The marijuana bushes we grew on the porch in the kibbutz, the coke lines in the glamorous parties in LA, the Bedouin hashish on the dunes in Sinai, the magic mushrooms on the mountains of Ecuador, MDA on the Cape Cod shore, ecstasy in the clubs of New York, half a pill of LSD with a friend, even a Shamanic Ayahuasca ceremony – none of these compare, in my personal experience, to that of meditation.
Throughout the entire drug-engineered experience the sensation never left me that everything was drug-induced, not real, an external manipulation of consciousness. Afterwards, my awareness would resume its usual mundane state – did I experience any change? Other than the addition of another memory, branded in my cells as a glimpse into the possibility of another reality and consciousness. But in the end, did my daily awareness expand? Did I learn something about myself? Did it bring me any closer to myself or to liberation?
Nearly thirty years ago, ecstasy revealed something important to me: I have the inner ability, the mechanism with which to experience enormous, wall-to-wall unconditional love. With dilated pupils and a faint nausea, I experienced a vast and all-encompassing love for every living being my eyes fell upon. I discovered such a state of being was possible. It is available to us. Four hours later, when the drug effects wore off and vanished from my soul like an escaping ghost, I found myself redefining my life goals: to attain this state of unconditional love without any outside material assistance. The ecstasy served as my training wheels and now I wanted to ride freely.
A Glimpse into Another Reality
In many non-Buddhist traditions, the goal of meditation is the meditative experience itself: a sense of connection with all that is, a dissolution of the separate and individual I into oneness, an expansion and transcendence of the soul, or deep serenity. Many of us are attracted to this approach because of what it offers, because of the promise of mystical states, altered states of consciousnee, even esoteric powers.
However, is the purpose of vipassana (insight) meditation to attain such deep and satisfying experiences? I posed this question years ago to my Dharma teacher Shaila Catherine. She answered in the negative, and asked me the same question in response: “What is the purpose of meditation?”
“To liberate the mind,” I answered. She gave me a poignant look: “Liberate the mind from what?”
“From attachment” I responded.
“If so,” she continued, “this includes releasing the mind from the grasping onto altered states of consciousness, no matter how wonderful and transcendental they may be, doesn't it?”
The meditative experiences are a side effect – perhaps positive, but they are not the essence. The goal is insight. Awakening into the true nature of things. Complete liberation of consciousness. Abiding in the unconditional, unbound, eternal. An awakened life. The practice, the path and goal become one. We practice liberation of mind through non-attachment in order to liberate the mind from attachment.
Are meditative experiences obstacles on the path? It depends who you ask. Some Buddhist traditions say this is so, and even provide practitioners with a detailed and precise list of the dangers on his or her path, a list endowed with the quite uncomplimentary name: the ten corruptions. These are mostly pleasant states of awareness such as intense joy, rare awareness and clarity, or deep peace, that cause us to grasp at them with all our might, to long to remain within them forever, to yearn for them when we painfully discover that they too belong to the impermanent world of conditioned phenomena: arising when conditions are suitable and passing when conditions change.
The Sri-Lankan monk Walpola Rahula says in his book What the Buddha Taught: “All these mystic states, according to the Buddha, are mind-created, mind-produced, conditioned…They have nothing to do with Reality, Truth, Nirvana”.
In contrast, other Buddhist traditions claim such experiences are in fact useful and worthy. They are perhaps not “the ultimate goal” but they leave us with a longing for more, and encourage us in our practice. They are a glimpse, as I wrote above, into the possibility of an another reality, a different mind, that is possible and available to us. Ramesh Balsekar, the Advaita Master from Bombay, terms these experiences “free samples” and promises there is much more where they came from. My teacher Ajay Singh also has respect for these experiences and says they are the crack through which we can break through into the spiritual path, into spiritual reality, into Life itself.
The problem is clearly not the experiences themselves, but our attachment to them, that turns them into an object of longing and causes our daily lives to pale in comparison. And what began as a delightful experience becomes a source of suffering.
The Last Life Buoy
Many of us reach the spiritual path due to crisis and suffering. We want to be on the spiritual path in order to change ourselves, to rid ourselves of parts of ourselves we do not like or accept, convincing ourselves these are obstacles: childhood wounds, addictions, depression, anxiety, or in short, our "issues". Or perhaps there are strong emotions we wish to banish: anger, jealousy, loneliness. Somehow we secretly believe our practice and the spiritual path will rid us of the need to experience such emotions, or – even better –will erase them completely.
Who of us has not arisen from bed in the morning at one time with the wish for things to be different? To have a relationship, to end the current one, to earn more money, to have a child already, for the children to grow up and leave home already, for the government to collapse, for the occupation to end, to have something sweet to nibble on at home… it is natural and only human to want things to improve, perhaps this was some kind of universal chip installed into our human code.
However, there are moments in life when we discover that all our attempts to change have gone up in smoke. All of the tools we utilized throughout life to make life a bit more comfortable and seemingly safer – are ultimately disappointing and false. If we were in a loving relationship with another person that gave meaning to our lives – we may one day awaken to find ourselves alone; if we have children – they eventually grow up and leave home; if we had a prominent status in life – we reach retirement or are perhaps fired; if we relied on our beauty – we age; if we were healthy and strong – we become weak and sick. All of the manipulations we employed to control circumstances and/or people around us – eventually fail.
Finally, exhausted from the struggle with ourselves and from our failure to change using inner effort – we turn to the last life buoy and embark on the spiritual path. There we will find relief from our pain, there we will finally be able to be someone else! We practice meditation, yoga, tantra, theta and rebirthing, perspire in sweat lodges, swirl in sacred circles, open our third eye, connect to the inner child, read auras, conjure past lives, memorize Buddhist doctrines, doing all the “right” things, practicing all the “right” practices and all in all behaving like very good children indeed. And then, at the end of this arduous and grueling process, we hope to be rid of all our negative, dark, embarrassing and totally unspiritual shadows.
Bartholomew, a loving channeled entity, says in his lovely book I Come As a Brother:
"Please begin by accepting the fact that the basic who-ness of you will probably not change very much. …Your life has been based on the supposition that there is something wrong with you that you've got to fix. I would like to suggest that there is nothing wrong with you, and you certainly don't need to be fixed."
A good friend shared with me her definition of an awakened woman: “One in whom the struggle has ceased.” I wholeheartedly agree. Because otherwise, what is the point of dedicated and meticulous practice if it does not bring us closer to a struggle-less life, even if it is only an internal struggle? If our practice does not bring us closer to joy, vitality, liveliness, fullness and an intimacy with things? If we do not become any closer to ourselves, more at peace, more relaxed in the face of stubborn patterns that refuse to be uprooted, of childhood wounds that return to overwhelm us at the most inappropriate times, of ancient fears that arise from the heart of darkness and manipulate our daily lives?
A renowned Zen teacher says that if the meditation practice does not permeate into our life beyond the "cushion", it’s like filling up a car with gas and parking it at the gas station, instead of driving out onto the open highway.
The vicissitudes of life: once the river was a river and the mountain was a mountain; later we discovered the Dharma and our lives turned around and our hearts stormed and the river was no longer a river and the mountain no longer a mountain; still later we settled down, stabilized, and once more the river became a river and the mountain a mountain.
As the years go by, I realize I am seeking less emotional thrills, cheap or expensive substitutes to the real thing, more attentive to the here and now. And the sweetness of quiet meditation with eyes closed mingles with the sweetness of open-eyed meditation. My last visit to India one month ago gave me the experience once more of continuous meditation without any interruptions, without the regular boundaries of “now this is meditation, now this is not”; without the artificial division between formal, structured meditation and informal meditation, between “sitting” and “life.” The experience of being in a constant state of meditation, not as a practice but as a state of awareness, of being. In which the moment is full, complete, where an ordinary day is full of grace.
“What is the point of knowledge if it does not lead to wisdom?” deliberate Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. “What’s the difference between accumulating material treasures – money or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge – and accumulating spiritual treasures?” (“Treasure is treasure, for heaven’s sake”). Indeed, what is the point of accumulating spiritual treasures if they do not bring us deeper, to the source of heavenly wisdom and compassion; to the place within us that lives at peace with all that is, that looks around and sees only “life” and not “problems.” To a place within us that can “have patience with everything unresolved in our heart,” to paraphrase the poetic words of the great poet Rilke, who can “live the questions now, so that someday far in the future we can gradually, without noticing it, live our way into the answer.”
I believe that the sign of a woman or a man living an awakened life is one who is happier, whose life is easier, who sees less problems in the world outside and within, who treats herself and others with forgiveness without necessarily favoring the former rather than the latter, or the opposite. One who enjoys increased inner freedom.
My latest Spring flu reunited me with my childhood hero Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird), whose endless patience and forgiveness towards his children and the value system he tried to endow them with always reminded me of my father. They both said: “You will never understand someone unless you see things from their point of view…until you wear their skin and walk around in it for a while.” Unknowingly, I was already influenced in my childhood from what I would eventually consider the heart of the Dharma, and which to this day I view as the core essence of an awakened human being: the ability to place oneself in someone else’s shoes.
The Dharma brings us closer to the recognition of our similarities: we are all little opinion and judgment-producing factories, seeking purpose and meaning in this strange existence into which we are thrown; we all suffer the presence of an inner critical dictator, the presence of jealousy, anger, and fear, just as within us all there is goodness, wisdom, and compassion. We all tread the same earth and above us all shines the same sky, which, in the words of my favorite writer Erich Kästner: “Rises above all intellect and knowledge, whose sun warms and shines upon the entire universe and does not differentiate between saints, criminals, and the lukewarm.”