August 13, 2014 § 12 Comments
“I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sight and sound around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once, like an atmosphere, sustaining me [...] Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.’
As Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell returned from the moon, he beheld Earth from the spacecraft window. In that moment he had a life-changing experience for which his scientific background had not prepared him.
“I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge—it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy—a transformational experience.”
The experience was so powerful that when he got back to Earth, Mitchell started digging into various literatures to try to understand his experience.
“I found nothing in science literature but eventually discovered it in the Sanskrit of ancient India. The descriptions of samadhi, Savikalpa samadhi, were exactly what I felt: it is described as seeing things in their separateness, but experiencing them viscerally as a unity, as oneness, accompanied by ecstasy.” (“Samadhi In Space.”)
Mitchell went on to found “The Institute for Noetic Sciences” to study consciousness-related experiences, such as his, through a scientific lens.
While terms like “bliss” & “ecstasy” sound vague & faraway to most of us, these states are actually quite natural, glimpses of which need not follow years of dedicated medication.
In a study, 3000 people who claimed to have had spontaneous mystical experiences were asked what had triggered them. The four major triggers were:
1. Depression/despair 2. Prayer/meditation, 3. Natural beauty 4. Participation in religious worship. (I would imagine psychedelics are also high on the list! Though perhaps not in the demographic sampled.)
During a sleepless night of “almost unbearable” depression, a thought came to Tolle: “I can not live with myself.” The answering thought became like a kōan: “Who is the “I” who can not live with the “self?”
In Zen, the koan—a seemingly answerless riddle with profound implications, designed to break down ordinary ways of thinking & stun the analytic mind into awakening—is a traditional technique to induce satori.
Savikalpa samadhi is a Hindu term for the temporary, exalted state of consciousness wherein the subject retains his or her sense of self, but at the same time, awareness expands into an experience of divine cosmic consciousness, or universal oneness. The Hindu tradition calls this Brahman: “the ineffable unchanging reality amidst & beyond the world,” translating directly as “being-consciousness-bliss.”
East Indian poet & mystic Sri Chinmoy observes: “Nature’s dance stops. There is no movement. Everything is tranquil. The Knower and the Known have become totally One. The lover and the Beloved have become One. The Yogi enjoys a supremely divine, all-pervading, self-amorous ecstasy.”
In Zen Buddhism, this euphoric state of peace is known as satori, which literally means “to understand.” It is the goal of meditation practice. A brief but clear glimpse into the awakened state of satori is known as kenshō, which translates as “seeing into one’s true nature or essence.”
“At Nanzenji there is a small hill. I used to walk near there, look at it, and often smile at the high school students who walked by there as well. One day as I walked by, I looked at the hill and it was truly amazing. I was totally lost as if there was no ‘me’. I stood gazing at the hill. Some students walked by and one of them said something like ‘look at that crazy monk’. Finally I came out of it. Life was never the same for me. I was free.”
British novelist Forrest Reid describes a beautiful experience of classic Kensho:
“It was as if I had never realized before how lovely the world was. I lay down on my back in the warm, dry moss and listened to the skylark singing as it mounted up from the fields near the sea into the dark clear sky. No other music ever gave me the same pleasure as that passionately joyous singing. It was a kind of leaping, exultant ecstasy, a bright, flame-like sound, rejoicing in itself. And then a curious experience befell me.
“It was as if everything that had seemed to be external and around me were suddenly within me. The whole world seemed to be within me. It was within me that the trees waved their green branches, it was within me that the skylark was singing, it was within me that the hot sun shone, and that the shade was cool.
“A cloud rose in the sky, and passed in a light shower that pattered on the leaves, and I felt its freshness dropping into my soul, and I felt in all my being the delicious fragrance of the earth and the grass and the plants and the rich brown soil. I could have sobbed with joy.”
In the West, a typical kensho experience is more likely to be called a “mystical experience.” Pioneering American psychologist William James identified four key characteristics common to the mystical experience:
1) Ineffability (elusive to capture in language; hard or impossible to describe the subtle nuances to another in all their import & grandeur.)
2) Noetic quality (a sense of timelessness & unity with all things, illumination or knowing beyond the grasp of intellect.)
3) Transiency (It is rare to sustain a transcendent mystical experience for more than half an hour; though time appears to stand still, in linear time the mystical experience usually lasts for only a few minutes…a few hours at best. Though longer periods have been reported.)
4) Passivity (the individual feels swept up & buoyed by a force greater than themselves.)
I came across the word “kensho” in my internet search to find a term that described my own experiences of euphoric, peaceful interconnectivity. Mine came about as a result of intentional vision questing, with the help of some earthly substances. Psychedelic mushrooms are probably the fastest rout to experiencing kensho…and once you’ve experienced it, it becomes easier to access during regular meditative moments. These experiences are deeply meaningful touchstones of my path. I will do my best to share what it felt like to inhabit this beautiful state:
For one, there was a sense of timelessness. And completion. Nothing needed doing. There was nothing I wanted, nowhere to go, nothing more to be or say…I was just perfectly content & blissfully peaceful. Yet the experience was not static or dull; it was intensely alive.
I was in nature, as one always should be for these things….
The moment was all; my awareness expanded outward to include every tree branch, bird & hill. Everything felt deliciously divine & I wondered how it was that I did not always feel this way. A sense of tremendous kinship towards everything surged through me & in return the environment itself replied in silent, sentient, visceral, ecstatic kinship.
The very air around me felt loving, a supportive, nourishing substance. Reality itself felt feathery, forgiving. All of nature felt conspiring, intimate, friendly. I recall looking at some lovely pine trees, their tops dancing in a light breeze, and feeling that their branches were as intimate-feeling to me as a strand of my own hair.
What folly to think ourselves so separate & divided from our environment! We were of course like living threads in a living tapestry, which made up a whole picture, each crossing over the other, each contributing to a whole picture of the world; absolutely intertwined.
I describe my experiences now from memory, because I remember the metaphors that came to mind at the time, yet during these kensho moments, my intrinsic connectivity with all living things & my surrounding environment was entirely visceral, entirely known beyond intellectual questioning.
I felt entirely safe; buoyed by a tangible presence within myself & everything; it flowed within me & those dancing pine tree tops, as well as between us, connecting us; it was in the wind & the grass & my own hands, breath, hair….
A blissful sense of remembrance & reunion flooded through me…I had forgotten this state, the true state—the way we are naturally, minus mental over-activity, compartmentalization & contractive doubt. The feeling was hyper-real; a revelation of truth. As if illusion had fallen away to reveal our natural state; one that some part of me remembered. My whole being rejoiced.
One of my most profound experiences of kensho was with three other women, good friends of mine. First, I saw their beauty, radiant, as if before I had seen them only through a fog—so distracted by my own thoughts. I perceived them unmediated by the analytic mind, beautifully pure, and for the first time I understood why the new agey phrase “goddess” has come into circulation as a superlative. It was simply accurate: they were divine beings & it was as clear as the sky is blue.
From this perception, I moved on to a deep & beautiful sense of empathy. I could feel my own spirit, somehow, my own awareness, within them. It wasn’t that I was not me & they were not them—but I viscerally knew that the same spirit lived in them that lived in me. As if a telepathic link had been activated, which allowed me to be sensitive to their spirit, presence & feelings, in a way to which I was usually closed off, drowned in the workings of my own mind.
It was as if we had been fingers on the same hand all along, thinking ourselves isolated digits floating through space…we were still our own unique fingers (one a thumb, another a pinky) but there was a broader connection at the root level that made us at once unique, yet unified.
As the classic Beatles line goes: “I am she and she is me as you are me & we are all together.”
“Of all the boundaries we construct,” notes American philosopher & author Ken Wilber, “the one between self and not-self is the most fundamental. It is the boundary we are most reluctant to surrender. It was after all the first boundary we ever drew. It is our most cherished boundary.
“In unity consciousness, in no-boundary consciousness, the sense of self expands to totally include everything once thought to be not-self…And obviously this cannot occur as long as the primary boundary, which seperates the self from the universe, is mistaken as real. But once the primary boundary is understood to be illusory, one’s sense of self envelops the All.” (“No Boundary.”)
I am so grateful I had the kensho experience I did with my three friends, because otherwise this talk of non-boundary consciousness would seem dangerous to me, as I’m sure it does to many; and perhaps, misunderstood, it is.
After all, boundaries in the traditional sense of the word, are important. The question naturally arises: couldn’t someone use this philosophy as an excuse for self-indulgent force, projecting one’s own desires onto another? In it’s most extreme form, one could imagine a rapist excusing his crime to himself with the rationale: “Well, there is no difference between us, so what does it matter?”
This could not be further from the meaning of unity consciousness. For one, unity does not mean we don’t possess individual consciousness; it simply means we are connected at a deep level, the way mushrooms are individual yet share the same root system.
Also, once you have experienced the kind of non-divisive awareness Wilber is describing, which I experienced, the concept of harming another, whether physically or emotionally, becomes inconceivable. Because what ever you did to another, however you made them feel, you would instantly feel yourself.
For this reason, it is no stretch to say that world peace & the hope of humanity lies in the ability for more people to tap into the “being-consciousness-bliss” of Kensho.
We are already connected in this way, we simply need to unwind the intense mental constructs of division in which we have, as a society, become ensnared. You can start simply enough, by just connecting with nature & the energies around you…extending your awareness to include the surrounding life forms & environment. We are born with this inherent sense of connectivity, conditioned into a divisive worldview that inflicts separateness & isolation onto what in fact is a continuum.
After all, as the great British Zen writer & philosopher Alan Watts beautifully said: “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.'”
“Sunshine On My Mind by Amamak Photography“
“The process of division is a way of thinking about things that is convenient and useful mainly in the domain of practical, technical and functional activities (e.g., to divide up an area of land into different fields where various crops are to be grown). However, when this mode of thought is applied more broadly to man’s notion of himself and the whole world in which he lives (i.e. to his self-world view), then man ceases to regard the resulting divisions as merely useful or convenient and begins to see and experience himself and his world as actually constituted of separately existent fragments.
“Being guided by a fragmentary self-world view, man then acts in such a way as to try to break himself and the world up, so that all seems to correspond to his way of thinking. Man thus obtains an apparent proof of the correctness of his fragmentary self-world view, though, of course, he overlooks the fact that it is he himself, acting according to his mode of thought, who has brought about the fragmentation that now seems to have an autonomous existence, independent of his will and of his desire.”
I would love to hear about your mystical/kensho/samadhi experiences in the comments section (located above, under the post title). Though of course, any and all feedback & sharing is welcome & encouraged. Please join the conversation….!
*Edgar Mitchell’s exploration of his samadhi experience in space lead to the development of a new theory called “The Over-View Effect;” many astronauts had experienced similar reactions upon beholding the Earth. The subject was made into a fantastic short film of the same name, which you can view by clicking here.