Less Agony, More Ecstasy
April 12, 2016 § 11 Comments
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
Tolstoy famously opened Anna Karenina with the statement that all happy families are alike, while unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way.
I have noticed the same thing about the highs and lows of my emotional life: my unhappy states all seem to have a wide array of causes, while my happy, high, in-the-flow states all seem to sing the same tune, as it were. The same insights flash back at me like familiar road signs. An invisible river of energy seems to flow through me, carrying treasures on its back in the form of ideas, inspirations and connections.
Apparently I’m not alone. Author, speaker, researcher & founder of the “new existentialism” movement, Colin Wilson shares related thoughts in a fascinating recorded talk at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore:
“I began by writing this book, The Outsider, which came out in 1956. My basic interest then was the problem of certain romantics of the 19th century who had experienced tremendous feelings of ecstasy & insight, and then wondered the next morning if the whole thing had been a total illusion, so that we got this tremendously high suicide rate among the romantics.”
“I became preoccupied with this because I had had the same kind of feelings ever since I was a small boy. It wasn’t until I read Wordsworth—who talks about this time in childhood when everything seems wonderful and then how, as you get older, the shades of the prison house begin to close—that I began to see this is a problem that all human beings experience.
“What I wanted to know was: is there some fundamental gap between these moods of ecstasy and the ordinary reality of the physical world in which we live? Is it totally impossible to reconcile the two of them? In a sense, you see, I couldn’t really believe that it was so. Because whenever I experienced moods of intensity or of total relaxation I always had the same insight, as if I had gone to a kind of hilltop and seen precisely the same vision, exactly the same landscape below, which made me feel that it was, in a sense, objective. It must be solid or else it would be different every time.”
“On the other hand, in what you might call ‘the worm’s eye view’ moods, things are bad in a different way every time. And you suddenly feel that it’s only the bird’s eye views that are true. It’s the big that’s true, not the small. Close-up-ness deprives us of meaning. I’ve always felt this is the basic truth of life. Somehow you’ve got to get that trick of pulling back & seeing things through a kind of wide angle lens. As soon as you do this, you go into this state of intense optimism.”
In Zen Buddhism, the high feeling-state of satori, which literally means “to understand,” 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.”
This is always how it feels to me when I am in the flow & feeling good: things feel like they are back on track, as they should be, aligned, harmonious. Like Wilson, I have often wondered which state is the more accurate reflection of the nature of things; both seem to negate the validity of the other.
And I’ve come to the same conclusion as Wilson, that the low mood generally lies while the high mood informs. Although a low mood tries to paint our previous high states of awareness as the purely illusory fantasies of a fool—while portraying its own staunch negativism as the only reasonable, realistic assessment—there is another clear giveaway that hints at which of these two opposing states is more to be trusted:
a low mood feels very uncomfortable, while a high mood feels very right. In fact, it is characterized by a feeling of rightness. When we tell a lie, we feel our body contract. A sense of wrongness permeates our being to various degrees. When we say something that is keenly true, we feel that too. It’s a feeling of empowerment, harmoniousness, rightness.
“The Pleasure Principal,” by Magritte
In my study of this phenomenon, I have concluded that while the low mood may have something to tell me about myself or my life—revealing an uncomfortable truth that I must face in order to become who I truly want to be, (see“Navigating The Dark Night Of The Soul,”)-–there is no benefit to remaining in this place, because it becomes an energy-sapping, self-feeding loop of defeatist thinking.
Unfortunately, once we are out of step with the sensation of rightness, that high state can feel a world away. It’s helpful to remember that it is, actually, only a few flow-inducing thoughts away.
Personally, I think these two states are better described as “connected” vs. “disconnected.” Connected to what? To yourself. But how can I be disconnected from something I am? The answer can be summed up in a verse from the East Indian sacred texts, the Upanishads:
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
The bird who eats the fruit represents our worldly nature, our everyday “smaller” self. And the witnessing bird is our larger aspect (called the Atman in Vedanta, meaning soul self) which remains connected to Brahman (ultimate reality), even when the small self has lost sight of the bigger picture.
According to the Vedanta (the East Indian philosophy based on the Upanishad writings), Atman is the true self, beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual. In order to attain liberation, a human being must acquire self-knowledge, which is to realize that one’s true self (Atman) is identical with the transcendent self (Brahman). (Traditionally achieved through meditation, wherein the distinction between these two selves becomes increasingly evident.)
I’m not one to care about religious dogma or what some ancient text says—unless it puts a language to experiences I have had myself already, for which we have poor working vocabulary in English language & culture.
I do think the Vedanta framework establishes a helpful concept of what is going on when we feel low, which, by my way of thinking, is essentially a state of disconnection, when we are overly identified with the “small self.”
When we are connected to our essence or greater self (which is connected to the broader sweep of larger reality), it seems we receive intuition freely, we are in sync with the rhythm of life and other people. We receive inspiration more easily, which in turn lights us up and “turns us on,” fueling our sense of optimism, curiosity & movement.
Our world seems to expand. We notice subtle “shimmers”—little beautiful moments that add to the textured richness of being alive. When we are open to these nuances, we become more easily inspired and interested. Which creates a sense of possibility & engagement.
When we are disconnected, our world seems to shrink. It is like we have run out of gas. We feel sluggish and everything takes a lot of effort to do. This induces a feeling of depression and futility, which feeds upon itself until we can feel quite locked away from that “Atman” self.
In this emotional state we seem to forget all of the insights which once gave us a sense of hope and possibility. We are entirely identified with the “bird who eats the fruits” of the world, and completely dissociated from the “sweet friend” who looks on, waiting patiently to be remembered & reclaimed.
Colin Wilson dubbed this “small self” aspect of human personality “the robot.” He elaborates in the following interview:
“We have inside us what I call The Robot, a sort of mechanical valet or servant who does things for you. So, you learn something like talking French, or driving a car, or skiing—painfully & consciously, step by step. Then the Robot takes over and does it far more efficiently than you could do it consciously.
“The Robot does all these valuable things—like talking French & so on for us. The trouble is, he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music, it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the Robot is listening to the piece of music, or going for the country walk for you. I’ve even caught him making love to my wife! This is a real problem, that the Robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.”
“The secret is to keep your energy so high that [you avoid being taken over by] the robot, who’s a bit like the thermostat on the wall, which turns on quite automatically when your energies drop below a certain point, and then suddenly without even noticing it, you’re living mechanically, robotically, instead of as the real you. And the interesting thing is that it’s only a matter of one degree. Therefore if it’s just one degree to turn onto the Robot, it’s only one degree of effort to turn the Robot off.”
I have found that simply being aware of this dynamic initiates a ripple effect of more expansive feelings. Think of it as a thought experiment. I’m not advocating the removal of cynicism or discernment, only for the suspension of its mechanisms for long enough to collect the necessary data to really decide what’s what. If we decide something sounds too good to be true before launching a thorough investigation, we aren’t really giving ourselves all of the information necessary to make an assessment.
Just imagine, what if it were true that our sense of an isolated small self is not the whole picture, and, when we feel into a larger, more expansive & connected being-hood we are actually more fully embodying who we are? What if that self did have wisdom beyond our acquired knowledge & access to universal perception?
And what if there was a force of energetic support available to us, waiting for us to tune into a more expanded sense of self? What if the darkness & pain of the world is simply the result of a widespread belief in the smaller, isolated self—a collective disconnection from the expanded essence?
“Soul Ascending” by Josh Hutchison
The only way to know for sure…is to explore it.
Unless we investigate the possibilities within ourselves & our relationship to reality with an open mind, we may never experience ourselves as we might become.
Beyond Division: Studies in Bliss
August 13, 2014 § 14 Comments
“Nepenthe, Goddess of Bliss” by: Emily Balivet
“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.)
Metaphysical author Eckhart Tolle famously described an experience of intense despair proceeding a monumental shift in consciousness, which would become, for him, an awakening.
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.”
20th century Zen master Keido Fukushima describes his first kensho experience, a glimpse into satori:
“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….
“One With Nature” by Allison Bickle
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“
In his fascinating book, “Wholeness and the Implicate Order,” theoretical physicist David Bohm asserts:
“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….!
*For more on KENSHO check out this awesome page!
*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.