Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Stuart Goodnick and Robert Schmidt -: Mystical Positivists

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 19, 2021


 

 




Dr. Robert Schmidt and Stuart Goodnick

It was thanks to poet Red Hawk (Robert Moore) that I learned about a local (Sebastopol CA) fm radio program called "The Mystical Positivist." As Red Hawk was to be a featured guest on their program, he sent me a note: I would love it if you could listen in as these two men are senior spiritual practitioners, wise and intelligent men who have been in the spiritual work for many years. I expect they will have lively, entertaining, and intelligent questions.
     I was already an admirerer of Red Hawk's poetry and had published several of his pieces in works & conversations. His candid  endorsement of the program's founders added to the curiosity I was feeling from the name of their program alone.
     Thus stimulated, I wasted no time taking a look-see at their website and under the influence of my morning coffee, and my excitement of finding this surprising program practically at my own doorstep, I gave in to an impulse to call the number listed on their website having no plan about what exactly I might say.
     Robert Schmidt answered the phone and was quite congenial to my slightly manic babbling. It was the beginning of one of those connections that one feels lucky to find. The conversation that follows in which I learn more about Schmidt and Goodnick took place about a year after that first contact.

Richard Whittaker:  Let me start with you, Stuart. I read on your website that you have a degree in physics from Caltech.

Stuart Goodnick:  Right.

RW:   Okay. Tell me a little bit Caltech and how you ended up at there - and why physics?

Stuart:   Well, in high school, I had a fairly general education, so I was interested in science and math, but also history and English, but I had the idea that science was the direction I wanted to go in. I think my sensibility, or my inclinations, are more towards engineering, in the sense that I like abstraction, but I also like abstraction when it’s put in service of solving a particular problem. I applied to a lot of different universities and ended up being recruited by Caltech. Partly, I think they saw that I was wavering a little bit, because I had a more general interest in different topics, rather than just like hardcore science. They offered me a small scholarship and that was enough to pull me over the edge; so I got into Caltech as a freshman.
     What I’d say about that institute is it’s very much like a pressure cooker; it’s very demanding. There’s an intensive regimen of classwork, a lot of homework and things like that, but there’s also a great deal of cooperation  so students were all kind of in it together. They really try to teach students how to think and how to solve problems, rather than to regurgitate material, so a lot of the tests were open book. You would take it on your own at home. It was a very formal honor system, so if it was a two-hour test, you took it for two hours and then you were done. It basically meant that memorizing wasn’t going to help you. Understanding was the only thing that would help you.
     As a freshman, I think I was seduced by the idea that physics was going to be the gateway to understanding the secrets of the universe. So I was drawn to studying physics, but what I found over many years, in starting to learn about myself and getting involved in social dynamics there, was that the questions I was most interested in were not questions that were actually being covered by the physics curriculum. When I did find classes in consciousness and the like from the biology department, they were usually run by people who were hardcore materialists, who had to believe that consciousness was something that was derivative from the function of matter. So, that worldview didn’t set well with me, and at the same time - and parallel in my out-of-school activities - I was reading more about mystical philosophy and magical philosophy and the like, and had this very different worldview speaking to me as well.
     So ultimately, I had lots of ups and downs. I had periods where I took leaves, I had periods where I did well, and periods where I didn’t do so well. At the end, it was almost like a force of will for me just to finally finish my degree, so I could get out of that place. Like I said, I wasn’t finding myself caught by anything in the physics curriculum or the mathematics curriculum, or even the engineering curriculum. I was feeling a little bit stuck and needed something different, so ultimately, my graduation was a way to kind of get out of that.
     I ended up going to graduate school at UC Santa Cruz, more by inertia, partly because Santa Cruz is sort of a second-tier school. They would look at schools like Caltech and the people there who wouldn’t be going to a Harvard or an MIT; they’d recruit those people because 50/50, they might get someone who turned out to be a pretty strong performer. So I was recruited on that basis, but I ended up being in the 50% that ultimately didn’t complete their degree program. So I spent a couple of years at UC Santa Cruz studying physics, but that was just a transition, really, because my heart wasn’t in it. I kept thinking I might find another subject, a topic, that that would ignite passion, but that didn’t happen. So out of that, I started to seek more connection with something more spiritual, and ultimately found and connected with Tayu Meditation Center in Sonoma County, as a vehicle for pursuing the questions that were most interesting to me.

RW:   Okay. Let’s wait on that part. Where did you come from before going to Caltech?

Stuart:   Well, my father was an exploration geologist for Mobil Oil and it was a time when there were a lot of regional offices. So, I was born in Oklahoma City and we moved to Durango, Colorado; to Casper, Wyoming; to Calgary, Alberta; to Dallas, Texas - and then the longest run I had before college was outside of Denver, Colorado for about seven years. 

RW:   Wow. That’s an interesting trajectory. At Caltech, did you on campus or did you live off-campus?

SG:   I lived on campus. At the time, it’s still somewhat like this, although I think it’s been changed a little bit, but at the time I was there, there were seven primary student houses on campus. Each house was something of a combination of a dormitory and a fraternity. I say that because there was a rush process or what we called rotation, and students would have dinners in each of the houses each night for a week, and then the student houses would go through a picking process to pick the freshman. So, each freshman would choose four houses that they wanted to be a member of, and each house would then stack rank the people they wanted in their house. Typically, the people at the top of the list and the bottom of the list were the people that each house got. The net result of that was that people would migrate into dormitories or student houses that had some sort of affinity to their personalities. These houses had long-standing traditions and personalities that really put a stamp on the life of the student.

RW:   Is that how it was for you, that you found yourself with a group of students who you felt some sort of natural affinity with?  
                       
Stuart:   Yeah, absolutely. I was in a house called Dabney House which, at the time, had the reputation of being the drug house. It was also known as the “house of gentlemen.” It had a reputation for having some of the more unusual “hippie-types.” This was in ’79, ’80, ’81.   So yes, I had a strong affinity, There were a lot of people who thought very differently. There were very brilliant people who were, in many cases, what we call “flamed out” or had left the university, but hung around socially. So there were quite a lot of different personalities - all very smart people.
     What was interesting for me in that environment was that I felt like I was home with a bunch of people who were similar to me. They were kind of a family, and that was the first time in my life I’d had such a strong social experience like that.

RW:   That sounds pretty nice, actually.

Stuart:  Yeah. It was nice, but it was superimposed over this very difficult academic environment.

RW:   Have any of those friends that you made at Caltech remained your friends up until today?

Stuart:  Yeah. There’s quite a number of them that I'm still connected with. These days, the connections are modulated by distance and convenience.

RW:   Have any of them embraced the Mystical Positivist?

Stuart:   Some may have listened to some of the shows, bit I don’t think any of my friends quite had as strong a bent in the mystical direction as I have. I've had some friends out of that who sort of walked that path in parallel at times, but not in a particular way or form that I have.

RW:   Okay. That’s nice to hear a little from your background, Stuart, and I can relate to it. Did you ever get over to Pomona College by any chance?

Stuart:  No. I didn’t while I was there, but isn’t Harvey Mudd part of that complex?

RW:   Yes.    
          
Stuart:  Well, Harvey Mudd was one of the schools that I might have gone to. I’d applied there and visited the campus, so I was kind of aware of Pomona College as probably being a similar enclave of the sort I was describing.

RW:  I have to share a little story. I did get to Caltech one evening for a party when I was a student at Pomona College; this was in 1965 or 66. The Caltech students had made a fruit punch spiked with something close to pure alcohol. I’ll just say it was a memorable experience.
     But let me jump over to you, Rob. You have a very interesting cv that includes having a PhD. So would you say a little bit about your doctorate?

Robert Schmidt:   Sure. So, I started college immediately after high school and I was dealing with coming out as gay in the early ‘70s, so my personal trajectory was strongly affected by that. I basically dropped out and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s, that I went back and finished my undergraduate degree in anthropology at UC Berkeley. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with it, but I knew I wanted to complete the undergraduate degree.
     I ended up connecting with a woman, who later became my PhD dissertation chairwoman. She has claim of being among the first two people in the field of anthropological archaeology to bring a feminist perspective into the field.
     So, I was in my late-30s by the time I was getting ready to graduate in ’92. I was 39. In the year or two before that, I’d connected with her. I did an undergraduate honors thesis with her and I realized I wanted to continue doing archaeology. They don’t admit many of their own undergraduates to the graduate program, but in my case, they made an exception.
     I was very grateful because, beginning with my dissertation chair, a woman named Meg Conkey, the department was in the process of becoming the pre-eminent feminist department in the world it would be fair to say. I wanted to do research on gender and sexuality in archaeological contexts, so it worked out very well, in terms of both my research interests and personalities.
     As you may know, graduate advisors and graduate students can often have a problematic relationship, because in many cases, graduate advisors, who’ve never really learned how to be graduate advisors, end up trying to replicate their own interests in their students. But Meg was wonderfully eclectic and open to me doing something different than had been done before. So, I ended up doing a dissertation on sex and gender variation in grave contexts in the last period of hunter-gatherer economy in southern Scandinavia - Denmark and southern Sweden. We’re talking like five to seven thousand years ago.

RW:   Okay.

Robert:   I chose that place because there were enough burials that I could use statistical analyses to look at what was going on there, and I discovered that in fact, in later European pre-history, we see varied gender graves in many cases. But in this final hunter-gatherer phase, actually there’s virtually no differentiation between male and female skeletal treatments, in terms of grave goods and what not.
     So I did that, but certainly, a more original contribution was that with a fellow grad student, I put together a symposium in 1998 at the Society for American Archaeology meetings called, Archaeologies of Sexuality. We invited all kinds of senior researchers. We were still just grad students, but we invited all these senior researchers to present papers considering sexuality as an object of knowledge in their various archaeological contexts.
     It proved to be a very hot topic. We were recruited by various publishers, so a book came of that. It was published by Rutledge in 2000. Then I finished and I taught for a year after I concluded my graduate work at Berkeley.
     I realized that I didn’t really want to move from the Bay Area, and frankly, it wasn’t going to be feasible for me to stay here. My colleague, with whom I did this Archaeologies of Sexuality project, both of us were short-listed for a position at Stanford. She ended up getting the position, thank goodness, because I really wasn’t interested in maintaining the competitiveness that’s necessary at that top end of academia. And she’s still at Stanford, and a dear friend.
     I did some job talks, one in England and what not, but I sort of asked the Universe, “Do you want me to continue with this or do you want me to do something else?” The answer was to create a spiritual bookstore as an embodiment of our meditative practice and philosophy. In fact, just the other day, we celebrated our 18th anniversary for that store.

RW:   And that’s Many Rivers…?


Robert:   That’s Many Rivers Books & Tea in Sebastopol, California. So it was something that I was very grateful to do. While I really loved archaeology, I had mixed feelings about being a professor because I hated doing lecture classes, just really despised that. I loved doing seminars, upper-division seminars, where I had this specific goal to encourage people to learn to cultivate opinions and then share them in a way that honored the opinions of those who disagreed with them. That was my main focus, frankly, other than the topical areas, which I would choose because I was interested in them. That’s a contrast with serving customers, who in many cases, come into a spiritual bookstore and want advice about some life problem—advice, in the sense of, “What book or practice will be relevant to me?” It was a very different thing than working with undergraduate students, most of whom were just interested in the grade, quite frankly.  
                   
RW:   It sounds like your description of how you liked doing graduate seminars is a good fit with the programs you’re doing with the Mystical Positivist.

Robert:    That is exactly true. I came upon that when I was doing this Archaeologies of Sexuality project, because my good pal, Barbara Voss, and I ended up having these fabulously creative conversations with the senior colleagues of ours at the time. We were asking them to think in a different way about their research, their particular topical area of research. It was just such a tremendous revelation to me, how wonderful it could be to have conversations with people who are really engaged in doing something interesting with their lives.

RW:   Yes. Now it had never occurred to me that anthropology and archaeology would go together. Would you just share a few thoughts about how that works?

Robert:    Yes. And it varies with geography, which is to say that, particularly in American academic contexts, anthropology and archaeology sort of grew up together. Anthropology was first configured as a way to study “the other” - not us - in the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. In North America, archaeology was not – at the time, at least - about us. There wasn’t something what we call now “historical archaeology” which looks at basically stuff from the last three or four hundred years in North America, or in other contexts too, of course. In North America, it was about Native Americans’ archaeology. So it fit nicely within the overall context of this anthropological project. It also included a lot of what people, at the time, thought of as “rescue anthropology.” That’s one term for it; there are others.

RW:   What does that mean - rescue anthropology?

Robert:    Well, take California, for example. Here, Native Californian cultures were being lost and obliterated by the dominant Anglo-American culture coming in and creating different economic regimes. Of course, Native Californians were massacred and treated so horribly, especially in the late-19th century, and that continued to be true into the 20th century. So, it was the work of Alfred Kroeber who founded the department at UC Berkeley where I got my three degrees. He became one of the prominent people. He founded the department; he was a student of a guy named Franz Boas. His classic handbook of California Indians is still relevant. It’s actually often used by Native Californian groups.

RW:   Did you actually study with Kroeber directly?

Robert:   No. He was deceased. However, his daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin - Ursula Kroeber-Le Guin - was someone I had a chance to meet several times, and I still consider her my favorite author, period - both in prose and poetry, really. So I've had a deep appreciation for the Kroeber family, shall we say. 
                 
RW:   Did you two ever have Ursula Le Guin on your program?

Robert:    No. I wish, but that never happened. She died a couple of years ago.

RW:   Too bad. Okay. The archaeology/anthropology interface is an interesting area. Now you described this perspective of seeing those peoples under study as being “other”—both archaeologically and anthropologically —and I gather you are interested in maybe another way of relating to this broad subject.

Robert:   Yes. I'll just say that the reason I did my own research in Scandinavia with hunter-gatherers, as opposed to Native American hunter-gatherers, is because of the fraught relationship, in many cases, between archeologists—historically, I mean, archeologists and native groups. Although, in the department I was in, it was a hugely important focus to remedy this lack of respect that had prevailed for such a long period of time in the discipline. In fact, one of my fellow grad students was a Pomo Indian from Sonoma County where we live. I'm still in occasional contact with him, and there are others as well. So, to be able to feel good about doing research about sex and gender variation among hunter-gatherers, I had to go to this other context, where there was a lot of data and it wasn’t controversial to use that data to do statistical analyses. My dissertation probably would have taken a lot longer, because I would have had to establish a relationship with Native groups, and there might have been resistance to this because of who I am - this white guy -coming in. A lot of my colleagues have done a really good job of establishing relationships of trust and respect, and that’s an ongoing project and discipline, for sure.

RW:   So, I think I read something on your website that indicated that you have an ongoing relationship with, is it UC Berkeley?

Robert:    Yes. Although frankly, I've let the scholarship thing go on that. In fact, I was going to chair a symposium at an archaeological conference at Stanford earlier this year in 2020, and then the pandemic happened. It was going to be in May. So, I keep my big toe in that pond as a senior scholar, shall we say, especially in the sex and gender area of archaeological research.

RW:   How did you two [Stuart and Rob] connect?

Robert:    We met through Tayu Meditation Center. I’d met the founder of Tayu, Robert Daniel Ennis in 1977, and a month after I met him, I moved into this flat in San Francisco where a bunch of other students were living with him. Then shortly thereafter, there was a move up to Sonoma County, and Stuart saw an add in Common Ground.            
     So he came to a workshop where we had a guest speaker. Robert [Ennis] was a huge fan of having conversations with different teachers from different traditions. So, we hosted lots of events like that, and Stuart came to one of those.

RW:   And you guys connected at that event, it sounds like.

Stuart:   Yeah.

Robert:    Yeah, over the next year, I think it’s fair to say.

Stuart:   The event was a hosted workshop with a Wiccan in celebration of Samhain. What caught me about Tayu Meditation Center at the time was that when we were sitting in the living room and introducing ourselves, Robert [Ennis], described himself as a Fourth Way teacher. That galvanized my attention because at that time I’d read Meetings With Remarkable Men, and parts of Ouspensky’s Fourth Way, and had a sense of vitality in that tradition and an intellectual interest. But I also had this kind of frustration around the references to “a school” - like where do you find a school? What does that mean?
     Even when I was at Caltech, a friend had recommended I read Meetings With Remarkable Men, we attended a meeting of a group, which today I would describe as a Fourth Way cult. It was a group up near Sacramento formed around a particular person claiming to be a teacher in the tradition, but we went to their open meeting and nothing connected with me there. It seemed like the people were kind of filled with themselves. But I still had this interest in the Fourth Way, so when Robert signaled an affiliation with that tradition, that got my attention. So I was really more interested in the conversation I had with Robert Ennis that weekend. It was October 27, 1985.

RW:   Before we get into the Tayu Meditation Center, which I'm interested to learn about, I just wanted to go back again to archaeology. Rob, you were focused on questions of sexuality in that five to seven thousand years ago population as a specific kind of focus. And since you were involved in archaeology, did you poke around in other areas of the ancient past, so to speak — Egypt, the Middle East, Sumeria, et cetera, et cetera. Did any of that interest you?

Robert:    Sure. When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, another of the professors there had an area focus on agriculture in the Pacific islands, and he offered a class in pre-historic farming. In that class, you had to start with what happened before the farming - that transition from the hunter-gatherer economy to the farming economies. There’s been a lot of interesting research continuing in that area and I am fascinated for a number of reasons.
And there’s been a lot of back and forth in archaeology as to the development of social hierarchies. We live in a quite developed social hierarchical society and in many, if not most, hunter-gatherer societies, you don’t see these kinds of hierarchies; so, coming to understand the processes involved with the development of hierarchy, the maintenance of hierarchy, and the realization that there’s not just a single path from a non-hierarchical society to ultra-hierarchical societies, is an ongoing interest to me.
     There’s another archaeologist, or anthropologist really, who just died - David Graeber. His best known book is Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He’s a wonderful source of inspiration for a lot of folks, in looking at how these hierarchical processes both came into being and can fluctuate over time. He was also one of the folks in the Occupy movement in New York and he lost his position at Yale, apparently because of that, and ended up going to Britain, et cetera. So it’s an ongoing area of interest to me and finding, how shall I put it, finding alternatives in the archaeological past to demonstrate that we don’t have to do things the way we’re doing now, whether it’s with regard to sex and gender, whether it’s with regard to social hierarchical elites, et cetera, that remains an enduring interest.  

RW:   Okay. Have you ever run across the work of Schwaller de Lubicz?

Robert:    No. I mean the name sounds familiar, but refresh my memory.     
       
RW:   Well, I don’t think the fraternity of scholastic Egyptologists have much respect for him. He and his wife spent most of their adult lives studying ancient Egypt, I think. There’s a huge book by him called The Temple of Man. I just thought I’d run it by you and see if you’d looked at it.

Robert:   I have not. I will admit that Egypt, in particular, has not been…Stuart, as a child, at least he asserts and I have no reason to disbelief him, as a child, how old would you have been?

Stuart:   I was a teenager.

Robert:   Yeah. So, he actually taught himself to read hieroglyphics, so he’s the one who might have found himself reading this person more than I.

RW:   Do you know Schwaller de Lubicz, do you know that name?

Stuart:   No, I don’t. I'm actually interested in the reference, so it’s The Temple of Man?  

RW:   Yes, a huge tome. His wife wrote a book called Herbak. It’s an imagined story of a young man’s initiation into the mysteries of Egyptian knowledge, a fascinating little book. Anyway, how about something like Gobekli Tepe, Rob?

Robert:   I am utterly fascinated by this. It’s not lost on me that the principal investigator for many years, has the same last name as I do. This find is really the demonstration that hunter-gatherer groups could come together to engage socially in projects requiring huge amounts of collective effort. It sets on its head the previous understanding that you had to have the growth of elites, thanks to the accumulation of farming surpluses; it really underscores it. In fact, I was just reading one of the latest articles on Gobekli Tepe, which has some fabulous photos of some of the aspects of the site that support the assertion that it was an arena for communal feasting. There’s lots of evidence for that. The ritual feasting would have probably been one of reasons for the existence of the site.
     My dissertation chair, Meg Conkey’s, PhD research was about the aggregation sites among the cave painting Magdalenian populations of southwest France and Northern Spain, which would have been 10-15,000 years earlier. But this aspect of people coming together, even hunter-gatherers who can’t live in one place all the time - the importance of people coming together communally to do things together and engage socially - is something the latest research with Gobekli Tepe is a wonderful example of.

RW:   Stuart, what aspects of Robert’s interest do you share?

Stuart:   Well, I've certainly been interested in his primary research on the distribution and the methods of determining gender roles in the past. It’s fascinating to me that the frontier of archaeological knowledge is how much meaning can you actually extract from a material record. So his research, in terms of looking at the distribution of sexed bones - biological male and female - through osteographic or osteological methods or through DNA - and then correlate that with grave goods, I thought it was very interesting.

Robert:   By the way, the DNA wasn’t available in earlier research. That’s available now, which is wonderfully important.

Stuart:  And then, some of the sources Rob mentioned about some of the understandings of the dynamics of power structures in societies, I find interesting. The work of David Graeber I find very interesting, in terms of turning on its head unexamined assumptions I've had about the nature of money, the nature of debt, the nature of sharing and community. It’s given me occasion to reimagine what could be possible with people, as opposed to accepting the forums and the assumptions I grew up with as being the only way things could be.

Robert:   And I'll just add that Stuart’s interest in my research was sufficient that sometimes at parties, he would jump in and explain my research before I would. [laughs] But then, he likes to talk. He was very good at it, is the point I'm making.

RW:   Are either of you readers of Peter Kingsley?

Robert:   You know, that’s so funny you mention it because I've been meaning to read him for years. His big book, Reality, just went out of print from the original publisher and now has been reprinted by his new press, Catafalque Press; Kingsley has his own press now. So I was just getting a copy for the bookstore of the new edition. I have to say, the production values aren’t quite as good as the previous publisher, but it’s on my list of things to read.

Stuart:   We have a mutual friend who was just recommending him to us.

RW:   Okay. Well, here’s a general question. My understanding is that traditional cultures, ancient cultures, indigenous cultures, generally speaking, are oriented towards animate forces greater than ourselves that we must be aligned with or paying careful attention to. So, they’re radically different from contemporary attitudes in the educated West with its scientific materialism. Does that seem reasonable to assume that ancient cultures were, let’s just say, God-centered - to put it in its simplest form?

Robert:   I wouldn’t put it quite that way. What I would say is that, absolutely, the materialist perspective that has arisen in the last 500 years is unique. I don’t know of any other culture, either ones still extant, or that we can learn about from the past, that would share all the features of the materialist view that we do. That being said, there’s incredible amounts of variation in the way that our words have certain valances. So, I resist the word, “God,” because that has a bunch of valances, not least of which is the dichotomy of atheism versus religion of any particular stripe, and also divinity versus secular. Those words lead us in certain directions that actually occlude our view of what people in the past, and non-Western people, how they may view what’s going on.
     I mean a good example is contemporary Shinto in Japan. How people in Japan figure what they’re doing when they go and just bow in front of a Shinto temple in Tokyo doesn’t really map onto any of the materialist thing. And this is in the middle of a highly materialist, economically successful culture. Right? They’ve adopted, in many ways, the Western materialist view hook, line, and sinker and yet, there’s this other stuff going on.

Stuart:   I want to respond to that question as well, because I have, I guess, an intuition about it. First, to Rob’s point, to use the word “God-centered” is problematic. There’s the question of its relation to people in a different time and place, but also what is meant by “God-centered” may not map with Rob’s example about Shinto. To use more neutral language, I might use a term like “wholeness-centered.” And wholeness-centered means that the mind, the heart, and the body are sort of equally participating in the relationship to one’s life.
     I am struck very strongly by Gurdjieff’s own diagnosis in the chapter called “Religion” in All in Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson, when he speaks about the loss of the ability for modern man to think allegorically. And he’s very precise about what that means. What he means is that the feeling center no longer participates in the process of mentation, but the mentation is now one-centered.
     So, when you look at the period over he’s describing - and that corresponds with this age of materialism, which I might more accurately call an “Age of Literalism,” where our imaginative forces and our feeling sense are not participating in the primary ways in which we process the experiences of our life.
So consequently, I think then our relationship to the “Divine” suffers from that. So, whereas peoples in the past, who had a more balanced way of relating to their lives, would have this active mythology, where they didn’t have to take the mythology as literal. It didn’t matter whether the gods were real or not, what mattered was that they had a relationship to them in some form or another. We don’t even have to parse it in the ways that we would parse it from a literal, materialistic point of view.
     We have a friend, Ken McCloud, who’s a Tibetan teacher, who was at one time a translator for Kalu Rinpoche in the Kagyu tradition. He tells this very funny story about how he was translating for Kalu Rinpoche at one point, and a Westerner asked him, “Are the gods that we visualize in the deity practice real?” It took him literally a half-hour to translate the question, because the question didn’t even make sense in the Tibetan language or to Kalu Rinpoche.
Once Kalu Rinpoche understood what this person was actually asking, the answer was along the lines that it’s real because it has an effect on us. So reality is much more pragmatic, because the deity practice works. It does something; therefore, the god is real.
     The ontological questions that we concern ourselves with in the Western world are somewhat beside the point. So I think that that’s an important way of looking at this. Ancient cultures, without even having to speak about the ultimate reality of nature, they were just more holistically active in their participation of their lives. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect by any means. It just means that they were running on three cylinders instead of one cylinder.

Robert:   So, I can add to it. One of the things that first appealed to me about the Tayu practice when I was first introduced to it, is that it is entirely pragmatic. If something works for you, then it works for you. You are the judge, and there’s no external yardstick to measure what’s going on in your life. So that means that ideas about divinity, ideas about God, ideas about how the universe works, et cetera, are always provisional. They gain meaning for us when, as Stuart was saying, when they resonate with the emotional capacity that we innately have, but also can develop greater sensitivity with spiritual practice.
     And as you know, through our Mystical Positivist program, and just life in general, we have connections with people doing all kinds of different spiritual practices from around the world.  So, a few years ago, a woman here in Sebastopol who is connected with a line of Italian wise women, somehow developed a relationship with an African tradition of divination. So we decided, let’s do the divination and see what comes of it.
     Now, the divination is with these entities from that tradition, and they usually give you something to do through the diviner you’re doing the procedure with. I was given instructions to create a kind of altar in the Earth and I decided to do it up in the Sierra Nevadas, which is a personally meaningful context for me. The diviner responded, “Oh, that works!” And there were a number of things we had to bring to this particular practice.
     Stuart and I spent a weekend up in the Sierras, and I was going to do the proceedure right at dusk. But when we got up there earlier in the day, we realized we’d forgotten some things like birdseed. So, we went to a local Safeway, or something, and when we walked in the door this employee said, “Did you remember the birdseed?” And then she mentioned another item that was on our list of things to offer to these entities. We’re looking at each other like, “Okay??” A materialistically-inclined person would say yes, a pretty remarkable coincidence. But you know what? It was more than that, because when we got our supplies and interacted when she checked us out, there was no indication that she had any connection to our purpose and what we were up to. Certainly, I had never been in the store before. It was just not consistent with any reasonable materialist interpretation.

RW:   Wow! That’s a really interesting story. What would the Mystical Positivist say about that?

Robert:    Since Stuart is the Mystical Positivist, I'll let him answer that.

RW:   Let me just repeat that the Mystical Positivist is dedicated to the application of reason in the pursuit of spiritual practice and development. So, Stuart, how does that work in regard to this story that Rob tells?

Stuart:   Well, I think “reason” in this case, is holding a space of possibility and letting the fact be what it is, to be cognizant of the remarkable coincidence, and to be willing to feel the possibility surrounding that. “Reason” doesn’t mean to me jumping to a conclusion; actually reason means resisting jumping to a conclusion, or recognizing that any conclusion that’s jumped to is like taking a ruler to something. If I take a ruler to a piece of wood, I get one piece of information, but it’s not the whole story about the piece of wood. Usually, I take a ruler to a piece of wood because I want to do something with the piece of wood. I don’t want to sit back and say, “Oh, so that’s what it is. It’s 12 inches.”
     So, in the same way, with an event like this, we can hope for a possibility. It’s absolutely consistent with the worldview of the divinatory space. And I’ll add to that another point where Rob and I were doing another ritual associated with divination. It had to do with a ritual within the Sanctuary of the Absolute that we had constructed.
     We had been told in the divination to do things in a particular way, and literally - within a moment of doing the ritual, probably, but we only discovered this the next morning - our well ceased working. The thing we were doing in that tradition, in part, hd to do with invoking a dragon that was beneath the sanctuary. The dragon is associated with deep water. The resolution of all of this, several weeks later, was we had to drill a 300-foot well, in order to replace the 50-foot well that had failed.

Robert:    What had happened was the previous well - the old steel casing just collapsed.

Stuart:   So there was this culmination. And the well was very close to where we were working. So again, I don’t have any conclusion about that. It’s another fact that then sits out there as something in the space of possibility that’s consistent with this particular worldview.

Robert:    So, my summary of it is how Shakespeare put it, “There’s more in heaven and earth than is what is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.” In other words, we think we know things - and granted, I have enormous respect for the processes and products of scientific exploration and knowledge - and the universe is still a bigger place than what we can get at with only those methods of exploration.

RW:   Yes. There’s a difference between science and scientism…

Stuart:  Yes. Absolutely.

RW:   So, it’s absolutely wonderful, this scientific attitude of wanting to verify things and to have things that are claimed to be verified by impartial investigation. On the other hand, people start to get into kind of a religious attitude about the materialism and start creating absolutes. So, I think you spoke very well about the Mystical Positivist there, in relation to the story that you told, Rob.

Robert:    I'll add something else to that story. Later that evening I'm out alone - because it was just for me to do this ritual - and the light is failing. I've created a kind of mandala in the soil of the high desert there at the edge of the Sierra Nevadas. We had rented a house that was in was quite a wild spot. So, I've done all these ritual activities and the concluding activity was to throw a liquid on this mandala in the soil. At the exact moment when it hit the ground, suddenly a coyote started howling in the distance. There was no coyote howling earlier. And after it ceased howling, 30 seconds later, no more coyote. That was that. So, there is more in heaven and earth.

RW:   Yes. That will make a believer out of you, as they say.

Robert:    A provisional believer.

Stuart:   The more precise thing to say is it allows us to stay open to these possibilities, because to be a believer is to then be committed to a certain story. So, scientism is a commitment to a story about the material nature of reality, just like certain kinds of literalism in religious concerns are commitments to stories. And we don’t have to be so committed to stories.
     What I like about science, and let’s say positivism - without the logical aspect - is that it has a notion of falsifiability; it has a notion of empiricism. So, it says to me that our experiences matter and we should be careful not to overinterpret our experiences, but hold an openness to our experiences, not deny them, hold a space of possibility and to be willing to look at them from different frames.
     From a logical world, we can look at everything we’ve said as an interesting set of coincidences, and isn’t the mind clever that it makes these connections? It filters out the meaning. From a mystical or a magical point of view, these things are perfectly consistent with these entities, the wetamé, which are like earth elementals in the Nigerian tradition, as having a conversation with us, and that conversation leaking out through the cracks in the phenomenal world.   
         
RW:   That’s well-said. In the back of my mind, I’m still holding onto your Shinto example. Rob. I haven’t really studied Shintoism at all, except I do have the impression that the Shinto religion honors spirits in nature. That this is somehow a central view.

Robert:    Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be nature. I'm no expert on Shinto, but the reason I know as much as I do is because we have a dear friend, a former Korean Jogyean Zen monk, and he’s now a Quaker. But he’s also very interested in Shinto, has spent time in Japan, et cetera. So, I don’t claim to have any particular knowledge about it, but my understanding is that what, as an archaeologist, I would call “material culture” - artifacts created by human activity - also have spirit in them. There is no aspect of our experience that doesn’t have that feature to it.

Stuart:   Yeah. But a kami - the name in the Shinto tradition is kami - there could be a kami for a village, there could be kami for a tree, there could be kami for the sunset.

Robert:   For the wind.

Stuart:   Yeah and Westerners will tend to translate kami as spirit or god or deity. But if you press a Shinto who is reasonably good with English language, they’ll say a kami is that which engenders awe. The beautiful color of our Japanese maple provides, in the afternoon sunlight, a sense of awe. So there’s a kami. The kami is more tied to this higher emotional center activity than it is to this Western idea of a spirit that is somehow separate and outside of myself.

RW:   That’s an interesting distinction to make. I just want to go back to this generalization that I was proposing between traditional and ancient cultures, and modern Western materialist culture. I find it congenial, or even compelling, but certainly an attitude that touches my feeling center, that traditional cultures in general, and probably all ancient cultures, would regard everything as alive in some sense. This is in comparison to the dead, meaningless universe that Western science has given to us - although that may be changing now, given all the quantum stuff going on. For quite some time, we’ve had the well-educated scientific people explaining to us that there’s no way to impute meaning or purpose to universe, and that there’s no need for that sort of thing, anyway.
 
Stuart:   Right.   

RW:   So, I invite any reflections on that.

Stuart:   I've thought a lot about that, having been the inheritor of a hard, scientific education. You used the term scientism, and scientism is a good way of understanding that because when our beliefs get ahead of our models, we go from science to religion. So, there’s a religion of materialism which is emotionally committed to this particular point of view, that the universe is dead. It will try to make room for awe by appreciating the vastness of the universe and all this sort of thing, but the idea of higher purpose is completely put to the side. There’s no evidence for that, there’s nothing in the models that say much of anything about that.
     We have these very limited models that allow us to do certain kinds of experiments and see certain kinds of consistencies, and we really don’t even know if the models are local or if they work throughout the universe in the same way; we don’t know that. We have indirect evidence that might suggest that, but we also have evidence that doesn’t suggest that.
     We have absolutely no idea, from a scientific modeling point of view, what consciousness is. Philosophically, we can’t even reduce consciousness. To make the claim that you can, at least in this era, is seen to be pretty sketchy, at this point. Now, at least, there’s a realization that consciousness is a different category and can’t be reduced to a functional description, because it doesn’t even make logical sense - just from a philosophical point of view.
     So, to make these broad claims about the nature of reality or the nature of meaning, when you can’t even explain the most intimate experience that we have, which is the fact of our awareness, it’s just absurdity. It’s absolute absurdity, and it’s about as interesting as the literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s like a claim. It’s an emotional commitment that’s gotten ahead of itself and gotten ahead of direct experience. It’s a fashion, and that fashion is changing. That taint of propriety will probably always be there at some level. But although we’re not going to suddenly find scientists committed to a magical worldview, at least there is a growing openness to different categories. In fact, these days, even Idealism, the philosophical perspective that consciousness is the most fundamental reality, and what we call the phenomenal realm - our dynamic patterns of an emerging consciousness - that’s getting more traction.
     Literally, that’s not being laughed out of the academy these days. There are actually quite serious people with long academic credentials who speak quite seriously, and are looking at mathematical models of idealism that might allow you to give rise to understanding how you get a phenomenal universe from the raw fact of experience.

RW:   Well, that’s beautifully put, Stuart. Now in the Mystical Positivist’s hall of honored historical people - where is the bust of Descartes? And how does does the Mystical Positivist unpack his seminal, iconic statement cogito, ergo sum?

Robert:   [laughs] Well, I think it’s just a mistake. The difficulty is, what does it mean to think? I don’t know exactly the meaning of the Latin cogito. I don’t know exactly how that would have been interpreted by Descartes when he made the statement. Even today many English speakers might disagree about what it means to think. I've come to the provisional hypothesis, and I have a lot of evidence, it seems to me for this, that if you define thinking as a voice in your head saying something, it’s as if you’re hearing someone else speaking to you. That’s one phenomenon. But there are other mental phenomena that we engage in that have very different consequences in the world.
     Then there’s the relationship where we decide to believe or not believe, between the little voices in the head and our relationship with people, our views of how things actually are. For example, just because I have a voice telling me that I like ice cream, it doesn’t mean I have to believe that I like ice cream.
     When I was a kid and I had my tonsils out at age five, I was looking forward to having ice cream, because that was supposedly the treat after the operation. But my mother told me that when she had had her tonsils out decades before, she had not liked the ice cream afterwards. So I refused the ice cream, even though my body wanted the ice cream, because I listened to this thought in my head that was my mother saying “don’t have ice cream after the operation.” Right?      
          
RW:   Yes.

Robert:    It was absurd, really. That’s an admittedly trivial example of how, when we accord too much reality to the voices in our head, whatever they have to say, then we can get into trouble. One of the things in my spiritual practice that I deeply appreciate is the notion that I don’t have to believe any of the things the voices in my head have to say. Sometimes they’re useful, sometimes they’re anti-useful, if you will.

RW:   So can I ask a question about that?

Robert:  Yes.

RW:  So “the voices in your head”…  When I hear that, it’s as though yes, there are voices in my head and they’re talking to me. There’s sort of a sense of being disconnected. I don’t know if I can put it this way, but the thing in my head that says, “I” - I'm hearing?      
         
Stuart:   So that’s a function that we apply to the content in our consciousness. It’s a way of identifying. So, I identify, is probably the operative pronunciation there, because the moment we take the content and say “this is me,” we no longer recognize a separation and we act as though that must be true. So, if I say “I like ice cream” and suddenly, I want ice cream, I get a body reaction and a sense of feeling and, if I don’t get ice cream, then there’s a sense of loss. Whereas being aware of the sensation, and the attraction, and the experience, but not necessarily believing it or putting that stamp of “I” on it, gives us some space to have choice.

Robert:   That’s where a meditation practice can really help clarify our relationship to these phenomena that are happening in our heads. So it’s not that it’s wrong to have the, “I like ice cream” or “I believe that was a mistake” or “I'm sorry I did that” or whatever it happens to be, but when we have the experience of observing the arising manifestation and the passing of thoughts as something to observe, just like we observe the flight of the bird across the sky, or the dripping of water in the rivulet, or whatever it happens to be. We have changed our relationship to the interior phenomena to see it as absolutely no different than the rest of nature, fundamentally, and that’s really important, that’s a very

RW:   Well, yes. And as it applies to the Descarte’s, cogito ergo sum - you said it’s a mistake.” I have to agree and am reminded that somebody said, “A thought is not being,” I forget who that was.
 
Stuart:   Yeah. I would at least start to resuscitate that by reversing it to say “I am, therefore, I think.” But even that is a little too directional. The sense of I am - in my experience, in my own inquiry - is a feeling that is more foundational. It’s like the feeling of awareness, or it’s kind of like a perspective, and even that is problematic because of the word “I” - so it’s almost as though awareness is like “am-ness.” There is a sense of awareness and a sense of seeing, and sometimes - particularly with the cognitive function - we can decompose that into the seer and the seeing. But prior to that decomposition, there’s simply events arising and passing, as Rob said.
     I think meditation practice in its various forms, gives us more of a taste of that spaciousness, that presence of awareness that doesn’t immediately and necessarily decompose itself into the subject and the object. Those are relationships, those defined kinds of relationships, and those are useful to negotiate a phenomenal existence, but they’re not ultimate.

RW:   I find it very difficult to find the quiet presence in myself, where it’s actually possible to have this witnessing mind that you’ve described. I don’t doubt that you can have that experience. If you can get to that space, that’s quite wonderful.

Robert:   Well, one of the nice things about Fourth Way practice is that it’s meant to be done in the midst of daily life. So, in a sense, you’re kind of interrogating this habit of saying, “I think this” “I see that” “I don’t like that” “I” “I,” “I.”   You’re interrogating that in the midst of daily life - so all of the many ways in which we engage that.
     So, although I suppose the purest form has the quality that you mentioned of silence - and that is certainly something that we want to be able to experience, -it seems to me, it’s also true that as we deepen the practice of interrogating this habit of “I” that we can be present to the thought arising for us. In a sense, it’s held in what Stuart just called a spaciousness of consciousness, such that it is like dropping a pebble into the pond. It has reverberations and effects, but we are holding our view of our experience as the entirety of the pond in this metaphor. So, it’s okay for thoughts to arise because we know we’re not only the thought; we are also this capacity to be present to the thought and the rest of the context we’re experiencing in our bodies and in our emotional responses.

Stuart:   I wanted to add that the other thing I appreciate, even like traditional Fourth Way practice, is that often the project of self-observation is framed in terms of starting with the body or starting to become aware of sensation - and as a technique or a practice, that can be helpful in pulling the energy out of identification.
So, when we find ourselves with a particularly strong cycle of thinking going on because something may have some emotional charge, that remembering to bring our attention into our body and to feel the sensation in our body sort of gives us a level of objectivity, because sensation is objective; it doesn’t have polarity. It’s either present or not present. It’s not like good or bad. It’s just there. We can then see and pull energy out of the identification and get some space. I found that very helpful in practicing this.
     The other thing I’d say is that - and this is again to a point that Rob made - the benefit of practicing in daily life is that we learn to recognize the openness, or the spacious mind, in and among the phenomenal world that we’re inhabiting. I think sometimes we feel like I have to have this pure space where there’s no thought, where I'm just completely empty - up on a mountaintop in a monastery somewhere - and that’s nirvana.
     I don’t think that’s the case, because thoughts are as much a part of us as my fingernails are. They grow, we cut them off, they grow some more. They’re just natural and it’s what we do with them that matters. The thoughts can be there and we can even be operating in fairly complicated engagements with life and still have a taste of that spaciousness behind it all.
     To me, what that engenders on an emotional level is a deeper sense of peace. The show is the show and it doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as I can maintain that connection with the spacious nature of being.     
            
Robert:   I'll just add to that. So an example of how what we’ve just been talking about can actually useful to other people, is my experience of running our spiritual bookstore. Sometimes people come in feeling a particular need to be addressed, and they want to find a book or maybe a practice or something like that to help them address that. Well, the capacity to not identify with, “I think you should do this,” but rather be able to look at the person, to listen to what they’re actually saying, which includes tone of voice, physical gestures as well as the intellectual meaning of the words - this is a practice for me in order to be able to respond creatively.
     My teacher used to say—and we haven’t gotten to this aspect yet— that it is possible to speak without thinking first. It just comes out, and that’s where the creative responses emerge from. Not that it’s wrong to have a thought arise and then speak it; that’s not what I'm saying. Both possibilities exist, and there can be real authenticity and utility to this capacity to not focus on your own on “I” and actually be present to the other person and what they’re expressing.

RW:   Absolutely. This is one of the possible fruits of meditation and, let’s just say, a properly conducted practice.

Robert:   Absolutely.

RW:   But that’s a beautiful description, Rob, of how to be present to someone and listen to a person, without being identified with your own functioning.

Robert:   And your own habits and agendas to project to others.

Stuart:   Yeah. That’s something that I appreciate about our teacher, Robert Ennis. That was a strong, strong emphasis, in terms of practice, to the level where we have various, meticulous exercises that we practiced with members of our community and workshops over the years, that really take apart the relational aspect - and put attention on the relational aspect - and ultimately train people to be aware of, and to hold, a space of non-identification, while someone else is expressing - and to receive it cleanly. While I found this is absolutely trainable, it takes practice. But first you have to be aware that there’s something to train, and then use practices to help support that and to reinforce that ability.

RW:  Listening to all this, I'm feeling that for both of you running the bookstore and the tea shop must be very rewarding. 
          
Robert:   I was touching on that earlier, when I said that my relationships with customers, while not always easy and smooth, tend to be so much more agreeable and touch my heart, as opposed to my previous job as a university lecturer, where so much of that relationship was about the students’ agenda to get a good grade. So, you’re absolutely right. I really enjoy it. I said earlier that when I asked the universe whether I was supposed to continue in academia or not, I was led to this. I mean, literally, I didn’t know the first thing about running a bookstore, and I was led and schooled and have had this wonderful 18-year run of experiences that I'm extremely grateful for.

RW:   So along with the bookstore, there’s the tea shop. And now Stuart, I read here that you’re a “tea master.”

Stuart:   That would be perhaps, an overstatement.

Robert:   Let’s just say that in China there are extraordinarily rigorous programs around tea which include dietary restrictions, like not having things like onion and garlic because that would interfere with the capacity to bring a clean palate to the tasting and grading of different teas. Stuart is definitely not a master in that sense; neither of us is.

Stuart:   Yeah - but in the sense that we are empiricists. I got into tea probably the mid-‘90s. I went through a bout of wanting to limit my coffee, so I started to experiment with loose-leaf tea. This was the early days of the Internet. I found a local source for teas and started just experimenting and trying different teas. There was a point after our teacher died in 1998, when Rob and I were up the coast in Mendocino, where I was so taken by a small seaside community, I was thinking it would be nice to be able to stay there –and what might be a way to do that? My fantasy was we could have a tea shop.
     Well, fast-forward a few years later, when we were contemplating opening a spiritual bookstore with our friend Jim, who had had some experience running bookstores. I had the idea that we could sell tea, as well. At first, Rob and Jim were a little skeptical, but then warmed to the idea. So in our lead up to opening the store, we did some formal tastings with a gentleman named David Hoffman. At the time, he ran one of the early importers of loose-leaf tea called Silk Road Teas.
     I think we all began to enjoy the world of these complicated, different flavors that required a kind of intentionality, in order to bring the brew to fruition. With tea, not only do you have the leaf, but you also have the quality of the water, which you’re responsible for - the temperature of the water and the duration of brewing, and the vessel in which you brew it, and the cups in which you pour it. All these variables require a certain kind of involvement. Then the tea itself is not only healthy, it provides a level of stimulation, but also a kind of calming effect, as well. So all these things seemed to kind of come into play for us as an interesting adjunct to a spiritual bookstore.
     As we went through the early years of the store, we would do tea tastings and learn about the teas and also have our customers taste them. Those have become fun events, at least pre-COVID. We’d have people in the store and could brew up seven different teas, give out little cups to people and talk about them, get people’s impressions. So that’s how we learned - and we’ve read about tea and stuff like that.

Robert:  I had not drunk tea until we started the store and I very quickly came to appreciate fine, loose teas. I had a wonderful opportunity in 2014, to go on a tea buying tour with one of our vendors to Taiwan. I got to spend a week looking at the different kinds of teas grown in Taiwan, meeting the tea growers and observing their methods.
     So, archaeology is a community of people, and there are various communities of people that we engage with in our life. The fine, loose-leaf tea world is another community of like-minded people. We’ve made great friends in that world, so it’s been a wonderful set of experiences. We just had a large tea order from a former colleague of Stuart’s in Massachusetts. He relies on our judgement. Since I'm the tea buyer now, essentially, that means I have to trust my own sense of teas, and it’s been educated over an 18-year period now. One of the ones we just sent him we call Honey Water Immortal Oolong. It was fabulous this year, just such a wonderful experience.

RW:  That sounds very appealing. I was going to ask you if you’d met David Hoffman, and you’ve already mentioned that.

Robert:   I used to go to the World Tea Expo every year and occasionally, he would be on the same plane with me, so we know him pretty well. He’s such a character, and he’s also into antique forms of wheat, which he grows or has grown for him. So we’ve had tortillas of this ancient heirloom varieties of wheat with him. The woman I went to Taiwan with, who unfortunately died just two or three years later, was Winnie Yu, another pioneer of the tea renaissance in the United States.

Stuart:   She was the founder of Teance in Berkeley.

RW:   I never met her. Do you know the people at Far Leaves Tea?   
    
Robert:   I've had some of their tea, I don’t know them, they are not one of our primary vendors, but the point is, that there’s a lot of really interesting people to know in the tea world, and there’s a kind of camaraderie.

RW:   That’s great. I'm a latecomer to the tea world, but I'm really happy I ran into it. Now before we end, I wanted to ask you Stuart, about your flute playing.

Stuart:   Yeah. So I play shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. You’ll often encounter this sound in Japanese movies, like Akira Kurosawa movies and the like. It has its origins after the flute was imported into Japan from China. It incubated for a long time, I think, in the Buddhist monasteries and there’s a tradition of older pieces that are very natural sounding, arhythmic, called honkyoku. Then the instrument got co-opted into the tradition, along with kotos, the stringed instruments. So there’s a classical repertoire and now there’s even a modern repertoire for shakuhachi.
     It’s reputation is that it’s difficult to play because you really have to form a very precise embouchure with your lips, in order to get sound out of the instrument. It has a lot of sonic variability, because the angle of the flute makes a difference in terms of the tone. The strength of the breath makes a difference with the tone. So, in order to really master the dynamics, there’s a lot going on in terms of position, of tension in the lips, movement of the tongue, and things like that.
     In high school I sort of taught myself recorder, so I was used to playing flutes that stuck out in front of me. My older sister was into Irish music and gave me a penny whistle. So I learned to play that and took that to college with me, and would play that here and there. But when I was in graduate school, a friend of mine was into shakuhachi. His girlfriend, now his wife, bought him a nicer instrument and he lent an older one. So, I held onto it for about 11 years, with the intention of playing it, and I finally realized at some point, I’d better do something or just give it back to him.
     So, in the summer of 1996, when our family was on a family vacation on the Mendocino coast, I made the commitment that I would play this thing ten minutes a day and just keep going until I could actually make a consistent sound. And over several months, I learned how to make the notes. I also bought some books and started to read the Japanese notation, and then I wanted a teacher to go a step further. So at a point where my spiritual teacher, Robert Ennis, and I were at a shakuhachi maker’s workshop in Willits, he recommended this gentleman named Masayuki Koga, and I signed up for a lesson. In my first lesson, I took a wooden flute I had, which I was sure had great limitations, and he said, “Let me see the instrument.” Then he started to play it. Well, immediately I knew it wasn’t the flute that had the limitations.
     He described three ways of playing the flute. The first way was just playing the notes kind of just mechanically. He demonstrated and it sounded kind of choppy and not very interesting. Then he said, “Now I'm going to play with my whole body.” So then the playing was much more melodious and beautiful. Then he said, “Now I'm going to play with something outside of myself.” And when he did that, I felt something in my heart. And so I became a long-term student of Koga-sensei.
     Now, with the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of Zoom lessons together and I've actually increased the frequency of my study. His master level of attention on my playing is really intimately bringing my attention into subtle movements of musculature in my body, and attention to what my breath is doing, what my tongue is doing, attention to my lips, the movement of energy through my body, the movement of energy outside of my body, the emotional inspiration and thought form that I hold while I'm playing - all of these factors come together. It’s like juggling, because there are ten different things. He’ll tell me to focus on one thing and then I'll forget six of the others. Eventually, in the space of a lesson, when I start to be able to kind of hold them all together and sort of go between them, then suddenly, the quality of the music transforms entirely. There’s a quality to the sound that’s alive and has energy and depth. So, my practice lately has been just this intensive focus on master techniques.
     Koga’s never been that interested in teaching repertoire. We have pieces of music that I played literally, for 25 years, the same pieces, and yet, they’re different every time I play them, because I'm bringing a different quality of attention. So, in terms of Fourth Way practice, this is precise work on both the emotional and physical center - the feeling is involved and conscious attention to the body, and the unified movement of energy through the system is really exercised in this practice. The last thing I'll say is his representation of what the mind should do; the mind’s function is just to remember to point attention to these different things that I should be doing, but as soon as the mind tries to do anything, it falls apart. It can be very useful to just keep pointing at different things, but then my attention has to go to that place in my body, in order to play from.
     So, the mind can be engaged, and like a dog in a yard that has a job, it can be pretty useful. When it tries to take over the show though, things fall apart. So, my practice has been a constant oscillation between these extremes.

RW:   That is a beautiful description, Stuart - your clarity and touching on all those aspects of it. By any chance, do you know Andy Couturier?

Robert:  Yes, we’ve had him as a guest in our store. Right, and I was trying to get him to, in fact I have a copy of his book, The Abundance of Less, right in my sight here on my desk.

RW:   It’s a wonderful book and there’s a section on a flute player, Kogan Murata. I was really struck by what Kogen says about the joy he has found and how he apparently just plays two or three or four pieces.  And Stuart, your description helps bring to light the depth and the richness of something that, to most of us is completely hidden. Like, for a Westerner, how can a person play the same two or three pieces every day and keep finding them joyful? But you’ve opened that up.

Stuart:   It’s an interesting point. When you think about sacred art - I think about the Tibetan Thangkas for instance, a very rigid form - the difference between a master work and a student work is profound. It’s like sacred art is all about the how and not the what. I think in our Western world, we often give short shift to the how and we focus on the what. So we want to have more songs. And I mean it’s true with meditation, too. Why would someone sit in a room for hours at a time?

RW:   Yes. And maybe one last question here. It’s sort of a Mystical Positivist thing. It’s about a phrase I first heard from Jacob Needleman—inner empiricism. Have you heard that that phrase before?

Robert:   I haven’t, although it resonates with what I was describing earlier about the provisional relationship to conclusions about what’s going on within me and outside me. In other words, I take empiricism to mean that we are looking at evidence. An empiricist is never closed to more evidence that might be relevant to the question being investigated. So that aspect of inner empiricism to me, is resonant with the attitude that I continue to be open to what’s going on inside me and outside of me, without projecting a story, as Stuart was saying earlier, a story or a set of ideas, to which my empirical evidence must conform.

Stuart:   Right. Inner empiricism is a different way of saying mystical positivism. Often the domain of the mystical is the interior and the principle practice of positivism as a methodology is an empirical one. But what I like about inner empiricism is it’s a little bit more specific. It’s less poetic than “mystical positivist” and in a sense, that’s ironic. But it’s specific in the sense that we can take our interior experiences, and with sufficient sincerity and sufficient clarity of mind, we can make efforts and see the results.
     Over time, based off of a number of results from efforts that we make, we can test and validate claims that are made in particular traditions. One of the things we appreciate about the Fourth Way as a teaching borne in the 20th century is that it used the language of empiricism and was very emphatic that one should not believe anything that one has not verified for one’s self. So inner empiricism is the way of actually taking those steps and actually testing truth claims in our own experience. 

Read more about The Mystical Positivist and Many Rivers Books and Tea       
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.

 

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