Jon Bernie - 'Ordinary Freedom'
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello and welcome again to Conscious TV. I'm Iain McNay and my guest today is Jon Bernie.
Iain: And Jon was recommended by a good friend, Julian Noyce, of Non-Duality Press. He's put out two books by Jon, “Ordinary Freedom” which has been out for a time now, and a new book that's just out called, “The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is” with the subtitle “Beyond Belief to Love, Fulfillment and Spiritual Awakening.” And Adyashanti wrote the forewords for both books.
So, we'll be covering Jon’s life and his realizations and challenges and also towards the end we’ll dip into a little bit of the detail of what's in the books.
So, Jon, you came over here just for the day from Paris–I appreciate that.
Jon: It’s a pleasure.
Iain: And you sent me some great notes about your life and your ups and downs and how you learned from things. And you had an interesting experience when you were four years old.
Jon: True. Yeah, I mean, I just remember being 4 years old and looking up at the stars and wondering, “What's going on?” So there was this natural questioning that I had from the beginning. This, really, questioning what was going on, kind of thing, in a big sense.
Iain: Yeah, the questions that you wrote down that you sent me were, “What is going on? Where are we? What is this?” Those are deep questions for a four year old.
Jon: Mm-hmm. My mother said I was born middle-aged, but I don't know.
Iain: But did you have any inkling or any clues? I mean, that was very young. Did anything come up in terms of ...
Jon: No, I don't think... I think that I just was very interested in direct experience through my whole life, you know. So I think that was part of that, really—not so much taking on beliefs, but really more, really discovering through life's experience. So questioning and wanting to know—I think there was just this profound curiosity about life.
Iain: Yes, and of course a lot of kids do have that in different ways. They have this curiosity, and then it's not necessarily encouraged. And they get drawn into the status quo of what is, and not necessarily following through the adventure that could lead to.
Jon: Hmm, yes. Well, I don't know if you remember, but I mentioned that by the time I was 11, I
was in Sunday school and I was arguing about the existence of God with the Sunday school teacher. And I didn't really—I felt like I needed to experience that, to really understand it. So I didn't want to go to Sunday school anymore. And I came back and I told my mother I was not going to Sunday school anymore. I
was too busy practicing the violin. And she said, “Okay, honey.” And I decided then, at 11 actually, that when I saw God, I’d believe it. You know, when I had the experience. So I was open to it, but it was more that I didn't want to just have some belief sort of imprinted into me, or—but more that I wanted to find it for myself.
Iain: Yes. I understand completely. Finding things for yourself—that's the way you really find them. So you mentioned the violin, and actually, I think, you told me earlier that you actually first wanted to play the violin at six years old.
Jon: Yes, actually, but interestingly enough, I heard a violinist play, and I was so moved by it when I was four also, I went to my mom and I said, I want to learn to play the violin. And she said, “Okay, honey,” and she looked for a teacher. And she—and she found someone who would start me at six, who said, you know, “I'll start him when he's six years old.” So I started when I was six.
Iain: And you were actually practicing for two to three hours a day?
Jon: Two to four hours a day, actually.
Iain: Two to four hours a day, as a young kid?
Iain: So how did that discipline—well, because that's extraordinary for a kid that's so young, to have that
Jon: I think I just had a really strong will. I think I just had an incredibly strong will, and I really, really wanted to play it. And my parents said they couldn't believe that I would practice, because it sounded so bad, you know. I mean it's—I don't know if you've practiced the violin, but it's not easy to learn, and it sounds pretty bad for quite a while. And so, but, somehow or other I just hung in there. I don't know, I had a profound desire to be able to play.
Iain: So early—it's interesting, because when we come onto your later journeys, at an early age you were prepared to stay with something that was difficult—discipline yourself, have very slow results or no results, but something in you felt that if you kept going, this would bring you a reward.
Jon: You know, it's interesting. What you're reminding me of, another thing my mother said to me, she said, “Honey, if there's a will, there’s a way.” So I think—and I believed her. So I think that there was
just this sense that if I just stayed on it, it would happen. Do you know what I mean?
Iain: Yes, well I know that for myself, but we’re talking about you.
Jon: All right.
Iain: It’s a quality that somehow in the world, in my eyes anyway, becomes rarer. But it's a quality
that's very important. It's staying with something that isn't necessarily bringing you any rewards on the short term.
Iain: But there’s a deeper knowing, that if you stay with it, then it's going to lead somewhere that's important, not only in the development of your personality, but in the exploration of ultimately who you are, and the real journey of life.
Jon: Uh-huh. Yes. I think a lot of people don't understand discipline. They think of it as a restriction, or a negative thing, or limiting. But it's really actually liberating, ironically. It's like if you're training to be a concert violinist, you learn the technique, you do the basic training, so to speak. And eventually, when someone becomes a virtuoso, they move to another level where they're really creating music. But they've had all that prior training. It’s true with athletes, dancers—I mean it's just...
Iain: Yeah, yeah. So if we move on, then, you also sent me a long, long, very interesting description of what happened when you were 16 years old. So just talk us through that. Because, again, for me that was quite extraordinary, that first of all, you put yourself in that situation, and you stayed there.
Jon: Well as I mentioned to you, you know, I was—I grew up in a family where was there was a lot of volatility, and life was very—it was, in a way, it was really challenging. I think it was... I felt very challenged. And I really didn't understand why I was working so hard. I really started questioning, why am I doing this? Why am I ... And I wanted to go to medical school, actually, and go to Stanford Medical School. And I was getting straight A's in school and practicing the violin and performing. And there was just this sense of questioning the meaning of life that started coming up for me at 16 in a way.
And I remember looking back through my whole life and really feeling like all of my experiences really didn't have meaning. They just they were just separate, disjointed experiences. And I—for some reason I came up with this question of—maybe because I was very interested in science and I was studying a lot of sciences, very empirically oriented, I asked, is there a creative force? I don't know why this question came up, but there was a question of, is there a creative force, more like gravity, or centripetal force, or something, that was a natural force? And somehow that question just became very compelling. Very, very compelling to me. And this whole process that I'm going to share—(clears throat) pardon me—lasted maybe about four months.
And it wasn't anything I was reading; I wasn't talking to anybody. It was all kind of an internal process going on and—(clears throat) excuse me. And at some point I had my first revelation, which was, well of course there's a creative force, because there's all this stuff. There's people and trees and animals and planets, and all of this. And so all of a sudden, my next goal, if you will, was to find out what it was. That became probably the most important drive I'd ever felt—because there was a sense of no meaning in my life, really. Even though I was doing everything to accomplish whatever, but you know, I looked around at my parents and their friends and I thought, they didn't seem happy to me. And I thought, you know, they're successful or whatever, but they didn't seem happy. And I thought, what am I doing this for? I was really wondering why I was working so hard. And so there was this tremendous drive to find, you know, what is this creative force? And I remember even, you know, looking at my hand and going, how is it doing that? How's that? I mean, there was just a sense of beginning to see the miracle of life, I think.
And then I had my next revelation, which was, of course I can discover what this creative force is, because I'm part of it. Now that may seem like a simple realization, but for a 16 year old, at that age it was really profound. And I'd been studying a lot of philosophy, had been really into existentialism and reading about, you know, that we have choice. And with choice comes, with the choices we make, there are consequences, and that we’re responsible for those consequences. And that really—somehow really affected me, to read that and understand that. And then I remember reading then that the universe is a chaotic accident. And I thought, well, is it? That, and I think that probably that thinking process also was very much a part of that question that came up, is there a creative force? Is there order in the universe? And so, anyway, when I realized that I was part of it, immediately I came up with a plan. And I don't know how I came up with this.
I think I mentioned to you that this very well-known psychic that I eventually saw when I was 20 told me, I had had many lifetimes as a monk, and I knew what to do in this life. I didn't know what that meant, but that's what she said. But I decided when my parents went to bed one night, I was going to sit down in my big furry beanbag chair. Remember beanbag chairs? And I was going to stare at the wall, and I wasn't going to move until I discovered it.
Iain: That's a real commitment.
Jon: Yeah, and you know, I mean, I didn't know anything about meditation, I didn't, I didn't know it. And I knew little bit about breathing, because I've done some acting in school, in high school. So they
went to bed and I took off all my clothes, because I wanted to be very, very comfortable, and I sat down in the beanbag chair, and I stared at the wall, and I knew that I had to sit there until I discovered it. And I wasn't going to move. And I started, my arm started itching, and I didn't scratch it. And I wanted to move, and I didn't move. My mind—
Iain: This is real Zen vipassana isn’t it?
Jon: Exactly, exactly. It was, I was doing super concentrated meditation and didn't even know I was doing it. And I was aware of my breathing. And after a while something really interesting started happening. There was this, almost like a wave undulation in the wall. And I thought, well that's cool. And not only that, but it was actually emanating light. And not only that—I could feel it.
Iain: Let's get this clear. So you actually physically saw light come from the wall?
Jon: Yeah, yeah. And I could feel it.
Iain: When you say you felt it, how did you feel it?
Jon: Through my whole body. It was just this full—and something in me just knew, this is the way to go. I mean, there was something that I was following—I can't exactly describe it—but there was some force literally working through me, and I knew I could trust this. So I let it happen and I think I was just, you know, like wow! I mean, you know, I was 16. And so the movement got bigger, the light got brighter, the feelings got stronger, and—but eventually it got so intense that I actually became terrified. And I felt as if, the way I described it then, was as if I was in a sports car, a race car, and that the gas pedal had been nailed to the floor. And it was going to go faster and faster and faster and it was going to go off a cliff. And I knew I had to go off the cliff. I felt actually in this experience, Iain, I knew that I had to do this. I don't know how I had this in me, but I did.
And so it got stronger and stronger, and more and more intense, and I became profoundly terrified. And then out of nowhere, there was like this voice that I heard that said, “Stay with your breathing.” I thought, okay, and it was amazing, because it was the only thing that I could sort of be with in this process. And then there was like an explosion. And there was no more room, there was no more me. There was—it was as if I had merged with the sun. And the way that I described it then, was that it was it was like a million times orgasm, as if every cell in my body had had like a nuclear explosion or something like that.
I have no idea how long this lasted or how long that was going on. But awareness came back into the room in the body, and at that point the whole room was like imploding into me and exploding out of me, in sync with my breathing. And it literally felt like I was being ripped apart. My whole body started shaking. I started crying uncontrollably. And I felt at that moment that if I died, my life had been worth it. And I looked over at the clock, and I'd been sitting there for three hours. And I looked back in my life and everything had meaning and connection. And there was a sense of trajectory into the future—of being guided. And there was this light and this presence that has always been here since. The awareness of that and also the sense of being guided has always been with me since then. I didn't know what happened to me. I had no idea. But I was immediately drawn to Eastern thought.
There wasn't much in the library back then—that was 1969—at least where I grew up. And I went to the library and there was a book on, I think, Patanjali yoga or something like that. It was raja yoga, and they were talking about kundalini. And I didn't know anything about that, but I understood it. I thought, that is what happened. I had this whole experience, and so I became very—then I became interested in meditation and yoga and so forth.
Iain: You see, what I'm picking up from that is that, the importance again of this commitment that you did with the violin, that we talked about earlier. It's about people in a way give up too easily. It is about just sitting in the.... And the great thing was you were very innocent when you went into that situation when you were 16.
Jon: Uh huh.
Iain: But something in you was willing to stay and stay and stay. All these things come up which can freak other people out. As you say, it brought up terror, but it’s that staying with it.
Jon: Yeah, I just had to I had to hang in there. I didn't—clearly there was no choice for me. I don't know why, but that was how it was. Yeah, I think because in some ways I was so unhappy. You know, I was just struck—I mean even though I was achieving in some ways, I was just wasn't happy, and I didn't see the point. And I really felt like I needed to discover the deep—you know, I didn't know this at the time obviously, but I can look back now and see I really needed to find a deeper meaning of life to basically continue, I think. Because I think it was—I think in some ways I was ready for a nervous breakdown, quite frankly. You know, I was just too stressed out, with everything I was doing.
Iain: Well, they do say—this is not an original thing for me—but it's been said many times that the two things that really facilitate change in people, dramatic change, is desperation and inspiration.
Jon: Yeah, absolutely. Oh yeah I was! I was desperate. I think that's true. Yeah. I tell people that, you know, you only go on this path if you don't have a choice. If you have a choice you're not going to do it. It's too difficult.
Iain: Well, it has a difficult side. That's right.
Jon: Yeah, well, it can be anyway.
Iain: So you mentioned the psychic. We don't, we don't have to go into the whole story of how you found the psychic. But I just thought it was interesting that the psychic that you met later did confirm this was a significant experience.
Jon: You know, again, I was very skeptical of anything like that. I was really—I've never really been a follower or believer. I was very much somebody who wanted to discover, as I said before. So a couple of
people recommended this person. Both of these people were like older mentors of mine who I respected. I thought, okay, I'll go and see her. And we just hit it off. She was phenomenal. Her name was Ann Armstrong. And she felt the energy right away. She was the first person to be with me and she knew what had happened. She said, “You had an enlightenment experience. That's what happened.” And she explained to me—she said, the problem you have, you know, you're 20 years old. You're very young, but you're like an old soul in a young body. She says, this is difficult. And she kind of explained to me how, you know, it was going to take time for it all to integrate and come together. Which was true, quite true actually.
Iain: A little bit later, you found a book by Suzuki Roshi, “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,” and that was a kind of new direction again for you, wasn't it?
Jon: Well, yes. I was introduced to Zen practice and I didn't know much about it. But when I went and checked it out, I liked it. I liked the environment; it was very simple. It was very direct. They didn't tell you a lot. And because I already had an inner process going on, I found just sitting—shikantaza—just sitting, to be quite an important training for many years, actually.
Iain: And so, but you went to the Zen Center and got into this in quite an organized way, didn’t you?
Jon: Oh yeah, I did. I moved in. I became a resident. I became a monk. I moved to the monastery. I became lay ordained and was quite into it for quite a few years.
Iain: Well, you're glossing over something which, I think, is really important that I’d like to talk about more.
Jon: Yeah, go ahead.
Iain: As far as you were telling me on the telephone the other day that you were meditating, when you moved in, you were meditating for eight hours a day—very structured meditation, very Japanese Zen-like meditation. You’d have eight hours work...
Jon: Oh, at the monastery? Yes, that’s right. Yeah, that was a little later.
Iain: But again, that discipline we talked about earlier, from earlier when you were playing the violin, was taking you somewhere. And you were willing to sit—eight hours a day is a long time to sit.
Jon: And you know what? What was amazing was that, you know, at Tassajara, where I was a monk, it was, in the winter, like 28 degrees in the meditation hall. And there wasn't any heat. There wasn't any insulation in the buildings. And we had to be in the meditation hall a quarter to four in the morning. And, because you did like three hours of meditation before breakfast, I think. And I couldn't wait to get there, even though it was a very challenging environment, with the temperature and everything else. Um, I couldn't wait to sit down on my cushion and find out what was going to happen. It was just, I'm not—you know I think I'm just an adventurer. I tell people, all you need on this path is really, you know, hiking boots and a lab coat, you know. It's like, you're a scientist and you're an explorer. And so for me, it was really the exploration that was a big part of it. I think that curiosity, even when I sat on my beanbag chair, I think I was just—I absolutely wanted to discover. And I think everything, even hearing that violinist and wanting to play the violin, there was something about being turned on by life in a way. And really it just, I just jumped in a hundred percent.
Iain: And the important thing is, you wanted discover on the inside as well as the outside.
Iain: There's a lot of, our whole media and structured society now is about discovering on the outside more and more experience, but when it comes to discovering on the inside, that is not so much encouraged. So ok, you get up in the morning and it's 28 degrees, which is Fahrenheit—which is actually in
centigrade, used in Europe, it’s minus 2 or 3 degrees. So that is pretty cold.
Jon: We had good Japanese robes with good long underwear.
Ian: Still cold!
Iain: And you're sitting there. And so, what is—what goes on? You sit there and you sit there. And you have thoughts. But I presume when you're sitting hour after hour, you discover a lot of stillness, is that right?
Jon: Well, it's—I think, really, what eventually I discovered was, how to begin to get out of the way of what was happening. Because my agenda, what I had learned, what I had read, what I had heard, gave me certain concepts about the path and what was going to happen. And what I found by doing that kind of concentrated practice, was that I had to let the process work through me. I couldn't DO it. I don't know how to say that, but so there was really a kind of surrendering, a kind of forced breakdown, really. Where— which maybe will lead to breakthrough. No guarantee. But I think that was...
Iain: So when you say the process, can you talk about that a bit more?
Jon: Well I just mean the practice of that particular practice.
Iain: Yes, but there's a process within the practice. So you're sitting there... is it eyes closed or eyes open?
Jon: Usually with Zen you have them slightly open. You’re gazing at a wall or a partition.
Iain: So, I've done this, but only in short, short times. So you're sitting looking at a wall. You sit there and of course your mind is going, and...
Jon: The advantage of having the eyes open a little bit is, it tends to prevent a lot—you have less daydreaming and mind wandering. You're gazing, soft gaze, kind of relaxed.
Iain: Easy to stay awake as well.
Jon: Well (laughs)
Iain: And you’re sitting there, and so the process is on what level? Is it like a mental process? Is it a physical process?
Jon: For me, it was mostly energetic and kinesthetic, physical. It is really much more physical energies working with ... it was almost like you were doing inner bodywork.
Jon: Where, let's say you had tension in the neck or in the back or somewhere. There was pain in the body somewhere. You would be with it, learn how to be with it, in such a way that allowed it to resolve itself in its own way, rather than trying to get in there. That's why they emphasize stillness not as a restriction, but because the understanding of energy movement through the body, which is true in martial arts and so forth, is that when you become very still in your structure—without tension, without control—the qi moves. The energy moves. So you're really—and it became very clear to me... You know my mother, Barbara Bernie, she was actually responsible for acupuncture becoming legal in the United States. And she was studying in England here and with Jack Worsley to learn acupuncture, before it was legal United States. And she came back and was telling me about the meridians and all of this. I said, oh I know. I experience all that when I'm meditating. And it became clear to me, well, obviously people discovered the meridian system when they went in and meditated. Because you can start to experience at that subtle level of movement in the body.
Iain: Because you told me on the phone that you also—you were training your nervous system, to handle
Iain: Though you may not be aware of it.
Jon: This process really, in a sense, opens the channels, clears them, and grounds them, so you become a stronger kind of vehicle for channeling energy. Rather than a receptacle, you literally become like a channel.
Iain: And this is happening just with you sitting, with no agenda?
Jon: Yes. And being aware of the breath. Because in the Zen practice, you're really following the breath in the Hara, below the navel.
Iain: And what happens with psychological issues that come up?
Jon: Well, they come up obviously. I mean, you can and you discover that your mind is the greatest entertainment center there is, and it's also the greatest torture chamber there is. In fact at one point when I was in the monastery when during the work periods—because we didn't talk either, during work periods, except only what you needed to say. So it was pretty much a...
Iain: And so you didn't talk during meals, you told me, as well.
Jon: Yes, that's true. But I found that my mind was so distracting. In fact, one Zen teacher referred to it
as a machine gun mirror. Like constantly—you can't get away from it. They create an environment where you can't run away from yourself. Very different than today's world, where everybody's walking around with their phone right? It's like, who's present? And so, you're forced to be present in a way. And I actually had to do a mantra practice just so I wouldn't go crazy. Because my mind was just, you know—because the mind can be, is crazy (laughs).
Iain: But when the issues came up, you didn't talk to anyone about them?
Jon: Not there, no.
Iain: You just sat, sit and you watched the feeling and you watched...
Jon: Yeah, I mean, you would meet with your teacher occasionally. Once in a while you would sit with the Roshi, and, you know, you'd share whatever's going on, and then they would say something or other. You know, they would be helpful. But you know, I mean, it was limited in that way, I'd say.
Iain: And you felt during this time that there was a movement somehow, there was progress? Maybe you didn't feel it as progress?
Jon: Yeah, I did. I got to a point—but I also felt at some point it was really time to leave. I knew something was missing there, and I didn't know what it was.
Iain: Okay, okay. So you left there, and I'm just looking at my notes to make sure I have things in sequence as much as possible. And then at that point it’s also interesting, because in the notes you sent me, your journey was very much a two-fold journey, on the healing side, as well as a spiritual transformation. At that point you got more interested in Qigong and the Alexander technique and you were bringing more Tai Chi as well, I think you mentioned.
Iain: So you were bringing all these tools, if you like.
Jon: Yes, well, you know, because I needed healing for my own body, and was getting various kinds of help, what helped me a great deal with the sitting practice (because it was very hard for me) was the Alexander Technique. And so I eventually became an Alexander teacher. I always had a natural healing gift with my hands since I was a kid. And I just felt like I wanted to do work that would keep me sort of in my meditation practice, even in the midst of my work. And so I trained to be an Alexander teacher. And Alexander and Zen really had a lot of similarities. People were very drawn to—I think Alexander had a deep understanding as well, actually. And so, as I began to work on myself, I realized I needed more work, all kinds of physical therapy, emotional therapy. And at the same time I had moved on and was training with Jack Kornfield and became close to him, in the Vipassana practice, for quite a few years. And then eventually met Jean Klein, with whom I had, as I mentioned to you, a rather profound shift. He was actually the first teacher that I’d met that really was, I would say, coming from that place that I experienced when I was 16.
Iain: Ok, so I think you were telling me that it was the third time you were with Jean Klein that you asked a question. Just talk us through that, because something significant happened when you asked the question.
Jon: I, uh—it's beautiful to remember it, actually. It was the Sausalito women's club in Marin County. And I brought a couple of friends. I'd seen him a couple of times and I realized, “This guy is the real thing. He's a real Zen master.” And I said, “You have to come and meet him.” And so they were sitting next to me and I was sitting there. And he was talking about presence. And I felt it, this, what I knew deeply from my life. And he said, “And eventually, it becomes permanent,” or something like that. And so my hand just went up. I didn't even raise it. I don't remember—I didn't feel that I volitionally raised it. It just went up. And he called on me, and I said, “How does it become permanent?”
And something happened with him—I can't explain it—but it was almost as if he knew exactly what was going on with me and was connecting with me. And it felt like he took me to realms of light or something, and it was really, really, really profound. And after that, I was in quite an altered place for a number of days. But what I had shared with you is, after that experience, it was as if my personal life, my work, and my spiritual life became one thing. And it was the end of seeking. It was like what I had really
put so much effort into—meditating and being conscious and being mindful, and all that, to have some presence—was here all the time.
Iain: Yeah, in the note you sent me, you said being aware of presence no longer required any conscious effort.
Iain: But rather, was just what is happening, right at this moment.
Jon: Yeah, and I couldn't read spiritual books anymore.
Jon: I couldn't read them. I couldn't read anything. Because I had so many—and I eventually gave them away, because, you know, it would be like you're skiing down a mountain, and you wouldn't be reading a book on how to ski.
Jon: You know, you're on the mountain. It's happening, you know?
Iain: So we do. And it's interesting because we had an email into Conscious TV today about—someone was saying that, they said we don't do enough in our programs about the very basics of mindfulness and establishing basic presence. And maybe that's true, actually, these days, that we don't do enough on that. On the other hand, it's almost a given for me, and obviously for you, that you have to do the groundwork.
Jon: You do.
Iain: It’s like learning to learn a language.
Jon: And if you don't, eventually you will have to probably. Most people. Not everybody. But I find today—because there's so much emphasis on just direct teaching or just presence, sort of, only presence, I get that, I understand that—that often the preliminary training, that where those teachings came from, is sort of jumped over. And so I work with so many students around the world, who often, because they're in environments that are highly charged—there's a lot of presence, shakti, whatever you want to call it—begin to open up. But their bodies, their nervous systems, aren't actually entrained. They're not ready to handle it. And they have all kinds of side effects—emotional side effects, physical side effects, you know, psychological side effects—and so I'm helping people learn how to really work with that after the fact, which is hard, actually can be quite difficult.
Iain: And then after that, another very important teacher that you met, was Robert Adams.
Jon: Yeah, Robert and I had a great connection—um, beautiful. Yes. Do you want me to talk about that experience?
Iain: Well again I'm just looking at the notes you sent me and there are some important things here.
Jon: And, well it was funny, it was just funny, because a friend of mine was taking—he was living in Sedona, Arizona, which is a really beautiful area and is known also for its vortexes and power energy and is near the Grand Canyon. And a friend of mine wanted to take me there, and I said, “Okay, sure, let's go.” And then I was going just for a little vacation. And a friend of mine, another friend, said, “Where are you going?” I said, “ I'm going to Sedona.”
“Oh, you have to go meet Robert Adams.” And I said, “Well, who's that? She said, “Well, he was, you know, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi.”
I said, “Oh really? I didn't know he had an American disciple.” Because I had been to India to be with Papaji—Poonjaji. Yeah, Poonjaji had invited me to come back in 1990. And I went and I spent about six weeks with him—had a wonderful, wonderful time with him. And—but so, I wasn't—you know it's funny, I didn't really have any interest in meeting anybody.
But you know, people kept wanting me to meet people so I thought, okay, well let's go. Let’s go to his gathering. So, my friend and I went, and it was—there was something that happened that evening that was a whole other level. And I think what this brings up is, people talk about awakening. But my experience is, that there's no end awakening, that it's ongoing. Friends of mine who are considered very awake are always discovering, always learning new things. In the awakening process, there's no end—how could there be an end to the—how could there be?
So, there was another profound shift that happened with him and that we spent time together. He wanted to hang out, and I, you know, had meals with him and hung out, and spent a fair amount of time. And it was a similar experience to 16, but it was kind of—I think what had happened, Iain, was that there was, in this sort of welling up of profound presence, there was still a kind of holding it back, a little bit. Just a kind of stopping a little bit—was almost like, whoa, that's a little too much, you know what I mean? And—but with when I was with Robert that night, something happened where I knew I was ready to go over some, another precipice. It felt like a waterfall that time. Or actually, the way I described it was, I was a dried-up leaf underneath a magnifying glass in the sun. And I was being burnt to a crisp. And it was absolutely phenomenal. And I was in a very, very altered state for maybe six months, 24/7. Profound—I mean, I really got what Eckhart—I mean, I felt like I just wanted to be a wanderer or be a hermit. I mean, it just—that whole reality was very obvious. But it, you know, where I live, it'd be like, I didn't really want to live in a, you know, culvert under the freeway. This wasn't going to work out, you know what I mean? So...
Iain: So I want to pick you up here because again, in the notes you sent me, you said something happened with Robert that you said was a complete annihilation—which, you would later refer to this experience as the end of fear. What do you mean by that?
Jon: Yeah, the end of holding back the light. I think, you know, in a very simple way, suffering is really resisting the light, is resisting being free. And there's various stages of resisting it. And I think that's really what we learn to do to surrender. And even what we talked about earlier, even in the Zen practice, even in a very physical, pointed, concentrated practice, there was subtle training in learning how to surrender. So I think it's only, it's always and always surrendering.
Iain: And how much of that learning is you learn...
Jon: None of it’s here.
Iain: But, you learn from other people, though, don’t you some?
Jon: You know, but it's really—it's really, it becomes the knowledge of the marrow of your bones. I mean it’s, you become one with the life force, literally. I don't know how else to say that.
Jon: It becomes knowledge in the marrow of the bones? I might call the interview that. That’s a great phrase.
Jon: There’s no thinking in it at all. There's no one who has any thoughts about it at all. There can't be, really. I mean, our human nature, of course, naturally wants to describe it, wants to explain it, wants to give it meaning, wants to create beliefs about it. So that's what we do, but fundamentally, you know, on a deep level, we're in the realm of the unknown, of the mystery, really.
Iain: Well, we are. And I think, you know—so it's always good to look at someone's journey and how
they’ve—how it's worked for them. And it's very much for you, the path has been this discipline...
Iain: ... of staying with it, trusting—there’s been precipices and waterfalls.
Jon: There's another part, and I don't know if I’ve shared this with you. But the other part for me, because I was so hard on myself in a way, the greatest—ironically one of the hardest things I had to learn, was how to be gentle with myself. And I—and that was a huge part of my training—still is, I think as a human being. And I find that maybe that's one of the most important, beneficial teachings that people tell me they appreciate: is to have permission to be human. And that you don't have to be perfect. Because a lot of these spiritual ideas or concepts have a sense of perfection, but it's misunderstood on a relative, personal level. Do you know what I mean? So what we often don't realize is, that we can be realized and have profound connection with the divine, and still be a kind of somewhat messed up, whatever, challenged person.
Iain: So I know beginning, I think, it was 2001, you met Adyashanti, and that was quite significant for you, wasn't it?
Jon: Yeah, we became, we just became like brothers. We just we just immediately recognized each other and became close. And I—what I was saying was, that I think the way he really helped me, there was a very subtle kind of communication. It wasn't—I can't actually verbalize it, but it was something that he knew and I knew was happening. And the way I would describe it, is to bring the emotional realm into the realm of the vastness, into what Robert Adams would have called the big heart.
Iain: Because you touch on this earlier...
Jon: Instead of figuring it out or fixing it or trying to understand it, it was just more—or pushing it away or denying it, but it was really more really allowing it into the space of the vastness. And that's really what satsang actually is, too, when we do working with students. It’s very much bringing the conditional into the unconditional. That's what transforms us, not our attempt to be free.
Iain: Bringing the conditional into the unconditioned. So you're giving it space.
Jon: You're—as Jean Klein would say, you allow the presence to be foreground. And, but still the conditional is in the background, perhaps. So you allow—I don't know, it's it's not personal will. I can't exactly explain this, because when you're—the more you become established in awareness or in presence, the sense of moving with that force becomes obvious. It's not the same as willing, personal will. I can't...
Iain: It’s like the universal will.
Jon: It's hard, yeah, it's hard to describe. You align with that, yeah. That's what I meant by it. It's another—surrender is a tricky word, but I think that's...
Iain: But I think you also, again you told me on the phone, that helped you with your relationship particularly with your father, there was something that needed to heal there.
Jon: Yes. Do you want me to talk about that?
Iain: Well, I think—what I think is important—we had a discussion of this over the phone—is that there's quite a lot of people that have all the experiences. And in one way they're free, energetically. There's a light, an energy, there’s a realization that on different levels they're not just a separate human individual. On the other hand, they’ve got baggage...
Iain: ...which is still hanging around. And that influences, if they’re a teacher, that can influence their teaching. And if they’re just on the journey of life, it can again influence them, and something is held back. Something's not clear.
Jon: Yes, well, with my own father, we had a very difficult relationship most of my life. And at the age of—I don't remember how old I was- but I had a very serious bicycle accident. And he—I was disabled, quite disabled for a period of time. And he had to take care of me, and he really resented it. It was a very difficult experience for me, because I relied in on him completely. And there was—in that time because I was more mature, obviously, and could deal with a lot more, I was able to allow a lot of the sort of emotion. It was interesting because it actually brought back some of that pain that I had as an adolescent, I think, an understanding of where it came from. A certain kind of emotional abuse from him. But what was amazing, and maybe this is what you were wanting me to share, was that I went into the—when I finally could walk with crutches, and I went into the dining room. And he was sitting there and I realized, I just somehow got, that this was very, very difficult for him. And I looked at him and I said, “This must be really difficult for you.” And in that moment, there was, it was like a miracle. It's like we fell in love with each other.
Jon: And it—and then I realized he had always loved me, even though I didn't know that. And we were close; we were in love with each other for the last seven years of his life. It was very powerful, a very profound transformation.
Iain: Because you had challenges which you were very open about. You said I could mention these. You—in 2008—you lost all your money in the Bernie Madoff scandal?
Jon: I did.
Iain: Which was, wow... you can be living in a very free space yet suddenly lose all your money. It's still a shock.
Jon: Yeah, it's interesting, because yes, I got a phone call, and I was out—I had a retreat home out on the coast north of San Francisco where I was meditating a lot, and just being in nature quite a bit. I wasn't teaching very much. And I got this phone call that my life savings and my inheritance had disappeared.
Iain: Wow, wow.
Jon: And it was a shock, to say the least. And Adya called me the next day, actually, Adyashanti. He said, “Wow, you must feel like you got hit by a train.”
I said “Yeah, it's pretty tough.”
He goes, “Well, now, I guess you're going to be forced into doing what you're really meant to be doing,” which was teaching. Because I'd been—I was kind of holding back and not ... I just wanted to kind of be on my own in a way, which was true. And then a month later I found out I had a very serious eye condition where I could go blind. And I've had over 60 surgeries since then. So I have permanent damage in my left eye vision. So—but what was interesting, was that I just—as friends of mine said to me, when they saw me go through this they said, “Wow, you really walk the walk.” Because it was, again, just taking care of what's in front of you. Very Zen. Just, you know—yes, it's painful, but the pain moves through if you don't hold it back. It's very challenging. Yes, life's challenging. But if you know how to allow it, it goes through. And you just, you take care of it. And that's what I did.
Iain: You also had prostate cancer as well, another huge ordeal....
Jon: Well, yes I did. I had my prostate removed. Yes, that was—and it was again, you know—in fact I remember, when I was recovering. And I had a very difficult recovery. I had a lot of internal bleeding, which often, which is unusual. And I had to be in a very special unit for quite a bit of time, though—I think eight days or something. And I could barely walk. And I was, you know, standing with the walking thing, and I had all these things hooked up to me. And I was trying to walk around. And the ward became—it was like it was like I was back in the zendo, in the monastery. Yeah, I was—this was my life. This was what was happening. And, you know, the nurse would come in and I'd say, “How are you?” And she was like blown away, because nobody ever asked her. Right? It's like, you're just with what's happening.
Jon: Whatever it is, taking care of it the best you can, right?
Iain: We've got about five minutes left. So why don't we spend a little time on you just telling us, what happens at your seminars? We obviously have a good feel for you and your journey and your realizations, and how you handled life from—in your story. But if someone wants to come along to one of you seminars, well, what can they expect?
Jon: Well, what they tell me is, there the energy is very, very powerful, whatever that means. So there’s a—people come, and so what I offer is retreats and intensives—retreats are anywhere from a few days to a week long. And there are day-long intensives, like a day long. And then there are gatherings that are like two hour gatherings that—more like, you know, meditation, silent sitting, and then there's a talk. And then there's an opportunity to come up and sort of work with me, or talk with me. And then I also work with individuals privately in person, in San Francisco or with people on Skype all over the world. And so I do private work as well. I think most of my work with people is really to help them find their way. And so I don't have an agenda for anybody. I really meet each individual where they are and really find out what's right for them. And often it's really them letting go of what they think is right for them. And actually finding out what works for them. And what I mean by that is that what works for them really brings them more into openness, into spaciousness, into presence. And what doesn't work for them really brings them more into a contracted, defended, separate place. So that's how I work.
Jon: I'm learning all the time.
Iain: Well, isn't that the important thing, as you said earlier. The journey doesn't really stop.
Jon: Oh, it's amazing. I just—the experience of being with people and the retreats, it's extraordinary to see people's lives transforming profoundly and being a part of that process. It’s very, very—it's a privilege and it's amazing. And I'm so grateful to meet you and be with you and come here and spend time with you. So thank you so much for having me.
Iain: Well, thank you for coming along to Conscious TV and chatting with me. And I want to play again your two books. So it's “Ordinary Freedom,” which has been out for a time now on Nonduality Press, and also ”The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is.” And that's really the key, isn't it, as you say?
Iain: Whatever happens, the unbelievable happiness of what is.
Jon: Yeah. That book is really—it's more like a—it's more like a mantra that evokes presence that just—I think it's not so much a book that you read. It's more that it guides you to come back to your true nature.
Iain: Yeah, great. Okay, thank you.
Jon: Thank you.
Iain: And thank you for watching Conscious TV, and I do hope we see you again soon. Goodbye.
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