a personal note on a confusing subject
I got into meditation for two reasons, initially: I wanted to erase myself, and I wanted to experience enlightenment, after reading about it in a bunch of books about Zen Buddhism. About those motives, I now have a little bit to say. Erasing yourself is stupid. Experiencing enlightenment is less stupid, but not without its own kind of stupidity.
Here’s the deal. When you meditate a lot, you have weird mystical experiences. It happens to nearly everybody who spends a bunch of time in that territory, it’s not rare. Sometimes, when you’re lucky, you get to touch this State that is gestured at by words like “enlightenment.” Very occasionally, a drug can bring it on, although, funnily enough, you can have lots of interesting drug experiences that seem pretty profound before you ever Go There.
It’s like falling in love, in the following way.
When you were very young, you heard love songs, and they described some fun-sounding feelings you could relate to your existing feelings. Then, you fell in love, and you had all of these other feelings, and then said, oh, uh, yeah, I guess that’s what they were talking about. Similarly, you’d heard about mystical experiences for a long time, things about oneness or a Supreme Reality or similar, and they seemed analogous to some stuff you’d been through. Then, you touch the State, and you go like, what the fuck, this has always been here, this whole time?
Then, a little further down the meditative path, the State becomes more integrated with your day-to-day experience, such that it flavors your consciousness; your normal becomes a little closer to the State, which is really nice, although the jarring potency of the early experiences doesn’t necessarily return. In this, it’s a little like love, too: the mature thing is more workable and nuanced, but lower in volume.
Meditation teachers usually tell you not to chase the State, and this is helpful advice, but impossible to follow all the time, since the State feels like the point of everything. After particularly powerful experiences, you want to tell everyone you know about this State. Instead of being that guy with the one YouTube video you show people, you are, briefly, the guy who figures out how to make every conversation include the State.
But everything you say about it, even if it does interest other people, sounds completely insipid to you. Worse than insipid: a betrayal of what you’ve seen, given that the State feels, among other things, like a liberation from abstraction, a glimpse of what reality could be—unbelievable, apparently—if you stopped attacking the present moment with all of your motives and storylines. You start to say shit like, “nothing is separate, but not like you think,” but each one of those words feels painful leaving your mouth. One of my friends, charmingly, said “I took my cone head off,” and by “cone head,” she meant the things that dogs wear after they’re operated on. If you’re feeling literary, you might throw in words like suchness, muchness, spaciousness, entanglement, vividness, boundlessness, but these will primarily serve to distinguish you as slightly more formally educated than other people who tend to ramble about this kind of thing.
Or, here’s a sad story. The king sends you, an explorer, on an expedition to a distant island, where, in ancient times, lived a tribe of gifted sculptors, known only to history by their reputation. You have been tasked with bringing back artifacts from this mysterious tribe. After searching the rest of the island fruitlessly, you climb through a tiny hole in the earth, into a spooky cavern. In the cavern, improbably, you find a giant sculpture, made of a dozen irregular shards that, through a feat of engineering, make a perfectly smooth torus. However, given their size, you can only carry one of the shards back. It is the best evidence you can provide of the sculpture. However, once parted from the rest of the sculpture’s components, the jagged shard seems merely like a piece of ruin, rather than something that could possibly be part of an integrated whole. All you can say to the skeptical courtiers is, “this ugly thing, but the opposite.”
It feels like you have been given a glimpse of a greater reality. But what does that reality have to teach you? Unless you become extremely fond of one or another mystical tradition’s beliefs, it’s hard to say. Perhaps what you have glimpsed is simply a barer sensate consciousness, freed of some of the interpretive processing that makes normal thinky consciousness stressful. Perhaps what you have glimpsed is the thing people call God, and now you know that this thing is the foundation of everything you are, with a few layers of costume on top. In the end, you really want to interpret it definitively, but it evades interpretation. You are comforted by the memory of the State, but, in the end, puzzled, too. Maybe you feel Better deep down, in a way that’s hard to define, but sometimes, months later, you doubt whether this is still true.
Sometimes you read mystics from different traditions, to get some help with this issue. You find that they have experiences that have a similar feel, but that they all interpret them differently. This, too, is comforting—you are not alone—and confusing—nobody can help you decide what it all means.
Also, unfortunately, though you suspect initially that touching the State will make you special or different than other people, it doesn’t seem to.
All you can conclusively say is that it appears, subjectively, that there’s Something Else, that’s under/behind/around/atop/inside/permeating/powering/enabling All Of This. Objectively who knows. It would be easiest to explain the State away by calling it a delusion. But, unfortunately, it feels realer than anything else you’ve ever experienced.
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