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May 2019 / More

Convictions & Concerns

TAT members share their personal convictions and/or concerns

Life Is like a Flame

Life is like a flame. It's going to go out, isn't it … possibly unexpectedly, as happened with the actress Natasha Richardson. She was taking ski lessons on the bunny slope at Mt. Tremblant, in Quebec, and took a spill. Falling down on a bunny slope would be about like falling over when you're standing still. She got up, laughed, and refused medical attention. Back in the hotel a few hours later, she developed a splitting headache, was rushed to the hospital, and was dead within a couple days.

We find ourselves between two voids. Where were you before birth? Where will you be after death? And there's no guarantee that death either will bring oblivion (if that's your preference) or it won't (if that's what you'd prefer).

You may be thinking, "I'm not afraid of death … just the suffering that might precede it." If that's the case, is pride then what's keeping you from facing your mortality?

Before awakening we sleepwalk through life, dreaming life. What if the dream ends before we awake?

Where do you hear the voice that's speaking to you? You have to turn your attention around momentarily to see where you hear it, don't you … to the vast unknown within. That vast unknown within is the doorway to your essential being. And the path to it is one of increasing unknowing. The knowing mind is like a clenched fist. The unknowing mind is like an open hand … an open doorway.

Going through most doorways, the knower remains much as it was. Going through the doorway to your essential nature, the known and the knower remain behind.

You are that which is aware. Agree? Disagree?

What is aware? (What are you?) Your belief in what you are probably lies somewhere between "this body-mind" and "this aware, featureless something." Here's the final rub: You can't picture or conceive of not being a separate something, but you can't see that separate something you believe yourself to be, either. You're seemingly stuck in the land of not-seeing-is-believing. Like the unchained prisoners in Plato's allegorical cave, you're hypnotized by the flickerings on the "cave wall" of the mind, which you take for reality. Those flickerings come and go … and, believing you're like what you see, you're tormented by your own assumed flickering.

The path to self-realization climbs that slope of our anxiety. "The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time" (attributed to Mark Twain). What does it take to live that way?

Life is a prolonged funeral for the self. Death is a goodbye kiss of the self we love the most. "Obey & Appease" is the story of life at the command of desires and fears. Nirvana is liberation from that life, from the story of the self.

What do you want? (Really want.)

If you tell yourself: "I don't know," are you ignoring the feeling—want is a feeling that something's lacking or missing; a longing or yearning for a vaguely remembered perfection—or unable to translate it into an answer? If you tell yourself: "It changes," "it varies," or "there are conflicting wants," have you not admitted what you really want because you're afraid it might eliminate other goodies, or maybe you're afraid of having hope smashed because what you want is unreachable? Suppose there were no constraints….

Chuck Norris wrote in The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems: "At heart, we all want the same thing, whether we call it 'enlightenment,' 'happiness' or 'love.' Too many people spend their lives waiting for that something to arrive—and that's not the Zen way. Zen is always on the side of action…."

That, too, I believe (i.e., that "at heart, we all want the same thing"). We're all responding to the deepest level of desire that we can conceive of to fill the want. What makes the most sense to me is a Zen-like approach, and, as Norris says, that: "Zen is always on the side of action." But what is true action?

Richard Rose laid out a Zen-like dharma in his personal teaching, his public talks, and his writing. In one of his unpublished communications he described the path as "subjective, subtractive, immanent, and designed for immediate changing and becoming." Let’s look at each of those characteristics in turn.


I came across a story, in The Myth of Alzheimer's by Whitehouse & George, relating how Socrates was sitting near the gates of Athens and was interrupted in his thinking by two travelers. Each said he was considering a move to Athens and wanted to know what kind of city it was. The first man gave a negative description of the city he was coming from, and Socrates told him he would find the same in Athens. The second man gave a glowing review of his hometown, and Socrates likewise told him he would find the same in Athens.

Experience is subjective, isn't it. In fact, all experience takes the form of objects in our consciousness. We are the viewer, not the view—or you could say that the viewer is closer to what we really are than the view. We are the unknown subject in the subject-object equation.

If self-discovery were an objective process, we could find the truth in a book, or in our thoughts or our dreams. Neurologists search for the self by studying the brains of "other subjects" (i.e., objects). The Dana Foundation's January '09 "Brain in the News" newsletter contained excerpts from an article "In Search of the God Neuron" by neuroscientist Steven Rose (no relation to Richard Rose as far as I know) printed in the December 27, 2008 London Guardian. He cited that of the 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) in the human cortex and 100 trillion connections between them (synapses), brain researchers could find no general command center. Instead, multiple, bidirectional pathways connect all regions of the brain.

Jonah Lehrer, in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, cited a study by Nobel laureate Richard Axel, whose lab "engineered a fruit fly with a glowing brain, each of its neurons like a little neon light" in order to study how the fruit fly was able to distinguish odors. Axel's conclusion: "No matter how high we get in the fly brain when we map this sensory circuit, the question remains: who in the fly brain is looking down? Who reads the olfactory map? This is our profound and basic problem."

The scientists are trying to study a subjective field (the mind) by an objective process (brain activity as sensory data). It's not going to work. The Great Undertaking is to go within by looking within for that subject. We don't learn the truth about what we are; we become It.


You have two apples … take away one, and there's one remaining. That's subtraction, right? Now what if you take away the last one? There's a void of apples remaining. Which is bad if you're hungry. But if you have a headache and it's taken away, you're left with a void of headaches, which is good.

When you look back at what you're looking out from, you may glimpse (intuit, sense, feel, etc.) a void … a void of things, which scares you. But all things are ultimately headaches, if for no other reason than they're transient.

The scientific path to relative truth is through 1) recording objective observations, 2) constructing a theory that explains the observed phenomena, and then 3) devising tests to see if the theory holds up in all possible cases. Science or theory progresses by accommodating more and more observed facts. The path to absolute truth or self-realization, however, works by a process of elimination.

Unlike objective science, mind science begins with an assumption that (to state it facetiously): "I'm all that and a bag of chips." As we go within, our assumption progresses to "well, I'm all that (excluding the bag of chips)," then to "maybe I'm not all that after all," and so on. More specifically, we start with a set of beliefs like: "I'm a body with a great, if underappreciated, personality and limitless abilities."

Ramana Maharshi related how, at age 17, he blew right by his identification with the body. He said he was on his way home from school one day, became overwhelmed by the fear of death, went to his room, lay down on the floor, and determined to find out what would remain when he died. He said he realized that "I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit." That's a sticky conclusion, however. It may be true, but it has to be more than an emotional or intellectual belief. Many people believe themselves to be a deathless spirit as a way to avoid facing death. And many people like the western popularizers of advaita vedanta may have stopped with a conceptual appreciation of nondualism.

We can tentatively conclude we're not the observable body … the fingers and toes, and so on. But we have to concede that our consciousness may depend on body parts that we don't observe (i.e., the brain and its supporting equipment). We can come to see that we're not our thoughts, not our feelings, not the mental processes such as decision-making … which are all observable objects or operations. But we're still left with the conviction of being a separate being, an aware something; still stuck with a split between what we are and what we know. Are you satisfied to live and die that way?

Looking back on your path to self-realization, you may see certain milestones you couldn't see at the time. I'd describe those markers in terms of three stages and three gates of becoming.

Gate #1 is an intuitive recognition: "Aha … the answers are within." This could be labeled the disciples' gate. Of the hundreds and hundreds of people whom Jesus or Gautama talked to, maybe one in a thousand picked up on their message. Jesus apparently had 72 disciples, Gautama 80.

Gate #2 is the intuitive realization: "Aha … I'm still connected to my source." It could be called the apostles' gate. Maybe one in six of the disciples can act in the Zen sense. Jesus reportedly had 12 apostles, Gautama 11 bhikkhus.

When we reach the determination than we can no longer rely on second-hand beliefs: "I won't run away or procrastinate any longer … I have to see/know for myself—now—what I am," we've passed through Gate #3. I'd call it the millionaires' gate. Maybe 1 in a million seekers persist to that point.

In the first stage of becoming, we identify with a personality: "I'm a person who…." Personality is a mask that, as the years add on, reflects more clearly our character traits and dispositions. In the second stage, we identify with the individuality sense behind the mask: "I am a separate awareness." At some point during this stage we become an egoless vector aimed at the truth; we continue working, but we're no longer working for ourselves. The third and final stage is that of Being, of self-realization. Our illusory self-definitions have vanished.

To recognize Truth/Self, we need to look for it, first noticing what we're looking at, and then determining if it's what we're looking for. If not, we move on (subtraction). Triangulation over a set of opposites is the process by which we back into Truth. Disillusionment is the path. Living life and pursuing Truth are not mutually exclusive endeavors. We live a life aimed at finding the truth about that life.


There are three words that sound much alike but have different meanings. Eminent means prominent, distinguished. Eminent is what you want to be. Imminent means pending, about to happen. Imminent is what you want to avoid or want to happen, depending on whether you think it's something bad or good. Immanent means inherent, within. In philosophy, the transcendentalist might say that God is above or beyond the material universe, whereas the immanentalist might say that God is within. Immanent is what you are, where you are.

Ramana Maharshi told his listeners that there are two paths to liberation: self-inquiry and submission. He advised self-inquirers to ask the question "Who am I?" once and then to let the mind remain quiet so that a true reply can emerge. He said the reply would come "as a current of awareness in the heart, fitful at first and only achieved by intense effort, but gradually increasing in power and constancy … until finally the ego disappears and the certitude of pure Consciousness remains" (in the preface to The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, Arthur Osborne, editor). My impression is that Douglas Harding shared the same philosophy, although he developed specific exercises to help the Western mind do the work.

Ramana said that those who are less competent meditate on their identity with the Self. Wasn't that Nisargadatta's technique?

"My guru, before he died, told me: Believe me, you are the Supreme Reality. Don't doubt my words, don't disbelieve me. I am telling you the truth—act on it. I could not forget his words and by not forgetting—I have realized" (I Am That: Dialogues of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj).

Ramana also said, to those who didn't fancy self-inquiry: "Submit to me and I will strike down the mind." I think most of his disciples followed that devotional path.

Existence is holographic. The world you experience, both outside and inside, is like a holographic projection … a flickering picture show that you find so fascinating you've (almost) completely forgotten what you are. An interesting characteristic of holograms is that any piece of them contains the entire picture, although when projected it won't have all the detail (i.e., it won't have enough pixels per inch to be sharp and clear).

What you're looking for is always right behind you. If you were a hologram, where would behind you be?

The Self is closer than your breath or heartbeat, closer than your thoughts or your feelings, closer than your sense of I-amness. What could possibly separate you from what you are? The Self always IS itself. "Seeing that" (i.e., realizing it) is knowing by becoming.

Huang Po referred to the treasure house within as the place of precious things: "That which is called the Place of Precious Things is the real Mind, the original Buddha-Essence, the treasure of our own real Nature." When asked where it is, he said: "It is a place to which no directions can be given…. All we can say is that it is close by" (The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, translated by John Blofeld).

The mind-self is hypnotized by what it's experiencing and in love with (identified with) faulty self-beliefs. As Richard Rose wrote in a poem beginning with "I come to you as a man selling air" in the endpaper of Profound Writings, East & West: "Beyond the mind is a golden find" (see the Dec. 2017 TAT Forum).

Designed for Immediate Changing and Becoming

Becoming consciously aware of what we are results from a discontinuity. There is no separate self that becomes aware of itself. We recognize what we always have been. Ramana's awakening took around 45 minutes at age 16 (if his memory was somewhat accurate decades later when he described it to Arthur Osborne) and Harding's took 44 years at age 77 (in my judgment) … but they both experienced ego death.

If you were on your deathbed—which probably seems remote, BUT do you know how many people have died in the past hour? The CIA website gives a worldwide death rate of 8.33 per thousand per year, which works out to more than 7,300 per hour, or about 2 every second—and you were conscious, non-demented, and non-dopey from sedatives and pain-killers (unlikely) … and if you felt you had some unfinished business with yourself, you'd probably want your family and friends to give you some private time to be with yourself, by yourself, right?

Seneca, the Roman philosopher-statesman, advised that: "Every day … should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives."

Do you feel as if you have unfinished business with yourself? If so, does it make sense to wait for an optimal deathbed scenario? Meditation in a way is like clearing the room of attendees so that you can get down to business with yourself, by yourself, for and about yourself.

If you go to the root of any problem, that's where the solution is. The problem of life is death … the sting of the scorpion, as Nisargadatta called it: we believe we are something that was born and is going to die. (It's not true, by the way. Why do you believe it?)

We're distracted by endless sub-problems, but they all go back to a common root. Conscious dying is the moment of truth, and, as Douglas Harding wrote: "The art of living is to anticipate that moment, to die before one dies, to cease postponing one's death." One of the chapter headings in The Little Book of Life and Death quotes the following exchange between a Zen master and a student:

Zen Master Tung-shan: I show the Truth to living beings.
Monk: What are they like then?
Tung-shan: No longer living beings.

That's immediate becoming.

Conclusion: The End of Procrastination

Are you looking for the path, or the way, to more adventure, or are you looking for the doorway to the island of peace and perfection? That doorway is always right behind you. That doorway is always open.

The light coming from behind you strobes 40 times per second (from what I recall that Robert Pollack wrote in The Missing Moment about the electrical impulses sweeping the brain), giving you a glimpse of the shadows flickering on the screen in front of you—the inner and outer drama of self and world. At any of those instants you can step out of that "moving vehicle" of strobing light and return to the Great Perfection of no self and no other.

Harding reminds us that every day is one day closer to the moment when we will be "whisked out of life—perhaps with no warning at all. Into what?" he asks. "Is there a more pressing, more crucial question?" And he adds, "Is it possible to do something now, first to ensure survival, and second to influence its quality and ensure that it's worthwhile and preferable to annihilation?"

Buddha's deathbed advice was to stop relying on second-hand beliefs about this most personal of all issues – "be a lamp unto yourself" in someone's translation—and not to dillydally about it ("Work out your liberation with diligence").

Harding said that, in the face of death, he saw his main job was "to approach myself from a variety of angles, to keep coming back to the question of my true and present identity … and be with full awareness what I already am. And that should reveal—almost as a side-issue—how permanent I am."

How do you know if you're procrastinating what might be the most important job for you to tackle? If you haven't gotten serious about the question "What do you know for sure?" you're procrastinating the search for what you want. Telling yourself, "I'm not acting because I don't know what to do or how to do it," is procrastination. (Nobody knows how or what to do when it comes to this biggest of all issues.) Trying to figure out why you do things that interfere with what's important to you is procrastination. Trying to figure out how you can become disciplined, for example, is procrastination—in values clarification (what's really important to you?) or in other action. Depression, hopelessness, and giving up are great forms of procrastination. Telling yourself there's something else you need to do first is procrastination. And so on, ad nauseum.

Omar Khayyam (in The Rubaiyat) recognized in retrospect how he'd procrastinated:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.

Success depends on finally looking for yourself. Stop taking in other people's laundry (beliefs) and do your own (question your beliefs).

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success, cited a study of the violin and piano students at the Berlin Academy of Music. What surprised the investigating team was that they found no "naturals" who floated to the top with less practice than their peers. Nor did they find any "grinds" who worked harder than anyone else yet didn't have what it takes to break into the top ranks. What distinguished one performer from another was how hard they worked … with those at the top working much, much harder.

"Does Our Brain Have a Switch that Makes Everyone an Einstein?" That was the title of an article in the Nov. 16, 2008 Sunday Times (London), about something that had occurred in Montana back in 1949. Wag Dodge and his firefighting crew found themselves cut off by a wildfire, with a wall of flame was coming toward them at 30 MPH. They had been struggling for some time to find an escape route, but the situation was finally hopeless. Dodge apparently accepted that fact, gave up, and had a moment of relaxation … and then had a eureka experience. He took a match out of his pocket, set fire to the grass in front of him, stepped into the cleared space, covered his face and pressed himself into the ground so that he could breathe the thin layer of air beneath the smoke cloud. The fire rushed over him and he survived. The other 13 members of his crew either hadn't heard his order to do the same or couldn't act. They all died.

There's a test—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test (TIMSS)—given to elementary and junior high students in countries around the world every four years, and the participating countries are ranked in terms of the students' overall performance. There's a preliminary questionnaire with about 120 personal questions that's tedious, and many students leave ten or two of them blank. Somebody had the inspiration to rank the countries by completeness of their students' questionnaires. And what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS (schoolinfosystem.org)? They are exactly the same, country for country down the list!

Is there a success formula lurking in those three stories?

Referring to being with full awareness what we already are, Alfred Pulyan, a Zen master who worked through the mail, wrote to Richard Rose: "There is only one way & that is to quit the egocentric position." (And he pointed out that we can't "do" it, since it would be like deciding not to decide.) But "God [the necessary lever] will not come for you in a wheelbarrow. So face it! Either you get nowhere while you live or you do it the hard way. No 'royal' road!!!"

A friend sent me a blog article "Act of Faith" by Jim Atkinson. He describes himself as a recovering alcoholic of fifteen years and cites a controversy (in the 12-step groups, I guess) about whether a spiritual awakening is needed for success in that process. He was skeptical about it initially but says now, after a decade and a half of sobriety, he does believe so. He sees in retrospect that overcoming his addiction involved "a certain tectonic shift in the psyche that had nothing to do with willpower or common sense." His conclusion includes this realization: "Ironically, it was the willingness to do anything to sober up—a most pragmatic strategy—that was the linchpin of my spiritual leap of faith."

Is such a leap of faith, a tectonic shift based on something other than willpower or common sense, necessary for a spiritual awakening? Is your pride preventing a leap of faith?


~ From a 2009 presentation by longtime TAT member and Richard Rose student Art Ticknor. Comments or questions? Please email the .

Return to the main page of the May 2019 TAT Forum.


TAT Foundation News

It's all about "ladder work" – helping and being helped

Downloadable/rental versions of the Mister Rose video and of April TAT talks Remembering Your True Desire:

"You don't know anything until you know Everything...."

Mister Rose is an intimate look at a West Virginia native many people called a Zen Master because of the depth of his wisdom and the spiritual system he conveyed to his students. Profound and profane, Richard Rose was not the kind of man most people picture when they think of mystics or spiritual teachers. Yet, he was the truest of teachers, one who had "been there," one who had the cataclysmic experience of spiritual enlightenment.

Filmed in the spring of 1991, the extraordinary documentary follows Mr. Rose from a radio interview, to a university lecture and back to his farm, as he talks about his experience, his philosophy and the details of his life.

Whether you find him charming or offensive, fatherly or fearsome, you will not forget him, and never again will you think about yourself, reality, or life after death in quite the same way.

3+ hours total. Rent or buy at tatfoundation.vhx.tv/.

2012 April TAT Meeting – Remembering Your True Desire

Includes all the speakers from the April 2012 TAT meeting: Art Ticknor, Bob Fergeson, Shawn Nevins and Heather Saunders.

1) Remembering Your True Desire ... and Acting on It, by Art Ticknor
Spiritual action is like diving for the Pearl beyond Price. What do you do when you don't know what to do or how to do it? An informal discussion centered around the question: "What prevents effective spiritual action?"

2) Swimming in the Inner Ocean: Trips to the Beach, by Bob Fergeson
A discussion of the varied ways we can use in order to hear the voice of our inner ocean, the heart of our true desires.

3) A Wider and Wilder Vision, by Shawn Nevins
Notes on assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives that bind and free us.

4) Make Your Whole Life a Prayer, by Heather Saunders
An intriguing look into a feeling-oriented approach to life.

5+ hours total. Rent or buy at tatfoundation.vhx.tv/.

Return to the main page of the May 2019 TAT Forum.



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