Then you start to try to give them some guidance around how to work with feeling. The bottom line is that feelings just want to be felt. You look at the great masters, even that incredible Russian writer Dostoevsky, who said, “What seems bad to you within yourself will grow pure by the very fact of you observing it.” In this modern consumer society when pleasure has become the focal point, the whole motivation for living, for a lot of people, has become the pursuit of pleasure. Pain then becomes very scary. Our nervous system in its most primitive sense is based on survival; it’s always checking to see if you’re either safe, and therefore you’re resting and healing, or unsafe, in which case you’re in ‘fight or flight’; you’re in a defensive or attacking mode. Generally, the way we live in now is that we are always checking subconsciously, “Oh, it’s pleasurable therefore it’s good,” or, “It’s painful therefore it’s bad.” If it’s painful we try to change it or fix it, and the way we try to fix it is by thinking. Research tells us we’re generating somewhere in the region of 50,000 thoughts a day. So, I look at people and go, OK, let’s chill you out; let’s learn how to relax around feelings and reduce your thinking and agitation by realising that pleasure and pain are actually equal. If you do anything pleasurable to an extreme it usually becomes painful, you know.
Too much of a good thing as they say … all of those old sayings ring true. When people relax they can start to rise up into more of a place of wisdom, let go of chasing the next pleasure fix and ask, “What’s the meaning in my life? What means something to me?” That’s where, at the end of my Buddhist training, I kind of went. I realised what really meant something to me was to go back to where I came from, not to talk about religion, but about my own struggle and find other young people who I believed were struggling. At that time especially, ten years ago in Australia, youth suicide was massive. I started volunteering at a drug rehab centre for 18 to 24-year-olds.
So, when you went off on that journey did you have a clear picture that you wanted to come back eventually?
My intention was to go and come back, but before I knew it a few years had passed. It was kind of like, “Well, the purpose of your life is to get enlightened and until you are it’s very difficult to really know what to do,” which is kind of true.
How do you know when you’re enlightened?
Classically there’s a whole process to the path to enlightenment and that’s what you spend 20 years in a cave working towards.
Even that gets dumbed down in the West with the notion of ‘instantaneous enlightenment’.
I think a lot of Buddhists laugh down their sleeve at modern self-help gurus who are considered enlightened. It all depends on your definition of enlightenment. For example, I think Eckhart Tolle is fantastic; he’s doing incredible good in the world. Classically speaking, he’s not enlightened; he’s just a special man who’s sharing a philosophy, but I know that a lot of my clients suffering from depression read his books and it brings them some comfort, which is a good thing.
As simply as possible, what are some of the basic tenets of enlightenment?
OK, here we go. You could say that there are three principal aspects of enlightenment. The first is renunciation, because the pursuit of pleasure indicates that you’re still in a lot of pain and you’re trying to compensate for that pain using external means … This is kind of living out a narcissistic reality. When you realise that stuff isn’t going to solve your problems, that’s a major revelation. I think that’s a revelation a lot of young Western people perhaps will come to because they’ve grown up in such a wealthy society and are thinking, “Wow, my parents and everyone around me had stuff and they’re not happy; they’ve still got sickness; they’re still struggling; they’re still getting divorced.” Relationships are a classic example of one area of suffering. So, renunciation is getting to the point where you go, “Ah, the source of my pain is internal and the solution therefore is internal.” So you get busy trying to transcend the pleasure/pain paradigm. I call it, the struggle. Buddha talked about craving and aversion, the struggle, being scared of pain, pursuing pleasure, so it’s a neurotic cycle. As soon as you go beyond this struggle and preoccupation, your own pain falls away, you transcend it and what happens naturally is that the second path, compassion, opens. You are moved then because you see everyone around you is in pain and the more peace you find, the more apparent other people’s pain is. Your heart gets heavy with that kind of compassion and you go, my God, we are like the height of the Roman Empire and it’s collapsing around us. We’re on the Titanic, we’re about to hit this iceberg. Everybody’s telling us; they’re ringing the bells, but we’re so obsessed with our consumption and our own pain that we can’t help ourselves to save ourselves. That seems very judgmental on one hand, but there’s no judgment, there’s just absolute raw love for mankind, for animals, for nature, and your heart breaks open. So, that’s the second stage: absolute love and compassion. Then the third and final stage, which is really the pièce de résistance, the cherry on top, you know … The cake itself is renunciation, the icing is the compassion but the cherry is this transcendent self. It’s mystified a lot in Buddhism and Hinduism and there’s a lot of debate around it. They call it ‘emptiness’, but basically it’s when you realise that you are not an individual, that your sense of self is not correct, that you realise that metaphorically you are like a wave on a vast ocean of waves. On the surface, sitting here right now, you, me and the tape recorder look like three separate things; but in reality, if we follow your path down to your depth, and we follow me down to my depth, and the tape recorder and that person driving that old car and everything down to the depth, and if we go deeper and deeper, we come to the depth of this one ocean that is the source of every wave and everything. In that essence your selfishness, your unconscious assertion of self, falls away and you realise that you are just a part of every thing. You still function conventionally, but you realise that your egoic self is just a temporary phenomena. When those three things come together – renunciation, compassion and wisdom – they become what in Buddhism they call a ‘realisation’, which is irreversible.
It sounds fairly simple and yet I imagine it’s not.
I see that there are two ways. You can just get wisdom and live in a cave, try to realise those things, and when you get it go, “Great. Well, I’m a Buddha and I can do all these groovy things and I can help serve the world,” or, you can be someone like myself, which I believe a lot of Buddhists are and go, “Well, yep, that’s my pursuit so that I can become more and more qualified as a helper, but I’m going to just get busy with what I can get my hands on right now.” If that’s pulling beers in a bar and being friendly and considerate to the people around me, if that’s working as a waitress in a restaurant, or being an electrician, whatever it is, that’s up to you.
So that’s the thing, you don’t have to necessarily become a humanitarian aid worker?
What I had to really accept, and I really encourage my young crew to too, is to be authentic. Like when I was trying to be my teacher, I’m not, you know, a mid-70s, yoda-looking, Tibetan who speaks with a Tibetan accent and is very mindful and an exquisite being who’s been trained and educated since he was a child, I’m not that.
You’re a guy that surfs every day.