Clarifying One’s Essential Identity: An Interview with John Wheeler

Question: I have been studying Dzogchen for the past fifteen years or so. In your book you say that you spent enough time with “Sailor” Bob Adamson such that he was able to bring it all to a direct stop.

John: Yes, you could say that.

Q: I have prepared a few questions. Some of them have been answered since reading your book “Shining in Plain View.” In reading your book it came together more solidly for once. I became really suspicious about the thoughts. My sense is that as long as there is a sense of a perceiver—and until the perceiver dissolves—one is still going to conclude that the false “I” is real. You say that you have to come to a direct realization that the “I” does not exist. That really resonates. But you say that there is a sense of being, a sense of watching. I have all of that happening also, but I tend to call all of that the “I”.

John: Hmmm.

Q: I wonder how much of my confusion is due to semantics based on different traditions.

John: I was acquainted with various non-duality teachings for fifteen or twenty years, primarily through reading and meeting a few Western teachers. When I met “Sailor” Bob I met somebody who had a living teacher, Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta was a highly regarded and acclaimed teacher in the Navnath Sampradaya tradition in Western India. That tradition traces its roots back through nine main teachers to about the 11th century and then all the way back to the mythical guru Dattatreya. Anyway, after a period of years of searching and trying various spiritual approaches, “Sailor” Bob got his questions answered when he met Nisargadatta Maharaj.

For me, meeting “Sailor” Bob was very different from my previous experiences. Sitting down and talking with him really clarified things for me. As a result, I am a firm believer of the importance of such contact. All the traditions say that the essential understanding is not conceptual. It is not mental. It is not an object to be grasped. It is not something that the mind works out. When we read about these pointers in books, it almost invariably gets reformulated back into a concept and turned into something objective. As a result, we tend to miss the essential point. So what Bob’s teacher did for him, and what Bob did for me, was to point out the basics, keeping things very simple, direct and clear. And, of course, this was done in the context of his own direct experience of what he was talking about. This is what I try to do through sharing this also.

Now in Tibetan Buddhism, as far as I am aware, they are always talking about something called intrinsic awareness. That, in my view, is the “whole enchilada,” so to speak. It is the core. In Advaita Vedanta, they have a very similar thing. They refer to it as consciousness or awareness. It gets discussed with its own set of terms. So in trying to appreciate these teachings, the most important thing is to clarify precisely what they are talking about. What are they pointing out for us to understand? These traditions often say that to recognize our nature as this essential awareness is synonymous with freedom. And, conversely, not to be aware of this is the definition of a suffering being under the sway of ignorance. You have been acquainted with these teachings for many years now. Is this part of it clear? Do you understand what is being pointed to by the words awareness, consciousness and so forth?

Q: Yes, what you say is clear. The only difference for me is that when awareness is viewed through the lens of the ego, it becomes consciousness.

John: You could say that. That is very similar to a distinction that Nisargadatta often made. In his dialogues he makes a distinction between consciousness and awareness.

Q: Yes. There is a big difference.

John: Well, it is all words. It depends on what you mean by those. Consciousness, as Nisargadatta uses the term, is a material product that arises when the body is conceived and subsequently dissolves at death. This consciousness (or what we might loosely call “mind”) allows us to conceive thoughts and generate the sense “I am” as a thought or experience. This “I am” sense is dependent on the consciousness/mind, which in turn is dependent on the body. So even the “I am” sense is impermanent. But as Nisargadatta goes on to say, you are still present as that pure awareness that is knowing the arising and setting of that (relative) consciousness. He sometimes asked, “What were you eight days prior to conception?” The questioner might say, “I don’t know.” The reason for this is that the body and the consciousness were not present. There was no instrument to register anything or say anything. Nisargadatta would say, “That in you to which that thought ‘I don’t know’ arises was there. That is what you are.” He sometimes referred to that as pure awareness or pure being. Since it is not an object, it cannot be known objectively. However, it is self-knowing or self-cognizing. You cannot know it as an object, but neither can you deny it because its presence is self-evident. It is the undeniable presence registering even the sense “I am.” You could say it is the pure, wordless presence beyond the sense of “I am.”

Q: One other thing! Clarity is defined very specifically in Dzogchen as “no perceiver.” It is also said that awareness is aware of itself.

John: OK.

Q: However, first consciousness enters rigpa (intrinsic awareness). When consciousness turns into rigpa, the belief in self falls apart. But the perceiver dissolves into vast open expanse, as described by Longchenpa (the thirteenth century Dzogchen master). Then you are simply being in this moment, which is ineffable, undefinable, totally radiant, expansive, luminous—all those things. And there is no sense of a “me.” Longchenpa says, “Rest without reifying an external object, without reifying an internal self.” We are not turning this [pointing to the glass on the table] into a “glass” by defining it conceptually, and we are not turning this [pointing to the heart] into a “perceiver.” These are things that feel intrinsically true about the whole process. However, at this point there is still “me” trying to see it! When I read your book, there was a moment when this conceptualizing all stopped. But then it came back in again.

John: I will just talk about it in my terms. It will be much simpler than the traditional approach. You can approach this from the perspective of philosophical speculation and make a lot of subtle distinctions about things. It is an attempt to articulate what is happening at a very, very subtle level of experience and language. That is all fine. I enjoy that stuff myself to a certain extent. But in terms of getting to the essential point of recognizing who we are and stepping free of suffering, it is actually quite a bit simpler. So let me try to present it as I present it.

Q: OK.

John: All the teachings of non-duality are basically pointing to the presence of something in us to be recognized as our essential nature. So the question—and real point of it all–is: what is this essential nature? The interesting point here is that we are not looking for something that is not present. We are not looking for something in the future. We are not looking for something that is a different state or experience. Not at all. We are starting from the perspective that our true intrinsic nature is already present and always has been. It must be fully present now. To have a clear recognition of this is the heart of everything.

Conversely, to be unclear about our true nature, to be mistaken about what this is and to misconceive who we are is the basic ignorance or misunderstanding. This non-recognition becomes the cause of the subsequent misunderstandings, attachments and confusions. So, I often talk about two aspects. One is pointing out the positive truth of who you are. The other is dissolving the mistaken idea of what you wrongly take yourself to be. These are really the same thing. It is just saying it in two different ways. As Nisargadatta once said, you can push the cart or pull the cart. It does not matter as long as you keep it rolling! As you relinquish the mistaken belief of who you are, what is left remaining is your real nature. On the other hand, if you clarify the truth of who you are, then that understanding dissolves the mistaken ideas. It is just a matter of clarifying one’s essential identity. That is how I view it.

Our true nature is often pointed out as intrinsic or innate awareness. The question is—do we recognize that? Do we see it for ourselves? Do we know ourselves to be that? Let us bring this into the present moment and make this simpler. Right here, right now, as we sit here tonight, can we recognize and acknowledge our essential being and its nature of awareness? Is it emphatically clear, without any doubt at all? If this is unclear, then we are going to misperceive who or what we are. And there will arise a mistaken view of ourselves. We will grasp onto something else—a mistaken sense of “I.”

Right now, in our direct experience, this intrinsic nature must be present. Can we recognize it? Do we know it clearly? It must be here because we are here, our being is present. The way this got pointed out to me was as follows. “Sailor” Bob Adamson had me pause and recognize a couple of things. One was what he called presence, or the sense of being, this simple sense of “I am,” the recognition that you are. He asked me, “Can you sense or do you know that you are present? Is there a sense of being?” Of course, this is undeniable! And he pointed out this sense of awareness by asking, “Are you aware? Are you aware right now of thoughts, feelings and perceptions happening?” This was something that I could recognize. I think that anybody can. Basically, we know as clear as day that we are here and there is awareness present. So the way he introduced this was to point out this undeniable sense of presence-awareness and get us to look at that.

This is really the essence of it. This is what it gets to—to recognize this presence of awareness that is with us right now. This is important because we are often under the impression that this is something very subtle. We imagine that it is hard to see or that something extraordinary has to happen before it will be revealed. What is very interesting about this approach is how simple it is. The presence of awareness is really what these traditions are pointing to as our identity. It is already here. It is very simply evident and known. When you pause and reflect on the fact that you are, you notice that this sense of being is not inert. It is quite vivid. It is quite aware. So this aware presence or presence-awareness, or whatever you want to call it, is crystal clear and completely available. It is very, very simple. The fact that we have not recognized it is where the mistaken identity or false sense of “me” comes from. The point I am making is that, as we sit here, what we truly are is this bare or simple sense of being present and aware. It is nothing more than that.

Now another way to approach this is through discarding all things that I am not. For example, right now we can see thoughts coming up and passing away. We can observe feelings coming up and passing away. It is the same with sensations and perceptions. These different objects just come and go. They are transitory. They do not remain with us for any length of time. So they are not going to be the essence of who we are. If you set those aside and you look to see what is here apart from those things, you find that there is still something present. You still are, and you know that you are. Your presence continues, in spite of the changing appearances. As the thoughts come in and out, there is an awareness of them. When they are there you are aware of them. When they disappear, you are quite aware that they are not there. So that presence of awareness still remains.

The key to recognizing our true nature is to realize that it is one hundred percent absolutely present. The truth is that we can actually recognize it quite easily. The thing that tends to happen is that we have a hard time believing that it is this simple. We think, “This cannot be who we are. This is so obvious. This is too simple. This cannot possibly be what they are talking about.”

Things drastically changed for me through the confirmation from “Sailor” Bob, based on his experience with his teacher and his own lived understanding, that it is that simple. When we pause and recognize the pure sense of being and awareness, this is the direct, absolute, clear, recognition of our intrinsic true nature. This is not a partial, momentary, vague recognition. We are coming face to face with what the non-dual traditions have been pointing out all along. It is very rare that we would ever hear about this or get this pointed out, much less spend any time probing into the meaning of it. Because of the way that we have been conditioned to view things, we typically think “I am this. I am that. I am a body. I am a thought. I am a person. I have certain attributes.” But all of those things are concepts. This immediate awareness that we actually are is not a concept at all. It is not in the mind. You start to see the difference between the idea of what we think ourselves to be and the non-conceptual presence of who we truly are.

The non-dual teachings have been saying all along that we are not in the mind, we are not an image, we are not a construction in thought, we are not something objective. As you start to lock in on that, you start to realize that this is what it has always been about. All of the traditions are basically saying that our true nature is what is real. To recognize this is the whole essence of it. Then one’s view radically changes. It certainly changed for me when I realized that we are not looking for anything that is distant, complicated or hard to understand. Once you get a basic sense of this, you discover some very incredible things about this basic aware presence. There is nothing mundane about it at all.

So recognize for yourself your true nature as that undeniable sense of being, which is both present and aware. Notice that as various thoughts, feelings and perceptions arise and pass your presence does not change. Does this sense of being alter in the slightest? Does it go anywhere? Does it have any variation? Does it come or go? Do you lose it? Understand that in this looking, we are not bringing anything new into the picture at all. We could have looked at this years ago, but we just simply never considered it!

It is important that this recognition of our essential nature is very clear and solid. If this is not clear, the mind will constantly jump back into the conceptualization process, with all of the doubts and questions. This is because the mind is searching to know what is true about ourselves. If the truth of who we are is not clear, it leaves the mind trying to answer those questions by going back into the only place it is familiar with—which is the conceptual process. So it is essential to recognize what we are and allow that to become very, very clear. We have seen our true nature to be that sense of being-awareness. It is already here. It is easily recognized. It is constantly with us and unchanged by appearances.

Q: In deep sleep, I do not have that sense.

John: I suggest becoming familiar with this presently in the waking state. Then the issue of deep sleep will take care of itself. But often what happens is that before we allow ourselves to get familiar with what is being pointed out, we stop the looking by jumping to these edge cases and getting sidetracked in speculation. There is a lot you can see right now. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg! Let’s continue to look into our present true nature. It seems simple but is actually very profound. There is a lot of depth to it.

Do you need to wait for the future to recognize what you are? How many of us have been waiting for something to happen in the future, assuming that somehow the answer lies there? When you realize that this is about your present nature, then you see you do not have to wait for the future. You set aside that concept. Does this recognition involve a path, a practice, a technique or process?

Q: No.

John: It is important to see that. Is there any effort at all involved in being what you are?

Q: Only if you are in a state of fear or suffering.

John: Well, I am asking you right now! Are you making any effort to recognize that you are?

Q: Well, no. But I brought that up because that is one of my main issues.

John: Yet you find that in your direct experience, natural awareness is already present. It is naturally and effortlessly present. It is not a maintenance state. It is not something that you manufacture. It is not something you have to get to or achieve. We often make those assumptions. But when you look in present experience, the assumptions are not valid.

Let us continue with a bit more investigation. Is this innate awareness an object that you see as something apart from yourself ? In other words, in recognizing presence-awareness is it something over there, while you are here? Do you say, “There it is, and here I am”? Is that what you actually see in your experience? Is this innate presence of awareness anything objective at all? Look for yourself. We know it is here. We know we are. We know we are aware. In the recognition of this, is it something that stands apart with characteristics that you can grasp objectively? Is your being a thing? Is it a thought? Is it a particular perception?

Q: I do not experience it as a totality yet. I experience everything in it. But what appears seems to be separate. So I am stuck right there.

John: Let’s not lose the thread of what we are seeing here. We are seeing the fact that, as far as we can tell, presence, which means the sense of being-awareness, is not a thought, experience or object that you grasp hold of. It is not an object and yet, it is undeniably, irrefutably present. It is a very interesting thing, really.

There are a couple more points to consider to drive home the basic recognition of things. Is it that you are one thing and awareness is another thing? Or is it that you are that which is present and aware? Can you make any distinction between awareness and your own presence? We already saw that awareness is not an object. What this really means is that there is actually no separation between our own nature and that which is aware. This point has profound implications, immense implications. The non-dual teachings are saying the nature of reality is this ineffable awareness-presence. And in our immediate experience we discover that this awareness is our identity. It is what we are. We cannot find a separation between ourselves and awareness. It is not that there is you and there is awareness. You find that you ARE that which is aware. You are presence-awareness itself.

Finally, there is one other aspect to mention. The body feels experiences, or the mind has various thoughts and feelings. So naturally the mind might have questions, problems or worries. Those are clearly something that is occurring in the mind. They are thoughts. Or the body might be feeling a pain or some other sensation. But does the presence of awareness actually have those things? Is the awareness itself subject or victim to those appearances? If we grant that psychological suffering is a product of or an appearance in the mind, can we say that the actual awareness itself has any suffering or problems? If you grant that is only the mind that has thoughts and feelings, you can start to recognize something quite interesting. Awareness, which we have seen is what we actually are, has no suffering. It is not limited by it. It is not subject to the states of the body and mind. That leads us to the recognition that intrinsic, innate presence is completely free of any limitation or suffering at all.

Let us review what we have covered so far. We see that that our nature is the simple sense of presence-awareness. It is here, effortlessly recognized. It is not in the future. It is not something we need to produce or maintain. It is not a practice. It is not something objective that we can grasp a hold of. Yet it is utterly undeniable. We can find no separation between ourselves and what is present and aware. Essentially, we are that. While the body and mind experience various states and conditions, awareness itself is innately free. Because this awareness is not objective, it is not in the flow of time. We cannot say it begins, changes or ends. How can something that is not an object be subject to time or change? You begin to realize an incredible possibility that has always been totally present but just overlooked. There is nothing being pointed out that is foreign or difficult to comprehend. It is so innate and present that there is no need to even bring in concepts such as enlightenment, awakening, liberation or any such thing. Those are too crude, too objective. When those concepts are emphasized, people start to think, “When awakening happens, then I will be there. Then I will see this. Then I will know what this is about.” It turns out that to know who you are, you do not need any of that at all. They are useless concepts. They keep people looking away from the simplicity—and profundity—of things. If we were not precisely clear what some of these great traditions were pointing to as our true nature, it is very, very important to hear this and recognize this for yourself.

Now what I find, though, is that many of us have heard stuff like this for a long time. We may have heard about it through books or popular teachers. It was not foreign to me, and I am sure it is not foreign to you either. But the change that occurred for me through my contact with “Sailor” Bob was the vivid recognition of how close, near and available this is. That was not clear to me till then. What I missed was the fact that what is being pointed to is already present in my experience. All the teachers I had met up till then lacked a clear understanding of things because they were overtly or subtly implying that full recognition of who we are is not immediately present. They were not able to point that out. However, that can and will get pointed out directly by someone with a clear and direct understanding. This is what the teachers coming from the non-dual traditions have confirmed from their experience. And you will find that there is nothing beyond this.

At one point, I viewed myself as a seeker who was basically on the hunt for enlightenment, the great future attainment. It got pointed out very quickly that this was all just a concept, that I was looking in the wrong direction. While we are pursuing the state of enlightenment, we are overlooking the fact that everything that is being pointed to is actually already here. In seeing this, we can let that concept go. We can appreciate and relax with an acknowledgement of this already present fact of what we are. “Sailor” Bob was suggesting that we start from the position or the recognition that we already are that. You already know that. It is already attained. Why not begin with this as your baseline, instead of saying, “Where is it? How am I going to get there? I cannot see it. I need to get enlightened.” For most people, this is a radical change of perspective.

Looking in this way allows you to dismantle many other unnecessary concepts. For example, a common notion is that it is a matter of relaxing into our true nature over and over again. We think that somehow this will enable us to get more and more stabilized or closer to it. But even that is a conceptual overlay. It is not necessary.

Q: It is still a perceiver.

John: Yes. We have already seen that it is not that there is you as a separate entity and another thing called presence-awareness. It is nothing like that. We saw that this is what you are. So if you are this awareness and you cannot find a separation, then the notion that I am going to relax into it is purely conceptual. If it is what you are, how can you get out of it? It is totally effortless to be what you already are. Who is going to relax into it? These beliefs and assumptions begin to stand out as conceptual constructs. So talking about relaxing into presence implies that we are not this. But we are this. We should recognize the truth of what we already are.

Once you get this basic thing pointed out, that what we have been seeking is what we already are, you see that there is nothing you are going to do to achieve that or enhance it. Where can you go from there? That is the whole ball game. It is like searching for the North Pole. Once you arrive there, where can you go? Any way you move, you start heading south again. So, full stop! Seeing your actual position, you are not going to move anywhere because that will not get you any closer. Anywhere you try to move is going to be a fall away from that.

From this recognition, you start to realize that what has been hanging us up are the concepts, the mistaken beliefs about who we are. Let us say that I still believe the notion that the goal is distant from me and I need to do something to get there. That is a belief. Based on that, I will assume that I am a separate being, that the true nature is apart from me and that I am progressing towards it. So that “I” thought, which is the notion that I stand as something apart from the intrinsic reality, becomes a solid belief. It gets taken as real. However, the whole conceptual framework is just an appearance of thought arising and setting right in this present awareness. That awareness is already at the goal, and you already are that.

So the whole conceptual framework is misconceived. Yet it will cause suffering. Instead realizing the already present freedom, the mind conceives of a separation. We believe that we are something separate. The sense of limitation comes in and the mind begins to construct a framework of how it is going to achieve oneness. But it is invalid because you are not separate. As these concepts get pointed out, they can be seen and discarded. A weight falls off. Every time you bring up one of these conceptual frameworks, you spot it and the belief drops out of it. The suffering and the bondage wrapped up into that falls off your shoulders.

It is important to understand where the concepts come from, what they are rooted in, and how that mechanism works. Once you see that the concept of a separate self and all the notions that go with it are not valid, you no longer believe them. In not grasping hold of them, where does it leave you? It leaves you naturally and effortlessly in the true nature that you are with no suffering due to belief in false concepts. You are not really gaining anything, but you are simply discarding the concepts that were generating unnecessary, conceptually-based suffering.

In my experience of this, what happened was that the true nature was pointed out and recognized very clearly. But then my doubts, fears and beliefs from the past would arise in the middle of this clear knowing of my identity as awareness. This was distracting and triggered suffering. But then I started to see what was happening. Erroneous concepts based on the view of a limited self, which the mind had picked up from in the past, were appearing, and the energy of belief was going into them. I was assuming those thoughts to be valid statements of myself and taking them seriously. The clear and simple truth of who I am was being overlooked. It was nothing more complicated than this, but in all the years of seeking I had missed this basic point.

The vast majority of seekers out there are not clear on the basic recognition of their true nature. They simply are not. And this even applies to those interested in Buddhism, Zen, Dzogchen, Advaita Vedanta or other modern derivatives of these traditions.

Q: The essential teachings are seldom ever given, even in the Dzogchen community. So most practitioners lack a basic recognition.

John: In my view there are not that many people out there that talking about this in a direct way without mixing in unnecessary concepts. “Sailor” Bob does it. Perhaps there are a few others. The basic points are embedded in the traditions obviously, but when you go out in the current spiritual marketplace, you rarely see this presented clearly.

It is very, very important to have a direct pointing out of your true nature. It is often best to have this pointed out in a face-to-face, live conversation, so that you can hear it, resonate with it, ask questions, and allow it to sink in as your direct experience. It is hard, if not impossible, to read about what I am talking about and make much sense out of it. It is entirely non-conceptual. So if you read a book about presence-awareness, you can come away thinking, “That is an interesting idea. That sounds really incredible. I wish I understood it.” But when the basic point of this clicks in your direct experience and you have a taste of that for yourself, it is a significant turning point. You then know that what is being pointed to is not in books. It is not something special that teachers have. It is not something distant at all. You know that wherever you go, that all that was ever being pointed to is shining in your direct experience as the undeniable sense of being-awareness that is already here. That is what they were always talking about. Now you know! This became clear to me after talking with “Sailor” Bob. Suddenly, the point of it all dawned. After all those years, I knew what they were talking about. It became clear to me what this actually is.

I saw that my doubts, fears, worries and problems would erupt into this recognition of who I am. I did not yet know what was going on. So my sense of suffering was still active. I talked about this with “Sailor” Bob for two or three days. I would be feeling really clear, with a sense that “this is so obvious.” Then something would come up in my mind about work or health. I would get wrapped up in a personal issue or some spiritual concept. Suddenly I would be back into the suffering. That was puzzling for me. Fortunately, I was able to go back and talk about this stuff and get it resolved.

Just as you understand the truth of what you are, you can also understand suffering. You can understand what it is, where it comes from and how it can be resolved. I know very, very few people out there who are clear on this aspect. You meet a lot of people who will tell you, “I know who I am. I am awakened. I know I am consciousness. I am awareness.” And then they say, “But the conditioning and the suffering keeps coming up.” If you ask them what they are going to do about it, they do not have a real answer! They do not know where suffering comes from. They do not know why it arises. We think, “I hope someday its going to work itself out then I will be free.” But that is not really an answer at all. I started to see this in the contemporary spiritual scene. People I had known who had been at it for years and years were still subject to doubts and suffering, even after going to countless satsangs, retreats and so-called “awakened” teachers.

The real answer comes through a clear understanding. Passively waiting for suffering to depart is not sufficient in my view. When I talk about suffering, I refer to the emotional turbulence, doubts, worries, fears, concerns about myself, what people think of me, the feeling of being a separate individual, whatever you can think of that is contrary to this innate sense of peace. I am not referring to bodily pain. That is part of the natural organic intelligence of things. So what we are really dealing with is how to understand and resolve the psychological suffering that is generated by false concepts of who we are. Then you are not going to be a victim of doubts, suffering and worries. You are not going to feel like you are a separate seeker. You are not going to feel that other people know things that you do not know. You are not going to feel that you are missing something. You are not going to be engulfed in black, dark moods any longer. All these kinds of things come from causes which can be addressed. They come from a mistaken view of ourselves, and they can be resolved.

This is done in conjunction with the recognition of the truth of who you are. As that recognition comes to the forefront, it contradicts or eliminates the root cause, that basic mistaken identity. This is completely workable. It absolutely, emphatically gets to the root of it once and for all. Those who say suffering is inevitable or an inherent part of the nature of things are entirely mistaken.

Q: I have been dealing with some physical pain issues.

John: I have dealt with that myself, too.

Q: It appears for you that there is no longer any doubt that there is no separate “I.” Is that true?

John: Yes.

Q: Then when physical pain arises in a real level of intensity, does the awareness stay for you?

John: Definitely, yes. And the reason is very simple. The pain is arising and registered in the awareness, so the awareness does not go anywhere. We already determined that perceptions, feelings and thoughts going through do not disturb, contradict or eliminate the basic presence of awareness. We may not recognize that or note that at some stage because all of our focus and emotional energy goes so much onto the experience. But it does not mean that the being or the awareness literally goes anywhere. The fact of it is that you cannot have those experiences without awareness. They are still occurring as experiences in awareness, aren’t they?

Q: But take the case of someone like Ramana Maharshi. He had cancer in the upper arm which basically ate him until he died. He acknowledged there was great pain, but he also acknowledged that there was no doubt, that the awareness was not affected at all. Right?

John: It was the same with Nisargadatta, “Sailor” Bob’s teacher. He died of a throat cancer that took his life after about three years. He kept teaching and talking right to the very last day. He could hardly talk, and he was still communicating this message right until the last moments of his life. So somehow he was able to go through these experiences.

Q: It appears that he was able to sit there as awareness and simply let things arise in spite of the physical experiences, right?

John: That appeared to be the case.

Q: And it was the same with Ramana Maharshi, right?

John: And it will be the same for you, too! Because the truth of it is that when things come up, whatever they happen to be, you will still be there as that awareness. This we have already seen.

Q: For me right now the pain seems to drive me to such distraction that I stop knowing my nature as awareness.

John: Apparently! But do not bring back in the notion that your nature is something to be perceived as an object that you can gain and lose. You are not a separate entity apart from that awareness and you never will be. So the whole notion that you cannot get back to the awareness or you cannot see it is based on a false assumption. It does not matter what you think. You are that awareness. You will always be that. There is nothing you can do to get away from it. It is not a matter of relaxing into it, focusing on it or obtaining it. That is all conceptual. It is much more basic than that. It is what you are innately and always will be.

So when you really start to get that point, you realize that the idea that you have to get to your true nature is fallacious. The notion that you have to focus, hold your mind in a certain way or pay attention, has nothing to do with this. It is much more basic. All the thoughts, distractions, efforts or any other experiences always appear in this ever-present awareness, which is naturally present with no effort.

Q: Awareness, if free, is free to not even look at the pain. Is this so?

John: Well, there is no need for that. Who we are is not really subject or victim to those experiences. There is no need to maneuver away from it, to embrace it, push it away or anything of the sort. Typically, when we are experiencing pain we think, “This should not be happening to me. I would like to get away from this. This isn’t right.” That kind of relationship with what is appearing starts to fall away. If you are having pain in the body, you are probably going to do something to address it. That is fine at a relative level. But when you look a bit more deeply, you see that there is simply awareness in which things are happening, even a pain in my leg or whatever. The awareness is one thing, the pain is something else. It is an experience.

The other layer that gets in there that confuses things is the conceptual process, the mind’s interpretation of what is going on. It adds unnecessary conceptualizing onto the experience. For example, you think, “I am here feeling pain. This is happening to me. This is not good. It should not be happening. I wish this would stop.” All of that is simply being spun up in the thought process. The awareness does not have those opinions. It is just registering what is. And the pain is just happening. It is an impersonal happening. So this layer of conceptualization is where the problem creeps in. Why? Because your nature of awareness is already free and has no problems. The thoughts, feeling and perceptions that come up are just transitory things that move through this awareness. They do not have any opinion about whether they should be there or not. They are just happening, just doing their thing. So where is the problem? So why introduce a third entity into the equation? Why not be with what is and not identify it as some experience for a self which is not even there! If you do not interpret something through that reference point, then there is not a conceptual position. Everything may appear just like it always has from an outside viewpoint. But with an understanding of the conceptual nature of suffering, the suffering is no longer taken as real. There is no need to introduce that third component in there.

Q: So in your own case I understand that you have had some physical health issues.

John: Yes.

Q: So in that situation, worry does not come up and get you spinning? You do not buy it when it comes up?

John: Mostly it does not come up because I have seen through that. You can see that too. Once you understand that all this suffering, worry and turbulence is being generated at a conceptual level in the mind based on a misunderstanding and that what it is based on is not real, you are done with it. It is all thought based. It depends on giving those beliefs and concepts reality. For example, here is an exaggerated case so you can get a feel for this. If I suddenly realize that this body is deathly ill and is on its way out, and I am told by doctors, “We do not know if you are going to make it or not.” There are a couple of ways of responding to this. The objective fact is that the body is just a mortal creature. It was born and it will eventually pass. This is an objective fact. And the awareness simply registers what appears. It could be a healthy body, a sick body, a young body, an old body or a dying body. From the perspective of awareness it does not have any preference. It does not have a value judgment. It does not say, “Oh, when I look out this should be a young person or a healthy person. It just registers whatever is there. And until there is conceptualization, there is no suffering in any of that. However, imagine I were to say, “I am dying. I am sick. This is happening to me.” Then this would start to bring in this sense of self, the notion that my being or my identity is getting wrapped up with the events.

This would be mistaking the true awareness that I am with this conceptualizing process, which we have already decided is not who I am. The mind is creating a confusion by melding together the sense of our true nature and this conceptual identity. Then you come out with the statement, “Here I am. I am dying.” And suffering arises with that belief. The mind goes into a panic. There is the notion that my being or my identity is ending or that something traumatic is happening to me. The truth is that this is completely erroneous.

This is where you start to see where suffering comes in. Suffering is not given, and it is not natural. It is not part of what is really present, in fact. It is a very specifically constructed mental framework based on an erroneous view of things. So if the mind constructs the notion “I am dying” and believes it, then a certain amount of energy goes into that belief. That is when I start to have psychological suffering. Then the mind will jump to additional concepts, such as “What do I do now? This should not be happening. I have got to change this. Oh my God, I do not want to die. There are so many things I want to do.” At that point you are in a whole cloud of concepts and taking it as quite real. But it is all thought based. It is all springing from the mistaken identification. So this starts to show where suffering comes in.

You start to realize that suffering, as I am defining it, is a creation of the thought process. So “Sailor” Bob makes the comment, “What’s wrong if you are not thinking about it?” It is a way he sums up this whole thing. From this, you start to see some interesting things. For example, a question is a thought. A worry is a thought. A sense of a problem is a thought. Concern about what others are thinking about me is a thought. Worry about what I should do is a thought. Your beliefs and sense of who you are is a collection of thoughts. You suddenly realize that all of these things are created by the conceptual mind. If someone were to come in and wipe all of those thoughts aside, what would be left? Only presence-awareness and possibly some feelings and perceptions passing through, but no personal suffering or conceptualization based on the separate “me” idea. So—aha! The resolution presents itself.

Q: In this case there is just awareness and physical pain. You might not define it as physical pain?

John: Yes, you might not even do that. Even labeling it as physical pain is actually a thought construct. You may find that the actual physical pain is not quite as intense as the mind makes it up to be. You can see this for example in the case of an injury or accident. For the most part, the body usually deals with it. If the mind jumps on it and really starts amplifying it, building it up and expanding it, then the psychological trouble is often more traumatic than the physical situation.

What we are getting to here is the understanding of where suffering comes from. To see that suffering is a creation of thought is very important because if you are going to get to the cause, you have to understand how it works. A lot of people think that suffering is based on external events. But they are entirely misperceiving where it is coming from. So how can they ever really get to the root of it?

So suffering is a product of thought for the most part. When you look closely at those thoughts, you notice that the ones that really grab us are the ones that are talking about our sense of self or personal identity. If I am sitting here and I am thinking any random thought, such as “The moon is shining tonight.” Well, for most of us, so what? There is not much of a reaction. It is just a passing thought. But if a thought comes in that says, “I am no good” or “Somebody does not like me” or “I am going to die” or whatever it might be, then things get stickier. What is actually happening when such thoughts come up is that they start to define me. They say something about me and who I am. Looking in this way gives us a more accurate view of what this suffering really is. “Sailor” Bob pointed this out to me once. He defined suffering as self-centered thinking. In other words, the thoughts concerning my identity or sense of “me” are the ones that really get us stuck.

If you tell me you think there is something wrong with you, there is not much of a reaction here. But if I think there is something wrong with me, then …. “Wait, wait, wait a minute!” (laughing). I do not like that at all! Why don’t I like that? Because it is an incorrect statement of who I truly am. So when you trace the suffering down to the next level, you see these thoughts are about the self. If you are observant, you start to see a pattern to all of this. It is not that there is just “a” pain in the body. Rather, it is that “I” am in pain, or “I” have got this pain, or “I” do not like this pain. So these thoughts get referenced to a sense of self, an idea of self. You realize it is not just the thoughts that are the problem. It is the way that they reference the sense of “I.” This root notion of “I” is described in different ways, either as the ego sense, the separate self, the “I”-thought or the separate person. However you wish to describe it, it is the core of this whole mechanism. It is what all the self-centered concepts seem to be referring to.

All of the identifications attach to this core belief. The reason they are troublesome is because that core belief is taken as valid, when in fact it is completely erroneous.

If you tell me, “John, you are a blue elephant.” I would not believe that for a second. I would not take that seriously. I do not associate that concept as who I am. That notion is very patently false. I do not believe it or identify with it at all. And, as a consequence, it does not trouble me in the least. A concept only troubles you when you take it on board and believe it. Without believing it, it is powerless. So in order to believe and suffer under a concept, such as “I am not enlightened,” you must have the intermediate step of taking the “I”-thought as valid. You have to have the “I” that is not enlightened or whatever the identification happens to be. This understanding allows us to get to the roots of this very directly. Instead of picking off all the possible thoughts and beliefs that we have picked up over the years, we can take this to the core and realize that there is a lynch pin holding all of this together. If you knock out the root cause, the belief in the “I,” then there is nowhere for any other identifications to take hold. Nothing attaches anymore. This shows that it is possible to expose the core of the belief and resolve the whole network of suffering conclusively.

It is important to see where all the concepts and beliefs came from. It is all just stuff that we picked up over the years because we did not know any better. The notion of being a limited, separate “I” gets picked up in the mind at a young age. It is not questioned. It is assumed to be real. From there, we start believing in a lot of things that are attached to the sense of self. People tell us a lot of things. “You are a body. You are a good boy. You are a student. You are this, that and the other.” All these things are basically just conceptual definitions, right? When we become spiritual seekers we start identifying with a lot of spiritual beliefs, such as “I am a spiritual person. I am a Buddhist. I am on the path to enlightenment.” But the truth is that you are not on a path at all. That is a total construct. It is all still definitions of a seemingly separate entity. Only now you have a new set of definitions. You are a seeker after enlightenment. Those notions generate just as much suffering as experienced by any so-called non-spiritual person. At the core of it is the notion that I am not whole and complete. I am separate. There is something apart from me. I am not there yet. I am not good enough. Hopefully something is going to fix me. You are still completely locked into this conceptual framework. Spiritual seekers may or may not be ready to question some of these spiritual concepts. But they are still part of the same mechanism. Your nature of innate awareness is not a Buddhist or a Dzogchen practitioner!

So how do you take care of this whole thing and wrap up the show? The central proposition is that the reason we suffer is due to a residual belief in the reality of this core concept. That belief fuels the rest of these habitual thoughts and keeps us focused on the mind. We assume that the central “I” is valid. I had heard about this as a concept for many years before meeting “Sailor” Bob. I remember reading some Buddhist teachings that described the root of all suffering was the belief in a sense of separate self. I suppose every good Buddhist knows that! But what I did not realize was how to apply that and what it really meant. Even though I had been exposed to that pointer years ago, I was clearly still functioning from a sense that I was a separate self.

For example, when I went to Australia to see “Sailor” Bob, I was thinking, “I am going to Australia. I need to get answers. I need to find enlightenment. Perhaps he can help me. I am going to get something that I a missing.” It was not clear to me that this whole mindset was a complete belief system centered upon a seemingly separate self. As that intrinsic presence of awareness which we truly are, I did not have any need to go to Australia! I did not need to get anything. There was nothing he could give me, in an absolute sense. I even recall e-mailing him at one point about the desire to see him and he said there was no need to come! He pointed out that I had everything I needed already. But I was still operating under the false belief in the separate “I.” And it turns out that there was something that he helped me with, which was simply to show me what was happening and to expose the false belief in who I thought I was so that it could fall away in that seeing. Even though I got nothing from “Sailor” Bob, I will be forever grateful for that nothing!

So the “I” thought is a total illusion. It is not even there. It is a complete assumption. There is no evidence that it even exists. It is a concept that has no real existence at all, except as an assumption. When you really have a good look, you discover that the separate person that we have taken ourself to be is an illusion. To be even more emphatic, it does not even exist. It is not present. There is no evidence of a limited separate self. When that is seen, when you truly recognize this point, what happens is that this knocks the belief out of the whole structure. So you have a look and realized there is no separate “I.” I am not a deficient separate “I.” I am not a person. I am not an entity like that at all. If someone comes along and says, “Poor John is not enlightened” then who is that referring to? Once that central lynch pin is questioned, all possible self-centered thoughts are invalidated. The point “Sailor” Bob made to me was that when you see that the “I” is not present, then all of your suffering, seeking, doubts and problems are resolved. There is a cause and effect to it. The central “I” thought is the cause, and the other beliefs and concepts depend on that. So without the cause, can there be any effects? This was the point he made.

This brings it all back home for us. Assuming we understand what is being pointed out, then the question is—have we seen for ourselves that the separate self is not present? I certainly did not see it at first. If the mind throws up these identifications, such as “I am this, I am that” and they are given reality or belief and taken as real, then in spite of whatever theoretical understanding we have, we still have not seen that the “I” is an invalid reference point. What was strange for me was that I had been quite familiar with Ramana Maharshi’s teachings. I was very aware of his teaching of “self enquiry,” which was an analysis of the mind to see if the root “I”-thought, as he called it, was there or not. He talked about this a lot and it seemed to form the cornerstone of much of his teaching. So when people approached him and said they were not yet free, he kept saying things like, “Well, who are you talking about? Have a look? What is that ‘I’ that is in bondage?” So I had heard something along these lines, but it was not clear to me what was actually being advised. I had met several Western teachers who were trying to present Ramana’s teachings, although they had never met him. That was a red flag in itself. Looking back, I see their understanding of this was very unclear and confusing. As a result they have never really helped anyone as far as I can see. “Sailor” Bob was able to make this all very clear for me.

Let’s try to tie it all together now. You are already totally free. There is nothing wrong with you. You already are that intrinsic reality and always will be. There is not a damn thing wrong with you. There is nothing you need to do. You can walk out this door at any time and you are never anything except that pure freedom. Your nature is simple, undeniable presence-awareness. It is not a separate person. The separate person is born in thought as a concept. Then we see that all that suffering is, is simply concepts about a fictitious self. It survives through belief. It depends upon the notion that there is a distinct separate self in our experience. That is all that is happening. Then you take a step back and realize that it is all a conceptual construct based on an erroneous view, a mistaken idea. What gets pointed out is that there is no evidence that you stand as a separate being apart from present awareness. You cannot find a separate “I” in the picture at all.

No matter how hard you look, no matter where you look, no matter how much you explore and examine, if you try to trace back and locate this seemingly separate self, there is no evidence for it. You will never find it. You cannot find it. There is nothing there. To see this takes the belief out of the whole conceptual structure. There is nothing theoretical about it. It is not even a practice. It is not something that is “maybe, maybe not.” It is a very clearly experienced thing, just as clear as if you thought that there was a snake on the table and then you looked and realized there is no snake here. There is nothing theoretical about that. You would no longer be suffering under that belief.

So we need to have a look and examine to see where is this “I” that is the root of all our troubles. What I like to say is that suffering has a cause, but when you search for the cause you find that it does not exist! In the recognition that the cause is non-existent the trouble of suffering is resolved. So once we have heard all of this, we can embrace this and recognize the truth of it for ourselves. There is nothing difficult about it once we get the essentials clarified. There is no need to wait around for years, practicing, waiting, hoping, doing this, doing that. In all of that you can easily miss the root of it. And the results of this understanding are immediately evident. When suffering arises in our experience, it is now recognized as thoughts. They are clearly seen to be about a separate self. Right out of the gate, you are able to recognize and appreciate that the very root of the mechanism is not valid. Is there any evidence of a separate self ? If so where is it? Did you ever find it? All these things are there for you to see for yourself.

At one point it just dawned on me. I thought, “Here I am present and aware. There is no doubt about it.” “There is no way I am separate from that awareness.” I could see that as clear as day. I would see some thoughts, feelings and perceptions go through. That is all that I could see. I was looking at all this and thinking to myself, “So, where is the separate self ?

Where is John Wheeler, the entity, the one who has all the problems and doubts? I see thoughts come and go, but I do not see any evidence that those thoughts are who I am. It is the same with the feelings and sensations.” As you look in your direct experience, all that you see are some thoughts, feelings and sensations going through. So this person that we have taken ourselves to be is not really present in direct experience. It is only an assumption. The mind has created this notion, but there is nothing to substantiate it. We cannot discover any particular thing that is the separate self. You could say that the thought “I” is present as a thought. But that is a thought. It is not who you are. You are the awareness that knows that thought. The thought comes and goes. Even if you are not thinking that thought, you are perfectly fine.

These are the things that become clear. Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, “All suffering is based on the belief in a person, and there is no person.” And that is the essence of it! That is what was pointed out to me, and I found it was enough. You do not need anything more. To see the truth of who you are and dispel the illusion of what you are not is more than enough. My years of seeking, searching, suffering, feeling limited, assuming I was a defective person—all that just ended. And as we sit here right now, all there is, is this presence of awareness. There may be a few things appearing in that, but none of it is separate from awareness. The root of all suffering is the notion that I stand apart from the intrinsic awareness. That belief in separation feels limited. It creates a sense of being incomplete. It fuels the search to define what that assumed person might be. But come back to present experience, and you will see that you have never been a separate being. You are being itself. You have never stood apart. Therefore, the basis of all the conceptual suffering is just simply invalid.

To view things from this perspective basically takes care of the root of the problem. What can happen then? All that can possibly ever happen to you is that the mind can generate residual habits from the past. They used to come up a lot, so they might resurface in the mind. But they do not touch awareness. They do not knock you out of what you are. They do not refer to a real person because there is nobody there. They are just like husks or lifeless things that show up on the screen, but they are no longer believed. They float through and leave you as you are. They do not mean anything about you. They are just a mechanical, residual effect, like a spinning potter’s wheel once the power is shut off. It is just an impersonal happening. And chances are that, because there is less and less belief in them, they will resolve and take care of themselves. They will be less and less present to worry about. People sometimes feel that only when thought activity stops happening and they do not have any self-centered concepts coming up, that they will be free. Well, that is falling back into another self-centered story! The thoughts are impersonal. They do not even belong to awareness. They belong to an image of an entity that died along the way because it is not real. Who we thought we were is like an old, dead dream with no substance.

After I met “Sailor” Bob, I was thinking, “When am I going to get wrapped up in the seeking and doubts again? When are the problems going to come back? It cannot be this simple!” Yet I actually found that everything was perfectly resolved. I did not need to work on it, perfect it, go back to “Sailor” Bob for a tune up or anything like that. He just laid it all out on the table. I never heard it so clearly from anybody. A lot of teachings hint about self-knowledge and the truth of who we are, but then they push you right back into the practices, the techniques, the gurus, the future attainments and so on. So they have got you back in the mind again, thinking you are not yet whole and complete. “Sailor” Bob was one of the few that would say, “This is what it is. There is nothing else!” Or he used to say, “There is nothing beyond ‘no thing.”You see this for yourself and you are basically done with it. You are not going to get a practice or a promise of enlightenment in the future. Who needs that when you already are what you are seeking? I can say with full confidence that this way of looking was absolutely able to resolve all my remaining doubts. There is no doubt about it!

Things like karma or rebirth—all the traditional, doctrinal concepts—are still in reference to the imagined entity. The clear view of things knocks out the interest in a lot of that stuff. If you think, “I have still got to do this. I have to do that”—well, that only applies if you are a separate “I.” If you are pure awareness, which is intrinsically free by nature, then you do not have any need to do anything at all. Who is there to do anything if there is no person present? So all of the spiritual concepts come tumbling down. It is all based on speaking to the assumed entity. In Tibetan Buddhism it is said that Buddha’s highest and most profound teaching was a direct pointing to our innate nature of intrinsic awareness. But if people did not embrace this view, then Buddha gave out various relative teachings. Why? To address the conceptual position that people imagined themselves to be in. But the highest teachings say very clearly that those relative teachings are incapable of yielding lasting freedom. The reason is that they are all based on a false premise. They are only given as a stepping stone for someone who is totally committed to the idea that they are some kind of entity. But those relative doctrines are not the highest teaching. They are not the central teaching. They are not capable of revealing our innate and ever-present freedom. For that, you must relinquish all concepts, paths and approaches and see that here and now you are free, because you have never for a moment been anything other than that pure presence-awareness itself.

Wheeler, John. You Were Never Born (Kindle Locations 3029-3038). Non-Duality Press. Kindle Edition.

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