The path and the goal from different perspectives
Born in the Tiger's Mouth
I was born with my head "in the tiger's mouth." From early childhood what passed for truth and satisfied most people, did not satisfy me. A deep soul itch craved an answer. Raised in the Christian tradition, I could not buy the theology. So the search was on. The Christian mystics, on the other hand, seemed to have a deeper understanding of God, and it was not confined to the standard accepted theology.
In reading the Upanishads, the Indian sages seemed so Christlike, but their interpretation of God seemed much more scientific, abstract, and not based on belief. This discovery was profound for me, and touched that deeper part of my soul seeking satisfaction. From J. Krishnamurti, to Aurobindo, to Ramana, and Nisargadatta, I devoured it all. Compared to the Eastern sages, only the Christian and Muslim mystics seemed to be at a level that salved the itch.
Knowledge is power. Experience was not enough for me, although ecstatic and profound experiences did occur. Extracting the understanding from those experiences is what I call 'realization.' Intuition drove me, but the intellect was not satisfied until there was understanding underpinned with the mystical experiences that felt more real than anything else I had experienced.
All of the above is to try and explain how there seemed to be 'no choice.' I was born with a search already intact. It drove me to explore and risk my sanity to know a deeper truth. I don't feel there was choice in that matter. Since I had read so many mystics and sages, I was well prepared for any leaps that needed to be taken. I already knew that any leap would be unsettling, even making me question my own sanity. This knowledge was such that when it came time to let go and just be That, it did not feel like any choice at all. It was what needed to be done. A lifetime had pointed to this. The leap was obvious, and from my point of view, rational.
It is paradoxical. Just as it takes one to know one, the sages seem to speak from a different domain. And they are. The point of view of the Self has a viewpoint beyond the personal. I personally do not feel we have free will. But as soon as you take on the identity of Self, there is only complete freedom, beyond the concepts of free will.
My choice was not seen in 'retrospect.' A trajectory was there from birth. Any choice was beside the point. It was not a personal choice. It has to be the will of God or it would not happen to anyone. When the truth that I am awareness itself was seen, what choice was there? It was just a fact to be accepted. If it was personal, why would they call it grace?
Why Gurus Break Bad
(and a path to being an embodied wisdom teacher that doesn't)
Thought Leader, Author, BBC host and presenter, and Keynote Speaker
What causes so many spiritual teachers to abuse their pupils—and can we transcend the problem with a Digital Age disruption of embodied wisdom nested within peer-to-peer networks?
Perhaps embodied wisdom teaching starts, and possibly ends, with being able to come into an open-hearted, reciprocal, and interdependent relationship (then dialogue) with anyone, without needing to be on a pedestal of any kind.
In other words, we can be with any human (and element of nature) without needing to be mysterious, hard to reach, inaccessible, or hidden behind acolytes or media walls—and without grasping for higher status with passively aggressive ways of teaching.
Teachers must sit atop a footstool from time to time: just above others to be seen fully. Otherwise, people won’t get much value from us. Students/clients cannot see who is speaking and sharing. They cannot connect with us or relate to us as we are blurred by the crowd. They probably cannot hear us either.
But we never sit atop a pedestal (nor a fancy throne), no matter how tempting it may be to the Protector within us. When people provide us with such a pedestal—literally, metaphorically, or metaphysically—we resist its siren song with all our healing/wholing heart.
Full article in link below at medium.com
A bumpy landing
I have the ongoing experience of moments of deep insight into my true nature and knowing without a shadow of a doubt who I truly am; yet resting deeply in that seems to be a struggle. In an instant I can find myself again looking for the evidence within my experience to light the way back to that deep truth. There is a formidable momentum to the personal self which doesn’t simply stop.
The habit of affirming my experience using thought and feeling is deeply ingrained and almost invisible, and slipping into a defining mood that is limiting and self-concerned happens in the blink of an eye. Recognising this shift and choosing to make space for it allows for the clarity to let it just be and it can then dissipate like smoke into a vast space.
The sustained passion needed for self-realization has also set up certain expectations of what it will be like on arrival. I have expectations that such a fundamental shift has implications and that I need to do something with it, and therein lies the trap. The surrender of the personal self as a reference point is taking the hand off the steering wheel. The need to feel significant combined with the loss of control is frustrating to a sense of self that has always appeared to be driving my destiny – particularly for a control freak like me who wants to manipulate as many variables as I can.
It is also quite disorienting and at times deeply worrying to realise that many activities that seemed inherently part of my make-up are simply falling away. It feels like disintegration of self rather than the deep integration that enlightenment seems to promise. It takes a while to realise that losing these impulses is also like losing a suit of armour. It allows space to breathe. In the end truly resting in my deepest centre means letting all of that arise, seeing it and recognising it for what it is. This is what slows down the momentum of ‘me’.
The bumpy landing is only the view from my limited self and recognising and trusting that deeply is the key to the always open door.
Reflections on the Headless Way
By way of introduction, I became a spiritual seeker at the age of nineteen, like many others after experimenting with LSD while at university. My adventures in the following years involved several different teachers and practices of varying quality and effectiveness.These provided many rich and rewarding experiences as well as a few unfortunate ones, none of which however succeeded in bringing my seeking –my “Buddha disease"– to an end.
This did finally come about though, many decades into my search via a direct experience of the Headless Way, shared by my now very good friend Richard Lang. What follows is an account of this meeting and some reflections on why I believe this approach, pioneered by English philosopher Douglas Harding and his friends, is a new and unique development particularly suited to the temper of our times, and why it succeeded in my case where so many others failed.
From quite early on I realised that the search for spiritual liberation (the end of seeking), is the search for who I really am. In other words, that by discovering who one really is, or what Harding has called conscious first personhood, we come into true contact and union with reality. This must be true from a non-dualistic perspective which I understood to mean that, at depth, all is one.
This is made explicit in some traditional teachings, most famously those of Ramana Maharshi, with the instruction to use the question “Who am I?” as the most direct way to liberation. It's also an important koan or “gate” in the Zen tradition – to see one's “Original Face”. This instruction is usually understood in a psychological sense with the student expected to pare away more and more layers of false personality in order to uncover their elusive “True Self”. Ramana himself used the analogy of a pot full of water which is being boiled away by the heat of enquiry until nothing remains. This is characterised as sometimes being a short process (if the aspirant is encumbered with only a little “karmic baggage”) but more often a long and painful one, involving a degree of psychological distress and even symptoms of mental illness.(https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2526431334310918). But either way it's a process, with much hard graft between the aspirant and their goal.
The advertised benefits of reaching the goal promised via this arduous process nonetheless seemed to me to provide a compelling incentive. They included exalted states of bliss, unbounded compassion for others and an ability to deal with the stresses of life creatively and with a sense of joyous acceptance, freedom from suffering and so on. You may have your own list.
I've sincerely attempted this “who am I” approach both in contemplative solitude and while practising in pairs using the “Enlightenment Intensive" methodology. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightenment_Intensive).
It seemed to me though, that after a while all the digging just seemed to lead to more digging, with no end in sight. After a lot of futile effort, I abandoned this practice in favour of a form of mindfulness meditation based loosely on Vipassana and Zen techniques. I also experimented with all kinds of other practices including Sufi Zhikr, Rajneesh's “dynamic” meditations and various types of yoga. While these efforts could be fruitful psychologically in terms of improving my general metal health and lowering my stress levels, I continued to default to a sense of basic alienation from the rest of existence that I now know to inevitably accompany the unconscious, exclusive identification with the separate self.
The admonitions of Advaita teachers to “just stop and be, because you are already in your destination” , while they made sense to me intellectually were found to be impossible to implement. The doctrine that “all practice is a distraction” also proved pretty unhelpful. My very search for where and how to “just be” continued to isolate me from the goal, and knowing this didn't help. Every now and then a glimpse of unbounded openness and ease would light up my life sufficiently to keep me in the chase, but I was in a pretty pickle.
During the early 2000's my wife Mary and I became involved with a local group of seekers who would meet on Saturday afternoons to hear the teachings of the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. As the group increased in size we began inviting teachers to give talks and workshops in person. Many famous and not so famous contemporary spiritual guides turned up and offered their wisdom. Most seemed to “have something” and were apparently sincere. Most I found genuinely helpful and quite admirable. Sadly, a couple were clearly charlatans although whether this was conscious on their part or not it was hard to tell.
They all had one thing in common though – they sat up at the front (we had a podium) and declaimed, often accompanied by a vase of flowers and pictures of a dead guru or two to establish lineage authority. The rest of us sat silently at their feet and listened, hoping to “get” what they were on about. Whatever it was, they had it and we wanted it. If there was a Q&A afterwards, the questions that came up tended to be depressingly repetitive and while it was certainly pleasant and even restorative to have an excuse to sit in meditative silence with like-minded friends, it didn't seem like there was a lot of actual real spiritual transmission going on. The “enlightenment hit rate”remained low, to say the least. Still, we kept coming back for more in the hope that the next presenter would somehow deliver the goods.
Breaking the Spell
One evening though, we arrived at the meeting room to find the podium had not been set up as usual and the flowers, guru pictures and incense were missing. In its place sat an unassuming guy about my age, waiting for everyone to come in and be seated. This was a departure from the usual protocol which involved everyone sitting quietly for several minutes prior to the Teacher making their entrance, greeted by a hushed and reverent silence.
The speaker that night was Richard Lang and he had come to share an approach to self enquiry called “The Headless Way”, pioneered by his friend of many years, author and philosopher Douglas Harding. As soon as everyone was seated he began by saying, “What I have to share with you tonight is about you personally, just as you are, sitting on that chair.”
He proceeded to give a short but compelling introduction to the idea that our human level of appearance is only one of many, extending from the sub-atomic to the trans-galactic and that we need every one of them to exist and function. And then with the question, “And what's at the centre of all those layers of appearance?” he suggested we perform some simple perceptual experiments to find out.
Initially sceptical but intrigued, I participated as sincerely as I could in the first awareness exercise he took us through – Pointing Home. By what was revealed in this simple exercise of relaxed attention, it would be no exaggeration to say that my life has been changed irrevocably. This was followed by several other experiments, all designed to bring home the important difference between what we appear as to others, at a distance (third person), and what we find ourselves to be at zero distance – where we actually are (first person). Since experiencing this astonishingly physical revelation, I have stopped seeking who I really am and started, fitfully at first but with more success over time, living from Here. The end of the search turned out to be the beginning of a vast and all-absorbing adventure, which has included my continuing friendship and working relationship with Richard Lang. This is shared, I'm grateful to say by my wife Mary who also “got the point” that evening, along with several others with whom we continue to get together regularly to this day,over fifteen years later.
To see what this and the other Headless Way experiments are about, and to try them for yourself, I recommend the web page: https://headless.org/experiments-home.htm
I would suggest that to give these experiments their due, it's important to:
actually perform them as described and not just imagine yourself doing them
take seriously what they reveal
distinguish clearly between what you see and what you “know”
try more than one
This mode of transmission does not require personal contact with a current “practitioner” (although it can help) and many have found their way in alone, aided only by the experiments, perhaps some writings on the subject by Harding, Lang and others, combined with their own willingness to take a fresh look.
So what's different about the Headless Way?
And now to what it is that distinguishes this “headless” approach. What follows is a list of important features which, it seems to me, constitute a real departure from traditional spiritual practice and a new way forward free of many of its known pitfalls.
The Experimental Imperative
The feeling and belief that we're in a body, looking out of two peepholes in a sort of meat ball comes from our necessary subscription to social reality – for assuming, not unreasonably, that we are for ourselves the same as what we seem to others; a sort of ego in a skin bag. It can feel like we are riding behind our face, looking out at the world from there.
This illusion is vulnerable to inspection experientially though, as the Headless Way experiments can dramatically demonstrate.These experiments are direct and physical ways to clear up the perceptual confusion that is at the core of our psychological confusion, and which places us as a kind of thing in the world, instead of (first personally) the awake space in which the world appears. These experiments do not require subscription to any particular theory of reality, but they do require a temporary suspension of any such theory in favour of attention to the facts as they are given in experience. Most importantly, they rely on no authority except your own.
Conscious first personhood clearly distinguishes between phenomena and the field in which they occur. In fact it is attention to that very distinction which Harding calls "Seeing". In the tube experiment for instance, only one end of the tube is seen to contain phenomena. But crucially, in this case, "distinction" doesn't mean separation. The two views are clearly seen to present themselves inseparably, and "mutually interpenetrating" as the Buddhists like to say.
Harding's unique (as far as I know) contribution was to show that this asymmetric setup has to be encountered experientially and fully taken on board as the price of freedom from egoic confusion and true non-dual realisation.
This experimental honesty and rejection of revealed truth from authority I'd say aligns the Headless Way more closely with a post European Enlightenment scientific sensibility than to most traditional spirituality and religion.
Front loading the journey
Unlike other approaches which tend to prefer the slow reveal in various ways, the Headless Way gives you the whole no-thing up front. Apart from some brief contextual verbal framing, the experiments themselves are the introduction and initiation into this Way, and once what they reveal is directly experienced and valued, the initiate is in the same essential condition as every other headless Seer. As Richard Lang puts it, “From the moment of first Seeing, everyone in a workshop is equal in the sense that everyone now has full access at will to their True Self. There is nothing more to see, nothing more to get. You are Home. Congratulations. You are ‘good to go’!”(https://headless.org/articles/when-gurus-become-friends)
This has enormous implications for how the Way can be transmitted and shared, and frees it from the need for any authoritarian power structure or the danger of the often disastrous psychological transference by the student/disciple onto a “guru” figure.
It also “lowers the overhead” on the sharing of Seeing, as any Seer can do it and crucially, it can be shared freely and unconditionally. In practice, this seems to be what is happening, with slow but steady, more or less viral, peer-to-peer propagation. No recruitment mechanisms or staged levels of initiation are required. Douglas's friends created a charitable trust (The Sholland Trust) to disseminate his work and promote the Headless Way, but everyone involved serves in a voluntary capacity.
Locating the true authority
The only real authority on who/what is Seeing is the one Seeing, or as Douglas likes to put it “You are the only authority on what it's like to be you at zero distance”. This does an end run around around the vexed issue of spiritual authority and the asymmetric, and often abusive power relationships it fosters. Seeing confers no special status or power over others. It is always shared between peers.
Once experienced, Seeing remains accessible “at will”. One just has to look. That is not to say that it needs to be a continuous preoccupation, but it is available to the Seer in any moment. While fascination with life's experiences and vicissitudes can often monopolise one's attention, the open boundless Capacity in which it appears never goes anywhere, let alone “away”. It is not reliant on any special state or mood and so can be immediately noticed now, whatever is going on. With practice this becomes a natural and spontaneous flow of attention.
Embracing the sense of self
Unlike many other approaches the Headless Way does not demonise the sense of being a separate self, which it honours as a necessary development for navigating and engaging in worldly action, creativity, service and relationships. Learning to play “the Face Game”, as Harding calls it, is not seen as being a mistake or trap, but actually an important stage of human development which only becomes problematic when clung to too tenaciously. The stage of “Seer”– equipped with the advantages of the Face Game but aware of, and living from a deeper identity – is regarded as a natural stage of human development, rather than as a vaguely supernatural state of being to be enjoyed by the lucky few.
Here is a cogent summary of the Face Game idea, which Harding formulated in collaboration with Eric Berne, one of the founders of Transactional Analysis and author of “The Games People Play”.
The Five Stages of the Game
(1) Like any animal, the newborn infant is - for himself - No-thing, faceless, at large, unseparate from his world, 1st-person without knowing it.
(2) The young child, as we have seen, is liable to become aware (however briefly and intermittently) of himself-as-he-is-for-himself - faceless Capacity. Yet he's also becoming increasingly aware of himself-as-he-is-for-others: a very special and all-too-human 3rd person, complete with head and face. Both views of himself are valid and needful.
(3) But as the growing child learns the Face Game his acquired view of himself-from-outside comes to overshadow, and in the end to obliterate, his native view of himself-from-inside. In fact, he grows down, not up. At first, he contained his world: now it contains him - what little there is of him. He takes everybody's word for what it's like where he is, except his own, and is 1st-person no longer. The consequences are just what might be expected. Shrunk from being the Whole into being this insignificant part, he grows greedy, hating, fearful, closed in, phoney, and tired. Greedy, as he tries to regain, at whatever cost, a little of his lost empire; hating, as he tries to revenge himself on a society that has cruelly cut him down to size; fearful, as he sees himself a mere thing up against all other things; closed in, because it is the nature of a thing to keep others out; phoney, as he puts on mask after mask for each person or occasion; tired, because so much energy goes in keeping up these appearances instead of letting them go to where they belong - in and for the others. And all these troubles - and many more - arise from his basic pretence, the Face Game, as he imagines (contrary to all the evidence) that he is at 0 feet what he looks like at 6 feet - a solid, opaque, coloured, outlined lump of stuff. In short, he's beside himself, eccentric, self-alienated.
(4) He sees through the Game. Play is, for the moment, halted. This initial seeing is simplicity itself. Once noticed, nothing is more obvious than one's facelessness. The results, however, including freedom from greed, hate, fear, and delusion, are assured only while the Clarity here (which is Freedom itself) is being attended to. Flashes of Clarity aren't enough.
(5) Now the really exacting stage begins. He has to go on seeing his facelessness whenever and wherever he can till the seeing becomes quite natural and unbroken. Then at last the Game is over. He is game-free, Liberated, Awake, Enlightened, truly 1st-person."
From "The Face Game", an article by Douglas Harding.
The end of seeking and the beginning of the work
As pointed out at the end of the quote above, Seeing, while bringing to an end the seeking caused by egoic confusion, is also the beginning of the work of learning to live from and integrate conscious first personhood in all aspects of life. This work has a completely different quality to the confused, seeking-based efforts that went before though. Sam Harris put this beautifully in this reflection on meditation:
“Most people feel that the self is real and that they’re going to somehow unravel it—or, if it’s an illusion, it is one that requires a protracted process of meditation to dispel. One gets the sense in every dualistic
approach that there’s nothing to notice in the beginning but the evidence of one’s own unenlightenment. Your mind is a mess that must be cleaned up. You’re at the base of the mountain, and there’s nothing to do but schlep to the top.The non-dual truth is that consciousness is already free of this thing we think we have in our heads—the ego, the thinker of thoughts, the grumpy homunculus. And the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness can be recognised, right now, before you make any effort to be free of the self through goal-oriented practice. Once you have recognised the way consciousness already is, there is still practice to do, but it’s not the same as just logging your miles of mindfulness on the breath or any other object of perception.”
Sam Harris in conversation with Dan Harris (https://samharris.org/taming-the-mind/)
In Seeing I disappear in favour of the other. One realises one has never really been “face to face”with anyone. It's always been face (there) to no-face (here). When this realisation is put into everyday practice it has a powerful effect on all our relationships, in ways that continue to unfold. While not the same as unconditional love, this way of seeing others certainly forms fertile soil for it.“Fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind”, as the saying goes but I'd say fellow Seeing is even more reliable. One realises that consciously or not, every other sentient being is in the same basic condition – awake space full of the world –and worthy of love and respect as a unique locus of consciousness. To deny this would be a monstrous solipsism. To embrace it is radical, uncaused compassion.
The Social Aspect
Since Douglas Harding and then also his friends started exploring this approach together, there has developed a loose society of “Seeing friends” whose members get together in person both informally and at various events, but more and more in recent times, online on social media and in teleconference meetings. The company of Seeing friends is profoundly nourishing, as it provides a social antidote to the ubiquitous societal taboo against noticing and living from who we really are. Unlike “enlightened” teachers, who tend not to socialise with other “enlightened ones” and prefer the company of their disciples, Seeing friends have the profoundly healthy psychological luxury of a society of peers.
To See headlessly is to see that everyone else is looking from the same “place”, whether or not they are aware of it. No-one is excluded and everyone is welcome. There are no special prerequisites for initiation except the willingness to look and then take seriously what is revealed.
Much more can be, and has been, said and written about the Headless Way, so if any of the above piques your interest there are abundant resources for further exploration, including:
States of unitive consciousness
and their implications
Paradoxes and Dilemmas on the Spiritual Path
People start seeking enlightenment or unitive consciousness (aka transcendence, pure consciousness, mystical union, etc.) at different times and circumstances in life and for different reasons. One of the spiritual teachers I recently interviewed told me that when he was three years old, playing one summer afternoon with a Goofy toy on the front porch of his parents’ house in Texas, the boundaries of his consciousness suddenly dissolved and it opened to infinity. At the time he didn’t have any way of understanding or verbalizing that experience, but it was so deeply etched in his consciousness that twenty years later it made him go and spend many years in monasteries in Japan and Korea, in an attempt to relive that state.
The old Zen teacher, in whose monastery I meditated in Japan, underwent a similar experience at the top of a mountain he climbed when he was seventeen years old, and he describes: “…I was experiencing the reality of being one with and cared for by all things of this world, experiencing the greatness of the life I have been given… At that point I couldn’t contain myself anymore, so in a giant voice I shouted my name seven or eight times into the far-off horizon.”
I was “brought to the path” by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I read (with considerable effort) at the age of sixteen. In this book, Kuhn claims that the scientific community operates at any given time within a paradigm – a worldview based on certain basic assumptions – which defines the boundaries of its world and determines the nature of the activity conducted within them. While reading it I realized that this description applies not only to the scientific community but also to me: I also live and operate within boundaries, created by certain assumptions and thought-structures, which I adopted from others, and my connection with the world is filtered, mediated, limited and distorted by those filters. I determined to do whatever I must do to remove those filters and be in direct, unmediated connection with reality or “Truth”.
A few months later I ran into a small booklet of Zen stories and koans, and reading it I realized that I wasn’t the first one with that aspiration, and that in Zen it’s called “enlightenment”. Reading books led me to “Enlightenment Intensive Workshops”, in which I relentlessly inquired for days “Who am I?” and “What is the world?”, and from there I continued to a Zen monastery in Japan, where I practiced for two years in order to “reach enlightenment.” The possibility of being in direct connection with reality became like a living magnet, that pulled me deeper and deeper into my soul, and the quest for this mysterious state became the foundation of my life.
Meeting an Enlightened Person
In the summer of 1987 I was 29 years old and at the end of the fifth year of medical studies in Jerusalem. A very close friend of mine and a “dharma brother” went to Amsterdam to meet an “enlightened teacher”, and when he came back, a month later, he told me that that teacher “evoked enlightenment” in those around him, and that he invited him to visit and teach in Israel. I recognized a profound change in my friend – ease, confidence and joy, the like of which I had never seen in him – and I waited, excited but also with some apprehension, to the arrival in Israel of that teacher, whose name was AC.
When I finally met the man, in a friend’s apartment in Jerusalem, I was surprised. “He’s just a typical neurotic Jewish kid from New York…” I thought to myself. It was not at all how I expected an “enlightened teacher” to be. But during that evening, in which we spoke for hours about enlightenment, time and spiritual practice, I sensed that the man was the most open and vulnerable, unassuming and unpretentious person I had ever met. I felt that in his presence, a kind of tough knot within me started to relax and dissolve.
At one point during that evening I asked him what he thought the reason was that I was not yet enlightened, even after years of spiritual practice. He looked at me for a while and said “because you’re afraid”. I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you think I’m afraid of?” I asked. He replied that I would have to answer that question myself. That night I sat on my bed for hours and tried to work it out what it was that I was afraid of, until I found an answer that satisfied me. In the morning I called him and asked to meet him. When we met, I told him that more than anything I was afraid that I would waste my life and die without knowing who I was and what all this (gesturing at the world) was. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said that – he was so happy! Then he looked at me very seriously and said: “You should treasure that fear. It will take you all the way.”
It was the first time in my life that somebody validated, with such confidence and conviction, my quest for enlightenment. I felt that he knew exactly what I was talking about, and that his confidence and conviction were based not upon belief but upon his personal experience. Suddenly I had no doubt that I would succeed.
A State of Unitive Consciousness
Over the following three weeks we met with AC every evening, a small group of people, in that friend’s living room in Jerusalem, and he continued to answer simply, directly and clearly, based on his real-time experience, questions about enlightenment, spiritual liberation, absolute reality and the spiritual path. I felt as though those conversations were releasing and moving “tectonic plates” in me. And then, one evening, without a warning, a strange question appeared and refused to leave me: Could AC be my teacher?
I had no idea where the question came from. During my more than dozen years of quest for enlightenment I was always suspicious of and even hostile toward the possibility of becoming a follower of a teacher or a teaching, which I saw as replacing my existing set of conceptual filters with just another set – a move that wouldn’t get me one step closer to my goal. But that strange question wouldn’t let go of me, and as if forced me to take it seriously. But how can I answer it? How can one know? And what does it even mean, that “AC is my teacher”?
On one hot and humid morning at the end of June, the upheaval I was experiencing was so intense, that once I arrived at the hospital, where I was studying, I couldn’t imagine joining my team (which was at the Surgery Department studying anesthesia that day). I need to figure this out, I told myself, and without further delay; my life depended on it. But how would I know? My mind seemed completely useless in the face of this question. I walked back and forth on the hospital lawn in an agitated state for what felt like hours. Then, in despair I thought: I should try to have a nap; maybe the answer would come to me in my sleep. I lay down under a tree but the heat, the flies and my agitation made it a hopeless attempt. “I give up,” I thought, “I might as well join my team and use the rest of the day for studying.” I started to get up and just as I was half-way to standing I had an experience of unitive consciousness (See at the bottom of this article).
I have no idea how long I was in that state, for there was no perception of “I” nor of time in that state. It seems to me that if somebody was standing next to me with a stopwatch, they would have measured only a few seconds, but I was in a “dimension” or “state” in which a fraction of a second and eternity are the same. I cannot use the words “experience” or “knowing” for that state, because “experience” or “knowing” require a split between the knower (the subject, “I”) and the known (the object of experience or knowing), and in that state there was no such split. Some report of absolute goodness, cosmic intelligence, vitality, sacredness, etc., that characterize that dimension or state, but those terms are borrowed from the human dimension and experience and don’t apply to it.
When I found myself “back” in the world of “self”, “time”, and “world”, I immediately became aware of two things: my senses were much sharper; and I knew that AC had always been and would always be my Teacher, and that I had always known that. I stumbled to the phone booth at the hospital entrance and called the house where he was staying, to tell him that. It was completely clear to me that my life, as I had known it, was over. I had no idea how the new life, into which I was just born, would look like.
As a result of this event, and many that followed, I left medical school and Israel and moved to Europe and then to the US, to be with AC and others who gathered around him. I was a member of the community that formed for more than two decades and left it – and him as my teacher – about eight years ago. I now longer see AC as my teacher.
The Absolute and the Relative Dimensions
The states of unitive consciousness I experienced not only fulfilled my wish, to be in direct and unmediated connection with reality, but also revealed to me that, on a certain level, we are always connected with it in this way (although we usually don’t pay attention to it and therefore are unaware of it). Since that discovery I live in a state of “dual consciousness” – simultaneously (although at varying intensities) aware of the dimension of time, space and relationship, in which I live and function through thought, concepts, beliefs and language, and the dimension out of time and space, with which I am in direct, unmediated and ineffable connection. I’ll call the former “the Relative Dimension” and the latter “the Absolute Dimension”.
Those states also revealed something else to me, which I’d like to discuss here a bit: that since in the Absolute Dimension there is no “I” (in the usual sense of the word), no language, no time and no world (in the sense of “not-I”), I cannot “bring” anything from it into the Relative Dimension: no description, no conclusions and no guidance about how to live in the world of time and space. Nothing. Zilch. All these do not exist in the Absolute Dimension and only “stick” when I “shift” into the Relative Dimension and starts again (unavoidably, because of the nature of that dimension) relating to myself as a subject and to the world as an object, to verbalize and conceptualize.
Since we are apparently incapable of living and functioning in the world without the mediation of thoughts, language and concepts, we cannot relate to our experience or knowledge of the Absolute Dimension but through those. If this is true, it means that we “impose” on the state of unitive consciousness, which is ineffable, our conditioned and limiting ideas, beliefs and worldview – and our wishes and desires, conscious and unconscious. Enlightenment is, therefore, like an empty canvas, upon which each of us leaves his or her impression.
This is how, for example, I can understand the message I received during the “shift” from the Absolute to the Relative Dimension, about my relationship with AC: for various reasons – psychological, karmatic or spiritual – I “imposed” on that wide-open space, in which I was up to that moment, my hidden wish to find a teacher, and then I imagined that the message came to me from the Absolute Dimension. In the same way, a person who would stumble upon a state of unitive consciousness in a Buddhist context would relate to it very differently from a person who would reach it in a Jewish, shamanic, Christian, postmodern or Anthroposophical context, and each one would interpret it differently and reach different conclusions, based on their conditioning and tendencies.
To demonstrate the point I’d like to go back to the Zen teacher I mentioned in the first paragraph. A few years after his enlightenment at the top of the mountain, the man volunteered to be a kamikaze pilot and to go on a suicide mission for the Emperor and the Japanese nation, and he tells that, when Japan surrendered only a few hours before his scheduled suicide flight, he wept with disappointment. His psychological and cultural conditioning, related to the time and place in which he lived, made him paint the empty canvas of his enlightenment with the colors of self-sacrifice for his people and country. Fortunately, he was given another chance to reinterpret his enlightenment.
The lists of characteristics of a typical state of “unitive consciousness”, identified by Walter Stace and Walter Pahnke, include the following:
Unity – for which Stace distinguishes between internal unity (i.e. undifferentiated awareness, unitary consciousness) and external unity (i.e. a sense of unity with the surrounding environment)
Transcendence of time and space, or non-temporal and non-spatial quality (i.e. feelings of infinite time and limitless space, transcending usual time and space boundaries)
Inner subjectivity (i.e. a sense of life or living presence in all things)
Objectivity and reality (i.e. noetic quality, a sense that the experience was a source of objective truth)
Sense of sacredness or numinosity (i.e. worthy of reverence, divine or holy)
Strong positive emotion, deeply felt peace and joy
Paradoxical nature (i.e. needing to use illogical or contradictory statements to describe the experience)
Ineffability (i.e. difficulty of communicating or describing the experience to others)
As this list indicates, in a state of unitive consciousness one feels freed from the usual split between self and other, subject and object, and reaches a state of ecstatic wholeness and union with humanity, nature, the cosmos, reality or God. This is associated with intense feelings of joy, bliss, serenity, and inner peace. The numinous quality of this state has nothing to do with previous religious beliefs; it reflects a direct apprehension of the divine nature of reality.
Descriptions of states of unitive consciousness are usually full of paradoxes. The experience can be described as “content-less, yet all-containing.” It has no specific content, but seems to contain everything in a potential form. One can have a sense of being simultaneously everything and nothing. While one’s personal identity and the limited ego have disappeared, one feels that they have expanded to such an extent that their being encompasses the entire universe. Similarly, it is possible to perceive all forms as empty, or emptiness as being pregnant with forms. One can even reach a state in which one sees that the world exists and does not exist at the same time.
In that state, one often feels that they gained access to ultimate wisdom and knowledge in matters of cosmic relevance, although what they have learned during this experience is ineffable; it cannot be described by words. The very nature and structure of our language seem to be inadequate for this purpose. Yet, the experience can profoundly influence one’s system of values and life plan.