Ask Dr. Robert…

robertosombramarc20211Nearly two years ago, when I wrote this essay on Nonduality, I expressed my intention to introduce readers to some other teachers besides the ones mentioned at the time–other teachers including some who, though less well known, are nevertheless  quite good (perhaps equal to the best) but who are (understandably) much more accessible than their more famous counterparts.  First and foremost, the person I had in mind at the time was my online friend and interlocutor Dr. Robert Saltzman.

Robert is a retired psychologist and photographer who currently resides in Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico.   I don’t recall precise order of events that led up to our initial acquaintance and friendship, but my first impression of him was very much informed by these paragraphs that I discovered on his website in the Summer of 2011:

“What I mean by “spiritual unfoldment” is the possibility in the human being of finding a center which is more than just “myself,” a center which seems to embody a level of wisdom, empathy, creativity, humor, and joy which is missing in the ordinary, everyday personality, a center, that is, which is not the outcome of thoughts, attitudes, and ideas, but which seems to exist prior to thought. Once this center is somehow intuited by the ordinary self, “unfoldment” refers to the ever-expanding experience of finding meaning and value in living more from that greater center and less from the demands of the everyday personality as it expresses itself in thoughts, fears, and desires.  To put this in somewhat grander terms, that which is finite, time-bound, and subject to death, becomes aware in some way of the underlying ground of being which feels infinite, timeless, and everlasting.

fern_unfurl“I say that this center must be intuited by the ordinary self because intuition is a human faculty which functions beyond the region of conscious thought, and so may provide a kind of bridge between thought and the underlying ground of being. I like to use the word “unfoldment,” because it suggests that this process involves the unfurling or unwinding of something that is already present but needs to be opened up in order that it may function to the fullest within the individual life of each person. If you have ever seen the leaf of a large fern uncoiling, this may provide a good visual metaphor” (excerpted from What is Spiritual Unfoldment?).

Those paragraphs resonated strongly with the insight gleaned a few years earlier from Eckhart Tolle–an insight subsequently clarified and stabilized to some degree as I was exposed to various nondual teachers and teachings on Facebook, YouTube, and elsewhere on the web.  Still, there are certain things that it is difficult to learn apart from direct communication with someone who really knows.  And, for me, Robert Saltzman became that person, for a time, and provided a significant measure of direct communication (insofar as that is possible via email and Facebook).

This is not to suggest that I willingly accepted everything he had to say– or even, at this point, that we always see eye to eye –quite the contrary.   But I find in him someone who is extraordinarily wise and deeply compassionate and who was, at the time, willing to discuss difficult questions with me–especially as they relate to what he sometimes refers to as awakening to true nature.  I was particularly impressed with his willingness to follow each thread of our discussion to its logical conclusion without getting bored or angry or throwing in the towel when the going got tough.  It seemed we were always able to come out the other side–not necessarily agreeing, but with a deeper respect and appreciation for one another as time went on.  This was exactly what I needed at the time and I remain very grateful for the experience.

god-talk-croppedPerhaps our biggest bone of contention over the years has had to do with the idea of God, the advantages and disadvantages of religious traditions, and the truth-value of religious modes of discourse.  I continue find the Christian categories in which I was raised to be meaningful and am inclined to think that some sort of traditional, religious  culture is good and preferable to the secular consumerism that seems to be replacing traditionally oriented cultures around the globe.  Having said that– and without attempting to speak for Dr. Robert in this regard –I can also say that there is little that I disagree with in his response to the question, Why do you criticize religion?  Indeed, I criticize religion, too–albeit (on balance) somewhat more gently and sympathetically than he does.  See, for example, these various pieces which I have posted here and at Yeshua21.Com over the past 3 or 4 years:

A lessor bone of contention has been the topic of consciousness and whether the hard-problem of consciousness (as it is sometimes referred to ala David Chalmers) is indicative of a level of reality that transcends the material world — a level of reality which we, as conscious beings, somehow participate in (or have access to) in a way that suggests that we are not merely these apparent bodies, but that there pertains to us and our lives a transcendent aspect that is logically and ontologically prior to the unfolding of our material existence.  Robert recently weighed in on this question as follows:

. . . the idea that consciousness exists separate from and prior to the brain is, in my view, pure speculation. In other words, it is a religious idea or a metaphysical one, not a scientific one, although some try to claim, erroneously in my view, that it is demonstrated, or even proven scientifically, by quantum mechanics.

Whether the brain is the source of consciousness, or whether there is some larger overarching consciousness that exists prior to the material world, the human experience (feeling/perception/thought/self-awareness) would feel precisely the same–one cannot see that which sees or know that which knows. Therefore, I say, no human being can be situated so as to know which of those is a true view, or even if neither is.

gullibility test 1 dollarYou won’t find the answer by “self-inquiry” either, I say, or any other approach. That answer is beyond the human “event-horizon.” The only “answer” comes via received knowledge. In other words, you credit some other human being with somehow having access to that which you do not. On what basis you make such a determination, I cannot imagine. If you believe Osho, or Deepak Chopra, or NameYourPoison and take their word for it (no matter how buttressed by logic, scripture, or tradition), you are, I say, acting like a fool.

Science, by the way, does not claim that consciousness is something that the brain does (albeit many scientists do favor that view). Science says that the answer–the solution to the so-called “hard problem”–is unknown, and possibly unknowable. I tend towards unknowable myself.  [posted on Facebook].

While I have no great objection to the idea that the ultimate answer to this question is unknown and may, in fact, be unknowable, I am not yet convinced that this is not a fruitful avenue of inquiry for the spiritual seeker–not as a belief to adopt, mind you, but as a question to reflect upon deeply.  And because there is a relatively large contingent of very vocal atheists who pretend that they do know that consciousness is merely a function of the brain, I regularly respond to them by emphasizing the following:

1)  Presupposing consciousness, evolutionary biology and neurophysiology may account (more or less adequately) for changing states of mind by correlating them with changes in physical structure and processes.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine, in principle, how they might explain the advent of consciousness,  per se.  For if (for billions of years) we imagine electro-chemical processes taking place “in the dark”, there is simply no reason to think that such processes should ever become “illuminated” — no reason to think that, at some point, there should suddenly be “something that it is like” (on the inside) to be one of those processes (cf. “What is it like to be a bat?“, by Thomas Nagel).

bat2) But even if we assume, per chance, the advent of this or that “emergent state of consciousness”, there is no reason to speak of such a state as being “selected for” (in evolutionary terms) unless it is not ultimately reducible to the material substrate on top of which it appears.  Genes are material…  Brain-states are material…  Natural selection as ordinarily understood  operates materially…  So unless we are willing to grant that, at some point, conscious minds began to contribute something over and above their material substrate, there is no reason to say that consciousness, qua consciousness, is selected for.  If, however, we want to say that consciousness, as such, does indeed contribute something over and above its material substrate–that the physical structures associated with sentience, perception, or discursive thought are selected for with a view to a qualitative contribution to life that somehow flows through them (and not just for their quantitative features, as such), we are at that point leaving a strict physicalism behind in favor of what I would call an “emergent dualism” or mind/body “interactionism”.  If on the other hand, there is no such contribution, then it is simpler to think of some rudimentary “consciousness” (or “interiority”) as being present from the beginning, in any and all material forms (cf. Spinoza or Teilhard de Chardin).  But if that is the case, reality is not (and has never been) merely physical.

With respect to Robert’s observation that consciousness, as such, would not feel any different to us (whether it is merely a function of the operation of our brains or if it somehow transcends neurophysiology), it remains the case that what we believe about it does have a practical import.  And, IMO, to believe that consciousness is merely a function of brain-states tends to keep people stuck in duality–imagining, as Alan Watts puts it, that their ego is “something or other, located about half way between their ears and a little way behind their eyes inside their head” (see this Alan Watts video).


So rather than imagining that consciousness is limited to our brains or even to our apparent body as a whole, it seems more reasonable to me (and more conducive to awakening) to think of the world as my body–i.e. the cosmos in its entirety.

the world is your body

Indeed, from where I stand, it seems almost as accurate to say that the cosmos is in me as it does to say that I am in the cosmos.  As Martin Heidegger observes–in a quite different but not unrelated context:

“For the Dasein there is no outside, for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside” (“Basic Problems in Phenomenology” 66).

Thus, the distinction between inner and outer– insofar as it obtains at all –is not nearly as definite or dominating as it once was (see also My Spirit, by Thomas Traherne).  It is with this point of view in mind that I have shared the following observations on consciousness:

But having said all that, I am quite willing to leave this question behind if and for as long as physicalism is not expressed or implied as a default position by whoever I happen to be talking to.  another infinityMoreover, I fully acknowledge the dangers posed by both religious and metaphysical speculation– dangers which I think Robert has in mind when he objects to such discourse –namely, that people who are attached to such mental positions may, in fact be clinging (in fear of death and in despair of reality as it is given) to some vestige of hope for an afterlife that will serve to soften the specter of death and to reinforce their hope and desire for personal immortality.

In that vein, one of the most fruitful exercises that emerged, early on, as Robert and I conversed, had to do with the contemplation of death construed as personal annihilation. What I came to realize through such contemplation is that to be willing to die utterly is to be totally surrendered to the awake space that I Am.  “What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up?”,  Alan Watts inquires…  “This is a yoga”, he continues, “this is a realization” (The Nature of Consciousness).  It has been my experience that it is, indeed, helpful to mind the gaps (as the saying goes), but that it is also possible to do so in a way that is very much akin to dying before we die–i.e. it is possible to be so deeply and profoundly aware of our bodies as to be on intimate terms with the silence between each heartbeat; and with the stillness between each breath we breathe.  Resting in that peace, there simply is no fear of death.

come and dieIn short– in spite of our differences –I am very thankful for Robert Saltzman and the opportunity I have had to converse with him over the past 3 or 4 years.  While it is true that he often speaks harshly of religion in general and Christianity in particular (while  I, in contrast, retain a sincere appreciation for many elements of the Christian faith in which I was raised), there are also times when he expresses in rather general terms certain insights which seem to me to pertain to the very essence of the Christian gospel.  In addition to the opening paragraphs on spiritual unfoldment (above) which, to my way of thinking describe the mind of Christ, I was particularly impressed by the following  exchange which I cut and pasted from his Facebook page last summer (2014).  One of his Facebook followers, whose name I have replaced with initials, inquires as follows:

B___ K___:  What I had been wondering about is how the personality functions when the ego dissolves. . . . I mean the conditioned egoic mind and the inborn personality.

Robert Saltzman:  Just speaking personally, I would not say that ego “dissolves.”  Ego has a vital function in living a human life (unless one lives as one of those so-called “god intoxicated” yogis who has to be fed and carried around from place to place–none of that for me, thanks).

The experience as it unfolds for me from moment to moment is that, more and more, impersonal Self is felt as “reality” (defined neither by ideas of duality nor of nonduality–it simply is what it is) and ego is seen as a temporary, limited manifestation within Self called “personality,” or “point of view.”

For example, when earlier Bernard said it was a nice spring day in Montreal, that was ego (his) speaking, and ego (mine) listening. But when he touched upon deeper matters, any distinction between Robert and Bernard disappeared in the face of the truth beyond words that was being expressed. When I thanked Bernard for his comment, he said, “Ah well, takes one to see one,” meaning that either of us could have said exactly the same thing.

Seekers and many deluded teachers like to tell themselves that this work is about erasing or destroying ego (some of the “teachers” have foolishly convinced themselves that they have somehow “transcended” ego) but real understanding has nothing to do with erasing, destroying, or transcending anything.

I say that this work is, as in Edinger’s diagram, about ego seeing and feeling the distinction between ego and Self so that ego can enjoy a healthy relationship with Self (Truth). Without a distinction, there IS no relationship, and then all kinds of unbalanced ideas, unmitigated by truth, arise: ego trips, megalomania, delusions of being “Jesus,” etc, or, in the other direction, self-hatred, guilt for being alive at all, etc. With a real relationship, stress eases and ego no longer pursues any urgent agenda (including about attaining “enlightenment”). This seems to me to be a natural process of ego coming at first to recognize, and then to love and obey Self.

I cannot recall where I heard this analogy (perhaps it is Hindu or maybe Sufi), but ego can be compared to a horse. The horse may imagine that it can go wherever it likes, but it soon gets into all kinds of trouble.  Then, with luck, the horse may notice that it has a rider on its back, and the rider knows the territory. Then the horse can relax and provide the motivating force for getting around in life while the rider (Self) guides the journey.

The ego/Self relationship appears everywhere in adage, fable, and folk-tale: “Let your conscience be your guide.” The “higher power,” etc.

galatians 2 - 20 crucified with christWow!  That is so powerful–so insightful…  Despite the fact that Robert tends to discount and eschew the idea of transcendence, in general, and Christian categories, in particular–to my mind, the Facebook exchange above nevertheless expresses almost perfectly what is, as I see it, a very Christian point of view.  The ego, as he describes it, has in Christian terms been regeneratedI am no longer setting on the throne of my heart but have surrendered that throne to Christ (cf. the Self).

To be sure, this is often spoken of in terms of death.  St. Paul writes, “I am crucified with Christ–I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  Elsewhere he writes, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  While in some contexts, his references to death are intended very literally, it is also the case that death is often employed by him (and throughout the New Testament) as a metaphor — a metaphor which,  IMO, may be fruitfully compared to the Sufi notion of fana (annihilation of the self).  Moreover, fana is a notion which appears to have been influenced by the Buddhist understanding of nirvana (i.e. the extinction of the self — cf. nirFana).  But there is reason to believe that the emphasis on the death of the ego in all of these descriptions is somewhat exaggerated.  Thomas Merton explains this as follows:

[The higher religious traditions felt it necessary] to speak in strong negative terms about what happens to the ego-subject, which instead of being “realized” in its own limited selfhood is spoke of rather as simply vanishing out of the picture altogether.  The reason for this is not that the person loses his metaphysical or even physical status, or regresses into non-identity, but rather that his real status is quite other than what appears empirically to us to be his status.  Hence it becomes overwhelmingly important for us to become detached from our everyday conception of ourselves as potential subjects for special and unique experiences, or as candidates for realization, attainment and fulfillment.  In other words, this means that a spiritual guide worth his salt will conduct a ruthless campaign against all forms of delusion arising out of spiritual ambition and self-complacency which aim to establish the ego in spiritual glory.  That is why a St. John of the Cross is so hostile to visions, ecstasies and all forms of “special experience.”  That is why the Zen Masters say: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (“Zen and the Birds of Appetite” 76-77).

On balance, it seems to me that Robert’s point about the function of the ego is well taken.  In any event, it is consistent with my own understanding and experience.  Moreover, from where  I stand, he seems far more in touch with (what I refer to as) the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit than most (nominal) Christians I come in contact with.

Regarding the Eddinger diagram which Robert refers to, I don’t recall seeing that last summer when I first read that exchange,  but here (perhaps) is a similar diagram which I have reconfigured somewhat in conjunction with my own Christian vision:

self Self jungian psychology pilgrimage of the soul

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to draw this to a close.  If you’d like to learn more about Robert Saltzman, visit his web site or stop by his Facebook page.  Most importantly,  perhaps– as a way of balancing what may have been a one-sided and idiosyncratic presentation  on  my part –you should should consider browsing through the various photographs and Facebook memes that he shares from time to time.   And if you have any questions, feel free to Ask Dr. Robert!  🙂

NOTE:  With regard to awakening, you could do worse than simply remembering these words from (Robert’s friend) the late Bill Gersh:

You get what you get when you get it! 

And in conjunction with that, you should also remember this:

Awakening Never Ends

Pilar - the great aunt of Robert Saltzmans friend and auto mechanic MartínThis photo portrait is by Robert Saltsman:

“Pilar is the great aunt of my friend and auto mechanic, Martín. He brought me to meet her. She lives alone in the old way, the way people grew up on the ranchos on this peninsula. She’s 89, completely compos mentis, and wise. I saw her this morning again to bring her prints of this image. We had a lovely conversation.  This portrait was captured within two minutes of meeting her, hand-held camera, and no stage management.” ~ Robert Saltzman (in response to my inquiry)

–>  See more of Robert’s photos on Facebook

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One Response to Ask Dr. Robert…

  1. Pingback: Did you ever have the feeling you were being watched!? | Life Streams – Narrative and Grace…

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