Myself and WOO (The Wizard of Oz) are sitting in Woo’s consulting room. Although Woo has a large double-storey house in Chingford, his consulting room is more of an annex or cubbyhole than a room per se – a tiny little triangular enclave, 3 x 4 feet, everything painted pea green, including the radiator which is on at full blast.
Seating is by way of an upholstered corner bench festooned with large colourful cushions, which require Steve and Woo to sit in very close proximity to each other, slightly perched on the edge of the shared bench, dwarfed by giant cushions on either side of them.
The dimensions and airless heat of the room make for a somewhat stifling and claustrophobic setting for the younger man, but perhaps a more comfortable environment for 92 year-old WOO?
Steve records the meeting on his phone, what follows is a transcript of their conversation.
WOO: So, how can I help you?
STEVE: I’m not entirely sure. I suppose the springboard for me coming to see you was this Mu koan.
WOO: The what?
STEVE: The Mu koan.
WOO: Mu koag?
STEVE: Mu. I wrote to you a couple of weeks ago about it.
STEVE: And I told you I was interested in this koan. Mu. As in M.U. You wrote a paper on it a few years ago for the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies.
WOO: Oh yes that. What did you make of the piece?
STEVE: I thought it was very interesting. A good summary of the ways in which we’ve tried to tackle koans over time.
STEVE: Yes, it encapsulates a lot of the thinking about Mu, but I suppose my connection to the koan, is not really a thinking thing.
I think maybe what drew me to this koan was something more relational. You could say of course say that a koan is not really a relational beast. But for me it is, or that’s how I read it, or read myself into it. Like a Rorschach test.
And the relationship, for me, is primarily about fathers and sons. Also, because I think the dynamics are similar: it tells us something about gurus and disciples, as well as therapists and clients. So because of my particular history with fathers, I think all of that bleeds out into these other relationships too. For me it’s a koan which works at a very personal level, a koan about frustration. About being frustrated and about perhaps even being dropped or abandoned in some way.
WOO: Yes, you mentioned the word thinking, but of course it’s not really about thinking is it?
STEVE: No. But one can’t help but think about koans. So if one likes thinking, and I do, thinking and reading and writing…
WOO: Well, I think that’s the challenge of the Zen koan. It says: you’ve done all this thinking, and all this writing, and all this thinking, and all this reading, but fuck it, it isn’t about that, it’s about letting go of all that. And that’s really a sort of challenge. It says: “I’m not interested in all your reading and all your knowledge and all your experience and all the things that you’ve thought or been or done, or whatever.” You know: poof!
STEVE: But does it also say that all of our frustrations with father archetypes, all of that is Mu too?
WOO: I think so, I think so, I think so. If you read all the little stories about the Zen monks and so forth, there’s not one of them that lays any stress on relationships at all.
Or maybe one. Remember the two monks going off on a trip, and they come to this river, or fjord, or whatever it is. And there’s this pretty girl who can’t get across. And one of them just picks her up -you know the story I’m sure, and puts her down on the other side- and they go on together, and about ten miles later the one says to the other “We’re not supposed to have any contact with women, and you picked that girl up! In your arms! And you were very close to her!”And the other one says: “Well I put her down near the river, are you still carrying her?” But even there, it says absolutely minimal about relationships.
STEVE: I understand that, but I wonder, thinking about these men, these gurus, if what you’re saying is at some level, a convenient get-out clause. For them. As quite often spirituality can be. Because relationships are messy, and muddled, and it’s much easier you could say to opt out of them altogether than to really dig in. John Welwood I think called it “spiritual bypassing”.
WOO: Of course gurus have a very poor record when it comes to sexual relationships. [Laughs] They tend to let themselves down very regularly.
STEVE: That’s right. And I also think, even in the bare bones of these stories, these myths that we have, I think that it’s not that far-fetched to say, that we can still perhaps read some sort of a personality style or disposition into the behaviour of these men. In some of the stories, this angry, grumpy abrasiveness of the guru goes somewhat beyond a purposeful, trickster or provocateur figure. I’m thinking of one story when someone comes to see Zhaozhou, to have a meeting with him, and after the greetings and explanations of why they’ve sought him out, he replies: “Well, now you’ve arrived, let me spit in your face.” As much as I like the punk-rock spirit of that, you could also say that it’s somewhat juvenile. Immature.
WOO: Well, I think he was probably very carefully adjusted to what that particular person needed at that moment. You see, from their level, it’s a rather penetrating vision that you have when people come to you and so he might well have thought, this guy needs a bit of a shock, he needs a bit of contradicting, all his niceness and his clever qualities, blah blah. How busy he’s been, how far he’s come.
My analysis would be that he saw pretty accurately what this particular person at this particular moment needed to be confronted with. I don’t think it was arbitrary. I don’t think it was unthought, unconsidered. Although it’s a funny sort of consideration. I think it’s more like a spontaneous reaction or response to the person. But there’s something immediate about it. I think it’s not thought out. It’s not a policy, it’s not considered.
How familiar are you with Wilber’s levels of consciousness?
STEVE: Not especially, I haven’t really explored WIlber. After getting your paper I did a brief review just to understand how you had applied him, but he’s never someone who’s hooked me in any way.
WOO: Well, let me just say a word about these levels that he outlines, because I think that it’s very good to know about them, they’re very useful.
Bottom layer from where he starts from is the tribal layer, tribal consciousness where we’re OK but others are the threat. The in-group is in, and the out-group is out, and we don’t trust anyone outside our family, or our tribe. But we don’t see much of that in London. It’s more Africa, or Asia, something like that.
Now the second level is really common, it’s the most common level of consciousness in our culture. It’s what we call Conventional Outlook or First Tier Thinking. Which is: logic is logic, one is one, two is two, things are black and white, things are yes or no, things are true or false. You have to believe in things being true or false else you can’t do science, and science is terribly important.
So that’s our level of consciousness that we share in newspapers and tv and blah blah blah. Then if we proceed with our psycho-spiritual development, we come onto what he calls The Centaur Level, which is what is usually called The Authentic Level, or The Existential Level, or Real Self, this kind of thing. This is where you take responsibility for yourself and your world, and you say: “I create my world and if anything happens, it happens because I make it happen. Things are not imposed upon me. I choose to endure them, or to make them happen, or whatever it is. And at that point you get dialectical thinking. Instead of formal logic you get dialectical logic where A can be not-simply-A, where paradox is possible, contradiction is possible. You’ve got Hegel, you’ve got Kierkegaard, you’ve got Nietzche, all those sorts of existential people, all that lot.
And then, if you proceed again with your psycho-spiritual development, you come onto what he calls The Subtle Level, and this is the layer of Bhati Yoga, or prayer, or concrete representations of the divine, where you have gods and goddesses, and archetypes, and angels, and fairies, and nature spirits, and symbols and images. A rich, rich harvest of saints, and all the stuff to do with spirituality that is concrete, and measurable, and testable. And at that point you admit and own up to the fact that you are a spiritual being. And that’s a very important area which a lot of people don’t want to think about, and don’t want to have anything to do with, but it’s important.
And then the next layer is The Causal Level, where everything is one. That’s the rubric, that’s the truth. Most of buddhism goes with that, everything is one and so forth. And the causal level, as I explain in my paper won’t do for koans. If everything is one, you can’t have the answer Mu. Ridiculous. Because everything is Buddha Nature. So you can’t have a dog or anything else that isn’t a part of Buddha Nature.
And then if you come on from there, the next level is the non-dual, and in the non-dual, we drop the last assumption, we drop the assumption that everything is one, and we’re left with no assumptions whatsoever.
So, that’s the Wilber story, and I think its a very useful way of looking at all this business because you see you stop wondering why these people who have achieved, who have got to the non-dual level, why are they so weird. Well, the reason they’re so weird is because they’ve dropped all the normal assumptions that everybody normally makes. And they’re looking at the world so to speak with a completely clear vision, taking nothing for granted at all. So, I think some of what you were saying you see indicates that you haven’t quite grasped [laughs]…well, let me be more personal here. I’ve been meditating every morning since 1982, and I have achieved every one of these levels, including the non-dual, so any moment in this room, I can go into a non-dual consciousness and so if I speak about it, I’m not speaking about something theoretically interesting, but rather I can talk, if I wish, from a non-dual level, and get things at a non-dual level.
STEVE:Would you say, to some extent that your need to go into a non-dual level would be sometimes to escape talking about something that might be “down there somewhere” in less enlightened foothills, a thing that is also a little bit more gritty, a little bit more uncomfortable. It’s far nicer to float above in the clouds on the non-dual stratosphere.
WOO: That’s always a suspicion of people who haven’t done it. The reason why it’s an unfair supposition is that the whole gain of the non-dual is that simply you can now choose whatever level to be at at any given moment. So if I go to Sainsbury’s and I’m shopping for chocolate, I choose to be at the conventional level. If I want to see someone for therapy, I want to be at the Centaur level, because that’s the appropriate level for this. If I want to go into the country and see it in a spiritual light, then I go to the suble level. So, it gives me the choice. Does that clarify it for you?
STEVE: Sort of. I guess that’s what I got from your paper. But it doesn’t really speak to where I’m at.
WOO: No. Where are you at?
STEVE: I suppose where I’m at is working quite hard to enter and be at, to embody, what I suppose you refer to as the Centaur Level.
WOO: Well, that’s good. That’s a very worthwhile effort because it immediately puts you way beyond the average person. You’re in the top ten percent, or even a smaller percentage than that.
STEVE: Why would that be important?
WOO: Because the more people who get into that level, the more chance we have of having a decent society where people are really alive to what’s possible and what’s achievable. I think the Centaur Level is extraordinarily important and valuable, because it immediately allows you to see through some of the rubbish that people are talking. Last weekend I was at the AGM and conference of the Society for Existential Analysis. They specialise in that level. That’s the level they most often inhabit, and I feel very much at home there. I feel that’s a nice place to be.
STEVE: I think I have access to that when I’m working but other than that, to a certain extent, I think probably spend a lot of time on Wilber’s Conventional Level. First Tier thinking.
WOO: Most people do. But it’s OK. Most people don’t have access at all to the Centaur level.
STEVE: But there’s also something that feels alive and creative about the bottom levels. All the writing I’ve done around Mu – I don’t feel I’ve done it from a Centaur level. I feel a Centaur Level is the kind of writing one would get if you read self help books, academic papers, or spiritual literature. Because things are sort of ironed out there to a certain extent. But for me there’s something interesting and inherently creative about the wrinkles, the unwashed, the batik confusion of the conventional muddle, that saturation of colour that’s not ironed out in a clear-sighted way.
WOO: There’s nothing to stop Centaur being clear-sighted. That’s a pretty good idea in fact. Because you’re more clear-sighted from there than you were in the conventional level. Because you can see the underside of things from there, so to speak, as well as the topside. You can see round the corners, see the contradictions and inconsistencies, the weirdnesses, much more clearly. You’re not drawn in by surface appearances so much.
STEVE: That’s right. But it’s also to some extent the extinguisher of narrative. So I came in here and I said this my narrative. I’m interested in this narrative, in how Mu works around fathers, and gurus and the relationship. You could call it an attachment narrative, an attachment story. And you responded to that from Centaur or one of the upper levels, which felt a bit like you were sort of ignoring or sweeping away the conventional narrative that I brought with me.
WOO: Well challenging it.
STEVE: But how can you challenge it if you haven’t even allowed it to be, to exist, to take up a space?
WOO: Well I know it so well. And you show quite a lot of evidence of moving up and down the scale in a fairly unaware way. As if you’re not quite sure what level you’re at at any given moment. As if you’re struggling to clarify it all.
STEVE: Yes, I think I am.
WOO: And it’s a good struggle, it’s very worthwhile. I wouldn’t want to minimize it or knock it. It’s valuable but what I’m here for is to put it all into perspective, and to help you to see it from a wider angle so that you’re not locked into your existing framework and are rather challenged to move out of those sometimes and take a good look at it from another angle, from an outside angle. And if I can do that for you, I think it’s a useful thing.
See, I don’t really care whether you buy into the Wilber story or not. I’m not concerned about that, but I would like you to entertain the possibility, and I think you picked up on it pretty well when you said that you were mainly resting in the Centaur level, showing that you’ve taken step one out of the conventional level. And from that point on you’re in a much better position to decide whether you want to move onto the Subtle Level, or whether you want to leave it alone. It’s a choice you know. But what I find is that people are a bit scared of the Subtle Level and they want to skip it [laughs]: “I don’t want to get involved with prayer and archetypes, goddesses and all that! I want to go straight from the Centaur level to the Causal, thank you very much!” When I was at the Centaur level, I used to read these Zen stories and I would think “Oh that’s me, I can get that!’”But I wasn’t really getting it, I was just admiring it. You know I once found this book that had in it the answers to all the Zen koans.
STEVE: Yeah, the Gendai Sojizen something or other, the Hoffmann translation.
WOO: Mm mm. I remember one for example. What is the sound of one hand clapping. So the book says what you do, is you go to the Roshi and go “Ha!” [extends hand, karate-chop style]. And that well may be a historical fact but it doesn’t help you in the least in actually getting it.
STEVE: There’s a book by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean film director which is a sort of spiritual autobiography where he describes this scene where someone arrives to challenge his guru to have a kind of philosophical showdown at the OK corral. And the guru’s firing at him all these koans, and it seems like he’s got all the answers, but soon the guru twigs that he’s just giving him the pat responses from that book. But for a while it would seem that he’s almost taken in.
I suppose the thing that I struggle with in regard to Wilber is that it presents a very defined existential syllabus. And we like syllabi and strata of this kind, we like knowing that: “OK, first I do my A-levels, then I go to University, then I’ve got my BA, then do an MA, my PhD. It feels a little bit like that. Maybe it’s not. Though I suspect that were I to reach whatever the other levels are I’d still probably struggle with some of the issues of the conventional level, the centaur, whatever. I think it’s probably more cyclical in that way, that we move in and out of these modes. Not necessarily when I’m meditating. Not in sessions with clients so much. In both cases I think I can stay quite mindfully in Self. But perhaps my struggle or cynicism towards this kind of spiritual syllabus is just because I haven’t achieved the stratospheric heights of the so-called subtle and the causal.
WOO: Well my experience of meditation and all that, precisely follows the Wilber pattern. In other words: that is my experience. And I’m very slow. I took about ten years for each one. It wasn’t quick. But what it means that when I did get there it was pretty well digested and pretty well understood. Pretty thoroughly got. So from my point of view, the reason I’m so interested in it is because it’s my experience, my own experience.
WOO: So, out of all the things you came here for and were hoping for, what haven’t you got yet?
STEVE: You know I’ve probably got what I came for. I was thinking beforehand how the therapy fee doesn’t just buy you this hour. It’s almost like getting a subscription to some kind of channel, to Netflix or something like that, because as soon as we agreed on this time to talk, I’ve probably had a good dozen or so sessions with you, maybe even more. Fifteen, twenty? Which I hope my subscription covers? And those have been very useful. As has this.
WOO: Because I would like you to get what you came for.
STEVE: I think at some level the thing I’m struggling with, the thing I’m still struggling with, is all these archetypes around masculinity, particularly fathers. I think there’s always a sort of infantile wish or fantasy that the father, the guru, the male therapist is going to be different than how I expected them to be. But my Mu, as it feels at the moment, is to be faced with the the fact that this is not the case. Or, that you get what you expect. Perhaps because expectations and the experience that follows from them exist in the realm of projection. So maybe I’m not really seeing you, right? What I’m seeing in you is another agglomeration of, the relatively warped archetype (in my mind anyway) of father-guru-therapist as they have always existed for me. So there’s that. Or maybe there is something inherent in this masculine energy and how it manifests in terms of fathers and gurus and male therapists which is as I perceive it, and that is just something I need to come to terms with. So in that sense, I suppose I sort of got what I came for.
WOO: So, how did you get on with your father?
STEVE: Well, I have two fathers. I have my biological father and I have my stepfather. So my biological father is this sort of abandonment story, and my stepfather is very good at thinking but can’t really do any sort of emotional processing. He’s what I’d call a classic kind of ISTJ, in that Myers-Briggs personality type model. So that’s how I’ve begun to think about him and perhaps accept him more as an ISTJ. And I am an INFP, so we are…
WOO: …not quite matched.
STEVE: …polar opposites. Not a match made in heaven, no.
WOO: Mind you, I’m always sceptical about these kind of classifications because I hold the theory of the dialogical self which proposes that there are a large number of possibilities in you and different parts of you, or aspects of you, or outlooks of yours, which come out with different people, different situations, different pieces of work, whatever. And I think that’s a very powerful theory. And in fact I’m writing a new book about it now, linking it all to Hegel, who is sort of the Big Daddy of dialectical thinking.
STEVE: Well, I’m pleased you’re writing more about that, because that’s actually how I found you through those books on subpersonalities and the dialogical thinking stuff.
WOO: Well, am I going to see you again sometime, or is that it.
STEVE: I don’t know. I suppose I did kind of think of this as a one off. But I’d like to think some more about what we’ve talked about.
WOO: Well we can certainly leave it at that. But you’re always welcome to come again if you can think of a good reason for doing so.
STEVE: Alright, well, thank you for agreeing to meet with me anyway.
WOO: By the way, are you interested in meditation at all.
STEVE: It’s something I have a bit of a history with.
WOO: Well, there’s this site I discovered and I have a little slip of paper which I sometimes give to clients.
STEVE: OK thanks. [Hands Steve slip of paper with link to mindfulness site]. So that’s us then.
WOO: Yes, that’s about it.
STEVE: OK, Max and I will make our way back to the station [reaching into bag]. So its…
WOO: …show me the money time.
STEVE: Seventy, right?
Steve pays Woo and then they make their way downstairs where Steve collects his dog Max and they say goodbye.