Transcript from a meeting with James Eaton on 18 February, 2017
Q: I think I get that I am ‘that’ which watches what arises; I am experiencing what arises and falls away again. I see that everything arises and falls: my body and mind arise and fall, my pains in my joints arise and fall, and I can sometimes get sucked into them. But if I just breath enough, however terrifying or scary or whatever, it’s just part of what’s going on. But it still feels like I’m missing something.
James: Recognising you are the aware presence, the ‘witness’, is like being the sky. When you know yourself as the sky, then all the clouds that come along are welcome – it doesn’t matter what they look like, however dark or terrifying they seem to be – the sky is always there; the sky can’t be scraped or scratched. There are lots of other analogies for this, like being the paper upon which a story is written. The story itself could be totally horrific, but it doesn’t damage the paper; the paper unconditionally holds the story. So that realisation can be very helpful when facing all of the frozen grief, or whatever it is we’ve never been able to face, or that’s been handed down through our ancestry that no one ever processed, that wants to be heard, that wants to be acknowledged.
But what we’re doing here is going a step further; we’re realising that the witness position is a very useful tool – to dissolve the common conviction that what we are is inside a skull looking out through two eyes. So when we discover the witness, we realise that the sensations ‘inside the skull’ are being witnessed equally as, say, the sound of traffic. So we’ve made a shift from being ‘in here’ to being ‘nowhere’, experiencing all of life happening.
But there’s still a trickiness there, there’s an unbearable contradiction. You can’t say anything about witnessing presence – where is it, how big is it, where does it begin and end? So on the one hand we’ve got this ‘boundless’ witness, and on the other we’ve got a world ‘out there’ that’s separate from it. But you can’t have boundlessness with something that’s separate from it, that doesn’t compute. You can’t have infinity with a bit of finiteness inside it. So there’s this contradiction. Whether we conceptualise it like that or not doesn’t matter. We’ll feel it. We’ll feel there’s still something missing.
So that’s why we have to look ‘out there’ as well. And when we do, we start to realise that ‘out there’ is not a physical world in the way that we imagine it to be – it’s a play of perception. We soften it down to being a cocktail of sounds, colours, feelings, thoughts and so on. But even these are still conceptualised distinctions. So we could just say there is ‘what is’ arising; appearing and disappearing.
But where does it appear from, or disappear to?
Q: No idea
James: Exactly. To say where it appears from we have to go into a concept of a somewhere else. To say where it disappears to we have to go into a concept of a somewhere else. If we’re keeping simple, childlike, there is no ‘somewhere else’. So there’s no way in which anything can be said to appear even. So even the idea of a witness, it drops, and all we’re left with is ‘this’.
Seeing that is very profound. Because what it’s saying is that – now I’m speaking again so I’m going back into concepts! – the thoughts, feelings and sensations that we own as our ‘self’, along with the colours, sounds and smells that we think of as ‘the world’, are all literally the dazzling display of whatever ‘this’ is. When that’s truly seen, this sense of something missing dissolves away.
When you feel that something is missing, when you find yourself getting caught up in life, what’s happening there is that certain ‘parts’ of the experiencing are now short circuiting between themselves, making out that they are a fragment of the whole. And then you’re back into feeling isolated, vulnerable, alienated, with all of the self-beliefs and definitions that then clothe themselves around that fundamental belief.