Hazy Moon Zen Center


Los Angeles

A Physicist Encounters Naked Awareness: The Life and Work of Russell Targ

By Michael Isshin Spiller

For a number of years at the Hazy Moon, Nyogen Roshi has been talking about science. Specifically how a number of scientists from different disciplines increasingly are hitting upon a track that parallels the insights of classical meditative or spiritual practices. The famous theorists and researchers in the quantum world – specifically Max Planck, Nils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, David Bohm, John Bell – all say that this new field cannot be talked about without including the factor of human consciousness.

I personally respond very favorably to this talk of science. Though I have no training or even aptitude for the actual doing of it – I count myself among the seriously math-challenged – I would agree with Roshi’s statement that modern people, for the most part, have replaced the shaman or spiritual leader with the scientist as the authority on what is real. Though I am limited by what I can grasp, I share scientists’ excitement about their new discoveries. When they are speaking or writing about what they now “know,” however, it is important to take the long view – if the past is any predictor of the future, what they now “know” will change within 10, 20 or 50 years.

Within the last four or five years, there has been, for me, an important development in Roshi’s interest. He has brought into the discussion writers who, in addition to being genuine working scientists, are themselves serious meditators or spiritual practitioners. (Including Eben Alexander, M.D., a career neurosurgeon and Harvard lecturer who had a transformative experience while he was essentially brain dead – see his account of this in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife).

The first of these scientist-practitioners, Tom Campbell, is discussed at some length in other places on this website. He has published a 3-volume opus called “My Big TOE – Theory of Everything.” He also has his own website and is a major YouTube presence.

A newer member in this class is Russell Targ, who was trained as a laser physicist and worked on new technologies in that field for many years at companies like Lockheed and Sylvania. The later part of his career went in a very different direction. From 1972 to 1985 he worked as co-director of a program at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park, California that was commissioned by various governmental agencies – the CIA, Air Force, Department of Defense – to conduct research into alternative intelligence-gathering methods on Soviet targets. Chief among these was the practice of “remote viewing” – where a subject trained in the art (many of them military personnel) sat in a quiet room and after achieving a certain meditative state, would describe or sketch building sites at specific longitudes and latitudes in the Soviet Union. Later comparison of these descriptions or sketches with satellite photographs revealed a high degree of accuracy in the remote viewers’ renderings of actual places where weapon construction was taking place.

Targ has published several very readable books. His memoir, “Do You See What I See? Memoirs of a Blind Biker” (Hampton Roads, 2008) reveals a very likeable, outgoing eccentric whose path through life has taken him on many diverse adventures. It is one of the most entertaining autobiographies I have read.

In The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities (Quest, 2012) he talks at length about his encounters with the very talented psychics he worked with over the years, as well the training he conducted with “ordinary,” untalented people, teaching them the skills of remote viewing. He outlines in detail some of the projects he oversaw during his years at SRI, including how the actual research was done. In another chapter he talks about a contract he had to develop an “ESP-teaching machine” for NASA in 1974. There is a description of the research his daughter, Dr. Elisabeth Targ, conducted in the field of distant healing. Another chapter introduces the actual nuts and bolts of how to do remote viewing – “Go ahead, try this at home,” he says. There is even a chapter for the mathematically/scientifically inclined called “How It All Works: The Physics of Miracles.” I would love to be able to appreciate it, but alas, it is for others.

The first book I became aware of, through Nyogen Roshi, was The End of Suffering: Fearless Living In Troubled Times, or, How to Get Out of Hell Free (with J.J. Hurtak, Hampton Roads, 2006). This is the most directly “spiritual” of his books. In his memoir he talks of the many different disciplines he experimented with over the years; the one he landed on, fairly late in life, was the Dzogchen wing of Tibetan Buddhism.

Chapter One, entitled “Why Do We Suffer?” lays the foundation for the rest of the book. Some of the answers he offers: Due to our fear of impermanence we seek refuge in external temporary distractions; we become attached to anything that offers escape from this; our entrapment in separate bodies with separate senses keeps us blind to our essential unity and connection with all of life. These conditions lead us to continuously misuse our minds. We learned the wrong habits from our family, our schooling, our environment, and this unfortunate habituation is reinforced by our interactions with other people, and of course with the media – radio, TV, Internet, Facebook, Twitter. We deal with the fact of our impermanence by trying to escape ourselves in temporary pleasures and distractions. In the face of not knowing anything fundamental about ourselves, which is that we are essentially part of everything around us (he calls this ignorance), we habitually indulge and reinforce our separating “story”: my family committed this or that crime against me; I’m pretty good at languages; I’m bad at math and sports; if I haven’t had 8 hours of sleep or if I’ve consumed even a small amount of sugar, you should probably keep your distance; I like this kind of person, can’t stand that kind; hate the rain, love the sun; and on and on, continuously hypnotizing ourselves with the old patterns of ego.

The remedy he offers to this problem will be familiar to Buddhists as the Four Noble Truths. Since he has identified the first noble truth (suffering), the second (its causes – see above), and the third (there is a way out), then the fourth is the path, which for him is not precisely eightfold in nature, though he does mention that formulation. Targ’s strategy involves the practice of meditation and the cultivation of compassion, among techniques.

As a physicist by training and something of an intellectual by temperament, he does offer a component not normally found in spiritual books. He tackles styles of logic.

He spends a whole chapter pointing a finger at Aristotle, who codified our tendency toward thinking in opposites, which underlies everything we conceptualize: It’s either this or that, up or down, hot or cold, good or bad, says the old Greek. Aristotle preached the doctrine of the “excluded middle,” and we have followed his lead for thousands of years now.

The intellectual antidote to this dualism is the four-pronged approach (tetralemma) of the 2nd century Indian monk, Nagarjuna. Aristotle’s “excluded middle” is precisely where the truth is to be found, he suggests. Targ spends a major portion of the book laying out these ancient insights. Instead of a dual version of reality, Nagarjuna offers a four-pronged approach: Things can be (1) true; (2) not true; (3) both true and not true; and (4) neither true nor not true This is not an insight to be nailed down by the intellect alone, at least not by mine.

Another counter to the flat-footed materialist scheme is explored in the world of quantum physics. In all three of these books Targ talks at length about the importance of such heady topics as entanglement and non-locality for grasping intellectually the unity of all things in consciousness. He highlights a statement from Erwin Schrodinger, who won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his work in the field: “Entanglement of particles — nonlocality – is not one of the differences, it is THE difference between quantum and classical theory.”

Targ demonstrated the fact of nonlocality repeatedly in his work at SRI with remote viewing, where someone sitting in a room in Menlo Park, California can “see” and describe something occurring in the outer reaches of Siberia. How much more “nonlocal” can we get, right here in the larger world?

He asks at one point: Why bother with psi research or remote viewing? It is not a spiritual path, it is simply a demonstration of the fact – which must be proven for oneself, not read in a book – that “we are capable of expanded awareness far beyond our physical bodies” – in fact, it is what we are, fundamentally, when everything else is stripped away.

The second half of The End of Suffering is inspired by Targ’s appreciation of another ancient hero of his, Padmasambhava, an 8th century Tibetan Dzogchen master, who wrote a treatise called “Self-Liberation Through Seeing with Naked Awareness.” This little book appears to be an attempt to describe the deepest states of Samadhi, which Padmasambhava claims is available to anyone.

One of the questions that continually arises in the reading of this book: Is there any value in looking at this stuff– Nagarjuna, for example–intellectually, conceptually? Is there really any value to thinking the unthinkable? (Isn’t that one way to describe koan practice?)

The answer for me is a surprising, yes, I think there is.

One of Targ’s themes is that we continuously make choices. It doesn’t always feel like that – it feels more like I am railroaded from one state to another by the movement of mind. Targ would say, that’s a pretty good description of how things are. But the moment always arrives when I know, yes, I have a choice. So I can choose to indulge a positive over a negative attitude, or a kind word over the stronger habitual impulse toward snarkiness. It’s not a bad idea for me to be reminded of that by someone I respect.

As mentioned earlier, Targ hits repeatedly this note that we continue to maintain our “story” about ourselves, nursing our grievances, failures and resentments from the past – otherwise known as ego. Why do we do it? Because we have always done it, and it’s a comfortable pattern of behavior. So we choose these familiar if lonely midden of mechanical sorrow over and over, instead of allowing the unknown, the new, the fresh breeze of “naked awareness,” to move in. It takes a certain push to get us past these habits.

Where does this push, this motivation come from? Can we just access it as an act of will, like deciding to set up a regular regimen at the gym? This is a major question for anyone who has tried their hand at meditation. How many people have toiled away for years at their practices with seemingly little to show for it?

Is profound suffering necessary in order to cut through the wall of sloth, insecurity and indifference? Russell Targ suggests that maybe that is the case. For him, it took the untimely death of his 40-year-old daughter Elisabeth, to rattle him. The grief that knocked him down seems to have forced him to finally become serious, at the age of 70, about the Dzogchen meditation practice he had dabbled in for years.

I confess that the first time I went through this book I felt that I was reading a collection of platitudes and aphorisms. We choose to indulge this old habit, we choose to reinforce that old resentment. Haven’t we all heard all this a thousand times before? But as is my habit when Nyogen Roshi continues to mention a book in his talks, I continued to read and reread it. As I went on in this way it seemed to me that there actually is value in being reminded – even on a purely superficial, intellectual level – that I don’t have to continue mindlessly down the same path. There is always something I can do about it, when I become aware of the harm I’m doing myself. Choice is involved. The old patterns continuously present themselves; if I can muster a bit of awareness in the face of them, I can choose not to indulge them. And, Roshi stresses that we don’t have to keep living that way: We can make better choices. Sometimes I can even glance back along this path and see that, as a result of these baby steps, life is quite a bit better than it used to be.

The burden of the past is a huge obstacle to anyone attempting to negotiate a serious path with a heart. Is there really anything else of value to be done?

Cartoon by Gahan Wilson


Also by Michael Isshin Spiller:

Where Am I? What Time Is It?