Are peak experiences real?
The skeptic says no: when you're relaxed, of course your
brain thinks all is one. But really that's just a feature of brain chemistry.
In that state now, here on retreat, I can hold the critique.
However, the critique cannot hold the state I am in now.
If I were seeing pixies, the critique might be stronger. But
I am just seeing a light, a bed, a computer, etc. It's true that my body and mind
are relaxed. But that is neither adding to nor subtracting from theological
speculation. What it is doing is letting me absorb the magnitude of the truth.
This truth — that this, just this, where and what and who
you are right now, is the One and nothing else — this underlies Western and
Eastern metaphysics. Impermanence is true.
Every time you eat, you are eating the sun. All sources of
energy on this planet, stored up in plants, long-dead plants, animals — all
comes from the sun. This is true even of plastic soda bottles. And every atom
in every thing you see was once in a star.
In busy, ordinary, "small" mind, these truths are
just facts. We can evaluate whether they are artfully expressed or clichés, or
whether we think they are mere diversions. We may have other things which we
think are more important.
All relaxation does is allow the truth to be felt. The mind
is cleared, like a dirty window wiped clean, and the magnitude of what we might
ordinarily take for granted inspires tears. Moreover the mind is quieted so
much that all that's left is its true nature: God. Awareness, radiating love. I
have said this before, but what a miracle, that all we have to do to be
beautifully loving creatures is just relax and allow.
You don't have to put anything in.
How do we know anything is true? Certain things are
logically provable, but many other kinds of truths are not. Even
"hard" truths, not just emotional ones. We know something is true
because it fully accords inside our minds. There is a sense of knowing. That
sense is present now.
Is this knowing related to how a plant "knows" to
grow, so beautifully, intricately?
Hafiz says, you are God in drag.
I know that through my meditation practice, I become more
compassionate and open, which makes the world a better place, albeit in a small
way. And I become happier.
But that's not enough for reason. I've noticed that because
of the way I'm built, or trained, I am almost unable to simply say "even
if it's not true, it makes me so happy to believe it." I might be better
off if I could do that — if I could set aside truth and just be happy with a
comfortable illusion. But I might be better off with the body of a model and
the bank account of a millionaire too — some things are just not my lot. I want
to know that what brings me happiness is true.
Sometimes that need manifests as doubt which closes me off
from happiness. But other times, I see it as very valuable, because the same
skepticism, the refusal to settle for appearance, has led me to become a mystic
in the first place.
I love that, as realized as I have been fortunate to become,
I am still early on in a long, always-present path of greater and greater
realization of true nature. And it will always be Now along the way.
When I think of publishing these notes, the mind races ahead and gets
distracted. What happens? Two things. First, it closes itself off from now and
goes into someplace else, into the magazine, or the website — someplace that
isn't right here. Second, the mind becomes filled with aversive or attractive
desire. I want the piece to be like this, I want it to be received like that.
The writing of this piece becomes performative, and thus a critical part of
myself (as in movie critic) is engaged, ruining the flow of experience.
Breathe. Hold the sensation. Notice the feeling of that. Watch it and
eventually let it go.
You can't simultaneously pursue enlightenment and interrogate it.
Back from retreat.
It's such a fragile truth — the simple pantheistic notion that, really,
everything is just God. Or, everything is emptiness, if you prefer — that no
thing, including the self, has separate existence. It's very easy to write
down, and incredibly fragile. Learn it too quickly, and it's a cliché, or doubt
arises, or, worse, it inhibits the actual experience (knowledge in the Hebrew
sense) of it. Forget it after you really learn it, and you sink right down into
the concerns of the small mind. Today, the knowledge is still present for me —
I don't have to fake it, just cultivate a calmer mind state to allow it to
penetrate in. Eventually it may not feel as natural. But today, I can dip my
toe into either side, feeling the world as it truly is, or as my mind is
conditioned to feel it, suffer with it, dread it, love it, etc. All our minds
are so self-centered, so self-certain that there is us and them. Without this will of separation, we could not survive
or reproduce. Still it boggles the mind why it had to be so.
And the truth is so easy
to forget. So we are told again and again and again: remember, remember,
remember. All the Jewish religion does is remember. All the Buddhist path does
is remember (in the Jewish sense: i.e., see anew, make real now, remove veils
"Be faithful to me, and I will show you love," God seems to say.
What does this mean for me? On retreat I worked with the phrase for a while,
but I think I'm only understanding it (or understanding it on a deeper level)
now, off retreat. Be faithful to me — know that I am all there is, that
"it's just Me" here. No inside, no outside. It does feel like a kind
of faithfulness to keep that consciousness intact, or be reminded often in 'small
moments, many times.' However it is faithfulness to a dear Friend, not a
principle. Once it becomes a principle… well, all is not lost, but the heart
of it is.
And then every contemplative says they can't really talk about what it is
they want to talk about. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. The
indirect/absurd speech of the Zen koan. The unpronounceable Name. Negative
theology. Neti-neti. You can just go across the board. Non-contemplatives may
go and say that they know this or that, or perversely, that they don't know
anything and therefore they must obey the Bible (or some other text) with
literal, intense devotion — all the while trapped in the notion that there is a
self obeying a text. But I don't know of any authentic writer of mysticism who
can say with certainty that God/Being is this or that.
A funny thing just happened. I was searching for phrases with which to end
the previous paragraph, and the first two were "…can say with certainty
that 'I know'" and "…can say with certainty that 'This is
It.'" Of course, both of those phrases flow immediately from the mystical
experience. But what 'It' is, or what the 'knowing' is (it's not really an 'I
know') — no one can say. People get frustrated with this. Mystical
obscurantism, vagueness. But it is not meant to be some sort of game or
deliberate mysteriousness. It really cannot be said.
Moreover, if it is said, there must be a predicate noun or adjective
attached, e.g. "God is love." That is fine but incorrect, because
what about (a) everything else in the universe and (b) that which we suppose is
beyond the universe, and thus utterly without linguistic or even conceptual
expression. It's fine to say that God is this or that, but it misleads us into
thinking that God is not something else.
Or that, when God says "Be faithful to me, and I will show you
love," what is meant is that we will receive the love we want, from a
partner or a parent or adoring fans who read our work. We will be shown the
love in this pencil-holder, in the atoms of the snow, and in the embrace of all
of these empty illusions rising and falling within Mind.
Secret teachings are not esoteric; they are experiential.
I've noticed a convergence happening between what I thought was esoteric
Buddhist wisdom and what is, in fact, the most commonplace of advice. There is
a little unease around that — as if all I've learned is "be happy and
greet each day with a smile." That
has always seemed disingenuous, and an inauthentic response to a world in which
vast suffering exists. If we greet each day with a smile, are we being honest
with parents whose children die, or, more importantly, parents whose children
are killed in wars that we might have avoided?
Greeting each day with a smile, or 'seeing the good in everybody' also
seemed personally dishonest. I am glad that my consciousness is more complex
than that — that, some days, it greets the world with a smile, and other days
the smile quickly turns into something else. That is my reality, I am glad it
is my reality, and there is little that annoys me more than being told to paper
over my reality with a banal cliché.
Seeing reality clearly, of course, is why I go on meditation retreats to
begin with. It is, for me, the opposite of cliché.
And yet, as I was sitting today, a thought
came up about how much more I have enjoyed seeing people in these few days
since the end of retreat than previously. I see them as manifesting God, in
unique ways. Some are joyful, some mean, others cool, aloof, clueless, wise,
caring. I love "subway practice," which usually takes the form of
choiceless awareness, combined with a dropping of the self on the one hand and
an allowing of the mind's curiosity on the other. I love looking at people's
clothes, imagining what they are doing, sympathizing with those who are
stressed out or who look unhappy, loving when a group of kids come on, with
their crazy, unruly energy. (Luckily they're not my kids.) Subway practice
depends on dropping my own story — where I am going, how pissed off I am at
what happened an hour ago — and it doesn't always work. Particularly when I am
running late, I am too anxious to quiet down, and so I give up, reading
something on my Palm Pilot instead, or playing a game. Maybe with deeper
practice, I will be able both to drop harder stories, and to allow those
stories to be watched as part of the parade of life/God passing by at this
How different is subway practice from "see the good in everybody"?
Seemingly, only one letter different: "good" has an extra 'o.' I
don't really mind that I have come full-circle to the advice columnist in
Reader's Digest, but it is very curious.
I suppose there are some differences between dharma and Chicken Soup for the
Soul. No-self, for example. Then again, maybe no-self is just a more
extreme version of "don't think only of yourself."
Another important difference is internal. I actually feel and believe where
I am coming from. It's not "oughta compassion" — it's natural
compassion, or interest, or openness. If I had to sit and repeat to myself
"be nice, be nice, be nice," I would not be very nice at all. And I
am trying to watch the times when I don't want to be nice, and act as
skillfully as possible to respect my own feelings while at the same time not
being an asshole.
Probably the most important difference between where I'm at and where the
supermarket books are at is introspection. You can "not sweat the small
stuff" and yet not look too much inside either. Then you may lead a life
that may be destructive, or selfish, or not quite fully human.
Does the ordinary, plain, good-people world cause suffering? Yes, but it is
subterranean. "Just part of life," they say — but it isn't.
If all we are doing is relaxing and feeling good about ourselves, this
suffering will continue. We constrict into our selfish needs, which we relax
about, and go on hurting the weak, the brown, the planet.
But if we are being fully open to what is, we will experience the Ground of
all being, which radiates compassion, and so we won't go to war unnecessarily
or spray everything with pesticides or warm the planet so the forests die. We
won't make an idolatrous god out of convenience. That is the most important
difference, then, between really relaxing and opening up into truth, and
relaxing like you do at the beach: when you get back from the beach, are you
acting to alleviate suffering in the world?
My wind chimes are ringing on a clean winter day, and I've just noticed a
few buds coming from a plant that I was sure had died.
All these programs, executing within the mind of God. These hands, clapping
At the school where I teach, a teacher was trying to teach something about a
point of Jewish law, and the kids were misbehaving. They are full of energy. So
he got a little upset at them. I suppose if you trace it back, the point of
Jewish law eventually leads to God. But those kids, with their energy, were
God. It was as if people argue about and puzzle over and declare the absence of
exactly what they are at the exact moment they are denying it.
I used to carry around a subtle anxiety that meaningful religion will soon
disappear from the Earth. Fundamentalisms will survive, and possibly kill us
all, and the stupid will likely continue to take refuge in an imagined God. But
I worried that the communities in each religious tradition that actively engage
with the spiritual and deep-ethical teachings of their tradition seem to grow
smaller and smaller in proportion to the hordes at the shopping malls. Now, two
changes have occurred in my thinking. First, I have grown to trust the
unfolding of God. Even if It evolves in a way that would fill me with great
sadness (continued ecocide, continued vulgarization of Western culture), It
Second, I have begun to think of "God" as a concept that evolves
by disappearing. Primitive gods on most continents were very personal, very
present, and represented in images. Beginning with monotheism in the West, God
began to take on a new, less visible form — One God, whose human-like image
cannot be represented. Philosophy pushed the One even further from image, to an
unchanging, formless perfection — closer to the One Being of Vedanta and
Buddhism in the East, which also supplanted a rich pantheon of personal
deities. In both East and West, the older forms have survived to this day,
albeit transplanted into an unconvincing new cosmology or theology. Within the
last five hundred years, even the concept of the One, or the Formless Being,
has begun to be eclipsed by something even more removed from concept:
the lack of God altogether. And within the last two hundred, the joining of
East and West in some Romantic and spiritual circles has spread the doctrine of
If we assume that the One is ultimately unknowable, these later developments
are welcome indeed. The gods are idols. Concepts of "God" are idols.
Even the "belief in God" is a concept. So the most accurate picture
we can have of God is no picture at all, which is precisely what most
intelligent people today hold.
The less clear the picture, the further the distance feels. A philosophical
Jew who believes in the One has a far less rich emotional-religious life than
the pious Jew who prays to the God of Abraham, or the Catholic who addresses
the Virgin. This is the critical difference between atheism and monism: that
for us monists, God is right here, now, in the fingers typing these words, the plants
on my desk, the thoughts being sensed by the mind. God is bathing me in love,
if I admit it.
For the atheist or agnostic, such nonsense-words (nonsense because, having
not been experienced, they are implausible, and associated with bad thinking)
do not bring comfort. And so we are seeing a turn to religious and spiritual
practices, or to more self-aware artistic or cultural ones, on the part of the
minority of people in the West who do not have an explicit, and authentic,
relationship with the Numinous.
Of course, most Westerners are still quite happy with Christianity, thank
you. And not everyone who has no God-concept is close to God — many are serving
gods of ego: selfishness, materialism, the dull egoistic kind of hedonism. I am
speaking of cultural creatives and people like them — people who are deeply
engaged with the Good, be it aesthetic or intellectual or ethical. These people
are rediscovering God — only without the concept of God and, they suppose, in
explicit opposition to it. In fact, their minds are closer to God than most of
At the same time, I have nothing
but respect and awe for the organizers of organized religion. They are trying
to teach to everybody what nobody can understand.
I used to think I knew about everything except God. Now I think I know about
nothing except God.
What that means: of course, I didn't know about everything. But I
felt that I knew something about most things which interested me. Politics,
religion, literature, art. I was learning continuously, and synthesizing
information, and it gave me delight. Now I have a small shudder of revulsion
that passes through me each time I think of being enticed into some subject or
other. More importantly, I don't think I know anything anymore. I don't know
how to teach, I don't know how people really work, I just don't know anything.
Or at least, if I have ideas, I think they are all tentative and idiosyncratic.
I want to say nothing.
i have no
interest in polite and clever conversation anymore
i've been rendered
a social cripple by god
Image by holisticgeek, courtesy of Creative Commons license.