The Disappearing Self

I’m watching the French Open. (Federer just lost the first set.) Anyway, my daughter keeps standing too close to the TV. And I keep telling her to move back. Telling her for the third time gave rise to following idea:

I was thinking about how when you move up close to the television screen the picture disappears – all you see are a bunch of dots (pixels). But then, of course, when you move back out a few feet there is the picture again.

This is like the experience of being a self. When you move deeply into the experience of being a self, it seems that the self disappears. But move back out a “few feet” and there is the self again.

So which position or state shows the situation as it really is? I suppose they both do. It all depends on your point of view. (Although, in the case of the television, sitting back a few feet is usually more practical.)

Okay, I need to go watch the rest of this tennis match.

[2 hours later]

(Federer won the match.)

I’m thinking that the deeper truth is not revealed in either the experience of being a self or the experience of being a no-self. But rather, the deeper truth is revealed in the movement between these states.

This is the miracle of an enlightened moment – freely moving between the experiences of self and no-self.


Playing Catch

Today I’m playing catch with my daughter. (With a large soft Dora the Explorer ball.) She is two years old. She loves it. She says, “Catch again Daddy! Catch again!” I suppose she likes the motion.

This got me thinking about experiences. All experiences are in motion. They are vibrations – on and off; Neurons firing – on/off; Light waves, sound waves – on/off.

Playing catch is a slow vibration. Throw – catch – throw – catch.

There are perhaps an endless number of such pairs:

Birth/Death, Sleeping/Waking, Breathing: In/out.

I’ve noticed that I get into trouble when I interfere with any particular vibration – when I try to make-permanent only one half of a vibrating pair.

Try only breathing in. Trouble! (Okay that was an extreme example.)

The experience of being a self is a kind of vibration. It is really the experience of self and not-self. It is like breathing. You can’t just breathe in. Likewise, you can’t just feel like a self. The feeling of being a self is dependent upon a corresponding experience of not-self.

For example, the computer before you is definitely not you (relatively speaking). Maybe you look at it (and feel not-self) and a split second later get a sense (perhaps a gentle tension around your eyes) that it is you that is reading. You can’t have one experience (self) without the other (not-self). Together they form a vibrating pair.

So we could say that there is a small experience of self which is one pole of the self/not-self vibration.

And we could say that there is a larger experience of Self – which includes both vibrating poles: self and not-self.

We don’t want to stop the sense of small-self from arising any more than we want to stop breathing in. But rather, we want to notice that the experiences that are masquerading as the small-self, are arising in the context of a greater self/not-self experience.

You are this greater “self/not-self experience.”

When you notice this something rather interesting happens.

Okay time to play again . . .



I awoke this morning to find my wife and daughter playing. I opened my eyes to see beautiful long flowing hair dancing in the sunlight. It must be my wife, I thought. She turned around – no it was my daughter. (Wow, when did she turn into a little girl?) She smiled and said, “Daddy’s wake,” – a nice way to begin the day.

Jhana and the Formless Spheres

I remember reading about the Jhana and the formless spheres when I was a teenager. (The Jhana are deep meditative states. There are four stages of Jhana. In addition to the Jhana, there are four higher meditative states known as the formless spheres. ) They sounded very cool! Wow, to make it to the fourth Jhana, pure consciousness, the beginning of psychic powers! Or to enter into the sphere of infinite space, to become one with the universe! Wow!!

To my teenager mind these states sounded so lofty, so grand, that they might as well have been unattainable. Now, when I listen to an individual (including myself) speak about his/her own experiences and attainment of these states, I can usually hear an awkward mix of false humility and pride. That’s okay. We are human.

But the thing is: these states are very subtle, you really can’t exclaim “wow!” while in them; you’d kind of ruin it.

The first thing I want to say is that everyone already knows these states in a manner of speaking.

For example, does entering into a profoundly deep meditative state in which you are oblivious to all external sensations seem a little incredible to you?

But perhaps you already know this state. While having a dream (or a lucid dream would be closer to the state) someone could tap you on the shoulder and call your name and you might not notice.

That state doesn’t sound so special anymore. (Have you ever had a lucid dream and in the dream you’re meditating and your mind is absolutely silent? That would be very close to the state of the second or third Jhana.)

I am trying to make these states sound less impressive. They are very natural.

As we sleep we move through all of these states; it’s just that we are usually unconscious. I remember the first time I fell asleep consciously. I realized that these states are very ordinary, very familiar. Idealizing them will prevent you from entering into them consciously.

Something else to remember about these states is that they are subjective. They are your states. They may not match up perfectly to someone else’s description of them, even Siddhartha’s. There is a lot of disagreement and confusion concerning these states. I think what is important and what is most universally agreed upon is that with each successive Jhana or sphere what you previously took to be nothing is now discovered to be something.

What do I mean by that?

Here is an example: Say after years of meditating you have finally learned how to let your mind become silent. There is no sound. There is nothing. Wonderful! Maybe you are enlightened! Life goes on. You continue to meditate, enjoying your nothingness. But then one day you realize that the silence is in fact not nothing after all. You notice that silence is a type of sound. You realize that silence is an auditory experience. You discover that nothing (that is, what you mistook as nothing) is actually something.

This is the process of transcendence. The Witness is learning to differentiate itself from its experiences. With each successive Jhana or sphere the experiences become finer and finer. After each differentiation there arrives a new state that is taken to be nothing. You can’t see it because you are identified with it. However, given enough time you learn to see it, or hear it, and therefore differentiate yourself from it. The process of transcendence continues.

The same thing happens with inner body silence. Not the sound, but the feeling. You might not even notice the feeling. It is so subtle. You think that it is nothing at all. But one day you suddenly realize that the inner feeling of stillness is actually an experience. You may call it bliss.

And again the same thing happens with inner visual silence. Infinite space, the first formless sphere – at first you don’t notice it. It seems to be just infinite vast formless emptiness/nothingness. But then one day you notice that it is a type of visual experience. You differentiate from it; you see it as something. (It is when you begin to see it that you need to sit with it.)

And on and on you go in like manner.

Each time subtler and subtler experiences are discovered to be masquerading as the Witness or Experiencer. (Experiencer isn’t a real word, but I try to avoid the term Witness because the word seems to privilege visual experiences over other experiences. I should say “Witness”.)

What do these “altered states” have to do with enlightenment?

The answer is: Everything and nothing.

Everything, because you learn what you are not in these states.

Nothing, because Enlightenment does not necessarily take place while in any of these “altered states.”

When you are ready, it could happen at any time. When you are ready, you are hanging on by the finest thread. The attachment and therefore the “Witness” can go at any moment.

Finally, one day, perhaps while sitting in the park watching and listening to the flurry of activity around you, it happens, the “Witness” collapses into that which is experienced. The process of transcendence has worked itself to completion in the ordinary day to day waking state. Now, in that freedom, you simply see clearly, you are awake.


Zen Mirrors, Don't-Know Mind, and Blue Whales

Part One: Exploring don’t-know mind

Here’s a game you can play while in the state of ‘don’t-know mind.’ (no-mind)

Close your eyes and let your mind become silent; let it rest into don’t-know mind. Then let a little bit of knowing return. By letting just a hint of a thought arise you can trick yourself into believing that you are anything whatsoever. You can pretend that you are a cat, your best friend, or even God.

Don’t give away the fact that you are only pretending. Stay close to the state of ‘don’t-know mind’.

How far can you take this game?

Now pretend that you really are you. (Let just a hint of a “you-thought” arise.)

But then again maybe you aren’t really you? Maybe you are actually a butterfly or a blue whale.

Now you may start getting confused. So what or who are you?

Return to the state of don’t-know mind. (no-mind)

I love this state!

When you are done playing it is good to once again embrace your present personality and life situation.

What is the point of playing this game?

I suppose it is fun.

Part Two: Transcending the mind

The true don’t-know mind or enlightened mind is something more than the playful state described above.

It is not only silence or clarity of the mind, but rather it is no-mind or mind-transcended.

What does it mean to transcend the mind?

In order to understand what it means to transcend the mind, let’s compare it to transcending the body.

What does it mean to transcend the body (to be trans-physical)?

A rock is not trans-physical. It does not have a brain or a mind.

A human being is trans-physical. We have brains. We have minds.

You are trans-physical. You can control your body with your brain-mind. The average human being can:

i) Rest: You can sit down in a chair and not move. It takes no effort. It is relaxing.
ii) Move (controlled): You can easily stand up and go for a walk.
iii) Move (uncontrolled): You can let your hands move freely as you talk, or maybe you can even let your entire body dance wildly, completely uninhibited.

These are the three basic states of the transcended body: resting, moving (controlled), and moving (uncontrolled).

Likewise, there are three basic states of the transcended mind: silent mind (resting), thinking mind (controlled), and thinking mind (uncontrolled):

i) A silent mind means that there is no internal voice; it means that no images, symbols, or concepts arise. If the mind is transcended, then not thinking is effortless, just as resting your body in a chair is effortless. (You simply let it drop.)
ii) A thinking mind (controlled) means that thoughts are consciously guided.
iii) A thinking mind (uncontrolled) means that thoughts are consciously allowed to wander - such as when daydreaming or even thinking and vocalizing nonsensical babble.

These are the three basic states of the transcended mind. (Ken Wilber would say that there are more, but let’s keep this simple for now.)

So we see that a mind transcended is not necessarily silent.
Sometimes it is noisy.

Now there is a very old Zen metaphor that equates the enlightened mind with a perfectly polished mirror. When thoughts arise they are clearly reflected in the mirror; when no thoughts arise they are clearly not reflected in the mirror.

This is a beautiful metaphor. However, it doesn’t seem to me that this metaphor quite captures the nature of the enlightenment event. Enlightenment is more than seeing clearly. It is realizing that you are free – and realizing this is always an event. It is an event that takes place after years, perhaps lifetimes, of polishing your mirror.

Maybe we could add something to this mirror metaphor to make it more complete. We could say that the enlightenment event does not take place the moment you attain a perfectly polished mirror – that is only a precursor - but rather the enlightenment event takes place the moment you walk through the mirror’s frame and realize that there actually is no mirror, there is just empty space.

The enlightenment event takes place the moment you reach the surface, after spending years, perhaps lifetimes, climbing out of a deep and dark cave. It is realizing that you are finally free - you are even free to go back into the cave if you wish and help others find their way out.

The enlightenment event is like a dolphin crashing through the surface of the ocean and realizing it can fly . . .

And yet, none of this really matters while in the state of playful don’t-know mind, for after all maybe you are really just a butterfly pretending to be a blue whale pretending to be a butterfly.


Samsara: Around and around we go.

My two year old daughter and I just had a staring contest. I’m not sure who won. We both started laughing. Then she started running around and around our living room screaming with delight as only a little girl can.

Around and around we go. Sometimes it’s pretty sweet.


The Relationship between Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences

Do you know people like Kent and Jim?

Kent and Jim are both long time meditators.

Kent has had many extraordinary spiritual experiences.
Jim has had none.

However, both are awake to more or less the same degree.

How is this possible?

Here is an analogy:

Jim and Kent are in a very dark and deep cave. They are seeking the light of day. (Enlightenment)

i) Jim follows a tunnel to the right. The tunnel slopes up to the surface very gradually. The intensity of daylight in the tunnel also increases very gradually. Slowly, slowly Jim makes his way to the surface. He doesn’t think about the light - he simply sees more and more clearly as he moves toward the surface. It is all very ordinary and natural. Eventually, Jim reaches the light of day. He sees with a rare clarity. He is enlightened.

ii) Kent follows a steep vertical tunnel to the left. The tunnel is a series of ascending rock platforms. As he climbs to each new platform the intensity of daylight in the tunnel increases in a brilliant burst. Each burst of light overwhelms Kent’s eyes, until he adjusts to the new light level. They are extraordinary experiences. Eventually, Kent makes it to the surface. Once his eyes adjust for the last time he thinks not about the intense light, he simply sees clearly. He is enlightened. So what has happened to the brilliant light? It is still there – in the very appearance of things.

In the end, for both Kent and Jim, things are very ordinary. It is just this.

Each one of us moves into the Light in his or her own way.

It is your way.

Once they see clearly, Kent and Jim accept each other’s way.

This is beautiful.


Kensho and Satori Experiences

On the Enlightenment Path I have experienced various glimpses of the Truth. At the age of 23 (I am now 34) I had the following glimpse:

“I am in my living room. It is 1:00 am. It is quiet. I am walking toward the front door. I hear the clock above the door ticking. I hear nothing but the ticking. I look at the clock, puzzled. Something is different. Reality has changed! What is it? It is too quiet. It is often quiet at night but not this quiet. Then I realize what is different. My busy chattering mind has stopped. I mean completely stopped. There is no internal voice. It seems like I am floating out of time. It is right now. It is intensely the present moment. Every experience that arises within me is richly alive. I touch the walls and floor. It is as if the textures I feel are emotions. Thick incredible depth exists both inside and outside of me. There is no separation between myself and my experience. I walk down to the lake. I stare out across the water. I am utterly amazed with existence. Hours pass. I finally return home and fall asleep.”

This kensho or satori experience was particularly powerful, perhaps because it lasted so long, approximately 5 hours. It was also the first time that my mind stopped without any direct effort on my part. It was at this time that I added ‘statue’ meditation to my practice. I would get up before the sunrise every day, stand on the shore and stare out across the lake. I would stand in one place without moving until after noon. (Hence the name ‘statue’ meditation.) (Apparently there are health concerns involved with this kind of practice, so be careful.)

Other satori experiences have followed since that time. (Wow that was 11 years ago!) I would like to share those other experiences with you in future posts.

I am also interested in your kensho or satori experiences or trans-experiences. Would anyone like to share such an experience on his or her blog? I would love to hear more on this topic from the community. (Let me know - leave a comment here directing me to your blog.)



Naïve Realism: Part Two

Let’s continue from last day. (Read Part One)

I’m trying to convince you that the physical world doesn’t actually take up any space. (For some reason I must think that this is important.)

Remember the blind artist Esref Armagan? His understanding of shape and dimension is not grounded in any kind of visual experience. He has never known any kind of visual experience. He knows that large objects take longer to physically feel than small objects. That is how he knows whether an object is large or small. When he moves his hands along an object, say a massive oak table, what he experiences is a physical tactile sensation that lasts for a certain length of time.

That is not how sighted people experience the world, even when they have their eyes closed. It is extremely difficult for a sighted person to close his or her eyes, to feel the shape and size of an object, like a table, and not at the same time imagine the object.

What I am suggesting is that without visual experience we would not and in fact, could not arrive at the conclusion that objects were extended in space.

I’m getting the sense that this post is going to be confusing. I’ll try not to ramble. I’ll try to be concise. But I can’t promise that I’ll succeed. Okay let’s face it - I will not succeed, but I’ll try anyway.

Let’s continue by noticing a simple truth: Subjective experience happens to a subject, not an object.

That is to say, when you taste strawberry ice cream, it is you who experience the taste, not the ice cream. The ice cream isn’t sitting in your freezer before you eat it experiencing itself. It isn’t thinking and feeling to itself, “Wow I am so delicious, yum...bliss....sigh.....[wonderful sensations]!”

When we listen to Beethoven, the sound waves are not experiencing themselves as great music, but rather it is you and me having the subjective experience. (Of course, the term ‘subjective experience’ is redundant because all experience is subjective by definition. But I’ll continue to use the term in order to reinforce that very point.)

When you look at a red fire truck, the colour red is experienced by you, not by the red fire truck. The experience of red doesn’t actually exist ‘out there’ in the physical world. A certain wave length of light that corresponds to the experience of red may exist ‘out there’, but not the experience itself.

Now, in exactly the same way, the experience of size doesn’t exist ‘out there' in the external world. (And therefore the idea of ‘out there’ is ultimately meaningless.)

We don’t assume that certain light waves are in any way ‘red’.

Neither should we assume that objective space is in any way spacious.

See the parallel?

Maybe I should just repeat something for you:

The physical world doesn’t actually take up any space!

Here’s another question: When we close our eyes and imagine the physical objective world ‘out there’ devoid of all experiences, in a strictly scientific and objective way, what do we imagine? Perhaps we imagine a basic 3 dimensional space stripped of everything that we think of as a subjective experience, . . . no colours, no tastes, etc. Perhaps we see a kind of changing black and white geometrical collection of atoms floating before us in our mind’s eye.

But if we are going to picture the world correctly, and strip it of all subjective experience, we must also strip it of visual experience.

It is often overlooked that the visual experience of space is indeed an experience. But of course it is, and being an experience, it only exists in our minds. Just as a mirror’s depth is only an illusion, so too is the world’s physical size. That just happens to be the way our brains represent things.

But it certainly seems like the world takes up space. Not only can we see the spaciousness of the world with our eyes, but we can also walk about in it. Doesn’t the fact that we can walk through the world prove that it has size? No. We can dream of walking through our house, it doesn’t mean that the house in our dream actually occupies space.

Does this mean that the objective world doesn’t exist? No, it does exist! It just doesn’t take up any space.

Let’s use an analogy here to help us understand this more deeply.

Suppose on your computer’s monitor is a picture of a sunset. The monitor’s picture (by analogy: your visual subjective experience) has a certain size, we can measure the screen’s sun, perhaps it is 5 millimetres in diameter. But the program (by analogy: objective reality) to which the monitor’s picture corresponds, the sequence of 0's and 1's in the computer, does not have size. (At least virtually no size – let’s just say it has no size for the sake of the analogy.)

Turning off the monitor (by analogy: closing your eyes) does not mean that the computer program (by analogy: the objective world) will cease to exist.

Regardless of whether the monitor is on or off the computer program will never take up any space.

Regardless of whether your eyes are open or closed, objective space does not and cannot take up any space.


Am I saying that we are all living in the Matrix!? No. I am saying that no matter what the objective world is, it cannot actually have any size, because size is a subjective experience. And yet, objective reality can still exist and certainly does seem to exist independent of our experience of it.

Believing that the objective world actually takes up space, ‘out there,’ is part of a particular world view known to philosophers as Naïve Realism. This false belief helps to create the illusion that we are separated from each other and from the world as a whole. If we truly understood that the physical 3-dimensional world doesn’t exist ‘out there’ in the way that we assume it does, then it might help us to understand that we also do not exist ‘in here’, the way we think we do. If there is no ‘outer’, then certainly there cannot really be any ‘inner’.

It is not that only the inner exists - or for that matter only the outer exists - but rather that there is ultimately neither outer nor inner.

This reminds me of a saying attributed to Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas:

“For when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, ... [abridged]... then will you enter the Kingdom."