(October 27th, 2020)
It's 7:04am. Five seconds ago it was 5:32am. My mind feels like it has the capacity of a hundred and twenty five. This sensation is of focusing intently and being aware of everything all at once. Try this with me - focus on the words "right now" and then be aware of everything in your room that is not conveying these words. The everything is not [just] in your peripheral vision - it's central just the same as it's not the focus. But don't try! It just is - there isn't even a need to exert. That's one description of this state.
Let's try another, this time more passive. Imagine if the room you were in had burst forth from your mind. You give life to this Athena room and the space it had commanded inside your head was freed, but you persist in the room as well. You can walk through it and remark on the cups and hear where the floorboards grunt. You can marvel at the benign salt shakers and critique the patterned chairs. It's seeing, maybe feeling is more appropriate, that there is something more to the scope of what you can experience when navigating the recesses of your mind, and that somehow this is expansive rather than just observational.
Is this capacity functional or space? I think at the moment it's just space, like I have another hard drive rather than a better processor, but I haven't pushed on it yet. That word "another" is a sore thumb. I'm not even sure that I have increased capacity rather than having added cupboards, put away my toys, and did a thorough wd-40 on the oven. But shit, while I've analogized this feeling to birthing a concept being so that it doesn't have to preside in your mind and to cleaning or rearranging the long tail of zeug hoarded through the years, there's also the possibility that I just haphazardly threw out most of what was in the study and won't know until I go searching for what is missing.
For context, it's Monday now (Tuesday after editing some) and I spent the past three days in a silent meditation retreat. I left it late last night and have had a night's sleep since. I can't emphasize enough how important is the word silent in that phrase. That includes to yourself. Shh. Quiet. Observe. Listen.
... To what? Everything that isn't being heard.
Saturday afternoon, around 4pm, spoken to me by a wisened bald master monk: Where did you go when you went to be the person you want to be?
Except, he wasn't physically present. And I wasn't in the space (called Zendo) with the others. I had walked up the Berkeley foothills and was meditating with the second method in a forest clearing sitting on a stump when his visage appeared and asked me, very clearly, very deliberately, that question. And just as such, answers came. At first, it was the obvious surface-level answer that I came to this forest clearing. Getting there did not feel like an accident - I had been in the Zendo a half hour earlier and felt compelled to be in a forest so much that I entertained taking the keys and driving to Muir Woods. Underneath that surface came two answers that struck me as a version of true. The first was an optimism for romance and especially toward a woman that I'd been thinking about. The second was an intention to finish my PhD. The meditation ended there.
There is a peril that accompanies lessons. If the student is in a vulnerable state, a learned teacher can deceptively fill the cup. Why had I come to those answers? Was it because those were my actual answers or had the lessons over the prior 24 hours biased them? I don't believe that about the first - optimism for romance is lovely and yespls always. It's the second answer that bugged me, not because of the conclusion, but the reasoning I gave were melded with plucked platitudes he had delivered.
I walked back and wrestled with this concern. When I returned to the Zendo, I meditated again using the same technique with which I used in the forest to find that place. My intention was to see what was underneath what I had just witnessed. What came up was a closed eye visual of sitting on a chair and having cellophane gradually wrapped around my head. At first, there was nothing amiss, with me just on the chair and the cellophane being pressed to my left temple. Then, the figure pressing it wrapped it back and, inch by inch, went all the way around and covered my entire face. It wasn't until it completed the loop, finished the circuit, and then went up my face that I returned from the experience.
Woah, ignore the story for a second - how the fuck was I having such strong closed eye visuals? That had been going on for about six hours at that point so I was frankly used to the elevated dosage and was just riding it out (lulz). My body, however, was trying to repel the "drug", informing me rather dramatically when it revealed that the cellophane wrapper was the teacher.
I had woken that morning at 5am. After a routine of chanting and meditation, I took breakfast outside at 830am and discovered that the trees were shimmering like they do when something a little fuzzy is happening in your head, when your perception is a little more available. Noticing this while being fully available myself brought to mind the shimmer from Annihilation. That was for context, not to suggest that there was something more on the horizon. There might have been, but I couldn't see past the fog (was that metaphorical? maybe. it was also literal). That was when I reopened the dialogue in my head with that little voice we (almost) all have.
How did I get to there? I remember being asked to turn off that voice Friday afternoon - "Please remain silent, even to yourself if you can." I remember thinking that would be difficult, but was an intriguing proposition. I remember meditating for many hours with the simple guidance being to follow your breath. I stated that too simply, but it's non-trivial to convey this in the same way that said monk taught a technique that, at its core, is just breathing, but in its fullness, carries a directive that took your immature and baggage-laden narrator from Friday's coffee overlooking the bay to Saturday's shimmering hallucinations. That's got to mean something, no?
I am skipping over how the position was uncomfortable and the questions were naive and procedural and the chants were stereotypically monastic in the way that all movies depict, but we can brush over that - that's the part that goes away on day 2 and you know it to be so on day 1.
Let's go back to the shimmer. While walking back from the forest, it reappears vividly again while gazing at the road. So it's not just an early morning phenomenon. Could we explain this through light patterns and physics? Yes, but that we don't always see this shimmer and then it materializes while in this state like an antioquia brushfinch high-fiving a bird watcher really makes one wonder. I was later asked a question about it - was that seeing the truth? I responded that I was seeing the trees anew. Maybe that was the true form, but how could I tell delineate that form from the usual shimmer-less form of the tree or some entirely different manifestation that could appear if I continued this experience? It might be that I am expressing distrust in either my vision or my ability to reconcile that vision with my voice. I am only noticing that now, though. In the moment, I was astonished that we could think of this as a true form when it is the result of only one method. What the fuck would the other methods do to the trees?
Every time I write one of these, I wrestle with how much I want to share about myself and how much I want to share about what others tell me. Over the years, this medium has served as a way to record the human condition as lived through my experiences. I can't put you there, though, and so including every detail is silly. I can only try to engage the same feeling or thought and then contort these words to express as much. Sometimes that means actually sharing the terrifying vision of a teacher suffocating a student, other times that means keeping something in reserve.
There are two ways to do the latter. One of them is to bottle up the memory, throw it into the great longitudinal fissure, and hope that we're giggling when it returns to the shore. The other way is to drop it completely. Snap the fingers and minus it from the reaction. It never was. Does the reaction still occur? To be a good monastic analogy, the answer has to be yes, something like "remove the reactant and achieve the synthesis".
Now keep removing more reactants. Get rid of the catalyst too. Hell, throw out the paper you wrote the equation on. Drop every intention to complete this reaction. Now drop the intention to complete another one in its stead. Keep going - drop the intention to stop reading this; drop the intention to take a sip of tea; drop the intention to adjust your seat position; drop the intention to listen to that who is teacher. Drop the intention to drop intentions.
Something is still there and that something materialized as moving textures to me while practicing this on Sunday late morning. Eyes closed, once I had dropped every intention, what remained underneath were moving textures. The reverie lasts a momentary infinite second before another intention comes up again - drop it. The keys are where they should be, drop it. Every time, moving textures remained. Sometimes, that momentary second is more like ten or twenty of just watching (hallucinating?) the textures.
Is this truth? This all sounds so serious, but the return of that question was actually funny. If the first method showed me shimmering trees and the second method closed eye visual hallucinations, then why should this third approach finding textures buried below the morass of intentions be the truth I should trust? We either have to relax our view of the truth and have it be more like a truth or we have to agree that none of these that have come forth is the actual underlying exposition.
While that view of truth and the world may sound like the takeaway from this part, it paled relative to how this ability to choose what I attend to and when I choose to not attend to anything resonated as a reassigning of the power in the teacher student relationship. The naivety of that thought has not escaped me, nor has how that may be exactly what the teacher wanted the student to learn. Regardless, what was also clear was that most every power-imbalanced relationship has some centroid at which pressing will make the structure sway in a different direction.
This topic came up a lot. I wanted to make it clear through both the structure of how this piece was written and through saying it right now that there's no fucking way it's some singular path. We don't say that there is A Path to Mount Doom or A Path to Oz. We give Frodo and Dorothy a task and some guidance along the way and they figure out their own story, their own path. So if you feel like you're doing something incorrectly towards attaining that disposition, it doesn't mean you have to give it all up and become a monastic in order to attain it.
The provided definition of enlightenment this past weekend was the state of inducing no suffering in any being. This is contentious but let's roll with it. The notion is that we must successively disrobe any clothing that causes suffering. That awful striped tie that does nothing for the suit is really just a surface-level analogy for a mode of behavior that is preventing the body from progressing. Any step taken towards this goal is considered taken on a path to enlightenment.
In this context, the word "progress" is loaded with so much expectation that it doesn't deserve. From society's vantage, spiritual progress appears to steady state at a place that is not more advanced than this one. To outsiders, the monastic life is looking at the forest and politely requesting only kindle for fire and a few huckleberries for sustenance. Can we reshape our understanding to view that enduring perspective as a sense of progress? That's roughly what is sought on this path directive.
What about putting clothes back on? Look, if the path you're on gets really fucking cold one day, you're going to want a coat to keep warm. And so as long as it doesn't induce suffering, the suggestion is to make it so. At some point, it's probably going to warm up again. And that coat, as lovely as it was in the winter, will become burdensome.
I have left out a lot that will one day return in another medium. Maybe those parts would influence you positively or negatively. I think everyone should strongly consider participating in one of these and I'm happy to talk about it at length if you're on the fence. It struck me that it's actually very coherent with other approaches I see friends undertaking in that the umbrella topic is how to let go of what got you here but is no longer helpful in getting you to where you want to go next.
There is one caveat though. I kept returning to how this teacher and these preachings were roughly the polar opposite of Vonnegut. There was a serious sincerity suffused throughout the experience, occasionally intermixed with gaiety. I think of Vonnegut's exhort that we are here to fart around and not let anyone tell you differently. Woah boy, was that told differently.
(Thank you to Zev and Vienna. I really appreciate your help.)