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For most people, the initial question "What is it?" is followed by "How do I do it?"
This is a reasonable question. In the normal course of events, we have learned that being given instructions and learning the specific actions or steps necessary to accomplish something makes sense. What we don't notice about any process is that we are actually being told what to do, rather than how to do it. That is because no one knows how we do anything. You do it the same way you breathe, or the same way you beat your heart. Your response may be, I don't beat my heart, or I don't know what makes my heart beat. Yes, these things just appear to happen. But we do think we know how we do many things, when all we really know is what we appear to do and then what happens.
As John Sherman often says, "I cannot tell you how to do this." He cannot tell us how to do it because no one knows how we do anything, and that's beside the point anyway. Trying to be helpful, John tells people what to do. He gives simple directions that involve noticing your ability to move your attention at will and then moving that attention to look at yourself. He talks about turning attention inward, toward the source attention appears to come from.
I have found that it may be useful to just notice that you have the ability to direct your attention, and then create the intention to look at yourself without any specific direction, and then just look. It has been my experience, especially after doing the looking for a while, that it doesn't matter if I look in a specific direction. I have noticed that I am everywhere and nowhere. How cool is that?
Also, I think it is useful to understand that looking is not seeing in terms of what we are doing here. The act of looking as it is used here is looking to look, not looking to see. Looking this way is very powerful. When we are just looking, rather than looking to see, what appears is different from what has shown up for us in the past. What happens is that our perception becomes an open field.
Don't be concerned if you don't get anything I say, or what anyone else says. In these kinds of conversations, understanding is actually not so important. This is just "what is so" and, as one of my teachers said, it is also "so what?" The only thing that really matters is that you take a look at yourself. The rest will take care of itself. As John Sherman points out, after you take a look, the only thing that is certain is that everything will turn out perfectly in the end.
After you look, what happens is what John Sherman calls a "recovery period." He reports that this recovery is different for each person and is dependent on the unique structure of personality that has been constructed based on the context of the fear of life that was triggered some time very early in life. John reports that, when he went through it, he did not know what was happening. He actually did not know that he had looked at himself until many years later. During his recovery period, he did not know he was in recovery. He reports that he experienced psychological and emotional agony for several years without any support or guidance. During that period, he thought his suffering might be the result of his turning his back on everything that is considered sacred in life. It was only after the recovery slowed down and the fog lifted that he began to recognize what had occurred. Even then, he spent many years trying to sort it out and free himself of the constraints of the spiritual viewpoint. Clarity of expression developed over time in his conversations with people, as he attempted to talk about what he saw to be the case.
Given the experiences I had during my recovery, I am grateful to have had the support and guidance provided by John and the community of people who have embarked on this course of action. I think that John and I have something in common, which resulted in our recovery being difficult and taking several years. In my case, what set me up for a difficult recovery was the extent I was willing to go to after the fear of life struck in order to compensate for my vulnerability. I developed a complex psychological system to escape the threat and give me a strong position from which to manage life. My stance or the pretense I took on to manage and control the fear of life was to be a professional in the realm of human behavior: a psychologist, someone who is considered an expert in the field. I earned a license to practice as a professional so that I had proof that I had my shit together. Today I often comment that if you want the perfect place to hide in life, become a psychologist. I don't say this to say that all psychologists are frauds. Of course, I don't know. I am sure that there are many psychologists that are actually very authentic and helpful to people.
I think that I did good work with many people out of a sincere interest to be effective and useful. I put myself in intensive therapy for years to address my craziness and keep it out of my relationships with my clients. Still, when it came to the recovery period from the fear of life, even after many years of work in therapy and my participation in a wide array of teachings and practices from the wisdom traditions, I was still holding onto an identity. The most challenging aspect of my recovery was having my attention consistently taken over by thoughts that stimulated the underlying fear and anxiety, bringing up disturbing past events and raising concerns about the future.
This is a typical form of anxiety that I think most people experience, but it intensified after doing the looking. Eventually it became clear that I was thinking about thinking, and having experiences that were aspects of the recovery — without recognizing them for what they were. It seemed like everything from the past that troubled me got stirred up and manifested, especially in disturbing dreams. During waking hours, the intensity of these constant troubling ruminations grew like a storm evolving into a tornado. I had no context for what was happening and I experienced it as a kind of coming apart at the seams. This was when the support provided by John and the community of people who were in this process proved so valuable. Just to be reminded that this is a process that will do no harm and will pass in time was very reassuring.
As time passed and the disturbance calmed down, it became easier to be consistently aware that I was experiencing residual aspects of the structure of personality that had developed from the context of the fear of life. Eventually, when these neurotic impulses arose in thoughts, images, or sensations, they had lost all validity or the power to compel me to follow them. Thus, they departed, not long after they appeared. I especially noticed changes in my relationship to my wife. In the past, impulses and reactions would ramp up into acting out anger and aggression. There was a period when this happened when I was in a kind of limbo. I experienced reactive thoughts and feelings, but did not express them or act on them. I just looked at them. This was difficult for my wife because I would spend days in silence.
Although I was not being aggressive in anyway, I could not find a way to express where I was. I had this strong sense to simply allow the process, experience what was there and trust that everything would turn out right. Although this was uncomfortable for both of us, it was clear to me that, in the space of silence, a powerful process was occurring. Who we were for each other and the issues and concerns that existed between us were being processed simply by allowing the experience of it, without trying to force any kind of resolution or conclusion through talking about it.
I was amazed that in the middle of this, I was experiencing life as exciting and I felt very alive. I noticed that I was enjoying many ordinary things around me. I would sit on my deck for long periods of time and just look at the trees and listen to the sounds of the birds, in profound awe and wonder. I noticed that my wife was engaging in new activities. She was setting up activities that she enjoyed, and actively working on career goals.
There are still things in process, but there is something new and different around the issue of control in our relationship. In the past, because of fear, there was a need to be in control and to regain control when there was an upset, conflict or disagreement. With the passing of the fear, it became okay to let things be in process, and to let each other be where we were with our differences. And to allow the relationship to be alive, ever changing, involving the risk of vulnerability. Just as in life at large, there are times when a relationship is wonderful and times when it is difficult. In both cases, it is also authentic and surprising in all its turns and movements.
As a psychologist, I have worked with many people over the years who were struggling with conflict, discord, and issues around fidelity. With my own issues, it was confusing for me at times, but I always applied what I had learned to be the correct approach to working on relationships, which was to support and encourage people to communicate and work through their problems, so that they could feel better and get along. I see now that this strategy comes out of the context of fear and has to do with avoiding pain and trying to be in control. One thing that I have seen to be sacred in relationships is predictability. People want to be able to predict the future, especially in relationships where their heart is on the line. This is where the promises and commitments made in marriage play an important role for most people, even though the majority of marriages fail. I think the threat to predictability is why people get so upset when there is discord in their relationships and become aggressive, hostile, and defensive. This response is driven by the fear of losing control and the fear of abandonment or betrayal. I found that when the fear of life began to depart, I was no longer driven to have control or have certainty about the future. It is not that I don't care if my wife betrays me or leaves me. I am sure this would be a very uncomfortable experience, but it no longer takes up most of my attention or energy. One of the things I actually love most about her is that she is not bound to me. As the fear departed from my life, what has become more apparent is the freedom to experience the free fall that life actually is.
I know that relationship is an area that can be very difficult for people, especially when the act of looking has taken place and the process of recovery is occurring. It is also the case that many people are in relationships where one person is involved in the looking and, for whatever reason, the other person is not. Often, our partners are simply not inclined or interested in these matters. When this is the case, it is useful to be aware of the impact of the process on your partner and to be as considerate and compassionate as possible. While my wife is not inclined to engage in these matters, she is respectful of my interest and activities. She indicates that she sees the value of what is offered, but feels that she has her own approach to life and has no need to engage with anything in particular, and I respect her point of view. We have talked about the looking and its results, and I believe she has engaged in looking at herself on her own terms and she has experienced a recovery process. At least what I have noticed indicates that. In the end, it really doesn't matter, because I think sanity is contagious. When one person calms down and has space for their partner and the relationship, the other seems to follow.
When I was just naturally letting what was happening happen, everything began to clear up. I almost said when I got to the place where I was letting everything happen, but it is evident to me now that this was not something I did, it was just what happened. The idea that I was doing anything was a mistaken perception. This is a pivotal aspect of the shift that occurs when the fear of life departs. When I attend to my experiences, rather than only to the thoughts about my experiences, it is evident that I am not doing anything at all. And it is evident that I am what is happening, and it is just happening. Rather than there being a me that is separate from life and trying to survive in life, there is a shift to a sense of no separation. There is no life that I am separate from that is threatening me. What is really cool about this is that, while there is nothing left to realize, nothing has really changed. The difference is that life now appears in a context of freedom, what J. Krishnamurti called the "freedom from the known." The mystery and wonder of life appear as the fulfillment of the human experience.
The experience of the recovery period is very different for each person. It need not be difficult or take time, however most people who have reported being aware of this process indicate it takes some time and involves difficulties.
One difficulty for me during this time has been the changes in energy. Often, as the neurotic fear departs along with the consistent stress and tension that coincides with it, a transition occurs in which energy is freed up in the body. When this occurs, there is a period of adjustment. In my case, I found that I was never tired and did not sleep more than a few hours a day for weeks at a time. I had a sense that this was an aspect of the recovery, so I was not troubled by it. However, there were times when I was concerned about having responsibilities and obligations that would require me to be alert during the day. To my surprise, my functioning was not affected and at certain points, my body would naturally sleep and rest. I did some research and found that this energy transition is very common when consciousness is shifting to a more open, less constricted state.
It is important to be aware of the recovery process as it is occurring, so as not to become overly concerned if there are uncomfortable and unusual experiences. It is most important to recognize that these experiences will not harm you and they do pass in time.
It makes a huge difference during this period to be in communication with others who are also experiencing the recovery process. The best place to do this is the online community forum created by John and Carla Sherman on their website www.justonelook.org. It is also very useful to participate in the weekly and monthly online meetings where John provides support, interacts with participants, and answers questions. I imagine that when this discovery is recognized by a critical mass of humanity, there will be many forms of support available in many other places.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this new discovery is that it brings forth the reality that all human beings everywhere have the same potential to make contact with the natural experience of life. It is not exclusive, nor does it involve any special teaching or practice. It does not matter what religion or beliefs one has. It does not matter what circumstances one finds oneself in, or what one's past has been. There is no hierarchy in this movement: there is no leader to follow or be devoted to. The form of its existence is community, which is comprised by people who have done the looking and discovered the natural experience of being human, which is sanity. In this community, we are all leaders, leading our own lives and participating in creating a world that works for everyone, with no one left out. The exact form of this new future is yet to be seen, however what is predictable, if the world goes sane, is that insane behaviors will come to an end. War, unnecessary starvation, destruction of the planet, and the seeming inability for people to maintain workable relationships will come to an end. What will then become possible is a world in which people work together to have life work for everyone.
What is the difference between this and all of the other practices, beliefs, spiritual traditions and teachings, philosophical teachings, psychological teachings or anything else that has come along in the past?
When I have organized meetings to talk with people about this new method of experiencing natural life, people have often asked this question. The short answer to this question is: everything.
There is no connection between this method and anything that has come before. Consider that when John Sherman accomplished the act of looking, went through the recovery process that follows it and then found the natural living that results when the fear of life departs, he was actually trying to end any interest in seeking a solution to life. For over a year, he had experienced "enlightenment," a state of bliss, fulfillment and absence of suffering that is supposed to bring about the end of the search. When this blissful state came to an end, he fell into a torment he had never known, and decided to take on one last challenge. He decided to prove to himself that there was no lasting state of existence that could end the misery of life, so he would then be able to go back to living life as best he could, without seeking anything at all.
Of all the teachers he had learned about, Ramana Maharshi seemed different. Ramana came upon the natural state of existence without any intention or preparation when he was a teenager. John reports that in studying this man's books, he sensed that Ramana was trying to tell us something. He was trying to give us an act that would work and allow us to experience natural life. Around this time, John recalled a specific time when he was a young boy, and he had just walked out of a cowboy movie matinee in a hot summer afternoon in New Jersey. He remembered exactly how it felt to walk out of the cool theater into the hot sun, and then he realized that how it felt to be him as a child was exactly how it felt to be him now. Without recognizing it at the time, this was, as best as he can tell, when he first looked at himself. It took years for it to become clear for him that this had happened and that he had undergone a process of recovery that eventually freed him of his lifelong angst and the neurotic conditioning that had sprung from it.
John does not attribute any part of this outcome to previous spiritual teachings and practices. In fact, it took many years for him to free himself of the context of understanding and the vernacular from religious and spiritual teachings, and be able to speak about his experience in simple, clear terms. This is not to say that his contact and relationship with all of the traditions, teachings, and practices were of no value to him. He often comments on how beautiful these traditions are and how valuable they have been in providing people with comfort and a sense of possibility for all as human beings. John refers to spiritual seekers as "heroes," because they do not give up on life and continue to pursue an experience of life that will fulfill what they imagine possible.
To say that this method is not related to what came before does not imply that John believes himself to be the only one to have had the experience of natural life. Upon review, it appears clear that while many have stumbled onto this experience, the key to the experience, the act of looking at yourself, has been missed. It also appears that the fear of life as the barrier to the natural experience of life has been overlooked, possibly because all of the teachings, practices, and beliefs have occurred within this same context of fear. In fact, many of the teachings and practices are clearly intended to transcend life, or somehow escape life, as if life were inherently the problem and something to avoid, escape from or control. In this context, death appears as a paradox. On the one hand, death ends the suffering of life and, on the other hand, it confronts us with the fear we have been living with all along — the fear of the known and the fear of the unknown.
After the looking does it job and the fear of life departs, reality reveals itself clearly and it becomes apparent that there is no need to consider human experience as a spiritual matter. It is simply human experience. And it becomes just as clear that life is not the problem. It is simply the experience of living and, when it ends, nothing happens. And nothing happening is not scary. In fact, it is what is happening all the time: it is you and me, and it is all that exists.
When this suggestion of the act of looking at yourself is recognized for what it is, it becomes obvious that it is all actually very simple, so simple that it has been overlooked.
Recently, when considering natural life, it occurred to me that the states that we experience when we identify with thoughts, emotions, points of view, etc., are unnatural in the sense that identities that are taken on to manage the fear of life overshadow the natural experience of living. When the fear of life goes, one is free of the need to be an identity, and yet also free to identify and be an identity to function in the world.
As the experience of recovery has progressed in me, the veil of perception has continued to lift. Much like the curtain being pulled back in the Wizard of Oz, what had previously appeared to be magical, mystical, religious, spiritual and beyond the ordinary, was revealed to be nothing more than simply "what is so." Life is ordinary in the sense that it is always present, always the case, yet extraordinary in its mystery and endless array of appearances and movements.
Whatever or whoever we are is here now, so the idea of doing anything to be who we are is itself an expression of delusion. Seeking, trying to find an answer, trying to get an experience of who we actually are, considering it a spiritual matter, all this effort leads us away from the truth and perpetuates suffering. Thinking that the experience of who we actually are or the experience of a natural life is something other than the experience we are already having is searching for fool's gold.
I am reminded of a statement I read many years ago in one of my favorite books by Alan Watts. When I read an outline that began chapter five in his book The Supreme Identity, I was struck with confusion and spent many years reflecting on what I had read. He is speaking in a spiritual context and he is pointing, as many teachings do, to the difficulty of experiencing a natural life through practices or actions intended to bring about a realization of that which is already complete and fully realized. He says:
Realization of the Supreme Identity is found, not through seeking it as remote and obscure, but in accepting the truth that nothing is more obvious and self-evident.
With all due respect for Watts, one of the great interpreters of Eastern traditions for the Western audience, I think his pointing out the futility of trying to realize what is referred to as the "Supreme Identity" is accurate, but his conclusion that "accepting that nothing is more obvious and self-evident"does not produce a realization. It may produce an intellectual understanding or conceptual recognition and may provide a temporary pleasurable state, however, this is not the natural experience in that it does not last and is inconsistent with the reality of our actual nature.
My experience is that the idea of "realization" is an indication that one is going down the wrong road. The idea that the actual nature of the human creature is a "Supreme Identity" is further misleading.
What I see to be the case, after having had the experience of looking at myself and having been through a good part of the recovery period, is that there is nothing to realize, and therefore no effort to realize is necessary. It is evident that all the methods devised to achieve this realization have not produced the experience sought after, even though multitudes continue to practice such methods and live with some explanation as to why these practices have not fulfilled on their promise.
What makes the act of looking at yourself different? To summarize, it is a matter of simply directing attention, and it is distinctly different from trying to see or realize anything. Yes, my experience of looking began with the automatic process of expecting to see what I was looking at, otherwise it would be of no use to me. How would I even know I had actually looked at myself, if I did not see anything? The initial reaction to looking at myself in the ordinary state of mind is often that I did nothing. I did not see anything when I looked, so nothing happened. My experience and all of my previous understandings tell me that something did not happen, that perhaps I did it wrong, or perhaps I am fooling myself by thinking that this is anything other than trickery. Even if John Sherman believes he looked at himself and ended up in a so called "natural life," free of the fear of life, perhaps he is lost in his own notions about it.
In order to appreciate this directing of attention inward, and the results that occur from it, it is necessary to be clear that, in this case, looking is not seeing. Looking is just looking, just directing attention towards you, with the intention of experiencing rather than seeing. In the case of John Sherman, what he experienced was a sense of the consistency of himself. He experienced that he was the same as he had been many years before, and that his experience of being "me" was exactly the same after many years had passed, although the physical body was much different.
This looking is a simple matter of exposing one's attention directly to its source, the purpose of which is to bring an end to the fear of life, rather than to realize a state of being. This is a critical point. It is what is distinctive about this method, or approach, to being free of what has hindered the natural experience of being human. The context of the fear of life shaped our perceptions of life and, when this context departs, the patterns of reactions and behaviors that were a product of this context fall into disuse. One way of speaking of this is to say that a new gestalt appears, a new organized whole that is no longer distorted by the context of fear.
The context of the fear of life appeared in reaction to a traumatic event very early in life, possibly the birth trauma, prior to the acquisition of language. And it remained, as we were initiated into the world of language, where this context is pervasive in the human psyche. Until now, because of its ever-present-ness, this context has been overlooked as the cause of the distance from the experience of life that is an expression of anxiety and concern.
The teachings of the great traditions, which are beautiful conceptualizations, stories, and parables and have resulted in practices and rituals that people have dedicated their lives to, have not undone the condition of fear that has been always present underneath them. This is evident.
When this small misperception of life is presented as the cause of all the trouble, it is often dismissed as being too simple. It is easy to understand why this is so, given the extent to which human beings are in agreement about the threatening nature of life and all of the traditions, practices, and belief systems that have developed and become established as institutions beyond question.
When the context of fear departs, it is evident that this human life is an event. It is a happening, akin to music or dance. Typically, we perceive our life as being thrown through a linear narrative into a future. We experience the present as the past reoccurring in modified forms, and we anxiously and apprehensively work to avoid the repetition of what has happened before, while doing whatever we can to make happen what we want to happen. The continuum of time holds us in a state of tension between two dreams. In this continuum, birth — and all other transitions that we endure as we move further in the course of life — takes us on to a point where we recognize the shift from growth to a gradual decline of energy and the dissolution of the body.
The shift in context that appears when anxiety no longer colors our perception allows life as an event to become evident. The apparent reality of time is no longer the stage for life. Life appears as life for the sake of itself, not going anywhere, not depending on a purpose, not coming from anywhere, simply a phenomenon that miraculously occurs, an endless arising of impressions and stimulating energetic vibrations. An event.
As I experienced this shift, it became evident that all there is to do is to look. Life is an event to look at. Rather than looking to see, or looking for something, or looking for a way in or out, or looking for an answer, looking revealed itself to be the ground of being in the world. After the process of recovering the natural experience of life, I find myself looking all of the time. No matter what else I am doing, or what I am engaged in with the mind, I am always looking — looking at life occurring. I am looking at life not in a continuum of time, but always in the moment, a moment that is larger than all of time and contains time. Time is no longer a container of experience, but just another occurring aspect of life.
This looking is what is happening. It is looking. I am looking.
I could go on and on about this amazing discovery and the shift that has occurred for me. However, one thing that I have come to see is that more isn't always better. If what you have read has stimulated your interest, or resonates with your experience, then I suggest that you seriously consider joining the growing number of people who have taken on John's suggestion to look at yourself.
My intention in writing this book was to have you see the potential and possibility that this revolutionary discovery provides for us all. Today there is a growing worldwide movement of people who have done the looking and are involved in a community, providing support for each other and continuing a relationship with John, Carla, and one another, while experiencing the results of the looking.
A good place to start is to visit the www.justonelook.org website. Start by downloading John's free ebooks, which are a good introduction to the basic elements of his work. Then listen to the most recent recordings of John's meetings on his audio podcast, watch John's videos on his video podcast, participate in upcoming live online meetings with John as scheduled on the website, and check out the Just One Look project to find out about how to participate.
Also check out the Just One Look Community Forums and read about the experiences of others who have done the looking, as they continue to go through the recovery process that follows the act. The community forums are a safe place where you can share and contribute. We are surely all in this together.
I cannot be complete with this book without acknowledging John and Carla Sherman for the work that they are doing. They have given countless hours to me in the development of this book. They continue to be available to anyone who asks for guidance in the looking and search for support while experiencing the process of recovery and restructuring that follows. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that they have appeared in the world, and that they are willing to give all of their energy and time to us. They are an example of what is possible for us all.
August 30, 2012
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