John Prendergast, former adjunct professor of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, joins Lucas Perry for a discussion about the experience and effects of ego-identification, how to shift to new levels of identity, the nature of non-dual awareness, and the potential relationship between waking up and collective human problems. This is not an FLI Podcast, but a special release where Lucas shares a direction he feels has an important relationship with AI alignment and existential risk issues.
Topics discussed in this episode include:
- The experience of egocentricity and ego-identification
- Waking up into heart awareness
- The movement towards and qualities of non-dual consciousness
- The ways in which the condition of our minds collectively affect the world
- How waking up may be relevant to the creation of AGI
7:10 The modern human condition
9:29 What egocentricity and ego-identification are
15:38 Moving beyond the experience of self
17:38 The origins and structure of self
20:25 A pointing out instruction for noticing ego-identification and waking up out of it
24:34 A pointing out instruction for abiding in heart-mind or heart awareness
28:53 The qualities of and moving into heart awareness and pure awareness
33:48 An explanation of non-dual awareness
40:50 Exploring the relationship between awareness, belief, and action
46:25 Growing up and improving the egoic structure
48:29 Waking up as recognizing true nature
51:04 Exploring awareness as primitive and primary
53:56 John’s dream of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
57:57 The use and value of conceptual thought and the mind
1:00:57 The epistemics of heart-mind and the conceptual mind as we shift levels of identity
1:17:46 A pointing out instruction for inquiring into core beliefs
1:27:28 The universal heart, qualities of awakening, and the ethical implications of such shifts
1:31:38 Wisdom, waking up, and growing up for the transgenerational issues of the 21st century
1:38:44 Waking up and its applicability to the creation of AGI
1:43:25 Where to find, follow, and reach out to John
We hope that you will continue to join in the conversations by following us or subscribing to our podcasts on Youtube, Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, or your preferred podcast site/application. You can find all the AI Alignment Podcasts here.
Lucas Perry: Welcome everyone, I’m Lucas Perry and I’m excited to bring you an unusual podcast episode today. This isn’t a Future of Life Institute Podcast episode, but a special release that features a direction that I’m personally very excited about. I speak with John Prendergast, a former adjunct professor of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is a longtime practicing psychologist and meditator with decades of experience in both of these fields under his belt. This is more of a personal episode, an exploration between John and I, and an opportunity for me to share a direction of inquiry that I’m passionate about and which I feel has an important relationship with AI alignment and existential risk issues.
John and I discuss self-inquiry, meditation, awakening or waking up, growing up, fundamental shifts in identity that are possible, non-duality, the mind as a good servant but a bad master, heart wisdom or heart-mind, accessing universal impersonal love, and what is ultimately possible in terms of human experience and how that may relate to collective problems in the world. John also offers 3 meditations or pointing out instructions in this episode for disidentifying from thought and ego, embodying heart awareness, and inquiring into core beliefs. So if you’re interested in this kind of thing, I think you’ll really love this episode, and if not, you may want to pass on this one.
For a little more background on the relationship to existential and global catastrophic risk, this episode for me continues the exploration of the wisdom portion of the race between the power of our technology and the wisdom with which we manage and use it. Wisdom surely includes promoting effective policy solutions, effective problem solving, and spreading awareness/information about large scale issues, but, in my view, also includes the project of self understanding and coming to know where and how humans fail to be wise, ethical, or embody their most aligned nature and how that collectively manifests as the large scale existential risk issues we see in our world today.
In terms of AI alignment, if alignment consists of adopting general 21st century human values, preferences, and modes of being or operating then that seems likely to amplify the tendencies and blindspots which generate existential risk and other societal level issues in the first place. AI alignment must include ways of knowing how to update beliefs, values, identity, and ethics in ways which correspond to what is true and good. This is what the project of awakening, self-inquiry, self-work, and meditative practices consists of and engaging in this work gives one necessary insight into what transformational processes consists of and thus ultimately what a long-term viable alignment procedure might be. The conventional human experience and belief structure in my view is distorted by many forms of false opinion, false belief, contradiction, and blindspots, which we can’t assume “aligned” AIs will be able to fix because verifying that systems are aligned for the ability to properly evolve human values, preferences, and ethics, and create a beautiful world requires we understand what authentic personal and collective evolution consists of.
It may end up being the case that solving existential and global catastrophic risk requires only addressing technical and political issues at an object level, rather than figuring out the appropriate process for evolving and embodying what is true and good, but I wonder how necessary or helpful it truly might be on the way there, how it might contribute, what kind of world we get without exploring this aspect of wisdom deeply, and the effects on the deep future for delaying this kind of work for too long. If I were to boil this down, it’s some sense that there is a need to debug ourselves in order to debug AI. We’re not merely trying to amplify human neuroses, contradiction, false opinion, and false belief, we’re trying to transcend or move beyond these things, less they merely be amplified by our technology. So, I invite you to consider how important or not this may be for navigating our way through the 21st century and to whatever is beyond.
Finally I’d like to share a quote by Adyashanti. He says that, “The world’s problems are, by and large, human problems—the unavoidable consequence of egoic sleepwalking. If we care to look, all the signs are present to suggest that we are not only sleepwalking, but at times borderline insane as well. In a manner of speaking, we have lost (or at the very least forgotten) our souls, and we try very, very hard not to notice, because we don’t want to see how asleep we are, how desolate our condition really is. So we blindly carry on, driven by forces we do not recognize or understand, or even acknowledge. We are no doubt at a very critical point in time. Our world hangs in the balance, and a precarious balance it is. Awakening to Reality is no longer a possibility; it is an imperative. We have sailed the ship of delusion about as far as she can carry us. We have run her ashore and now find ourselves shipwrecked on an increasingly desolate land. Our options have imploded. “Wake up or perish” is the spiritual call of our times. Did we ever need more motivation than this? And yet all is eternally well, and more well than can be imagined.”
And with that, let’s get into our conversation with John Prendergast.
All right, here we are in the 21st century with quite powerful technologies, which can be used in ways which are aligned with our deepest wisdom, or which are aligned with ignorance and hatred and greed and delusion. How do you see the modern problem of the human existential and experiential condition given your experience as a meditator and a psychologist and a spiritual practitioner?
John Prendergast: Well, there are of course unique expressions of this that are what we call modern. Of course the Romans thought they were very modern in their time. I think we’re dealing, actually with very deep human tendencies of egocentricity, and they’re simply amplified because our knowledge has grown so quickly and our application of that in the form of technology so that we’re at a point now where we’re able to extinguish ourselves and degrade the biosphere so significantly that only lower life forms may persist in the near future.
So I think we’re facing the sixth major extinction possibility. We’re in the Anthropocene era geologically. We have never come to a place before, historically, where we are changing climate so dramatically ourselves as a species. And we have the capacity with nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence and biological warfare to destroy ourselves. So all that’s new, but it’s an amplification of tendencies that have been with us all along, and that are deeply embedded biologically and psychologically, and that tendency is to be egocentric. That is to be self-centered, and not to be expansive and compassionate, and understand our profound connection with the whole of life.
And so this is our challenge, this is our opportunity to actually, as a collective, individually and collectively deepen, I think, in that very important human capacity, to lessen us and them this sense of deep separation that we have come out of our stories, come out of our self images, and open into a deeper collective truth of our interconnectedness, and in fact most deeply our non separateness from all beings.
Lucas Perry: Can you unpack and explain a bit more what that egocentricity is, what it looks like, what it’s made of, and what that experience is like.
John Prendergast: Yeah.
Lucas Perry: And what is on offer that is not exactly that.
John Prendergast: So egocentricity, of course, means ego centered, or egocentric, and the ego in the sense means our sense of self, our ordinary sense of self. And it’s actually quite complex and multifaceted. There are cognitive aspects, there are emotional aspects. So first the cognitive aspect, this means how we think about ourselves, and specifically the stories that we hold about ourselves, and the images that we have, and these stories are conscious and subconscious, and even sometimes unconscious, and very often constellate around stories of lack, or failure, and separation. So in a more common way of speaking, I’m not enough. I’m not intelligent enough, I’m not beautiful enough, I’m not interesting enough, I’m not the right shape, and it’s friend, something’s wrong with me or I’m not enough.
There’s some sense of deficiency or lack. And sometimes we’re aware of this consciously, but very often we’re not, very often it’s subconscious, and yet we act it out unconsciously in terms of our defensiveness, in terms of our need, we compensate. So because we don’t feel like we’re enough, we don’t think we’re enough, we have this image of being lacking in some way, we compensate for it, and we try to make up for it, and we need to be reassured constantly that, “I am enough.” And in its extreme form, it’s narcissism, and there’s just a sense of it being insatiable, we’re wounded very easily if someone doesn’t pay attention to us, or someone doesn’t accurately reflect, or misunderstands our experience, we feel deeply wounded and then we lash out.
So that’s our stories, our images, and these generall,y this kind of conditioning happens in childhood, often in our families of origin, where we absorb this from our parents. Sometimes it’s multi-generational and we’re not even aware of it, because when we’re young we’re just like sponges, we just absorb everything in our atmosphere. And we’re also very naive in terms of interpreting our experience. So if we’re treated badly, we think something’s wrong with me, I must be bad. We’re not attended to, if we’re neglected, we think we’re not worth being paid attention to. So there’s a feeling of unworthiness. So it’s very relational in its origin. And then it becomes concretized, it becomes a kind of schema that solidifies and becomes part of our self identity. And on some level we believe, this is who I am, and this is who I have to protect and project.
So there’s a lot to that, and in my work as a psychotherapist, and also as an adjunct professor of psychology training master’s level counseling students, we would look at this very carefully, because often this would generate activities and feelings and thoughts that would create a lot of suffering within people and between them, and other people as well. So that’s kind of the cognitive aspect.
That’s only one part, because our thinking is very intertwined with our feeling and our sensing. Very often our subconscious thinking generates a lot of dysphoric feeling. So feelings of shame, feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred and defensive anger, fear, social fear. And so we find ourselves frequently emotionally in some turmoil or reaction. Or we may numb ourselves, and actually because our feelings are so disturbing, we bury them, and then we act in a kind of mechanical and disconnected way. So that’s a feeling, again, that’s a whole other domain, the feeling domain.
And then somatically. When we are in a story of deficiency, of lack, of something being wrong with us, there’s a sense of contraction. It’s like we shut down, we stop breathing, we stop moving, these various areas of sensitivity in the heart and the gut shut down and attention goes up, and we become more vigilant and hypervigilant as well, particularly when we’re in a fear state. So all of these elements, cognitive, emotional, somatic, influence each other. And when you’re working, my expertise is actually in the field of subjective experience and inner transformation.
So if we approach this level of conditioning with compassion, with a non-judgemental openness and a curiosity, just to get to know, become more intimate with this aspect of our conditioning, our thoughts, our feelings, and our sensations, they begin to unfold, and they begin to mature and they develop. They come out of a place of frozenness and stuckness, and the growth and maturity process continues. So this is how we grow up, in a sense, and this is very important, not just waking up, but growing up, now that we have this trajectory of maturity as well.
And so as we do, our world becomes bigger. We are more open and available to different kinds of people, people who don’t look like us and sound like us, and haven’t had the same experience, and who don’t believe what we believe. And so we’re opening the field of acceptance, and softening the sense of separation between us and them. And so there’s another stage developmentally, not just to be a mature human being emotionally and cognitively and somatically, but also to awaken to our true nature.
And this is a subject I know that we’ll get into, but this is to recognize the context of all of our experience, the context of our thoughts, the context of our feelings, the context of our sensation, which is awareness itself, unbounded, open, lucid, wakeful, compassionate, loving awareness. We occasionally touch these places, which we may experience this altered and benevolent states, but actually that’s it’s an altered state, it’s actually our true nature. And our altered state is to be in a state of confinement, the state of ego identification, taking ourself as fundamentally separate. So that’s a brief overview of what I see as egocentricity.
And what does it offer to be released from this? The second part of your question. There’s a tremendous sense of fullness. Instead of lack, instead of something missing or flawed, we feel a sense of fullness, sense of completeness, or wholeness within ourselves. So there’s nothing that we have to prove, nothing that we have to compensate for, and therefore, really nothing to defend, fundamentally. Not that we don’t have boundaries, on a normal human level we do, but on the deepest level, we don’t feel threatened by others or by life. And it’s not that we’re indifferent, it’s not that we become uncaring or naive, but we feel ourselves connected to something fundamental in life. And this also gives us a sense of stability, inner peace, quiet joy, a sense of connectedness and communion with the whole of life.
And so this potential is in each of us, and it doesn’t require any kind of special conditioning. It’s latent, it’s inherent, but often overlooked and over felt, and over sensed. And so that’s been a lot of my work has been about bringing attention to awareness itself, and to what it means to embody it. Not just to realize it on a mental level, not just awaken on the level of cognition, but to do so emotionally and somatically. And what that brings is a sense of, in our interpersonal relationships, much less drama, much less conflict. Why? Because we’re not in a position of defense, and we don’t have to prove anything. We don’t have to be right.
So there’s a quality of openness where there’s a natural humility. We’re open to learning, we’re open to exploring, we’re open to connecting in a way, to a degree, that we never were before. And in some way that transposes and radiates out as well, in our friendships, in our immediate relationships, and hopefully collectively as well. I can say a lot more about this, but that’s a brief overview.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. So human beings have a kind of relationship in the natural order where we’re at the vanguard of natural evolution.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And so what we have on top of millions and billions of years of evolution is this sophisticated self model, and a world model, which is also structured and queried and analyzed via conceptual thought and thinking, which is inherently dualistic.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: Because of the meanings of the concepts are derived interdependently based on the opposite. And awareness becomes identified with this conceptual dualistic thought, and then becomes self-referential.
John Prendergast: Yes, that’s right.
Lucas Perry: Which leads to an experience of duality. So this is feeling like you’re in your head.
John Prendergast: Yes.
Lucas Perry: Like the seat of identity is in your head, like you’re a thinker in the head.
John Prendergast: Yeah, and you feel yourself either behind the eyes or up in the prefrontal cortex, and that’s where your hands are pointing as you described this, quite precisely, yeah.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. So you were talking a lot about this sense of unworthiness.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: There’s this basic existential problem that comes about from this identification, this condition, this sense of separateness.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And then some sense also that the pattern of ego identification, it doesn’t have the qualities or the power to embrace and live a fully human life, it’s driven by will and judgment and comparison.
John Prendergast: Yep.
Lucas Perry: And it worries about counterfactuals, and it lives in a world that is separate from self, and also big and scary and dangerous, it needs to be problem solved.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And this leads to quite a sad, separate experience of life. And you talked about acting out this existential condition, and these unmet needs, this lack of this fundamental wholeness.
John Prendergast: Yes.
Lucas Perry: Causes us to act out in ways. And so systemically seven or 8 billion human beings on this planet who can have more or well less adjusted egos, some people might not resonate with the kind of existential pain or suffering of ego-identification. So there is a spectrum of how well adjusted an ego can be.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: But there’s still this fundamental sense of separation, at least.
John Prendergast: And alienation, that’s right.
Lucas Perry: And alienation, yeah. And so if listeners can experience this right now, do you have a pointing out instruction, or a short exercise you can provide for noticing what ego-identification is?
John Prendergast: Yeah. There are a number, of course, and from many different traditions. And depending on the listener, I attune to where they tend to get over-identified. Because what you’re describing is really what we call a state of misidentification. In other words, we take ourselves to be something that we’re not. And so the beauty is that whatever we’re identified with, if we have a localized attention in the forehead, or the eyes, for instance, so maybe we’ll begin there with listeners. We begin with just noticing where your attention localizes. Not thinking about it, but kind of sensing. Do you feel like you live mostly in your eyes, or your forehead? Which is where most people do, or is it lower down in the body, or is it really distant from the body entirely. In a case of dissociation, that can happen.
So you notice the sensation of localization, and then you notice that you’re aware of this. There is awareness of the sense of being localized. So we just shift our attention to being aware, not of the sense of localization, but of the awareness itself. This awareness is not something that we can grasp, that is we cannot make it into an object, but we can be knowingly aware. Often at first it feels as if it’s in the background, almost behind us, behind the head, behind the body, as a kind of openness, quality of spaciousness. So it’s a kind of relaxing back. There’s a willingness to not know, to not have to solve a problem, to not need to think about this. That may arise, inevitably it will, but we noticed that there is awareness of this, and there’s awareness of thought, specifically. There’s awareness of sensation of localization, and awareness of thought that comes and goes.
And there are gaps when one thought ends and another begins, maybe you noticed it when we have a stream of thought and then it comes to a natural completion. It’s a kind of gap, a stop. So we begin to listen to the gaps, and we discover that they’re not empty. We become curious about this awareness. What is this? What are the qualities of this awareness? It’s a quality of wakefulness, openness, spaciousness. So this might be one little practice. It’s often very much the first one, which is our dis-identification from thought by noticing that we’re aware of thought, that we can have thoughts as a background of awareness, and that we can, without thoughts, still have awareness. We can be aware without thoughts. This can be a kind of revelation. It’s interesting, and there’s a freedom in this. There’s also a resistance to letting go of our identification with thoughts.
There’s another pointing out instruction, which I often use, because my book The Deep Heart really focuses on heart awareness and whole body awareness, and maybe if you like, I could add that at this point, or do we do this later?
Lucas Perry: Why don’t you add it in now.
John Prendergast: Okay.
Lucas Perry: Because we’re already pretty present. And then we can talk a little bit about how that relates to growing up and waking up.
John Prendergast: Okay. So when there’s a quieter mind, when there’s more space, it’s actually quite natural for attention to drop down from the head into the mid chest area, which I’ll call the heart area. So I want to invite you, Lucas, and your listeners, to let attention just drop down into the heart area. And you can put your hand on the middle of your chest if you like as a kind of sematic anchor, or you can imagine that you’re breathing directly into and out from the heart area. And with each breath, your attention drops in more deeply. It’s like the heart area has the dimension of depth, from front to back, and each breath, attention settles into the heart a little more deeply.
And the heart area is really quite mysterious, at least at first, because it includes a dimension of deep feeling and sensing, as well as knowing. So we’re entering into a different mode of knowing. We breathe, we sense, and there’s a similar falling back. The heart has different dimensions, psychological, conditioning, sometimes painful or difficult we may encounter. There’s a deeper dimension still that I call the soul, archetypal level where we have our special gifts, or unique expression. Very deep, intimate level. And a still deeper dimension where it feels like the back of the heart opens into a vast space of loving awareness. You may begin to sense this, may or may not, but there’s a willingness to explore, to fall back, to not be in control, to not know.
And this is where we begin to sense our natural wholeness, our completeness. And when it fully unfolds and awakens, we recognize our non separateness, this duality between self and other dissolves, our internal self world construct, the I-you, the I-it, softens, dissolves. There’s a feeling of great love, and quiet joy, tremendous gratitude, gratitude for, of course, many things, this beautiful world, the people that we love, care about, but a gratitude for life itself, and gratitude to be. And a generosity in spirit. So there’s one more center, if we keep going, which is the belly. Let’s talk about that later. We’ve covered a lot of ground already.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, heart awareness is also nonjudgmental and fundamentally okay, so it’s fine with the phone vibrating during the interview.
John Prendergast: Exactly. There’s a quality of discernment, but not of judging. It’s really there’s a quality of accepting what is as it is. And then from there being able to creatively respond. This is, I think, some confusion, there is some confusion among spiritual practitioners, or even critics, that this leads to a state of passivity. It’s not the case. It’s a state of openness and receptivity that actually allows a creative response. We’re able to think out of the box, and feel out of our ordinary boxes, and we need that. We really need that now.
Lucas Perry: So we have some sense then of ego-identification. You’ve given a pointing out instruction for what in Dzogchen they call rigpa.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: Loch Kelly calls it awake awareness.
John Prendergast: It’s a good term.
Lucas Perry: It’s this quality that anything you can notice is a content of consciousness.
John Prendergast: Correct.
Lucas Perry: Rather than the empty awake space that that content inhabits.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: So if you feel like you’re inside your head, then you can notice that actually your head is within awareness.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: The back of your head is in awareness. And eventually there can be this equalization of all of the content as being sort of, you mentioned this deeper level of heart awareness, eventually becomes this deep interconnectedness, which is non-duality.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And so I’d be interested in talking with you about the ethical implications of that at some point, of non-dual heart awareness.
John Prendergast: I do want to make one comment.
Lucas Perry: Sure, go ahead.
John Prendergast: I want to make a distinction between interconnectedness and non-dual perception.
Lucas Perry: Okay.
John Prendergast: Because they’re there in the same direction. And this may be not that important, but it’s a subtle, and for me, an important distinction. Interconnectedness means we see how parts are connected. And as we see and maybe experience how parts are connected. But that perception can still be dualistic, come from a separate self. And it’s a very useful seeing.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I see what you mean.
John Prendergast: In terms of systems to see. We can just see it on many levels, in the level of physics, chemistry, biology, the Earth’s atmosphere, geology, biosphere. It’s just all amazingly interconnected, just astonishingly so. And there’s another level here where it’s not just interconnected, but it’s non separate. It’s all made of the same thing. The source and substance is the same. In contemplative traditions, both Buddhist and Hindu, and some of the Western contemporary traditions as well, this is understood to be an essential communion, non-separation. So I think it’s a step beyond interconnectedness, and one that comes with the relaxation of the chronic sense of separateness within oneself.
Lucas Perry: So these have been more in the area of waking up. There’s this recognition of awareness itself.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And then you can abide at that level of identity, but you can also become reimmersed in ego identification.
John Prendergast: Quite easily.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, quite easily. And so there’s this-
John Prendergast: Back and forth.
Lucas Perry: There’s this back and forth.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: There this dropping down into heart awareness.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: You also mentioned the gut, which we could talk about later.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And then there’s this distinction between inter-connectedness and non-dual awareness.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: Science in the 20th and 21st century has been quite aware of interconnectedness, and scientists who talk about the poetry of reality, like Carl Sagan, have touched on ideas about our interconnectedness with stars, that all of our matter, our heavier elements were fused and parts of stars at one point in time.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: And this reflects the dualistic perspective that you were talking about. And so there’s still this experiential sense of separateness and of self.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: Which in the project of waking up shifts into non-dual awareness. But before we unpack more of this distinction of waking up and growing up and how it’s relevant to wisdom.
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lucas Perry: Can you unpack non-dual awareness a bit more? It might sound a bit strange.
John Prendergast: Yeah, basically non-dual awareness is referring to the disillusion of subject and object, and that means self and other. So it’s really our ordinary conditioned experience to be a separate self, and to be interacting with separate selfs with a separate world. We think of the world as existing outside the skin of the body, so we are inside the body and the world is outside the body. I am here and you are there and we are fundamentally separate. This is the world, common sense world of duality. And of course we are very individuated and distinct beings, there’s no confusion about that, and there is the experience of the physical world.
What’s interesting is in subject-object relationship, each depends on the other. An object depends on a separate observer, observed requires observer, observer requires an observed. They always go together. What’s interesting is there are different contemplative traditions, focused on one side or another in terms of just investigating, what’s the truth? What’s my experiential and subjective truth of the object for instance? And this tends to be more of a focus of Buddhists.
What Buddhist meditation often focuses on is impermanence. It’s like you notice everything is constantly changing, right? And so, there’s an insubstantiality to the objective world. When the objective world and very deep meditation begins to collapse, so does the apparent subjective world, so that’s one approach. The other approach, more from Advaita Vedanta is to question the subject. Famously Ramana Maharshi’s inquiry, who am I? Who or what am I?
This is the tradition that I been more attuned with, and the teachers that I’ve been involved with, and just intuitively drawn to. The question, not so much an intellectual question, but the inner investigation is, what is this I? What is the nature of this I-sense? When we explore in a very deep way what is this sense of I, it opens up. It becomes increasingly less objective, in a way the subject is an object also.
It opens into quality of awake awareness, rigpa, boundless, spacious, wakeful awareness. As that happens, the subject feels unbounded increasingly. Now, interestingly, the objective world doesn’t immediately collapse, the sense of the object. As that awareness of openness deepens, particularly into the heart area, then the object actually begins to dissolve, and we realise that fundamentally there is no other. There is no world, there is no other, yes, absolutely distinctive appearances, but I am not different than you.
On an interpersonal level, the experience is I’m talking to an aspect of myself, as you are to yourself. We are aspects of this one self or no self, I’m not attached to any particular formulation about what that is, the suchness of reality. Then it becomes, when we don’t lose our individuality, we don’t lose our individuated self, but it’s as if, to use a metaphor of the wave in the ocean, the wave discovers its oceanic nature.
Even as it keeps its wave-like function, there’s a deep relaxation in the subject, ease of being, and then a sense of profound intimacy with other beings. It’s like, “This is my very self, what I’m being with and learning from and experiencing.” That gives a little flavor of it, and our relationship to the so-called world also changes, because this too is myself.
Lucas Perry: The whole thing is my nature.
John Prendergast: This is my nature. And the my is not egoic, right?
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
John Prendergast: It’s not referring to anyone or belonging to anyone in particular, so it’s shared, and this is the beauty of this teaching and this understanding as it unfolds because it’s contagious, it’s communicable. It’s not like we all go into our little bubble of inner peace. No, it’s like we’re opening into the ground of our experience and the ground of awareness. And this ground is shared, and we feel that, we sense that in an intimate and beautiful way with those that we’re with and that’s transformative, that’s love, and that moves us then to act.
We’re getting into ethics, how does this impact behavior? Because instead of being moved out of fear, which is often our fundamental motive, fear and its corresponding aggression, we’re actually motivated out of a sense of love and compassion, really a desire to be of service to one another. Not that we negate our own needs and our own feelings, but it becomes just so much more inclusive. It’s like, yours are as important as mine. Your experience, your perspective are as important as mine.
There’s a natural humility in that, an openness to learning and discovery to a genuine dialogue, to a quality of listening that is both deeply we could say intra-personal, that is to say a deep listening to our own experience in the moment. But at the same time very open to whomever we’re with, whether that’s individuals or groups as well. There’s this sense of this, see what I’m doing with my hands, cycle of sharing that opens up.
We don’t have to have a full-blown nondual awakening to have a sense of this, because we have a glimpse of it. We have lesser tastes of this when we’re in love, when we feel a sense of harmony or attunement, in nature with other people, we have a taste of this. As we recognize more deeply who we are, this comes more and more into the foreground of awareness, and I find it, it’s a gradual process. Thinking a question?
Lucas Perry: No, I’m not thinking.
John Prendergast: Very good. Well, this is another thing, I sent you another thing, I’ll share a little bit. This willingness to not know, right? Is very important. This willingness to actually be quiet sometimes, and to be in a mode of listening is very beautiful, but there’s something lovely in it.
I mean, when we’re together with friends and we’re having a conversation and the conversation comes to a natural end, sometimes people get uncomfortable, right? They think they need to come up with something, be interesting, fill the space, but it’s very beautiful to be at ease in silence, the sense of some fullness within ourselves, some sense of ease, not knowing what the next moment is going to bring.
This is when something new happens. This is when discovery happens. This is when learning happens, and this is where love, of course it can be expressed in action and words, but can certainly be felt and shared as well.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I experienced some of that as you noticed. My eyes moved around, which lend itself to see me like I was thinking, it was more like I felt your tennis racket hit the ball back in my court and then I became aware of myself again, and then I was like, “Oh, I guess I better say something.” I’m like, “What’s going to come out?”
John Prendergast: Okay. Good. Maybe before you go, you described your experience a little bit. Just describe it a little bit more, before you go to the, hitting the ball back. What do you experience?
Lucas Perry: Resting in the presence of awareness rapidly becomes self-conscious, it’s a fear of getting hurt, which then collapses into ego-identification, which then efforts to solve the problem of what to say, in order to not get hurt by fumbling on the response.
John Prendergast: Right. Being hurt as if being perceived as incompetent?
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
John Prendergast: Articulate?
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
John Prendergast: To be humiliated, to be rejected.
Lucas Perry: Right.
John Prendergast: To then have one’s survival on a certain level activated?
Lucas Perry: Yeah, and to be unlovable.
John Prendergast: To be unlovable?
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
John Prendergast: It’s nice to slow down here just with the process, because what you’re experiencing is what we all experience. I appreciate your vulnerability and your honesty here. I think listeners will relate to this very beautifully because we get quiet and this is what comes up. Is it okay to just be this open, right? To not know what’s next, to not come up with something to demonstrate our value, and then to be open to what arises in the way of fear and shame. These are usually the main emotions that arise.
These are very deeply conditioned responses that keep us, in the way that you just described, there’s a collapsing back into a separate sense of self. There’s nothing wrong with this process, by the way, it’s almost universal and completely normal, and we begin to observe it with the clarity that you were able to, it’s like in a matter of fact way. Oh, fear rose and then there was a contraction, and a collapsing, and a coming back to the separate sense of self.
What we could do, and we won’t do this necessarily unless you wanted to. But often, when I do work with people, we really slow down here. When we say, “Okay, would it be all right to explore this fear of being unloved,” right? Then go into a meditative inquiry about what’s my deepest knowing about this.
In this way, and this is something, my expertise if you will, is really to bring the light of awareness, the sense of presence to the conditioned body mind and allow a natural, to facilitate the natural unfolding of that, so that there’s a natural movement of unfolding and integration that supports, and that helps stabilize the awake awareness and embody it, and also it facilitates the maturation of the body-mind.
These young parts that may be afraid, rejection and being unloved, of failure, of humiliation are held and met, the quality of love and understanding that they’ve longed for, so that they can release from these places of contraction and relax into this, the greater system, not just individually, of life. The system opens to this deeper life as well. This is something that we all have the ability to experience and be part of. I appreciate just this moment of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, thanks.
John Prendergast: Please, feel free to speak.
Lucas Perry: Okay. I think I’ll start speaking now. I don’t think we need to get too into this, but there’s growing up, which I think people will be very familiar with, which is more conventional self-work, where you can improve the methods and conditioning of the egoic structure.
John Prendergast: Not only. Yes, that is true. There is a way that the ego I suppose, could be improved, but growing up also means being in touch with, I would say one’s deeper calling, one’s gifts that one has to share with the world, and growing, it means being more in touch with your feelings, your experience, being more in touch with your body, having a greater capacity for honest and authentic personal communication.
I’d like to take it out of the framework of just ego and put it in the frame of just a child becomes an adolescent, that’s a huge shift in terms of growing up. Then there’s another shift from adolescence into adulthood, and a lot of people never make that shift from adolescence into adulthood where we’re not just self-centered, but we have a broader perspective, a greater compassion and understanding just still on a personal level.
We act in a more, more mindfully of what the impact of our actions and therefore more ethically as well. There’s a natural world development that we can have. That’s independent, actually of the waking up, largely independent of that trajectory. There’s a complexity and nuance, I would say in the waking up department, that’s not just strictly egoic in the sense that you were initially describing.
Lucas Perry: Okay. Thanks for that clarification. There’s waking up and there’s growing up? Waking up, I think the language that you use is, it’s recognition of true nature, whatever that is.
John Prendergast: Yeah. Just to clarify a little bit more.
Lucas Perry: Sure.
John Prendergast: Waking up, or as you suggested, as I’ve told you, I prefer the language of recognizing true nature. There’s a shift of identity that happens, and that is because earlier I had said that our suffering really comes from a fundamental misidentification of who we take ourselves to be. In the self recognition process or awakening process, we dis-identify from who we’ve taken ourselves to be, particularly, at first our stories and our images and the content consciousness.
There’s a natural in that letting go. In that seen through and letting go, there’s a natural resting in and as awareness, and often that first feels like a spacious freedom. That’s stage one, if you will, for most people. Sense of inner freedom and spaciousness, and disidentification from the ordinary self and story.
As it deepens, as we were talking about earlier, it includes an element of the heart, of love and deepening sense of intimacy with the whole of life, and then continuing deeper into the instinctual and somatic realm, feel a profound sense of stability, and intimacy as well.
In a nutshell, awakening or recognizing true nature is a gravitational shift in identity. As it deepens too, you had alluded at the beginning that we feel ourselves localized in the head, we feel ourselves just in this global awareness and it feels more and more of the body is in us, we are the space within which this body happens.
Interestingly, though, we feel very… And this is where it gets very paradoxical, I may be going off on a trajectory here. But I think it’s an important one in terms of embodiment, is we feel very much in the body, but we’re not limited to the body. In the sense that the body really shifts, becomes so much more open, much more spacious and much more connected with the whole of life. These are with the deepening of the recognition of true nature of this unfolds.
Lucas Perry: Two things are coming up for me. One is, one of my favorite quotes of recent months, which is, “When I look inside of myself and I see that I am nothing that is wisdom, and when I look out and see that I am everything that is love.”
John Prendergast: Beautiful.
Lucas Perry: And then…
John Prendergast: That’s Nisargadatta.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, Maharaj.
John Prendergast: Yeah, Nisargadatta Maharaj.
Lucas Perry: The second aspect is, I don’t think we can get through this whole conversation without at least glossing over metaphysics. Not that I want to spend a lot of time on it, but part of that nondual experience is that, everything in dreams is made of awareness and waking life from a purely experiential first person perspective of consciousness, everything is also made of awareness.
Waking life and dreaming life are made of the exact same thing, so there is this groundlesness and this emptiness to both, at least I have some sense of that. The mind will quickly be like, “What the hell does that mean in terms of the external world?” Or if one’s really inclined towards logical positivism, what does that mean?
But something that’s been increasingly important and relevant in my life is, I’ve shifted from being a pretty hardcore scientific materialist and physicalist to shifting my credence, farther the other way, because I don’t feel like the view takes consciousness seriously, as primitive and primary.
I want to say that there are qualitative and quantitative natures to consciousness, and I don’t know anything about the metaphysics, but in terms of just my direct experience of the world, these two things I mentioned, the dream-like nature of both waking and sleeping life, and then the quote is quite meaningful and powerful for me. I haven’t fully made sense of the metaphysics, but I don’t think it matters.
John Prendergast: No, I don’t think it does matter. I think what does matter is this quality of investigation and this openness, open-mindedness as well, and a willingness to question everything. In this quote, the wisdom aspect of seeing the nothingness of self, and the love aspects to see the everythingness of it. This emptiness-fullness description often arises in these deep contemplative traditions. The emptiness of material substantiality, this is the dreamlike quality that you’re describing.
It’s interesting you bring up Nisargadatta because, I had a very powerful dream with Nisargadatta, that was as real as any waking experience. It was like, as I’m speaking with you right now, and it was a lucid dream and it was before I knew who he was. I was in India and I was in Bombay and I was standing in front of a little apartment and this beautiful sage appeared and it just looked into my eyes and he was totally lucid, and I became lucid as well.
Then there was this communication that happened where he asked if I could be his translator and asked me to spend time with him, and I had no idea who he was. Never seen his picture. A friend of mine had been to India just the year before, and I said, “Who is that Sage that you saw in Bombay?” He said, “Oh, Nisargadatta Maharaj.” I said, “Do you have a picture?” Then he pulled one out of his drawer, and I was like, “I just had a dream of this guy.”
I read his book, I Am That. Well, that was in 1981, and I found out he died a month after I had this dream. This is very peculiar how this happens. I mean, I doubt that Nisargadatta had any awareness that something like this was going on, but it does speak to this fluid quality of reality that is quite mysterious to ordinary empirical mind and logical positivist orientation, the life of scientific materialism.
I would completely agree with you. It’s very important to take consciousness seriously. That is to say as something that’s primary, not just an epiphenomenon of neurological development, because aspects of it are clearly, but there’s an aspect of consciousness here that is so profound in terms of contacting experientially and opening to and becoming intimate. It just transforms everything in terms of our sense of self, our relationships with one another, our sense of deep gratitude and connection, a life as well.
We have this emptiness, we empty ourselves of our images and our stories and this limited sense of self and that, there’s a lot of resistance to that. We haven’t talked about resistance in this process, but it’s quite strong because we’re so geared to knowing in order to control, in order to survive, right?
Discursive strategic mind is very oriented towards trying to control, recognize patterns, envision possibilities, and in order to survive, that’s what ordinary mind is designed for. This process of deep investigation, subjective investigation takes us into the unknown, and there’s a lot of resistance to that, which is why I think unconsciously, a lot of people avoid it too, and maybe find logical reasons to dismiss it.
But, we do very often. The first step is an emptying out. The Greek word is Kenosis. Emptying out. Just emptying out of everything we think and feel and know about ourselves and find ourselves less and less as an object, less and less as a thing, more as a no-thing. To the ordinary mind, that just sounds awful. It sounds like depersonalization, it sounds like disconnection, it sounds like death.
Lucas Perry: Like woo woo.
John Prendergast: Not to mention woo woo. But in fact, when we open in this way, when we discard the non essential, then we open to what is essential and that opens to life itself, and that’s the quality of fullness. That’s the pure potentiality that is in our core, and then we open to expressing.
Lucas Perry: I guess there’s a few things. The first thing is, I understand what you mean by more essential yet this isn’t a rejection of thought, it’s simply correcting a misidentification because this is all content, which has equal reality. It’s just, there’s this dream going on, which is born of the misidentification, and so, it’s a different recognition.
John Prendergast: Yeah. It’s not a devaluation. It’s actually seeing things as they are, putting them into clearer perspective. In a very simple way, I found myself… Actually, I use this phrase in both of my books, In Touch and The Deep Heart. The mind is a good servant, but a poor master. The mind is a tool, extraordinarily powerful and beautiful tool. We couldn’t be having this conversation, or listeners couldn’t be listening to it without this extraordinary technology that’s developed, right?
How wonderful is that? That’s great. But where’s the wisdom and how we use this. It’s like, what do we do with it? How do we use it to best advantage and do the least harm? That question, that’s where we’re in conflict now. Where we’ve outstripped our capacity with this enormously powerful forces, artificial intelligence, nuclear war and climate disruption. I mean, we’re just living in a completely unsustainable way.
It’s going to require the opening of wisdom and heart-based, if you will, and love. Therefore, we really have to accent this other dimension, this deeper dimension of our humanity, I think, to successfully navigate this crisis, these multiple crises that we find ourselves in. That’s the fullness aspect. It’s like emptiness opens us to be out of the box, we let ourselves out of the box and therefore it allows our thinking actually to be much more clearer, much more fresh, much more intuitive. It allows our feeling to be much less reactive.
It’s not about protecting a separate self, but much more about compassion, empathy, gratitude, generosity, and our sensing, that is to say our somatic sensing so, becomes much more useful, much more integrated, much more open. We feel our natural connection or connection with the natural world as well. The mind can dismiss this as woo woo, right? But in fact, it’s the opposite.
Lucas Perry: The mind says that that’s what you would say if you believed in woo woo. I’d love to address a little bit of the epistemic part of this with you. You mentioned this dream that you had, I’m sure the instant reaction of many listeners was, “Well, maybe there was some unconscious imprinting or John is simply mistaken,” things like that. Then there’s also this kind of objection, is this regressive? Leaving the mind and going to the heart, what is the epistemic power and status of the heart in relationship to the mind? Because you’re suggesting that the heart become the core of identity, and knowing, and being, and then this is the distinction between, the mind as a poor-
John Prendergast: Good servant.
Lucas Perry: It’s a good servant-
John Prendergast: Poor master.
Lucas Perry: But a bad master?
John Prendergast: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thank you.
Lucas Perry: And people’s minds are going crazy as, at least, some people’s minds are… if we haven’t lost them with reasonable objections. And I also just want to add, are you familiar with Christopher Bache?
John Prendergast: No.
Lucas Perry:… and his book, LSD and The Mind of the Universe: Diamonds from Heaven?
John Prendergast: Uh-uh (negative).
Lucas Perry: Okay. There seems to be also claims about prenatal experiences, womb experiences and birthing experiences, and collective unconscious.
John Prendergast: Yeah, all of that.
Lucas Perry: Witnessing the collective unconscious of the species and life on earth. And then deeper dimensions, which get into pretty crazy psychedelic territory, I guess I don’t want to call it crazy, but not able to be expressed clearly in conceptual language that, one has to wonder and have their credences shifted in relationship to them around metaphysical and epistemological stories that we have, so, what would you offer the skeptical listener about your dream, what’s been said so far, the value of heart-mind, its epistemic status and relationship to the mind, what would you say to a logical positivist?
John Prendergast: All that, yes. All the objections.
Lucas Perry: All the objections.
John Prendergast: Right. Well, I mean, I can’t logically justify or explain that kind of lucid dream that I had, but what I do know is, it had a profound impact. Because when I read the dialogues with this Indian sage that I never heard of, it really pointed me towards self-inquiry in a profound a way, to really investigate the sense of I, and that’s been extraordinarily fruitful.
I can tell a number of anecdotes and give, and ask the listeners to trust me as an authentic reporter, but, in many times in my life, this is really speaks to the issue of heart wisdom. I’ve often taken the road less traveled, using M. Scott Peck’s phrase taken from Frost, Robert Frost poem. Just to say, I’ve gotten into a place of listening and not necessarily following the strategic mind, in terms of, a benefit risk analysis of what would be most advantageous for this one, but very often, in critical points of my life, I’ve just kind of sat down and gotten quiet, had a feeling knowing about… and it’s very quiet, I’ll check it out with the mind later to see if it makes sense, but it doesn’t originate in the mind. It comes from a quiet feeling and knowing that this feels right to me, it doesn’t have to be true for anyone else.
It’s the difference between going to Stanford and UC Santa Cruz 50 years ago, or the difference between leaving law school and going in training as a transpersonal psychologist or marrying my first wife who had a terminal illness and lived for seven years, and they were wonderful years. I mean, that kind of choice would not be made by the strategic mind, but there is something deep in the heart that knew this was the correct step for me and led to various movements in my life, really important decisions in terms of work and relationship. One distinction I think it’s important to make in terms of heart wisdom is that, it’s not emotional in the sense that it’s typically described, because just to live from the heart, if our feelings are largely informed by our subconscious stories and thoughts, were all over the place. And we’re full of projections and we fall in love and we idealize the other and they don’t fulfill us, and we’re disappointed, right?
We’ve all had that experience and been on both ends of that experience. I’m not talking about that aspect of emotionality. It’s much deeper, much quieter and more, we can use the word intuitive, not in terms of hunches, but more as a quiet inner knowing. It’s a knowing that does not assert or judge, and you were bringing that point up earlier, that it’s non-judgemental. I’m giving kind of qualities of heart wisdom. It’s a quality of nonjudgmentalness, non assertiveness, quality of affectionate curiosity, quality of not knowing, being in a place of discovery and exploration. And I think, actually, some of our most inspired scientists have tapped into those places from time to time when they’ve kind of got out of a cognitive place and had a dream or a sudden inspiration, I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes from that same inner knowing.
So, It’s not necessarily rational, it’s not anti-racial, and this heart knowing is something we can then check out, see if it makes sense, but I find it’s kind of quiet inclination, has proven to be remarkably trustworthy in my life, and my work with clients too. I mean, this is an interesting point, is the body responds to authenticity.
And as we get more in touch with what’s true for us, and what’s authentic for us, the body interestingly has subtle responses to it. This is what the content of my first book, In Touch, was about. We have one of those qualities or markers of getting in touch with a deeper knowing, this is kind of in the epistemic conversation, somatic aspect of this knowing is that the heart opens, you feel a sense of openness of heart, and we can actually sense that. Since I’m motioning with my hands to your listeners, from the heart area, we feel kind of lighthearted, open-hearted. We feel a quality of spaciousness. It’s like we’re not as tightly constricted, but more open and spacious. We feel a sense of ground as well. Just a sense of something very deep and quiet, and grounded and a sense of a liveliness, and alignment internally.
So, this falls in the genre of Felt Sensing that Eugene Gendlin described half a century ago, working with Carl Rogers, and it’s a very important discovery actually that we have that prior to thought and feeling separated. The body has a felt sense of what’s authentic. And people often are unaware of it, because they don’t listen to their bodies and they don’t listen with that kind of fine tuned attention. And of course we have different capacities for that, but I find in my work with people, when I help them, actually sense into more deeply what feels alive and aligned and grounded and spacious for them, there’s a sense of rightness for them in their life, and they move forward in their work, in the relationships as well.
So, I think we’re not just tapping into something that’s disconnected or fantastic, we’re actually tapping into some quiet, inner knowing and feeling. Don’t take my word for it, obviously, this is something you have to discover on your own. For me, this is not about accepting a belief system or a dogma, I feel very undogmatic. And I understand how we can get attached to… This could become another belief system and we could be advocating for it. I have no interest in that.
Lucas Perry: Sure.
John Prendergast: My interest is actually inviting people to discover what’s true for themselves, what’s authentic.
Lucas Perry: Right. So there’s a taking the claims of this conversation as experiential hypothesis, which can be tested if you want, you have the opportunity to test them if you’d like-
John Prendergast: Exactly.
Lucas Perry: And the distinction here that I think is important is that in science, there’s this really intentional and structural epistemic process for making sure that we arrive at the truth. Historically, in religion and spirituality, people can easily point to a lot of places where people are all over the place and contradicting one another, yet in science, there’s the value of the peer review process. The way that I experience and understand and relate to much of the nondual wisdom traditions, say, what people have to say about waking and growing up is that, it’s a kind of internal peer review process, and there’s this really important quality I think of distinguishing and understanding who the real experts are, which you also have to do in science, because there are pseudo-scientific scientists, there are pseudo-spiritualists.
John Prendergast: Teachers.
Lucas Perry: Teachers, yeah. So, I just want to shed that kind of light to the epistemic process around this.
John Prendergast: It’s an interesting point, because this is not happening in a vacuum. There is a culture, a contemplative culture, for instance, Eastern, Western, and it’s true that there are a lot of varying reports in terms of what’s most important and what’s real and various interpretations of those reports, so that can be off putting and confusing. What’s interesting, kind of coming back to this point of felt sense of truth, this is more interpersonal, we resonate when we sense authenticity in another, on whatever level we’re speaking on, right? When someone is being honest emotionally attached, we feel it, when someone’s being honest intellectually touched, we feel it. And when someone is being honest, we could say spiritually, that is to say, essentially, or in terms of consciousness or awareness, we can also sense it. So there’s something in us that knows, right? On various levels, and responds and resonates.
This is what Daniel Siegel, professor at UCLA, calls interpersonal neurobiology. So, we’re attuned with one another in all sorts of levels, consciously and unconsciously, and we’re drawn, we’re drawn to what’s authentic, if we’re interested in the truth, and not all of us are. But when we are, we have a sense, and this has been true in my experience with teachers, because I wasn’t looking for a teacher, at least, not at first. I began as a meditator when I was 20 years old and I was just interested in altered states of consciousness, and meditation and being a less anxious person. But at some point it was interesting in my mid twenties. And just quite spontaneously, I had the feeling, I need to work with a teacher, and of course that’s fraught with problems, but when there is that kind of movement internally, I think there’s a readiness on the part of a student and then potential teachers appear.
And we feel a resonance to varying degrees and we need to use discernment, but any valid teaching is going to point a student to their own inner knowing, and their own autonomy and their own freedom, that’s a really important principle. And I felt that in both of my main teachers, John Klein and Adyashanti, they were not about being adored, they were not about power tripping or getting money or manipulated, they were about discovering what’s true and empowering people to do that. And I really resonate with that.
So, that’s the kind of culture where both in terms of sangha, the spiritual community and teacher, have a legitimate role to play. But most importantly, we learn to trust our own experience. And those are supportive, teacher and community, to varying degrees, depending on our need, but we learn to actually begin to trust what’s unfolding. And I mentioned that because that was very hard for me. I was very skeptical, and I would tend to have openings and then dismiss them, and say, am I fooling myself?
Lucas Perry: Same, same.
John Prendergast: Same for you.
Lucas Perry: A hundred percent it’s been crazy.
John Prendergast: It’s like I would just sabotage myself constantly.
Lucas Perry: It’s been playing seven dimensional chess with my mind, subverting anything and everything constantly. It’s like-
John Prendergast: Well, there it is, I recognize this description very well.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. It Co-ops and steals everything.
John Prendergast: Exactly.
Lucas Perry: Perfectly.
John Prendergast: Perfectly. Until it doesn’t-
Lucas Perry: Conventionally, the smarter you are, the worse it is.
John Prendergast: That tends to be true. If you’re an intelligent person, you tend to look at all these various angles of potential self-deception, and there’s a value in being skeptical, a great value. In my case, if we’re still in the epistemic conversation, it’s like I needed to see that my doubt is also an object in awareness. In other words, I needed to see it as a filter. And that required a very fine discernment. And when that happened, and that was actually facilitated by one of my teachers, John Klein, there was a sense of growing, kind of a jump, a step in terms of my sense of self trust and autonomy. Although, I must say it wasn’t overnight. It’s really something that has evolved gradually. To trust what I’m describing now is true for me. So, I think it’s something that really intelligent people will go through necessarily.
Lucas Perry: There’s the doubting and the counterfactuals and the thought experiments and the objections that the mind raises, and there’s the kind of silent, constant, peaceful, loving, knowing of heart awareness, and we can drop back, and from this kind of detached pure witness perspective, see both as a form and content, so I wonder, how did you make this discernment from, okay, so my doubt and the objections are content, anything else-
John Prendergast: Yes.
Lucas Perry: And then there’s this sense, well, listen to the deeper voice. And so, there’s a clear sense that heart wisdom is the deeper voice, yet that transition feels extremely dangerous, I’ll speak for myself. It seemed very dangerous at points I would get hurt or I was regressing or any of these kinds of things.
John Prendergast: I think here’s the value of meditative inquiry, which is to recognize what the fear is, what the belief is, and then actually learn to sit with it and consult one’s deepest knowing, and then be quiet. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to describe it, that process a little bit to your listeners.
Lucas Perry: That would be really helpful. And just before we jump into that, I feel some need to kind of explain its context. So this meditative inquiry to me, seems to be in the realm of waking up where, increasingly over time, it seemed to me like talking to parts of my experience almost as if I would like another human being.
John Prendergast: Yeah. This is parts work.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. It’s like internal family systems-
John Prendergast: Internal family systems or voice dialogue, which I taught to my counseling students in grad school. So, that’s another level of experience, and maybe I’ll just say a word about that, because actually meditative inquiry works on both levels. Can work in terms of just kind of sitting within a central question, who or what am I, or what is this. But it can also sit with examining different aspects of the psyche, particularly core limiting beliefs. And this is an area that I focus on as you know, along with my book. And those core limiting beliefs often are very connected with internal parts, children parts.
So let’s say there’s a part that feels unlovable, or unworthy to be loved, right? That was generated out of childhood experience on some interpretation. So, you can approach it in different ways. One is to actually call forth that part, and enter into a kind of dialogue and understanding, and there’s quite a few subtle and complex dynamics about how to approach that, which internal family systems is a very fine way or voice dialogue. Those are the two systems I know most about. Gestalt has other approaches as well, that these other ones grew out of, more sophisticated ones grew out of. And this is kind of depth, psychological work, getting in touch with that little boy who feels unloved and beginning to unpack that experience and understand it.
And that’s important work to do. You can do that same work or related work through meditative inquiry. So, let’s say we have a belief, and learning how to recognize these core beliefs are actually quite important. So it might be, you said it was dangerous to let go, if I let go then-
Lucas Perry: The universe is a dangerous place, and so you have to exert control and relinquishing into not knowing heart-mind is the relinquishing of control and therefore I’ll you’re hurt.
John Prendergast: That’s right. So, the universe is hostile. The universe is dangerous.
Lucas Perry: Yes.
John Prendergast: Okay. So, that might be one belief to sit with. So we would bring… We recognize the belief, we see if it really is charged and then bring attention to the heart area quietly, we put the belief aside for the moment, bring attention to the heart area, take a few deep breaths, get quiet.
Your listeners may find their core beliefs about themselves or the world, they’re interconnected always. It may be, the world is a dangerous place and I’m not equipped to deal with it. I’m too weak or vulnerable to deal with it. I find working actually with a self view, self story is more potent, but sometimes working with a worldview is, and one can bring out the others, so, it’s a kind of an art to explore. But the world is a dangerous place or I’m not equipped to deal with it, or I’m unlovable or I’m flawed, or I’m not enough. And when were they let me sit with it a little bit, I just kind of notice the feelings and sensations. What are evoked with that belief? We get the three major elements of our subjective experience, thought, feeling and sensation. Often, there’s an upset emotionally, often, there’s a sense of contraction, somatically.
Why don’t we take a deep breath and just kind of let it go. And then we ask ourself, what’s my deepest knowing about this belief? And then we don’t think about it. Let’s say the world is a dangerous place. What is my deepest knowing? When we’re just quiet, it’s like we drop the question in like a pebble in a pond. We’re just in a mode of listening, receptive. Usually when we ask a question, we think the mind has to answer, we don’t, in this case. And we just notice there might be a sensation, there might be a feeling, there might be an image, there might be just a direct knowing, that just spontaneously arises. So in your case, what comes up, Lucas?
Lucas Perry: The universe is beyond being safe or dangerous, but also that I experience, still bilocation about this view, so there’s the deeper inner knowing, and then there is the contraction and the fear and the stories, so I experienced both of those at the same time.
John Prendergast: Okay. So what I would say was favor the deeper knowing, okay?
Lucas Perry: Yeah. Yeah.
John Prendergast: And then let it in, because it’s subtle, it’s deep, often overlooked, the other you’re very familiar with. So it’s kind of, let in this knowing, let yourself know what you know. Breathe, kind of feel it in your body, and usually we sense a shift starting to happen when we let it in. Good, what do you experience?
Lucas Perry: Less like its beyond those things, but more like there is a loving embrace.
John Prendergast: Yeah. Sense of being lovingly embraced.
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
John Prendergast: Good. So this would be something to, the sense of being held in love.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. That-
John Prendergast: Is very important, I found. And your system needs this. Many of our systems need this, and that allows a kind of relaxation to happen when we feel it, a release, a sense of being safer, and more grounded and more in our body, and more here. I can sense there’s subtle shift as you sit with us. So, is that an accurate reflection that I just gave in terms of a sense of some relief or release and feeling safer, more grounded, when let yourself feel held, embraced in love?
Lucas Perry: Yeah, there is that. There’s also fear and doubt around getting hurt by doing that. It’s quite a lot like the experience of initially shifting the heart-mind where the mind has a million objections-
John Prendergast: That’s right. A vulnerability comes up.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. This requires kind of surrender-
John Prendergast: That’s it.
Lucas Perry: And falling into that there is resistance around, we haven’t talked about resistance yet, there’s some resistance. And then I’m allowing the resistance.
John Prendergast: That’s right. Allowing the resistance. No judgment about the resistance. Resistance is inevitable. So it’s like embracing that too, like, Oh, of course. So this is how trust happens. This is how transformation happens too.
Lucas Perry: Right. And there’s this kind of compassion, which I think you can get from internal family systems, which is like, of course you’d be resisting. That makes so much sense, you want to be safe.
John Prendergast: Yes. It makes absolute sense.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I think Adya says, treat yourself like someone you care deeply about.
John Prendergast: Absolutely. Compassionate self care, compassionate mindfulness. These are all kind of pointing in the same directions, kindness and clarity, both, towards one’s inner experience. And in this way, our conditioning gradually unwinds, and we feel ourselves actually more and more open, and present and connected and alive as well.
Lucas Perry: And invulnerable, in a deep sense.
John Prendergast: Speaking of invulnerability… So, that’s right. So this is like meditative inquiry. The thing is, you tapped into a deeper knowing, you’ve got other knowings in there, familiar resistance and fear, but you did sense a deeper knowing, there’s sense of being embraced lovingly. And as you give yourself to that, and notice resistance, you accept it, it’s a process. And what happens is, the system begins to shift the condition, body, mind begins to open, actually to the light of awareness, to its true nature.
And we feel ourselves more here, more grounded, more real, more connected. We’re having a little taste of that, maybe some of your listeners were too. So this can be used with core beliefs and parts. And it can be used just sitting with a deep question that you really want to find out the truth about. One other point, I got a lot of points, we’re touching survival fear, right? You were touching that fear, the world is a dangerous place. So the Future of Life Institute, right? World is a dangerous place. World is endangered. We are in danger, endangering the world and the world is a dangerous place. So the more that we can come to that place of deep groundedness, kind of an unshakeable peacefulness within us, the better able we are to deal with challenges in the world.
We’re not coming out of fear, we’re not coming out of terror, right? We come out of clarity. We come out of love. And that allows for a much more creative response. And Lord knows, we need that.
Lucas Perry: Can you speak a bit about the universal heart and some of the highest or most pristine or valuable qualities of awakening, if one can characterize it as such, and the ethical implications of shifting to that level of awareness or abiding in that insight?
John Prendergast: So, this is the deepest dimension of the heart that we touched on briefly at the beginning of the program, going through kind of egoic dimensions, actually, are quite deep, and then getting to a more soulful level, but the heart becomes less and less local, more non-local, more global, if you will.
We feel it behind, but we also feel it in the front. We feel it all around.
Lucas Perry: Can you be more specific about what that means? Like it’s infused in space?
John Prendergast: Yeah, it does feel … Like Ramana Maharshi, another great Indian sage said, the heart is neither inside nor outside of the body. He said that about a capital H Heart, meaning consciousness or awareness. So the main point I think that I would make is that there is … When we open to this, it’s really non-personal. It’s really beyond either egoic or soulful levels. It’s universal, as you said, and there’s an all embracing quality to it. A quality of profound compassion for suffering, individual and collective, in life. It’s really only this level of the heart, this universal level, that has the capacity, I think, to hold the suffering and not get burned out and overwhelmed by it. So in terms of ethics, as we open into this dimension of being of heart-centered awareness, and we know everything is an aspect of ourself, then we can not do harm to that.
We want to support … The movement is entirely that of benevolence, of wanting to alleviate suffering. I think the Bodhisattva vow in Buddhism really comes from this realization. The movement of life is then really not egocentric. It’s really towards alleviating suffering and being of service and supporting life and all of its manifestations. That will look differently for everyone. If you’re an activist, it’s going to look one way. If you’re an artist, it’s going to look another way. May or may not involve political action, depending on how you’re wired. But in any case, the feeling is of one’s life being an offering and in service to the greater whole.
Ethics kind of line up in that direction, particularly … That’s a whole nother question. Ethics and awakening. So particularly when the growing up aspect and personal maturity has come along, then I think these two together, the waking up and growing up, provide a very strong foundation for a highly ethical way of acting, and that’s honest and loving.
Lucas Perry: Right. If one hasn’t grown up sufficiently in the realms of maturity and ethics, then you get all of these failure modes in spirituality and religion where there’s kinds of sexual abuse and monetary abuse, spiritual egos.
John Prendergast: That’s right. Lots of that. Yeah. So you have an initial … this phenomena, kind of an initial awakening, where you disidentify from your particular story and image, but you’re still being run by your conditioning, largely subconscious. That’s why that kind of initial awakening up is not sufficient. The while waking down and through the embodiment of this understanding is so important.
Lucas Perry: We gave the first pointing out instruction was just kind of witnessing awareness, but you can get kind of lost in this detached witnessing state. You can be a distant witness. So there’s this embodying into heart mind and to the gut or the hara. So let’s try and tie this all in directly now to technology, and I think the large human system. There’s both this project of waking up and growing up particular individuals. So there’s making people in general more wise, and then there’s making wise people more powerful, or including wise people at tables which they’re not generally included at. This is a kind of wisdom and embodiment of aspects of the human condition that many people are not aware of, or that are not a part of human systems much, like at the highest levels. So how do you view this project, I guess, in particular of waking up being applicable to the problem of existential risk in the 21st century?
John Prendergast: I think it’s hard to delineate a direct relationship, to be honest. That is to say a linear one. I do think as more people investigate into who they really are and what life is and that kind of deep experiential investigation and stay with it for a period of years, they find that their lives open up and that has an impact in the trajectory of their own life in terms of following an inner wisdom and love, in terms of work and relationship. That transforms … Or not transforms, but will affect those around them in some way. It may lead to couplings or decouplings. It may lead to work projects beginning or ending. But all of that movement will be in the direction of greater authenticity and love, compassion. Some of those people will inspire others and some of those people may be inspired to assume more public roles, either in private enterprise or in public life.
Some may be academic teachers, some may be healers, some may be artists, some may be activists, and they will bring this consciousness, these values, to light. Some people will be drawn to then work with institutions to introduce, for example, mindfulness in the United Nations or the U.S. Congress, both of which are happening, and mindfulness is in the direction of awakening. That’s a whole nother conversation, but yeah, I’m all for being present centered, compassionate awareness as a step in the right direction. That may begin to influence …
Then you have wisdom carriers entering into public systems. Some will enter into corporations. Some as trainers, some of those consultants, some as leaders. Some of the leaders will be influenced by educators and know that there are different developmental levels of leadership from increasingly egoic to non-egoic and taking in whole systems. All of that is just radiating out in various directions in a kind of non-linear, unstructured way.
What effect will that have? How quickly will that effect materialize? Will it have sufficient impact on these very regressive unsustainable systems? Socio-economic, ecological systems is an open question. It seems to me unclear what those impacts may be, but it does seem to me clear that the impacts can only be positive.
Lucas Perry: If the growing up accompanies the waking up?
John Prendergast: Yeah. Assuming that there’s a growing up that’s accompanying the waking up.
One other comment before you jump in, because you’re talking about having wisdom people at the table. I think it’s also important to introduce wisdom-inducing processes and practices. That is to say learning actually to listen in a deep way to oneself, to another. Learning how to tap into silence and not just an empty silence, but a full silence. Learning to situate the mind, the discursive strategic mind properly, not as the master, but as a very valued important servant of a deeper principle.
So just kind of sharing those values and the practices that are designed to evoke them are, I think, as important as particular individuals. This is kind of … I think points to the point towards the understanding now that we’re all in this together. We all have our quality of love and wisdom that we need to bring to the table, whatever our table is. No matter how large and public it is or how private it is, we all have this capacity within us to be more awake, to be more mature, to be more alive and authentic, and to really then support that, give attention to that. That’s kind of the question that we need to ask individually and collectively. What’s most important? What is really most important? Wait and listen and feel, both individually and collectively. It’s like, what is most important here in my life individually and collectively? What are we doing as a collective here? What are the possibilities that we can uncover and manifest?
Lucas Perry: It’s a completely different way of being.
John Prendergast: It is. I appreciate, Lucas, that you’re in touch with this. I can feel that.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. Thanks. I was going to say I’m bilocated about it, but yeah, there is connection with it. It’s unfolding.
John Prendergast: It is.
Lucas Perry: It’s unfolding. You’ve got part of your body in the door and then sometimes it comes out a little bit.
John Prendergast: There’s a back and forth that happens. This background awareness context, consciousness or awareness itself comes more into the foreground at times, and then more into the background. Very often there’s that phase of orienting, and then at some point it shifts, and we’re primarily in that openness.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. So as we’re wrapping up here, I think I just have maybe two more questions for you. The first is using Max Tegmark’s language. We’re coming to a point where we may be developing life 3.0 through artificial intelligence. Evolution hasn’t ceased to be. Everything is impermanent and constantly evolving. So the condition of life is not static. It seems like the strongest evolutionary processes are in the hands of humanity now. With the potential creation of artificial general intelligence, maybe creating the next form of life, which who knows what our relationship will be with them and who knows what kind of consciousness or experience of the world and ethic we will instantiate in such systems.
So how do you see the value in relationship of the insights of the awakening process in creating artificial general intelligence and the very deepest depths of, I guess, spiritual experience and what it has to say about ethics and morality and being, and maybe even metaphysics and epistemology as that relates to making life 3.0?
John Prendergast: Well, I have to confess relative ignorance about artificial intelligence. I’m not even sure I’m an educated layman on the subject, so I’m learning about it from you, which is appropriate. I do know it’s a kind of a wide open subject as to what that might look like and what the capacities of that are. It’s hard for me to imagine that artificial intelligence could be capable of heart wisdom. So certainly all sorts of metacognitive capacities would be easily achieved, but to live life from … It seems to me AI is hopefully a good servant, but the master really is this capacity for loving awareness that we have as human beings.
So coming back to the question, what is most important? I think it’s really important to introduce that question and in AI development, it’s like, what is it that we are aiming for here, and what is our relationship to this technology, extraordinary technology, going to be, and how can we make sure that it’s in service to these deeply human values? I think just keeping those questions alive is really important not to go blindly towards developing something that so easily we can become lost in.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. My sense is that I think that exploring these depths is valuable because it gives experiential understanding of what is possible of consciousness for the architects of what I view as the next level of consciousness. So I don’t think I share the view that heart awareness can’t be instantiated in machine systems. I’m not sure where that kind of specialness would be for human beings that it wouldn’t be able to be a part of some new living thing. Even though it’s made of different elements, we share the same ontology with it. I imagine that anything that is possible of human consciousness can also be instantiated in machine systems.
So if the horizon of the architects of AGI’s experience is limited by every day egoic consciousness, then I worry that the kinds of qualities that they will put into it are limited by what the egoic, dualistic mind takes to be the best, most appropriate tools and may miss out on heart wisdom or universal heart mind, and even deeper spiritual experiences. I’m not sure that they’re deeper, but also including non-duality and things that I don’t know how to speak about right now, but that are in the deepest realms of the deep.
John Prendergast: Yeah. Well said. Maybe that’s a good point to end on.
Lucas Perry: All right. So if people are interested in knowing more about you or getting in contact with you or are interested in your books or following you, where are the best places to do that?
John Prendergast: Probably to go to my website, which is listeningfromsilence.com, and there you can access a lot of media, different interviews and talks that I’ve given. Interviews and also information about retreats and books. You can also start … My most recent book’s called The Deep Heart by Sounds True. It came out a year ago, December in 2019. I think it’s the most complete kind of written expression of my understanding and it’s very experiential in its orientation. Also comes out as an audio book, so that’s a good introduction. A book I wrote earlier, In Touch, is really about the kind of subtle somatic markers that I described earlier of inner knowing. So I think it might be of interest to listeners.
So before COVID, I was offering in-person retreats, mostly in the United States and had planned to do one in Europe then that got canceled. So I’m doing some online offerings and you’re welcome to find out about those on my website, but hopefully when COVID has passed and we’re safe, I’ll be offering in-person retreats as well. I do work as a psychotherapist, although I’m soon to retire and I don’t have any space for people one-on-one. I have an incredibly long waiting list, so unfortunately I’m not available anymore for that kind of one-on-one work. As much as I love to do it, it seems like my movement of my life more is to working with groups, which I enjoy a great deal. So that would be the best way, website and my books, and certainly feel free to email me. I’d be happy to interact with you.
Lucas Perry: All right, John. Well, thank you so much. This has been really, really valuable. Thank you.
John Prendergast: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, Lucas. I really enjoyed the depth of our exploration, the multidimensionality of it.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I feel that too and I feel like my experience has gotten an upgrade just from this conversation. You mentioned one-on-one sessions. I feel like I’ve gotten a one-on-one session.
John Prendergast: Yeah. Wonderful. Well, I really enjoyed the conversation.
Lucas Perry: Thanks for joining us. If you found this episode interesting or useful, please consider sharing it on social media, with friends, and subscribing on your preferred podcast platform. We’ll be back again soon with an episode in the FLI Podcast.