By Phil Servedio
I AWOKE SATURDAY morning hoping the weather would be lousy, so just in case the session didn’t turn out as I hoped, I wouldn’t have to blow a nice Saturday afternoon!
As I meditated that morning, it seemed that the process of “flatlining” that I began noticing in December came to fruition. I found myself surrounded from the back and on the sides (apparently) by a great void, an open emptiness. It had no qualities save utter stillness and emptiness. I thought of the Buddhist word “Shunyata” to describe this and remembered something that David Wheeler once said, that the feminine aspect of the Divine, shakti, leads one to the masculine aspect of the Divine, utter stillness. I realized that this was more evidence of the ripening of the process of stillness that had begun months before. I thought to myself, maybe I don’t need to have a session with Arjuna! That was pretty wonderful by itself! I was also reminded of a sentence in a recent letter from Ken Wilber to Saniel where Ken stated,"...radiant emptiness is my constant realization.” However, with me, there was still a sense of a separate observer of this; something fundamental still had to take place.
Despite the fact that the cloudy morning was giving way to a beautiful Saturday afternoon just made for a hike, I went to the office on 4th Street in downtown San Rafael to have a session with Arjuna. He was borrowing the office from a friend, who had to be a woman, considering the abundant pinkish decoration. Arjuna set up the objectives of the session and told me a little about his history. The session began with a long winded description from me about my spiritual process, with Arjuna writing down some keynotes like a well-trained psychotherapist. I told him about my initiation into the spiritual search by finding a book on Ramana Maharashi, my time in TM, with Guru Maharaji, Sufism, Da Love-Ananda, in Voice Dialogue, the 7 Keys initiations, discovering Lawrence, Ardeliza and Saniel. I told him about how the various aspects of growth happened in the last 21 years, including strengthening of the ego through a career, Iyengar Yoga, and experiencing lots of bliss and enduring lots of pain.
When I was done, Arjuna put his pad of paper down and appeared to slowly move into another “stance.” We sat on the floor looking eye to eye. He started by expressing his appreciation of my story, and that it was clear to him that I had done a lot of work in the past 22 years, and that if anyone deserved to be awake it was me (though this is something I don’t believe is technically true, “deserving”). That was certainly a nice thing to say, but there I was seeking Awakening.
Then Arjuna seemed to change in front of me. The normally mellow and laid back British chap began to lean into me with pointed questions. He said to me that because of 22 years of seeking happiness through various means, this creates a self-image of a spiritual seeker, and that has to be released. Was I willing to let that go? Be a finder instead of a seeker? He spoke to me very forcefully, peering directly at me with a pair of eyes that seemed to grow increasingly fiery. Normally, this question wouldn’t seem to be much of an issue; in fact, in looking at the previous few months it appeared that the mechanism of seeking was getting flimsy and worn out, based upon a feeling of tiredness with the whole thing. But in this moment, Arjuna’s words penetrated me to reveal a deep seated subconscious image that was being held in place, something so intimate with whom I appear to be, that I tightened up at the thought of releasing it. What would be left in place? In that moment, in which the volume was slowly being raised, it seemed particularly frightening, and I was truly shocked at my reaction. Perhaps nothing would be left in its place; what a frightening prospect! I was astounded that he was able to uncover a very precious bit of neurosis that truly had to be dealt with before I could go on.
I felt like I was at an impasse. This was a very intense moment for me, more than I ever expected — do I really want to let it go? I was afraid of saying yes and saying no!! Arjuna kept repeating the question with ever more intensity, “Are YOU willing to let go of being a seeker?” There I was, like Gollum with his Precioussss... in Lord of the Rings. After several minutes of psychic tennis, I took stock of my intentions in the back of my mind. What the hell was I sitting in this room for? What was I doing for the last 22 years? Do I want to continue this game? A rush of certainty filled me: NO FUCKING WAY! I have come too far, done too much, invested too much to let this bullshit image stand in the way! I reared back and shot back at him, “YES I am WILLING to no longer be a seeker”. That seemed to be a finishing point of this archetypal exorcism. He simply said, “Good! Now what else is obstructing you from your Awakening?” To be perfectly honest, Arjuna seemed frightening to me, with this Jekyll and Hyde transformation of personality.
He questioned me about a number of things. Whenever I tried to find an answer in my mind, we both noticed that my eyes would veer off the eye-to-eye contact. He would numerous times correct me by saying come back, stay with me, stay in the present and force me to re-hook up this very, very intense gazing activity. I realized how “not present” I spend so much of my life by this eye-navigation exercise. He began a series of questioning that was a kind of forceful enquiry, “What was I not seeing clearly?” "Who am I?”, etc. At this point I didn’t dare break my gaze because it was clear that it was having an effect. I began to become undone, utterly confused, disoriented. I kept responding to his questions, “I don’t know!” I confessed my disorientation and Arjuna was pleased by it, reassuring me that it was more than fine. I felt like someone who is about to sit down, having his chair pulled out from under him. That chair was my own “assumption” of who I was, and I was free falling in confusion.
The questioning, the back and forth went on for a while. The intensity in the room was incredible, and was locked in this eye-to-eye battle, trying to argue my unenlightenment. But I was like a cheap prizefighter, being pummelled against the ropes in the corner by Mike Tyson. Arjuna’s unrelenting Advaitic argument kept me backing up and reeling. In addition to this, the shakti in the room was generating psychic effects. As I kept gazing into his eyes, Arjuna’s face would change into another face, a face so clearly distinguishable, as if I was looking at another person. What’s more, there was a succession of faces over and over again. It was icing on the cake of confusion. Who was I sitting in front of? I have had this experience before, but never with such intensity, clarity, and duration. About 20 to 30 faces kept appearing superimposed on his: guys with beards, no beard, black hair, white hair, no hair, blue eyes, black eyes, brown eyes. It was, however, an almost comic disturbance to what was really going on, an Advaitic beating.
In the midst of the intensity, I felt like I was kind of floating, disassociated from the body, having no home “ground” to land on. But as he kept at me with questions, the “Ground” became apparent, the Ground of Being. It’s just a name which seems appropriate, but in that moment, it had no qualities that I could pinpoint, except “emptiness." The fundamental image of the spiritual seeker was being replaced by this ground. As he kept hammering at me, “Who are You, Phil?” my responses changed from “I don’t know” to “it’s Nameless." He seemed to know exactly what I meant. After a couple of more questions, he paused and said, “OK, are you a separate personality looking at that something nameless, or are you what is aware of that?” All the confusion and disorientation was leading me to this point. Was I a separate being looking at this all-encompassing, vastly spacious condition?
I knew this was it, the last round in the fight. He repeated his question several times. Sometimes I felt like I was still a separate person noticing this event, and other times I wasn’t so sure. Again he repeated the question, and in that moment something changed — a quantum leap occurred. A quantum leap defines a peculiar event where a subatomic particle is within the nucleus of an atom, and in the next moment, is outside the nucleus without any ways or means of getting there. This leap wasn’t a volitional act, but in that moment, I RECOGNIZED that I was pure Awareness or Consciousness, free of all qualities. How incredible — that is who I Am! I forcefully responded, “YES, I AM THAT!” I’ll never forget that moment; it was so OBVIOUS, how could I or anyone have ever missed it? Of course I am that, and always have been THAT , it was staring me right in the face all these months, slowly making its appearance in waking consciousness, through the fog of this “assumption of self." This background consciousness was revealing itself — reflecting my own nature to me while the cords of identification with forms were being inexorably cut to allow me to see my nature as it is intrinsically.
Part of me couldn’t believe that I would have the balls to say it, but I was backed into a corner where it became obvious. Arjuna finally shut up and just smiled at me. Now, I’m aware of the dynamic in psychotherapy sessions where the client subconsciously or overtly gives the therapist responses that s/he wants to hear; I’ve done it in the past myself to the point of dropping out of therapy. This was not the case this time. Something very wonderful happened, though the mind still had some residual disorientation. But in retrospect, the mind finally caught up with what was already occurring in the body.
After a few moments of silent celebration, Arjuna started up again, “Okay, you are that. What am I, Arjuna?” Oh man, get this Advaitic pit bull off of me! However, after some time, I could not truly confess you are that with the same conviction as I am that. There was certainly an intuition of it, but not a recognition like the one I just had. Arjuna said, that’s okay, it’s still good for one session. He proceeded to describe the process as he understood it, from I am that to you are that to all is that, the One Being. I understood right there the vast difference between insight and recognition.
So, at around 4:00 PM on March 18, 1995, forty years of seeking to know who I was came to an abrupt halt, and I began a new phase in this remarkable and Graceful process, which I now call Phase 2A (as opposed to the former Phase 1C). It was as if for my whole life I had been running in a straight line, then in a moment, I stepped to the side and moved in a whole new direction. The analogy was similar to what Joel had said, that he had turned a corner.
The session was over, and when I looked at the clock, I was very surprised that over ninety minutes of eye-gazing had just passed. Arjuna embraced me, and I literally felt like a newborn baby in a new world. Then he said something that was really penetrating and revolutionizing for me, “Man, do you realize that you are radiating right now? I can feel it”. Excuse me, I’m radiating? My whole life was spent in the assumption of this little meat-body running to and fro to this teacher and that teacher seeking shakti, spiritual nourishment, darshan, etc. It hit me like a ton of brick: I was that same One as that One giving Darshan. I was giving Darshan to Arjuna now! This felt literally like a slap in the face of my illusions. I’ve been giving Darshan my whole life, and so has everyone else! (A few smart-alecks understand this and turn it into spiritual business, and some use it to help others or make money, exploit people, etc).
As we parted with this last bit of flash fresh in consciousness, I was flooded with a torrent of insights. Everyone who has ever been a valuable teacher in my life — Love-Ananda, Ramesh Balsekar, Ramana Maharshi, Bernadette Roberts, Saniel, Lawrence and Ardeliza, Buddha, and even Joel R. — their words began to reverberate in my mind with a new understanding that can be summed up as, “Holy shit, that’s what they were talking about. Man, it’s so clear now!” I was particularly reminded of Bernadette Robert’s admonition that there is no individual self at all. Saniel loves to quote Buddha’s famous statement of his enlightenment, “A tacit understanding, that is all." This was so clear; that shift of recognition is so subtle, so ordinary, but as Lawrence says, “Everything hinges on that.” An expression that Lawrence used to describe awakening, “consciousness recognizes itself,” arose very loudly in mind, and again it was clear, “oh thaaat’s what he meant!! He wasn’t trying to be esoteric, but was accurately describing how Awakening takes place!” I could understand why Buddha felt that this was not in the reach of the common man, and initially thought about being quiet. You could spend your whole life with Being becoming Obvious in every moment of your meditation, but if that tacit shift of recognition of “I Am That” does not occur to reveal your Self-Nature in every moment, you are still a seeker, the musk deer in search of the source of the scent of musk originating from its own belly.
I have read many accounts of the events of Awakening from various spiritual traditions, some of the more famous being getting one’s face slapped with a sandal (Naropa), severing a student’s arm with a sword (Bodhidharma), smashing one’s third eye with a glass shard (Ramakrishna), having sex ( Saniel!), writing a contrarian confession on the monastery wall (Hui Neng, 6th Zen Patriarch). What came to me in the moments after leaving Arjuna, and reflected in so many stories, and in Ardeliza’s own words, was how simple, how obvious the Truth is, this I am. It’s truly so in front of everyone’s face that it will be missed, even though accurate words may be communicated about it over and over. It certainly was in my case; I have heard the words Consciousness, Being, Isness, Suchness maybe thousands of times, but until it became Obvious in this waking consciousness, it was still an unsolved puzzle, an enigma. I just couldn’t see it — Being, Consciousness, even though I was being it every moment!! Buddha’s description of Tagathata (translated as Suchness or Isness) really rang true for me in those after-moments. I felt sympathy with all those simple Zen haikus that newly awakened individuals would spontaneously espouse (in fact, it seemed very corny if it weren’t for the fact that it was so real for me in the moment).
What seemed to be very clear to me was that I no longer misunderstood. I had been alive with a misunderstanding ever since I became an aware ego as a toddler. Even with the advent of the Ground of Being becoming apparent weeks before my “breakthrough,” there was still the assumption of a “separate I” apparently looking at external phenomenon. To understand is such a small, yet momentous shift, and Love-Ananda’s description of “The man of Understanding” expressed in his teaching makes so much sense to me. Not the man of absorption, ascension, descension, bliss, intuition, insight, cosmic consciousness, but understanding. Right on the mark!!
Traditions have used the analogy of being Awake, “waking up,” etc. I thought about this and had the firm conviction that I was never “asleep”. In fact, it seemed absolutely clear that my Self-Nature was prior to time, and had nothing to do with time or space. The dialectic of asleep versus awake didn’t seem to be completely accurate to me. The sense of no longer misunderstanding (“to miss the understanding”) was much more real and descriptive of what occurred. In fact, I simply knew that I had made a fundamental misunderstanding, ignoring or forgetting who I am for my whole life, but I feel a complete conviction that I always have been awake.
Text copyright © 1995 Phil Servedio. Used by permission.
When we published this journal in 2000, Phil Servedio was 45 years old, worked as a software engineer, and lived in California with his wife Annie.
This page was published on February 22, 2000 and last revised on September 3, 2019.