Is That All There Is?

by Dr. Allan Anderson

An Interview

Dr. Anderson taught the spiritual traditions of India, the Far East, and the Oracular traditions at San Diego State University. Though he is currently retired, a group of students continue to meet with him weekly—they simply don’t want to graduate from his class. I heard of Allan some years ago, but only met when we had a chance to work on a video project together. His utter sincerity, unbounded enthusiasm, and brilliant flashes of truth struck me immediately. One day he recited the poem “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which he discovered as a child. It amazed me how he could take what I had once thought of as a rather ordinary poem, and see it as a metaphorical description of crossing the ocean of existence. From a young age Allan realized that identifying with one’s Original Nature freed him from the conditioning that life continually imposed upon him.
—Matthew Greenblatt

IDJ: A visitor once asked a well- known swami from the Ramakrishna Order about the efficacy of following a dualistic rather than a non-dualistic approach to God. The swami humorously replied. “A dualist with experience is a lot better off than a non-dualist with no experience.” I have never forgotten the truth and humor of his answer. Perhaps the main thing is to get wet in the waters of Spirit. Whether one jumps into the water, gets pushed in, or simply falls in, the main thing is to get wet and not be overly concerned with how one arrived there.

Sometimes we set goals for ourselves or subscribe to certain ideas about spiritual life, when perhaps what we really need to do is simply open to that which really is.
Allan: I suppose some of us would be described as, at least by temperament, “ecstatic”; seeming lunatics who in their adulthood run around hugging trees, that sort of thing. But, isn’t that an ecstatic massive affirmation of our natural state? Isn’t that our original innocence, which under the influence of culture as we grow up, we lose touch with?

I never settled for abandoning this world of total delight. Perhaps William Blake’s way of being in the world, which comes through in so many extraordinarily beautiful lyrics, is appropriate. Once, a visitor who came to see Blake inquired of his wife where he (the poet) was, and if they could meet. To this Blake’s wife answered, “Oh, well, Mr. Blake is always in paradise.”

Perhaps the many systems of religion and philosophy have taught us that the world we see is really something to be turned away from. I feel, as some of the Taoist sages taught, that a distinction need not be made; they simply reveled in the beauty of the world, and of the moment, finding what the world offered as an opportunity for abiding in the Ultimate at any time, all the time.

IDJ: In traditional Eastern spiritual teachings, the question of “the world” is a very serious matter that has to be handled intellectually, often before one can be expected to make spiritual progress. It is a subject that seekers can get stuck on, so much so that they may take up the practice of reclusiveness by living in solitude, or in caves, etc. in an effort to solve the question of how to handle “the world.”
Allan: We were speaking earlier of the Taoist’s way. There is an extremely fine line, a razor’s edge, between a massive ecstatic acclamation, if you will and, on the other hand, an equally massive recoil from the sheer monotony of things endlessly coming to be and passing away.

One of the things about ambitious austerity that I find deeply unfortunate is that it really comes down to a self-serving troubling over one’s identity; yet, while I’m not supposed to be hooked on it at all, it is this very thing that is consuming me.

IDJ: The simple, open way of learning from a sage that was common in ancient times has been replaced by monastic institutions and spiritual organizations. To participate today, the seeker is usually asked to submit his will completely to those in a position of authority, thereby joining the crowd.
Allan: In the deep sense of the word, “authority” really means self. It’s a word that comes from the Greek, autos. While these teachers are not sages, they are treated as though they were, which naturally leads to the timid creation of a body of dogma upon which no end of doctrines accumulate. How, but for the sheerest act of grace, can anyone caught in such a loop ever get out of it? Because that’s precisely what confirms them and affirms them, in what they think they are, which in itself is a self-misunderstanding. And this goes on century after century in various forms.

As long as one is somehow taken up with the notion that there is something to understand, which I do not yet understand, one is going to project this notion in a void that should someday—it is hoped—be filled with understanding. The genuine teachers are always talking about dropping something, not gaining anything. This lust to understand is a product of self-misunderstanding. The one thing needful is not to understand, but no longer to misunderstand.

IDJ: Perhaps through whatever tradition we approach Reality, if we inquire directly into the nature of what we are, we begin to see what we are not. And if we continue to inquire into our true nature, maybe a natural divestiture takes place and what we are ultimately remains. But the question is this: is there a certain packva, or fitness, required to “see” this? Is this idea of effort and attainment just part of the drama that one has to go through in life in order for a certain maturity of mind to take place? Once mature, the truth of the teaching which one has heard for years becomes alive, confirming the inner teacher that was always there, but never recognizable. Is this whole process nothing more than becoming like dry kindling, so when we do get a spark from the teacher, or from anything, at any moment, the flame of understanding can ignite?
Allan: Well, the wonderful text of Micah in the old Testament comes to mind: “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?” Is there anything in there about “understanding?” Not a word. Simply, “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Now we don’t need to get into a long song and dance about what on earth we mean by God, but let us take the clause of the text. The genuinely humble person isn’t walking around with a self-image. He is not trying to understand if it is an adequate self image, an inadequate one, or how it would be not to have one. This is a great self-contradictory notion, since there would have to be somebody there, you see, to understand how it is, not to have somebody there.

The whole thing is so absurd; it would appear for the most part that humility is the most terrifying prospect of all, because the truly humble person is a person who does not have the fantasy of thinking “I am this persona.” We ought to be careful around him, because we don’t know what he is likely to do; he might be carted off for clinical observation a half hour from now. He has no fixed conceptual thread by which to measure anything. He doesn’t need it. He needs primal intuition which warns him what not to “do.” On obeying that, everything else falls into place. He doesn’t consult his persona because his original nature is continually providing him with what the Mahayana Buddhist terms “nudging suchness.” What else does he need, and what does he have to understand? So it seems to me that humorous as it all appears, this lust for understanding is the greatest evidence of self-misunderstanding.

IDJ: Would you say that listening to oneself—being in touch with this primal intuition— is the first step in creating an inner order?
Allan: I’d say, listening to one’s self is the first step not in creating but in receiving order.

If we are speaking of order in the most radical sense, order is essentially already the case; the disorder is my self-misunderstanding which estranges me from it. So authentic listening to myself is listening to my original nature by which I receive the order that is intrinsic to it.

IDJ: It is available to anyone at any time?
Allan: Yes, it’s available to anyone at any time, at the point that they are willing to confess to themselves that they really have reached a point of no return. Like Peggy Lee’s popular song, “Is that all there is?” hardly anybody will really ask that question seriously, but I think it is a first-class question. We prefer to sleep with the idea that “somehow this is not all there is, there is something still out there for me to understand. That my ship has yet to come home,” is sad from the point of view of human pain. Still, it is within this serious play of the Self (with a capital S).

I think it’s of utmost concern that one not get the notion that the moving from self-misunderstanding to self-awareness is some sort of process. There is nothing about it that is a process; it is a matter of instantaneous awakening. An instant has no duration.

IDJ: Do you think there is a subtle and grosser way of approaching the question of effort?
Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between a conscious awareness, as opposed to a conscious concentration. There has to be some kind of in-turning of the mind, of looking; a transition in which one can openly move in and out of Awareness normally.

Allan: When one is outside through self-misunderstanding, the sphere of order varies within oneself. One simply will undertake “something,” whether it be the discipline of yoga or comically, you might say, the discipline of bhoga (pleasure). I call it a discipline because people who pursue pleasure mean business in pursuing it, taking pains not to suffer pain.

Regardless of what the character of the effort is, our nature has built into us a propensity toward self correction, though we might be deluded as to the better way to become corrected. But, willy-nilly, we are going to go about trying to correct ourselves, isn’t that right?

IDJ: Yes.
Allan: I would say in a sense that we could speak of doing, but this doing when looked at from the side of Spirit is really quite compulsive; there is nothing free about it. Real freedom is not having to choose. So all this paraphernalia that has come down to us in religious literature, prescribing various works, simply reflects this compulsion toward self-correction. It’s astonishing what credit we give ourselves about being free, especially in the West. But, until one no longer misunderstands oneself, which is not to say that “I have finally understood myself,” one is un-free, and not yet free not to misunderstand. So, I think that’s the reason why in the canonical traditions, you have the placing of effort historically before no effort. I don’t think the concept of effortlessness in the literature is an exception to that. It is effort that comes first. The distinction I am making here is that we give ourselves the notion that that is freedom. For, within the un-freedom of this effort, we give ourselves the most shocking airs that we are really doing something authentic.

These subjects are so often discussed with such long faces. You just wonder what that’s all about, you know.

IDJ: We certainly take ourselves much too seriously. And, since we feel we are the ones making the effort, it becomes a serious matter.
Allan: It is from the side of the persona that all these barking of orders are generated and much effort is made. Whether we refer to Ultimate Spirit as the Lord, the Unconditioned, or whatever name we assign it, it is always something that allows us not the freedom to fail but the opportunity to do ourselves in. I find this on the one hand something that has a profoundly sad quality to it, but on the other hand, as we noted earlier on, something that is ironically very funny.

IDJ: As we become more and more estranged from our original nature we pass this estrangement along to our children. Consequently, there is more and more pain and suffering. Whether real or perceived, it becomes a harder road for them because we are really not leaving them any kind of legacy.
Allan: Yes, this illusion seems to progress virtually exponentially. It provides one with plenty of thoughts about all these claims that somehow or other things have to get better, that somehow or other there is such a thing as essential progress. Here we are clear down these millennia and we are still going at it tooth and claw in our attitude toward one another. So where is the progress? But while the world is riddled with the sameness in its failure to get better, at the same time it is suffused with grace. So what is there to despair about? Suffused with grace, you see, is the key issue.