ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL METHODS OF INQUIRY I’ve used in helping a person begin to realize they’re not a person is with a slight turn of the traditional Advaita question of inquiry, “Who am I?” Instead of asking you to use that inquiry on yourself, I facilitate, move into storytelling, and together we inquire together about, “Where are you?” It’s a very logical progression that nonetheless seems to catch the mind by surprise, which I believe to be very helpful. I think it’ll carry reasonably well into print, so I’m going to throw it out there to you, and see what kind of feedback I get. If you find something like this helpful, please do let me know. You can do that directly, publicly and anonymously (if you wish) by leaving a comment to the post, or you can do it privately by sending an email. I’ll pop my email onto the end of this essay. Don’t be afraid to use it. My answers may be short or long, depending on what comes out. Given that I’m really just the typist here, I have no control of it: my fingers do what they do until they don’t. Then I go to bed.
I MAY HAVE TAKEN A STAB AT IT BEFORE, but I first used this inquiry in depth, completely spontaneously, about a year ago. I tried it with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Vince Reese, who also lives nearby (in Columbia, SC). Vince was drawn to me spiritually a long time ago, and has been coming to see me off and on for tea and talk for over ten years. Over the last five years I had been slowly unwinding his belief system: he’d been a Christian fundamentalist or evangelical--I confess I don't know the difference, if there is one--for all of his days. That was something I had no interest in pushing against, and felt no need to fix. Everyone who comes here is welcome to be just the way they are, especially since they already are that way anyway. But given my somewhat radical spiritual direction, if Vince and I were going to remain close, we were going to have to find a common language, and I had no plans to get washed in the Blood, so to speak.
ACTUALLY I WASN’T DOING that unwinding as some sort of project or plan. In fact, I wasn’t doing it at all; it was just happening. But I could see his beliefs begin to unravel as we went along. Vince didn’t see it until he did. He knew he was changing, but he knew neither how nor why. Like most of us, including me, he probably thought it had something to do with his specialness. In fact, he was slowly becoming more and more ordinary. In spirituality, ordinary is good. I had no idea he’d come so far in this direction, and never once planned on it. I just wanted him to begin to see the holes in his thinking, which would loosen him up, broaden him, and allow the mechanics of his life go a bit smoother. You never know what God’s up to, I promise you that.
ON ONE SUCH TEA-AND-TALK OCCASION, I began to sense—to my total amazement—that Vince was really close to the edge of discovering his altogether obvious True Nature. I didn’t really think he would “go over the top”, so to speak, but I decided to just throw out some bread crumbs and see if he followed, and if he did, just what might unfold. I began to gently ply him with question after question, along the lines of the same ones I’ll print here. And then suddenly, after somewhere between fifteen minutes and half an hour, he saw it! All on his own he passed through the Gateless Gate!
BOTH OF US WERE STUNNED, sort of frozen in timelessness. We looked at each other across the living room in utter wonder. I imagine my eyes were as big as saucers; Vince’s sure were. And then we exploded into laughter, both of us. We laughed so hard that we scared the dog, and Gus began to bark with us! Maybe Gus woke up, too--who knows? We laughed until we cried and then we laughed some more. Vince now knew and he knew I knew what he knew. It ranks among the finest moments of my life. Here’s what led up to it, or something rather close. For the sake of brevity, I've had to make it a little more of a story and less of a conversation than it actually was, but it'll do. And by the way, the rather grisly nature of the inquiry was really just sport between two old friends.
“VINCE, WHERE ARE YOU?” I asked. “I mean where’s the real you? Can you find it? Can you point it out? Can you show it to me? I mean, here we’ve been talking about Vince this and Vince that, so there must be a defined, separate entity here. So you declare, but I can’t see it. Thus I’m simply asking, ‘Where’s Vince?’” He looked at me sort of blankly. It’s not a question the mind has ever considered.
[And how about you, the one reading this right now? Do you think you are that body? Do you think you are that mind? Fine. I’m willing to go along with that if you can produce some evidence. Can you? If you can, you win the game. But if you can’t, and I’m betting that you can’t, I’m going to suggest that the you-I-know-you-are is something more than you think, and that the you-you-think-you-are is something far less. Let’s find out. You play along, taking Vince’s role. I’ll play mine. Let’s have at it!]
“HOW ABOUT YOUR HAND, VINCE? Is that you? I mean, it’s certainly a connected part of that body, is it not? So would you then go so far as to say that’s you? Oh, I see, it’s part of you. Fine. Tell you what; let’s agree that it’s part of you. Now, how about if you were in a car wreck this afternoon and God forbid, you had your hand cut off. [All of Vince’s misfortunes are painless in our story, and bloodless too, so everyone can stop grimacing.] But we rush you to an emergency room and they fix you all up, and I come to see you in hospital. I ask you the same question: ‘Where’s Vince?’ You would still point to your body, would you not?” He agreed that he would. Vince is a highly agreeable fellow. This is really helpful, since Vince is well over six feet tall and weighs in around the 300 pound level. I am 5’ 9” on my tiptoes and weigh 170 soaking wet. Nonetheless, I am a bit of a badger.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT MISSING HAND? Is it somewhere in a freezer, or burned up in an incinerator? This morning you told me that it was you, or at the very least a part of you. Now part of you—poof!—is gone. Do you now feel like you’re less Vince?” He said he didn’t. “But this morning you were a guy with two hands and now you’re a guy with just one, yet you report you feel the very same? That body is not the same, but you still feel the same, is that right? Fine. The Vinceness is still intact. Okay then, I won’t push it yet; let’s move on.
“WE GET YOU FIXED UP AND OUT OF THE HOSPITAL, and then on the way home, God forbid again, we have another wreck and damn if you don’t lose the other hand! It’s just awful. So it’s back into the hospital with you, and I, ever the loyal friend, come to see you as soon as you can take visitors. I don’t bring flowers or a card; I bring only a question. “Where’s Vince?” You awkwardly point at your body. ‘Well, Vince,’ I say, ‘that body can’t be YOU. Just a couple of days ago you said it was you when you had two hands. Then you told me it was you when it had one hand, and now you’re saying it’s you, and you’ve got no hands. Which is it?” He had no answer for that one. He’s a bright guy, and he could see he was being set up, but he didn’t care. He trusts me. We love each other. He knows that if I’m going to “trick” him, it’ll be for his own good, and never for spite.
[So, on we go with the show, only now, for a while here, it'll be just as it really occurred, I'm going to be playing both sides, just as I did while Vince sat in my living room drinking it all in. From here to almost the end of Part II, I am going to be telling a teaching story. And you, the reader, are invited to do just like Vince did that day last autumn, and listen v-e-r-y carefully, okay? You never know what might happen...]
To be continued…
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