Tamar: Thank you very much for your willingness to do this interview with me. The reason I have asked for this interview was my wish to explore with you the meaning of life as it revealed itself to you during your spiritual awakening. First, I would like to get a clearer picture of your life before that took place. Later, I would love to hear in detail about the experience itself and the way the meaning of life was revealed during that experience. And finally, we will also explore how your life has changed, as a result of this experience.
Shai: I guess I had glimpses of interest that were more unconscious ones, for example when I was maybe ten or eleven, I don’t remember exactly. I used to write some kind of philosophical essays with the title: “What is the meaning of life?” I most definitely wrote something as if in a trance, but it is not that I understood what I was writing or that I can remember what I was writing. But prior to the experience, I guess the only point in which the journey became conscious of itself was when I started defining my journey as a journey of a spiritual seeker, or a seeker towards what is called spiritual enlightenment. But even then, when I defined it as the purpose, it wasn’t defined as the search for the meaning of life. It was more the search for the true self, the true identity, the core identity under the question, “Who am I?” So, we could say, in that sense, that from a certain point onward something in me determined that the meaning of life, at least at that stage, would be to know myself, and as inseparable from the entire existence. That could mean that this was my meaning of life back then.
Tamar: And how old were you at that time?
Shai: Just before 21. It was then that I started gathering some hints from certain books and through a course of transcendental meditation, in which I was told about spiritual enlightenment as the state of unity with the entire cosmos – that you can actually experience yourself one with it. Before that perhaps there were some subtler hints here and there, like my enchantment with the koans of Zen Buddhism – although these texts were very mysterious, I don’t think I really understood what I was reading, but something knew it unconsciously and was attracted to it. And then I went to India in search of this elusive state called spiritual enlightenment and I met teachers. There, I met the one that became my first spiritual teacher. And so that was around the age of 21.
Tamar: And could you describe your mental and emotional state during those years? What was your relationship with life like? Would you describe yourself as a very happy person? Very optimistic? Was your life’s experience that “life is easy”?
Shai: By now the contents of the experiences of my life got empty, so the memory of who I was – or who I thought I was – is pretty vague. But I guess I was very curious, ambitious, and focused. I was deeply drawn to philosophical questions. I don’t think I really experienced my life through joy and pleasure. I was always simply focused, so I can’t really describe it as a good or bad emotional state. It was just this journey of one thing to know, with, of course, frustrations of not managing to know, trying to intellectually capture spiritual enlightenment. And of course, I had all the obvious and usual stuff of someone in their early twenties. All kinds of physical attractions, confusions of identity, confusions about relationships. But never as the center of my life. In the center of my life was always a very intense question.
Tamar: So, if you would look at the levels of happiness and satisfaction in your life before the experience, on a scale from zero to 10, how happy or satisfied would you say you have been with your life?
Shai: Perhaps four or five. But then increasingly towards that shift happiness and satisfaction grew more and more, because it was almost like the attraction of the butterfly to the light, you see. There was more and more intensity. There was more wisdom, insight, experience, because already at the age of 21, when I was in India, the spiritual experiences started. Some of them were quite bizarre, like out of the body experience, all kinds of night initiations, profound insights and the feeling that I was already able to know much more than I could actually experience. Because in a way, I already became a sort of a teacher. I already started writing articles that were very confident and talked to people in a very confident way. Something was already preparing, but it wasn’t really that, and I knew that, that something big was missing, which was the actual state.
Tamar: You said something before that sounded very interesting. You said that somehow your life experience got empty. What do you mean?
Shai: It’s because of what happened at the age of 23. All of my life before got empty of all psychological content. And that’s why it’s very difficult for me to try to connect to the person that was there. It’s like the whole feeling of a personality, with the journey and the feelings and emotions, it all only looks like I was there, like I was then there and I did this and that. There is no substance.
Tamar: Would you say that would be the case for anyone who had a similar experience to the one you had?
Shai: Yes, it must be. Because what you realize in such a state or shift is not that now you are free from psychology, but that you have always been free from that. That nothing has ever been really personal or substantial as a psychological content.
Tamar: So, is there anything else that you feel is relevant to share about things that were going on in your life before the experience that you haven’t shared yet?
Shai: Again, what preceded that were basically two years of very intense focus on spirituality. There was a very strong wish to know what spiritual teachers of the past spoke of, what they meant when they talked about all these extraordinary realizations, and there was a very strong feeling that it’s a one way ticket. It’s not like there was an option that I was not going to find it or to know it. I was just going there, and it was just a matter of time in that sense. Of course, it’s not something that I could control, since obviously what I was looking for transcended the mind. The mind couldn’t contain it or take over it. So, that’s the kind of cruel game, because you cannot have it.
Tamar: So, I guess we are ready to move on to the actual experience that took place when you were 23. So, maybe first you can describe what took place, and then we will go into the more detailed aspect of the way the meaning of life was revealed to you during that time.
Shai: It was a second silence retreat in which I participated, and already in the first silence retreat I was entering really extraordinary states. It was almost like being struck by lightning again and again and again, and every time you become electrified, but you are still not dead, you see? You just get hit. You lose consciousness for some time. So, I was just entering states, and something suddenly would envelop me, and that thing was pure consciousness. It was only conscious of itself. It didn’t know the world. It didn’t know an “I.” It didn’t know personality or a body. It didn’t know senses. Whenever it enveloped me, the world would disappear and there was just the pure bliss of what you can call “self- knowledge,” and that self-knowledge was not mine. It took place through me. I was an empty shell, and then there was just this consciousness rejoicing in knowing itself, and “me” was only the body in pure bliss. So, that happened occasionally. It could happen also on the street, actually on the street, after that retreat. Exactly then I met someone who gave me some important advice. At that time I was a very proud and independent individual. I was heavily influenced by the teachings and writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and therefore negated gurus. I was attracted to them, but I didn’t want to play the game of surrender. Then I was advised by this person that the surrender is something that is needed in order to break that separating wall between me and consciousness. And I think it also added another layer of the heart, which wasn’t there before. There was only the mind. It was just self-inquiring. So, there was a new element of devotion, more childlike attraction. I went with that to the silence retreat of that first spiritual teacher that I mentioned. Before that, it was more like a game of getting close and becoming distant again, always remaining an individual. But then, I came to that retreat with a sort of a determination to surrender and to focus on that teacher. And there I really gave my heart and my mind.
Tamar: What do you mean by saying: “I gave all my mind and all my heart?”
Shai: It was, for me, that the teacher was the center that I needed to understand, to grasp, to inquire into and to merge with.
Tamar: You mean your attention was fully put on him, on his presence and his words?
Shai: Yes. The question was basically shifted from “Who am I?” to who he was, because he said, “This chair that I’m sitting on is an empty chair.” And that became like my koan, my riddle. What did it mean that there was an empty chair? Because my eyes could see someone. So, that became my meditation, and I really took it seriously, this silence retreat and the act of merging. But everything was also very ripe towards it. It wasn’t, in a way, something that was completely groundbreaking. It was already there. I just needed one more element. The shift itself took place two days before my birthday and on the day of my teacher’s birthday, and that I remember very clearly. There was a celebration for his birthday. People played music and sang. He was sitting somewhere in the center of this happening, and I was completely reluctant to be a part of a celebration in a silence retreat, but I did sit some meters away outside the circle. I wanted to continue inquiring; I didn’t want to have fun. And I just looked at the whole happening. By the way, a very strange thing happened half a year before that day, at a time when I still wasn’t connected to this teacher: I dreamt that I was sitting in his presence, and there were other students around, and then he pointed at me and he said, “Don’t worry about him. He is going to be awakened in six months from now.” But I completely forgot about that dream and was only reminded of it afterwards. So then I sat there and I just looked at the whole happening, and there was a moment – it came in a flash – that something in me was wondering. I kept questioning and inquiring, and suddenly, I asked myself, “But what is looking at this whole happening?”
Tamar: What do you mean who is looking? Why did you ask that question?
Shai: Because that was the most important question. The question was always the experiencer. What is the source of perception? What is the source of attention? What is the source of the senses? What is behind the brain? That was the question, “Who am I?” And then I just asked myself, instead of drowning yourself in the sensory experience, the question: what is this that is the source that perceives everything and declares “I am this” and “I am that,” and from that self-identity also interprets everything? – Because then the whole world is relationship-based; it is self and world. So then I looked into myself – literally, I was just looking inside – and usually when I looked inside, I could find a center – a sort of psychological bundle of memories and the experiences, interpretations and perspectives that made sense together as a sort of self-experience and self-knowing. But then when I looked into it, it was just space. There was nothing. It was both shocking and natural at the same time. Of course, there is nothing! But on the other hand, it was the greatest shock that I could imagine because it was also obvious before that there was something. So, this was the lightning that killed. At that moment, when that lightning struck, it was clear beyond doubt, without even understanding why it is clear, that this is irreversible, that this thing, this realization, cannot be changed. It’s like you cannot – once you see it as it is – you cannot regain it. Nothing can consolidate again.
Tamar: You mean seeing that the answer is nothing? That the only thing that you could find was space – that could never be reversed again and consolidated into that bundle you were speaking about before?
Shai: Yes, this bundle of memories, and the whole glue that connected them and created this appearance, this self-experience, just melted. And suddenly they were just memories, things that happened. When I looked back – it was all very quick – into this continuum of life, I only saw a body participating in this event and that event, but there was nothing, no self. There was no self-consciousness anymore. There was just a chain of experiences.
Tamar: Were you concerned at any point that that was like a psychological problem?
Shai: No, because it was extraordinary and beautiful. It was sheer beauty and purity, and it was accompanied constantly by perfect bliss and a complete sense of emotional and physical flow. Everything was flowing correctly. It wasn’t like a disruption or a shock, nor was I afraid of it, because it was completely related to bliss, to happiness. It was true joy. I remember writing before that, in my diary, that wanting to be free from the ego sense was not for me, but for the world. I wrote that what gets rid of the ego is the world, the world gets free from me, that I am the burden. I’m not meant to be free from the world, but I am meant to free the world from me. That was basically my intention.
Tamar: So, in that sense, prior to the experience itself, there was already an intellectual foundation that already perceived the process as you releasing the world from yourself? That the self was the problem that needed to be released for the sake of the world, and not that you have to be free from the illusion? It is pretty unique, I would say.
Shai: It was completely about de-centering the world, decentering existence. That was the way I perceived it.
Tamar: Is that something that your teacher told you? Where did you get that from?
Shai: I think I was deeply touched by Jiddu Krishnamurti and his teaching. But when you read these things, you quite miserably try to make them happen. And you begin to project images and fake experiences, but they all fail because they’re not really from your inside, they are more like ambition, and then they dissolve. But here it was like getting to know this reality from the inside. And that was completely different and also completely shocking, because it’s exactly like the difference between someone telling you about the far-off land that they visited and you composing a certain imaginary version of that place and how you would experience being in that place – and actually being there. But only when you are in that place, then you either understand or don’t understand what that other person told you about. So, that’s the difference.
Tamar: So, you’re talking about the time in that birthday celebration and you are asking yourself that question, who is looking actually, or who is watching? And then you saw nothing in that place.
Shai: Yes. Then I realized that it’s not like I lost my self. The realization was that there was no self, never ever. It’s like the whole of life, in retrospective, got emptied of self, so that was a wonderful perception, but it was just a preparation. Because at that moment, something else started happening, and I think at that moment also all of the experiences that preceded this experience, everything that preceded that, all of those short-lived experiences of being encompassed or enveloped by consciousness and so on, everything started flowing into that moment. I would not call this an “experience” but a shift. The word “experience” is ridiculous, since it is really the end of experience, when time, continuity, and evolution stop. So, you cannot say, “I had an amazing experience” – it is more like I stopped having experiences, because the experiencer is the experienced. This was the point in which I knew that I had to move away from the celebration and I tried to get up. I could hardly drag myself, but somehow the body dragged itself. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, so it just moved to a very narrow shoreline, far away enough from people to be able to fully experience, fully allow the happening. And there, it was already an explosion. The realization of no-self paved the way to a much grander revelation, which was the positive, because that was the negative. The negative was the absence of self and the positive was that of complete unity consciousness.
Tamar: What do you mean by that?
Shai: Imagine the self as a tiny seed. This tiny seed of the ‘I am’ holds within it the entire universe. That’s our reality as human beings. We have within us a basic sense of I AM, and this basic sense of I AM seems quite ordinary, just a personality. Everyone says I AM, but behind these many I AMs there is one root or core I AM from which all of the other experiences of I AM branch out, just like rays of sun. But if you go to the root of the I AM, then at a certain point this seed explodes, and this seed holds within it the entire universe. And that is why at that moment I could just see that I AM is everywhere, and there is no point in space in which I AM is not. I AM was not my own. It wasn’t a personal experience. It wasn’t a personal possession. It was the very consciousness that encompassed and held the entire universe. It wasn’t separate, it did not have boundaries. It was in every molecule, it held every molecule and there was really no space separating. It wasn’t like I’m here and this is there, everything was held in that consciousness and that consciousness was one time, one space and one I. And that was the grandest thing because that was complete, perfect bliss. I was breathing it; it was breathing me. There was such a complete expansion, but expansion is not right to say, because expansion is still a measure and there was no measure. It was just complete totality, the totality of life. I was the rocks that I saw there, I was the sea, I was the sky, I was the people on the beach, and it was just streaming and streaming as bliss and as release. And it was as if the seed of I AM just left the body. It wasn’t any more centered in one unit, one organism, but both outside and inside, and so there was no inside and outside. And that was eternal bliss from that moment onwards.
Tamar: So, before I’m going to ask you, in that sense, what was the meaning of life at that time, during this experience, I wanted to ask, was there any tiny voice inside you during that experience that was trying to resist it or being afraid of it? Or was there any kind of conflict?
Shai: No, I think there were two tiny voices: one was that I didn’t want to be seen like that because it was very intimate and I was in a public place, and I couldn’t control myself, so that was a bit uncomfortable to try to see how to manage the situation. How do you cry and laugh while still remaining private? And the second was the part that was awestruck, the part that was deeply touched, marveling at the beauty of it all. There was never a fear. Never resistance. Why would it be? It was what I was waiting for.
Tamar: So, were you aware during this time? Did you know that the thing you were looking for is happening to you now? Is there a kind of recognition?
Shai: It was a complete knowing that this is it, yes… It wasn’t like an external voice looking at me and saying, “Hey, I got it.” It’s not like that. If it is really there, there cannot be this sense of accomplishment, because you realize that it isn’t an accomplishment, it’s reality. You don’t accomplish reality, you see? You can accomplish fake identities and fake status, but you cannot accomplish reality. You don’t have it – it has you.
Tamar: But you said there was a deep knowing that this is the reality.
Shai: Yes. Because it feels like remembrance. It feels like deep remembrance. You know that you are not gaining knowledge. You know that you’re remembering, revealing, and unveiling the reality that is anyway already here – a reality that you just overlooked, because you were overly creative in inventing realities of your own.