Driving with Bob One Short Day on Tour with Robert Thurman

Article: Driving with Bob: One Short Day on Tour with Robert Thurman

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

Summary: The author drives with Robert Thurman to a conference on non-duality. The day is full of delightful surprises. Stanislav Grof is a speaker at the event.


Venus was rising in the eastern sky as we headed south for the next event where Robert Thurman was presenting a paper. This was to be the third major lecture he would deliver within thirty-six hours, and Bob was full of energy, settling into his computer to finalize the notes for this lecture.

As I drove, dawn illuminated the hills and valleys. The clouds on the horizon echoed their undulations. There were no other cars on the road. I had never been to the old mansion where the conference was taking place, and I was a little worried about my navigational skills.

For the better part of an hour, the clouds and hills took on different colors and forms as the sun’s rising light illuminated them from different angles. The road felt suspended in the changing light. I felt as if we were heading into an unknown and unfamiliar land filled with requirements and possibilities. “What better way to be heading into the unknown than with Bob here focusing on the subtleties of spirituality and non-duality?” I was thinking to myself when Bob erupted in, “Ha! Yes!” And then went back to typing furiously.

We continued driving for another thirty miles or so, Bob tapping away, looking up and clapping his hands, and then returning to his typing. At one point, he said, without looking up, “ You are not going to get a speeding ticket, are you?” and then plunged back into his work.

I had been going the speed limit, so I was surprised at his question; a moment later, we passed a speed trap. Bob always denies that he is psychic, but this was not the first time he had demonstrated his ability to tune into several different realities at once. I had observed him many times scanning time lines in different realities, and offering comparisons, solutions and insights on multiple levels, all the while denying that he had any special intelligence.

To spend any amount of time with Bob is to learn how to track him across the multiple universes he is traversing as he sips tea or answers a practical question. As I was musing on the psychic feat of perceiving the speed trap, he broke out into musing about the debate between the followers of Vedanta, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Vedas regarding the theories of enlightenment in each system.

He outlined the belief systems of each tradition –tracing their evolution over thousands of years. He contrasted each of them, pointing out strengths and weaknesses of each. Then, he launched into the definitions of the enlightened state within each, and began refuting the validity of all of those definitions in Vedic, Vedantic and Hindu thought, offering multiple, interlocking arguments for his view. He ended by making a pitched argument for the Mahayana Buddhist view of enlightenment. He did all this in between offering me directions from the print out I had made of the directions to the conference.

And the day had not yet begun!

As we pulled up at the conference, the sun had fully risen. The entrance to the conference was a classic New Age California scene. There was a portable dome set up as a meditation space by a dome manufacturer. There was an earnest healer placing metal singing bowls on people as they lay on his massage table. There was a white woman in Indian dance clothes swinging hula-hoops around different parts of her body in front of a sign that said, “Move for Health.” And there were multiple vendors selling crystals, jewelry, and brightly colored textiles.

As we walked through the grounds, the organizer of the conference, a tall, engaging Italian decked out in Maori themed tattoos and earrings appeared and clapped Bob in a bear hug. In heavily accented English, he guided us to the tech people who put microphones on Bob and settled us into the conference hall that held about three hundred people.

As we sat down in the front of the hall, I realized I was being seated next to Stanislov Grof, who was speaking after Bob. For me, Stanislav Grof had always been one of the giants in the field of transpersonal psychology. I had studied and appreciated his work with altered states of consciousness for thirty years. I had always been grateful for the intelligence and courage he had demonstrated in facing down the prejudices of rigid clinical psychological theory in order to create a more expansive definition of the self.

He was a master of the scientific method who applied that mastery to the scientific investigation of new ways of defining health and imbalance. I tried to maintain my composure as I found myself inexplicably squeezed between two of the people who had most influenced me as a psychologist and spiritual seeker. I could barely breathe.

As I was counting my breath, trying to give no indication that I was hyperventilating, Bob launched into his talk.

“Buddha needs to be considered as a scientist. He discovered the true nature of reality and the true nature of reality is bliss. His discovery was not suffering. Any idiot can discover suffering. All you have to do is stub your toe…

…. We have the world totally upside down. We think that relative reality is absolute. We think that we are absolute. We think we are the real thing…

…. Buddhism doesn’t resolve this problem by saying that we don’t exist the way that modern materialist scientists do who go around saying they have discovered that we are nothing. And they say that when we die, we will return to that previously nonexistent state….

… But Buddha does not say this. The correct conception of enlightenment state is to realize that you are not the one, you are not no one – but you are one of the ones. We think our rigid self-identity is us and that we are in opposition to the world around us. This produces suffering….

… Buddha realized the essential interconnectedness of all things. This is the key to non-duality. This is non-duality right now. We don’t disappear into some other state after being here. It is all one. Matter is mind and mind is matter. There should be no reductionist point here….

…. The key between Buddhist ideas of enlightenment and Hindu ideas of enlightenment is that Buddhism believes that all beings have equal opportunity to become enlightened and feel bliss at all times. All relational things are only relational. There is no absolute God; there is no absolute caste system. The Absolute is something that is ineffable and cannot be expressed…

…. You are in nirvana now and always – not just when you are at a conference on non-duality – but even when you go home. The misunderstanding is that you think you are not in nirvana now…”

In between his main points, Bob was lobbing out irreverent jokes about the fear of hell, the idea that the ultimate attainment of non-duality is to be able to be asleep and awake at the same time while giving a lecture, the misguided absolutist strategies of Luther and Calvin and much more.

By the end of his talk, the whole house was roaring with laughter. Everyone who had attended the conference the day before said that it was such a relief to be able to laugh. They lamented that everything had gotten very dull and very serious the day before as everyone pondered the nature of non-duality.

We were all trying to catch our breath between laughter as Stan Grof took the podium. Stan is as interior as Bob is exterior. When he looks at you, you feel you have to go very, very deeply into his eyes to find him. He is there — but very, very deeply there. You have to stay with his presence for a long time to discover him.

The whole energy of the room shifted as Stan began to catalog his work with Otto Rank, one of Sigmund Freud’s main students. Rank had broken ties with Freud due to his belief that birth trauma was the source of most neurosis rather than Oedipal impulses. This work had been instrumental in Stan’s development of his Holotropic Breath model, which focuses on the release of experience from the time of birth as a therapeutic intervention for many types of symptoms.

He also outlined his experiences with LSD in scientific experiments carried out in Prague in the 1950’s before LSD was made illegal by scientific and government establishments. He spoke about the path of the development of Holotropic Breathwork as a methodology for accessing the parts of the self that LSD also taps.

He coolly outlined the revolutionary strategy he had applied in challenging clinical psychology’s grip on the definitions of the self in his work beginning in the 1960s. This strategy begins with a call for a new mapping of the human psyche, a new description of the architecture of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, a call for effective therapeutic mechanisms, new strategies in psychotherapy and self exploration, the inclusion of the spiritual dimension in the definition of the human psyche and in the definition of the cosmos, a new definition of the nature of consciousness and its relationship to matter.

In his beautifully accented English, with words very deliberately chosen, he took on the entire psychiatric establishment, challenging it to define the experience held in deep meditative states, states of yoga, states of prayer and the ecstatic states of the different types of encounters with spirit in different religious traditions. He outlined the tremendous healing potential of what he called pre-biographic experience held in past life regression work and prenatal and perinatal release of experience. He challenged the psychiatric establishment to categorize the healing from these experiences in its current frameworks.

One of the most poignant moments in his talk came when he mentioned his wife, Christina, who died last year. He insisted that her help had been fundamental to the development of his theories and he asked that everyone recognize her contribution to the field of transpersonal psychology. It was only the misogyny of the scientific community, he said, that had deprived her of the proper recognition of her work.

As he finished his talk, I reflected on his tremendous contribution to the redefinition of the word “therapeutic.” I marveled at his tireless efforts to create new models of the understanding of human suffering and its antidotes.

I must have lost some time delved into this reflection, because suddenly, in true California fashion, there was a perky, very flexible, young woman bouncing around on the stage urging us all to “Let it all go and MOVE!” As the lights turned blue, pink and purple in succession, suggestive New Age music, with a driving beat began to emanate from the speakers in front of us, she urged us to dance with the person next to us. Stan Grof was the person next to me, and he was smiling at me, dutifully stepping side to side and waiving his hands around his head as he let it all go. I was dancing with Stanislav Grof!

Her next command was, “Dance with the other person next to you! Back to back!” And Bob obediently came over to me and rubbed up against my back. I really did not know where I was, how this was happening or what we were doing! I did not have time to contemplate any of these themes for very long as the perky lady urged us all to think about what we wanted from the day and to bring that to us through our dance. She showed us how to bring everything we ever wanted to ourselves by scooping up the air in front of her and pushing it into her belly.

I really felt I had been given so much that day that there was really nothing more to ask for. But the music kept driving Bob, Stan and I about until it finally petered out. As the lighting returned to conference hall white, the perky lady hopped off the stage and headed out of the hall, stopping to tell us how cute we were.

The day continued on, and Bob gave several interviews, held court at lunch and had a grand time inspiring the new generation of spiritual seekers. I found my way to the grove of old trees that had been part of the original gardens when the mansion was first built in the 1880’s. A giant black oak stood sentinel in the middle of the grove. I sat with it for a long time, observing the bees that had made their hive in a hole near its crown, craning my neck to see the giant sulphur shelf mushrooms that grew one hundred feet above the ground on its trunk, and observing the prodigious digging of the rabbits who dug the front and back door of their warren around its roots. “This is non-duality,” I thought.

As the sunlight began to fade, I went back to pluck Bob from his adoring public who reluctantly let him go. As we picked our way through the vendors at the entrance to the conference, I had to pull Bob away from heading over to the earnest singing bowl healer who had a new patient under his care. Bob wanted to find out where the bowls had been made, show him the best way to play them, and talk about their history, but I convinced him that there might be a better time and place to engage with the bowls. I steered him to the oak, and we stood, making our offerings of thanks and gratitude to it. Or, at least, that was what I was doing. I was deep in prayer when Bob said,” Yeah, so this is the shamanic thing, uh?” Bob is ever the New Yorker – born and bred. I laughed, and we headed back to the car.

As I pulled out of the driveway, Bob picked up his musings from the morning’s ride. “You know, this non-duality thing is nothing new. The Hindus and the Buddhists have been having this debate for a long time. Even within the Buddhist tradition itself, there is so much disagreement about the nature and purpose of nirvana. You know, the Theravadins….Oh, left turn here!….have this idea that nirvana is this separate thing….Oh, right here!…You will see the signs for the freeway in just a moment!….”

“How does he know that?” I was thinking, as the sign, which had been invisible a moment before, came into view…. “But nirvana really is not a separate thing. It cannot be separate from this lifetime…Yes, just follow this road for thirty-two miles!…”

I thought to myself, “Thirty-two miles? I am going to follow this road with Bob for the next thirty-two lifetimes. At least!”

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