Question: The spiritual gurus whose talks I read all say the same thing – that I am “nobody.” They say the experience of the world isn’t real. I can mentally believe that and I try to live my life with that belief. But, in the back of my mind, there is the suspicion that I am deluding myself. That I’m trying to make something real because I want to believe the gurus over the scientists. I’m torn.
Michael Richardson-Borne: I’ve found that there is great confusion around the notion of “being nobody.” A lot of this comes from the way this concept is promulgated. It’s taught in a very “airy” way – like being nobody is some kind of profound mystery that takes a wild goose hunt, a cat and mouse game of hide and seek in order to understand the experience. One person sits in the front of a room slyly smirking, soft-spoken, and full of love saying he or she is nobody. This goes on while everyone else tries to guess why the person in the front of the room is smirking and loving and being nobody – and they’re not.
Sure, there is a presence that can be transmitted, that can be lived as the essence of nobody. But leaning on this presence without a clear conceptual explanation leaves many people to just emulate the surface features of presence as a mental concept of the way Non-separation, or being nobody, looks behaviorally.
This is how we’ve ended up with spiritual communities around the world enacting the persona of nobody as a collection of somebodies. I’ve found that the traditional teaching environment this creates is a turn off for many people on an authentic spiritual journey – a turn off that is strong enough to become a hindrance to their paths. A question I frequently get asked is, “Why would I want to realize Non-separation, to be “nobody,” if that is the way I end up behaving?” Rather than focus on the inquiry into the self, there’s a focus on a legitimate doubt and a resistance to inauthenticity – one that makes remembering Non-separation more difficult than it needs to be.
The teaching of Non-separation, which includes the understanding of what is meant by the concept “nobody,” can be more grounded, more collegial – something that fits into the way people are more accustomed to learning, particularly in the US. It is not necessary to engage in vagueness to become something that is the furthest from vague. “See the Buddha, kill the Buddha” doesn’t necessarily need to include the broad teaching structure, just the more particular aspects of one’s path. Having handrails along a stairway that leads to nothingness, or being nobody, can be more useful than immediately being dropped into a container of nothingness and being told you are nobody from the word go – leaving you to search for your keys in the dark.
In my experience, in any teaching method, the mind must be used to pierce the mind. I have found that not all concepts fortify the mind or separate self – there are some that are wrestled with as tools that ultimately puncture one’s separative illusion and reveal the impersonal nature of being nobody. A well-built bridge can be offered from guide to inquirer – which I’ve found works better than presenting a vast chasm to be leapt over or offering the thinnest of tight ropes blowing in the wind.
I’m not saying these old school teachers are wrong, it’s just not the way I go about things. For one reason or another, I’m not lived to appropriate the way Non-separation is traditionally taught. I’m not as opposed to using words to translate the traditional teaching methodologies into more of a professorial art. The majority of people I speak with live in the US – and based on their cultural conditioning, cutting the spiritual fat and giving the mind poignant concepts and relational practices to engage in their day to day lives is the most efficient and effective way to point to Non-separation – to help them understand what being nobody is all about.
But to your question. Being nobody is a reference to the realization that being somebody as the totality of your experience is a limitation imposed on existence itself. Being nobody is a more expansive conceptual holding of space where the separate self can release being somebody – or contemplate the possibility that the somebody is a collection of stories that, when dropped, leaves an impersonal nobody. The invitation to be nobody is an invitation for you to move from personal to impersonal experience.
Breaking it down a little more, the possibility of being nobody begins as a concept that is added to the heap of concepts that make up or populate your mind. If you accept the concept that you are nobody, this experience usually begins as a mere conceptual addition to the mass of stories that make up your identity or the way that you define your separate self. In this interpretation of being nobody, one can easily be, as you referenced, “torn” because the separate self is still living in a world of concepts that describes itself as this or that – and in a this or that world, the fact that there is a “that” always looms in the background as a disturbance. It makes things always feel a little off – just off enough to maintain the hint of doubt that keeps you entangled in a battle. The battle is a fear of being fooled or missing out on a better object that will define your separate self in a more accurate way. This is where most people remain stuck and why they show up to ask for guidance – and this is where I usually begin, pointing out that swapping stories to define the separate self rather than questioning these stories is a dead end. It’s a form of translation, not transformation.
The act of seeing your way to “nobody” is not a forward movement that trades the story of somebody for nobody (that still defines a somebody). It’s more of a non-movement that keeps you still while you question how the somebody can arrive at being nobody. Once this “how” is discovered, you are ready to exit the arc of separation. Exiting the arc of separation leads to a naked inquiry rather than an autonomous experiment of wearing new pants in the world to see how they fit and the type of attention they bring.
In the Path of Non-separation, this naked inquiry is shepherded by asking “Who’s aware of the story?” Who’s aware of the story of being somebody? This question opens the process of excavating stories until the presence behind the stories of your somebody is revealed. Finding this presence is locating the “I am,” – a deeper identity of being a somebody that lives underneath the surface somebody you formerly thought defined you. Continuing to ask “Who’s aware of the story of I Am,” the foundation of being somebody, leads to impersonal experience and the impersonal existence of Non-separation. There are methods, besides meditation, to aid you in bringing the understanding of nobody fully into your lived experience.
It is taught in the Path of Non-separation that “you are nobody” means your experience and existence is impersonal, period. Experiencing the world as a somebody (even if this somebody is defining itself as nobody) is just to remain embedded in the personal, or the separate self. Experiencing the world as a somebody that is being lived as the existence of nobody is to be grounded in Non-separation, the impersonal existence.
As far as reality, being taught that you are nobody is just another way to point out that the world isn’t real in the way you think it is. It’s not that it is completely devoid of any reality whatsoever. I always refer to one of my favorite quotes from Ramesh Balsekar when asked about reality. He said, “Real because observable, no independent existence of its own.” So, being nobody and saying the world isn’t real is not to negate the world and leave it negated. It’s to negate the way the world is experienced by a self-authoring individual and to animate the individual with the impersonal existence of Non-separation that lives the individual and the negation.
Q: So I can be “nobody” and, as I sit here talking to you, also be “somebody?” If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m somebody, not nobody.
MR-B: There is an understanding that goes with your question, but, yes, that is exactly the point. You know you are alive – you just don’t understand who is alive or the correct placement of objects that make up lived experience. Becoming nobody isn’t having your life taken away from you. The teachers you read are not trying to take away beingness or even personal beingness when it gets right down to it. They are re-situating your life as lived in the moment from a personal experience to the existence of an experience. I encourage you to trust your feeling. There is life and there is no need taking the time to question it. Instead, ask yourself how the life of “nobody” is lived as the exact same life as “somebody.”
Remember, Non-separation is the impersonal existence of being that includes the personal. So, know you are somebody. But also know that this somebody is not separate and lives inside of and as an impersonal existence that can be aligned with this somebody. The alignment of somebody with nobody leads to becoming an invitation to Non-separation. You are alive as the world and realize the world is more inside of you, impersonally, than you inside of it.
Q: What about my feeling of having a sense of place? If I am nobody, how does this nobody have a definite location? This nobody can’t be “nowhere” as I’m obviously in this room with you and can’t be anywhere else. There’s a reality to this that I can’t get around.
MR-B: To understand the conversation we’re in, the focus of inquiry must be brought to the fore. What we’re inquiring into is not focused on a matter of being in a specific location or not. Although the question is fine to ask, in our line of inquiry it’s a distraction because it’s focused on a somebody located somewhere, a self-autonomous entity located in an external world. Instead of trying to figure out how a somebody with a somewhere is situated in the projections of time and space, ask who it is that is concerned with having a specific location and how the stories that make up a somebody can have a specific location.
Make our focus right now a matter of if the location you mention is personal or impersonal. Once this inquiry is answered, you can revisit your original question and have no problem answering it.
If you go deeply enough into questioning the separate self, eventually you will arrive at what I call “the flip.” The flip is a transition from believing in a separate self that does the living to an impersonal movement being lived as an invitation to Non-separation. Being lived as Non-separation takes the somebody away as your sole position and leaves the somebody inside of that which has no position.
By knowing this, notice how the experience of talking with me changes. The act of speaking to a body with a location from a body with a location is understood to be real exactly as it is, impersonally. The story of self and location is perfectly real – but the rooted experience of a separate self in an isolated position is not.
Non-separation is nobody, nowhere that includes the somebody, somewhere.
Q: So, if I’m “nobody, nowhere,” doesn’t that mean my experience should feel like I’m “everybody” and “everywhere?”
MR-B: If by being everybody and everywhere, you mean all bodies (including your own) and locations are arising and presenting as existence, then it is a pointer to Non-separation. It is important to note that being everybody, everywhere is not an experience, it’s an existence – the existence. The experience is part of what is lived by existence. Part of what is lived in and as Non-separation. Locating the contraction and easing of contraction between those two concepts, experience and existence, will point out the difference between nobody, nowhere and everybody, everywhere.
It will point out that being everyone is the same as being nobody – just as you said.
Q: Being nobody and everybody at the same time still seems to leave an empty space where I once existed. I’m not anybody, but the everybody still is. Where did my somebody go in the grand scheme of things? It had to go somewhere. Isn’t my “I” now just lost among people, most of which are yet to be lost in the same way? This seems alienating, even if I am everyone.
MR-B: Notice that what you are experiencing still has a sense of everybody else. You are still adding and subtracting to and from a world outside of yourself. Non-separation is not the equivalent of social-relational math.
There’s an entirely different logic when one is lived as the existence of Non-separation – personal logic is not impersonal logic. Impersonally, the push is at your back rather than resistance in the front. But the push from behind doesn’t deliver you anywhere new, doesn’t reveal an arrival. It is a kind of perceived unfolding in nowhere, by a somebody who is always relaxed in the nobody-nowhere whether it is realized or not.
Right now, you are viewing Non-separation as a game of uprooting flowers where once they are pulled, they are carried away and discarded, leaving a hole in the garden. The other flowers keep on living, but you are no longer a flower, just a hole. Since your “occupied space” is now just a hole in the ground, you are no longer able to relate in a society of flowers because nobody is there from which to relate. Let’s reframe this visual.
When the flower is pulled, it is an impersonal action of who you are – not a particular action to who you are. Since this is the case, the ability to relate goes nowhere because the action of any flower is still the impersonal action of who you are. The hole has nothing to do with you personally. The flower that you thought you were never died or left a hole in Non-separation. The flower was pulled, but it didn’t remove you from the society of flowers. If you pay close attention to your story, even though you were a hole, you were still aware of the society of flowers. What is this awareness if you were, in fact, gone? How could you be alive and dead at the same time? How were you the hole and the flower at the same time?
Remember, a pre-existing unity has no empty space for the kind of hole you are pointing out. A shifted story does not create a gap in consciousness, it does not create a hole in the impersonal. Nowhere, nobody is an emptiness or a fullness that cannot be altered.