wisdom and life experience. For that you can sometimes, but with reservations, give some indications. In a reserved way because they have to have the opportunity to make their own mistakes.
If they then reach adolescence then they relate much more to their friends and detach from their family circumstances. That doesn’t have to happen with anger or protest, but that will certainly happen if you try to hold on to them.
But basically bringing up children is impossible, so just forget it… (laughs)
A: Is a school of your own allowed in the US?
S: Every state has its own laws. Colorado is somewhat more liberal. But the state always has an interest in suppressing this sort of education, so there will always be pressure put on it. But the state is always benefited by stability. The primary goal is after all to bring the individual in line with the collective. In a way that is not so unintelligent, but we see its effects. So, if I get the chance to offer ‘space’ to my children then I take that.
One of the challenges of the school is that the children come not only as children, but as carriers of the contemporary culture, saturated with TV and junk food.
So-called freedom is driven by commercial interests. Every shirt has to have a company logo, 24 hour TV, computer games, internet. This takes us away from the space where exploration and research are possible to where we engage in confrontation. We have to break down the culture more by making it transparent, so that it can see itself. It is already so embedded and becoming more and more so. And, I am naturally not talking about culture in the sense of art or expression, it is a culture aimed at making consumers out of children only to make money, without any intrinsic value to the children. Profits determine culture.
The marketing is directed to minds that are not yet formed. Thus, that is one of the issues for the school. Do we let the children watch TV, go on the internet? We do allow that, but do we allow everything? No! Some places are poisonous; after all you don’t allow your children to play in a toxic waste dump. This question is a challenge to the school.
A: You say that the body-mind has free will because it will always choose the best option in certain circumstances. That is an evolutionary force. Maybe commercialism is the best way to survive?
S: If that were the only issue, but clearly the issue is no longer the survival of the individual but the survival of the collective. That is in direct relation to what we are talking about here. Thinking is to make predictions based on memory and ‘I want to survive’, and for that it is an exceedingly good tool. But, it doesn’t work for ‘how we survive’. That is a different faculty. And if a transformation happens it is from: ‘How do I survive?’ to ‘How do I survive, and how do we survive?’ Both!
A: But, is there a world other than the library where we are now sitting? There is now no Middle- East. So, is it relevant to worry about something that comes out of memory? It’s only actual if I’m there, then I can do something and be concerned about it. Why should I be concerned with something where I cannot be of any meaning? Even the information comes from the television whose point of view is filtered by the people who make TV.
S: We understand that it is all conceptual, but at the same time we can make contact with the same forces; we can find the same division in ourselves and in each other. You and I can find the battlefield and have a fight.
A: Okay, that is then actual and present, I can worry about that. But should I then tell my children that the world is bad and is going to destroy itself? That is so abstract for them and in contrast to their actual reality. I can bury myself in all kinds of worries about how to make the world a better place. But it is better to busy myself with things that are within my actual reach. That seems practical to me.
S: But there are people in Israel who will read this interview via the internet. The internet is everywhere, the human mind is everywhere, and consciousness is everywhere. Everything is everywhere. Where we are is everywhere so we are one.
There is something that has to be lived and then the question is are you ready for that?
A: Are you then not interfering with the flow of life? You interfere in order to create a better life for you and your children. But life will go its own way so you don’t need to change it.
S: Life will go its own way AND I need to change it. They are not opposites. My need to change it: is life. That is the transformation: the whole that touches the fragment, just as consciousness touches the thoughts and changes them. We embody that. I Am responsible because I am life and it has a direction. It is not like this table just standing there. No, it is dynamic. The feeling of destruction that commerce is creating is what is happening, and I am outraged about it. That is also happening, and that is energy.
A: That’s your response to that situation…
S: Yes, and you can go back and probably find a learned condition for why. But it is and remains the response. And I surrender to the wholeness of that given. It happens because it is happening, but you have to add something to that. This is where non-duality gets stuck: ‘things go just as they go, so be it’. This is where passion appears. For example what appears when you speak about your children is passion. Make all children your children, then you live in a passionate universe.
A: But still, I prefer my children over other children.
S: Yes, that’s the biological function that all parents know and have to know for otherwise you will be taking care of all children and your own children will feel abandoned. But such an analytical approach does not address what comes after, life as it is, perfectly in balance and everything just happens. It is all true, AND it is magical and fluid, AND it is energetic, and it is transformational. That’s what is missing. We have gotten so caught up in the pristine beauty of non-duality as a philosophy. We can address everything with non-duality but we can’t live it because living is passionate, involved. And by that I don’t mean passion as an emotion, but passion as energy; the constant confrontation.
A: Is that not an experience?
S: It has nothing to do with experience. Experience has to do with trying to contain things in good and bad, pleasurable and un-pleasurable. It has to do with ‘what is’, which is not static but dynamic. So, take action, undertake something, create! Non-duality takes you along the way of the ‘negative’ and there it is untouchable. You can’t reach truth by the positive way; you have to do that by deconstruction. But after you have deconstructed everything, then what? Is it nothing? Is it something? Or does expression take place and where does it come from? We don’t live it as everything or nothing. We live something else and that is the collision between the not-something and the something, the total with the relative, the fragment with the form.
A: Does it matter if I know that? Seeing the magical in life, doesn’t that happen whether I see it or not?
S: The ‘me’ that is knowing that is the fragment. But what if the ‘me’ that knows it is not the fragment but the whole. You can’t find a whole ‘I’, who doesn’t see it, so you see it. We all see it: the whole.
A: But the assumed me can’t see it?
S: The mind will never know because it only sees a fragment and that is also not relevant. When we talk about: ‘shall I see it’ and I mean by that I, ‘I’ as a fragment of Me, then that is hiding yourself, because we DO see it.
A: Can you imagine that people feel deceived or disillusioned by this message that the mind will never see it?
S: I don’t think people are deceived or disillusioned, they are hiding and conning each other. We tell each other that kind of stories, ‘that we don’t see it and want so much to see it’. That is why teachers (and this is part of the con) make them believe that there is something to learn. There is something that has to be lived and the question is are you ready to live it?
This is striking, that we are in a position to just live.
A: Why are we busy with enlightenment, realization and those sorts of things?
S: I think we are all busy with this question. To me the remarkable people that I have met are not the people who in general are found to be remarkable. Not the people in a comfortable chair in a big space full of people.
A: What made them remarkable to you?
S: Their simultaneous existence and non- existence. The embodiment of form and openness while being at the same time in contact with the stream without becoming crazy. That we can sit here in an energetic state and not as a puddle on the floor and not become crazy. It is not all as obvious at it seems.
The spiritual world suggests that it is special to be in a special state, which we all can and probably have experienced under certain circumstances.
It is not so difficult to be special when you are in front of a room full of people who are all saying ‘he is so special’. You can go to an ashram and sit silently. But that’s not it; it is the collision between the fragment and the whole. That is what is remarkable, that any of us is capable of living.
Do you think Ramana could have raised your children, met the challenges that cross your path every day? How could Ramana have done that?
But what if they put you in Ramana’s chair and people started worshipping you? What would happen to you?
But the remarkable people are the people who just live, that is remarkable! Look at what life is!
A: What is the ultimate question (referring to the title of your book: The questions to life’s answers)?
S: Living? It is not a question of the mind and it is not answered, it is what is very much alive right now, and the good news is we are all immersed in it wherever we may be and whoever we may be. Nothing special and no one who needs to tell you that. No guidance, no teacher, that is the ultimate question and experience it completely…
[interview: Kees Schreuders and Belle Bruins]