People have asked what happened to me ever since it happened, and I’m still not sure what to say. It’s been over two months now, but I didn’t know what to say a week afterwards either. One reason it is difficult to say is because there was not just one definitive event. There was no fig tree, no visitation… not exactly. There was a dramatic shift, which happened over a relatively short period of time, beginning in March. There was a sequence of events, coincidences, dreams. A friend of mine, Mitsu, who was involved in all this in various ways, and to whom I talked about it throughout that early period, likes to tell my “story.” I asked him to tell it to me, and it’s not a bad one.
There was the hearing of a certain Zen parable, a trip to Portland, a poem my friend Leigh wrote about me, a strange class I was taking fall semester which lead to my reading certain books (including St. Augustine’s Confessions, which made a big impact on me), and a heartbreak. All of these things happened around the same time, and afterwards everything had changed. It is not entirely wrong to say that those things are what happened to me, but that isn’t really right either. There are other things that happened in that small time window in March, many, many, things, all of which are amazingly connected, and in fact project all the way back through my life. If it is the specific sequence of events that defines this, that sequence can’t be isolated from the rest of my history. I don’t think it is the specific sequence of events that defines it at all.
It is very tempting the talk about it in terms of “before” and “after,” but that is misleading for many reasons. There is no after, because it is still happening. Amazingly, it keeps happening. But when I think about my experiences with this in the so-called before (which is not a real before because I was always in this and did sometimes realize it), one thing that sticks out to me is that, unlike this experience now, those had definite ends, in my mind.
When I was a child, the thought often crossed my mind, while I was doing some ordinary thing like walking back from the grocery store to the car with my mother, that it was possible that my whole life was just made up, that I might just be a character in someone else’s dream. Suddenly everything felt very different, but I would actually reason with myself that, well, even if something like that were the case, I’d just have to go along with it and do my normal life, that I couldn’t stand around thinking about how it might not be real because then I wouldn’t be able to do anything. So the episode would come to an end. Later, I would have brief flashes of this different way of being, in a more physical (rather than intellectual) way, after I’d been through some challenging emotional experience and had let go of something.. usually this would happen when I stopped trying to get whatever it was I thought I wanted from some other person. But it was a very brief thing, a feeling of freedom, usually following a huge explosion of some sort. I’d also feel something like this sometimes when I was practicing yoga regularly, about 3 years ago. My whole way of relating to the world would be shifted somewhat after a really powerful class. There were many ways in which I experienced this, “before,” but they were relatively transient glimpses, and I could not articulate them. I was even less able to articulate them than I’m able to articulate what happened to me in March. One way of saying it is that there’s a way to be both in my life and aware that my life is just a dream at the same time.
Recently I was trying to tell someone, another friend, who is skeptical, about this, and he kept saying that while he was all for people having realizations, what he had a hard time with was the way I seemed to talk about the experience I had had as having some sort of special status, some uniqueness among other possible realizations. And of course, being an atheist, he was turned off by the mystical way I’ve started talking about it. I’ve gotten similar reactions from other people, and it is difficult to know how to respond. On the one hand, it is true that it isn’t really that special of a thing that happened to me. Everyone has access to this realization, it isn’t really a secret. As I’ve quickly learned, there are volumes and volumes written about it. It’s also true that this isn’t the final ultimate thing, there’s always more and more to see. But it’s also the case that this isn’t just any little realization. I’ve had other realizations, and they did not have this character. This change, which I’ve yet to really describe, was intellectual, physical, emotional, all at once. It is hard to describe or explain, but it was, and is, not at all abstract. It’s a clear, concrete, experience, that informs everything, literally everything, in my life. It’s not a purely intellectual thought. It is something I feel, physically and emotionally. It is something I participate in. I’ll try to write something about what the experience of it is like soon. The understanding is tightly linked to the experience. I had barely any concept of it a few months ago!
I’ve been reading books about Zen and yoga and philosophy and religion and various things off and on for many years, and I can say with certainty that I did not really understand them at all until now. And it wasn’t that I didn’t feel like there was anything to understand in these books. I most certainly did think there was, and I wanted very much to understand it, and I thought that if I understood it I might be happier. From my own experience, I know that it is possible to go quickly from not understanding this to understanding it to some degree. And I know that the way to make that transition is not by trying to understand it, because I did that for a long time and it didn’t work. I also know what it feels like to be someone who is reading about these things, or listening to someone else talk about them, without having experienced them. The idea that I could experience something like this now is not any more amazing than the idea that I could have NOT experienced it then. I should also say that there’s not any meaningful separation between now and then inherent in THIS, but that’s part of where the trickiness of trying to talk about things comes up… there are so many assumptions in the world that don’t hold from this perspective, and those assumptions are built into our language. But anyway, I think this is where the sort of categorical thing, for me, comes in… because for me there really was a long period of just not getting it, not grasping the full picture. And even though I cannot claim any sort of “complete understanding” now, it is clear to me that I can see vastly more now than I could see only a few months ago.
My friend the skeptic was saying that there are many realizations, little shifts, that can happen; that’s it’s not just one big understanding that a person either has or doesn’t have. And I don’t deny that that is possible, that one could come to this or something else like this in many steps. I’ve heard stories like that. And what happened to me has a little of that character, when I look back on it, trying to find precursors as I mentioned above, but there is also a distinct quality of a door opening, an eye opening, as I wrote the other day and many others have written.
In my own amazement and almost disbelief that such a thing could really happen, even faced with my own experience as evidence, I read a lot of books about it. In fact, I haven’t read anything that isn’t about mysticism or conversion or enlightenment since March. It is partly because I was able to find so many accounts of experiences like my own that I feel comfortable talking about this using terms like “God” or “enlightenment.” I don’t think this has to be framed using those particular terms, but I do think that what it is the Catholics are talking about when they talk about conversion and grace is the same thing the Buddhists are talking about when they talk about satori is the same thing basically all religions are based on is the same thing I am trying to talk about here.