This interview was conducted in 1988 by Stephan Bodian when he was editor of Yoga Journal. I have posted it here for the benefit of those who would like to know more about Jean Klein.
Jean, I find you and your teaching interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, you are a Westerner who went to India long before such journeys were common and ended up attaining a high degree of realization. What prompted you to go to India?
I was hoping to find a society where people lived without conflict. Also, I think, I was hoping to find a center in myself that was free from conflict – a kind of forefeeling, or foretaste, of truth.
While in India, you found a teacher with whom you studied for a number of years. What is the value of a teacher for the spiritual life?
A teacher is one who lives free from the idea or image of being somebody. There’s only function; there’s no one who functions. It’s a loving relationship; a teacher is like a friend.
Why is that important for someone on the spiritual path?
Because generally the relationship with other people involves asking or demanding – sex, money, psychological or biological security. Then suddenly you meet someone who doesn’t ask for demand anything of you; there’s only giving.
A true teacher doesn’t take himself for a teacher, and he doesn’t take his pupil for a pupil. When neither one takes himself to be something, there is a coming together, a oneness. And in this oneness, transmission takes place. Otherwise the teacher will remain a teacher through the pupil, and the pupil will always remain a pupil.
When the image of being something is absent, one is completely in the world but not of the world; completely in society, but at the same time free from society. We are truly a creative element when we can be in society in this way.
What did your teacher teach you?
The teacher brings clarity of mind. That’s very important. There comes a moment when the mind has no reference and just stops, naturally, simply. There’s a silence which you more and more live knowingly.
And the teacher shows you how to do that. Did you learn any meditation or yoga techniques from you teacher?
No. Because what you really are is never achieved through technique. You go away from what you are when you use technique.
What about the whole notion of the spiritual path – the idea that you enter a path, follow a certain prescribed way of practice, and eventually achieve some goal?
It belongs to psychology, to the realm of the mind. These are sweets for the mind.
What about the argument that if you don’t practice, you can’t attain anything?
You must first see that in all practice you project a goal, a result. And in projecting a result you remain constantly in the representation of what you project. What you are fundamentally is a natural giving up. When the mind becomes clear, there is a giving up, a stillness, fulfilled with a current of love. As long as there’s a meditator, there’s no meditation. When the meditator disappears, there is meditation.
So by practicing some meditation technique, you are somehow interfering with that giving up.
You interfere because you think there is something to attain. But in reality what you are fundamentally is nothing to obtain, nothing to achieve. You can only achieve something that remains in the mind, knowledge. You must see the difference. Being yourself has nothing to do with accumulating knowledge.
In certain traditions – Zen, for one – you have to meditate in order to exhaust the mind; through meditating the mind eventually wears itself out and comes to rest. Then a kind of opening takes place. But you’re suggesting that the process of meditating somehow gets in the way of this opening.
Yes. This practicing is still produced by will. For me, the point of meditation is only to look for the meditator. When we find out that the meditator, the one who looks for God, for beauty, for peace, is only a product of the brain and that there is therefore nothing to find, there is a giving up. What remains is a current of silence. You can never come to this silence through practice, through achievement. Enlightenment – being understanding – is instantaneous.
Once you’ve attained this enlightenment or this current, do you then exist in it all the time?
Constantly. But it’s not a state. When there’s a state, there is mind.
So in the midst of this current there is also activity?
Oh, yes. Activity and non-activity. Timeless awareness is the life behind all activity and non-activity. Activity and non-activity are more or less superimpositions upon this constant beingness. It is behind the three states of waking , dreaming, and sleeping, beyond inhalation and exhalation. Of course, the words “beyond” and “behind” have a spatial connotation that does not belong to beingness.
In the midst of all activity, then, you are aware of this presence, this clarity.
Yes, “presence” is a good word. You are presence, but you are not aware of it.
You’ve often called what you teach the direct way, and you’ve contrasted it with what you call progressive teachings, including the classical yoga tradition and most forms of Buddhism. What is the danger of progressive teachings, and why do you think the direct way is closer to the truth?
In the progressive way, you use various techniques and gradually attain higher and higher states. But you remain constantly in the mind, in the subject-object relationship. Even when you give up the last object, you still remain in the duality of subject and object. You are still in a kind of blank state, and this blank state itself becomes an extremely subtle object. In this state, it is very difficult to give up the subject-object relationship. Once you’ve attained it, you’re locked into it, fixed to it. There’s a kind of quietness, but there’s no flavor, no taste. To bring you to the point where the object vanishes and you abide in this beingness, a tremendous teacher of exceptional circumstances are necessary.
In the direct approach, you face the ultimate directly, and the conditioning gradually loses its impact. But that takes time.
So the ultimate melts the conditioning.
Yes. There’s a giving up, and in the end you remain in beingness.
You say that any kind of practice is a hindrance, but at the same time you suggest practices to people. You teach a form of yoga to your students, and to some you recommend self-inquiry, such as the question, “Who am I?” It sounds paradoxical – no practice, but you teach a practice. What practices do you teach, and why do you use practices at all?
To try to practice and to try not to practice are both practice. I would rather say listen, be attentive, and see that you really are not attentive. When you see in certain moments in daily life that you are not attentive, in those moments you are attentive. Then see how you function. That is very important. Be completely objective. Don’t judge, compare, criticize, evaluate. Become more and more accustomed to listening. Listen to your body, without judging, without reference – just listen. Listen to all the situations in daily life. Listen from the whole mind, not from a mind divided by positive and negative. Look from the whole, the global. Students generally observe that most of the time they are not in this listening, although our natural way of behavior is listening.
The path you are describing is often called the “high path with no railing,” which is the most difficult path of all. The average person wouldn’t know where to begin to do what you’re talking about. Most could probably be attentive to their inattention, but after that, what? There’s nothing to grasp onto.
No. there’s nothing to grasp, nothing to find. But it is only apparently a difficult path; actually, I would say it is the easiest path.
Listening to something is easy, because it doesn’t go through the mind. It is our natural behavior. Evaluation, comparison, is very difficult, because it involves mental effort. In this listening there’s a welcoming of all that happens, an unfolding, and this unfolding, this welcoming, is timeless. All that you welcome appears in this timelessness, and there’s a moment when you feel yourself timeless, fell yourself in welcoming, feel yourself in listening, in attention. Because attention has its own taste, its own flavor. There’s attention to something, but there’s also attention in which there’s no object: nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to touch, only attention.
And in that moment of pure attention, you realize the one who’s being attentive?
I would say that this attention, completely free from choice and reflection, refers to itself. Because it is essentially timeless.
The Zen master Dogen said: “Take the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate the self.” That seems to be similar to what you are talking about.
Yes, but one must be careful. Turning the head inward is still doing something. And there’s really no inward and no outward.
I notice that you use the word “attention.” Is this the same as what the Buddhists call mindfulness – being acutely aware of every movement, every sensation, every thought?
Mindfulness mainly emphasizes the object, the perceived, and not the perceiving, which can never be an object, just as the eye can never see its seeing. The attention I’m speaking of is objectless, directionless, and in it all that is perceived exists potentially. Mindfulness implies a subject-object relation, but attention is non-dual. Mindfulness is intentional; attention is the real state of the mind, free from volition.
What about the yoga you teach, which you call “body-work?” What is it, and why do you teach it?
You are not your body, senses, and mind; body, senses, and mind are expressions of your timeless awareness. But to completely understand that you are not something, you must first see what you are not. You cannot say “I am not the body” without knowing what it is. So you inquire, you explore, you look, you listen. And you discover that you know only certain fractions of your body, certain sensations, and these are more or less reactions, resistance. Eventually you come to a body feeling that you have never had before, because when you listen it unfolds, and the sensitive body, the energy body, appears. It is most important to feel and come into contact with the energy body. Because in the beginning your body is more or less a pattern or superficial structure in the mind, made up of reactions and resistance. But when you really listen to the body, you are no longer an accomplice to these reactions, and the body comes to its natural feeling, which is emptiness. The real body in its original state is emptiness, a completely vacant state. Then you feel the appearance of the elastic body, which is the energy body. When we speak of “body-work,” it is mainly to find this energy body. Once the energy body has been experienced, the physical body works completely differently. The muscle structure, the skin, the flesh, is seen and felt in a completely new way. Even the muscles and bones function differently.
What is the yoga that you teach like?
It’s not really yoga. It’s an approach to the body based on the Kashmir teaching. The Kashmir approach is largely an awakening of the subtle energies circulating in the body. These energies are used to spiritualize the body, to make it sattvic [literally, “pure” or “true”]. In a sattvic body there is already a giving up. You see more clearly what you are not – your tensions, ideas, fixations, reactions. Once the false is seen as false, what remains is our timeless being. By spiritualizing the body, therefore, I mean orchestrating all the dispersed energy that belongs to the false. Our approach is an exploration without will or effort. It is inspired by the truth itself. The natural body is an expression, a prolongation, of this truth.
But I understand you use the traditional asanas of Hatha Yoga.
Every gesture, every position the body can take, is an asana; there are certain archetypes that are not even mentioned in the classical texts of Hatha Yoga. But there are archetypal positions par excellence that brings harmonization of body and mind. Before going to these archetypes, however, one must prepare the body. Otherwise, yoga is nothing more than a kind of gesticulation. What you see for the most part in Europe and the U.S. is gymnastics, gesticulation, and has nothing to do with body integration.
Do you have any other reasons for not using the term “yoga”?
Yes. The term “yoga” means “to join,” and so there must be something to join, something to attain. But join who? Join what? In a certain way the body approach helps you to listen quietly. It is through real listening to the body that you come to true equanimity of mind and body.
Should this be practiced every day?
Don’t make a discipline of it, because in discipline there is anticipation – you’re already emphasizing a goal. This doesn’t belong to exploration.
Practically speaking, wait until you are invited by the energy of the body itself. This recall of our natural state is not memory. It comes from the needs of the body and appears spontaneously. Go to it as you would to a dinner invitation. Otherwise, you’re doing violence to the body.
In your daily life you may experience moments of absolute silence in which there’s nothing to do, nothing to avoid, nothing to achieve. In these moments, you’re completely attuned to this stillness without any effort. Become more and more aware of these timeless moments, moments when you cannot think, because when you think, the moment is already past. Present moments free from all thoughts. Often you will have these moments when an action is accomplished, when a thought is finished, in the evening before you fall asleep, in the morning when you first wake up. Become more and more familiar with these gaps between two thoughts or two actions – gaps which are not an absence of thought, but are presence itself. Simply let yourself be attuned to these timeless moments. You will increasingly welcome them, until one day you are established in this timelessness, are knowingly the light behind all perceptions.
So you don’t recommend practicing meditation as a regular discipline?
You talk about stillness and silence. Are these goals of spiritual life?
When I speak of stillness and silence, nobody is still and nobody is silent; there is only silence and stillness. This stillness does no refer to somebody or something.
So in the midst of this stillness there is activity?
Yes. Stillness is like the hinge of a door. The body is the door that opens and closes constantly, but the stillness never moves.
T.S. Eliot called it “the still point of the turning world.” Since the practice has no goal – in fact, there isn’t even a practice – what is the purpose of spiritual life at all? Obviously, most of us would say that we are not enlightened or liberated, and so we do feel a need to go somewhere where we are not. Then it seems as if we do need to undertake some kind of spiritual life. What is that like?
I would say that we are constantly, without knowing it, being solicited by what we are fundamentally. But the feeling by which we are solicited is very often mistaken for something objective, for a state, for some relative mental stillness that we can achieve through effort or practice. We seek this state as a kind of compensation for real stillness. The moment you are really solicited by the inner need and you face it and visit with it, you will be taken by it. But generally we are looking for compensation.
This process you’re talking about is very different from the way we usually do things. Usually we have an idea in mind of where we are going and then we set out in a certain direction and use our will to get there.
But all doing has a certain motive. I think this motive is to be free – from oneself, free from all conflict.
The motive is a good one, then, but the response is a little misguided.
When you become more and more acquainted with the art of observation, you will first see that you do not observe; when you see that you don’t observe, you are immediately out of the process. There is a moment, a kind of insight, when you see yourself free from all volition, free from all representation; you feel yourself in this fullness, in this moment beyond thought. It’s mainly through observation and attention that you come to feel what you are fundamentally.
How would you describe liberation?
I’ll give you a short answer. It is being free from yourself, free from the image you believe yourself to be. That is liberation. It’s quite an explosion to see that you are nothing, and then to live completely attuned to this nothingness. The body approach I teach is more or less a beautiful pretext, because in a certain way the body is like a musical instrument that you have to tune.
And we tune it to play on it the song of our own nothingness.
Exactly. Liberation means to live freely in the beauty of your absence. You see at one moment that there is nothing seen and no seer. Then you live it.
This is what you refer to as living free from psychological memory.
Is it really possible to live in the world in this state of total openness and freedom from our own identity, doing the things we do – leading busy lives, taking care of family, etc. ?
Yes. You can live in a family perfectly without the image of being a father or a mother, a lover or a husband. You can perfectly educate your children not to be something, and have a love relationship with them as a friend, rather than as a parent.
One teacher of vipassana meditation who is also a clinical psychologist has written, “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” meaning that for many people, particularly now in the West, who have been brought up in dysfunctional families, there are very often such deep lack of self-esteem and such a conflicted or uncertain sense of who they are in an everyday way, that they must first develop psychological and emotional strength before they can embark on the path to becoming nobody. There are people who would near you say that ultimately we have no identity, we are nothing, and we live in this nothingness, and would turn around and say, “Oh, yes, I know that.” What they are really talking about is their own inner emptiness, their own inner feeling of lack or deprivation, which is a kind of sickness. Do you agree that we have to be somebody before we can be nobody?
First you must see how you function. And you will see that you function as somebody, as a person. You live constantly in choice. You live completely in the psychological structure of like and dislike, which brings you sorrow. You must see that. If you identify yourself your personality, it means you identify yourself as your memory, because personality is memory, what I call psychological memory. In this seeing, this natural giving up, the personality goes away. And when you live in this nothingness, something completely different emerges. Instead of seeing life in terms of the projections of your personality, things appear in your life as they are, as facts. And these appearings naturally bring their own solution. You are no longer identified with your personality, with psychological memory, though your functional memory remains. Instead, there is a cosmic personality, a trans-personality, that appears and disappears when you need it. You are nothing more than a channel, responding according to the situation.
This interview was part of a larger article that was published in Yoga Journal, Issue 83, November/December, 1988.
Here you can read more from Jean Klein.