OH MY SOUL! Interview with Jeff Foster
by Stephanie Sterling for her Blog.
At the 2011 Science and Nonduality Conference, I had the opportunity to sit with Jeff Foster and conduct my very first interview for my blog. Jeff is a chap (that’s to let you know he’s British) who travels the world guiding people toward the truth he experiences: the nondual nature of everything. To me, nonduality points to the oneness of everything, everyone, everytime, and everywhere. Here we go!
Stephanie: I wanted to talk to you because I find you very relatable. A comment which I get a lot is, “Wow you’re so young, and it’s amazing that you’re here, it’s very rare for this to be happening to someone so young.” How old are you?
[n.b. great first question, right? I clearly need interview lessons.]
That’s very young! You were talking yesterday about the importance of participating in the flow of life, in the human experience. Do you feel like you participate as a normal 31 year old?
I don’t think I’ve ever been normal! I don’t know what normal means anymore. Yeah, I’ve been in relationships, I like movies, reading, walking, going to cafes, meeting people…on that level. I guess what I do is unique; I go around the world talking about whatever “this” is.
It can seem like a paradox to some people that you can live in the current, to embody what’s it like to be 31 living in 2011, and yet live in this space of “there’s no time, there’s no me!” For some people, they might feel like they have to assume a different identity or act a certain way.
Totally. You pick up so many ideas about what enlightenment will be like, and once you’re awakened, you –fill in the blank–you’ll stop watching television, or you’ll always feel blissed out, or you’ll always feel peaceful. All these ideas of what an awakened person would or wouldn’t do. But that was a conditioning. You’ve got all these ideas and you’re trying to force yourself into that mold. In the end, it isn’t about fitting into a mold. Every wave in the ocean, on one hand, is the ocean, and it also is a unique expression of the ocean. I was always in a way trying to mold the “Jeff wave” into my idea of what an “awakened wave” would look like, or trying copy another wave. In the end, I get it, it does sound like a total paradox. On what hand, what you are is the ocean. On the other hand, there’s an expression of this wave which is a unique expression. Jeff is still Jeff in that sense, which I never expected That’s what was so surprising. ”Oh, this includes Jeff living his life, being ordinary!” It’s extraordinary and totally ordinary. Thought calls it a paradox. “I’m the ocean” and “I’m the wave” — how do I bring those two together? They were never separate in the first place. These questions fall away. The molds fall way. I was just trying to copy other people, just trying to copy after I read some book by some awakened guy. That’s really what falls away. On one hand, you’re the ocean; on that level, you’re equal to everyone. At the same time, you’re a unique expression of that water; that unique expression’s not lost.
I think that years ago I was stuck in this thing trying to get rid of Jeff. I thought that’s what my problem was all about. That should have been the shocking thing, how inclusive it is. In that sense, nothing changes. Jeff is still Jeff. I dress the same kind of way, talk the same kind of way, like similar kinds of music, have my certain habits. On a deeper level, it’s known that that’s not who I really am. At the same time, the wave is embraced by the ocean. It seems like a paradox, but when you think about it and talk about it, that’s the fallout of that thinking. It’s just this. It’s just sitting here at the table, talking, waterfall in the background…it’s that. It’s not even a paradox. It’s simplicity. It’s the simplicity of living.
What would you say to people who are interested in expanding their spirituality but are turned off from seeking it but think they have to wear hemp necklaces and burn incense and go to meetings and have to assume that spiritual-person identity…how would you speak to them and say it’s accessible?
In my own experience, I never did any of that actually. I never went to a teacher, never went to meetings or satsang, I never burned incense. For me, my whole spiritual journey was about suffering. It was about I just sat at home with my suffering and watched for about a year, just watched something constantly wanting to escape. To me, spirituality is not about the incense and the ashrams and gurus, although that’s part of life as well. It’s just art. Life is a giant art gallery. When you walk into an art gallery, you might be attracted to certain paintings. You might be attracted to incense and whatever, and the white robes and spiritual music. In the end, I’m talking about the freedom of the end of suffering. Burning a stick of incense doesn’t stop suffering. For me, it was always about suffering and the end of suffering , that’s why I never really got distracted by all the fluffy stuff because I knew ultimately I had to face fear. That’s it really.
People feel stuck, we’re isolated or we feel lonely or disconnected and we want to be free from that. I was obsessed with becoming enlightened years ago and reaching some higher state or something, and that’s I was desperately pursuing this thing called “enlightenment,” but it was really about my suffering. It’s never really about reaching something. It’s about not wanting to feel what we feel. We don’t want to face our own incompleteness right now. We don’t want to face our pain or fear. When we’re maybe a few years old we already have so many lists and list and lists of what’s ok to think and what’s not ok to think. What’s ok to feel and what’s not ok to feel. What’s right, what’s wrong. What’s healthy, what’s unhealthy. And we want to escape everything that we see as “not ok” within ourselves. No matter what our language is, we have some word or words for what’s ok and what’s not ok basically. That’s what the mind does –it splits reality. And then it starts to apply those words to judge and label what we actually feel. If a thought appears, we call it a good thought/a bad thought/positive /negative or maybe even evil. Or a pure spiritual thought/unspiritual thought. Same thing with feelings. We want to escape the bad stuff.
The realization is that freedom isn’t about running away from the darkness and reaching the light. The real freedom is discovering that what you call “dark” or “evil” was never that; you were only calling it that because you were trying to escape it. We only call something dark in ourselves because we’re already trying to escape it without realizing it.
I say real spirituality has nothing to do with escape. In the end, escaping takes time. ” I experience this now, but tomorrow I’m going to experience this.” ”I feel this now but tomorrow…” Then we always live in hope; then we need time. In reality, it’s timeless. Everything is appearing in this timeless space that you are. All this stuff you’ve been so conditioned to think –you shouldn’t experience fear, pain, sadness, anything in isolation or abandonment or guilt or helplessness– these are still just waves in the ocean. Everything within your personal experience is just a wave in the ocean. It might appear as fear, but it’s really just the ocean. It’s the ocean appearing as fear and we call it fear and we try to escape it. Because we don’t see that that wave is part of the ocean too! That’s where it all begins. We don’t see that that’s included as well. Every wave is part of the ocean. Every wave. We might call that wave anything we want to , we can judge it as a bad wave, a not ok wave, an unhealthy wave. We do that because we don’t see what it really is, which is the ocean, consciousness, awareness…pick your favorite word.
I think that’s important as well – there’s a lot of strange words. And they’re all other people’s words. Find your own words. I like the word “ocean.” You might like the word consciousness, or you might not. I don’t. Call it light or being or spirit, or call it nothing. It doesn’t matter. You can’t name it, anyway. The way I talk about it these days, I love this “ocean and wave” thing. In the end, you can’t say what this is. I don’t know what it is. The words can’t capture it; the words are pointing to it. It’s not about the word “consciousness,” it’s pointing you back to whatever this is. In the end, you have to admit you really don’t know what this is. I can call it consciousness or I can call it being, but underneath that I really have no way of knowing what this is. I have no way of separating myself from it. We call this “sitting around the table talking,” but we really don’t know. How could you really know?
You’re also free to go to an ashram, or do any spiritual practice, but now it comes from a different place in a way. Now it’s not about faking this anymore, it’s a celebration. You could burn incense or sing spiritual music, and it’s no longer about you thinking it’s going to get you anywhere. I met a young guy who was telling me he was a member for many years now of all these spiritual societies and was active in a yoga center and spiritual practices and dancing, and then one day he saw what we’re talking about here. He still does it, and he loves doing it, but now he sees it as art. Before he was doing it to get somewhere in the future, believing that it would lead him somewhere. And now he’s doing it simply because he loves doing it. And there’s less of a seriousness to it. The seriousness comes with “this is gonna give me something, this is gonna add something, this is gonna help me escape.” It becomes urgently serious! Without that, then you’re free to do it or not. When you’re seeking, you’re not free not to do it, that’s an attachment. If you think meditation is going to help you reach advaita, you feel bound to doing it. You feel that you can’t stop doing it. When you actually think about it, it’s not about taking you anywhere. It’s about what’s already here. You realize that you’re free to sit and do meditation, and that’s true meditation. It’s not about reaching somewhere in the future, it’s about what’s here now. Then everything becomes meditation. Meditation is no longer just about sitting on a carpet and closing your eyes –which could be fun—but meditation could also be walking in nature or going for a swim or listening to rock music or having a Starbucks.
As you read in Part I of my interview with him, Jeff Foster travels the world guiding people toward the truth he experiences: the nondual nature of everything. I really enjoyed the section here where he talked about fear of failure, because I think most people can relate. Enjoy reading the rest of our discussion!
Stephanie: I’ve noticed that people are talking about this global phenomenon of “awakening” in different areas. Physicists are talking about new developments in observing interconnectedness scientifically. Spiritual teachers are talking about how more and more people are interested in interconnectedness. How can we, the young generation, foster this movement? How can we make it relatable to our peers? How can we be leaders of it?
Jeff: First of all, by finding a way of expressing this that won’t get people lost. If something’s too strange or too weird, or too much out of their comfort zone, people very quickly shut off. I think the way that I talk about this these days is a lot simpler than the way I used to talk about it. That’s come from meeting people and talking to people and helping them to understand. On one level, it’s kind of crazy! It goes against everything they’ve ever been taught. So you can understand how important it is to make it so they can hear it.
What are the issues young people are dealing with? Bring it back down to that level. It’s one thing to understand the ocean and the wave and nonduality and blahblahblah. But what people are really dealing with is that they struggle in relationships and they have physical pain. Stuff hurts. Life hurts. They have stress about what to do with their lives. I’m very familiar with that. When I was younger, that caused more suffering than anything. There were so many voices sending me in different directions, telling me what I should be, what career I should go into. It’s so important to just explore. I don’t think people explore enough. I know I didn’t.
Explore find out what moves you, what you love, what you’re passionate about. You might not know. That’s the thing: I never knew, but I never gave myself the space to explore. Everyone was expecting me to get the job and become a lawyer or a doctor or whatever. And that caused a lot of fear : you didn’t get a job, you don’t have any money, you’re going to be homeless…
Eventually, I started to discover all this [spiritual] stuff. Finally, I found something that I was actually moved by. I found myself. Back then, I was a strange one. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about this stuff. At some points in time, I thought I was completely crazy because I thought I was the only one with these ideas:. ”Oh my god! I’m not Jeff!” I didn’t know anyone who I could talk to. I didn’t have a teacher or anything. I had never written before, but one day I just found myself writing. It wasn’t as if I suddenly decided to be a writer. It was just to explore. I just started writing and I made a blog. Back then, I was so incredibly shy and held back that I expressed myself through me through writing this blog, and then people contacted me. Eventually this publisher found my stuff, and it was never like I set out to have it happen. It was just being open to that.
When my first book came out, everyone thought I was crazy. I was afraid. I thought that no one was going to get this. When you start to break out of a role, or behave in ways that don’t fit other people’s ideas of you, then what can happen is a lot of fear of being rejected or being an outcast. “People will think I’m weird; people will think I’m crazy.” You have to face that there could be some truth in that. There were a few people in my life who must have read my book, because after that point they really didn’t ever speak to me again. Jeff had changed too much. And of course what happened with other people, is that they read the book and loved it.
In order to open yourself up to life, you have to open yourself up to rejection. I don’t think there’s any other way. We’re afraid of feeling these things –of feeling fear, rejection, or unloved. In the end, if you want to be really free, you have to open yourself up and embrace those feelings. I remember at the time my parents said, “What the hell are you doing? You were supposed to be a doctor!” They had such high hopes for me, and here I was writing all these weird spiritual books! In the beginning, they expressed that as anger. I think what my parents really felt underneath their anger was that they thought they were losing who they knew. They just wanted to connect but they don’t know how, so it came out as anger. It was my responsibility to find ways of showing them that I still loved them and I was still connected to them, and yeah, I have changed. It’s not like I don’t love you. I changed, and I still love you.
It’s also just opening up to the unknown. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know where it would take me. I was actually on a psychology course years ago; it was all planned, I was going to train and get qualifications to be a psychologist. But there was this other thing pulling me. This psychology thing, it was security. I was going to get a job at the end of it and be set for life really…and then there was this strange little book I had written. But I knew that was the truth.
On one side, there was security and jobs and safety. But I knew this was more real to me than anything and there was no security in it. That was the unknown. At that point in my life, I just knew that I had to just honor that. Even if it was just a tiny little seed at first, somehow I couldn’t pretend anymore. I couldn’t pretend to be something that I wasn’t. I think that’s really where all of our suffering begins. We pretend to be what we’re not. Why? Because we want people to love us or accept us or understand us. And everyone’s doing this on some level. You start to see more clearly, and at some point, you get tired of pretending. Then my life became very simple. It was just honoring that little voice that wanted to be heard, that felt so true.
We want to open up to life but we won’t do it without pain! If you want to open yourself up to life, you have to open yourself up to pain and rejection. You take everything into yourself. Because what you are really can handle all of that. It can handle pain or fear. It can handle total rejection.
Relating that to our generation specifically, I think there’s a lot of commentary on how our generation is coddled and how parents tried to shelter their kids from failure.
Yeah, failure was my big thing. I associated failure with rejection. What if I fail? What could be wrong with failure until… I’ll be rejected, I’ll be cast out of society, people won’t love me. We associate failure with that. If you trace it back, it’s connected to our fear of death. If I fail, I’ll lose all my money, I’ll lose my house, I’ll be homeless, I won’t have any food, I’ll be more vulnerable to death. The truth is: that could happen. Yeah, you can lose what you have. Then what this is really about is finding something you can’t lose.
What can’t you lose? That’s who you really are. Who you really are can’t be lost. Call it “love.” Everyone has a sense of that. You can lose everything in life but love. Love in the true sense of the word can’t be lost. People need to know that you can’t be a success or failure. What you are right in this moment is just this space in which thought appears and sensation appears. What you are is the capacity to feel anything or think anything.
Thoughts come and go, but thoughts can’t define you. Feelings come and go, but your feelings can’t define you. That’s the secret. You can feel anything, but you can’t be anything. In one moment, you can feel like a success or a failure. But you can’t be a success or failure, you just feel it. What you are can’t be anything because it’s not fixed, it’s just the capacity for everything. The truth is that you can’t be a success or failure, but you can feel it.
When we say, “I want to be a success,” what we really mean is “I want to feel like a success.” But then we make the demand, “I want to feel that permanently; I want to feel like a success all the time.” When you recognize who you really are, you realize that it’s not possible to feel anything all the time because all the opposites balance themselves out. You can’t feel one thing all the time. Our experience is never fixed like that. That’s why we suffer: we want to keep hold of one feeling. We want to either keep hold of a good feeling or protect against a bad feeling. We want to keep hold of a feeling like success, and we protect against a feeling like failure. Then you’re always at war. If you see yourself as being a “success,” you’re going to be afraid of failure. Always.
When you realize who you really are, it is just the capacity to feel like a success or a failure. There’s absolutely no problem until we want to hold up an image of ourselves and “be” a success. Any image of myself: I’m a successful person, I’m a happy person, I’m a strong person…the moment you have some image of who you are, you’re not honoring who you really are. If you want to see yourself as a success, you’re probably not going to allow yourself to feel like a failure. If you want to see yourself as a strong person, you’re probably not going to allow yourself to feel weak, or allow other people to see that weakness. If you want to hold an image of yourself as someone who knows, then you’re probably not going to allow yourself to feel uncertain. You’re going to start to perform, to pretend. It’s never going to satisfy.
I would say that real success is when you allow failure in, too. That’s an experience. From that place of freedom, you’re absolutely free to go out and be a success, but there’s no suffering in it anymore. If you want to make money, make money. If you want to change the world, then go and do that. And you’re no longer afraid of feeling failure because you know the ultimately what you are is just the place in which all feelings come and go. Feelings of success and failure can both be accepted. Feelings of strength and weakness. They’re not really opposites. We’re so conditioned to think they’re opposites. Feelings aren’t opposites. I feel weak sometimes, so what? I feel strong sometimes, so what? They don’t define you. The real adventure is to open up to all of that and see where that takes you. If you’re really open to failure, you’re open to life.
We want to plan life somehow. We want to make our life go the way we want it to. Then you’re always living in the future, and you end up shutting off to life and possibilities and to other people. If you’re so busy trying to be something, and holding up some image of yourself which is not what you really are, you’re just pretending. And then you’re separating yourself from people who are not like that image. “I’m strong, you’re weak. I know, but you don’t know. I’m enlightened, you’re not.” You’re shutting yourself off from other people. They might call you a failure! If they call you a failure, and in that moment and you can’t find the place where it’s ok to be a failure, then you’re going to war with them.
That was the story of my life: I was at war with failure. On some level, I think everyone is. There’s something so beautiful in that, it’s not a negative thing to run away from. Experience failure: what would that mean? I didn’t even know what failure was because I was afraid of it. At some point, the question is “Who is failing?” Who is the one who has failed? Failures come and go in what I am. We’re so afraid of failure, but we don’t even know what it means. It’s like this funny nightmare everyone’s having. Just fail! Experience that, as well.
Fail, and suffer, and in the midst of that experience find the place where it’s deeply ok. Experience your worst fear if you have to. In the midst of that experience, find who you really are and you’ll be deeply ok with that.
Thank you, Jeff!