I first looked at Unmani’s website back in the spring while she was in Australia. Despite having looked at the websites of lots of non-duality teachers, I noticed an immediate, inexplicably magnetic ‘familiarity’ in this one. I just knew I was to go to one of the London meetings as soon as she returned. It couldn’t happen soon enough. Parallel to this knowing, there was fear. Something beyond the mind’s control was going to pierce its shell of defences. That fear resurfaced upon meeting Unmani – even though she herself is perfectly unassuming, without affectation and has a great sense of humour.
Next day I got an ‘out of the blue’ e-mail from an old friend who’d moved to Australia. She mentioned how she and her partner had been going to Unmani’s meetings in Byron Bay – had even invited her over for lunch and for a walk in the ‘bush’. This was a strong recommendation, as I knew them both to be very non-starry-eyed travelers on ‘the path.’
Fast-forward to my second meeting. The usual ‘speaker-audience’ room layout was now replaced by having two seats inclined to each other at the front, so a more intimate one-to-one dialogue could happen. One such – with a woman we will call Barbara – emanated such a phenomenal radiance of raw, vulnerable innocence that I was convinced they must have met a few times before. (To my astonishment, in later conversation over a café table, Barbara revealed this was her first meeting with Unmani.)
In a certain moment my gaze lifted from the carpet where ‘the character Steve’ had been nervously seeking refuge, to find Unmani looking directly at me – or rather, into me. Right in that instant, came a pristine recognition of that same childlike innocence that had shown itself with her and Barbara. Separation dissolved and there was only pure, infinite Being, looking at itself in a mirror. Words did follow, in a meaningful dialogue, but I knew inside, that recognition was beyond any words and way beyond a temporal experience.
Not long afterwards, the following interview took place at a girls’ grammar school in September 2008, where Unmani does her ‘day job’ as a Projects Coordinator.
‘You are already that’- but is an existential crisis useful?
In your autobiography you speak very candidly about a degree of emotional desperation that preceded your going to see the female teacher in India, who seemed to be a catalyst for your awakening episode. Although non-duality points to the fact that we are already whole and perfect, that nothing needs to be done to achieve this, in practice a number of teachers have reported a long search ‘softening up’ the ego, including sometimes a ‘dark night of the soul.’ Would you say with hindsight that was a pivotal factor for you?
In a way I could say that my story is different from a lot of people’s. It seems that for many teachers, they were searching; went through a tragic time; then had some dramatic awakening experience. Whereas for me, it wasn’t dramatic at all.
First of all, I always knew this, even as a very young child. But I didn’t have the courage to say it – or even to think it. Instead I felt there was something wrong with me for being different. People would ask me in primary school, ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ I didn’t know, because I didn’t feel there was anyone ‘in here’ to have any preference. That was blatantly obvious to me as a child. So I felt very lost. ‘Everyone else seems to have an identity and I don’t!’ I felt very confused, depressed, and lost. This fuelled the search, looking for something – but I couldn’t have told you what. I just knew there was something wrong. You could say I was searching for the same kind of identity which everyone else seemed to have.
Having spent some time in India, eventually I went to see a female teacher – ‘D’ (who used to be with Osho for many years, and then went to Papaji and ‘woke up’). She calls herself a Zen master. At the time I found her very strong and quite scary!
First of all ‘D’ said ‘You can only come to me if you’re ready to die.’ I really sensed that this was ‘it’ for me. I wasn’t going to go to just ‘test the water.’ I was feeling pretty suicidal by that stage. Searching for an ‘identity’ that I couldn’t find. So I plucked up the courage and wrote to her and said ‘I think I’m ready to die.’ I waited several days for her response in great suspense, but when she did respond, all she wrote was, ‘ Write to me when you are sure you are ready to die.’ Ahh!! This sent me reeling and forced me to really see that I had no choice but to really jump into this totally. I couldn’t just go to her and then hold back, waiting for something more to come and save me. Finally I wrote back to her with ‘I’m sure I’m ready to die’ and so she invited me to spend a very intensive month with her. After a few days of confusion, I realized that what ‘D’ was expressing was what I have always really known, but had been too afraid to admit. This knowing (or, in fact, not-knowing) was apparently what everyone else was searching to realize, but this had always been obvious to me. Meeting ‘D’ was a terrifying but wonderful confirmation. It was such a relief, but wasn’t some kind of dramatic experience. Then after that, it was just building up more and more courage – to really admit it and live it. It took some years before I started expressing this.
Can you say something about your decision to start teaching – was it a decision made by you, by no one, suddenly or gradual?
Well, after being with ‘D’ I continued traveling around India, but didn’t know what to do anymore because I had no more motivation to seek. All motivation to ‘find myself’ was stripped away. I just travelled around having fun and had no idea that I would eventually end up teaching. I spent a couple of years in Australia, and then returned to England.
During that time I occasionally got into conversations with other seekers and tried to persuade them to agree with how I was seeing things. It just ended disastrously every time. I felt sickened by the way I was expressing it. It felt totally wrong and awful – like I was talking about some conceptual belief system. Inevitably this provoked all kinds of reactions… ranging from aggression to debate about this ‘philosophical idea’. I knew that was so far from what I was trying to express – but I didn’t know how. So after a while I got so sickened and stopped. If someone mentioned anything about ‘seeking’ I would just keep quiet or walk away.
Then a couple of years later I started writing, what would become, my first book, ‘I am Life itself’. I was writing just for myself as a kind of rebellious expression. Through writing, the courage to express beyond words became more obvious. While the book was being published, which took some time, a friend suggested I hold a satsang meeting in her living room. I laughed at the idea, thinking ‘I’ve got nothing to say!’ And another friend suggested ‘Well if you’ve got nothing to say, just sit there – don’t say anything.’ So that’s what I did.
At the first meeting there were four people – which felt ridiculous because three were my friends and the fourth was the woman whose house it was! (laughter). It felt surreal, absolutely ridiculous – I just wanted to laugh. But at the same time, it felt so right. I sat there, waiting until I had something to say, which is in fact the same thing I do now in meetings. That was the first time I noticed a certain energy happening. It’s difficult to explain, but with that intention of ‘speaking the truth’, or speaking from what is’ something settles and relaxes. People pick up on that. I’ve noticed, all the time I’ve been doing these talks – about five years now – that energy has become quite tangible. Quite a strong energy in the room – and somehow this that I point to – which doesn’t come and go like this energy does – comes through that energy as well as the words spoken, but is also beyond the energy and words.
Relationship to ‘ordinary work’.
I guess there can arise for me, a fear that without an identity I’d be lost – I wouldn’t be able to function in a world that places so much emphasis on identification with one’s status or role. How does what you’ve gone through affect the way you approach ‘the day job’?
Well, you’ve come to see me here in a workplace where I totally function – and actually it works very well. In fact I’d say you can function a lot easier than if you were identified because you’re not worrying so much about if you’re doing things right or wrong. It’s much more of a natural flow….It’s really like simply watching a 3-D movie – in fact its more than 3-D, because you’re feeling it as well. The difference now is that before, I was much more self-obsessed. ‘Have I got it right, done it right? Previously I was also looking to find fulfillment in work. Part of my earlier search wasn’t only spiritual but to find the perfect profession. My dad’s a doctor and my mother’s a headmistress – and my sister is a doctor as well. So I’ve very much been the black sheep. I finished school and went travelling – which you’re not supposed to do in my family. I did an archeology degree in Israel – only to keep my parents happy. I sold jewelry in a market. Also in India, I sold jewelry in markets while I travelled. In Israel I had a few temporary jobs. In Australia I also sold jewelry…
(Suddenly noticing her metal necklace) I can see you have good taste in jewelry.
It’s funny because then, the identity which I was hoping to maintain was as this hippie traveller of no fixed abode, job or anything. But now I don’t even need that identity, so I can work in a ‘proper job’ and it doesn’t affect who I am. It gives the freedom to work in a normal job, to do the most mundane tasks. I’m not looking for fulfillment in my job or anywhere else any more. Before this job (Project Coordinator) I was an admin person – cutting paper, sticking things, photocopying, etc.- I was very happy doing that too.
Perfection, or room for improvement? Intentional effort
A criticism I’ve sometimes heard of the ‘non-duality’ view wherein ‘there’s nothing to do- no meditation or other methods’ (not to mention the concept of Pre-destiny) is that this could encourage passivity and apathy. For a type-A, high achieving person that could be a useful re-balancing. But for someone who is already not very strong-willed, shies away from decision-making etc, isn’t there a risk of becoming a kind of Advaitan vegetable- of acquiring a false sense of security?
I find it’s not necessarily that, but they could get depressed by the concept of ‘non-duality’. They could hear it as, there being nothing to do, so they may as well stay at home, not go out. ‘May as well kill myself!’ It can be as dark as that. Well that’s because they’re only hearing it as a concept. Of course it’s not a concept – and that’s the problem with anything – any word that is spoken, can be misinterpreted. That word ‘non-duality’ doesn’t mean anything. Any word is wrong- you can’t actually express what we’re talking about here.
So how can people get to it then?
So there are two things I want to answer here. The first is that non-duality cannot be expressed at all – ever. No way. What happens in meetings is an expression happening in it. There is an expression, from it, of it, as it. But it’s only really heard in a recognition. It’s not heard or understood mentally. A conceptual understanding has nothing to do with this message.
So can you say something more about this recognition?
Well actually no – that’s the point! (laughter) This is recognized or not. Nothing is required of a person in order to recognize this. BUT I notice that often when people are at the end of their tether – ready to die, basically; have had enough of searching for pain relief, or for pleasure – for these experiences that come and go – they’re ready to see what is beyond all of that…
- When they’re receptive.
Yeah. If you’re still trying to put this into a conceptual box and say ‘This is it, this means that I’m now special, I’m going to have experiences of love and peace, it’s all going to be wonderful now’- it’s not going to fit into any of those boxes. It’s also not going to mean you’ll never experience pain again. It doesn’t fit into any concept of what you may think ‘enlightenment’ is. So yes, there is nothing to do to achieve this – but it is not a concept of passivity. A passive ‘doing nothing’ is a kind of ‘doing’ as well- it is an approach. You can’t just ‘do nothing.’ It’s realizing who you are- for once and for all. It’s not even a way of life. It’s an absolute death. Before that death, a seeker tries to do anything possible to get ‘it’: Whatever ‘it’ is believed to be. And great- maybe they’ll become sick and exhausted enough, to realize that the ‘it’ they’re searching for isn’t in all those things they’re chasing. So, vipassanna, other meditations, practices, therapy- all of that is great for seekers who need to tire themselves out! And there is a kind of maturing that happens. You go down one path and see for yourself that ‘it’s not that.’, then another until you get exhausted with all paths. This recognition of who You really are, is seeing that there has never been a path.
Relationship to pain
I was quite touched by the autobiographical honesty in your book, where for example, in a section entitled ‘Raw open wound,’ you write that there are now no filters blocking off painful or pleasant feelings. You seemed to be saying in the last meeting I attended, that feelings come, maybe very strongly and then go but there is no story of ‘who’ they happen to.
There are also no rules, so sometimes there’s a story that plays itself out, but still there’s no idea of this being ‘my story.’ There may be the thoughts and words of the story, but it’s never mine – never ‘my problem’. It’s just, again like watching this 3-D movie. Of a character playing out as if she’s got a problem. But I’m not even doing that watching.
You don’t feel that watching is based in any willful intention on your part?
Well, who? There’s no one in here, to have any will at all.
But- you have done quite a good job of marketing yourself. You’ve got your website, meetings, you’re going to the US, Australia. Wouldn’t you say that involves intentional effort? Or does it just happen?
It depends what we mean by these words, because ‘having an intention’ to go to Australia – just happens. At every level it all just happens. But none of it is happening to me, because there’s never any me ‘in here’. So it is all just happening- down to every thought. Getting an e-mail from someone saying ‘Great that you’re coming’; going to the travel agent… getting on the plane….It’s all just ‘watching a movie’…. It is an absolutely passive observing. If you did try to observe, this seeing which we are talking about, would be observing that.
Relationship to Others
I’ve heard other teachers state that ‘relationships don’t work.’ I once heard Osho remark that he’d never met an unhappy person, but he’d never met a happy relationship. Yet for most people, a workable bond with someone else is in their list of top priorities. So why doesn’t it work?
Obviously some people feel their relationships do work, but the nature of relationships is that they do have ups and downs and that’s what people love- the drama of the ups and downs. Having a fight and then making up is the best bit, isn’t it? But it’s based on the idea of two – two separate people coming together to meet. Being in love is another way of wanting to meet as one. So it’s a kind of an impossible paradox – a terrible paradox in a way because you are absolutely whole, absolute oneness… and yet you play as if you’re a separate, individual, separate from the one you love- and in that, you’re trying to meet and become one with the other. But you’re already one. So the idea of relationship is based in the idea of separation: that you need to ‘come together’ in order to become one. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t have relationships. They happen and can be beautiful and playful, wonderful – and also painful – all of it. What goes up must come down! Along with beautiful experiences must come sad ones: that’s life.
The other aspect to relationships is, in the same way that being with a ‘teacher’ can be a trigger to recognise who You really are, so can a relating to another. When there is an absolute ‘falling into’ being with anothe – that’s the same as being with a ‘teacher’. If there’s an absolute surrendering to the other – a dissolving – then that’s what I would like to call true Love. It doesn’t have to be sexual love, or a motherly or fatherly type- there’s no particular type. And it’s also the kind of Love that happens in Satsang meetings. It is all about recognising the surrender that is. Then it doesn’t matter who it is that you surrender to – a lover, a ‘teacher’, the shopkeeper that you buy your milk from… This is being in love with Life.
This is a bit personal but you described some shattering experiences you had, related to being in love. Are you saying that that couldn’t happen to you now because you’re…?
-No I’m not saying that. Anything could happen. There are no rules- I’m not in some kind of ‘state’ that is beyond pain and that depends on certain conditions all being constant. So there are absolutely no rules and whatever happens to this character, Unmani, is irrelevant. There’s an absolute recognition that I’m not this character, who goes through all kinds of dramas- so it doesn’t matter. If I was to look at it in terms of a story in time, I’ve noticed that since this recognition that I’m not this character, slowly, this character has been relaxing into this, being touched by this recognition. You could put that on a time-line and say that it has deepened in time. In the years since I was in India the character has relaxed more and more… and that shows up in relationships and the way I relate to people. My relationships have become more honest and open and less dramatic but that doesn’t mean they will never be dramatic. There are no rules at all. Absolute Freedom has no conditions.
So you haven’t got an expectation about it?
No. Not at all. And if I did, that would be irrelevant. Whatever happens is irrelevant. I am anyway.
(End of interview.)
Unmani’s website where details of her biography and meetings can be found is at http://www.not-knowing.com