Completely letting go of control
The last year in my brain, revisited
Recently I’ve written a whole bunch about meditation, and my meditation life, about how the recent era of my consciousness has been beautiful, fascinating, etc. I’ve realized that these accounts have not captured the fact that it was also disorienting and strange, especially during the last year.
In my experience, once you dip your toe into the deep waters of contemplative practice, things start to get very weird. And yet, at every step, there is an underlying recognition that something is worth pursuing, that there is a deeper significance here. And, if you’re lucky, the weirdness is pleasant, too.
So here’s this alternate account.
Last year, I gradually lost touch with the feeling that I was in control of my life. Like: increasingly, it seemed clear that my feelings of “control” and “agency” didn’t necessarily pertain to any real control. It no longer seemed like my “will” was freely chosen. Instead, I began perceiving existence as a naturally unfolding process, in which I am a participant.
The sensations associated with “control” and “agency” persist, to some extent. But I no longer feel that they are commands issued from some detached executive office that is separate from the emerging universe.
This has had enormous subjective benefits, with no apparent drawbacks. Strangely, I still act in the way that you’d assume a “high-agency” person would act. Like, getting married, making new friends, starting a company, working hard, having opinions, etc. All of that is the same. In fact, I dither less than I used to.
The process of giving up control began in my brother’s basement. I was staring at his beige carpet, meditating. I was bored. “This meditation isn’t doing anything for me, it’s useless,” I thought. Then I tried to relax into this sense of uselessness. (Make the difficulty the object of your meditation: advice that almost always works.) What that meant was: giving up on the idea of my mind being any other way than it was, giving up on the idea of “meditating well,” giving up on determining what was important—surrendering to a completely boring moment. It was an act of dropping my identity, concerns, and personal will.
My sense of time dropped away. The carpet I was looking at suddenly seemed like eternal carpet, a manifestation of all that had ever been. With no expectation that it should be important, suddenly it shone forth, supersaturated with reality.
It was shockingly beautiful, even though it was, equally, unspectacular beige carpet. I knew how silly this was. And yet.
The timeless, boundless flavor of that experience continued after the meditation. As I went to catch a train, I carried with me a pleasant disorientation, a sense that the foundations of my typical experience—time, space, and my idea of self—had lost their normal dominion.
For one thing, there was no perceived center of my consciousness. Certainly, I didn’t have a sense that I was located in my head, that there was “a little man behind the controls.” There was nothing controlling anything. My consciousness alighted on this and that, this streetlight and that storefront, like a hummingbird.
And yet, unlike a hummingbird, it had no solidity, no center of mass. Finding the “thing” that was flickeringly aware was impossible—there was nothing to find. My awareness was none other than its object, at any moment. To borrow a metaphor from Julian Jaynes, finding the location of my consciousness was like being the beam of a flashlight, trying to locate shadow.
It was, I guess, like I was “one with everything.” But I’d felt that before, in meditation, as a sense of expansion. This was different. In previous experiences, I was an “expanded thing,” like my consciousness was a swelled-up balloon. This time, there was no “thing” that I “was.” No identity could contain my experience. This felt like liberation from a long-held burden.
Normal things were still going on in my mind. Dancing through the 3D volume of experience, there were thoughts and feelings. They were just unattached, unhooked from the sense of a united perceiver. There was a hard-to-explain but fundamental sense of peace inherent to this way of being.
This experience clicked off after a few days. And, a few weeks later, I had returned to feeling powerless and full of anxiety. My career was uncertain: I had an intriguing job opportunity, but it wasn’t clear whether it would ultimately materialize, which made me feel uneasy. Also, a week prior, I’d been denied entry into the USA, an event which stopped me from seeing my then-new girlfriend, Cate. The vindictive border guard, in the process of denying my visa package, actually said the words, “Use your fancy writer words to tell me what your degree is about,” when interrogating me over whether my degree in literature was relevant to… a writing position.
I was grumpy. I felt helpless about my life. I also felt powerless over my mind: though I desperately wanted to, I hadn’t been able to recreate my experience of The Timeless Carpet, the feeling of awareness liberated from constraint.
So I gave up on that. I remembered that I didn’t really create it the first time, so there was no sense in exerting effort to try and create it now. I sat down in the bedroom where I was staying, which was bare and grey, with small windows that looked out on Hackney, also bare and grey. And I just thought, “Whatever. I’m going to sit down and leave my mind here, just give it up to God, and see what He does with it.”
I softened my gaze and tried to be comfortable, and let go of all intention. In about an hour’s time, my mind was given back to me, in improved form, similar to what it had been after glimpsing The Eternal Carpet. All was luminous, centerless, borderless, fluid. Stepping out into the evening, the bleakness of the United Kingdom refreshed my skin. It was an unspoiled Eden, full of fish and chip shops, all primordially exceptional. I couldn’t remember sadness.
The Zen tradition is full of annoying paradoxical statements and concepts. Like the idea of the Gateless Gate: the place you go in the moment you truly abandon the intention to go anywhere. Such paradoxical ideas now seem like utterly straightforward descriptions of my experience.
Choicelessly, I floated towards a flower market, as the sun broke through clouds. On the way, I ran into my cheery friend Airick. How had he gotten there? I was nowhere near his office. I didn’t understand, or feel the need to. Confusion was fine. “I feel incredible,” I said, when he asked how I was.
For the duration of my London trip, every night, I let go of my mind, once again, in the little bedroom. Every time, my mind was profoundly altered in the same way.
It was hilarious and also quite humbling that the most intense experiences of my contemplative life were caused by simply abandoning effort. Previously, I’d assumed that there was a thing called “meditation,” that I was “good at,” that was being done by “Sasha.” But this was apparently an impoverished view. I didn’t understand what was going on, and who it was happening to, and who was doing it. Nothing required my understanding, though. In fact, my attempts at understanding limited the depth of my practice—better not to even try.
I also didn’t talk about this much, relative to how powerful the experience was, because I had the feeling I would sound crazy. This was correct. One evening, I made the mistake of discussing my consciousness with two people who met up with me for professional networking reasons. Though they both had mature meditation practices, I think they left the meeting feeling that I was insane, not unreasonably.
[Update: they have informed me, since I posted this, that they didn’t feel I was insane, so perhaps it was only I who felt insane. Anyway…]
This centerless unfolding of these London evenings felt like something I couldn’t un-see, something I could never lose. But I was wrong. I lost it again, for a period of time.
My visa issues got resolved. I moved in with Cate, in California. This was joyful, except for the neuroticism I brought into the relationship. Since my previous marriage had gone terribly wrong, I assumed that maintaining this new romance would require some control, some active fretting over my actions. Likewise, I imagined that if I executed a series of carefully planned social maneuvers, my career would take a definable shape, and I would stop wondering where my life was headed. So I kind of… rebooted the scheming part of my brain, the sense of “command,” the sense that I had to manage my existence through mentally spinning my wheels.
As I schemed and worried for a period of months, my consciousness progressively became grippy and grindy again—smaller and more contained, full of mental whining, very different from its recent fluid openness.
This caused me sorrow, this departure of such a beautiful flavor of being. The sorrow almost stopped me from going to a talk given by Ken McLeod, one of my favorite dharma teachers. But I went. And I regretted it at first—the talk largely didn’t feel useful.
Then, though, he made a nonchalant statement during the Q&A that hit me like a comet.
“The comparing mind,” he said, “is difficult, and it’s one of the last things to go.” Ah, the comparing mind. Sure. I knew it well. It was the mind that had come back recently, with such force. It was the mind forever asking—what if I lived a different life, what if I could escape from this, what if I had this man’s art, and that man’s scope. This mind plotted desperately, as if plotting could keep me safe.
Okay. That night, I lay in bed, wondering: what if the comparing mind didn’t have any power, in reality? What if I really couldn’t choose any other life? Imagine if, in this one, the worst case scenario took place—utter disaster, infamy, ridicule. Could that be okay? What if I was reviled by everyone, regarded as a hack, or a creep, mocked for my writing, which was so obviously clumsy and frivolous. Would that be fine, in some sense? Would the universe persist, in expansion and contraction? Sure. Of course it would.
The comparing mind, relieved of its duties, sighed with relief, and relaxed into quietude. And the feeling I’d had in Hackney returned, in that moment of resignation.
It wasn’t, I realized, quite the feeling of not having a will or a self. It was the feeling that “will” and “self” were emanations of a force acting through me. I felt like a leaf in the wind, absolutely okay with being propelled by something larger. Did I feel like the owner of something called “free will?” Yes and no. But this question seemed utterly irrelevant. It didn’t trouble me then, and it doesn’t now.
The evening after, Cate and I went to a social occasion. In particular, my actions that evening felt like a self-propelled expression of the universe. On our return, I wrote this poem, which I didn’t show anyone, and am now sharing for the first time. It wasn’t trying to be a good poem, but rather a simple retelling of what had occurred.
I was a momentary decision
Made by an ocean of silence
Which cast me up
And took me to a party
In San Francisco.
We brought cake to the party,
But in the end,
The party didn’t deserve it,
So we took it back,
And ate almost all of it.
The last slice sat
In its box in the fridge,
Like me in the bright silence,
Under sheets that smelled
Like the person I apparently was.”
I enjoyed the subsequent months. But there was still a subtle mental struggle going on. I was under the impression that, maybe, if I tried a little harder, my experience would become yet more beautiful, yet more mysterious. This led to more meditation, more trying to drop everything, more effort to find moments in which I hadn’t surrendered to whatever this thing was. In this way, I was still judging my existence to be inadequate.
About six months later, at a friend’s guest house in Santa Barbara, this somewhat silly effort came to a natural conclusion. The conclusion appeared during a massage.
During the massage, I experienced an incredibly dumb thought: “my foot is so relaxed, it feels like someone else’s foot.” And I realized that this thought came from no source, it was not produced by me. A subsequent storm of thoughts arrived, unbidden: “My dumb thoughts are a manifestation of what I seek, the essence that pervades all moments. So are my smart thoughts. Everything I could think, ever, is an expression of the unnameable, omnipresent source. The voice in me that seeks out the source, is, itself, composed of what it’s searching for. So, actually, I don’t have to look for it. Actually, I can’t escape it, and I never could. It’s been my dance partner, this whole time, since before I was born. None of this has been my doing.”
This was the most hilarious, frightening, and gorgeous thought I’d ever had. After the massage, which I sort of stumbled away from, I knew I had been forever changed, into the thing I’d already been. There was some immediate emotional release, followed by a quiet sense of recognition.
Shortly thereafter, my friend and his wife arrived for dinner. I wondered if I would be different over dinner, but I wasn’t. We bantered and ate some tasty fish. I was slightly off my game socially, given that I was still processing my experience, but I was still a normal person.
After this moment of realization, being a leaf in the wind started to seem mundane. If the ocean of silence, the not-knowing, had always been with me, then it was never more extraordinary than laundry and taxes. It’s still beautiful. But it’s not “special,” not completely different from life as it was before.
Some Buddhists and spiritual types talk about how “there is no self.” I have no opinion on this. From a certain perspective, I’m a person. From another, I’m a wave, not separate from the water. These are both flawed descriptions, operating in tension, which don’t require resolution.
I’ve behaved like a non-crazy human ever since. If I didn’t tell anybody about this, nobody would know about my inner journey. It’s true that my internal world has been utterly changed. But on the outside, I haven’t, really.
The biggest effect, I think, is that I no longer have the sense that my life contains some fundamental inadequacy that requires fixing, some unfillable gap. It simply is this way, including all of the griping and indigestion, the sunbursts and cloudbursts. I can’t escape it, and I don’t want to.
Photo credit goes to Henri Cartier-Bresson.
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