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Scenes from an Awakening

Painted soon after the second significant event, this shows the spiritual light Salzman sees.

Daybreak at La Touraine, by the author, Bertram W. Salzman

At the age of eight, this Academy Award-winning filmmaker had a mystical experience that would eventually lead him to teach others the power of wordless attention.

This article appeared in our April 2004 issue.

I was born in Brooklyn in 1931. When my mother died, my father, unable to take care of us, sent my brother and me to live in a Jewish orphanage. I was four and one-half — old enough to figure out that my life had changed in a big way. On the morning we arrived, my brother explained to me that “Mama was dead” and “We would never see her again.” My heart felt heavy and I became very sad.

About three years later, on my seventh birthday, I awoke feeling really light, as if something good was going to happen. Maybe someone was going to give me a present; perhaps it was the electric train set I had seen in the window of a toy store. I was just lying there in bed when all of a sudden I began to whisper to myself. It was as if I were repeating the words of someone inside of me; it sounded like my voice, only older: “You’re seven now, you’re not a baby anymore.” This was all the voice said, and the idea that I was not a baby anymore made me feel good.

About a year after that, I was slumped in my seat in Mrs. Braverman’s music appreciation class in Public School 202 in Brooklyn. I was still feeling bad about my mother’s death and being sent to the orphanage. “C’mon already, Mrs. Braverman, let’s get it over with,” I mumbled, staring at a beam of sunlight on the head of the girl in front of me. The sun moved a little bit, and a bright beam fell across the lap of my corduroy knickers. I bent forward and it hit me directly in the face. I leaned back and noticed that rays were starting to come in through the large windows. As I watched, I began to feel happy in my chest, which I’d never felt before.

Mrs. Braverman taught us to memorize classical music pieces by matching word rhymes to melodies. She explained that the record she was about to play was the “Morning” movement from the Peer Gynt suite by Edvard Grieg. She said Peer Gynt, who lived high in the Alps, would get up every day at dawn to look at the sunrise over the distant peaks. At the right moment, he would raise his arms up to heaven, and the valley down below would fill with bright rays of golden sunshine, as though Peer Gynt himself had given a command. “How great,” I thought, and I began to sing loudly along with the other kids:

“Morning is breaking and Peer Gynt is waking.”

I stood up and raised my arms up as Peer Gynt did, concentrated on the light shining in through the big windows, and began swaying with the music, which filled my head and heart. All of a sudden, the whole assembly hall turned bright; everything and everybody was glowing in a golden light. My head filled with a vibrating feeling that I could actually hear. It sounded like a million fireflies in my brain. My whole body was shaking and glowing. For the first time in my life I was truly happy and completely peaceful. I looked into the bright light and smiled; something in that golden light knew how I felt and breathed love back into my heart. I kept singing, “Morning is breaking and Peer Gynt is waking....”

Reclaiming the Silence

Many years later, after being discharged from military service, I found a sort of spiritual home at the Art Students League of New York. The League was infused with a mysterious beauty that would arrive unexpectedly and silence my mind for days, much like the first experience in Mrs. Braverman’s class. I mentioned these periods of silence to a friend, a Zen meditator. When I finished, he smiled and handed me his pocket edition of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. “Here, read this. It will tell you more than I can about that. What you’ve been experiencing is what Zen is all about.” I was not sure what he meant. These periods of silence had come and gone on their own for many years. I assumed this was the way it was for everyone, just as I assumed that all of the children in Mrs. Braverman’s class had the same experience that I had. “After all,” I reasoned, “this must be why people listen to music.” Right then, I began to hear that familiar inner sound like fireflies, which usually preceded the silence. I thanked my friend for the book and hurried out of the League.

As I headed down Broadway to the Forty second Street library, I studied Siddhartha’s face on the book cover. I searched my mind for the reason the inner fireflies had erupted in my brain — something to do with that tranquil expression; it seemed achingly familiar. I jogged up the wide steps of the library and entered its peaceful, silent halls and suddenly I knew what it was: The silence in Siddhartha’s expression had begun vibrating within me. His expression had the same quality of silence and peace I felt when I stood and raised my arms toward the light and sang, “Morning is breaking...”!

Hadn’t the transformation of Siddhartha come at the moment of his deepest despair, as had mine? The Presence in the light that had smiled at me during Mrs. Braverman’s music class was the same eternal Presence that Siddhartha experienced when he studied the glowing net of pearls. The fireflies in my head responded and turned up the volume.

After finishing Siddhartha for the third time, I began a practice of meditation, and that familiar silence has never abandoned me.

Peace Amid Chaos

During the 1970s, while working as a television director for NBC, I was approached by two opposing camps of staffers, each warning me of the other’s duplicity. I had been forewarned that this might happen, and I survived the ordeal because the compassionate understanding of each person’s life was a natural quality found in the inner silence of my practice. It was this compassionate silence that gave me the ability to keep a serene distance. Each side assumed that I loved them the most, and in fact I did. On another occasion, when I complained about the quality of the music NBC created for our series, I was called into a vice president’s office and warned that any further complaining would cost me my job. Wasn’t quality important to him? I asked, and he responded, “Yes, but corporate profits are even more important.” I saw that he was frightened. Budget overruns could cost him his job. I smiled and said, “I understand.” He was so relieved that he put an arm around my shoulder and invited me to lunch. I accepted, but never accepted work from NBC again.

In 1976, just after I won an Academy Award for “Best Live Action Short Film,” I decided that I had achieved enough in the outer world and would turn my full attention inward and address the life of the soul. I retired to a small 500-year-old farmhouse in the Loire Valley region of France. My wife, Jeannie, created a flower garden, and I painted, studied, meditated, and began creating Attention Exercises, first by using myself as a guinea pig and then experimenting on unsuspecting guests. What was encouraging was that the results of these Attention Exercises were uniform. Each shift away from thought brought a sense of relief — an ending of tension and stress. Maybe this could work as a sort of calming therapy.

The Second Significant Event

Words, words, words. My career as a writer director of films required that I be able to use them. I depended on words to describe action and events, which were ascribed to the characters in my scripts. I felt like a word junkie, living in an unreal world.

In France, I was reading various spiritual works, among them a book by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosophical linguist. Wittgenstein said that words are only symbols that represent actual things and events. For instance, I lived in France. When I looked out of the studio window, all that I observed was France. Then it hit me! What I should have said is that what I observed happened to be named “France.” I found a small slate, wrote the word “France,” and studied it until it took on a solid reality. Next, I wiped the slate clean. When the word vanished, I was amazed to discover that “France” also vanished! What remained was an unnamed space containing unnamed objects.

If France could disappear so easily, what about Bertram W. Salzman? I wrote my name on the slate, then wiped it clean, and Bertram W. Salzman vanished! What remained was an extremely subtle, centerless and egoless “me” — weightless and transparent, timeless and fearless. I looked out of the window at the village, where I had always been the “subject” in this scene, with either people or things as objects. Now both the world and I had become objects. With the ending of “me,” things came alive both within and without. In fact, “within” and “without” were one movement in one timeless moment. Everything was in the sharpest focus; the colors and shapes of objects were beyond vivid, and more real and more beautiful than I had ever experienced. The trees outside the window appeared animated. I felt they were aware of my presence, and would speak if they had the ability to do so. In “unnaming” them, and myself, we had been freed!

Total Freedom

In 1991, we moved to California, and for several years I experimented with Attention Exercises in a meditation class that I gave at the local community center. At times, I wondered what the actual experience of Total Freedom would feel like. An echo of the phrase began to vibrate within my consciousness, along with a sense of elation. In the past, whenever this type of vibrating elation occurred, it meant something special was going to happen — similar to what I had experienced on the morning of my seventh birthday.

The vibrating went on for months, and one night I awoke in the early dawn to find my whole body shaking. I got out of bed quietly, not to awaken Jeannie, and went into the kitchen. Not exactly sure what to do, I got a pad and pencil, sat down, and waited. One half hour passed before it occurred to me that the shaking might have something to do with the notion of Total Freedom. With this thought, I began writing furiously, concluding that, “Because Total Freedom means to be ‘totally free of structure,’ it represents death of the individual. Total Freedom from structure is death.”

With that sentence, I died! Life completely disappeared. The structure of my entire psychological consciousness vanished. I’m not sure how long this lasted. Probably not more than a few minutes, but it might just as well have been a few thousand years. For that entire period there was a gap of “nothingness.” As the gap closed, the first thing that entered my consciousness was the sound of my neighbor’s rooster crowing. When I heard it, joy rushed through every cell in my body. I thought, “So that’s it. It’s okay, I don’t mind a little structure. I don’t need to be totally free just now.”

I loved my neighbor’s rooster. His call had awakened me from death. Later, as I crawled back into bed, Jeannie, half asleep, muttered, “What’s happening?” I answered, “I died!” But she had already fallen back to sleep.

Try Some Attention Exercises

The following exercises are from a 21-week course with Bertram W. Salzman. Practice each 15 minutes daily for six days.

Locate/Be Still Procedure

The primary exercise — should be done just before beginning any exercise. The sequence is important.

  1. Take several deep breaths, then silently but emphatically say to yourself, Slow down, slow down, be still! Wait silently for several moments to allow the mind to become quiet.
  2. Project your attention to a spot about two feet in front of your face. Without looking down, notice that you can see several parts of your body, such as arms and legs.
  3. Notice that your peripheral vision has broadened to include the other objects in the room. Open your peripheral vision still more widely and notice the adjacent walls. This is called "Open Attention."
  4. Without turning your head, and with gentle Open Attention, slowly study the objects in the room. Include the object you call your body, which has now fallen into your field of vision.
  5. Sit for five minutes with this effortless Open Attention, keeping your peripheral vision as wide open as possible. Pay particular attention to how silent space is!

Holding the Head 

Helps restore the ability to feel love.

  1. Locate/Be Still. Take several deep breaths and relax. Slow everything down.
  2. Feel the weight of your head and put your full attention on it.
  3. Consider your attention to be like the beam of a very powerful flashlight. From the Locating position (two feet in front of your face) aim the beam directly back at yourself, and have it wrap itself lightly around the entire head.
  4. If a thought arises, tighten your attention to a more energetic concentration in order to stop its movement. If the thought moves, concentrate even more aggressively and move with it. Don't let it "get away."
  5. When the thought movement stops, let up a bit on the concentration but remain alert, ready to repeat this procedure should another thought begin to move.
  6. Under no circumstances should you get involved in the "story line" of the thought; simply observe it dispassionately.
  7. Allow the silent space of this awareness to enter your body in the form of light. As the rays of light enter through the top of your head, feel every cell pulsating with light energy.
  8. As you feel your body filled with the light of pure Attention, complete this exercise for the full duration. Sense how your body may feel like an empty shell. Notice how silent the space is!

Watching the Monkey 

Helps bring inner calm amid outer chaos.

If one is honest, one sees oneself playing many roles in a group — trying to win, wanting approval, trying to control or dominate others, being envious, angry, or bored. Our mad monkey mind is just desperate to stay in the game. This exercise is designed to help you end all of the various roles that the monkey plays. You are not going to try to stop the monkey. Rather, you are going to watch it, and identify what it is saying or doing. When a certain thought comes into your mind such as, "Oh, I know a better joke," or "I'll tell them the one about the man at the bar with the dog," all you have to do is silently notice — catch the monkey — identify its behavior, then silently state; "Showing off." Do not try to stop the thought. Just watch as it fades. Eventually it may vanish completely.

  1. Locate/Be Still. Take several deep breaths and relax. Slow everything down.
  2. This exercise is best done in a group. Become aware of your thoughts as you speak, or just watch the people in the group.
  3. Silently notice any compulsive reactions to what is occurring, whether it is seeking approval, trying to control or dominate, going along with group gossip, looking to shine, feeling jealous or envious, or trying to be witty.
  4. Notice your mental attitude. When you feel you are about to act out any of the above compulsions, verbalize it to yourself silently. For example, if you feel the need for approval, watch the "approval monkey" and silently verbalize: "Bob, you want approval." Immediately stop and watch in silence. Or, if you feel critical, watch the "critical monkey" and silently verbalize: "Mary, you are being critical." Immediately stop and watch in silence.

True spiritual transformation liberates us from the limited life we know to the freedom of life eternal. Through the flowering of the subtle mind we become transformed, and live in the perfume of the divine. — B.W.S.

This article is adapted from Being a Buddha on Broadway, Copyright © 2004 by Bertram W. Salzman. Used by arrangement with Inner Directions Publishing, Carlsbad, California.

After a successful career as an artist, Bertram W. Salzman became renowned in the world of educational films for children, winning an Academy Award for Angel and Big Joe as well as eight other festival awards. His many spiritual documentaries include Abide as the Self: Teachings and Life of Ramana Maharshi and Open to the Infinite: An Evening with Ram Dass

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