In January 1994, after a contemplative practice of more than two decades, I awoke to the transcendent heart. That fact plus a couple bucks entitles me to a (“tall”) cup of Starbuck’s coffee. I’ve waited nearly two decades to publish a book of essays about my experience of awakening—in order to give the stink of enlightenment time to wear off. That book is Awakening to the Obvious, written under my pen name Adyashakti (Sanskrit for “Primordial Energy”). The following is an excerpt.
When I was 19, I was blessed with a wonderful mystical vision: I experienced the light of God.
That is, I experienced what Tibetan Buddhists call Ösel (or “Primordial Clear Light”), and Hindu yogis describe as Sahasradala Padma (“Thousand-Petal Lotus of Light”). Chinese Taoists call it Ming (“Transcendent Luminosity”). Muslims refer to it as Noor (“Divine Resplendence”). It is also Kavod (“Eternal Flame”) that shines at the altar of Judaism.
The word light is not used here as a figure of speech (symbolizing a brighter, sunnier, higher aspect of ourselves and the cosmos). All these names and images refer to actual light: self-luminous, all-pervading energy. It is the living force—radiant consciousness—ablaze with bliss. Communion with this holy light, absorption in it, is unspeakably pleasurable. Yet in my case, the event of drowning in the ocean of brightness left a great disturbance in its wake that took decades to resolve.
Let me tell you my story.
In 1972 I was a sophomore at Boston University, a teen-age son of 20th-century America, who listened to Led Zeppelin cranked up loud enough to vibrate my teeth. I was not exactly preparing body and mind for a direct encounter with the divine. My Jewish religious training had consisted of attending Sabbath services and Sunday school as a boy, which felt like sitting for several hours a week in front of an unplugged radio. Until the age of about nine, I had believed in and prayed to the Judeo-Christian Deity, but by the time I was 10 or so, I began to aggressively disbelieve in an anthropomorphic Father-God. Natural science and science fiction became far more inspiring, meaningful and beautiful to me than conventional religious dogma. At age 11, I had quit attending the synagogue.
Even so, there was a mystical streak in me that I had noticed from my earliest memories. It showed itself as a keenly felt sense of the mystery of the natural world and human life. This feeling of wonder or awe would sometimes rise in me as a bodily thrill until I had to laugh or shout.
As a college freshman I took a world religions course because I intuited something fundamental to the religious urge in people, something prior to arguing over the different notions of God, something primitive, below the abstract verbal mind that has created all the historical schisms of exoteric beliefs. I wanted to find this most basic truth at the root of all faiths. I longed to be like a lover—a naked beginner in the embrace of Living Nature. I personally wanted to know “It”—the real God—for I somehow understood “It” to be the depth and ground of my own heart. Thus, I sought contact with my deepest heart, from which I was seemingly in exile.
The next year, as a sophomore, I took an excellent class on Eastern philosophy. We read the Heart Sutra of Buddha and essays on Zen by D.T. Suzuki; Psychotherapy East and West, by Alan Watts and Modern Man in Search of a Soul, by Carl Jung; the principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus; the Tao Teh Ching of Lao Tzu; the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I began to have grand insights into my own condition, though I understood only a fraction of what I read.
Then some classmates invited me to their apartment for a dinner discussion of the profound teachings we were studying. Steve had been a Theravada Buddhist monk in Thailand for two years, meditating 17 hours a day; John was an avid student of yoga and Vedanta; and Sean had deserted the French Army and walked through India for three years, meeting holy persons. In contrast, I had neither meditated, nor done yoga, nor spent time in the company of anyone who was especially wise and free.
After dinner, riding the crest of the moment, everyone but Sean took LSD together. It was my sixth psychedelic trip. We took turns reading aloud from the Old Testament’s Genesis and from Be Here Now, a primer on Hindu mysticism. After a while, Steve read to us from The Psychedelic Experience, a “trip manual” by Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, based on the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (also called Tibetan Book of the Dead).
Early on in the six-hour LSD high, I began to feel the same deep awe that I’d enjoyed as a boy, only stronger now than ever. The emotion seemed to expand and fill body, mind and room as a tangible presence: a sphere of invincible energy and happiness. I was sitting on a ratty carpet on the living room floor of a cheap apartment in Cambridge, immersed in a force field of great joy. I looked at Steve with drunken love and said, “The Holy Spirit is upon us.”
But I began to notice an apparent limit to the spirit, like a knot or cramp within the otherwise boundless force and presence. It gradually became obvious that the knot was “me”—or everything I held onto as “myself.” I saw that the whole melodrama of “me” (as a separated or independent and limited identity) was based on this unconscious habit of withholding (contracting, recoiling from whole and infinite being). “Me” was only a construct, not ultimately real (not a real entity or identity), but merely an act (like a fictional stage character) within Free and Total Being. And mistakenly (ridiculously!), the sense of identity had been bound to this mere role, this temporary personality, this psycho-physical ego (as if Life and Consciousness were an isolated self that is born to change and die). Such phony (separate) identity was the cause of all fear—the refusal to love and shine completely; the resistance to change and death, and thus, to all of life and relationship.
Within Consciousness, the dream of “me” was suddenly released. In that instant, came the deep heart of understanding: The totality of conscious being is the real and living “Person,” the all-inclusive Identity of everyone and everything. As the sages have put it, “There is only God.”
I fell onto my back in tears with the overwhelming relief of this realization of transcendental (unlimited) life. I surrendered utterly to my felt-intuition of the Great One. Rapidly, a marvelous change occurred. Layers of subtler self-holding fell away and I melted into the heart of God. I did not just watch this self-transcendence occur, as if from the bleachers. Ego—“I” dissolved in the all-effacing light of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
To the extent the experience can be described, it was something like this: In the first few seconds of self-surrender, a glorious golden light filled mind and body and all of space. Mind (or attention) was captured by the light and drawn inward and upward toward an infinite locus above. Outer awareness disappeared as attention, body and world were resolved into the unity of the light-source—like an iris blossom refolding and returning to its bud. Just at the brink of ego-death there was an instant of fear, but I knew there was no turning back, no stopping this expansion beyond all limit. And I knew that whatever this sacrifice led to, it simply was Reality.
Therefore, I silently prayed, “Have mercy on me,” and in the next instant the light became so supremely attractive it absorbed the fear along with everything else into its dazzling singularity. As the last bit of self-hold evaporated, the golden light increased to “white,” or rather, it became perfectly clear, pure, unqualified, original. There was no more expansion, no more ascent; indeed there was no more “up” or “down,” “in” or “out,” but all of existence was radically equal and whole—the same absolutely bright fullness (or emptiness).
I was conscious as limitless radiant being, identical with the Self or Source of the universe. I don’t know how long I remained consumed in that domain of ecstasy, but it was utterly familiar, not new or shocking. It was Home, eternally. That Which is (or the One I AM).
Of course, I came down. With a splat!
Crashed, as they say and back again from the ego-centered point of view of a white, middle-class American kid who had grasped only a fraction of what he had read from the Oriental mystics, the experience of the light was not only incomprehensible, it was terrifying. By the following afternoon, I felt so upset, I was pale and shaky. After all, what was so attractive about the dissolution of ego, the death of “me”? I had developed a painful case of psychic indigestion.
At first I tried to resist the revelation of the light, the divine intrusion on my independent, private life. I wanted to say, “Go away, I’m not ready for this. I just want to be me. I want to stay me.”
Lost and scared, I compulsively tried to secure the threatened ego, reinforce its boundaries and make it solid, immune to change. It didn’t work. There is no way to go on as an isolated self once you’ve tumbled into the heart of infinite life, even if only for a timeless instant. (As the Muslim poet Kabir said, “I saw that for 30 seconds, and it has made me a devotee all my life.”)
When all else fails, read the directions.
I began to study the teachings of the Eastern and Western mystics in earnest. (It is noteworthy that all of them warn not to delve into mystical experience without proper preparation and a guide who knows the territory.)
It took time, more than a decade, but gradually my anxiety and confusion waned and was replaced by a growing understanding. Along the way I discovered scores of historical sources in which ego-loss in the radiant, transcendental being is described. Classical yoga provides a Sanskrit term for the experience: nirvikalpa samadhi (1). Many teachers quickened my awakening—not the least among them my wife and our two sons.
This does not mean I fitted the revelation of the divine to my everyday life—like pocketing a shiny new coin and then continuing on my private way. No. The divine is senior to self and world and will not be owned. Therefore, I did the reverse: I submitted my life to the divine; I became a devotee of God. Not the Almighty Absent Parent who never speaks through the dead radio, but the same wonderful, living Source and starry Process that a naturalist can love with awe.
Also, I began to meditate. I practiced a simple technique of focusing on the in and out of my breath while sitting quietly. After 15 years of this simple practice, I experienced a “return” to the light. While deeply in tune with the breath, my attention spontaneously became focused in the mid-brain, between and behind the eyes. Thus my “eye” became “single.” My whole body was filled with light, as Jesus promised. I sat in a swoon and received the golden light into all my parts. At the time, I wrote an essay proclaiming: “Holy light is not a metaphor. Dazzlingly alive is the eternal spirit.”
But I was still afraid.
I was afraid of madness—the utter sacrifice of self and all limit. No knowing. No controlling. No “me.” I was afraid of drowning in infinity.
Six years later, in February 1993, a turning point arrived. I stood on my balcony in a contemplative mood, feeling into life, and I recalled a line a friend had told me years before about “meeting God halfway.” That notion now seemed absurd, as I saw that God Is Here, already all the way present. Nothing is hidden or withheld. I said aloud a motto that summed this up: “The gift is always given.” It was a beautiful, religious sense of being lived and loved and breathed by God.
Suddenly, a tremendous Force pressed down from above my head, through my brain and nervous system, with such mighty light and bliss that I fell to my knees and was pinned, overwhelmed bodily by the tangible brightness, as one might be overwhelmed by a terribly powerful orgasm. I gasped and sobbed from the potency of the joy. The God-pleasure—the saturating fullness and Touch of the light—became so intense I felt my bones might crack.
When I stood up, I had changed physically.
And my meditations changed. For several years, I’d been aware of powerful, “electrical” surges in my nervous system during meditation. I had focused on the breath and ignored these stirrings of the kundalini (2). But now my meditation sessions became sheer energy work-outs. Even so simple a practice as following the breath now felt like contrived self-effort. My method of meditation had been rendered obsolete. Instead, I would sit and the kundalini would flame through my head and eyes and spine and toss me around like a mad dancer. I laughed and cried. I growled. I shouted. I made spontaneous chant-like intonations. I saw archetypal visions (3).
It was painful and blissful—indescribable. I was suffering, but unable to budge a finger; afraid, but unable to make a single response. I was being meditated.
I became constantly aware of the tension around my heart, the tension of “me”—of holding on to myself. The presence of spirit had become a great current and my misery was my resistance to it. But I was reluctant to sacrifice “my life” completely.
Eight months later, in October 1993, I had grown so exhausted with the effort of preventing my own death, that I lay down on my bed and said, Okay, I give up. Take me insanity, or take me God, or take me whatever you are, mighty river. Sweep me to my destiny.
Abruptly, I began to lose “face.” Panic came on strong. I cramped up in a ball like a fetus. I became an electric buzzing cloud and then everything dissolved and I entered the light and bliss and freedom of ego-death; beyond the golden light into the clear light of void. No self. No thing. No bounds. The rapture only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to see that all was okay. I had allowed death to occur, and it was not annihilation. It was only the loss of an imaginary limit—a phony identity.
The next day, I spontaneously entered nirvikalpa samadhi again, while soaking in the bathtub. The episode lasted several minutes and was completely free of fear from the beginning. The bright pleasure simply increased until the separate “I”-sense was overwhelmed in light.
From October on, each time I sat to meditate, I entered the shining void (at times remaining in samadhi for an hour or more). It is like entering deep sleep while remaining wide awake. It is luminous clarity: dreamless awakeness—pure consciousness without content other than its own uncreated bliss.
After a couple months of this, I dreamed one dawn in January 1994 that I was on a stage before an audience. A coffin was displayed on a stand and I was lying in it, facedown and naked. An emcee was on stage, and it was clear that I was to perform a Houdini-like escape act: I was supposed to free myself and emerge from the coffin.
I began to chuckle. What was the big deal? I was already free. The coffin lid was open, and I had no chains or shackles on me in the first place. I simply stood up.
Next, I was holding beautiful blue pearls in my hand, and the emcee told me to string them together as fast as I could. I started slipping the blue pearls onto a string, as a timer with TV-game show music ticked in the background. The emcee shouted, “Hurry, get as many beads on the string as you can!” For a few seconds I rapidly strung pearls, but then I stopped and looked across at the emcee. Why do I need to do this? I thought. This is your game, not mine. I gazed at the audience and all eyes were upon me. I smiled at the people as I stepped off the stage and began handing out the blue pearls, one to each person.
Then I woke up. It was a sunny winter morning in Tallahassee, Florida. I went downstairs and sat to meditate…and…
There was nowhere to go.
I strolled outdoors into the woods around my home. I saw no dilemma at all, within or without. No thing to seek. No experience to shed. No limit. I was not a something that could travel to someplace. I could not go deeper or higher through any means.
I burst out laughing from down in my belly. This is it. What a punch line! I thought the moment of satori would never end. But by the afternoon, when I went to pick up my sons from elementary school, I realized that satori, too, is only a state. It comes and goes. Nothing lasts.
And guess what? I don’t care in the least. I am not dismayed when ego appears, or when it disappears. I am no longer at war with ego or void. They are twin aspects of consciousness itself. I don’t take sides at all.
Reality is not samadhi, the extinguishing of all forms. Reality is not even satori, the natural mode of egolessness. Reality is no special state at all; no special condition. Reality is the is of all possible states, their origin and unqualified basis, perfectly open and unbounded; pure capacity. Fundamentally, nothing has changed or ever will, and what I’ve come to understand was already only so: Just this.
From a certain perspective it can seem a big deal: I’ve grokked my own essence, and it is reality (or Buddha-nature). Or, as the Persian poet, Omar Khayam, put it: “I am myself, Heaven and Hell.”
But on the other hand, Buddha-nature and a buck will buy me a buck’s worth of groceries. No big deal. No special status. Nothing special at all.
These days, I sometimes meditate for pleasure and refreshment, like drinking a delicious tea. And I occasionally enter spontaneous mystic states during meditation. Even so, not any of it is necessary; and none of it is greater than simple happiness. Samadhi or no samadhi, satori or no satori, ego or no ego—there is no limit, already. No dilemma.
Nothing is more than wonderful. This moment is wonderful. Nothing is more than whole. This moment is complete. This is as God as it gets.
Truth (or joy) is not exclusive, not hidden, not vague or abstract, not elsewhere, not different than the stream of life. Birth and change and death are aspects of a single process, the only event: the activity of (or within) Reality. Nothing exists but Bright Mystery, which forever flows as all the possibilities of life in all the worlds. As Lao Tzu put it: “The Way that can be deviated from is not the Great Way.”
It is not that I am now at every moment floating along in a mood of blissful clarity, or that my neuroses have utterly evaporated. “After enlightenment,” I still at times feel frustrated, angry, and so forth. I also feel saddened by the intense sufferings of our human world family. But I do not resist any of it. Whether pleasure or pain is arising, I understand the empty and inherently free nature of the stream of endless changes, and I see there is no escape, nowhere else to go. I can only be whole (without alternative), abiding as the Heart (4).
It took 22 years of spiritual searching from the moment I first encountered the “clear light mind” to finally accept the wholeness that I am, the same totality that is true of everyone.
Friend, hear what I say: The Divine you seek is your own identity, before all ego-dilemma. Therefore, be already at ease. Relax into your own life-process. Trust in happiness, luminous and clear. Reality is Wholly Spirit, the Light that, while transcending every personality, also shines as all our life stories. In the midst of experience we are fundamentally free, beyond words and beyond worlds.
(1) Translation: nir (“without”) vikalpa (“mind waves”) sam (“perfect”) adhi (“absorption”). It describes the trance state of utter absorption in consciousness itself, without the appearance of any sensory or mental object.
(2) Kundalini and Kundalini Shakti are Sanskrit terms for the primordial life-force or universal energy as it functions in the human body-mind. The closest Western term would be Holy Spirit. The arousal and release of this latent power in the course of meditation or devotional prayer, etc., is what Western mystics call “spiritual baptism.”
(3) An oft-recurring vision was of the hexangular “Star of David” of Judaism, which is also a common symbol in Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. The upward- and downward-pointing interpenetrating triangles, formed of brilliant light, stood in space before my inner eye, with my seated form (in lotus-posture) fitting inside the mandala star. I understood bodily that this archetype expresses the harmonized fullness of the ascending and descending currents of the life-force (kundalini shakti).
(4) Following the tradition of Indian sages of non-dual wisdom (Advaita), I often use the term “Heart” (Hridayam) to refer to unqualified consciousness or uncreated (inherent) intelligence.
Author: Mark Canter
Editor: Travis May