I was sitting in complete silence in a room of about 200 people. We had our eyes closed. We were all in deep meditation.
I was attending a week-long retreat with a spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. I had not expected to be here. The retreat was fully enrolled and I was on the waiting list. Three days prior to the retreat, I received an email informing me that a last minute cancellation had opened up. Would I be interested in taking that seat? I did not hesitate.
I had a day’s ride to get down to the Bay Area from my home in Central Oregon. Usually I would make this trip with my wife, but she was still in Portland visiting the grandkids. That left me with an eight hour drive to be with myself.
This was eight hours for me to think about how to prepare for the coming retreat. I knew from my prior years of Zen meditation that, if I were ever going to have an awakening experience, I would have to give up all my attachments to myself. I had been working on this. But was I done? Was there anything I was still holding onto?
I saw this long ride as a chance to take inventory of all the ways I had used to define myself in the past. My looks. My personality. My sense of humor. My educational attainment. One of my strongest attachments, I had come to realize, was my spiritual journey itself. Few people I knew had engaged in the kind of quirky and unusual activities I had experienced. This made me special, different, unique. Or so I thought. I like the thought of being unique and special.
Once I had identified an attachment, I could examine it honestly. And I would quickly see that it did not define me at all. My attachments only made me feel better about myself, but they did not really define who I am. As I released one after another of my attachments, I felt a sense of liberation from not having to hold onto them any longer.
On this drive I would review all that I had released and to see if there was anything I was still holding onto. I did not have to think very long. Immediately I saw that I was still holding onto the one thing that I always thought made me special. And that was my mind.
I had always felt that my mind did not work like those of most other people I had known. I had this ability to take a broad scope of information and put it into visual imagery. I could conceptualize and visualize abstract ideas and this enhanced my ability to explain things. This was an enormous asset for me as an organization development consultant. And I took great pride in this gift.
As I drove, I saw that I was still attached to my mind. I had jettisoned everything else. But I was still holding on to my mind as the true essence of “me”. And I knew that I had to let it go.
Surprisingly, it was not that difficult to let it go. I felt as if I were uncoupling something that was fastened to my inner being. Once it was uncoupled, I could simply release it and let it be free. I felt my mind slowly drift away and disappear.
Let me be clear. I was not getting rid of my mind. I was releasing the attachment to my mind. I was disengaging from my identification with my mind as what defines “me”.
I finished up the drive and arrived at the Mount Madonna Conference Center south of Santa Cruz. I felt open. I felt ready. But I was not sure just what I was ready for.
Each afternoon we had three 40-minute meditation sessions. This was our third afternoon and I was in the second session.
I had decided to try a technique I had used before. Buddhism calls it the “fair witness”. With the fair witness, you take a step back and from your thoughts and you watch them like an outside observer. You discover that your thoughts have a life of their own. Thinking goes on whether we want it to or not.
But now I tried a variation on this technique. I took the viewpoint of an observer who is watching the observer. I was now one step behind where I was as just the observer. This created a very interesting sensation in my consciousness. Something felt like it was opening up inside of me but I could not get a grasp of what it was.
I decided to take one more step backward. Now I was watching the observer who was watching the observer. As I did, I suddenly felt myself being wrenched out of a matrix-like structure that seemed to be holding me in place. I started to float free and expand outward and then…..
Bong!……………………….bong!…………………………………bong!………………….(the timing bell announcing the end of our session).
No! No! Not Now! Don’t end the meditation period now! NOoooooooooo!
Too late. I had snapped back out of this place and I was back in our meeting hall. It was break time, but I did not want to break. I spent the break time trying to figure out how to get back to the place I had been. What was that matrix? How was it holding me in? What is the experience of being outside the matrix? I wanted to go back.
One of the cardinal rules of Zen meditation is not to try to replicate a mediation experience. Each meditation experience is its own thing. Each experience is what it is. It is not good. It is not bad. It simply is what it is. And it is important to let each experience be what it is.
But I willfully ignored this cardinal rule. During the next meditation session I tried to force my mediation to return to what I had experienced before the break. I failed miserably.
I was relieved when the session was over. I was exhausted from trying to force my meditation into being something specific. I knew it wouldn’t work. But I had to try. And now I was exhausted from trying. Really exhausted.
During the break I stepped outside onto a concrete platform that overlooked a small parking lot. I felt spent. I grabbed a hold of the railing and leaned against it. I stared blankly down at the ground beneath me.
And then it happened. The world suddenly vanished. The daylight subsided and I was in the dark. I was still looking down. But now I saw that I was staring into an endless void. As I watched, I could see what looked like tiny sparks floating up from the bottom of the void and rising to the surface. They looked like tiny bubbles floating up from the bottom of a pond.
I knew what I was looking at. I had read about the Great Void. I did not imagine that it would look like this. As I watched, I had a sense of knowing. I knew that this dark opening was not empty. I knew, without knowing how I knew, that in this space was the potentiality for anything to come into the being and arise to the surface. This was how the world of form was created out of the formless.
It lasted only several moments. Then the daylight returned, the parking lot and the cars returned and I was back in the world of form once again.
Huh, I thought. Is that it. Is that all? Is this my awakening experience? I thought there would be more to it. More bells and whistles. More gee whiz that’s amazing.
But this was quiet. And soft. So sneaky. It snuck up on me and was finished before I hardly had time to recognize it for what it was. I never would have guessed.
And then it hit me. Where do I go from here?