There was no eureka moment, no single magic sentence. It was more like coming to hold a mountain aloft by a thousand sticks. In text after classical text, from East and West, in classics from Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and agnostics, from writers ancient and modern, it eventually became obvious.
“Enlightenment,” moks.a, Eckhart’s geburt (the birth of the son in the soul), nirvana, the “no self”— are all lionized in glorious and poetic prose. Moks.a is “perfection,” it is “absolute.” It is “eternal joy,” “the immovable,” “the end of all suffering” and “such a joy, joy, joy.” For the Christians it is to witness something of God is born in the soul. But once I had dug my way through the “glorious gloriousnesses” and the “resplendent resplendents,” enlightenment became not some perfect life, but rather a much more specific psycho-physiological transformation.
Enlightenment, as I was seeing it described in countless texts from every major tradition, is a shift in the relationship between consciousness and its objects. Enlightenment is the unmingling of a commingled reality.
Before the great unmingling, we know only the structure within which we all begin (at least Ithink we all do). We see objects, think thoughts, feel feelings, etc. and in the midst of it all we may be able to sense some vague or “unlocalized” sense of our selves, as Bernadette Roberts puts it. We all begin with consciousness and its objects co-mingled.
This is how it had always been for me until that January afternoon in the Hotel Karina. I suppose I would have pointed to it somewhere in my chest, but I couldn’t have picked out consciousness itself. Who or what I was was part of the jumble of experience, and in itself largely inaccessible.
Oh, in peak meditation experiences or in odd moments just before I’d fall asleep, perhaps, I could sense myself as nothing other than consciousness. But these were at best fleeting.
Hinduism calls such short lived moments “samadhi.” Yogacara Buddhist texts speak of them as nirodha samapatti, the “cessation of perception and feeling.” Sufism calls them ‘fana, “the annihilation of thoughts.” Meister Eckhart uses the biblical term gezucket, rapture, or being without sensory content. In far too many academic books and articles I’ve called such moments “pure consciousness events.”
In these brief moments, one is aware of no particular content for awareness, yet still remains awake inside. Not thinking of anything, aware of no feelings or perceptions, consciousness is left, very simply, alone. And because one is aware of no objects, we might describe the “structure” of experience at those moments as consciousness having no relationship between itself and its objects: consciousness alone, no content.
But the second structure is both more complex and more interesting. For this is the firstpermanent shift, the first stage of enlightenment. (There are others to follow, by the way.) Consciousness now perceives itself in itself, and as as distinct from and witness to everything one sees and does.
To Buddhism this is Nirvana, the “blowing out” of the separate self. For Eckhart it is the geburt, the birth of the son in the soul. For Hinduism and Jainism it’s moks.a, release. Maharishi used the phrase “cosmic consciousness,” a term of painfully embarrassing hubris. For Ramana Maharshi it’s the more modest sahaja samadhi, “all time samadhi.”
In it there are two birds, separate and different in kind. One now knows oneself to be spacious, bottomless, open and empty of content. And this new vastness is sensed as separate from everything one sees or thinks. This expanded consciousness is that “for which” there are thoughts and objects. The knower is now steady, waveless, unchanging, and the silent witness to the full parade of life.
The mystic, for that is what one has now become, may not understand the great unmingling, even for many years. Bernadette didn’t. I didn’t. But a shift of this depth cannot be missed. It is that different.
Life doesn’t become perfect though. The great unmingling does not grant one eternal joy (except, perhaps, in a very narrow sense). Life as a whole does not become endless bliss. One’s marriage doesn’t become perfect. And it doesn’t cure baldness.
Expecting such a pot of gold was my mistake, and the mistake of many I suspect. A change in the structure of consciousness, no doubt has, in the long run, implications for how one feels, talks and acts. It may come to involve letting go of that which holds us psychologically, greater happiness or a new attitude towards one’s ego, which is how many spiritual modern self-help teachers tend to present it. But such psychological changes were not what I was seeing again and again in the classical texts or in my life. There is a difference between an insight that breaks through and a break through into a different experiential structure. The shift I was seeing in the classics was one of experiential or existential structure.
This a structural shift—modest, understated and peculiar—in what or who we are at heart, a shift in the fundamental way we encounter ourselves and the world is hardly the stuff of inspiring mythology. But it is an unexpected gift of grace. And not at all nothing. Held aright, such a gift makes possible a life well beyond anything we can beforehand imagine.
Dr. Robert K.C. Forman is uniquely qualified, both personally and professionally, to re-imagine the spiritual goal and the path to it. Personally, Dr. Forman hasn’t missed a day of meditation in 40 years. He broke through to the first major life shift he sought during a nine-month meditation retreat, just two years after beginning Transcendental Meditation. Further developments have continued through his gaining of a Ph.D. in mystical experience from Columbia U and his 20 years as a Professor of Comparative Religions, through his lifetime of yearly solo meditation retreats, self-reflection, 18 years of psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic training, his marital work, his teaching, writing and leading of workshops, and his research into and national leadership role in the "spiritual but not religious" community.
Through metaphor, humor, vulnerability and achingly beautiful prose, Dr. Forman’s book offers newfound hope to spiritual seekers everywhere.
Published by Changemakers Books, Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be, ISBN: 978-1-84694-674-5 (Paperback) £9.99 $16.95, EISBN: 978-1-78099-142-9 (eBook) £6.99 $9.99.
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