Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Book Excerpt - Living Reality:
Chapter Two. Sailor Bob and Barb Arrive

James Braha

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James Braha

The extract below is taken from James' book, which may be purchased from his website.

Link to entry on Current Teachers page

Sailor Bob and Barb Arrive
July 14, 2004

By the time Bob and Barbara arrived on a warm Florida summer night, the excitement my wife Vashti and I felt was palpable. The thought of having a teacher in our house who was steeped in the understanding of non-duality, and whose search had ended some thirty years earlier, left me feeling that I must be dreaming. In the thirty years that I had been on the spiritual path and participated in many movements, I had never actually gotten really close to any of the gurus. And it had been a long time since I felt as comfortable with a spiritual teacher’s motives as I did with Bob’s. So many of the so-called enlightened masters of our age had, in my mind, proved fraudulent. The pattern was always the same. Teachers began their movements with nothing but apparent love and compassion, and in the end left behind trails of scandals, greed, sexual shenanigans, and abuse of power. Indeed, for nearly fifteen years during my thirties and forties, I had wondered whether enlightenment was genuine, and if so, what it was worth since so many of these so-called gurus had little or no integrity and occasionally behaved so badly.

The issue of poorly behaved gurus was more than a pet peeve of mine when Bob arrived. From the age of twenty-one to twenty-seven, I taught meditation and participated intensely in a spiritual movement. After becoming disillusioned with my teacher for what I considered offensive behavior, I left. It was a painful affair, but nothing a few years of grieving could not repair. The issue, however, kept re-surfacing as more and more world-famous gurus were coming under scrutiny. For varying misdeeds, many gurus were being “outed” by their disciples through word of mouth, books, magazine articles, and so forth. By the mid-1980s I had become famous in metaphysical circles for writing the first clear Hindu/Vedic astrology book for the Western world, and I began practicing astrology for spiritual seekers all over the globe. As such, I began hearing first-hand stories from people who had been disillusioned or abused by their gurus in one way or another. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and, of course, not everyone believes the disconcerting stories about famous gurus that have been making the rounds for so long. But I did and still do.

Much of why I began believing was because I kept hearing extremely similar descriptions about the same teachers from different clients. Every time I heard stories of Guru A, the tales regarded sexual misconduct. All the stories about Guru B centered around lying and financial shenanigans. Stories about Guru C consistently revolved around disciples being traumatized in the name of “ego busting,” while the teacher allowed himself to be worshiped and adored like a god. And so my process went. Most important, perhaps, was that so many of the incidents I heard about came from people who had been members of the inner circle of the guru involved. I heard from secretaries, chauffeurs, lovers, and close friends of these leaders. It was difficult to disbelieve so many unrelated people who, as I far as I could tell, had no reason whatsoever to lie.

Because I no longer felt devoted to any teacher, my main concern was not about any particular guru. It was about the nature and the authenticity of liberation. Mind you, I greatly respected most of the teachers who had occasionally behaved so badly for having written tremendously inspiring and genuine spiritual texts. Not to mention giving out all kinds of spiritual techniques and methods that helped many thousands of seekers improve their lives! Most of these gurus were, in my mind, clearly enlightened. At the same time, the stories I heard were terrible, in terms of integrity and morals. Thus, I was faced with quite a conundrum.

Throughout my search, I had many times read and heard that a person’s level of awareness cannot be judged by his or her behavior. But I had never fully understood or believed that fact. I believed, somehow, that liberated beings behaved more or less perfectly, with impeccable self-control, and certainly not selfishly. I also believed that liberated beings were free from desires and personal preferences. These were, I now see, serious misunderstandings. As long as one exists in manifest creation—as long as one has a body and mind—there will be preferences. This does not mean there will be attachment to desires and preferences. But preferences will certainly continue to arise, sometimes to be acted upon and sometimes not—depending apparently on one’s choices and decisions, while in reality depending only on the proceedings of the illusory world we inhabit! When Bob arrived, however, I did not know all this. At that time, I expected liberated beings to behave, at a minimum, with honesty and integrity. Thus, I was happy when, upon meeting Bob, I found he seemed to meet my expectations. I was pleased that, like some of the other non-dual authors I had read, Bob was thrilled with his freedom to be “nobody.” He was more than content to let go of the seemingly universal human obsession to find meaning and significance and personal advancement in a world understood to be illusory in the first place. Most enjoyable for me were the stories Sailor Bob told about his teacher, Nisargadatta Maharaj, throwing people out of his room if they insisted on treating him with devotion and awe. Nisargadatta knew that non-duality is about oneness, not “I am realized; you are not.”

I perceived Sailor Bob to be a simple man with no ambition other than to help others awaken to the knowledge he had learned from Nisargadatta thirty years earlier. He had created no scandals, no great wealth, no power trips, and I doubted that at age seventy-five he was about to start. His sincerity and compassion were obvious both from his writing and our phone conversations, which he often ended by saying, “Love ya.” Further, as already mentioned, I had experienced a strong sense of resonance from the instant I began reading his book. So, when Bob finally arrived, I felt like thirty years of prayers had been answered. I could not believe my luck.

Although I was happy about having unlimited access to Bob for his Advaita understanding, I was more excited about meeting someone who had been living non-duality for so long. I could easily gain Bob’s teachings from his book and CDs. What I really wanted was intimate interaction. I also wanted to judge Bob’s authenticity for myself. I needed to know whether the wonderful teachings in his books and lectures matched the man. Truth be told, I was also curious to see whether Bob was going to exhibit any of the many special “powers” that are often promoted as being connected to self-realization. But, for now, sitting in the Tampa Airport at 9:30 on a Wednesday night, I just wanted to meet this very special couple and get them to a bed as fast as humanly possible. Their entire journey from Melbourne to California to Chicago to Florida, including all the hours spent in airports, totaled a full thirty-seven hours of travel. How grueling.

When Bob and Barb finally walked into view, they were tired but smiling. The four of us hugged, and when my eyes finally met Bob’s for an extended moment, I was struck by a peaceful sort of emptiness. His expression was unusually present—right here, right now. It was as if he was unaffected by the past hurts, complexes, opinions, positions, and stances that make up the auras of most human beings. Of course, I could have been projecting all of this. But I wasn’t the only one with this reaction. In the next five weeks many commented on Bob’s peaceful and free appearance. I was immediately impressed that Bob appeared to be living what he had spoken of in his book and lectures.

Early the next morning, our private talks began. Bob established a habit of emerging from the cottage around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. and sitting on our back-yard deck under the fruit trees. I joined him there the first few mornings. Foremost on my mind was a problem that had plagued me for more years than I can remember. Why was life so badly designed? Who created a world where torture was possible? How could we live our lives enjoyably, knowing that death is right around the corner? How could we sleep well at night knowing that on any given day thousands of Africans are being murdered, having limbs hacked off, and/or starving to death? How could Saddam Hussein drop people in boiling oil or tie them down and send them head first into huge wood-cutting machines? What kind of creator would make such an existence, and why would He/She/It do such a dastardly thing?

These questions had haunted me for so long that by now I was unaware of how much damage they were doing to my psyche and energy level. For many years these questions had arisen nearly every night while I was waiting to fall asleep. And they had gotten worse since the Iraq War, which was now looking like the beginning of World War III.

Of course, many people simply adopt a selfish attitude and get along fine as long as they are not the ones being murdered, tortured, and so on. But I was not built that way. As long as anyone is suffering, I could not see how I was supposed to live happily ever after. Compassion aside, I always knew that what happened to others could just as easily happen to me. Thus, in 2004, with world affairs going downhill at breakneck speed, my dilemma was only getting worse. I hoped Sailor Bob could provide some answers.

July 15 – Day 1

James: You say that the reference point is false. Can’t we say that the mind, or thoughts, are the reference point?

Bob: Yes, but thought has no substance; you can’t grasp a thought—it has no independent nature. Can you have a thought without awareness? Is a thought independent?

James: No.

Bob: So, the thought is believed to be the reference point because we’ve never questioned it. As soon as that “I” thought comes upon a little child, he believes “this is what I am.” He goes through his reasoning, and if he wasn’t good at school that day, he thinks, “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m not smart enough.” He adds all these thoughts to form that mental picture. But that “I” thought on its own can’t be grasped. It’s nothing. The reference point, or self center, is just a bunch of images. It’s got no independent nature. We’re being driven by a phantom.

James: Ever since I’ve been studying Advaita, I’ve been wondering this: If it’s not us doing things, who’s doing it? We’re being lived, right? Who’s living us?

Bob: [Laughing] James . . . who wants to know? That’s your false self center again. That’s the ego again, thinking you and I are so great that we’re doing the thinking, or something “out there” is doing the thinking.

 In nature, there’s just one movement of energy!

James: Did something create all this existence?

Bob: It isn’t created; it’s transient. As our reference point, we think of a life of billions of years, and we can’t conceptualize it. But nothing’s ever been created.

James: So, this conversation is not happening?

Bob: Well, it’s happening in the appearance. If a cloud comes along, is it attached to the sky?

James: No.

Bob: Well, that’s just like the concepts that come into your mind. What happens to the cloud in the sky? It comes along and then blows away. Use the metaphor of “space-like awareness.” It’s like space, empty. But, instead of being empty in a void, like space, it’s “cognizing emptiness.” It has that capacity of knowing. It’s imbued with a natural intelligence—not like the intellect that knows this and that. But pure intelligence, the same intelligence that is functioning in the universe, is keeping the stars in orbit and causing the wind to blow and all that. The pure intelligence is making the trees grow, and it’s beating your heart and growing your fingernails; it’s doing all those things right now. It’s causing your thoughts to happen. But that’s just like clouds in the sky, not attached anywhere. It just comes and then moves on. The energy is constantly vibrating.

James: I have this concept that there is this consciousness, or oneness.

Bob: Yes, you have a concept.

James: From this oneness sprang the appearance, right? That makes consciousness the creator, no?

Bob: Just take the ocean and the waves. On the ocean, a ripple or a wave appears. The wave may rise and splash or spray, but, what is it? It’s only water. It’s never been anything other than water—appearing as difference.

James: Okay, so what’s happening now between you and me is consciousness appearing as a conversation.

Bob: Don’t try to conceptualize consciousness. That’s only a label we put on it. It’s emptiness that has the capacity of knowing. I don’t mean knowing this or that, or the intellect. But knowing that you are right now. That’s prior to thought. Just that pure knowing, which you can’t negate.

James: So, it’s emptiness that is capable of knowing?

Bob: It’s not one that is capable of something. The two are actually one and the same. “Cognizing emptiness” or “emptiness cognizing.” That’s all.

James: What is cognizing?

Bob: Just seeing.

James: So, it’s just cognizing. There’s no intelligence behind it?

Bob: Well, you can say that cognizing is intelligence. Knowing is intelligence. Not the knower and the known, but pure knowing. So it’s the activity of knowing.

Right now, that knowing that you are is with you, isn’t it?

James: Yes.

Bob: Now, knowing is not the knower or the known. It’s actually what is happening now: knowing. So, it’s going on right now. That knowing is an activity, and activity is energy. So, pure intelligence energy is activity of knowing. That’s all it is. The world appears and disappears in that knowingness. The knowingness is just purely knowing. The appearance and disappearance can only be conceptualized from a reference point—from an erroneous belief! For example, take seeing. You’re seeing right now. Then the thought comes up, “I see.” But the actual seeing was happening before the thought. With the thought, you’ve created a pseudo-seer. When you say, “I see the tree,” you’ve created a pseudo-object—a subject and object in form. But can there be a seer or a seen without seeing?

James: No.

Bob: Those are just labels that we attach. Like the thinker and the thought. Always remember what Nisargadatta said, “You try to grasp it with a concept and you fail. And you are bound to fail, because you can never grasp it with a concept.” You must stop trying to conceptualize everything.

James: So everything is just happening?

Bob: Exactly. It’s all happening by itself, as itself. And nothing is happening!

James: How do you explain that nothing is happening?

Bob: Using the metaphor of space-like awareness, all this manifestation is the content of space. There’s nothing you can think of that’s outside of space. So the appearance is the content of space. If space is nothing, can something come from nothing?

James: Why does it feel so real?

Bob: [Laughing] To who?

James: To my thoughts.

Bob: Yes, and the thoughts are part of the appearance also! In essence, the appearance is real because it is made of presence awareness, which is real. Look at how a mirage appears real. Or the blue color of the sea. Within intelligence energy, patterns are forming and displaying as this manifestation.

James: For so many years, I’ve wondered how there could be a God that could allow all the horrible wars and torture and so on. But if the manifestation is an appearance, none of this is really happening. Right? Nothing is tragic, correct?

Bob: That’s right. The people were never born, and they can never die. They’re just patterns of energy. They appear, play around for a while, and then disappear. In fact, they’re still just the one intelligence energy. It’s never changed.

James: I have a question about spiritual experiences. Sometimes, usually late at night in bed, I suddenly feel infinite or vast—without any boundaries or limitations. The next day, I’ll tell my wife or my friend Kerry, “I had an experience.” But, actually, what has happened is that the feelings and thoughts that are usually going on have disappeared. The unboundedness I sometimes experience at night is actually always present, isn’t it.

Bob: Yes, but as soon as you labeled it an experience, then you’ve “taken delivery” of it from the reference point.

James: Yes, I understand that.

Bob: What happened was just experiencing, which the experience and the experiencer appear on. If your senses are wide open, and you’re not labeling everything, then you’re just seeing what is. And you’ll see the wonderful, magical display of it all, appearing and disappearing, without attributing it to a “me.”

James: Does life appear particularly interesting to you?

Bob: Again, to be interesting or boring, it has to be from a reference point. Sometimes there are periods of silence, even long periods; other times the chatter can be going on. I don’t prefer either one. The so-called silence that seekers talk about, I couldn’t care less about. Any more than I care about the chatter. They’re both experiences. I am that in which the experience takes place. And that’s constantly and always ever been the same. It is no thing. It’s no use trying to grasp it as a thing; it contains all things.

James: Now, when you make that statement, like Nisargadatta did, that you are that in which everything takes place, I understand it. But I can’t say that about myself. I am constantly taking delivery of stuff. You say you don’t care whether there are lots of thoughts or no thoughts. I can’t do that.

Bob: If I took delivery of the reference point, it would be the same. I’d be thinking,“I shouldn’t have done this,” or “I shouldn’t have said that.” But I’ve seen through the reference point. I’ve seen clearly. So, what comes up, comes up. That’s what I mean when I say, “I couldn’t care less.” It’s not me. It’s just that there’s no preference, there’s no partiality, no comparison. It’s just what is: unaltered, unmodified, uncorrected. The Buddhists talk about “what is.” Just the seeing—the actual functioning. The only thing you’ll ever alter, modify, or correct is a thought.

James: So, we’re going to have thoughts. The point is not to take delivery of them.

Bob: Yes, and there’s no one to not take delivery of them. Just seeing and recognizing.

James: Yes, well, you can say all this and write the books, and people will hear you and say, “Well, Sailor Bob can do that, and that’s great for him. But I can’t do that.” It seems to me that the significant part is conviction. I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t yet have the full conviction. . . .

Bob: Who doesn’t have the conviction? You’ve got that concept of you, and so you think things should be different. You’re seeing right now? You’re hearing right now? That knowingness that you are is with you now, right? You can’t negate that.

James: Right.

Bob: So, what’s this rubbish about not having the conviction? You go off on some conceptual thing. . . .

James: Right, but why don’t you go off on some conceptual thing?

Bob: Because I’ve seen that the reference point is false. Do you see what you’re doing? I’m pointing it out to you, and you’re going into the ifs and the buts and all. You’re going into the future. You move into time again. Time is a mental concept. You move into a so-called imaginary future. Or you go back into the past. But you don’t live in the future and the past. Everything happens in the Now. It’s like a cloud over the sun. It’s blocking out the knowingness of the Now. These ideas that “I don’t have this” or “I’ll get the conviction in the future” are keeping you away from it.

James: So it’s right here, right now?

Bob: Yes, it’s immediate. There’s nowhere to go.

James: Well, yesterday I got really angry at someone. A lady wrote me a letter that really bothered me.

Bob: That was yesterday, never mind the past. . . .

James: When it happened, I thought to myself, “Wait a minute; there is no James.” And still the upset remained.

Bob: Yes, because when you say, “There is no me,” that’s become a reference point. You might have seen there’s no James last week or last month or yesterday. But that’s dead, like all your other thoughts. You have to see it right now. Instead of simply saying, “There’s no me,” have a look. Investigate, in the Now. Look and see if you can find a self center or a “me.”

James: Well, at the time I got upset, I stopped and said to myself, “Who am I? I am presence awareness.” That was clear to me. And still upsetting thoughts continued.

Bob: But you were putting the concept “I’m presence awareness” on it. Without that concept, it’s simply “I am.” Full stop.

James: I tried being aware of the present moment. I looked around the room without labeling anything—just being aware. . . .

Bob: Without labeling anything, you just take in the whole thing. You notice that seeing is happening spontaneously, hearing is happening spontaneously, immediately.

James: Well, in any case, I still have to answer her letter.

Bob: That’s fine. Just do what you have to do. Let happen whatever happens. You might write to her while you’re pissed off. Or you might tell her off or whatever. But there’s no “you” that’s doing any of that. Whatever occurs is just the way it happens.

James: I see. Can we talk about this non-doer issue? That’s very conceptual for me.

Bob: Well, I’ll show you. You’re seeing right now, aren’t you?

James: Yes.

Bob: You’re hearing right now. Is your eye saying to you, “I see”? Is your ear saying to you, “I hear”?

James: No.

Bob: So the thought comes up to translate “I see” and “I hear.” But can that thought“I see”—can it see? And can the thought “I hear”—can it hear?

James: You’re telling me something that I’ve read in your book, or heard you say, twenty times. . . .

Bob: Well, listen to me right now. Can the thought “I see”—can it see?

James: No. The thought is garbage. It’s just a translation.

Bob: So the thought has no power whatsoever.

James: If the thought has no power, then there is no doer?

Bob: The thought “I am aware”—is that the awareness?

James: No, of course not.

Bob: The thought “I choose”—is that the choice maker? The thought “I think”—is that the thinker?

James: So, if the thought has no power, there is simply no doer?

Bob: Of course not. You see, thought has been so closely aligned to that intelligence. But, in fact, all it does is translate. It translates into words and labels that we communicate with. Thought is so closely aligned to pure intelligence energy that it’s come to believe that it is the pure intelligence energy. Now, when you see that the mind and the thoughts have no power, do you fall apart? Do you disappear?

James: No.

Bob: You realize that the living is going on quite effortlessly, without thinking. What’s wrong with right now, unless you think about it? You pause from thinking for a moment, and you still haven’t fallen apart. You’re still hearing, seeing, tasting, and life is still going on. You’re not relying on the thinking.

James: Yes. Bob, you have students who have been coming to you for years. What’s their story? Why don’t they eventually “full stop?”

Bob: Well, they don’t. . . . The same as you’re going on right now. [Laughter] But, there are also those who come along and see it right away.

James: So far, there is no “full stop” for me. My mind keeps going on and questioning. The mind keeps wanting a reference point.

Bob: You’re trying to stop the mind. But once you see it’s rubbish, just like the mirage on the road, you’re not bound by it.

James: Well, something is happening. Yesterday, I had that annoying letter from that lady, and I knew that my reaction was nonsense. So it only bothered me for an hour or so, and then it was gone. A few years ago, it would have upset me all day long, maybe longer. It’s gotten better.

Bob: Yes, it will.

James: But I don’t like that “it will” part. That’s in the future.

Bob: That’s true. But you will drop it quicker. The habit pattern is to see everything from a reference point. You’ve done that not once or twice, but constantly—day in and day out for all your life. We’ve hypnotized ourselves. But when you’ve questioned it and seen the falseness of it, you can no longer believe in it. Just like you can no longer believe there’s any water in a mirage.

James: Earlier I asked you if you find life exciting or boring. I asked because it seems like sometimes, when I am remarkably free of the reference point, everything suddenly appears new and fresh and amazing. Do you have judgments about the way life looks?

Bob: I don’t have judgments, but judgments come up.

James: What do you do with them?

Bob: They’re not mine. Who’s to take delivery of them. They come up and then they go. The whole pattern just goes on.

James: So, even the people who appear to take delivery of thoughts, they’re not really taking delivery—they’re just appearing to take delivery. Right?

Bob: Yes.

James: So the people who are suffering massively are really no different from us. It’s insignificant whether anyone awakens or not. You know, it’s hard for me to grasp sometimes. It reminds me of an expression my father used to say: “It doesn’t go through my head.”

Bob: Don’t try to conceptualize it. Stay in the experiencing and then you’ll enjoy it.

James: Bob, I love the thinking process, and that makes me want to conceptualize everything. Look at the magnificence of creation: math, science, art, millions of creatures, open-heart surgery, and so on. I always want to know who made existence. And the creation isn’t even real!

Bob: It’s like a reflection in a mirror. What’s making all these reflections? Why is this reflection better than the other one? [Laughing]

James: Life is so miraculous. There are millions of cells in the body constantly replacing themselves. Do you ever wonder how or why?

Bob: The hows and the whys are finished. Those would be movements away from it.

James: Because everything’s already happened?

Bob: Just be with the happening, and little insights will come up. And you’ll get answers that are satisfying.

James: When you had the experience with Nisargadatta where you suddenly understood what he was saying. . . .

Bob: I understood him, and I realized, “I’ll never be trapped in the mind again.” Then I walked out the door, and I was back in it! [Laughter] But it was never the same again. Of course, sooner or later the reference point would come up again, but then I’d realize, “Wait a minute; this is the same old nonsense,” and I’d see through it. Sometimes, like you said, it would hang around a few hours or a few days, and then it’s gone.

James: When did you see Nisargadatta?

Bob: In 1976.

James: Was there much of a difference in your experience of life in 1976 than ten years later because your experience had deepened?

Bob: It doesn’t deepen. But the stuff that is covering up presence awareness just drops off. It can’t deepen, because it’s purely That and That alone.

James: If, for example, you had an upsetting experience in 1976 like the one I had yesterday, wouldn’t there have been more annoyance than if it had happened in 1986?

Bob: Sure. But even in 1976 there was an immediate change....


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