On Awakening: First-Hand Accounts & Descriptions
This is a collection of spiritual awakening experiences, pulled from auto-biographical accounts. This has the unfortunate side-effect of selecting for "big event", awe-inspiring, sudden awakenings, as the inexorable drip-drip-drip of diligent practice producing consistent gains is not nearly so sexy.
Enlightenment is an accident; Practice makes us accident prone.
—I can't find a clear source for this, so let's just pretend I invented it
Without distance we cannot always tell, in the immediacy of experience, which events are most important to the overall journey. After all, not every outstanding experience is a milestone, and not every milestone is an outstanding experience.
—Bernadette Roberts, What Is Self?
One night not long after my twenty-ninth birthday, I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train — everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing of the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.
"I cannot live with myself any longer." This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. "Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the T and the 'self that T cannot live with." "Maybe," I thought, "only one of them is real."
I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words "resist nothing," as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.
I was awakened by the chirping of a bird outside the window. I had never heard such a sound before. My eyes were still closed, and I saw the image of a precious diamond. Yes, if a diamond could make a sound, this is what it would be like. I opened my eyes. The first light of dawn was filtering through the curtains. Without any thought, I felt, I knew, that there is infinitely more to light than we realize. That soft luminosity filtering through the curtains was love itself. Tears came into my eyes. I got up and walked around the room. I recognized the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence. I picked up things, a pencil, an empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all.
That day I walked around the city in utter amazement at the miracle of life on earth, as if I had just been born into this world.
More fundamental, perhaps, than any experience is the undercurrent of peace that has never left me since then. Sometimes it is very strong, almost palpable, and others can feel it too. At other times, it is somewhere in the background, like a distant melody. Later, people would occasionally come up to me and say "I want what you have. Can you give it to me, or show me how to get it?" And I would say: "You have it already. You just can't feel it because your mind is making too much noise."
— The Power of Now
It strikes unexpectedly at 9:00 A.M., on the surface platform of the London subway system. Getting up at home half an hour earlier than usual, I am en route to the sesshin on a peaceful, balmy Sunday morning. I am a little absent-minded, and take the first train available. I wind up at a station where I have never been before. There, I submit to the reality of a slight delay. After the clatter of the departing train re- cedes, the empty platform is quiet. Waiting at leisure for the next train to Victoria Station, I turn and look away from the tracks, off to the south, in the general direction of the river Thames. This view includes no more than the dingy interior of the station, some grimy buildings in the middle ground, and a bit of open sky above and beyond. I idly survey this ordinary scene, unfocused, no thought in mind.
Instantly, the entire view acquires three qualities:
- Absolute Reality
- Intrinsic Rightness
- Ultimate Perfection
With no transition, it is all complete. Every detail of the entire scene in front is registered, integrated, and found wholly satisfying, all in itself.
The new scene is set gently, not fixed on hold. It conveys a slightly enhanced sense of immediacy. And despite the other qualities infusing it, the purely optical aspects of the scene are no different from the way they were a split second before. The pale-gray sky, no bluer; the light, no brighter; the detail, no finer-grained.
And furthermore, this scene also conveys another sense. It is being viewed directly with all the cool, clinical detachment of a mirror as it witnesses a landscape bathed in moonlight.
Yes, there is the paradox of this extraordinary viewing. But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-Me-Mine. Vanished in one split second is the familiar sense that this person is viewing an ordinary city scene. The new viewing proceeds impersonally, not pausing to register the further paradox that no human subject is “doing” it.
Its vision of profound, implicit, perfect reality continues for a few seconds, perhaps as many as three to five. Then it subtly blends into a second series of lancinating insights.
Within this second wave are three more indivisible themes. They penetrate the experiant, each conveying Total Understanding at depths far beyond simple knowledge:
- This is the eternal state of affairs. It has always been just this way, remains just so, and will continue just so indefinitely
- There is nothing more to do. This train station, in and of itself, and the whole rest of this world are already totally complete and intrinsically valid. They require no further intervention (on the part of whoever is remotely inferred).
- There is nothing whatsoever to fear.
These insights penetrate for perhaps another three to five seconds. There is no counting of insights or of seconds.
Then a third wave of pulsing insight-interpretations wells up. It is a natural ferment, a fountain flowing with knowledge-ideas. By this time, some kind of diminutive subjective i seems to exist off in the background, because something vague is responding with faint discriminations. And the following ideas now arrive in sequence:
- This totally new view of things can’t be conveyed. It is too extraordinary. No conceptual framework, no words exist to describe the depths and the qualities of these insights. Only someone who went through the same experience could understand.
- i can’t take myself so seriously any longer. Because this particular interior feeling is that of a diminutive i, it is so indicated, using lowercase letters.
- A wide buffer zone exists before this i gets involved in anything. The zone seems almost to occupy space, because it takes the form of feeling literally distanced from outside events.
These three ideas last for perhaps another three to five seconds. Then two others enter. The second idea is an observation now being made by a growing, self-referent awareness. It discovers that it has a physical center inside the bodily self of that vaguely familiar person who is now standing on the platform.
- This physical person is feeling totally released mentally. Clear, simplified, free of every limitation. Feeling especially good inside. Revived and enormously grateful! Wow! But it is a big, silent exclamation mark. This expansion of capacities remains internalized, does not proceed into overtly exultant behavior. And even though this person is now standing straighter and moving more freely, these two physical feelings are much less obvious than they were just after the earlier absorption in Kyoto, years before.
- This experience is Objective vision. No subject is inside. It lacks all subjective ties.
— Zen & The Brain
As I mentioned, during my two years of graduate school, I spent my summers in San Francisco, being initiated into the drug-centered zeitgeist of Haight- Ashbury. One afternoon, my friends and I dropped acid and went to the movie Yellow Submarine. The next day, I was alone in a friend’s apartment and decided to smoke some hashish. Then I got the munchies, and began eating a delicious, chewy chocolate brownie.
I really got into that brownie. For a few minutes, I entered a state of samadhi (extraordinary concentration) centered on the taste and tactile sensation of the brownie. I became so focused on the act of eating the brownie that everything else fell away. There was just the brownie.
It was sweet and yummy, but I also noticed that it had interesting textural properties. There were holes in the brownie caused by gas bubbles, and around those holes, the cake was harder and more dense than in its other parts. As I bit into the brownie, I could clearly detect the diffuse texture of the cake, the dense envelope around the holes, and the nothingness inside the hole. I remember thinking, “The holes taste as good as the cake.” /At that instant, the duality of existence versus nonexistence passed away, and for a moment, I was thrust into a world of oneness./ Something had shifted—dramatically.
That shift did not immediately go away, even after I had completely come down from the drugs. For about two weeks, I walked around in a magic world. Prior to that, the things I had read about in my Buddhist studies seemed to me to be nothing but mythological ruminations and philosophical conjectures, elaborated by scholars with too much time on their hands. Now, for the first time, I realized that they were not just concocting speculations. They were trying to describe something that human beings actually experience. After a couple of weeks, the experience faded into a pleasant memory, but it left me with a permanent intellectual shift. I now knew that certain parts of the Buddhist tradition, which I had been studying as philosophical concepts, were in fact direct descriptions of actual experience. At the time, I had no way to get back to that experience, but at least I knew for sure that there was something in Buddhism besides quaint culture, scholastic speculation, and superstition.
I went to Okamura sensei and said, “My meditation is becoming interesting.” He said, “Oh, is that so? Interesting in what way?” I described to him the slowing of the breath, the relaxing into the pain, and the semi-quieting of the self-talk. He said that that was good, and that I was beginning to experience the very first stages of zammai (which is the Japanese pronunciation of samadhi). Of course, as a scholar of Buddhism, I was very familiar with the term, a generic one for “concentration.” I could tell you how to say it in a half-dozen languages, although I had never experienced it. But now, I knew firsthand what the term meant! Okamura sensei told me that this experience would become deeper and deeper as I continued my practice, but then he said something that totally blew my mind: “You must try to be in this state at all times, even as you go about ordinary activity.” I thought to myself, “I can barely get a little taste of it after an hour of busting my buns, trying to count my breath. How can I possibly be in this state in day-to-day life?”
He then said something even more mind-boggling. “As a general principle, any positive state that you experience within the context of silent sitting practice, you must try to attain in the midst of ordinary life.”
You have to go to a cistern filled with half-frozen water, break the ice on top, fill a huge wooden bucket, and then squat and dump the bone-chilling liquid over your naked body. It’s so cold that the water freezes the moment it touches the floor, and your towel freezes in your hand, so you are sliding around barefoot on ice, trying to dry your body with a frozen hand towel. For me, this cold-water purification was a horrific ordeal. Maybe being a thin-skinned Californian had something to do with it. I did notice, however, that if I stayed in a state of high concentration while I did it, my distress was noticeably lessened. On the other hand, as soon as my attention wandered, the suffering became unbearable. I could see that this whole training situation was a giant biofeedback device designed to keep a person in some degree of samadhi at all times.
On the third day of this training, as I was about to pour the water over myself, I had an epiphany. It hit me with crystal clarity. I was faced with a trichotomy; the future forked into three branches. I could spend the next ninety- seven days in a state of high concentration all my waking hours, spend them in abject misery, or give up and fail to complete my commitment. The choice was obvious.
When I completed the hundred-day training, it was the spring of a new year, and I had a new self. I had entered the crucible (or should I say cryostat?) of the traditional Shingon training and had come out a different person. From that time on, I was able to consciously experience the taste of high concentration whenever I wanted to. One hundred days subtracted from my life were really a very small price to pay in order to live a totally different kind of life.
— The Science of Enlightenment
But my original teacher, the one who got me to sit, the Zen professor, gave me a koan when I left Japan: “Who am I?” He said, “This samadhi stuff is great, but you have to go beyond samadhi. You have to get satori, enlightenment. That’s a whole other thing.” He said, “Work on the koan, 'Who am I?’” “Well, how do I work on that koan?” “Just turn consciousness back on itself.” That was the instruction. So I was trying to suppress my thoughts and get into samadhi, but I was also trying to work on “Who am I?” and asking, “Where does thought come from, where does consciousness come from?” I did that for a few years, and things were pretty good, because I had this little edge on life.
Then, probably sometime in the mid-’70s, I was reading and getting stoned all day, and I was alone. I had been staying with my parents, but they were away, so I had the place to myself. I had been alone all day, and I realized, Oh, I haven’t done any sitting today. I was actually stoned on marijuana, but I thought, It’s getting late, I should probably do my sitting. So I put down the zafu and sat, and the instant I sat down, the koan was there: “Who am I?” Then suddenly there was no boundary to me at all. I was so shocked I actually got up. And there was still no boundary to me. I was walking around, looking at things, and there was no border between me and anything else. But I still had thoughts. Some sort of negative thought came up, and the walls started to laugh at me for having a negative thought. Of course that’s a projection, but there was a kind of intimacy between inside and outside. That was just emblematic of what was going on. I thought, Oh my god, this doesn't have anything to do with whether I’m concentrated or not concentrated. There is just no boundary separating me and what is around me.
I thought, This is too good to be true. This isn't going to last. Then I turned on the TV and I was watching cartoons or something, but it was still there. It was getting late and I thought, I'm going to wake up tomorrow and it's going to be just a pleasant memory. But when I woke up the next day it was still there! It didn't go away, and it never went away.
— Realizing Awakened Consciousness
One day, however, I had an experience before which I could not give myself. I had been gazing in captivated fascination at the beauty around me when the question came to mind, “What is the source of this joy?” And as though in answer to my question, everything disappeared. It was as though creation vanished and I was on the verge of vanishing with it. The experience was both wonderful (Truth!) and terrible (Truth is Void!). As I beheld this void I sensed that I was on the verge of disappearing into inert blankness and backed away in terror. I could not fathom why, but it seemed to me that God wanted my complete annihilation—not just my small, personal death, but the cessation of all possible being—and I became aware of the limits of my giving. God did not want just my will, actions, or love—he wanted my existence.
—from the foreword to What is Self?
Through past experience I had become familiar with many different types and levels of silence. There is a silence within, a silence that descends from without; a silence that stills existence and a silence that engulfs the entire universe. There is a silence of the self and its faculties of will, thought, memory, and emotions. There is a silence in which there is nothing, a silence in which there is something; and finally, there is the silence of no-self and the silence of God. If there was any path on which I could chart my contemplative experiences, it would be this ever-expanding and deepening path of silence.
On one occasion, however, this path seemed to come to an end when I entered a silence from which I would never totally emerge. But I must preface this account by saying that on previous occasions, I had come upon a pervasive silence of the faculties so total as to give rise to subtle apprehensions of fear. It was a fear of being engulfed forever, of being lost, annihilated, or blacking out and possibly never returning. In such moments, to ward off the fear, I would make some movement of abandoning my fate to God—a gesture of the will, a thought, some type of projection. And every time I did this the silence would be broken and I would gradually return to my usual self and security. Then, one day, this was not to be the case.
Down the road from where I lived there was a monastery by the sea, and on afternoons when I could get away I liked to spend some time alone in the silence of its chapel. This particular afternoon was no different than others. Once again there was a pervasive silence and once again I waited for the onset of fear to break it up. But this time the fear never came. Whether by habit of expectation or the reality of a fear held in abeyance, I felt some moments of suspense or tension as if waiting for fear to touch me. During these moments of waiting I felt as if I were poised on a precipice or balanced on a thin tightrope, with the known (myself) on one side and the unknown (God) on the other. A movement of fear would have been a movement toward the self and the known. Would I pass over this time, or would I fall back into my self as usual? Since there was no power of my own to move or choose I knew the decision was not mine; within, all was still, silent and motionless. In this stillness I was not aware of the moment when the fear and tension of waiting had left. Still, I continued to wait for a movement not of myself and when no movement came, I simply remained in a great stillness.
Sister was rattling the keys of the chapel door. It was time to lock up, and time to go home and prepare dinner for my children. Always in the past, having to abruptly pull out of a deep silence was difficult, for my energies were then at a low ebb, and the effort of moving was like lifting a dead weight. This time, however, it suddenly occurred to me not to think about getting up, but to just do it. I think I learned a valuable lesson here, because I left the chapel as a feather floats in the wind. Once outside, I fully expected to return to my ordinary energies and thinking mind, but this day I had a difficult time because I was continually falling back into the great silence. The drive home was a constant battle against complete unconsciousness, and trying to get dinner was like trying to move a mountain.
For three exhausting days it was a battle to stay awake and ward off the silence that every second threatened to overpower me. The only way I could accomplish the minimum of chores was by persistently reminding myself of what I was doing: now I'm peeling the carrots, now I'm cutting them, now I'm getting out a pan, now I'm putting water in the pan and on and on until, finally, I was so exhausted I would have to run for the couch. The moment I lay down I immediately blacked out. Sometimes it seemed I was out for hours, when it was only five minutes; at other times, it seemed like five minutes when it was hours. In this blackout there were no dreams, no awareness of my surroundings, no thoughts, no experiences—absolutely nothing.
On the fourth day I noticed the silence easing up so I could stay awake with less effort and, therefore, trusted myself to go shopping for groceries. I do not know what happened, but suddenly a lady was shaking me and asking, ''Are you asleep?" I smiled at her while trying to get my bearings because, for the moment, I had not the slightest idea how I got in the store or what I should be doing. So I had to start all over again: now I am pushing the basket, now I must get some oranges, and so on. The morning of the fifth day, I could not find my slippers anywhere, but when getting breakfast for the children I opened the refrigerator and what I found there was unbelievable, positively ludicrous.
By the ninth day, the silence had so eased up I felt assured that a little while longer and all would be normal again. But as the days went by and I was once more able to function as usual I noticed something was missing, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Something, or some part of me had not returned. Some part of me was still in silence. It was as if some part of my mind had closed down. I blamed it on the memory because it was the last to return, and when it finally did, I noticed how flat and lifeless it was—like colorless slides on an antique film. It was dead. Not only was the distant past empty, but also the past of the previous minutes.
Now when something is dead you soon lose the habit of trying to resurrect it; thus when the memory is lifeless you learn to live as one who has no past—you learn to live in the present moment. That this could now be done effortlessly—and out of sheer necessity—was one good outcome of an otherwise exhausting experience. And even when I regained my practical memory, the effortless living in the present never left. But with the return of a practical memory I discounted my earlier notion of what was missing and decided that the silent aspect of my mind was actually a kind of "absorption," an absorption in the unknown, which for me, of course, was God. It was like a continuous gaze at the great, silent Unknowable which no activity could interrupt. This was another welcomed outcome of the initial experience.
This interpretation of the silent aspect of my mind (absorption) seemed sufficiently explanatory for about a month when I again changed my mind and decided that this absorption was actually an awareness, a special kind of "seeing" so that what had really happened was not a close-down of any kind, but actually an opening-up; nothing was missing, "something" had been added. After a while, however, this notion also did not seem to fit, it was somehow dissatisfying, something else had happened. So I decided to go to the library to see if I could solve this mystery through someone else's experience.
What I found out is that, if it cannot be found in the works of John of the Cross, it will probably not be found at all. While the writings of the Saint were well known to me, I could not find there an explanation of my specific experience; nor was I able to find it anywhere in the library. But coming home that day, walking downhill with a panorama of valley and hills before me, I turned my gaze inward, and what I saw, stopped me in my tracks. Instead of the usual unlocalized center of myself, there was nothing there, it was empty; and at the moment of seeing this there was a flood of quiet joy and I knew, finally I knew what was missing—it was my "self."
Physically I felt as if a great burden had been lifted from me, I felt so light I looked down at my feet to be sure they were on the ground. Later I thought of St. Paul's experience, "Now, not I, but Christ lives in me," and realized that despite my emptiness no one else had moved in to take my place. So I decided that Christ WAS the joy, the emptiness itself; He was all that was left of this human experience. For days I walked with this joy that, at times, was so great, I marveled at the flood gates and wondered how long they would hold.
This experience was the height of my contemplative vocation. It was the ending of a question that had plagued me for years: where do "I" leave off and God begin? Over the years the line that separated us had grown so thin and faded that most of the time I couldn't see it at all, but always my mind had wanted desperately to know: what was His and what was mine? Now my quandary was over. There was no "mine" anymore, there was only His. I could have lived in this joyous state the rest of my life, but such was not in the Great Plan. It was just a matter of days, a week perhaps, when my entire spiritual life—the work, the suffering, the experiences and the goals of a lifetime—suddenly exploded into a million irretrievable pieces and there was nothing, absolutely nothing left.
— The Experience of No-Self
The book spans several awakenings and, as I continued to read, I wanted to excerpt the entire thing. At the end of the autobiographical section, she offers this "compendium of the journey":
The moment was unheralded, unrecognized, and unknown; it was the moment I entered a great silence and never returned. Beyond the threshold of the known, the door upon self was closed, but the door upon the Unknown was opened in a fixed gaze that could not look away. Impossible to see or remember self or to be self-conscious, the mind was restricted to the present moment. The more it tried to reflect on itself, the more overpowering the silence.
By steadily gazing outward upon the Unknown, the silence abated and the emptiness of self became a joy. But the search for the divine center or still-point—God within—revealed not one emptiness, but two, for when there is no self, there is no Other; without a personal self there seems to be no personal God, for without a subject, there can be no object. The still-point or unitive center had vanished, taking with it every sense of life the self possessed a self which could no longer be felt to exist. What remained was not known. There was no life, no will, no energy, no feelings, no experiences, no within, no spiritual or psychic life. Yet, life was somewhere, because all else went on as usual.
Though it could not be localized or found within any object of sight or mind, somewhere out-of-doors life was flowing peacefully, assuredly. On a bluff above the sea it revealed itself: life is not in anything; rather, all things are in life. The many are immersed in the One, even that which remains when there is no self is absorbed in the One. No longer a distance between self and other, all is now known in the immediacy of this identity. Particulars dissolve into the One, and individual objects give way to reveal that which is the same throughout all variety and multiplicity. To see this new dimension of life is the gift of amazing glasses through which God is not only seen everywhere, but AS Everywhere. Truly, God is all that exists—all, of course, but the self.
But what sees this Oneness and knows that it sees? The eye that looks is not within, it is not of mind or body, it is not of self. Unknown and outside—at first like glasses, and later, above the head—the eye was known to exist, but it could neither be seen or looked at.
It did not dissolve into Oneness—the seer and seen were not identical. But a greater mystery still: what remained in the absence of self? What is this that walks and talks and is aware of the eye upon Oneness? Among them—no-self, the eye, and Oneness—no identity could be found.
At one time, the Oneness grew to an overpowering intensity, as if drawing itself together from all parts, drawing inward and obliterating all that existed, including the eye that saw it and that which remained. At the threshold of extinction, the eye flickered and grew dim; instantly, that which remained turned away. To bear the vision, to enter in, the light of the eye must not go out. Somehow it must become stronger, but what kind of strength is this and how could it be acquired? There was something still to be done—but what? No-self is helpless; it has no strength; it is not the light of the eye nor the eye itself.
Nine months passed before the eye upon Oneness became the eye upon nothingness. Without warning or reason, all particulars dissolved into absolute nothingness. At one point, the mind came upon the hideous void of life, the insidious nothingness of death and decay strangling life from every object of sight. Only self can escape such a vision because only self knows fear, and only fear can generate the weapons of defense. Without a self the only escape is no escape; the void must be faced, come what may. On the hillside, the epitome of all that is dreadful and insane is confronted; but who or what beheld this terror, or could endure it? In the absence of self, all that remained was an immovable stillness, an unbreakable, unfeeling silence. Would it move, crack open, or would it hold? This could not be known, surmised or even hoped for. What would be, would be.
The stillness held fast because nothingness cannot know fear or dread. Yet the wild flower yielded, it gave way, expanded infinitely to reveal a great intensity that could now be seen without the eye growing dim or the light going out. The body dissolves and melts into the stillness of what remains. Afterwards, the eye no longer sees anything at all; instead, it presses downward on the mind like a terrible taskmaster demanding that it ''See!" The mind can no longer focus on anything in particular or in general, it can see nothing within or without. It is in a state of complete unknowing, a dire state and a Passageway wherein, for months, the mind is fixed in a rigid now-moment out of which it cannot move and in which, there is nothing to see.
In this Passageway true life, unlocalized and nowhere, reveals itself as that which remains and knows no death. It is this life that continues despite unseeing and unknowing, an eternal life that, strangely, has no God as object of vision. But how can ordinary life go on without the energies of self and when true life has no such energies? How is it possible to stay in the flesh and in the ordinary mind when no life seems to lie therein? The only answer is time—time to grow accustomed, to acclimate, to learn all over again how to live this new life. To do so, self is nowhere, it cannot help; the mind does not know how; and the body keeps melting away.
When the adjustment is made—but barely—the journey appears to be over. At first, the nothingness of existence becomes endurable; later, it is an ordinary sight; and finally, it is so taken for granted it is never noticed or seen again. When nothing moves in to take its place, nothingness becomes all that is; and this, finally, had to be accepted as the most obvious of ultimate truths. Here it could be clearly seen that all the searching, speculating, and experiencing of a lifetime had been a gigantic waste, a head-trip of such proportions that only an infant mentality can bare such a truth: the end is like the beginning, and everything in between is pure deception. The state of unknowing is permanent; since the mind can hold on to no content, there is nothing more that can be learned. There will be no more journeys; this is the last, the end—an end which is absolute nothingness.
As the river flows, from out of the formless void arises the greatest of great realities—a simple smile. The smile itself, the one that smiled and the one at which it smiled were as identical as the trinity. The smile is neither subject nor object, but the act and manifestation of the otherwise unknown and unmanifest; it is the form of the formless, the Eternal Form from which all multiple form arises and to which it ultimately returns. The true nature, then, of what remains beyond self is Eternal Form—the act and manifestation of the formless and unmanifest. The relative mind cannot hold on to this truth, it cannot grasp, conveyor even believe—that which has revealed itself. This identity can never be communicated because it is the one existent that can never be either objectified or subjectified.
Later, after its four-month absence, the Oneness reappeared, but no longer through the medium of particular form. But its return was too late; something had now been revealed, compared to which, all else was but a deception. Still, the mind wanted to look, it had to look, and when it did, the Oneness vanished; but instantly, the mind understood why. It understood that Oneness—what Is or God—can never be the object (or subject) of vision because it is the Act of vision itself. Here the gap between the subject and object of the Eye seeing itself was irrevocably closed; God is neither seer nor seen, but "seeing." After a long passage, the mind had finally come to rest and rejoice in its own understanding. Now it was ready and prepared to take its rightful place in the immediacy and practicality of the now-moment. There will be no more looking, no need for the mind to know what it now knows is forever beyond itself. In this unknowing the mind is content to dwell forever.
Yet another period of acclimating, of adjusting to the non-relative life beyond the Passageway. Then, just as self had once faded into silence, so too, the silence and stillness of no-self faded beyond recognition. The journey—its experiences, insights, and learning devices—had only been the means of transition from the old to the new life, from a relative to a non-relative way of knowing and seeing. It was all over now; beyond the relational the Eye seeing itself is never static because its seeing is so continuously new that the now-moment is never the same. Since the eternally new is of Its essence, the journey moves on, eternally onward.
The best day of my life—my rebirthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.
It was eighteen years ago, when I was thirty-three, that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood, over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, with Kangchenjunga and Everest unprominent among its snow-peaks, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of "me", unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face - my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.
—Douglas Harding's moment of discovery
It was clear that my suffering was caused by the endless, meaningless narrative running in consciousness. For whatever unknown "reason," the decision manifested to try to stop it, although there was no reason to believe that such a thing was even possible.
Being in grad school, there was much available on the subject in the university library. One day, eating lunch on the lawn near the main admin building, I opened a book and read the first line of a poem… "All beings are from the very beginning Buddhas."
Although it wasn't clear exactly what that fully meant, the world blew open into a weird, wonderful space never seen before, completely without thought, suffering, desire or fear with everything somehow in a different dimension with vibrant energy. This lasted for about 45 minutes or so and then was closed down by all of the earlier conditioning and complete lack of preparation or understanding.
The critical result, however, was that now it was clear that there was a possibility of the brain, all by itself, manifesting such a transcendent space.
This was followed by decades of Zen meditation with several teachers, and with a parallel intense study of yoga in many different schools, lineages and teachers.
This continued for 25 years of 2 hours/day early-morning practice and retreats and teachers' training programs, in both meditation and yoga, totaling about 20,000 hours. Meanwhile, there was a very active professional life in R&D and business management, in several companies and institutions with different jobs and locations and with much travel, along with a wife and two kids.
As the practice deepened, it was apparent that "attachments" were where the last vestiges of the "I" were being held. Wherever there was an attachment, it was clearly seen that there was an I/me/my at the root of it as the core around which it was structured. Each attachment also clearly had its "own" separate I/me/my. So what was then required was to go through every attachment, and surrender each one.
The work focused on Shankara's Nirvana Shatakam, which had manifested magically one dark, starry night half-way up Haleakala on Maui. This text is basically a list of all the classes of attachments. The approach was to focus on each attachment and its particular story, or stories, feel into it, and then let go of it. This continued until all that was left was attachment to my two daughters. That step was delayed until it was apparent that they were secure and would not suffer from whatever might happen, as there was no certainty what would occur when the final attachment was gone. There was even the fear that this body would die without thought and the "I."
However, even after this surrender, there remained a little vestige of an I/me/my which could be felt. It was not clear who/how to surrender it to "nothingness/emptiness." The solution that manifested was to have some entity come and take it away. Not surprisingly, the entity that it was surrendered to was Ramana Maharshi, whose teachings and presence had been the critical elements in the last stages of the journey.
Two or three days later, during the typical morning sequence of yoga postures focusing on the affirmation "I am not this body," going into an inverted posture that had been done thousands of times before, everything changed dramatically when coming down. There was no blinding flash of light, no chorus of angels, etc., but the "I/ego" had disappeared like a leaf had slipped from a hand, and there was just deep stillness, silence, now and presence. There was the clear, unmistakable, direct perception that this was "It."
It had been expected that the internal narrative thoughts would diminish considerably, as that was the goal after all, but it was a jolt when they just STOPPED, a long with all self-referential fears, desires and suffering.
—from this pdf