I have no doubt that many people have had extraordinary experiences of altered consciousness: a temporary radical change in their sense of self, their view of reality or even extended moments of uncommon visual, sensory, auditory or even dream sequences that are radically different from the conventional view. Such experiences may range from flashes of insight, profound bodily relaxation, blissful states, visual or auditory phenomena, the temporary suspension of familiar mental activity, even extended periods of being thought-free– or any combination of these conditions. The temporary direct knowing of the nature of reality and the consequences of such knowing is the subject of this post.
Much has been written about awakening. I’m not going to claim to be saying anything new or that I am an “expert,” except in regard to my own experience. I will not be describing details of any personal experiences that might fall into this category. What could be gained by doing that? Everyone will or will not have their own experiences and their own interpretations. What matters is what is to be done about it.
Longchenpa advises us that the intrinsic nature of what we regard as the ordinary mental state is already the awakened state. We are not required to make a transition from anything to anything.
Furthermore, of the two alternatives
within spiritual teaching,
one involves a concerted effort to accept or reject.
It is taught in order to refine away the habitual patterns of ordinary mind and mental events, whose nature
is to arise as a display due to dynamic energy.
This approach holds that timeless awareness
is purer than ordinary mind.
The supreme teaching involves no concerted
effort to accept or reject.
Naturally occurring timeless awareness,
the essence of awakened mind itself,
is made fully evident in that one does
not waver from the direct experience of it.
So there is no need to strive for it elsewhere.
It rests in and of itself, so do not seek it elsewhere.
—Longchenpa, Choying Dzod, Part 4.
A temporary shift in perception is not enlightenment. It surely is a glimpse of something different, but it’s not an irreversible transition. Many of these experiences are interpreted in religious terms. A direct experience of non-dual reality, rigpa, is a lucid experience of “primordial awareness,” the true nature of emptiness (dharmakaya), or the elimination of any distinction between subject and object: a seeing through the distinction between relative and absolute reality.
In the Advaita Vedanta tradition, this is referred to as breaking through the distinction between the illusion of Atman and the reality of Brahman, seeing through a distinction between what is, what is not, to what is neither.
Needless to say, any experience that is a radical departure from the conventional view is going to be interpreted according to one’s pre-existing conception. For this reason, there are myriad reports of an experience of “god.” I place quotes on the term because two people may have a virtually identical experience and interpret it as absolutely having to do with god…or not. Our natural confirmation bias says that our prior experience is going to dominate our interpretation of such events.
But just taking the direct experience of non-daulity as the present example, is there a preferred interpretation? What is there to do about it, if anything? How may it be integrated into ongoing practice?
Non-duality is the absence of any distinction between absolute and relative reality. It is the “nature of mind,” the recognition that ultimately every “thing” is devoid of independent essence, and yet our everyday experience of separate things is also true. This is a common theme in Buddhism and is also reflected in Tantra. Dzogchen holds that the two truths are ultimately resolved into non-duality as a lived experience, shunyata, and are non-different.
In the words of Nagarjuna:
….when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, “non-existence” with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, “existence” with reference to the world does not occur to one.
Things neither exist nor do they not exist. Thanks for clearing that up for us, Nagarjuna.
Whatever sudden insights or experiences may arise, they are not something that can be sought. The conceptual fabrication of such experiences is not possible. Using conceptual means to experience non-conceptual reality is, at the very least, a non-sequitur and at worst, a harmful practice that will reverse whatever other progress one may be making or intending to pursue as a conceptual comprehension of the nature of reality.
In other words, if you have had no special insight into the nature of reality despite your years of dutiful practice, stop trying! And if you have been so fortunate to get a glimpse of the absolute, stop trying!
Throughout the Dzogchen and other buddhist literature, the practice of striving is not rewarded. The essential paradox of Dzogchen instruction is that it may appear to be goal-oriented, but a goal-oriented mind is never prescribed as the method. In fact, ironically, Dzogchen is also described as the pathless path, the no-method method. It is only in the perfection of that approach that conditions may form in any given moment, which cannot be planned, that will open into a domain of awareness that may never have been contemplated beforehand.
Therefore it is only a random occurrence that anyone might be given access to such states of consciousness. They may be conceived, but, arguably (and this may fly in the face of centuries of accepted practice), there is no such thing as incubation. They occur with no advance notice or signs. They are as spontaneous as reality itself, and by their very arising, provide insight into the essential nature of reality: neither arising nor non-arising.
Such events may arise from spontaneous insight, profound and sudden awareness or a synthesis of principles not previously considered. But the insight itself is not the experience. It may be a doorway to an experience, deep and transitory, luminous and illuminating, and also inevitably impermanent. The tendency of the grasping mind, the intellect, the clinging ego to intervene is likely to be so great, and virtually immediate, that a moment of true awakening may be extinguished very quickly.
Ironically as well, the likelihood that incremental study and practice will break open into true awareness of reality cannot be calculated. Yet there are numerous practices that purport to increase this possibility. The stories of great yogis realizing the true nature of mind do not tell of gradual awakening. They report a sudden “cracking open of the egg,” unexpected moments of true knowing brought on by unusual, extraordinary events, like being thrown into a river or being slapped by a guru. Something that is completely beyond one’s ordinary consciousness comes along and rips open the comfortable façade of presumption that has become our habitual face.
Having an instantaneous albeit temporary view of truth sheds important and revealing light on the paradox of the gradual path of awakening in contrast to the idea that everything is already perfect; awakening cannot be contrived in any way whatsoever. Such occurrences are the product of an uncommon combination of careful adherence to preliminary practices, deliberate avoidance of turning practices into reified methods, the persistent softening of habitual ego-clinging, the unplanned and sudden impact of insight and, frankly, the accidental integration of unknown factors.
What is to be done about it all, if anything? Something important has been revealed at a deep knowing level. By knowing, I mean a state in which a distinction between feeling and thinking cannot be made. What is known is an effect of neither thinking nor feeling, since each imply a respective thinker or feeler. In the non-dual state, neither exists.
Whatever is known will be unique to each individual, either confirming what one has been taught or opening entirely new territory. Perhaps something personal is clarified. But either way, because we inevitably attempt to put such an experience into words and concepts, a new level of understanding is achieved. More information may unfold gradually. A change in one’s practice may be stimulated. In any case, there will be more to see and learn than may have been immediately apparent. Or, at least, it takes time to tease out more specific impressions and articulate a new state of knowing.
Perhaps most important, the immediate clarity of this unusual state of knowing is an experience of presence; the true nature of the present moment. What is most appealing about such states and the immediate trap they set for us is that we are inclined to miscalculate our capacity to be present in the future in the same manner as we were in the past; because we are already judging our present awareness against an entirely new standard of presence, which practically guarantees that the present will fall short of the past.
Yet even as we realize we may not be able to duplicate a particular quality of presence at will (if we could, there would be no such thing as an unusual experience), we still carry with us a sense of its potential. And we can still let go into the truth of this moment, even if it doesn’t feel or look like some past experience.
Stabilizing: what does it mean?—it means one-pointed training through a progression of steps. If something happens that becomes a leap forward, there is no going back. But neither is there insufficient basis for returning. Different personalities will respond differently to the progression. Some will get stuck; some will leap forward, some will progress slowly or swiftly. Each stage builds on the previous.
Bottom line? Keep doing what you do. Being in the present moment doesn’t include trying to re-create the past—what a paradox! But if you’ve been there, you know that doing what you do probably had nothing to do with it. There is surely value to your current practice, so there’s no reason to change.