An interview with Jeff Foster by Femke Wijdekop.
Growing up as an atheist , he studied Astrophysics at Cambridge University. In his mid-twenties, after a long period of depression and illness, he became addicted to the idea of ‘spiritual enlightenment’ and embarked on an intensive spiritual quest for the ultimate truth of existence.
I met with Jeff last summer and, accompanied by exuberant birdsong, we talked about his spiritual quest and how one day this quest abruptly ended with his realization that all that he had been looking for – the bliss, the enlightenment, the oneness – was already there, disguised as a most ordinary chair in the midst of a most ordinary moment…
(Photo at right by Emily Goodman, emilygoodman.com)
Jeff, in your mid-twenties you embarked on an intensive spiritual search for the ultimate truth of existence, and one day that spiritual search came crashing down. Could you tell us something about this experience?
Well, a few years ago I was so depressed, I was such a mess. I think my whole life I’ve been depressed, really. Even as a child.. life just always felt so difficult and heavy. I hated myself so much. I hated the way I looked, I hated the way I felt, I just wanted to escape. Maybe five or six years ago, I was working in London. I was in a job that I hated, I was in a relationship that went completely wrong, I just reached like the rock bottom. I just reached the lowest point of my life. And at the same time I actually got quite ill as well. So I ended up in the hospital, actually.
And it was a that point that I started asking all these questions, all these very deep, basic questions about life that I had never asked before, like Who am I ? What is the meaning of all of this? And what is life all about? And also, “What is death?” Because at that point I was terrified of death. I was terrified of life and I was terrified of death. I couldn’t live anymore and I also didn’t want to die. I was in this terrible position.
So I just started asking these questions. My whole life I had been an atheist, I had never been interested in anything “spiritual” or religious in my upbringing. I rejected anything spiritual or religious, any idea of God. But now I just needed to find the answers and very quickly I started reading books on Buddhism and I came across this idea of ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’.
I realized that this was the answer: I needed to become enlightened. That was now the aim of my whole life: to become enlightened. Because I thought that would be the end of all my problems – if I just could find this thing called ‘enlightenment’ that all my spiritual teachers spoke about, then all my problems would be over.
So I left London and I moved back with my parents and I just shut myself off from the world for a year or maybe two years – I don’t remember a lot about it, but I was desperately looking for enlightenment.
And I read everything – I read like a book per day, maybe. And I was of course completely obsessed with becoming enlightened. I meditated for hours and hours every day, and did yoga and this practice and that practice. So what happened? (laughs) It became exhausting, always looking for something. I realize now (I didn’t realize it at the time) that I was always looking for something that wasn’t here. I was always looking for something in the future, something that would complete me. Looking for a future enlightenment, a future ‘wholeness’ or a future oneness. Basically I realize now that really what I was doing: I was just escaping this moment. That was what I was doing. I was running away from this moment. I think that that was what I was doing my whole life. My search for enlightenment was really just part of the same thing: running away from what is actually here. Never really seeing and appreciating what was actually here, never really being here. I was always trying to get somewhere. But I realize now that that’s maybe what everyone in the world is doing. We end up losing touch with the miracle of life itself, the miracle of breathing, and of sounds happening, of birds singing [birds sings at this moment - FW] ..thank you! I payed that bird to sing… (laughs)
So you are telling us that this search, this striving became exhausting. Was that the turning point? The point of sheer exhaustion?
I think so. I didn’t realize it at the time. Everything I’m saying now is a story I’m telling afterwards. At that time I think I didn’t really know what was going on. It has taken me a long time to find the words for what actually happened.
I think you’re right. It just became exhausting – always trying to escape this moment, always trying to get somewhere or trying to become something. Whether it’s trying to become a success or trying to become enlightened, trying to become rich or trying to become famous, whatever it is – it eventually becomes exhausting. And then the thing is: even when you get what you want – you finally get the success, or the wealth, or even the enlightenment – you have to hold on to it. That becomes even more exhausting!
Grasping enlightenment, holding onto enlightenment?
Yes, holding on to anything, actually. I realize this now. Holding onto anything, any idea you have of yourself – always trying to proof yourself, trying to hold up what it’s basically being called the ‘ego’. I talk about it in terms of trying to hold up a story of yourself, rather then just being whatever you are in this moment. Always trying to become something and holding on to an image of ourselves.
It all becomes so exhausting and that’s where I ended up – just totally exhausted. I was lying at home in my bedroom. I was lying on my bed and it was my childhood bedroom and I had been in this bedroom like thousands of times. It was a very ordinary room and it was a very ordinary day and I was just lying there, exhausted. I was just so fed up with the struggle, and especially the struggle to become enlightened. All these concepts I was trying to work out – consciousness and awareness.. who am I.. self and no-self. And all the books and different methods, all the different teachers. Every teacher said ‘this is the answer’ and a different teacher said ‘no, this is the answer’ – and there were so many answers!
I was always trying to figure out, which one is the right answer? Who really knows? I mean who is the authority on life? I was always taking someone’s else’s word on authority. I was living by someone else’s words, I realize that now. Whether it was my mother’s words or my father’s words or my spiritual teacher’s words. It was someone else’s authority.
That was what I was doing – I was always comparing myself with some idea of how I should be. I think that’s what went right to the heart of so much of my suffering: always comparing myself with some idea, some image of how I should be – how I should be thinking, how I should be feeling right now. And these were not even my images, they were someone else’s images, someone else’s ideas. They were all second-hand. I realized I was living such a second-hand life. So it all became so exhausting, and I was just lying in bed and [at this moment the sun comes out, FW] – the sun just came out! We should probably say that because the listeners probably won’t see that (laughs). On radio, it doesn’t really work when the sun comes out. So – the sun is out now!
So I remember just looking over at a chair. And it was a very ordinary chair – there was nothing special about it. And nothing really happened, actually. This isn’t the story of ‘Jeff’s Enlightenment’. Because that was what I was waiting for – some really special moment, some big enlightenment experience. I mean if you have been a spiritual seeker long enough, you probably had all kinds of experiences. You have experiences of great bliss, an then the bliss passes. You have experiences of great joy, and then the joy passes. You have a big, huge enlightenment experience, and that passes. Everything always passes. And we are trying to hold onto the experience, trying to keep it.
So my questions was always: what doesn’t pass? What is always here? But I was always trying to work it out intellectually. But in this moment, lying in bed and looking at the chair, it was just so simple. I realized actually how simple life is. I just realized that everything that I had been looking for, was already here. This oneness, this wholeness, this sense of completeness that I had always been looking for, this oneness was already here. When we talk about oneness, we have an idea of what oneness looks like, or feels like or sounds like. Actually I realized that whatever oneness is, it’s not separate from what’s appearing right now. Oneness isn’t something that is ‘out there’. It’s not something that is beyond what we see. It’s not something that’s ‘beyond’ this world, something that you find one day. It’s not a state that you reach. It’s not something that some people have and others don’t.
Because that’s how we think about it. We always think about it as ‘I have it and you don’t’. Or “I’m enlightened and you’re not.” (laughs). That’s a game we like to play: “I’m enlightened and you’re not”.
So that’s when I realized that all of that is just a game that we play. This oneness in a way is actually so ordinary. It’s so ordinary that we don’t see it and we spend our lives looking for it.
So I realized actually it wasn’t really a chair. That’s just what I had been taught, that’s just what I had known. It was oneness, it was consciousness, or whatever you want.. – this is the thing: you can’t put it into words. Even to call it ‘Oneness’, your mind is already thinking about it. We’ve already turned it into the ‘image’ of oneness. But this comes before all of the images. It was oneness, whatever this is, appearing as a chair, as something so ordinary.
So there was a sense that everything that I had ever been seeking, was already here, on a deeper level. But it wasn’t a intellectual belief, an idea. It was like – ‘of course! I’ve always known this. As a child I knew this.’ We all know it. But we forget it. [at this moment a child screams at the background, FW] We grow up and we forget it. We forget actually that the miracle is already here, but it is appearing as this very ordinary experience. It appears as the chair and sounds happening and birds singing and the heart beating. This oneness, this wholeness actually includes everything. We say ‘oh this moment is so ordinary’ or ‘sitting on this chair is so ordinary’, but only because we are comparing it to our idea of what extraordinary is. Without that comparison, it’s quite a wonder. Before the ideas and the words and the beliefs, and the religions, it’s really a wonder – life is a wonder.
To listen to the whole interview, click on the two links below, or else visit ABC’s Soundcloud page.