The following interview with Steven Harrison has been excerpted from a study investigating the crucial dimensions of sustained transcendent experiences conducted by Sunny Massad for a PhD thesis.
Sunny Massad: Can you speak briefly about your perception of the sustained transcendent experience as it is described in the written material before you? We’re making a distinction here between people who have had a taste of the transcendent experience and then people who are in the taste, who don’t necessarily fluctuate in and out of it, which I’m calling the sustained transcendent experience. So, I’m asking you for your perception of the sustained transcendent experience.
Steven Harrison: I think that the general notion of the sustained transcendent experience is a construction. For example, I could have a brain tumor, as did one of your interviewees, or maybe you didn’t interview her, SuzanneSegal.
I used her biographical material.
SH: Well, there’s a very interesting case there where she had what appeared to be sustained transcendence and later it was obvious that she also had a brain tumor. Now, did the transcendence create the tumor? That is, the vehicle, the physical body couldn’t handle the movement of that energy? Or did the tumor create the change and the perception? Are we talking about abnormal brain chemistry? Abnormal brain structure? Or something which is other than the physicality of the brain? So, to me, when we’re talking about this, we’re really talking about a construction that we’re agreeing upon, which is that there is a thing called transcendent experience which is other than life experience. And I’m going to suggest that that construction can be deconstructed, leaving us simply with the as-is-ness of life. Now, maybe we’re talking about the same thing, and maybe we’re not. But to me, what I would call the sustained transcendent experience would be the collapse of all the construction of all of our experience into the as-is-ness of life; the actuality of life. In that respect, you and I, and all God’s children are the same. We’re all in it, and of it, and we’ll always be in and of it. All the time. The only difference would be whether you and I construct a story around that. And if you construct the story that you’re not in it,and of it, but you’re outside of it trying to get to it, then your world will be that. And if I construct the story that I’m not in and of it, I’m beyond it, then that’s going to be my story. If I can convince you I’m beyond it and you’re not in it, then you’re going to come to me as a student, and I’ll be your teacher.
Well, there’s one other option, I think. How about those who construct the story that they are aware of it, but they in fact, actually are not. It’s only a mental idea.
SH: You can construct that story but then you have to face that story. By the nature of that explanation it turns on itself. And you’re really leftwith a deconstructed state where you can’tproduce a new story and that’s what I would say is the perspective in whichI am speaking from. And that would be the fundamental disbelief in belief;a fundamental perception in the way that we construct our stories. And notbeing particularly interested in cultivating stories as a location in my life. I’m trying to communicate that.
Can you relate your experience to Maslow’s Attributes of Transcendence(listed below)?
SH: Let me comment on each aspect as you have numbered them:
1) The perception of a loss of self:
I have searched long and hard for a self and haven’t found it anywhere. It appears to not be lost, rather to never have been there to begin with. There is the concept of self which occurs as part of every thought– thiscontinues to occur when thought does but is transparent as thought.
2) The fusion with reality observed:
Has more of an undulating quality, otherwise communication would be impossible. Perhaps this undulation is the difference between the mysticand the madman — as a trained psychologist you are better positioned todecide which I am.
This is the most striking and obvious attribute, which is the collapse into a unitary world where there is only one thing happening. It would seem that we all share this attribute, but that the nature of thought (which projects multiplicity) often veils the obvious fact of oneness.
4) Integration of the self with the nonself:
I have no sense of a self with a non-self or seeing anything that was hidden or any transition from something to something else. How would I know if such occurred? This is not to say that such did not occur, simply that there is no knowing of this occurring.
5) A revelation:
Sorry, no revelation. That would be a great story to tell, but who would be telling it, the before-revelation-me or the after-revelation-me? You are on the list of first people to tell if there ever is one, however.
6) The event itself is experienced as bliss.
No event. Have had bliss. I think I had bliss, at least once. At least I have the memory of having bliss. Does this count? I think I maybe failing miserably as the subject of this study.
7) The event itself is transient:
Yes. This one I definitely, absolutely, without qualification can say yes to. Every experience is transient, so the event, or non-event is definitely transient.
8) An illumination or insight remains:
This seems to be the case.
Sunny Massad: Okay, now, for lack of a better term, I’m calling it an experience, but I’m with you on your description. So, now I have to ask you, have you had such an experience?
SH: I’ve had much better experiences. Unfortunately, the nature ofexperience has become obvious to me, in which case, the value of experience as a description of life, has really disintegrated. And this is simply because there’s a way that experience is constructed. If you look at what experience actually is, it’s really the quality of thought, of the function of thought, to capture what has occurred and to try to predict the future through that modality, which is really useful when you’re crossing the street. You know, the truck iscoming, I’ve crossed that street before and I know I can’t get across before the truck comes or I’ll get splattered. That experience is very useful. But the experience of the expansion of self into God and the dissolution of the identity, that experience is description which now I am driven to either sustain or to reproduce. That is perhaps the most subtle trap of the mind. I can’t tell you how many people are looking for the experience they had in 1973 in Nepal when they dropped acid and they saw God. The rest of their life is looking for that experience, as if that experience is the only one that they’re thinking about. The very nature of the experience that we’re talking about, is thatit’s outside of experience. It’s outside of mind. It’s not capturable by a mechanical process. It can’t be reproduced. And the short answer toyour question, is, “No, I haven’t had such an experience, because such an experience doesn’t exist.”
Oh. This is going to be difficult.
SH: We can just can the interview and just have a conversation and you can find someone that will be more cooperative! (both laugh).
Well, let me ask you this, then. Was this perception related to a particular event?
It evolved through time?
It always was?
SH: No. And see this is the interesting thing. There’s always this attempt, both inside, and in communication, to locate these things at a point in time. And once it’s in time, it’s in process. And then you can say, “Okay, this is what led up to it and this is how you can do it.” The fact is, that what we’retalking about is outside of time. And being outside of time is outside ofthat whole historic context. When you go into that transcendent experience, or non-experience, it isoutside of any of the events that you can catalogue in your life. Outsideof the center, the self, the ideas…it’s not in any of that stuff and soyou can’t locate it anywhere. And,actually, if you read carefully, in some of the descriptions of this,you’ll find that that is actually implied or stated outright – that whenthe individual says, “Okay, at this time I met this person and thishappened, and when I dropped into that stateI dropped out of that whole context. Well, why do you need to bring thecontext into it if we’re not in that context? The whole point of that isthat the context that we’re creating is the illusion. And so for me tosay, “oh yes, in 1974, I walked intothis little village, he tapped me on the head, and then I dropped out ofthat whole context in which I discovered that quality had always been thereand would always be. Well, if it always has been, then there’s nopoint.
Except that you’re identifying that there was a point of discovery.
SH: In that description I would be, yes. But that would be false. That would be false that there was a point of discovery? SH: Right. I would be capturing that which is outside of time, and outsideof thought, in the context of thought. This is somewhat tangential, but maybe itwill put a point to this. There’s an interesting thing about a well-known guru that I’ve come to know, which is that he had an enlightenment experience which was very specific. It was a time and place, and this thing happened. And some years later, 10 or15 years later, he met his guru. And, in meeting his guru, he understood that that transcendentalexperience came out of the meeting with his guru 15 years later. So, that’s kind of like twisting time,where time doesn’t reallyhave a sequential operation. So that is all I would say about that. There isn’t any event in my life, in my experience, that I could say had anything to do with anything.
Several of the people in this study describe everythingfrom what might sound to a traditional psychologist like psychotic episodesto psychic phenomena. And, of course, I’ve only got 8 people in the study,but there seems to be some kind of correlation there, and you tapped on it slightly in your book Doing Nothing when you mentioned that there was a very fine line betweenwhat is considered healthy or normal and…
SH: The mystic and the madman.
SH: I consider myself to be both.
So you’re walking the line are you?
SH: I’ve fallen over both sides of the line. (laughs). It is the same thing, really, because in both cases you understand thatthe construction of reality is simply an agreed upon construction. But inone case, in the mystic, there’s the capacity to communicate that. And inthe madman, the capacity to communicate has broken down through some kind of separation. And that’s theonly difference.
So, the terminology just doesn’t work to talk to you but I’m going to use it anyway…
SH: No, it does work, because it actually outlines what I’m trying to communicate.
Could you tell if someone else is in a mystic or madman state?
SH: Generally the only thing you can tell about another person is what you project.
SH: And if you’re not projecting then you are the other person, and then you have direct contact. But you’re also all people at that point. So I think the very idea that there’s this discreet location which has a different state than the other discreet locations around it, is kind of a structural error. Because it’s not really the way life is. Life isn’t really located in me separatefrom you. And if it is, if I’ve structured it in that way through my thought and my concepts, then whenI meet you, I meet only my ideas of you. And so if I say, “oh yes, she has the 52 attributes of enlightenment,” that’s because I read a book on how totell that. And so yeah, you’re enlightened by my criterion. But if that’s not there, then I’m not meeting you, life is simply bubbling up in these wave-like forms and thencrashing back into itself. So, if that’s enlightenment, great. But Idon’t think the ocean of life considersitself enlightened. It’s just the ocean of life. (laughs)
Very good. Very well put. You sort of answered this, but I have to ask itanyway so that I can get it into the tape and transcript. Many seekers areaspiring toward having such an experience. Can a sustained transcendentexperience be prepared for?
SH: Because the preparation is coming through taking on a kind of a belief system. And the practice always has with it an end result. You know, I sit on my cushion and I will experience the following things. And thosethings are always described in theliterature, by the teacher, by the system, by the philosophy and lo and behold, we experience those things as we were promised, simply because weconstruct them. And, if we have difficulty constructing them, it takes us a long time sitting on a cushionbefore we construct the experience we’re supposed to have. So if whatwe’re talking about is something which is not constructed by thought, thenhow could you possibly prepare? And what would that preparation be? The only thing that I could say you could do, is, as the book goes, you could do nothing. You would be amazed at what people have done with that phrase.You know, people are attempting to make that into a system.
Well, because then they think that they are doing something.
SH: Right. So in that respect, there’s nothing you can do to prepare and,if in fact, you can do nothing, then, in fact, you’ve prepared. If you can completely disengage the idea of getting somewhere without that becoming a new somewhere to get, and without taking that language and making a new system out of it… You know, we have these amazingly fertile minds that are technologically adept at constructing all kinds of wonderful mechanisms in our world. They can build superhighways and jet airplanes and systems of enlightenment.And, no, there’s no way to prepare for anything. If I knew a way, I would certainly share it with you.
SH: And I would be following it very carefully. (laughs)
Thank you. (laughs) So, that leads me to a question that’s not on the interview schedule but I’m compelled to ask it – about gurus who may or may not actually know this, yet instruct their disciples to go ahead and do something anyway. Do you have a hit on what motivates that?
SH: Well, I think that a lot of people who position themselves as gurus are having experiences and that experience that they’re having is attractive to other people. You know, the experience of no thought, or not thinking, or bliss, or any number of these kinds of experiences are attractive, and given the overlay that they have come to their experience through, that is, their teaching, their background, their own teacher, they have a conditioning about what they think they’re supposed to do with that in relation to other people. And some of them are clearlyinterested in power. They have these experiences, they know how to get to them in their own structure, their own brain cells, and perhaps know how to transmit them even. If I’m Steven Spielberg and I can show you amovie and take you to a distant planet, make you feel all kinds of things,you will give me the things that give me power, like money. So then that is kind of a gross form of that same kind of teaching. But if I’m a teacher who can sit there and makeyou feel happy, you’ll give me a lot. So it’s a lack of integration in the individual whose positioning himself as a teacher and clearly people can have all kinds ofexperiences and not put it all together. Alot of the Eastern teachers come over to this country and they’re not ready for the kind of culture we have here. They’re culture bound. You know, where women in the East may keep themselves hidden, and in America they’re flouncing around with all their body parts showing. It just blows the teachers away. They still have the ability to sit down very still and project certain qualities, but they’re not socially integrated.
So, from that perspective, is there anything anyone can do to become integrated?
SH: My perspective is that we’re already integrated. And that the doing process, and not the doing in terms of functional, practical doing, but the psychological doing, the getting, the grasping for spirituality, for enlightenment, for all this stuff –that’s the problem, that’s the issue! The natural state is already integrated. So, no, there’s nothing to do.
The terminology is getting more and more difficult, but in plain language,if a seeker hangs around with someone who is no longer seeking, there is aline of thought that says, “this can be advantageous for my own awakening, for getting out of my own way.” And when I asked the question if there’s anything anyone can do to prepare, you unequivocally answered “no.” And so, all of this hangingaround and being in the presence of, etc. isn’t going to…
SH: It’s pathetic projection.
SH: It really is. If you’re going to hang around, hang around for one minute. And find out, is what you have transmittable to me, and can you do it now? And if the answer is yes, then, get transmitted to…I’m always open to that, actually. People will often say to me, “oh, this guy or that guy…” And I’ll say, “Well, great.Let’s go there and let’s get transmitted.” Beam me up Scotty, or whatever, just do it, and I’ll acknowledge it if there’s something there that actually occurs, but I want to do it with witnesses and I don’t want to be hypnotized, no tricks, lights on …
So, if somebody asked you “can you do that to me?” What would you say to them?
SH: I would say, “Do what to you?Who are you? What do you want? Have a cup of tea, settle down, relax. What are you looking for?” And then what I’m looking for becomes the expression of the projection. You know, thestate. Most people want a state of no thought. You can surgecally damage the frontal lobe of your brain, you won’t worry about anything anymore, no thought, but is that really what you want? Do you want brain damage? Or you can sit on a cushion and you can focus your thoughts into one little areaof your mind so that everything else becomes inert and damaged, do you want that? Is that what we’re really looking for? Or do we want actually to find full contact with the actuality of life? Well, if that’s what we want, we’re already there.Everybody’s already there. If that person wants that, then to me, they alreadyhave it.
Even if they are not aware that they have it?
SH: They have full contact with the as-isness of their life, even if that is what we have named unconsciousness or resistance. These ideas are after all recent inventions.
And yet there are some people who seem to be suffering more than others.And if we look at their suffering, we might see that there’s some sort of resistance happening on their part.
SH: Yeah, suffering is a very difficult thing to understand what exactly it is, because sometimes it looks like suffering is actually the process ofchange in that life, and the resistance to it is the sense of difficulty.But there’s an awful lot of people who say they are happy where it appears that they’re actually suffering. And this wholequestion of, when you’re at the dentist, and you’ve got the pain killer,and they’re drilling your tooth, you know, is pain occurring? Just becauseyou can’t feel it – would you want to feel the pain and know that there’s damage happening to your tooth?Whether psychological suffering is full contact with the movement of your life, or whether it’s actually something which is bad, negative, somethingwe should relieve, is not that clear to me.
Can you talk a little bit about power?
SH: Spirituality is about power. It’s basically a fear based construction. And while we like to think of it as a more positive kind of thing, people are terrified. We’re afraid of death and we want to have a confirmed story that it’s not the case; that we go on, that there’s something more. And one of the ways through that is to convince yourself you have the power to change that. And so when you get into these very, very subtle areas ofmind, you can begin to see how you can literally construct reality. You can alter the nature of the way things are. And that starts to look very close to being able to escape death because if I can move reality, then I can move death. So,spirituality has to do with that. Now, it may not be that you individually are going to get that, but you’re going to find somebody who’s got that. You’re going to take yourself with them.
Now, your books states that at one phase of your life you had the insight that you were chasing power. And then, when you had that insight youstopped doing that…
SH: No, I wouldn’t say that! (both laugh)
Well, then, what would you say?
SH: I wish that were true. That would make a really good story. You know, there was that one guy that I met and then he would tap me on the head and take my desire for power, and then at that moment power dropped away and then I became a far better person. No, I think that basically that whole construct of power and escape from death and control over the world and all that, that is created each time thought arises. That’s the very nature of thought. Thought takes the universe, which is whole, divides it into two or more things, right? And then thought begins to model how I’m going to survive. Thought tells us what each thing is. Can I move through that without getting hurt, destroyed, annihilated? And that very arising of thought is the arising of fear, is the arising of division.
And so, looking at it from the other side, then, it would be fair to say that you’re still motivated by fear?
SH: I’m motivated by the same things you’re motivated by. The very construction of a self, of me, which is what thought does – every timethought arises the macro thought wrapping around that is the thought of Iam, me, my thought. The very arising of that is the arising of fear. That’s the human condition. And again, if I were to say to you, well, yes, I’m free of that, but you’re not, thenwhere’s that boundary? Where is it that I’m free? The fact is we are allin this thingin one whole movement. And part of that movement, and we’re going to jumpahead to this world peace question, but the whole movement of this is: isthere some way that thought can construct itself, which is not fear based?We have this amazing tool, which distinguishes us from the other species, and this amazing ability to makea technological approach to life. Can that be done in a way which iswhole? Or can it only be done in a divided way? Now, that’s a question.I have no answer to that question. But that seems to be the challenge that we have. Not “how do I fixthought,” that’s a different thing. Or how do I transcend thought, or howdo I become free of thought? But what’s the actual function of this tool that we have?
Which then leads us to this final question.
SH: Thank God! (both laugh)
Are sustained transcendent experiences related to globalchange, world peace, or a larger significance than personal transformation?
SH: Well, in the respect of what we were just saying, only in not giving significance to those kinds of individual experiences. Really requiring,or demanding, that what we are calling transcendent experiences are, in fact,global. And if they’re not global than they’re individual. And if they’reindividual, then they’re divided. And if they’re divided they’re the conflict we see in our world today, the structuring of our ideation aroundindividuals. And if it’s my individual transcendental experience, it’s still an individual…
Well, let me just ask you then, if it happened to a small population? A very small population, just a handful of people. Will it have any effect larger than on that one individual?
SH: I think that there’s a possibility, on a technological level, that a small population could actually demonstrate or model another way of living .But even if that doesn’t transmit anything technologically, that is thatthere’s nothing to learn from that, that’s what that small population has to do. For example, I’m involved in creating schools right now, and communities. It’s not necessarily to communicate that possibility to anybody else but it will do that. So howthat occurs, and whether that community, that school, can actually occur,or whether it just doesn’t have enough mass of perception, if you will, to occur, I don’t know. Somewhere, there’s a receptivity or a response to that. And so I think it’s the same thing in all the forms that we’re, each of us, creating, is that that can only occur when there’s a large receptivity to that or it won’t happen. Because it’s not divided. My alternative community is not really mine. It’s really the experiment of life itself. And your thesis is not your thesis, it’s some kind of collective movement To me the expression for each of us has to do with our relationship to the world around us.