Enlightenment in the World

My life has been punctuated with meditation retreats. Maharishi used to describe meditative growth as like dipping a cloth into the dye, then exposing it to the sun, thus slowly making the colour fast. I’m not sure if the dyeing happens between my retreats or during, but some of the colour does seem to have gotten a little faster over the years.

In 1997, I took a retreat in the deciduously forested Lynwood Retreat Center in upstate New York. After two days of catching up on sleep, always needed, I began to feel this strangely insistent sensation that I was as if a pyramid or mountain; my crossed legs were its base and my head its summit.

ENLIGHTENMENT AIN'T WHAT IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE Robert K.C. Forman

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I don’t usually get images in meditation, certainly not in one meditation after another like that. But this odd sensation was growing more insistent day by day. It was like being the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill.

After several days I began to feel an intense energy focusing in my forehead, as if a dozen spotlights were aiming from within at my ‘third eye.’ And after a few more days, these sensations suddenly disappeared. My attention now shifted higher up, to just above my head. I could feel something like a yellow or gold Mohawk up there, more like a sensation of light or energy than of hair. This lasted for several days. I went over what little I knew about the sixth and seventh chakras, which according to Hinduism are respectively in the forehead and atop the head. What I had been feeling was similar, but in neither case were these ‘sensations’ what I might have expected.

But what really got me was the drive home. I took the scenic route down the Taconic Valley. I’d been driving perhaps half an hour when once again something seemed weird in how I was seeing. I’d gotten used to these drives by then, so I pulled the car over to get a fix on it, leaving the radio on and the engine rumbling idly.

In front of me was a small, nearly square reflective green sign, bolted neatly atop its three foot pole with 45/7 printed on it in reflective Helvetica. A mile marker, I figured, 45.7 miles from wherever the Taconic begins.

As I looked at it, something seemed odd. Whatever this strange sense was, it wasn’t in my peripheral vision, I thought… No, this has something to do with how I am looking… something is weird about how I am seeing this mile marker… And suddenly I knew. For the first time in my life, I was what I was seeing. I was that mile marker.

Every ‘it’ I’d ever looked at had always been ‘over there.’ I had been ‘over here.’ Whatever I saw, tasted or touched always had been, as the existentialist philosophers describe it, ‘over-against’ me. Always that existential split – I/you, me/it – and a felt wall in between. Every single thing I had ever encountered had been ‘other. ‘

No boundaries

But not that unassuming little mile marker. There was no boundary between me and it, no ‘over against,’ no ‘other.’ Or to describe it from the other side, I was not pulling away inside, even a smidgeon, from it. Nor, as I looked around, was I pulling away from the forest… or from the stream below the road… or from the bluegrass on the radio. Nothing was other. I couldn’t sense any separation anywhere.

I noticed a small bird – a Yellow Shafted Flicker – clinging to an oak tree behind the little sign. I watched him beat-beat-glide his way down to the ground and start pecking. I wasn’t resisting him in the way I always had. Even though he was a different being, I wasn’t afraid of him even subtly, as I would have been. Nothing inside was pulling away. Though I could still judge feet and inches – he was about 20 feet away – there was no felt distance from him. It was as if my skin had become porous.

I flashed back to that experience of the cloud in the Colorado valleys. In comparison, this being with the Flicker and the mile marker seemed… well… ordinary. No great expanse, no exciting interpenetration. No photogenic cloud. This seemed rather plain, actually, down to earth. I just wasn’t pulling back. I was just being with.

Perhaps this very ordinariness is part of why this new relationship, or non-relationship, has remained with me ever since. Never again have I experienced that old feeling of distance or that sense of ‘otherness’ towards things. If anything, the non-resistance to the external world has only become more obvious.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t used to be any more antagonistic to the world or other people than the next fellow. We probably all pull back just the teeniest bit from the world-with the slightest hint of defence or protection. I believe that how I used to be in the world is pretty standard.

It’s quite necessary. We need to build boundaries, God knows. Even as tiny babies we have to construct our sense of a separate self. We need to know where we stop and our mum or the crib begins.

Without learning these simple lessons we could never build a sense of an I, never learn that we are separate from our parents or other kids, never know ourselves to be autonomous. And God forbid that we should not create boundaries with a smothering mother or some abusive boyfriend! No, it’s very important to have edges.

You probably know by now where you end and the world begins. I created my borders, I could see as I compared it with this new sense, with a subtle kind of internal pushing away. It’s like inside I held up my hand, just a little, with a felt-sense of ‘stop right there, buster!’ I never realised that I was doing it, of course. I can’t imagine how I could have. But I was resisting ever so slightly inside. And towards absolutely everything. I was, ‘Come thou no closer.’

I had been holding every bird, every glass of water and every waving branch with the same kind of psychic distancing as I did the most intrusive parent or dangerous thug.

But over against that bird, over against that mile marker, there was no upraised hand, not even a finger.

We probably don’t need to work so hard all the time to maintain our boundaries like we do. That Flicker was awfully small; it really wasn’t much of a danger to me. And mile markers truly are harmless. Really, we don’t need to protect ourselves against every bird, every mile marker and every piece of music, do we?

Since that day, resisting far less, it’s become a little easier just to be. At some deep existential level I’m no longer holding things at bay. Birds, cranberry bread, everyone I meet, even the wind-the world just has fewer boundaries now.

Perhaps this is why just now I can feel the breeze in my chest so clearly and the snowy maple branches across the back of my shoulders. For I am in the trees outside the window in a way I couldn’t have imagined, and the woods have found their way into my little hermitage.

From Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up to Be, ©2011 by Robert Forman, published by O Books.