I recently had my mind blown by an incredibly profound experience of what Buddhists call emptiness, or “dropped-off body-mind.” In such an experience “how it all is and what it’s all about” becomes stunningly obvious. All ideas dissolve–ALL ideas. Ideas, premises, beliefs, theories, maps of reality, are seen as inconsequential, insubstantial, uninteresting, beside the point. Instead, there’s just an infinitely deep peace, a vast expansiveness, a deep and profound knowingness about the essence of it all–and, the realization that all of this is who you are.
In such an experience, this knowingness of how things really are, what it’s all about, and who you really are is so tangibly obvious that it changes you forever. I hesitate to even call it an experience, because this implies a separate “me” that could experience something, and at such a time it’s obvious that experience and experiencer are one thing, not two.
When you have such an experience you also find that it’s impossible to communicate this knowingness in a way that anyone could possibly understand–unless they, too, have had the experience. When you try to communicate what you’ve realized, anything you say seems foolish and inarticulate, even before you say it. There’s just no way to capture it with ideas or words. For that reason, I’m not going to try to explain it (though I admit I’ve tried in many of these posts), because it can’t be explained–at least in a way that would actually be helpful.
Despite all of this, from this experience I did have one insight I want to share–something I already ”knew,” but now see at a deeper, more visceral, more profound level.
Emptiness is an interesting term in Buddhism. It doesn’t actually mean nothing, and it also doesn’t really mean empty in the normal sense of there being nothing there, or that it’s all empty space. Emptiness is actually an attempt to describe what I’ve already said can’t be described. It’s a kind of code-word amongst those who have had the experience.
You could, I suppose, call it “no-thing-ness,” because in this state it’s very clear that there are no separate things, that everything is interconnected and all divisions are unreal–other than in a conceptual sense. Things are units of thought, not units of reality. In this state conceptualizations seem silly, unnecessary, inconsequential, and not pertinent to what really is. You don’t want to conceptualize. It just seems like a lot of effort serving no real purpose.
Even if you’ve had such an experience many times before, this is an odd sensation. After all, for almost all people life is almost entirely conceptual. All but a few rare people live in and through their ideas about reality, their map of how it all is. That map has been taken as the real territory to such a degree that it’s all that most people see. But in the emptiness experience, all these maps and ideas just don’t seem to matter or have much importance.
When you “see how it all is” in this way, your map seems so skinny and insubstantial it’s hard to believe you built your life around it. To say that it seems partial is an understatement. It’s like mistaking a stick-figure for the real you, or a one paragraph biography for the story of your life. This realization–that pretty much everything you’ve hung your hat on for your entire life is insubstantial, partial, and largely irrelevant–is life-changing.
When you’re in touch with this emptiness (or, I should say, when you realize that you are this emptiness), you see the truth of what all the sages, Zen masters, and enlightened beings have said: there really is nowhere to go, and nothing to get. In fact, even if there were something to get, there’s no separate entity who could go anywhere to get it.
When you’re enmeshed in your map of reality, it sure doesn’t seem this way, though. Of course there’s somewhere to go, something to get, and someone to get it! Not only can I feel it, everyone else agrees with me about it. C’mon. Look around. It’s obvious that there are separate things and separate events, including a separate “me.”
All of this seems quite real when you identify with your ideas about reality–which is what all but a few human beings do. It can be quite difficult to untangle yourself from your map (or, at least, it seems to be difficult). The mind can be quite subtle in the way it tempts you to believe in your map. For instance, if you know a lot about Eastern philosophy and mysticism and such things, you might identify with your ideas about emptiness and no-thing-ness, all the while thinking that you “get it.”
In thinking about this experience, I realized how much of life is about getting somewhere and getting something. Wherever we are, we’re dissatisfied. If we are satisfied, it’s momentary, and then we’re off after something else. Wherever we are, we think we’d be better off if only we were somewhere else. And whatever we have, we want (or think we need) something else or something more. Whatever our material, mental, or spiritual situation–we never feel like we’re quite “there.”
This is how it feels when we’re under the spell of our mind and think and feel that we’re a separate entity confronted by lots of other separate things and entities (who don’t care about us or have our best interests at heart). We feel, as the poet A. E. Housman said, “Alone and afraid, in a world I never made.”
If, on the other hand, you really, really, really got that there’s just One Thing, and you’re it–not intellectually, but experientially, in your bones–where would you need to go? Where could you go? And what would you get if you went there?
We have this underlying sensation, then, that there’s something we don’t have, and if we could just get it, then we could rest, then we’d be okay, then things would make sense. (Then there’s the other side of that coin, that there’s something terrible that had better not happen, and which in relation to we feel reasonably okay–but that’s another story for another time.)
When you were a baby, life was all about eating, sleeping, and pooping. But once you could walk and talk, then you were getting somewhere. But being a toddler wasn’t enough. You wanted to get to kindergarten, then first grade. You want to learn to read. It’s coming, that something, and when you get it, well, then things will be great. Keep going. Maybe when you’re bigger.
Maybe it will come in junior high school. But when you get there you want to be in high school. Well, maybe it’ll happen when you have sex, or make the football team. Or, maybe, it’ll come when you’re in college, or when you get married, or have children, or get your PhD. Maybe you’ll get it once you get a job, establish a career, accumulate some money. Climb the success ladder, and then maybe you’ll get it. Maybe it will come once you have children, or when the children are gone, or when you retire.
And so on.
Somewhere along the line a few people begin to suspect that it (whatever it is), might not come from worldly accomplishments, so they turn their attention to spiritual development. Getting it shifts to “if I meditate long enough,” “if I find the right teacher,” “if I read enough spiritual books,” “if I say my mantra for enough years,” “if I finish koan study,” “if I experience grace,” “if I please God,” “if I get rid of desires,” “if I study the Bible,” “if I read all Ken Wilber’s books,” and so on. In some spiritual approaches you actually have to die (physically, not metaphorically) before you get the goodie you’re after. Or, you might have to experience thousands, or even millions, of lifetimes before you get it.
Does this remind you of a donkey trotting after a carrot?
Whether you’re searching in the realms of worldly or spiritual achievement, there’s always something more to get. And, whatever you do get, it’s never quite it. It’s like taking a journey to the horizon. No matter how fast you go, no matter for how long you travel, you never get there. The it you’re looking for is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but the darned rainbow keeps moving.
All this seeking puts you in a double bind. Why? Because you’re trying to get something–whatever that indefinable something is–that you actually already have (or, to be more accurate, which you already are). When you look at it this way, you begin to see all the spiritual books and scriptures, the seminars, the meditation techniques, and all the teachers and gurus in a different light.
Pretend for a moment that you’re a fish. You’re swimming along minding your own business when I come along and tell you that there’s this amazing stuff called water. It’s the ultimate stuff, I tell you, and if you can find it all your problems will be solved. Come to my weekend seminar ($995) and I’ll teach you what you need to know. I have it–the Ancient Secrets of Water–and you don’t. Luckily for you, I’m willing to reveal these sacred secrets to a few lucky fish like you.
Whatever you get from my seminar, though, won’t be quite enough, so you’ll have to come to my advanced seminar ($1995). You’ll be much better off after that (at least you’ll think I’m wonderful, because I’ve obviously got it). You may need, however, to study with me individually for a while. This, of course, is more expensive (but worth it). After all, you do want the Secrets of Water, don’t you?
All the while, you’re swimming in it, and you always have been.
Now, I’m not saying that all seminars are bullshit, or that all teachers are conning you. After all, I make my living as a teacher, and I think what I offer is pretty valuable. Some seminars and teachers, thankfully, are doing their best to say (as I am), “Look, you already have it. In fact, you’re it.”
Ironically, as long as you’re thinking, “If I just do more Holosync, if I just do more Big Mind, if I just spend more time with Baba Suchabanana, if I just become a Zen monk, if I read more spiritual books, if I just could get rid of desire, if I could finish all of Ken Wilber’s books, if I could just get rid of negativity,” you won’t see that you’re already it. As long as the fish is searching like crazy for the water, he’ll fail to see that his entire world is water. It’s like those times when you can’t find your keys, and all the while they’re in your hand.
This search for what you already are, then, is a double bind, an insoluble problem, a wild goose chase. It’s like trying to bite your teeth with your teeth, or touch the end of your finger with the end of the same finger. No matter what you do to get it, you’re never quite there.
This is one of the main reasons why life is so filled with frustration. We’re all busy trying to get the un-gettable (or, rather, what we already have). We’re not even quite sure what it is, but we have this nagging feeling that something is missing. Wherever we are, it isn’t quite the right place. Whatever we have isn’t quite the right thing to have. Whoever we are isn’t the right “me.”
An authentic teacher–one who really knows that it’s all “nothingness” and therefore has seen through the double bind–will take an interesting approach to helping you. On the premise that “a fool who persists in his folly will become wise,” he’ll try to get you to act consistently with your delusion. He’ll put you in a microcosm of the double bind I’ve described, hoping that after some intense, disciplined, and incredibly frustrating seeking, you might begin to doubt the whole enterprise and give it up.
A teacher might, for instance, tell you that the source of your chronic frustration is that you desire. The Buddha said that desire (clinging, thirsting) creates suffering. Stop desiring and you’ll be fine. Ah, that’s the secret! So, you set out to get rid of your desires, and periodically you meet with the teacher so he can check on your progress. As time passes you seem to be able to get rid of a few desires, but others seem quite stubborn. “This is harder than I thought,” you say.
Then the teacher really throws you a curve. “Isn’t your attempt to get rid of desire just another desire? What are you going to do about that?” Oops. Now what? “Hmm. I guess I’ll have to stop desiring to get rid of desire.” But how do you do that? The teacher has put you in a double bind and no matter what you do there’s no escape.
Or, he might ask you, in one of many different ways, to be totally spontaneous, to not act from any of your ideas or concepts. So, you work on that. But how can you be intentionally spontaneous? Another double bind.
And, if you do get it, the teacher will tell you what a wonderful start you’ve made, but there’s more. Keep going. He’ll keep jollying you along as long as he can, until you’re tied up in knots.
These double binds are, as I said earlier, the double bind of life in microcosm. The double bind, along with the authority of the teacher (he seems to have it), your intense desire and commitment to get it, can create incredible frustration and doubt. This frustration and doubt is designed to drive you to the point where you give up, where you see through the whole thing.
This Great Doubt, as it’s called in Zen, throws you into the transcendent, into the experience of emptiness, and from that place, you suddenly see how ridiculous the whole endeavor was. You, the fish, see that it’s all water, and what in the hell were you searching for all that time?
Or, the whole thing drives you completely out of your mind.
But let’s look at the other side of the coin, because while all of the above is true–there really is nothing to get and nowhere to go, and none of your getting or going is going to save you or solve the basic problem of life (that we suffer). As long as you’re here, you have to go somewhere and try to get something. You have to play the game. If you don’t, life has no juice, no pizzazz.
You can only rest in emptiness (or Oneness, or whatever you want to call it) for so long. After a while, the relative world comes along and bites you in the ass. Everything may indeed be one all-encompassing and interconnected thing/process, and who you are may certain be that process, but that doesn’t mean the relative world isn’t here.
As that one thing/process manifests as the entire natural universe, it obeys the laws of cause and effect. And, as I said at length in a previous post, there is no escape from that. What’s more, there’s also no escape from the fact that everything in the relative universe is impermanent and eventually passes away or falls apart.
Eastern philosophy has a wonderful metaphor to describe the fact that while you’re it you’re also subject to impermanence and cause and effect: the one energy of everything is playing Hide and Seek with itself. You’re it, but you pretend to not know that you’re it. You hide who you really are from yourself, and then you look for it. What fun.
At first, though, you look for it in the form of worldly pleasures, status, power, and all the other things you think will satisfy you. As you probably know, none of them, at least in any ultimate sense, can satisfy you. When you do get what you want, it only satisfies you for a short while, and then you need something else. You get a new car and for a while it’s all very exiting and satisfying, but within a month or so it’s just transportation. You have one Pringle, but then you want another.
What’s more, whatever you get is eventually used up or falls apart. No matter what you do, eventually impermanence wins.
If somehow you could scratch your itch to find satisfaction in every possible way, until you totally run out of things to try, you might see through it all and realize that nothing will ever give you any real and lasting satisfaction, salvation, or relief. This would be the equivalent of trying in every possible way to get rid of desire, until you were completely stymied.
The great spiritual masters, down through the centuries, have found that this experience of coming to the end of your rope, this experience of Great Doubt, can lead to an experience of awakening, of emptiness, of seeing that you already are what you’ve been seeking–and that all along there was nowhere to go, nothing to get, and nothing to realize.
The Zen master who asks you to get rid of desire, or to show your original face (or one of many other double-bind problems he might give you) is giving you a short cut, because he knows you’ll never be able to try every way of (hopefully) gaining lasting salvation or satisfaction.
So here you are. Perhaps you know who you are. Perhaps you just believe me and the others who may have told you who you are, but it’s intellectual rather than experiential. Knowing intellectually, I’m afraid, isn’t going to help. It might be a good start, but to really know who you are, it must be experienced. As long as it’s merely something you believe, it’s just another “something” to chase after. If so, once again, you’re chasing your own tail, because you’re already it.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you really do know who you are. You know that you are the emptiness the Buddhists speak about, and you know it experientially. You might want to just hang out in that emptiness place, and for a while you probably will. It’s a great place to hang out. But, as I said, the relative world will eventually intrude on your reverie. The organism though which this Oneness is being experienced is still subject to impermanence and cause and effect, and sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with that.
Knowing who you really are makes this a lot easier, though. If you were an actor playing Hamlet, but somehow forgot that you were an actor, and thought you really were Hamlet, it would be a tragedy, because everyone dies in the end. If, however, you knew it was just a play, and that after the curtain fell you’d all go back to the green room, take off your makeup and your costumes, and go out and have a beer together, you’d have a great time playing at being Hamlet.
So after the experience of emptiness (there could be many, each one deeper than the last), the next step is to integrate this knowingness of who you really are with the reality of the relative world. In part, this means acting as if there really is somewhere to go and something to get, while in the back of your mind you know it doesn’t matter. You pretend like crazy, though, that it does matter, and you do this because this is what makes life worth living. And, anyway, what else would you do?
What’s different is that from this integrated place you have choice. Instead of unconsciously careening from one object of desire to another, from one place you think you should be to another, from one “me” you want to be to another, you consciously choose what to want, where to go, and who to be, knowing the consequences and consciously deciding to accept them. You know that whatever you become attached to eventually will be used up, fall apart, or end, but you decide to become attached anyway. This frees you to love the people and things in your life–but to do so with awareness.
Zen student and British-born Japanese scholar R.H. Blyth once wrote to Alan Watts, saying, “How are you, Alan? As for me, I’ve given up all thoughts of satori and enlightenment and am busy becoming attached to as many people and things as possible.” This is an expression of this idea of becoming attached, not unconsciously, but with awareness and choice.
So in your game of Hide and Seek, once you find what you were looking for (yourself), you keep playing, but now your playing is more relaxed. Instead of trying hard you “try soft,” because you know that although cause and effect and impermanence are real, they’re just the play of that one that one all-encompassing “it” and though it won’t always appear as what you think of as “me,” it will always appear as something, and that something is who you really are.
Before I let you go I have a very important announcement–what some people are calling the biggest personal and spiritual growth event of the first decade of the new millennium. On August 29th and 30th, Ken Wilber, Zen master Genpo Roshi, Zen master Bernie Glassman Roshi, and I will present Enlightenment and the Western Mind in Westminster, Colorado (in the Denver area). This will be a highly interactive, free-wheeling event–one I suspect will never happen again, ever.
As you know if you’ve been following this blog for long, for the last several years I’ve been fortunate to know and work with the great author, philosopher, and spiritual teacher Ken Wilber, and to have an even closer relationship with the great Zen master Genpo Roshi. I’ve also done everything possible to share these great teachers with those who use Holosync and are involved with Centerpointe. I’ve had huge positive growth in my own life as a result of these relationships, and I want you to experience the same thing.
This is your chance to sit at the feet and learn from two Zen masters, and Ken Wilber (and me, too). We’ll be talking about the development of Western Spirituality, and where it might go from here, but I suspect this weekend will cover MUCH more. In fact, I’m quite sure that this weekend will profoundly deepen your experience and understanding of who you are, what life is about, and how to live with true inner peace, happiness, compassion, and success.
I’m convinced, in fact, that this is going to be a truly historic event. Many people are calling it the key spiritual event of the first decade of the 21st century. If I were you, I would do whatever you have to do to be there. It took an event of this magnitude to tempt Ken Wilber, who is in poor health, into making a rare public appearance. None of us are really sure when Ken might stop appearing in public altogether.
To see Ken, along with Genpo Roshi, Bernie Roshi (Genpo’s dharma brother, known for his deep understanding, his skill as a teacher, and his compassionate service in the world), and me, together in the same event, is something that will probably never happen again.
Besides, I really want you to meet Ken, Genpo Roshi, and Bernie Roshi–and, if I haven’t met you in person, I want to meet you, too.
The cost for this special event is $1295, but you can save $300 if you sign up by July 21st. Quite frankly, I’m pretty sure this is going to sell out, and quickly, so if you want to be there, grab your spot right away. Just go to www.vastsky.org and click on “register now” on the right, or call 801 328 8414. I look forward to seeing you at what I’m sure will be the experience of a lifetime.
So, until next time, be well.