THE GIFT OF THE GLIMPSE
I am missing the meditation hall and its stillness. The hall I am imagining is the one at the Vipassana retreat center near Yosemite. The sound of the small gongs wake me at 4:30. I walk through foggy darkness, following shadows of the other meditators making their way. Small lights line the path that in the daytime is marked with single daffodils. The walk smells like California, pine and sage and sumac and wet leaves, and the hall smells a particular way. The best way I can describe it is stillness.
The meditation mat is my little square of real estate, home base for ten days. I have a big blanket to wrap myself up. In the dark of the morning, the hall is dimly lit, and it is a challenge to sit and practice with the body remembering bed. In the morning meditation can be dreamy, and it is a challenge to keep focused. Time stands still, until the sound of chanting, and the gongs signaling breakfast.
Despite the challenges of being silent for ten days, and meeting yourself in all the ways you do in such an intensive, despite the dark nights of the soul and all the difficulties we create for ourselves, I can’t wait for the next sit, whenever it will be.
It’s been 30 years since my first retreat, during a blizzard in Western Massachusetts. I don’t remember how I got there or how I traveled back to my life in New York. The blizzard cut the power and knocked down trees and still the retreat went along, with little notes around of how to do certain things, no sense of panic or worry.
I was gifted that first time with an experience of Oneness, an experience of no separation. Maybe it was two seconds. Maybe it was an hour. The personality self dropped away and all was exquisitely one thing, one movement, one moment, one tone, one is, one it, one.
Words are so woefully inadequate in this description and I see them there, on the page, and want to give up this conversation. I’ll forge on though. Looking back, I explain this experience of realization by saying I was being given something in order to set me on my way, on a path of spiritual exploration that brought me to where I am today.
I had no framework for this experience. I had read one book about Zen meditation and stacks of literature hinting at such things: Salinger and Hesse and Jung. With no structure, I just delighted in the experience, and figured everyone got to experience something like that when they meditated so much. When I look at it now, I remember how deeply familiar this glimpse was, like something I already knew.
The joy that came from this experience did not go away, ever. The manic part of it lasted several months. After a couple of weeks, I tried to work, as a document specialist in an investment bank. I got sent home. They thought I was on drugs. One of the things that happened was that I felt my eyes open and stay open, and the sense was that I wasn’t just seeing from the pupil but from whole eye, lid to lid and corner to corner. I don’t think I was blinking much. I had a discovery that I had never looked anyone in the eye. Now when I spoke to someone, the connection from eyeball to eyeball felt as thought the energy of the other self poured into me as we spoke.
That direct staring doesn’t make people uncomfortable, not at all.
I remember standing on a train, crammed into the subway in the normal way, and looking at a man’s neck, the little hairs and blemishes, and falling so in love with the sweetness and vulnerability of it that I started to openly weep. I saw an old man struggling to make a phone call in Grand Central Station, so I paid for his call and walked him to his hotel.
Obviously, this way of being was not conducive to living in the city, but also, where better to be a lunatic. I kind of fit right in.
I have had similar experiences of opening since then, but none as disruptive. Here I will write more metaphors of this unexplainable thing in insufficient language.
It felt like dropping through a thin membrane in my mind and finding vast and exquisite truth. It was just on the other side, right there for me to see. If I just turned my awareness down a different hallway, the world came rushing in and rushing out at the same time. The motion was of a flower infinitely opening and closing, and in that opening was everything that has ever been, one moment and yet infinite movement outside of time. It was a dropping away of all knowing and a knowing of everything as one thing. In fact, there was no “knower,” just the known. The infinite aliveness of everything was a profound part of it, and the world truly became completely alive, where before it was like cardboard or rigid. Here in this reality was everything and nothing. And beyond everything, the feeling of being loved.
I was filled with a joy that enlivened everything I saw. The joy is still here, it has always been here. There have been times over the years when I could not access it. The darkest times were when I believed that this experience had been a mistake, a fluke, and that I was unworthy of ever knowing this truth again. If I had framed it as seeing God, in these dark times I would have said I thought God had forsaken me. It didn’t matter the words I used, it was the same feeling. There was despair in believing that my young, ignorant, unknowing self had stumbled into truth. This had been an accident, a mistake, a cosmic error that had allowed me into the VIP section where I had no business being.
As a child, I had to figure out how to reign in my innate joyfulness in order to function in the world, as most of us do, and this served me well as I went back to my life and functioned. This is a great ignorance, to believe that it is necessary to cultivate cynicism, to cut off the gifts of buoyancy and light in order to conduct ourselves. I guess there was always a fear of really losing connection with normal reality, and so I pushed away this gift of being in order to live my life.
When I returned from the retreat, I felt a kind of newness, finding my way into every movement as if it were the first time, understanding the light in it all and baffled that others couldn’t see it. I would roll it over, try to explain it, to describe it. There were moments when someone would ask about my trip and I would regale them with this information of what I had seen. I would try to explain, but the conversations always left me feeling a little ill, as if by speaking of the experience I negated it. As I explained it in words, I seemed to diminish it, and gradually, I pushed it further away with a feeling that I was unworthy of it.
So why speak of it now. First, I want to recognize how many people have similar experiences, and how disruptive and disorganizing they can be. With the current passion people have with plant medicines and other traditions that can open people to such spiritual openings in quick and extreme manners, it’s important to see that without structure, we can really find ourselves in crisis. I was lucky in this sense, that my lessons learned did not derail me as much as they could have.
I’ve been examining some of those lessons that were sparked by the experience. First, over time I developed a strong feeling of it having been a mistake, of being chosen by accident to see what I saw. This sense of ‘not enough’ has been decades of work to excavate and release. This has been a huge lesson.
I also had to let go of a feeling of always chasing something, of thinking that I should have a similar experience every time I sat in meditation. This is Buddhism 101, that craving causes suffering, and it can happen with meditation as much as it can happen with cookies. It has been a pretty subtle challenge, like trying not to think of an elephant when someone says ‘don’t think of an elephant.’ Knowing that this experience is possible means that some days, all I do is work to detach myself from the longing for the same kind of experience. Accepting, receiving what is, not judging anything as better or worse, this is the answer. To realize that this experience was not ‘better’ than any other I have had is to snap all the cables that elevate the ideal.
Along with feeling unworthy is then to spend time in judging the experience. This is where the intellectual pursuit that got propelled over all these years became dangerous. This other writer had a similar experience, but they had energy flowing through their physical body while it happened to them. This person devoted their life to spiritual practice from that moment on. This person became a saint. This person a teacher. I guess I am not reading enough, or practicing enough, or maybe I am reading too much or doing some wrong practice. Here it comes again, the self-judgment and the feeling of ‘not enough.’ Geez it never ends.
Actually it does end. It ends by just falling into that which was shown, that open awareness of right now, where everybody is equally loved. The ego tries to control that which is it beyond it. It tries to understand, to explain, to work toward, to diminish, to get the experience back, when the ego has nothing at all to do with this. I fall into the heart, where this knowing lives. Where the letting go of desire or need or animosity to the self is freedom.
I watched the movie “Soul” last night. I didn’t know anything about the movie. Of course, you can guess that the whole time I was big blubbery mess just with the appreciation of a story like this in the world, of seeing a deeper truth raise its head through the chaos. I’m pretty easy pickings that way. Also, I laughed as I saw myself as a recognizable caricature in one of the characters on screen.
Something I loved in the movie was the illustration of the flow state, and of getting so caught up in the experience of it that we lose the enjoyment of just being. I know I write quite a lot about accessing that state, about how we find the place of no-thought while playing music, but I also recognize that the chasing of it can be dangerous. We can fall into judgment about whether we’re in or out of it, and we can see it as a kind of goal, which only pushes it farther away.
How about if we just be. A human, being. Nothing to do to be it. Accepting each moment, transcendent or ordinary, as perfect.
A quote on my wall of quotes is from Kurt Vonnegut, and this keeps me grounded within all of this. “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.” I don’t need to be better or worse, and neither do you. Things happen, and then other things happen. Our only job seems to be to allow, to enjoy, and to act from a knowing of being deeply loved. See where that takes you.
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