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Escape from the Spiritual Ghetto

John Sherman

      deutsch nederlands

Welcome, just welcome. Excuse me for giggling; it's just so wonderful to be here in Boulder again. Are there those here who have never been with me? Wow! That's somehow surprising, but wonderful, really. I also see there are a lot of old friends, some of my oldest friends in life here. Let's get this show on the road, then.

I have been in this kind of peculiar role for about eight years now, and over time, what has happened is that I have less and less to say. I really have very little to say, but the bizarre thing about that is that it seems like the less I have to say, the more I talk. We just came from Chicago where I had almost nothing to say, and talked for an hour and a half. I'm getting to be like Fidel Castro...

I don't think I'm going to talk that long here however, so you can rest. I come here, as I come everywhere, to try to be of use to you. I am not a master or a guru, I am really your servant, and that's why I come here: to be of use to you. To bring to you, as clearly and straightforwardly as I can, an account of what I have seen in this life, in this meeting with you, over the years. I am not very spiritual; I don't have much truck with spiritual discussions, spiritual conversations, and metaphysical niceties. I just don't have much interest in those things.

What I have seen, as I reflect on my time in this role, is really quite simple. All of the craziness that goes on in our minds (all of the madness and the wanting and not wanting, and getting and not getting, and wishing I were this, and wishing I were that, and wishing I were not what I am), all of the useful and harmless practices that we may engage in to try to quiet our mind (or make our mind more clear, or end thought, or make the body better, or make life better, get a better relationship, get a better partner, get more money, get fame, get whatever, get high, all the things we do), all the practices that we undertake in this life (the practices that we undertake to get rich, or to get famous, or to get love, or to get rid of what I don't like about me, and hold on to what I do like about me, or get experiences of spiritual ecstasy or get enlightened, or quiet the mind, or sweeten the body, all of those things to me are in the same kind of boat. They are things that I do in order to try to make myself acceptable to myself, to try to make my circumstance and my situation acceptable to myself. And they are all in the same bag to me. They are okay. There really isn't anything wrong with any of them. There is nothing wrong with spiritual meditative practice; there is nothing wrong with yoga; there is nothing wrong with trying to get rich; there is nothing wrong with trying to get poor; there is nothing wrong with saving the world; there is nothing wrong with any of it.

Well, let me get back to what it doesn't do. It doesn't solve the problem. Because there is a problem that afflicts us as human beings. There is a problem, a shortcoming, a sense of life as a false promise that afflicts us as human beings, and no matter what practices we are engaged in, this sense of life as a false promise, of things falling short, remains in the background. Sometimes it is very big, and I am filled with yearning, and longing, and heartache, and heartbreak for the horror of being born human and not being able to break free of the human limitation. Sometimes it is quiet, and just kind of a little nagging hum in the background. It is always here. And, sure to God, we know by now, because we have been trying to do this for thousands of years, that nothing that we do to try to fix our lives has any effect whatsoever on the underlying problem, because the problem doesn't have anything to do with what is happening in our lives. It doesn't have anything to do with what I am doing about what is happening in my life. It doesn't have anything to do with whether my mind is crazy, like a squirrel running in a cage, thinking, thinking, thinking, "Whoa!", "Ah!", and this, that, and the other thing. It doesn't have anything to do with any of that. The underlying problem is the heartbreak of all human existence is a false belief about what we are. And this is not news; this is not something we haven't been told before. And I'm going to tell you again. The only problem in human existence, the only thing that makes human existence problematic and unsatisfactory is a false belief about what we are.

Now if we have been in spiritual practice or if we have had a spiritual interest any time, we recognize that. We say, "Oh, yes, misidentification. I've got to do something about that. I've got to get rid of ego!" I tell you that ego is no problem, really. Ego is no problem. Life is no problem. The stupidity of our minds is no problem. Our greed, and lust, and hatred, and aggression, none of those things are the problem. The problem is a false belief about what I am, and what I falsely believe myself to be is not some component of my life, some aspect of my life (ego, or greed, or contraction, or smallness). What I falsely believe myself to be has nothing to do with the components of my life, which are after all always shifting, changing, coming, going, here today, gone tomorrow anyway. I wish it were gone, it stays; I wish it would stay, it goes. What we falsely believe ourselves to be is our lives, the totality of our lives, the whole of this individual human consciousness, the whole of the universe that is "my life." The whole show: the history, the train of thought, the desires, the aversions, the wanting, the not-wanting, the getting, the not-getting, the memories, the projections, the expectations, what I want in the future, what I want to become, what I want to be, what I wish I weren't, what I wish I hadn't done, the room that we sit in. All of these human manifestations that are in our mind now, as we sit here, that are the components of our life. The stars, the sun, the moon, the planets, the galaxies; what we see, what we know, what we understand, what we don't understand, what we wish we understood, the wishing itself, the compassion, the sweetness, the quietness, the aggression, the hatred, the hostility, the endless din of thought, all of it. Not a part of it, but all of it.

I falsely believe myself to be my life. It is really critical that we see how absolutely profound and fundamental this false belief is. If it were some component of my life, then I would be on the right track by trying to do something about that component—by trying to fix my body, or quiet my mind, or kill my ego. But if it is not any component of my life, but the totality of my life, then every moment that I spend trying to fix my life in the hopes that this fundamental problem will disappear is useless. It is not the trying to fix the life that causes the problem, as it is trying to fix the life in the hopes that by so doing I will rid myself of this underlying dissatisfaction at being human. Every moment I spend in that is just wasted effort, and actually wasting the life itself, wasting the sweetness, and the beauty, and the horror, and the drama, and the melodrama in the life itself. Trying to find what it is that needs to be killed off, what it is that needs to be held on to and kept here at all cost. All of that itself being a part of my life, an aspect, a characteristic that arises in my life that defines me as a person, as a human, as a shape-shifting devil.

So what to do? In the willingness to see that the possibility is more profound and more fundamental than I imagined it to be, if it is true that the problem is a false belief that I am nothing other than my life, there is nothing else to it than that, then what can I do? I'm not aware of this belief. I can't see it, I can't taste it, I can't touch it, and I can't define it. It is, in fact, the lens through which I see my life. It's like, if I wear these glasses. If I take off my glasses, because I'm nearsighted, the whole room gets blurry, and fuzzy. Now if I didn't know any better, I would think this is just the way things are. I can't see my nearsightedness. What I see is this blurriness and fuzziness. And if I put the glasses back on, what I see now is the sharpness. Still, I'm looking through this lens.

So, the false belief that I am my life is the lens through which I perceive, receive, and operate within my life. I can't do anything about it. I can't make it go away. I can't somehow, by force of will or by some advanced spiritual understanding, rid myself of this false belief, because the advanced spiritual understanding itself is something that has arisen within my life; something that I see and perceive through this false belief that this is me. "Now, I am the one with an advanced spiritual understanding." "Now, I am the one who believes myself to be infinite, radiant, eternal consciousness."

So, what to do? Well, what to do is really very ancient and overlooked. What to do, the only cure for this false belief, the only solution to it, is the truth. Just that: the truth. If I am to rid myself of the lie that "I am my life" (and if I rid myself of it, that proves that it was a lie), I must do so by seeing the truth of what I am. Nothing else can possibly work. It is really obvious and simple, when you consider it. Nothing else can possibly work to rid myself of the lie that I am my life, and the lie that I am my life is what makes it seem that I am at stake in the life, that I have to get this right. I have got to make this life be right, because I am at stake here, and if I do something wrong, God help me, I'll go to hell. And if I do something right, maybe I'll go to heaven, or nirvana, or somewhere like that.

But I am at stake here. Every moment in this life, every thought that passes through my consciousness puts me on the line, at stake, at risk. And that's the essence of the problem. It is that fundamental sense that I am at stake in this life that causes me, first of all, to engage in this vicious and ruthless internal warfare by which I seek to destroy the things about me that are bad, and enhance the things about me that are good. This vicious, ruthless, merciless internal warfare is projected large upon the stage of human existence as a whole, which is what causes me to take your money, or to take your life, or to go to war against you. There is nothing else to it but this sense that I have to be right because I am my life, because I am this history, this consciousness, and this point of view.

Now, the possibility of ridding myself of this lie is actually the easiest thing in the world. I mean, this business of seeing the truth of what I am is easy beyond even the ability to comprehend it. It's not hard. It doesn't take merit, it doesn't take understanding, it doesn't take doing anything about the other things that I'm doing in my life. It doesn't take ridding myself of wrongness, or making myself a good person; it doesn't take quieting the mind, it doesn't take any of that. It just takes, well, looking at myself, directly, face to face, with my eyes wide open. And the really good news, the magnificently good news is that well, that's easy, right? I mean, I'm here, right? I'm never not here. I'm never absent, I'm never missing. There is never a moment, in all of the time that I am aware, there is never a moment in life, in the world, when I am not here. Here I am, unchanged. I am the same as I was when I was 3 years old. It's not like, you know, I have to learn a new trick or anything. I am here — self-evidently, obviously, beyond all possibility of denying, I am here. I can deny that you're here. Really! I can deny that you're all here! I could be strapped in a gurney in Guantánamo Bay, being pumped full of hallucinogenic drugs, and this could be the result of it. I may not even look like this.

This body may be itself made up. My thoughts may be intrusions from some other source. My thoughts come and go. My body changes. You are here today, gone tomorrow. But me? I'm always here. Like it or not, never absent.

If anybody here has any doubts about their existence, they should speak up. If anybody here has any doubts about their presence, they should speak up. But I have yet to meet anybody who can deny that they are. Never, in all the time I've been talking about this. So, if I am here always, if I am self-evidently here, if nothing can dissuade me of that, then how hard can it be to look at myself? How hard can that be? It's easy! You just stop for a second, and look and see. Is it not true that you are here, as you have always been here? Isn't it true that you have never changed, that you have never been affected; you have never been helped or hurt by anything at all? Is that not true? And what is that? That's you.

I can stop just for a moment, and get a sense of this. Now, it's the case that, because I am so fond of this life and my addiction to it (and my belief that it's me), I can't really see myself exactly, but I can get a sense of this being here. I can do that for just a second. And then, of course, here come the thoughts again, and what that means, and what it is, and how it agrees or disagrees with other spiritual teachings, and what it means; how it fits into some other idea and in my life, and what it means to me. And how do I do that, and what does that say, and all of that. So, I lose sight of myself, but not really. There is never a moment, never a nanosecond, never a millisecond when you are unaware of yourself. But I get distracted from that, and I get into the thoughts, and I follow the thoughts, and I go back to trying to fix myself, I go back to trying to get better, and to get more quiet, or to get more clear, or to get more charismatic, or to get something.

Notwithstanding that, I have directly, consciously, with full intention, looked at myself and seen the reality of what I am. That has happened. And if a few days later, or a few minutes later, or a few weeks later it occurs to me to do so again, I can stop again. And I can just say, "Wait, hold it. Hold it just a second. Have I changed? Is there anything about me that's different now, because I have spent the last two weeks pursuing stupidity? Has that hurt me? Has it helped me? Am I not here? Am I not the same?" And I can get the same "Ah! Yeah! I'm here! Yes, I am."

Now here's what I see. These moments of clarity are what we have come to call, in the spiritual realm, "glimpses." And as we return to this belief that we are this life, we determine that if I am ever to be free, I must do something so that I can hold my attention permanently on this reality and refuse to put my attention on thought, desires, stupidities, pain, suffering, all of that. And that is a lie. That is part of the lie that "I am my life."

Truth ends the lie. But not like a lightning bolt, not with a bang: "I'm enlightened!" Bang! "I am realized!" Bang! "I am awake! All my confusion is gone. There is nothing here but clarity. All my selfishness is gone. There is nothing here but compassion, and love, and sweet understanding, and openhearted generosity." That's what we are looking to have.

Truth destroys the lie, but it doesn't "wake you up", because you have never been asleep. Truth destroys the lie, but it takes time to eat away that lie. You don't even see the lie. There is nothing you can do about the lie, except this: look at yourself, directly, just for a moment, as often as it occurs to you to do so. Look at yourself, taste this water of reality, of permanence and unchangingness, whenever you can, whenever it occurs to you to do so. It doesn't matter what you are doing in between those times. Nothing about anything you are doing in between those times has any effect on you at all. It doesn't hurt you, and it doesn't help you. The only thing you can do that has any consequence whatsoever is to take a moment and look at yourself. Look at what is real; look at what is permanent, look at what doesn't change.

This is my experience, and the experience of many the people that have been with me. Over time, before you even know it is gone, this lie that you are your life will vanish, and your life will reveal itself to be sweet and easy, no matter how hard it is. Sweet and easy. Your life will reveal itself to be not a field in which you are at stake, at mortal peril, but just life. We have these spiritual ideas about these things, like "life is bad," and the hallmark of awakeness, realization, and clarity is a detachment and a kind of an antagonism toward the life, and how it unfolds, and the stupidity of it. The idea that we have, or at least in my experience, the idea that I had at one time was that there will come a time when this whole life will be transformed, or transcended, turned into something different, something new, and I will no longer be at its mercy.

As the false belief, the lie that you are you life is wiped out, my experience is that naturally, without any effort whatsoever (you don't even have to know it's gone) you just kind of relax and fall back into your life, in a way that is more intimate than you can possibly imagine. In a way in which there is no sense of separation and fear about the way the life unfolds. And, in the absence of the idea, the sense that you are at stake in the life, I promise you: this internal vicious, ruthless, merciless war that goes on within you, in which you hold onto the good and kill off the bad, will disappear like a bad dream. And all of your inclination to hurt your neighbor, to do something to diminish your neighbor in order to enhance yourself, that too will disappear like a bad dream, because we are all in this together — and you know it.

Now this is the practice of self-inquiry*. This is how I speak about the practice of self-inquiry*. And you can come get your money back (even though I don't charge anything), if you can do this practice, and come back to me and say, "You know what, things are still the same, and I hate being here, and I hate being human!" And I'll tell you something else too: there is nothing spiritual about self-inquiry*. It is absolutely not spiritual. It is totally practical. It is a method whereby you can destroy the lie that you are your life. And I have a metaphor that I have been using everywhere else, so I might as well use it here too, in order to drive home the point that this has nothing to do with spirituality. There is no spirituality, it is all made up. There is you — and that's all. There is nothing else but you. That is all there is.

Self-inquiry* is like medicine. It is not like a spiritual practice. You don't do it in order to make your life better, I swear to God. You don't do it to get better experiences, instead of bad experiences. You do it to cure yourself of this disease that is the lie that you are your life. And it is like any other medicine. If I get sick, and I am feverish, and aching, and nauseous, well, I know I'm sick, and I may have some idea even of what I have, but I have no consciousness whatsoever of this vast battle that is being fought for my body, and the way in which the disease-causing entities work, and the way in which the body mobilizes itself, and how it is that I came to be sick, and feverish, and aching. I don't have any conscious awareness of any of that. And when I go to the doctor, and he talks to me and he says, "Okay, listen. You've got to take these antibiotics for this length of time, this many per day."

And I start taking the antibiotics. I have no conscious awareness of the warfare that is now still being fought within my body, but now with the help of these poisonous entities that go out and machine-gun down the bad guys. I don't have any sense of all of that going on, but what I do have a sense of is that, as I take the antibiotics, today I feel really bad, tomorrow I feel a little better, the day after that I feel a little better, the day after that I feel a little better, and before I even really know that the sickness has departed (I'm still taking the antibiotics) I feel just fine. I'm back to my old self.

Self-inquiry* is like that. It's like medicine. You don't take it to get high. You don't take it to get spiritual. You don't take it to get ecstasy, rapture, bliss, or oceanic consciousness. You take it to get over this disease, and you do it as often as you can. And, like antibiotics, no matter what your understanding of it is, no matter how true or false your understanding may be of what is taking place, just taking the medicine, just looking at yourself directly, will cure the disease — and it will be gone before you know it is gone. And finally you will see what this is all about, and you will find that life is sweet, just as it is. And if you want to continue doing meditation practices, then you will see the usefulness of them, which is not to get you enlightened, which is not to get you free of misidentification. It's just to make you feel a little better, to make you clearer a little bit, quieter a little bit. And if you continue doing any of your practices, you will see what they're for, what their purpose is, and not think that you are at stake here.

So this is all I have to talk about: this medicine, this infallible sword of self-inquiry*. This infallible method is absolutely guaranteed to finish the misery in your life; and it is absolutely guaranteed to finish the idea that there is something missing. It is not going to turn you into a saint. But it is not going to turn you into a sinner either.

* Note: When I say "self-inquiry", I am referring to the method of "looking at yourself". This text was written long before we found a better name for the act.