Reflections on Self Inquiry

by Robert Rabbin

robert_rabbin_origThe following selections are from correspondence between Rob Rabbin and Kriben Pillay, editor of the Noumenon newsletter.

I am a transparency, thousands of dragonfly wings stacked five feet high, that’s all! And so it continues, until one day, the traveler, the path, the journey, and all the sights disappear, and somewhere a fruit never seen by human eyes falls ripely into its own mouth.

Let me first speak to this notion of enlightenment. If enlightenment means the endgame of spiritual practice, a kind of safe-at-home plate accomplishment, or an equivalent attainment bequeathed by sudden grace, then I would be inclined to say all claims of enlightenment are advertisers’ deceptions and politicians’ promises. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would say this about themselves or accept this concrete saddle from anyone else. It would be more in keeping with how things are to say that we are enlightening—rather than enlightened—meaning that we are committed to a life path of increasing and expanding clarity, awareness, and freedom. Still, at some point, even enlightening would have to give way to something more mature and accurate; perhaps only a noiseless stare from deep-set eyes, or a slow lengthy in-breath towards disappearance. Regardless of how we might define enlightenment, it is such a loaded term and triggers so many fanciful delusions that we really ought to stay away from it. Whatever enlightenment might mean, we can be sure of one thing: it doesn’t happen to anyone. As rogue master Chogyam Trungpa said, enlightenment is the great and final disappointment; it is the dissolution of all such egoic fantasies and grand hopes. If anyone claims to be enlightened, or accepts this mantle from others, you can be assured they are a horse’s ass.

Self-inquiry is neither pleasing nor pleasant. It is not reasonable or rational. Rather, it is unfathomable and brutal, both in its method and outcome. No one in their right mind would embark on this path. Self-inquiry is not a board game or a process that gives comfort to the mind. It is, as the sign over Eido Roshi’s zendo warns, “Not a safe haven, but a furnace room for the combustion of egoistic delusions.” If self-inquiry ends with an assertion, a solution, or a rigid point of view, then the inquiry has not gone far enough. If self-inquiry produces comfort or solace, or a feeling of centeredness or of belonging, then the inquiry is not energetic enough. If self-inquiry culminates in certainty of knowing or principles of living, then the inquiry is insincere. If self-inquiry suggests that one idea or concept, or one experience, is better than another, then the inquiry is too idealistic.

Still, some people do embark on this death march. Why? Because—and this is a mystery in itself—one day, one suddenly becomes willing to feed one’s rightness to the swans, to become naked of belief, solace, comfort, safety, security, even self. Along the way, people speak of their evolving understanding in confident tones of rightness.

For the first few miles of this journey, for the first few hundred years, we are excited about the new sights and experiences. From rightness to rightness, mile after mile, we continue our journey. When one investigates the self, one can easily experience a moment of emptiness, a flash of light, recognition of something ineffable. From this place, we can wonder who, in fact, is seeing, who is doing, and what there is to know. A slow-motion dawning of perfect order, symmetry, and realization warms us with streaks of crimson, turning to gold, and then to incandescence. We say we have transformed from the self to the Self, or that we have recognized that the self lives in the Self.

This is remarkable in the extreme. Certainly, this is how it is! Oh, God, of course! I am a transparency, thousands of dragonfly wings stacked five feet high, that’s all! And so it continues, until one day, the traveler, the path, the journey, and all the sights disappear, and somewhere a fruit never seen by human eyes falls ripely into its own mouth.

When the young fruit of self-inquiry becomes ripe, full, mature, and falls—by itself, from itself—into spontaneous insight, the world-as-an-object disappears, totally. Practical objectivity remains, so one can still easily avoid walking into a wall or being mowed down by a bus. But, all knowledge pertaining to living, reality, philosophy, and so on becomes a function of the total present. Nothing in this regard is known or remembered: all insight is spontaneous, new, unprecedented, and generated by the various elements in the total present. In a manner of speaking, everything is responsive unto itself. Empirical knowledge of objects is impossible: the preposition “about” cannot breathe in this fiery hurricane of spontaneous knowledge. It is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of mathematics. The aspect of mind that used to formulate knowledge “about” dies. It is a casualty of the maturing fruit of inquiry. Metaphysical information, spiritual belief systems, theories of reality, the assayer’s report on consciousness: all this is last year’s news and as useless as a pail with no bottom.

When the force of inquiry is sufficiently roused and awakened, an extreme moment comes. After that moment, the object becomes the subject, the subject becomes the object, and knowing itself takes the place of knower and known. From that moment, nothing can make the difference that it once did. What you read does not uplift you. What you hear does not inspire you. What you practice does not alter you. What you experience does not transform you. This is the extreme moment, after which everything is different; and no matter what you may have thought, it is still different than that.

On the far side of the extreme moment, the mind functions as a slide rule, or a food processor, or a zip drive. It has only practical function. Our lives are layered and textured with many levels and dimensions: the personal realm of existence includes the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual domains. In each of these domains, certain principles and understandings prove to be useful and true. In the transpersonal realm of existence, other principles and understandings prove to be useful and true. In the realm of pure silence and awareness, which transcends even the transpersonal, principles and understandings are nonexistent: only intuitive and spontaneous freedom exists. In silence and pure awareness, there is no doer, no knower, no separate functioning at all—only life itself exists, and all forms are the expressions of life itself. In this realm, knowing and action occur without prior consideration, consent, or intention of the individual. Everything happens together, all at once, without strategic purpose. Here, no trace of personal conditioning, desire, avoidance, grasping, suffering or happiness remains.

One could say the extreme moment signifies one’s passage from duality to nonduality, where one no longer experiences oneself as separate from the whole of creation. However, this extreme moment must be actual, not conceptual. Nonduality as a concept is but the flip side of duality, and thus one’s life remains bound in partiality and striving. If we only embrace nonduality as a concept, we will continue to experience confusion, conflict, and unfulfilled longing. If the extreme moment is experienced as a fact, then we lose what we are most attached to, namely, the story lines of our own life. Are we really willing for this to happen?

If we talk about nonduality as our experience, in contrast to duality, I wonder if we aren’t still trapped in the pairs of opposites, pushing one away while hugging the other close to our body for protection against fear, doubt, and loneliness.

I prefer the word “silence” to suggest the encounter with the extreme moment. Silence embraces all opposites, including duality and nonduality. Silence is the spontaneous resolution of separation, conflict, questions, and concerns about the story of one’s life. Within silence, everyone is right, because silence does not exclude anything. Within silence, we no longer wonder, “What will happen to me?” Within silence, we live as children of mysterious, yet loving parents, here and not here, there and not there. Can we learn to live in such silence?

All inquiry leads to silence. It is in this silence that what is to happen, happens. In this silence there is freedom; and in this freedom, invention. What is invented is spontaneous, original, as unique to each one as their fingerprints. What is invented is also a mayfly: here and gone in almost the same instant. This freedom is unimaginable and unutterable, which is why it is always preceded by silence. We might say silence is John the Baptist, yelling his head off about what is to come, and freedom is the Christ, soaked with invisible truth. It goes without saying that people in whom this vast mystery of silence lives as their only brain, their only voice, their only heart are rare indeed.

Robert Rabbin is the author of The Sacred Hub, Invisible Leadership, Echo’s of Silence, and Radical Wisdom: Living from Silence while Rocking the Worldwww.robertrabbin.com