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Mysticism has been on my thoughts once more currently, partially due to the success of Why Buddhism Is True by my pal Robert Wright. Throughout a mystical expertise, you are feeling as if you’re encountering absolute actuality, regardless of the hell that’s. Wright explores the chance that meditation can induce highly effective mystical states, together with the supreme state generally known as enlightenment.
I ventured into this territory in my 2003 e book Rational Mysticism. I interviewed folks with each scholarly and private data of mystical experiences. One was the Buddhist instructor Stephen Batchelor, a profile of whom I simply posted. One other was a professor of philosophy who prefers to stay nameless. I’ll name him Mike. I didn’t inform Mike’s story in Rational Mysticism, however I’m going to inform it now, as a result of it sheds gentle on enlightenment.
Earlier than I met Mike, I learn an article by which he claimed to have achieved a mystical state devoid of object, topic, or emotion. It occurred in 1972, whereas he was on a meditation retreat. “I had been meditating alone in my room all morning,” Mike remembers,
when somebody knocked on my door. I heard the knock completely clearly, and upon listening to it I knew that, though there was no “waking up” earlier than listening to the knock, for some indeterminate size of time previous to the knocking I had not been conscious of something specifically. I had been awake however with no content material for my consciousness. Had nobody knocked I doubt that I’d ever have turn out to be conscious that I had not been pondering or perceiving.
Mike determined that he had skilled what the Hindu sage Shankara referred to as “unconsciousness.” Mike’s description of his expertise, which he referred to as a “pure consciousness occasion,” baffled me. Can this be the objective of religious in search of? To expertise, not bliss or profound insights however actually nothing? And should you actually expertise nothing, how are you going to keep in mind the expertise? How do you emerge from this state of oblivion again into extraordinary consciousness? How does an expertise of nothing promote a way of spirituality?
Mike, it turned out, lived in a city on the Hudson River not removed from my very own. Like me, he was married and had youngsters. I referred to as and instructed him I used to be writing a e book about mysticism, and he agreed to fulfill me to speak about his experiences. On a heat spring day in 1999, we met for lunch at a restaurant close to his residence. Mike had a ruddy complexion, thinning hair, and a scruffy, reddish-brown beard. Eyeing me suspiciously he mentioned, “A pal of mine warned me that I shouldn’t discuss to folks such as you.” His pal’s recommendation is sound, I replied, journalists are to not be trusted. Mike laughed and appeared to chill out (which in fact was my insidious intent).
Grilling me about my attitudes towards mysticism, he compulsively accomplished my sentences for me. I mentioned that once I first heard about enlightenment, my impression was that it modifications your whole persona, reworking you into… “A saint,” Mike mentioned. Sure, I continued. However now I suspected that you would be able to have very deep mystical consciousness and nonetheless be… “An asshole,” Mike mentioned. “So that is what you wish to take into consideration?” he continued, scrutinizing me. “You wish to take into consideration whether or not enlightenment is actually all that cool?”
Mike’s edginess lingered as he started telling me about himself. Particularly when instructing me on advantageous factors of Hinduism or different mystical doctrines, he spoke with an ironic inflection, mocking his personal pretensions. His fascination with enlightenment dated again to the late 1960’s, when he was an undergraduate learning philosophy and have become deeply depressed. He tried psychotherapy and Zen, however, nothing labored till he began practising Transcendental Meditation in 1969. Launched to the west by the Indian sage Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation includes sitting with eyes closed whereas repeating a phrase, or mantra.
“It was magic, massively efficient,” Mike mentioned of TM. Over the subsequent decade, he turned concerned within the TM group. “I frolicked with Maharishi a good quantity.” He distanced himself from the TM motion after it started providing seminars on occult practices, notably levitation. “I did that method,” Mike mentioned. “It was an fascinating expertise, but it surely certain as hell wasn’t levitating.” The Maharishi additionally proposed that the mind waves emitted by giant teams of meditators might scale back crime charges and even warfare. “I assumed it was foolish,” Mike mentioned, “and I did not wish to be recognized with it.”
Mike pursued a doctorate in philosophy within the early 1980’s in order that he might defend intellectually what he knew to be true experientially: By way of meditation we are able to achieve entry to realms of actuality that transcend time and house, tradition, and particular person identification. Sure, as William James documented, mystical visions differ, however mystics from many alternative traditions, together with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Judaism, have described experiences which can be devoid of content material. These are what Mike calls pure consciousness occasions.
“When you say all crows are black, all it takes is one white crow and you have blown the thesis,” Mike mentioned. “We received an entire vary of those white crows.” Mike famous that if he and I described the restaurant by which we had been consuming, our descriptions would virtually definitely diverge, although we had been seeing the identical restaurant. Shankara, Meister Eckhart, and the Zen grasp Dogen described their pure consciousness occasions in numerous methods, however they had been experiencing the identical deep actuality.
Our dialog then took an surprising flip. I mentioned I used to be mystified by the notion that enlightenment is nothing greater than a “pure consciousness occasion.”
“That is not enlightenment!” Mike interrupted. He stared at me, and when he continued he spoke in clipped, exact tones, as if attempting to bodily embed his phrases in my mind. The pure consciousness occasion is only a stepping-stone, at finest, to true enlightenment. Pure consciousness occasions and different mystical states are “fascinating, fascinating, very cool issues. However, they’re shifts in a notion, not shifts within the construction of notion. And that is, I feel, when issues get very fascinating, when structural shifts happen.”
Mike held up his water glass. Usually, he mentioned, while you take a look at an object like this glass, you sense a distinction between the item and your self. He set the glass down, grabbed my pen from my hand, and scribbled on his serviette. He sketched the glass, full with ice cubes and lemon, and an eyeball staring on the glass. Throughout a “pure consciousness occasion,” the item vanishes and solely consciousness stays, Mike mentioned, drawing an X via the glass.
There’s an increased state of consciousness, nonetheless, by which consciousness turns into its personal topic and object. “It turns into conscious of itself. And there’s a type of, not solipsism precisely, however a reflexivity to consciousness.” Bending over his serviette once more, Mike drew an arrow that emerged from the eyeball and curled again towards it. “It is like there’s a self-awareness in a brand new form of means.”
Our Caesar salads arrived. Because the waiter grated parmesan cheese over our bowls, Mike instructed me in regards to the remaining state of enlightenment, which he referred to as the “unitive mystical state.” On this state, your consciousness enfolds not simply your particular person consciousness, however, all of the internal and outer actuality. “What you’re, and what the world is, is now someway a unit, unified.” Mike drew a circle across the eyeball and the glass.
Are there any ranges past this one? I requested, pointing to the circle. “I don’t know,” Mike answered, wanting genuinely perplexed. “I have never examine it, if there’s. Some folks wish to say that there are, past right here, experiences. However, I am not satisfied of that.”
So are you enlightened? I requested. “As I perceive it, sure,” Mike replied without, hesitating. He had been anticipating the query. He scrutinized me, searching for a response. “See, that is difficult. I simply gave you a reasonably difficult reply. As a result of I outline these items fairly narrowly.” He won’t be enlightened in accordance with others’ definitions, however in accordance with his definition he reached enlightenment in 1995.
Mike hastened to disabuse me of varied myths about enlightenment. When he began meditating within the late 1960’s, he believed that enlightenment “was all going to be enjoyable and video games.” He emitted a mock-ecstatic cry and waved his palms within the air. “Simply heaven,” he added, snapping his fingers, “like that.” However, enlightenment doesn’t make you completely completely happy, not to mention ecstatic. As a substitute, it’s a state that includes all human feelings and qualities: love and hate, want and concern, knowledge, and ignorance. “The power to carry opposites, emotional opposites, on the similar time is actually what we’re after.”
Enlightenment is profoundly satisfying and transformative, however, the thoughts stays in lots of respects unchanged. “You are still neurotic, and you continue to hate your mom, otherwise you wish to get laid, or regardless of the factor is. It is the identical stuff; it would not shift that. However there’s a form of deep”–he raised his palms, as if gripping an invisible basketball, and uttered a growly, guttural grunt—“that did not was once there.”
Removed from fostering humility and ego-death, Mike added, mystical experiences can result in narcissism. Enlightenment is “the largest energy journey you may think about” and an “aphrodisiac.” When you could have a profound mystical revelation, “you suppose you are God! And that’s going to have a hell of an impact on folks… All of the little younger girls run round and say, ‘He is enlightened! He is God!’”
Have you ever struggled with that downside your self? I requested. “Positive!” Mike responded. When he first started having mystical experiences in 1971, he was on high of the world. “And after some time they form of fall away, and also you understand you are the identical jerk you had been all alongside. You simply have completely different insights.” Mike resumed psychotherapy in 1983 to take care of a few of his private issues. “It was the perfect factor I ever did. Been in it ever since.” (What would it not be like, I questioned, to be the therapist for somebody who believes he’s enlightened?)
Opposite to what some gurus declare, enlightenment doesn’t offer you solutions to scientific riddles such because the origin of the universe, or of aware life, Mike mentioned. After I requested if he intuits a divine intelligence underlying actuality, he shook his head. “No, no.” Then he reconsidered. He sees final actuality as timeless, featureless, Godless, and but he sometimes feels that he and all of us are half of a bigger plan. “I’ve a way that issues are transferring in a sure route, nicely past anyone’s actual management.” Perhaps, he mentioned, simply as electrons could be described as waves and particles, so final actuality is perhaps timeless and aimless—and now have some directionality and function.
Evidently dissatisfied together with his protection of enlightenment—or sensing that I used to be dissatisfied with it–Mike tried once more. He has an elevated capability to pay attention since he turned enlightened, he assured me, and a larger intuitive sense about folks. “I can say this without, hesitation: I’d fairly have these experiences than not,” he mentioned. “It is not nothing.”
A number of days later, I went operating within the woods behind my home. After I arrived huffing and puffing on the high of a hill, I flopped down on a patch of moss to catch my breath. Trying up via entangled branches on the sky, I ruminated over my lunch with Mike. What impressed me most about him was that he someway managed to be likably unpretentious, even humble, whereas claiming to be enlightened. He’s no saint or sage, only a regular man, a suburban dad, who occurs to have achieved the supreme state of being.
But when enlightenment transforms us so little, why work so onerous to realize it? I additionally brooded over the suggestion of Mike and different mystics that while you see issues clearly, you uncover a void on the coronary heart of actuality. You get to the pot on the finish of the religious rainbow, and also you don’t discover God, or a concept of every little thing, or ecstasy. You discover nothing, or “not nothing,” as Mike put it. What’s so great and consoling about that? Does seeing life as an phantasm make accepting loss of life simpler? I have to be lacking one thing.
I used to be nonetheless flat on my again when a shadow intruded on my visual field. A vulture, wingtips splayed, glided noiselessly towards me. Because it handed over me, simply above the treetops, it cocked its wizened head and eyed me. “Go away!” I shouted. “I’m not useless but!”