An Experience – and Disappointment – of ‘Enlightenment’
On January 4, 1972, at about 4 in the afternoon, the back of my neck zipped itself into extinction. I was on a 9 month Transcendental Meditation retreat, meditating and doing Yoga for about 8 hours daily. Even though I was hyper vigilant about inner shifts there, I could not have missed it. Who I was, how I thought, how I saw, even how I would sleep from that night on were now, and would remain ever after, different.
I noticed 5 effects. The most obvious was that nearly all of the background noise in my mind just disappeared. Behind every moment of thinking, seeing or hearing, there had always been other, fainter thoughts, odd snatches of music, hints of feelings, errands I shouldn’t forget, half-formed sentences. But the endlessly burbling background chatter simply disappeared. Oh, I still thought. That was the confusing part. Maharishi, our guru, had told us about gaining a perfect focus, a mind without any thoughts at all. So this shift could not be the ‘silent mind of enlightenment’ for which I, like all 1500 of us there, had been waiting. And what I thought about hadn’t changed. What stopped was the inarticulate mutterings, the endless half thoughts beneath my thinking. It was as if behind the movie of my mind had been scrims behind scrims of thought, dimmer movies I could barely make out. But that afternoon it was as if the light had suddenly shifted so that the front scrim became opaque and suddenly I was watching just one movie. I was thinking only one thought at a time.
The second effect is harder to describe. If you had asked me before that afternoon who or what I, Robert Forman, was, I probably would have pointed to somewhere on my mid chest and said, ‘I’m here, me, Robert!’ I’d be trying to get at some vaguely localized sense of a self that I suspect we all have. I, me, Robert, was in there—somewhere. But once that last strand fell into silent openness, my sense of who or what I was instantly changed with it. I was now some strange new bottomlessness. Or rather it, the vast openness, was now me. Strangely enough, there was nothing Robert-ish in this new sense of myself for the bottomlessness has nothing to do with this particular guy, Robert. Everything I did, thought about, ate, laughed at, even my anxieties, were now encountered by or from within this strangely endless translucence. ‘I’ was now this ‘It,’ this weirdly characterless yet infinite openness.
A third effect: two days later I was standing on the triangular porch off my hotel room, looking through the mist at the white caps dotting the Mediterranean. The sea seemed particularly vibrant, the fog vivid. The drizzle against my bare arms felt unusually cool and crisp. Then it occurred to me: what was different wasn’t the scene. It was me. The Mediterranean was so alive, the mist so cool because I was now more alive to them! Standing on that porch, feeing the chilly January air on my cheeks, unlike where I used to be, I was no longer in the scene. Rather I was holding it, conscious of it, attending to it. Hindu thinkers talk endlessly about an enigmatic aspect of enlightenment: sakṣin, or ‘witnessing’. In it, silent consciousness ‘is experienced as wholly separate from activity…’1 I had always imagined this sakṣin, ‘witnessing,’ to be some sort of doubled-up consciousness, as if you’d stand back, arms folded, and make yourself watch yourself. But leaning against that cool porch railing, feeling the drizzle on my forearms, was just the opposite. There was no extra work in this experience. This witnessing was, and has remained, utterly effortless. I was conscious and conscious of being conscious, that’s all. And seeing like that was astonishingly fresh!
When the weather cleared the next week, I sensed the fourth result. Taking a walk down to the beach, cumulus clouds caught my eye, billowing white and cottony above the wide curve of the Mediterranean, up and up and behind one another. The billows, the ocean and even the light haze above the water seemed to reach backwards more than I’d ever noticed, as if they’d gotten thicker. The whole scene had a surprising depth to it. It was as if I had put on 3-D glasses. I’ve always seen depth like anyone else, I suppose. But this was categorically different. It was as if everything – thick or thin, tall or short, heavy or cumulous-light – had become strangely thickened, more layered. The world became deep. I liked it. Since then sometimes I’ve found myself on a drive through the Colorado Rockies and been bowled over by the height above height of a rounded forest hilltop. Or I’ll drive across New York City’s RFK Bridge and be astonished by the depth of the canyons of glass and steel. I cannot possibly miss the visual changes that began that month.
I became aware of the last effect about a week after that cumulus walk. I woke up one morning certain that, although I’d clearly been asleep, all of me actually hadn’t been. Some odd bit of awareness had persisted through the night, awake. I had been fully asleep, for sure, but not quite, not all of me.
The Bhagavad Gita describes such an effect: ‘Even when it is night for all others,’ as the Gita put it, ‘you remain wakeful.’2 Wakefulness in sleep must sound positively gruelling! You sleep but lie there wondering when you’ll sleep? But witnessed sleep that night, and every night since, actually seemed quite natural. I was awake inside, but the wakeful part was so understated, so unobtrusive and natural that there was nothing at all traumatic about it. Even today, I hardly bother to notice whether I was awake inside, unless like last night (when I was writing this article) I have some reason to notice. But it’s there, it’s how I sleep. This new sleep pattern has turned out to be probably the most useful aspect of the shift. Before that time I used to wake up bleary eyed and fogged over. When I finally woke up, I’d be all groggy and grumpy. But ever since that morning, when it’s time to wake up, I’m just awake. There’s no bleariness, no snooze button. I’m just awake. I suppose it’s because consciousness doesn’t have to switch states, since I was never totally out.
Despite all these changes, big and small, and with all the perspective of an impatient 25 year old, all I felt back then was disappointment. Where were the benefits of the enlightenment we’d heard so much about? My mind hadn’t become totally silent, the world hadn’t been transformed, and I was still bouncing from anxiety to ecstasy, still often lonely, still unclear about a career. Compared to the end of all suffering for which I was waiting, this was pretty much squat. Ah the impatience of the young! For sitting here, some 40 years later, these seemingly small changes were the beginning. It was an understated earthquake: for the first time in my life, probably for the first time in the life of anyone in my genetic lineage, I now was thinking only one thing at a time. I was conscious and aware that I was, and without effort. And I now knew myself as an empty, spacious consciousness.
Since that time, whatever this strange and effortless otherness may be, it has seeped into so many byways of my life that even today I’m still discovering its ramifications. It would eventually help me rise like Lazarus out of the tomb of anxiety and fear in which I had been long buried. It would eventually lead me to rethink every choice I had made and every belief I had held. It would call me to recreate every relationship I cared about and to a level I could not have even conceived back then. It would cause me to relinquish nearly everything I had held dear or had known myself to be. And slowly, haltingly, but genuinely, in its shadow I would become freer. And ever since, while the rest of my mind and life percolates along in its active way, this new piece and structure are just there, steady as you go. I am happy and it’s there. I am sad and it’s there. I am bicycling or anxious for reasons I do not know, and it’s there. It is a strangely steady something in an unsteady life, a candle flame in a blizzard. A steady vastness like this so remarkable, so unlike the rest of what I can know or be that my life would eventually have to re-form itself around it (or be lived forever unresolved, bifurcated). Sweet soft water wears down rock cliffs, given long enough, and this empty quiet carries something of such gentle inevitability.
What surprised me about this deep change in what I am, was that it was so much more modest, so different in kind and quality than anything I could have known to expect. The only thing I could have hoped for was something in my world, within my repertoire of experience, I suppose. We just have no way to conceive of anything else. I could only look for what I could imagine, hope for something that answered my longings, cured my wounds or made me happier. But this silence, this shift in who I was, was simply outside my repertoire. It was of a whole different kind and quality from anything I knew. And it came of its own accord. I didn’t know what had happened to me. It would take me some 10 years of regular meditation, graduate work in religion and study of the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures before I came to understand that what had shifted in my life that afternoon was at least a good chunk of the very enlightenment that the ancient texts had been describing and that I’d been pursuing.
I struggled to understand what had happened to me for nearly a decade. Why I did, and why I’m telling you this, is that what had happened to me wasn’t at all like what it had been cracked up to be. It was confirmed, yes, and matched the traditional accounts I learned. But It didn’t make me happy. It didn’t end the worries and anxieties that had led me into the spiritual path. An infinite silence at my core, yes, but I wasn’t better off in any obvious way than I might have been. Enlightenment just ain’t what we expected, and it’s not what I was after. I’d dare say it isn’t what any of us on the spiritual path who live post-modern, post-Freudian, post true-believer, sexually active, mortgaged lives actually are after either.
Paul McCartney wrote a little ditty about enlightenment, calling it ‘such a joy, joy, joy.’ Joy, joy, joy this wasn’t!
The vastness that established itself in my life that day was neither sweet nor kindly nor angry. It didn’t end my loneliness—that took some 10 years. Ending my anxieties would take 15 years. It was not a good feeling, except in a very narrow sense. Nor was it painful. It simply was. And is. It has remained humble, quiet and unassuming in almost every way. But it is real and permanent and of a nature I could not—and still cannot—possibly understand.
Folks like me on the spiritual path begin by looking for spiritual party favors. What you get, if you’re lucky, is an existential earthquake.
Dr Robert Forman
Founding editor in 1994 of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: controversies in science and the humanities.
Author of Enlightenment Ain’t What it’s Cracked Up to be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul (2011) www.EnlightenmentAint.com
1 Bhagavad Gita, trans. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, p. 349.
2 Gita 2.69, trans. Ramanada Prasad