The Magic of Oneness

Dear Reader, 


A short way down the trail from my cabin in rural Hawaii, there is a little old man who lives in a shack with a pig, three dogs, and four cats. Everyone worries that he is getting too frail to live in our remote off-grid community—carrying bags of dog food across the river in a faded green backpack, feeding his pig with overripe breadfruit he hauls down the trail in five-gallon buckets. Although we all lend a hand when we can, none of us are equipped to give him the kind of full-time care he’s getting closer and closer to needing. 

A few weeks ago, he had a serious health crisis. My neighbor heard him shouting and called an ambulance, then lifted him into a wheelbarrow and rolled him all the way to the river, where the paramedics would be waiting to pick him up. That evening as we sat around under the monkeypod tree, my neighbors and I all wondered if he would come back. Perhaps he would go live in town, which was surely the right move for a person in his fragile state of health. 

But just a few days later, I was on my way to check the water lines when I ran into him on the trail, a heavy bag of clothes and groceries in each hand. He was skinnier than ever, with pipe cleaners for legs and white hair sticking out from under his ballcap. He reminded me so much of the stray cat that had made its way back to my land even after I’d driven it three miles and several water crossings away. I stopped and offered to carry his bags, and he readily accepted. Even as I made this automatic offer, I felt a twinge of weariness—I was already so tired after a morning of working on my land in the hot sun, and still had much to do. After carrying the bags all the way to my neighbor’s place, I would have to return the way I had come and climb up the waterfall, which was my original errand. Although my body had extended itself reflexively to my neighbor’s aid, my mind began to protest at the cost. 

Yet when I picked up my neighbor’s bags and felt the weight of them transfer from his body to my own, something miraculous happened: I had a sudden, visceral awareness that this transfer was taking place not between two distinct beings, but within a single organism. I wasn’t depleting “my” energy reserves—I was experiencing a kind of homeostasis, with energy flowing naturally to the place it was needed the most. Although my mind grumbled after the fact, my body had carried out the gesture automatically, the way certain trees will automatically send sugars to their less-healthy neighbors through roots and fungal networks underground. 

Later, I wondered: did I stop and help my neighbor because I perceived the two of us to be a single organism, or did that brief and striking shift in perception arise from the physical act of making his burden my own? 



Living off-grid, you can’t help but become aware of energy: where it comes from, where it goes, and the many ways it is used, recycled, and transformed. Light comes into the solar panels and the tool batteries greedily consume it, snug in their plastic chargers beside the power strip. 

The energy stored in the tool batteries then goes into turning screws, cutting wood, and mowing grass. You spread the grass clippings in the garden to build the soil, and before you know it you have papayas, pumpkins, and sugar cane to feed your hungry body at the end of the day. 

You scheme about ways to save energy—a more efficient light bulb, a lower-wattage computer monitor. Keeping your tools in a place that doesn’t require you to climb up and down a ladder fifteen times a day, which will cause you to burn fewer calories, which will make your stash of pumpkins last a couple of days longer, which means you won’t have to carry a pumpkin all the way home from your neighbor’s garden half a mile away, which means you will have more time and energy left over to finally fix your chainsaw, which means you can help your neighbor cut up the windfall bamboo, thus repaying the debt of energy left over from the time he helped you fix your solar system. 

You notice the ways your neighbors are constantly transferring their energy to you—through their labor, their gifts of food and other resources, their encouragement on hard days. You transfer energy back in the form of your own gifts and words of encouragement, and the strength of your own body applied to a common task. The flow is organic, spontaneous, and unplanned. There is no ledger, yet all debts get paid; no accounting, and yet all that which is depleted gets restored. 



As an editor at Hierophant, I don’t frame roofs, cook meals, or harvest vegetables with the authors I work with, but there is nevertheless an aspect of shared labor, and therefore of community. When editing a manuscript, I receive the gift of the author’s wisdom; at the same time, I apply myself to the project of helping that author express their wisdom in the clearest possible way. Because many of the books I work with deal with spirituality, there is also a sense of chipping away at a shared mystery, and becoming part of one long chain of human endeavor to understand and celebrate the divine. 

Recently, while editing a book chapter in which an author was describing a significant event in her life, I had an experience not terribly unlike the moment when I picked up my neighbor’s grocery bags. Gazing into space, as I do at regular intervals when I’m writing or editing, I tuned into the emotions the author was describing, allowing them to play out in my own body. As I pondered the idea she was trying to express and toyed with different ways of expressing it, I felt a sense of oneness with the work in which I forgot that an “author” and “editor” existed, and instead felt myself to be part of a unified field of humanity, all working on these deep problems of life, all shouldering the burden of being human together. 

Although there are practical reasons for putting an author’s name on a book and giving that book its own title and cover art, this is really for the sake of convenience. As don Jose Ruiz likes to say, “We’re all working for the same boss.” Just as flowers come out of the earth, ideas come out of the great pool of human history. A flower couldn’t exist without the earth, and a book couldn’t exist without thousands of years of humans thinking, feeling, searching, and dreaming. Whether or not you ever have your name on a book, you’ve probably helped write one just by being alive. All labor is shared, whether we realize it or not—and realizing it can make us feel happier, more grateful, and more alive. 



I’ll never forget the time I carpooled to a meeting in town with several of my neighbors. We were sitting in the bleachers of the high school gym, listening to some engineers give a presentation about plans for our road, when I happened to glance down. My feet and shins, I noticed, were caked with dried mud—the natural consequence of hiking through several streams on my way to the car. I rarely remember to rinse off my legs before going to town, and was feeling a little embarrassed at being seen this way by the town folks, when I saw that my neighbor’s feet were also brown with mud. Turning my head to look down the length of the bleacher, I saw that we all had the same dusty streaks on our calves and dried mud between our toes.  

The sight of so many muddy legs nearly moved me to tears. I felt a sense of comfort, belonging, and something akin to pride. My neighbors knew the weight of a wheelbarrow, the value of a pig, a pumpkin, or a five-gallon bucket, the sound of rain on a metal roof. They knew what it was like to sit in your chair in a stupor at the end of a long day, too tired even to read; they knew the night-blooming flowers and the moon. When one of us was sick or weak, the rest of us didn’t carry that person’s burdens for them—we just carried them, period, because they were there to be carried, and we weren’t many beings, but one. 

Readers, as we transition from spring to summer, may you all be supported by the energy of sun, earth, and community; and may your roots feed others, and be fed in return. 



Hilary Smith 

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing 


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "Hitchhiking to Freedom."

A Tale of Two Waterfalls

Dear Readers, 


For the first three years I lived on my land here in rural Hawaii, I didn’t have running water. Instead, I hauled drinking water from a spring in five-gallon jugs, and set out buckets to catch rainwater for washing dishes. This sounds like a hardship, and it was—but the upside of living without running water is that I was forced to walk to a nearby waterfall every day to bathe. 

At first, my visits to the waterfall were utilitarian: I was sweaty and needed to rinse off. The water was cold, and I would wade in quickly and get out just as fast. As the days and months went on, however, my relationship to the waterfall changed. I realized that soaking in the cold water reduced the pain in my back after a hard day of work, and sometimes erased it completely. A dip in the waterfall was also extremely effective at resetting my emotions if I was feeling sad, stressed, or overwhelmed.  

It wasn’t long before I’d stopped seeing the waterfall as a mere substitute for a hot shower, and begun to see it as a kind of mother, always ready to wrap her cold, wet arms around me whenever I needed a hug. I brought my sorrows to the waterfall, and my joys as well. I never walked past without pausing to say hello and pay my respects, even if I didn’t have time to get in for a swim. Other times, I’d sit on the rocks and utterly lose myself in the sight and sound of the waterfall, enchanted by the sprays of yellow leaves floating down from the trees to land on its surface, the prawns scuttling across its pebbly floor, and the ever-changing tune of its cascade. 

Like the heady excitement that goes along with getting to know a new human friend, I found myself wanting to know everything about the waterfall, to catch up with it every day and see what was new. If I went to town for the day, I missed the waterfall and wondered what it was doing. When I got back home, I’d visit as soon as I could, eager to see its latest colors, hear its sounds, and submerge myself in its waters no matter what the weather was like that day. 



Two years ago, my next-door neighbor offered to add me to his water line, which is connected to a separate waterfall. I was very appreciative for what was a huge gesture of trust and benevolence in a community in which the most basic comforts are hard-won. I bought some PVC pipe and the strange purple ointment that seals it together, a hose valve and a long green hose, and by the end of the day I had joined the ranks of people with running water. Now, my life was defined by relationships to not one, but two waterfalls: the one which had kept me clean and healthy during my first hard years on the land, and now this second rivulet, which was steeper and more austere, and whose high and rocky pools did not invite swimming. 

Befriending this second waterfall was an entirely different matter. Hidden away on the side of a steep and crumbly cliff, guarded by dense thickets of coffee trees and storm-felled Java plums, it was not a place to visit every day. Instead, I bowed to it from a distance, catching sight of its pale white stream high on the cliffside as I walked home after a trip to town. Once, during heavy rainfall, I heard what sounded like a jet engine passing over my land. After a few minutes of baffled searching, I realized it was the waterfall, swollen so much from its usual flow that I could see it from my own front porch, high in the trees like an apparition. 



Last month, a friend of mine who is an avid naturalist came to visit me on my land. As we sat on my front porch drinking tea, he continuously expressed curiosity about aspects of the natural world to which I’d never paid much attention. What was that bug doing? What was that bird eating? What kind of insect would hatch out of that foamy green mass of eggs? I felt a mixture of awe and embarrassment as I realized that my friend’s attention was capturing thousands of details that I routinely overlooked. He was loving, noticing, and attending to the animal life of the land, the same way I attended to the waterfalls. 

He pointed out a jumping spider on a sugarcane leaf, and we walked over to take a closer look. The spider had a smooth, shiny back and milky aquamarine eyes. My friend explained that he’d once made friends which a jumping spider, and got to know him well over a period of about eight months. Jumping spiders are intelligent, he said—they can recognize individual humans, and even learn tricks. As we stood in the sunlight, admiring the spider, I let this startling fact sink in. The creatures around my home knew and recognized me—were attending to me, in their own particular way. What would happen if I finally started attending to them? 

In the days after my friend went home, I found myself seeing and hearing things I’d never seen or heard before. I watched ants crawling on a bright pink ginger blossom, and two cardinals calling to one another across my ‘awa patch. I peered at the small white eggs my friend had discovered in a rolled-up scrap of tarp, wondering when they would hatch. I considered the elegant brown spider on my wall. I realized there was no end to the ways in which I could expand the range and depth of my attention, and in so doing, come into relationship with the whole world, and not only its human residents. 



What good does it do to attend to the natural world? Certainly, we can speak of the benefits to ourselves—a sense of peace and health, a heightening of empathy—but does our attention benefit nature? Does a waterfall gain anything from being loved and admired, a jumping spider from being known? Surely, attending to a pine tree won’t stop it from burning in a wildfire, and listening to the minute details of a heron’s footsteps won’t stop the factories whose effluent pollutes the river in which that bird hunts for fish. Is attention merely a feel-good exercise, or is there something more to it? 

In the modern world, most of us have been taught to reject anything that isn’t quantifiable. Gazing with love upon a waterfall or a spider doesn’t appear to “do” anything, and as we move out of childhood we learn to give up these pastimes in favor of more “productive” activities. If we care about nature, we sign petitions, organize protests, and campaign for earth-friendly policies—laudable and necessary actions which are the “yang” to attention’s “yin.” When it comes to protecting nature, we rightly put our energy into urgent doing. But I wonder if there is also urgency to the manner of our being—if our local waterways, spiders, and birds would benefit, in some mysterious way, from our stepping back into relationship with them. 



Last week, there was a huge storm, and my neighbor and I had to climb up to a high pool of the waterfall to fix our water line, as we often do when the inlet gets blown out. This sounds like a hardship, and it is: the climb is difficult and dangerous. We grab at roots and at frayed scraps of rope, our feet slipping on the crumbly cliffside. My neighbor never fails to point out the spot where another neighbor of ours was killed by a falling rock several years before, as well as the latest landslides and downed trees. 

But the upside of this hardship is that I know the water. I’ve seen it running brown and furious, thin and drought-stricken, clear and cold. Not only that, but I know my neighbor: some of our best conversations have taken place as we scrambled up the rocks, stories and confessions pouring out amid commentary about valves, fittings, and basic hydrology. The waterfall binds us to itself and to each other; in our mutual attending, we all become more alive. 

It's not every day that we can stop a wildfire, save a coral reef, or make some other concrete “difference”—but no matter where we are, we can elevate our relationships through the quality of our attention. We can be friends to the wind, the water, and the jumping spider, without even knowing what “good” it does. Perhaps there is something more precious to this not-knowing than we will ever realize, and more good than we can ever perceive. 



Hilary Smith 

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing 


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "The Downside of 'Having it All.'"

Is the Mind an Escape Room?

Dear readers,


Sometimes—many times—my work at Hierophant just makes me grin.

Reading Professor Chris Niebauer’s brand new book last weekend was one of those times. In The No Self, No Problem Workbook: Exercises and Practices from Neuropsychology and Buddhism to Help You Lose Your Mind, he writes, “What if life is an escape room? This is a game where a group of people pay to be locked into a room, find clues, and solve puzzles in order to get out. Maybe consciousness locks itself in a room of hidden clues and then goes on the adventure of finding its way out.”

For those unfamiliar with the tenets of Buddhism, the concept of anatta, or “no-self” describes the idea that the self is an illusion from which our mental suffering stems. In his previous book, No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism, Professor Niebauer applies his expertise in neuropsychology to the concept of anatta to demonstrate how neuroscience supports the Buddhist idea of a fictional self. But how are we supposed to escape our thinking minds?

The No Self, No Problem Workbook provides the tools to do exactly that: outwit the “escape room” of the limited, imaginary self—dominated by the left brain—and experience the weird, wonderful, and expansive realm of “no-self,” accessed through the right.

Not only do I love escape rooms, but I have a soft spot for books that jolt me out of my ordinary state of consciousness and do something to my brain. The No Self, No Problem Workbook is exactly that kind of book!

After spending a pleasant afternoon working through the thought experiments, riddles, and hands-on practices designed to quiet the thinking mind and induce this “no self” experience, I truly felt I had entered an altered state of consciousness. Suddenly, I could feel the workings of my brain in a way that had never been quite so clear before. Even as I write this, several days later, I feel a renewed sense of excitement about un-knotting this magical, elusive, and endlessly confounding illusion called the self, and discovering what lies beyond it.



I first stumbled upon the power of “no self” when I was in the midst of a health crisis in my late twenties. I’d been suffering from severe, chronic insomnia for several years. This maddening condition had proved resistant to just about everything—yoga, meditation, herbs, therapy, acupuncture, Western pharmacology. My quality of life was very poor. Every day was a struggle, with no relief in sight. At the peak of this suffering, I found myself Googling things like at what point do you die from insomnia?, and researching whether euthanasia was legal in my state.

I was well aware that these thoughts of death were alarming. But what could I do? I’d consulted every doctor and alternative practitioner under the sun, and nobody had been able to help me. If this painful and debilitating condition was truly incurable, it seemed to me that death should not be ruled out as a viable alternative.

After sitting with these thoughts for a week or two, I had a brilliant idea. If I was considering death as a possibility, why not practice being dead? I could try death on for size, right here, right now, by lying on the floor and pretending I didn’t exist. I wouldn’t have to sign up for the real version until I was sure that I liked it.

Intrigued by this idea, I lay on the floor in savasana—otherwise known as corpse pose, in yoga—and stuck an eye mask over my eyes. My head soon began to fill up with its usual weary thoughts—All this traffic on our street is driving me crazy. I’ll never finish the novel I’m working on—but now there was a difference. For every thought that came up, I now had the perfect response: So what? I’m dead!

It thrilled me to be “dead” in this way. Suddenly, I had no problems. I no longer had to fix anything. The traffic on my street had nothing to do with me. My unfinished novel would remain so, and that was not my problem. My suffering lifted almost instantly, and I experienced a mental lightness I hadn’t felt in years.

So what? I’m dead! became my mantra, and savasana my go-to yoga pose. Whenever I felt myself becoming overwhelmed by real or imaginary problems, all I had to do was “die” for a few minutes and my relationship to those problems would right itself. Needless to say, my thoughts of actual death dissipated completely—and not long afterwards, my insomnia cleared up too.



I think Chris Niebauer would say that in teaching myself to “die,” I’d cracked an important puzzle in the escape room. After all, if I was dead, I had no problems to solve—and if I had no problems to solve, there was no longer anything for my left brain to do. With my left brain temporarily stunned into silence, my right brain got some breathing room. The contracted, suffering “self” who had to deal with traffic and write a novel flickered off like a hologram, leaving behind…what, exactly? Bare existence. Light and shadow. Sound, vibration, color, scent.

Suddenly, it didn’t matter if I achieved great things. It didn’t even matter if I recovered from insomnia! As Niebauer writes in his first book, No Self, No Problem, once you become aware of the left brain’s talent for inventing problems out of thin air, “You may even stop trying so hard to change certain things in your life, or to become this or that in the future, because you begin to notice that the problems you are trying to overcome are mostly creations of the left-brain interpreter and you see how once they are overcome the left-brain interpreter will simply create new ones.”

In other words, the left brain’s full-time job is to endlessly produce more problems for the imaginary "self" to shoulder. If you’re tired of having problems, get in touch with your right brain—and ditch your self.



Ten years after my insomnia crisis, I still like to practice being dead. Lately, this takes the form of selecting a random moment in the day and imagining in as much detail as possible what that moment would be like if I wasn’t there.

For example, if I’m at home in my cabin, I’ll listen carefully to the sound of the frogs, the creaking bamboo, and the rushing stream, and imagine what these things sound like when I’m not there to hear them. I imagine the cabin exactly as it is, but minus me: still, empty, a couple of dry leaves blowing across the floor. I see the stars, the dark shape of the hills, and the tools leaning against the wall of the shed, and imagine that these things are simply here, without anyone looking at them.

This practice brings me a deep sense of peace. I like to know that this place has a life without me, that this world has a life without me—indeed, that I have a life without me, or at least without the jumble of thoughts, plans, and opinions my left brain would have me believe is “me.” As I sit in my cabin, imagining that I’m not there at all, I become more present than I am when I am there. And if that’s not a riddle worth pondering, I’m not sure what is.



One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a young woman who advised me to “ride loose in the saddle” if I wanted to survive as an off-grid homesteader. She was referring to a willingness to do any job rather than clinging to specific career plans, but I’ve found that this advice applies splendidly to just about any aspect of life. When you ride loose in the saddle of jobs, you find yourself learning skills and making connections you never would have imagined possible. (Rare plant propagation? Sure! Translating medieval French poetry? Okay!) And when you ride loose in the saddle of the self, you understand that the self is just for fun. As Niebauer would put it, the self is what pure consciousness dreams up to entertain itself. We’re not supposed to rigidly defend it, we’re supposed to play with it—wholeheartedly, and with great delight.

When you embrace this attitude, life becomes a lot more fun. Opportunities arise where before you could see only dead ends. If your “self” is just a suggestion, you really can write your own ticket in terms of jobs, relationships, and just about everything else. If your “self” can be anything, it is threatened by nothing. You can enjoy the escape room, knowing it’s just a game.

I will always treasure the moments in my life where I’ve gotten a glimpse of no self—that bright, expansive, infinitely peaceful state. Indeed, someday, I hope to make it my permanent address. As Niebauer writes, “It is possible to make no self your home, and self a place you sometimes visit.”

May we all “lose our minds” in 2023, and treat our selves like the fun, well-meaning, charming illusions they really are.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "Pruning Trees, Words, & Life."



Cover image for The No Self, No Problem Workbook by Chris Niebauer, PhD





Ready to tackle the escape room of the mind yourself? Check out The No Self, No Problem Workbook.

In this groundbreaking workbook, Professor Chris Niebauer takes a deep dive into the incredible link between Eastern philosophy and recent findings in neuropsychology, which is now confirming a fundamental tenet of Buddhism: anatta, or the doctrine of “no self.”

The exercises and practices in this book are designed to help you recognize and disidentify with the fictional self created by your left-brain interpreter. Learn how to become more present, find inner peace, and see the world through the eyes of what Niebauer calls “clear consciousness.”