Elena and Ilona,
Monday night-Tuesday morning, December 16-17, 2013: if you felt a warm rush of gratitude from the Stream, part of it probably came from here. Thanks for posting the book online, thanks for the patience with the pointees you spotlighted, and thanks for showing the gentle path to liberation.
After a mentally taxing day, I went to bed and melted into non-existence. It kept me awake most of the night. In a good way.
Let’s assume for the moment that it was “stream entry.” I've been doing vipassana-ish meditation for about three years after an unusual no-self experience. This probably was stream entry; it matches the descriptions. There was just the seeing, just the feeling, without there being a seer or a feeler, and there has been an abiding change in how that seeing or feeling are themselves seen or felt. It was, however, nothing at all like what I had expected. (In fact, the term “stream entry” seems to have a whole new level of precision; the stream is all around, and always has been, but like the old metaphor, I was a fish who didn't know what water was.) Even if a Theravadan monk would dispute the label, however, that doesn't seem to matter so much as what has been seen, and what seems to be the path forward.
(For purposes of clarity, I'm going to use the conventions of first person pronouns and adjectives. They’re not necessary or accurate, but they probably make for easier reading and they definitely make for easier writing.)
The shift was subtle, and seemed to spread out from a centre of awareness in my head throughout the rest of my body. There was nothing sudden or cathartic about it. There were no light shows, no temporal discontinuities (I had one of those a few months ago, but nothing seemed to come of it). It was more like a relaxing capitulation; “All right, fine: there really is nothing pulling all the strings.” The body is just the body. Physical sensations rise and fall in it, it takes actions based on the inputs it receives from the senses (including, I suddenly understood, the “sense” of thought.)
The feelings—good, bad, neutral, angry, craving—appear to be nothing more than another kind of physical sensation but with a better PR firm. I had an important court appearance scheduled for the next morning (my preparation for it had caused the mental exhaustion), and was able to watch the sensation of my apprehensions about it rise—to quite a high level of intensity—without getting seduced into accepting it as being cling-worthy. Turns out apprehension consists primarily of (1) a clung-to though, (2) muscle tightening, (3) lip pursing and (4) a little stomach acid. And literally nothing else.
The mind chugged on, spewing out thoughts without any regard for logical flow or topical relevance; the non-sequiturs, it even recognized, could be quite humorous. And behind it all, sitting quietly outside the maelstrom of thought, feeling, sensation, was awareness, not drawing attention to itself, but like someone who resembles a celebrity, perhaps a little happy to be mistaken for and treated like someone important (in this case, the non-celebrity “me”).
At first, the change seemed like this: “I am going to let this marionette swing; it can move as air currents and circumstances dictate.” But that fell apart when investigation failed to turn up anyone who could “let” anything happen. Now the change seems really more like: “Whatever comes up next is just like everything else that has come before—a temporary stirring of nerve endings. So long as this body and brain are alive, they are going to convey and interpret those stirrings. Sometimes “feelings” are going to get involved. Watch or don’t watch; there’s nothing to be done about it. And no one to do it if there was.” It’s like a self-powering energy plant with sophisticated computer controls; it’s going to go on pumping out the kilowatts until something critical breaks down, and then it will stop.
That first night, the novelty of the realization remained high. My mind had a great time probing it all over, examining it like a new toy, actually trying to get attached to it but realizing it couldn't—which was, frankly, frustrating. But it became apparent that the frustration was an important indicator as to why the realization hadn't occurred earlier.
It was a strategy defect. It turns out I have been confusing “understanding” or “seeing” with a species of attachment—a kind of attachment to a particular thought--since I first read about anatta. I assumed (although I didn't realize I was assuming) that the only strategy for “seeing” was to divert the energy supporting the attachment called “notion of self” to a new attachment called “notion that nullifies the notion of self.” In other words, I had been trying realize no-self by reinvesting energy from one thought or a rational construct to an opposite thought or rational construct. And in other other words, I thought if I swapped the thought “X” with a really intense belief in “not X,” “X” would be obliterated.
It didn't work. And not for lack of trying.
What pushed that strategy over the cliff? Probably my mental exhaustion that night. There simply weren’t enough watts left in the brain to keep focused on arguing down the self. Don’t argue anymore, I remember thinking. See what happens with the argument when you allow it to take its course.
What happened, of course, was that it eventually stopped.
Since that first night, the novelty has worn off some and the realization is not so omnipresent and attention-grabbing. There are occasionally little blips of panic—“Did I lose it? Where is it?”—and that has taken some time to get used to. At first, my reaction was to revert back to the old nullifying-notion strategy: “OK, you know you’re not the body, you know you’re not the feelings, the mind, the consciousness . . . “ but that was, surprise surprise, fairly unsuccessful. It’s going to take more time to get completely over the habit of using that kind of strategy.
Within the last day, however, the better strategy seems to be sprouting roots. It also feels more “fearless,” both in the sense of taking some bravery and in actually experiencing less fear. When the “Did I lose it?” thoughts come, they find no one home. They appear, like my pre-court apprehension did, and after rising to whatever level of intensity they have the momentum to acquire, they peter out. No debates, no dread, no drama. They’re going to happen until they can’t. That tactic seems to reduce the stress of the question and simultaneously confirm the truth of the seeing.
Death remains an interesting fleeting notion. It’s the only thing so far that reliably slams the brakes on relaxing into the flow. That thought goes something like this: “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You do realize this means riding this slide right into oblivion without making any attempt to get off, right? And you’re just going to act like you’re cool with that?” Upon review, the “problem” to the extent there is one is the same sort of problem as with the “Did I lose it?” panics; the habit of trying to combat one attached notion by bleeding off its energy into an attachment to another notion. Here, the alternative notion consists of existentialist syllogisms: “All men are mortal; I am a man; therefore I am mortal,” or along those lines. That strategy, by the way, does help diminish the stress, but not as much as the “new” strategy of just watching the upset arise, gain steam, redline and then fall away.
Talking to people is really amusing now. I have no idea what they are going to say, how my body/mind are going to interpret what they say, or how my body/mind are going to react. And seeing that this has always been the situation causes spontaneous giggling. Cosmic joke indeed.
But unfortunately, it’s not a joke that seems like good cocktail party conversation, at least not among my current crowd. It’s nice to write these things to someone who will understand.
But enough prattling.
Thank you again for your compassionate and generous contribution to the Stream. Good luck in your continued efforts to point the way for those who have set out for an unleashing. And Happy Holidays!
That was a pleasure to read! Thank you so much for writing all this down. What a journey.
Yes, talking about this with friends and family is not the best idea, neither is trying to get them to see this. But, there is a whole LU community, where everyone has seen the same, it is easy to communicate, share and help each other, when needed. If you would like to join, you can copy paste all you wrote on the forum, or we can have a little chat over email and see if there are any sticky points. We usually ask some questions, see if all is clear and if so, invite you to join Facebook groups.
Looking forward to hear from you,
Thanks, Ilona. I sense some sticky points, and I'd appreciate a little pointing to move past them. Unfortunately, I'm going to be travelling for the next several days and I'll have spotty access to email. But I'm in no hurry if you're not!
Hi mike, here are some questions for you, that we usually ask when gate is crossed. Answer in your own time, fully and openly. I will see form your answers if there is anything that needs to be looked at.
Have a great journey, wherever you are going.
1) Is there a separate entity 'self', 'me' 'I', at all, anywhere, in any way, shape or form? Was there ever?
2) Explain in detail what the illusion of separate self is, when it starts and how it works from your own experience. Describe it fully as you see it now.
3) How does it feel to see this? What is the difference from before you started this dialogue? Please report from the past few days.
4) What was the last bit that pushed you over, made you look?
5) Do you decide, intend, choose, control events in Life? Do you make anything happen? Give examples from your experience.
6) Anything to add?
Thanks, Ilona. It may take a couple days to answer all of these.
1. There is no separate "self," never has been and never could have been.
2. This illusion seems tied to stresses--good or bad. Over the last week, there has been no difficulty seeing through it during relaxed, quiet times like meditation. But physical stress seems to link self to the body; emotional stress, to the feelings; and challenging mental stresses, to the mind. Kind of weird; never realized there were three candidates until watching closely to answer this. Although they differ from each other, they all have some common elements. There will be some sort of muscle tension involved, and that muscle tension appears to be part of a larger constellation of habitual response. For example; If one of my kids says something thoughtless or rude, there is an immediate response physically of tensing, an emotional reaction intensifying the physical reaction (maybe narrowing the field of perception and increasing tension), and a mental reaction automatically formulating a correction. It all happens on its own. Can't even say why!
The illusion is also tied to the use of logic. It spans a gap when the body perceives itself doing something, the feelings react by judging that action, and the mind start its habitual justification program for the action. If the body is doing something that feels good, the mind will want to impose a logical entity that deserves that good feeling so as to justify an attachment to it. If the body is doing something that feels bad, the mind will want to impose a logical self that has been wronged so as to justify aversion and avoidance. It's all quite meaningless, but that is how it seems to work.
3. Seeing this provokes different feelings at different times. It always brings more relaxation, but that relaxation has a bit of an alienating effect in groups of people. Not a bad feeling; kind of an awkward, this-is-both-an-illusion-and-not feeling. More disorienting than dreams, really, because day to day life is a more consistently lucid experience. Seeing has also helped provide greater patience with people who momentarily get stuck in an ego tar pit; they look now less like they're bragging or being unnecessarily demanding, and more like they're lost.. That's a hard one to explain, actually. The sense is almost one of vision, but it really doesn't have to do with the way the person looks. And thinking more closely, that's true in general; the world seems almost like it looks different, but so subtly that its some sense other than vision that picks up on it.
In moments of sustained quiet, it is possible not only to see clearly the fact of no-self-ness, but also that this body, this mind are just things in a world of things, not quite furniture but a lot closer to furniture than previously seen. It's a weird kind of non-duality; not unity--those experiences fall apart--but more like, "There can be no 'I-thou' duality because 'I' didn't show up." So there's a world full of "thous" but no one for them to be other than. Sorry, that's confusing, but it's really pretty accurate to the experience here.
4. The second-to-last realization was that awareness was operating on its own, just like the body and the mind. It had really started to look like awareness was the self, but no amount of investigation could show that the awareness was directing the mind or the body to take whatever actions they were taking. It gathered information, but then habits or conditioned reactions took over. That may be the most surprising aspect about awakening, actually; what has previously seemed like nuanced, sensitive interactions with the environment turn out to be more like a series of relatively rigid computer subroutines.
5. I don't control or decide anything, I don't make anything happen, but changes and actions occur as choiceless responses. The second paragraph in #2 above gives a better description of the process. Time's a bit short right for examples, but more to come later!
Happy New Year!
OK, travelling done (for this week), so back to the questions. It looks like #6 is all that's left.
Here's what seems to be going on.
Getting into good meditative concentration has been way, way easier. In the past, something similar would happen from time to time, but it would only last for 2-3 days. This time, it has lasted the whole 2+ weeks. I can much more clearly distinguish bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts, and direct my attention to the gaps and void between them, from which they can be better observed.
It was surprising during the first week or so was how many insights into various dhamma teachings occurred. But in a weird way, I feel less connected to them, almost as though what has happened is that they were revealed not so much as holy pronouncements, and more like helpful hints, but only hints--and only optional--as to methods and signposts further down the spiritual path. (The word "spiritual" also doesn't have quite the same taste as it used to. In some ways, it seems like a badly misdecriptive label, enough so that I don't want to use it any more.)
The sense of no-self is not full-time (yet?), but it is getting more frequent and more stable every day. Usually in very small increments, but they're accumulating nicely. I had a very painful incident on my mountain bike last weekend, and although the pain was quite intense for a few minutes--and emphatically NOT in a disembodied way--I could still go into it and look at it as "just" a set of bodily sensations. It still sucked, but because it was only sensations, I knew they'd pass, and I knew there was no permanent "me" suffering. I could feel panic subsiding as the impermanence and impersonal nature of the situation came to mind, and if in no other way, that alone was some welcome release from, or avoidance of, a trap of suffering.
Pre-awakening, I thought awakening would make me feel otherworldly. Post, it seems that the pre-awakened state IS the otherworldly state; confusing, chaotic, relentlessly disorienting. In contrast, awakening seems more like the most non-otherworldly state possible. Sure, there's no more control, but things don't seem so confusing or disorienting. If anything, they seem a bit more boringly predictable: arise, pass away, arise, pass away. This has led to a lot more thought about death and confronting lots of fears, most of which turn out to be pretty childish when put under the spotlight. It sure would have been a lot less stressful to have this frame of mind when I was teaching my daughter to drive!
There is also much less of a sense that "I have to DO something with my life, right now!" but paradoxically, I am getting a lot more done because distracting thoughts don't have the same power to stop progress anymore.
Less, less, less. Less attachment, less confusion, less concern. What a thickly layered cloud of dreams had built up, and how nice it is to get by with less.
Thanks again for the site, the book and the questions. I'm sure you and Elena get dozens of these sorts of emails a week, so you certainly don't need to respond. I just wanted you to know my gratitude, and that I'm wishing you well in this great service you are providing.
All the best,
Thank you very much for writing. Sorry for delay with answer. You are right, I get a lot of emails and all the festive season was disrupting my correspondence.
I can see from you answers that shift has definitely happened. You descriptions resonate here and are recognised as my experience too. It is all so ordinary and simple, and nothing looks the same :)
Can you say, that seeking dropped completely?
What do you see, what's next?
Sending love and wishes for best year ahead.
Thanks for the love and wishes, Ilona. Sending back the same.
There is no seeking, but there is a watchfulness. Many coincidences of thought and experience seem to be occurring, not always important, but oddly specific. As for what's next, I don't know, but there is a sense that there are deeper alignments that will continue barreling toward me. For now, it is enough to spend time becoming acquainted in a more rigorous way with all the habits of attachment. So, lots of mental microscope work, I guess.
I think it will be the best year.
Beautiful! I'm really delighted for you mike, the journey is just getting started!
Would it be ok with you to post your emails on my blog, so that others can read. People find it helpful and who knows which word or sentence can get one to look and see.. I can use your name, initial or whatever name you choose and cut any details that you don't want to share.. I would be grateful. This way, other guides can ask questions if they have any and I can invite you to join LU community.
Absolutely. Use whatever of them you think stands the best chance of helping others. I would prefer to keep any identification to "Mike"
I'm happy to answer any questions.