Donna Quesada: You’ve written so extensively about the subject of awakening…what led you to this aspect of your work?
Dr. Steve Taylor: For me, personally, I think I was always a person that showed natural wakefulness…from the age of 16 or 17, I was aware of what I would now call “spiritual experiences.” But at the time, I didn’t understand them.
DONNA: So, you had a natural experience that wasn’t inspired by any kind of practice at all? You were a teenager?
STEVE: That’s right. I was 16. The thing that I really liked to do as a teenager, was wander around in nature…wander around the parks looking at the sky…looking at the trees. I’d just feel a sense of quietness and a sense of connection to nature…the natural scenery around me…feel a sense of wholeness and kind of like an elation, a kind of euphoria. But I didn’t understand it at the time. I used to write poetry to try and describe some of these experiences, but my background wasn’t a spiritual background. I didn’t have a religious background or a spiritual background. So, at the time, I didn’t understand these experiences. I tried to explain it to people and they thought I was crazy. So, after a while, I thought it was crazy as well. I thought there was something wrong with me. For a long time, I was confused and I couldn’t accept myself for a long time. It was only accidentally, when I was 21 or 22 years old, that I picked up a book about Mysticism. I was drawn to it in a book shop. And when I read the book about mysticism, I suddenly recognized my own experiences. I thought, wow, this is what’s happened to me. So, I suddenly had a framework or context to make sense of my experiences, which was very, very helpful.
DONNA: Did that lead to a more formal practice or a search for a teacher, perhaps?
STEVE: Yeah, because even though at that point, I finally understood myself…I finally accepted myself…there were still some difficulties…some challenges…the kind of life-style I was living. At that time, I was a musician. So, the kind of life-style I was living, wasn’t conducive to spirituality. Lots of late nights. Playing gigs. Lots of drinking and smoking and that kind of thing. It took me a few years to learn to meditate on a daily basis. So, by the end of my 20’s I was meditating on a daily basis. And I began to find a stability and I began to integrate my spirituality into my daily life. And I changed my life to fit my spirituality. I became a vegetarian, stopped smoking, stopped drinking, that kind of thing. So, it took me a while to find a stable base and meditation was definitely a part of it.
DONNA: So, it’s funny…you were a musician…and drinking and smoking and all of that. On the other hand, you were that third group…that has a natural, deep feeling about life. And the sense that there is something more…and the tendency to ask questions and to experience things on a deeper level. It reminds me of something my own teacher said—David and I have the same teacher—and he was talking about the hippies. And he was saying that people tend to think of them as sort of rebels and outcasts and all of that, but the reality is, they are actually closer to enlightenment than they are given credit for. The mainstream is off. The way we are doing things is somehow under the thumb of propaganda. And government can be oppressive and they are sensitive to all these things. They’re almost ahead of their time in their awareness of things that just don’t feel right. They want a new spirituality…they want a new way of living. They’re asking questions that the mainstream isn’t asking.
STEVE: I think that’s very true. I think the hippies were a very significant social movement. I wrote a book called The Fall, where I said that most of the human race’s problems in history have been due to our intensified sense of ego and sense of self. So, we have a sense of separateness to nature which leads us to exploit nature. We have a sense of separateness to our own bodies which leads to sexual repression…towards hostility to sexual desire. I think the hippies, to explain it in more detail…about 300 years ago, there was a social movement, a collective shift in consciousness which began in the 18th Century. The second half of the 18th Century. I call that the “Trans-Fall” movement. It’s when human beings began to move beyond separateness…beyond the super intense sense of ego. So, there was a new sense of compassion. A new sense of egalitarianism and democracy and so on. And that has continued since then and I think the hippie movement was a significant part of that. It was a time when men became more feminine. It was a time for new openness to the body and sexuality. And it was a time when people identified with indigenous cultures. It was a time when people felt a connection to nature and a desire to explore transcendent states of consciousness. So, in some ways, I think it was an expression of evolution, this evolutionary movement which I spoke about earlier. This movement beyond separateness and to a deeper state of consciousness.
DONNA: Seems like we are talking about oneness and unity. That is the common thread that runs through…I’ll go ahead and use the ‘E’ word. The enlightenment traditions of the world…whether we are coming from a Taoist platform or a Hindu platform, or a Buddhist platform…it seems like this thread of continuity has to do with overcoming our sense of separateness. And nature, from that point of view, can be a conduit to waking up because it can inspire the sense of awe…I’m a part of something bigger than me.
STEVE: Oh, definitely. Funny enough, in my research as a psychologist I’ve done quite a bit of research on awakening experiences which are temporary experiences of transcendence. They usually fade away after a few minutes or a few hours. They are just a temporary glimpse of wakefulness. And nature is one of the biggest triggers of awakening experiences. So often when people are swimming in the ocean, or swimming in a lake, or walking in the mountains…or even, just lying in the park on a sunny day…that’s when awakening experiences often occur, due to the effect of contact with nature. I think nature has a quality of stillness. It enables us to calm down. Our minds begin to slow down. Our minds empty and some space opens up inside us. A bit of space opens up between our thoughts, and we somehow get in touch with deeper levels of our own being. We transcend separateness.
DONNA: Do you think art can do that, as well? When you were just describing that, at this moment, I was thinking about the word sublime. You know the German philosopher, Kant, talked about the sublime…when we are confronted with something that words cannot describe. And I feel like that experience in nature is not unlike the experience we have with art. And also, like a spiritual experience.
STEVE: Yeah. In fact, that was another significant trigger of Awakening experiences. Witnessing a crazy performance…a lot of people talked about going to the theatre to see a dance performance…listening to music…and they would experience this more expansive state of consciousness. Yes, I think in the same way, art can give way to transcendence. It can open up our minds. It can open up space inside us. And it can remind us, or connect us to a higher reality.
DONNA: So, when I was preparing for this interview, I was reading some of your work where you talk about dogs. As an animal lover myself, I want to switch gears just a little bit and take advantage of your time and ask you about that…because having two dogs myself, I was relating very much to the stories you were telling. You were talking about empathy. And how we are not the only ones with this quality of empathy. When we can almost predict what the other will do or sense what the other is thinking. You were saying how dogs know when their owners are coming home…and that they did some tests…and the dogs would go to the window as soon as the owner was on their way home…and they repeated the tests and they were able to demonstrate that the dogs did have an overwhelming sensitivity and connection to their owners. So, this makes me wonder if humans are the only ones. And I don’t think we are…that have this quality of connection that we have been talking about. Would you be able to comment on that?
STEVE: Well, I think in some sense, all living beings are inter-connected. We share the same fundamental consciousness. You know, that’s what compassion is. If I feel compassionate towards someone’s suffering, I am sensing their own inner being. I am sharing…that’s what empathy is. When we perform acts of kindness…that’s triggered by our shared sense of being. And that works on kind of a psychic level, too. If I think about a person and they call me in the next second. Or, if I have a dream and I meet that person in my dream the next day…that works through the inter-connectedness between us. We share the same collective mind. That enables us to be telepathic.
The problem with human beings is because of our egos. These strong and separate sense of egos. We kind of isolate ourselves from the ocean of being. We become like separate islands within the ocean and we sometime lose the ability to empathize with one another and the ability to sense other people’s suffering…and people’s intentions or thoughts. But animals…because they don’t have the sense of ego that we have, they’re actually more connected to us and to each other, which is why it has been shown many times, that dogs have this psychic connection with their owners.
DONNA: Yes, Well, I’ve experienced it. And so, I took an interest in that. It’s not only sensing when their owners are coming home…although, how could we know that?…we are not home to watch their behavior. But certainly, being in car rides you can tell that when we turn in certain directions that are different than the usual route, they sense something different has happened. They are somehow in tune in a different way than we are.
STEVE: Yes, I think so. They share this unity of being which we have sometimes, but we often lose it because of our ego centeredness. And cats, I have a cat and a couple of years ago my wife’s father died and when my mother in law…my wife’s mother came to stay with us…the cat…it was so obvious that she was responding to my mother in law’s grief. She would sit near her. She was comforting her. I think it happens a lot that cats have this, and probably dogs too, of this sense of when people are in need. People need comfort when they are bereaved or depressed. They sense it and offer their comfort.
DONNA: Interesting. Yes. Speaking of bereavement and things of this nature, do you think there is such a thing as the dark night of the soul? Is suffering necessary for the process of awakening?
STEVE: It can be, yeah. I’ve found in my research and in my own experience, too, that when spiritual awakenings happen suddenly and dramatically…it’s often preceded by intense suffering. I’ve done research with a lot of people who were diagnosed with cancer and told that they only had a few months or maybe a year to live. I’ve done research with people that were severely disabled…people who were addicts, who lost everything do to addiction…many people who were bereaved…and it definitely seems that the intense loss and suffering they went through was the trigger of their spiritual awakening. What seems to happen is the normal ego breaks down in the face of so much suffering. Just like a building in an earthquake. It just collapses. But when the normal ego collapses in some people, there seems to be a kind of latent higher self that is waiting to be born…and that new self-arises inside of them and becomes their normal self.
DONNA: Almost like we are supposed to awaken but we live in a state of distraction or darkness or overcome by life’s day to day necessities. And it takes some strong event to shake us out of that. Out of the normal life’s pattern, so to speak.
STEVE: Yeah, exactly, yeah. It’s a bit like on a communal level, you can have a group of people that live in a town…they all live in their different houses and they don’t really interact. Sometime it takes a crisis…if there is a crisis in a community…like, maybe a fire, an earthquake, maybe just a burglary, a spate of burglaries in the town. It brings people together, it shifts the community to a higher level. People begin to interact. They communicate a lot more. They act altruistically towards each other. The whole community somehow deepens and becomes more connected.
DONNA: Yes, yes. I’ll draw on your background in psychology a little bit more on this because I find it so fascinating. This observation that even when people do have an awakening experience or are pursuing an awakened life in formal practice or on their own…it still doesn’t equate with sanity. For example, being in a human body and living a human life is somehow challenging. And I’ve often seen that just because people have a spiritual life or are living a spiritual lifestyle, they still fall prey to life’s challenges. They still suffer from the depression or anxiety that they always did suffer from and it doesn’t just magically disappear the way we would expect. Oh, this person is awakened or this person is a spiritual teacher…everything is perfect for this person…they’ve got it all figured out. But not necessarily.