Mystery WomanThis is part one of a five part series called “Seven Guides,” excerpted from the introduction to my forthcoming book. This part, “Reality and Existence” was originally published on

I want to present seven guides that have helped me to keep from going astray in my journey along my way. I adopted these as a result of decades of contemplation of insights gained through meditation that troubled me greatly.

I took refuge as a Buddhist during the summer of 2015 after the death of my wife. Suddenly free from the role of caregiver and advocate during her hellish nightmare of modern medical care, at least as it pertains to the treatment of terminal illnesses, I decided to spend more time focused on learning about Buddhism from the many highly respected lamas from all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who come to my small village in France.

Please understand that nothing I am about to present is informed by Buddhist doctrine. My intent is to tell you a little about my life, and certain understandings that have come about as the result of my experiences, as I made my way without a teacher.

One day, I had the most amazing experience. I dissolved into utter perfection and love too brilliant to be anything at all. Nothing but unseen loving light. I remember it happening one cold evening in late October the year I was 15. It was drizzling rain, and I was staring into a crack filled with moss, debris, insects, and small weeds between two walkway pavement stones on a street next to some railroad tracks. My friend was asking me if I was alright, except he wasn’t saying anything at all—he was just staring at me with concern in his heart, which I heard clearly. It was like that for me then.

I had been doing something, as a way of comforting myself after the death of my mother, at the age of five, that I much later learned was a form of meditation. It was something that I spontaneously started doing. I was using what the Indians call the “Anāhata Nāda” (unstruck sound). And although focusing on those unborn sounds, which became increasingly complex over time, was comforting, it was really messing with my head.

One day, while meditating, I saw that there is no observer that endured through my experiences. Which raised a question in my mind: “If there is no observer, then how does experience happen?”

Another day, while meditating, I saw that there is nothing that has a single, permanent, independent, truly existing self. Which raised a question in my mind: “If there is nothing to observe, then how does experience happen?”

And on yet another day, while meditating, I watched as experience arose and saw it nakedly as a spontaneously creative, and illusory, evanescence that seemed to be its own conductor, weaving a rich tapestry of convoluted folds of light, sound, feelings, sensations, emotions, thoughts, and judgments. Which raised a question in my mind: “If there is nothing at all with any true reality, then how does experience happen?”

I contemplated these questions for almost thirty years, later reading books and sometimes listening to various teachers speak, and I found nothing that satisfied my western mind at the time, steeped as it was in a tea of science, materialism, industrial grade lying, befuddlement, and an anti-intellectualism that labeled most individual attempts to come to a hard-won understanding of the world as irrational, if the result differed in any way from the generally accepted theory of what’s happening.

I didn’t ask questions, I didn’t discuss my experiences or what I did as a youth, and I didn’t believe what my culture and schooling told me. Instead, I listened to my heart and contemplated these questions with my whole being for almost thirty years. Along the way, I found myself forced to accept certain basic guides from my contemplation:

First, that there is a difference between reality and existence.

The first hint I had that there is something real is because there is experience. It may be that there is no enduring observer, that nothing has a single, permanent, independent, truly existing self, and that all experience is evanescent and of ephemeral phenomena; but the one true thing is that experience happens.

As a philosopher, which my contemplations drove me to become, I call this truth “apodictic” because it is necessarily true—my every attempt to falsify it fails because my every attempt to do so is experienced. Even if it wasn’t truly observed by me because I am not the observer, even if the contents of the experience had no more truth than a dream, even if each effort to do so quickly passed out of view, it happened. And that is how I also realized that in happening, these experiences existed. Try falsifying experience for yourself and see if the experience of attempting it doesn’t arise, contradicting your effort.

Now, you must forgive my distinguishing these two words, especially because when most of you use the word “exists” you mean that something is real; but I don’t, at least not the way you might think.

For me, what exists is what is experienced. Oh, don’t fly off the handle with your similarly rigid western minds… I don’t mean that because I can hallucinate a dragon cooking up some nice veggies on the barbecue, that dragons exist. Pay attention, because my insight is much simpler than that. While hallucinating, I am having an hallucination. As such, my experience, called in this case, an hallucination, exists. “Existence” doesn’t mean something is real, just that it is experienced.

In fact, when I say something exists, I mean that it isn’t real. It’s not like I continued thinking that what was real truly exists, and anything that isn’t real truly doesn’t exist, because that doesn’t make sense at all. We believe that what is true can be experienced, and we also believe that illusions, hallucinations, dreams, and false beliefs are experienced too. So what is the correspondence between real and exists, if unreal things can also exist?

So when I say something exists, or I talk about existence, I mean that experience is happening, could happen, or did happen. And that is all I am saying, having already seen that the contents of experience were ephemeral at best.

But I realized that reality has to mean something completely different, not an opposite of existence, but meaning something other than exists.

What I finally arrived at, after decades of contemplation, is that to be real, something must be non-contingent, necessary, simple, and evidenced.

Non-contingent means that it cannot be dependent on anything else in any way. It can’t be brought into being, caused, or created, for example, and it certainly can’t depend on you experiencing it for its reality.

Necessary means what it says. What is real must be necessary—like a motor in a car—or nothing works. What is real cannot be an option that one can take or leave, something gaudy to set our car apart from others.

Simple means it is not a collection of parts; it is not a union of aspects; it is not structured in any way. The reason for this is that if a thing isn’t simple then it depends on something else to cause it to be, and so it is contingent.

Therefore, what is real is necessarily non-dual. This doesn’t mean it is one thing either; but I’ll have to explain that after finishing up with this definition.

And finally, what is real must be evidenced. If a thing isn’t directly evidenced, if it is just inferred or hypothesized, than it’s not real.

So, what’s real?

Certainly nothing that exists, because that is all contingent, frequently unnecessary, terribly complex in origin, content, and structure, and, well, directly seen through in meditation… and yet, this experience that happens is evidence that there is something real. I can fault the content and the structure of experience, as my insights during meditation showed me, but I cannot deny the experience of denying experience. It sounds insane perhaps, but I find it to be rock-solid (and that is almost the only thing I have ever found to be so).

Continued in Part 2 – Nonduality And The Problem Of Perspective

Photo by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke, Germany.

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