Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Self Deception

I recently starting reading Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's book 'Cutting through Spiritual Materialism'. It's like Neosporin for the soul. I have a few friends who have experienced a satori, and they greatly mourn that time. I thought the following excerpt might be useful for them. (You can buy the book on Amazon here.)  


     At first we are very excited, everything is beautiful. We might find that for several days we feel very “high” and excited. It seems we have already achieved the level of Buddhahood. No mundane concerns bother us at all, everything goes very smoothly, instantaneous meditation occurs all the time. It is a continuous experience of our moment of openness with the guru. This is quite common. At this point many people might feel that they do not need to work further with their spiritual friend, and possibly they might leave, go away. I heard many stories of this happening in the East: certain students met their teacher and received an instant enlightenment experience and then left. They tried to preserve that experience, but as time went on it became just a memory, words and ideas which they repeated to themselves.

     Quite possibly your first reaction after such an experience would be to write it down in your diary, explaining in words everything that happened. You would attempt to anchor yourself to the experience through your writings and memoirs, by discussing it with people, or by talking to people who witnessed you having the experience.

     Or a person might have gone to the East and had this sort of experience and then came back to the West. His friends might find him tremendously changed. He might look calmer, quieter, wiser. Many people might ask him for help and advice with their personal problems, might ask for his opinion of their experience of spirituality. In the beginning, his way of helping other people would be genuine, relating their problems to his own experience in the East, telling people beautiful and genuine stories of what happened to him. It would be very inspiring for him.

     But at some stage in this sort of situation something tends to go wrong. The memory of that sudden flash of insight that a person has experienced loses its intensity. It does not last because he regards it as being external to himself. He feels that he has had a sudden experience of the awakened state of mind and that it belongs to the category of holiness, spiritual experience. He valued the experience highly and then communicated it to the ordinary and familiar world of his homeland, to his enemies and friends, parents and relatives, to all those people and attachments which he now feels he has transcended and overcome. But now the experience is no longer with him. There is just the memory. And yet, having proclaimed his experience and knowledge to other people, he obviously can’t go back and say what he said previously was false. He could not do that at all; it would be too humiliating. Moreover, he still has faith in the experience, that something profound really happened. But unfortunately the experience is no longer present at this very moment, because he used and evaluated it.

     Speaking generally what happens is that, once we have actually opened, “flashed,” in the second moment we realize that we are open and the idea of evaluation suddenly appears. “Wow, fantastic, I have to catch that, I have to capture and keep it because it is a very rare and valuable experience.’ So we try to hold onto the experience and the problems start there, from regarding the real experience of openness as something valuable. As soon as we try to capture the experience, a whole series of chain reactions sets in.

     If we regard something as valuable and extraordinary, then it becomes quite separate from us. For instance, we do not regard our eyes, body, hands or head as valuable, because we know they are part of us. Of course, if we lost them, any of them, our automatic reaction would be that we had lost such a valuable thing – “I have lost my head, I have lost my arm, it is impossible to replace!” Then we realize that it is a valuable thing. When something is removed from us, we have the opportunity to realize that it is valuable. But when we have it with us all the time, when it is part of our entire make-up, then we cannot value it particularly; it is just there. The evaluation comes from the fear of being separated, which is just what keeps us separated. We consider any sudden inspiration to be extraordinarily important, because we are afraid of losing it. That very point, that very moment, is when self-deception comes in. In other words, we lost faith in the experience of openness and its relationship to us.

     Somehow we lost the unity of openness and what we are. Openness became a separate thing, and then we began to play games. It is obvious that we cannot say that we have lost the openness. “I used to have it, but I have lost it.” We cannot say that, because that will destroy our status as an accomplished person. So the part of self-deception is to retell the stories. We would rather tell stories than actually experience openness, because stories are very vivid and enjoyable. “When I was with my guru, such and such happened; he said such and such things and opened me in such and such a way, etc., etc.” So self-deception, in this case, means trying to recreate a past experience again and again, instead of actually having the experience in the present moment. In order to have the experience now, one would have to give up the evaluation of how wonderful the flash was, because it is this memory which keeps it distant. If we had the experience continuously it would seem quite ordinary, and it is this ordinariness that we cannot accept. “If only I could have that wonderful experience of openness again!” So we keep ourselves busy not having it, remembering it. This is self-deception’s game.

    Self-deception needs the idea of evaluation and a very long memory. Thinking back, we feel nostalgic, getting a kick from our memories, but we do not know where we are at this very moment. We remember the “good times,” the “good old days.” We do not allow our depression to emerge at all, we do not want to accept the suspicion that we are out of touch with something. Whenever the possibility of depression arises and the feeling of loss is about to occur, the defensive nature of ego immediately brings to mind memories and words we have heard in the past in order to comfort us. Thus ego is continually looking for inspiration which has no root in the present: it is a continual running back. This is more complicated action of self-deception: one does not allow depression to come into being at all. “Since I have received such great blessings and been fortunate enough to have these wonderful spiritual experiences, how can I possibly say that I am depressed? Impossible, there is no room for depression.”

     There is the story of the great Tibetan teacher, Marpa. When Marpa first met his own teacher, Naropa, Naropa created an altar which he said was the embodiment of the wisdom of a particular heruka. Both the shrine and Naropa contained tremendous spiritual energy and power, and Naropa asked Marpa to which one he would prostrate in order to experience the sudden realization of enlightenment. Marpa, being a scholar, considered that the guru lives in the flesh, and ordinary human body, while his creation, the altar, is a pure body of wisdom, having nothing to do with human imperfection. So Marpa prostrated to the shrine. And then Naropa said, “I am afraid your inspiration is going to fade. You have made the wrong choice. This shrine is my creation, and without me the shrine would not be here at all. The issue of human body versus wisdom body is irrelevant. The great display of the mandala was merely my creation.”

This story illustrates the principle of dream, hope, wish, as self-deception. As long as you regard yourself or any part of your experience as the “dream come true,” then you are involved in self-deception. Self-deception seems always to depend on the dream world, because you would like to see what you have not yet seen, rather that what you are now seeing. You will not accept that whatever is here now is what is, nor are you willing to go on with the situation as it is. Thus, self-deception always manifests itself in terms of trying to create or recreate a dream world, the nostalgia of the dream experience. And the opposite of self-deception is just working with the facts of life.

     If one searches for any kind of bliss or joy, the realization of one’s imagination and dream, then, equally, one is going to suffer failure and depression. This is the whole point: a fear of separation, the hope of attaining union, these are not just manifestations of or the actions of ego or self-deception, as if ego were somehow a real thing which performed certain actions. Ego is the actions, the mental events. Ego is the fear of losing openness, the fear of losing the egoless state. This is the meaning of self-deception. Ego is the fear of losing openness, the fear of losing the egoless state. This is the meaning of self-deception, in this case – ego crying that has lost the egoless state, its dream of attainment. Fear, hope, loss, gain – these are the on-going action of the dream of ego, the self-perpetuating, self-maintaining structure is self-deception.

     So the real experience, beyond the dream world, is the beauty and color and excitement of the real experience of now in everyday life. When we face things as they are, we give up the hope of something better. There will be no magic, because we cannot tell ourselves to get out of our depression. Depression and ignorance, the emotions, whatever we experience, are all real and contain tremendous truth. If we really want to learn and see the experience of truth, we have to be where we are. The whole thing is just a matter of being a grain of sand.

Q: Would you talk some more about the mechanics of this force of despair? I can understand why despair might occur, but why does bliss occur?

A: It is possible in the beginning to force oneself into the experience of bliss. It is a kind of self-hypnosis, in that we refuse to see the background of what we are. We focus only upon the immediate experience of bliss. We ignore the entire basic ground, where we really are at, so to speak, and we work ourselves up to an experience of tremendous joy. The trouble is, this kind of experience is based purely upon watching oneself. It is a completely dualistic approach. We would like to experience something, and by working very hard we do actually achieve it. However, once we come down from our “high,” once we realize that we are still here, like a block rock standing in the middle of an ocean of waves, then depression sets in. We would like to get drunk, intoxicated, absorbed into the entire universe, but somehow it does not happen. We are still here, which is always the first thing to bring us down. Later all the other games of self-deception, of trying to feed oneself further, begin because one is trying to protect oneself completely. It is the “watcher” principle.


Q: You speak of people experiencing something and then grasping it intellectually, labeling it saying, “That’s fantastic.” This seems to be an almost automatic reaction. Could you go through the ways in which people begin to get away from doing this? It seems to me that the more you try to stop evaluation, the more you are evaluating.

A: Well, once you realize that you are actually doing this and are not getting anything from it, then I think you begin to find your way out. One begins to see that the whole process is part of a huge game which is not really profitable, because you are continuously building rather than coming to an understanding of anything. There is no magic or trick involved. The only thing you do is to quite painfully unmask.

Perhaps you will have to build and build until you realize the futility of attempting to achieve spirituality, your entire mind might become completely overcrowded with your struggle. In fact, you might not know whether you are coming or going, to the point where you become completely exhausted. Then you might learn a very useful lesson: to give up the whole thing, to be nothing. You might even experience a yearning to be nothing. There seems to be two solutions: either to simply unmask, or else to build and build, strive and strive, until you reach a crescendo and then drop the whole thing.


Q: What happens when one says, “Wow, I’ve made it.” That doesn’t blow the whole trip, does it?

A: Not necessarily. But then, what happens next? Do you want to repeat your experience again and again, rather than working with the present situation of what is? One could experience tremendous joy in the first flash of openness, which is quite beautiful. But what comes afterwards is important: whether one is working to grasp and recreate that experience or whether one is letting be, allowing that experience to be just one experience, not attempting to recreate the first flash.


Q: You are ambitious, building all the time, and the more you think about it, the worse it gets. So you try to just run away from the whole thing, try not to think about it, try to lose yourself in all sorts of escapes. What does this mean and how can one get over the fact that, the more on thinks about enlightenment and tries to find out about it, the worse things become and the more conceptualizations accumulate? What do you do?

A:  That is very obvious. You drop searching for anything altogether, drop trying to discover anything, trying to prove yourself.


Q: But sometimes one might have an active feeling of running away, and that is not the same thing as not doing anything at all.

A: Once you try to run away, you find that not only are you being chased from behind, but there are also people coming towards you from the front as well. Eventually there is no room to run. You are completely trapped. Then the only thing to do is really, simply to give in.


Q: What does that mean?

A: Well, one has to experience it. It means to stop trying to go anywhere, both in terms of getting away from and of running to, because both are the same thing.


Q: Is self-remembering or observing oneself incongruent with giving in and being here?

A: Self-remembering is quite a dangerous technique, actually. It could involve watching yourself and your actions like a hungry cat watching mice, or else it could be an intelligent gesture of being where you are. The whole point is that, if you have any idea of relationship – I am experiencing this, I am doing this – then “I” and “this“ are very strong personalities, equally. Somehow there will be a conflict between “I” and “this.” It is rather like saying that “this” is the mother and “I” the father. With two such polar extremes involved you are bound to give birth to something. So the whole idea is to let “this” not be there, and then “I” will not be there. Or else, “I” is not there, therefore “this” is not there. It is not a matter of telling it to yourself, but of feeling it, a real experience. You must take away the watcher, the observer of the two extremes. Once the watcher is removed, then the whole structure falls apart. The dichotomy remains in existence only so long as there is an observer to keep the whole picture together. You must remove the watcher and the very complicated bureaucracy he creates to ensure that nothing is missed by the central headquarters. Once we take away the watcher, there is a tremendous amount of space, because he and his bureaucracy take up so much room. If we eliminate the filter of “I” and “other” then the space becomes sharp and precise and intelligent. Space contains the tremendous precision of being able to work with the situations in it. One does not really need the “watch” or “observer” at all.


Q: Does the watcher exist because you want to be living at what seems a higher level, whereas if you just let go, perhaps you would be here?

A: Yes, that is true. When the watcher disappears, the notion of higher and lower levels does not apply, so there is no longer any inclination to struggle, attempting to get higher. Then you just are where you are.


Q: Can you remove the watcher by force? Wouldn’t that be the game of evaluation again?

A: You do not have to regard the watcher as a villain. Once you begin to understand that the purpose of meditation is not to get higher but to be present, here, then the watcher is not efficient enough to perform that function, and it automatically falls away. The basic quality of the watcher is to try to be extremely efficient and active. But total awareness is something you already have, so ambitious or so called “efficient” attempts to be aware are self-defeating. As the watcher begins to realize that it is irrelevant, it falls away.


Q: Can there be awareness without a watcher?

A: Yes, because the watcher is only paranoia. You could have complete openness, a panoramic situation, without having to discriminate between two parties, “I” and “other.”


Q: Would that awareness involve feelings of bliss?

A: I do not think so, because bliss is a very individual experience. You are separate and you are experiencing your bliss. When the watcher is gone, there is no evaluation of the experience as being pleasant or painful. When you have panoramic awareness without the evaluation of the watcher, then the bliss becomes irrelevant, by the very fact that there is no one experiencing it.