This is an account of the subjective experiences of some two years of vipassana or insight meditation. During the first year this comprised an average of approximately one hour per day and during the second was increased to about two hours, as well as some six weeks of intensive meditation retreats, usually of two weeks duration. These retreats comprised about 18 to 20 hours daily of continuous walking and sitting meditation performed in total silence and without eye contact, reading, or writing. While this amount of practice may be vastly less than that of more experienced practitioners, it has certainly proved sufficient to elicit a range of experiences beyond the ken of day-to-day non-meditative living.
Vipassana, or insight, meditation aims at a simple, non-judgmental, non-interfering, precise awareness and examination of whatever mental or physical phenomena enter awareness (mindfulness). Usually one object is observed at a time, the object being selected by a process of "choiceless awareness," in which the attention is allowed to settle effortlessly on whatever percept is predominant. If judgments, distractions, aversions, thoughts, etc. arise in response to the percept, then these reactions are themselves allowed to become the primary object of awareness. This differs from the usual state in which there is no experiential recognition of the phenomenon of awareness per se, of the distinction between awareness and the object of awareness, and a greater number of reactions go unnoticed.
I began meditation with one-half hour each day, and during the first three to six months there were few times during which I could honestly say with complete certainty that I was definitely experiencing benefits from it. However, with continued perseverance, subtle effects just at the limit of my perceptual threshold did begin to become apparent. I had expected the eruption into awareness of powerful, concrete experiences, of sufficient intensity to make it very clear that I had "gotten it," whatever "it" was. What "it" actually turned out to be was not the appearance of formerly non-existent mental phenomena, but rather a gradual incremental increase in perceptual sensitivity to the formerly subliminal portions of my own inner stream of consciousness.
At first this was apparent as the occasional ephemeral appearance of a sense of peace, or some other subtle, hard to categorize affect, interspersed among innumerable pains, itches, doubts, questions, fears, and fantasies, which occupied the majority of meditation sitting time. Usually one or more or these "events" would be deemed important enough to divert my attention from meditation. With increased practice the disruptive nature of these breaks became more and more apparent, and the stringency of the criteria for disrupting meditation became progressively higher. The order in which the different kinds of distractions were given up seemed to provide an index of the strengths of my attachments. For example, I am an analytic, intellectually curious person who loves to understand things. This predilection runs counter to the vipassana process which emphasizes just watching and observing the arising and passing away of all mental phenomena, thoughts, feelings, sensations, without analyzing or changing them in any way. Therefore, when something unusual occurred in meditation, I may have thought, "Wow, I could really learn something from that." This thought was usually sufficient to jolt me out of a relaxed meditative watching and into an active analytic probing and changing of the experience.
The more sensitive I became, the more I was forced to recognize that what I had formerly believed to be my rational mind, preoccupied with cognition, planning, problem solving, etc., actually comprised a frantic torrent of forceful, demanding, loud, and often unrelated thoughts and fantasies, which filled an unbelievable proportion of consciousness even during purposive behaviour. The incredible proportion of consciousness which this fantasy world occupied, my powerlessness to remove it for more than a few seconds, and my former state of mindlessness or ignorance of its existence, staggered me. (I am here using "mindlessness" in an opposite sense to the vipassana term "mindful," which means "aware of the nature of the object to which the mind is attending.") Foremost among the implicit beliefs of orthodox Western psychology is the assumption that man spends most of his time reasoning and problem solving, and that only neurotics and other abnormals spend much time, outside of leisure, in fantasy. However, it is my impression that prolonged self-observation will show that at most times we are living almost in a dream world, in which we skillfully and automatically yet unknowingly blend inputs from reality and fantasy in accordance with our needs and defences.
The presence of inner dialogue and fantasy seems to present a limiting factor for the sense of closeness and unity with another person. If I am with another person, and free of dialogue and fantasy, and feeling an emotion, especially a positive one such as love, which I know the other person to be also experiencing, then it feels as though there are no detectable ego boundaries; we are together in love. But if part of my mind is preoccupied with dialogue and fantasies, then my awareness is split; I know that my experience is different from the other individual's, and feel correspondingly distanced and separated.
The subtlety, complexity, infinite range and number, and entrapping power of the fantasies which the mind creates seems impossible to comprehend, to differentiate from reality while in them, and even more so to describe to one who has not experienced them. Layer upon layer of imagery and quasi-logic open up in any point to which attention is directed. Indeed, it gradually becomes apparent that it is impossible to question and reason one's way out this all-encompassing fantasy, since the very process of questioning, thinking, and seeking only creates further fantasy.
Since the power and extent of this entrapment is so difficult to convey to someone without personal experience of it, I'd strongly encourage any non-meditator to use the following concentration exercise before continuing.
Set an alarm for a minimum of ten minutes. Then take a comfortable seat, close your eyes, and turn your attention to the sensations of breathing in your abdomen. Feel the abdominal wall rising and falling, and focus your attention as carefully, precisely, and microscopically as possible on the instant-to-instant sensations that occur in your abdomen. Don't let your attention wander for a moment. If thoughts and feelings arise, just let them be there, and continue to focus your awareness on the sensations.
Now, as you remain aware of the sensations, start counting each breath until you reach ten, and then start again at one. However, if you lose count, or if your mind wanders from the sensations in the abdomen, even for an instant, go back to one. If you get lost in fantasy or distracted by outside stimuli, just recognize what has happened and gently bring your mind back to the breath. Continue this process until the alarm tells you to stop, and then attempt to estimate how much of the time you were actually mindfully focused. As your perception sharpens with more practice, you would probably recognize that you have greatly overestimated, but this should be sufficient to give a flavour of the extent of the problem.
The impossibility of working or thinking one's way out of this multilayered, multidimensional fantasy world into which one falls, rapidly becomes apparent. That leaves within the experiential meditative world only the primary sensations, e.g., pain and breathing, on which to focus as perceptual anchors. By focusing attention back on the breathing, it seems that the energy or arousal going into the fantasy by virtue of the attention being paid it is withdrawn, and it collapses under its own weight leaving only the primary sensations until the next fantasy arises.
The power and pervasiveness of these inner dialogues and fantasies left me amazed that we could be so unaware of them during our normal waking life, and reminded me of the Eastern concept of maya, or all-consuming illusion. The question why we don't recognize them seems incredibly important, but to date I have seen no explanations other than the almost universal ones among the meditative-yogic traditions that normal man is an automaton, more asleep than awake. It is the contrast between the dialogues-fantasies and the background affective state which makes the detection of their pervasiveness easier. I have not infrequently found that, when I am what initially appears to be dialogue-free, closer examination of my consciousness reveals dialogue with which I had been completely and unconsciously identified, such as: "I'm really doing this well, I'm in a really clear place, I don't have any dialogue going, I'm really getting to be a good meditator." However, at such times a thought like "I'm not getting anything out of this," stands out strongly and is readily identified for what it is: yet another thought. Other factors possibly accounting for our inability or unwillingness to identify the extent of this dialogue-fantasy may be the extent to which we have habituated to its presence. It is only when we attempt to stop it that we become aware of its remarkable hold on us, a situation strongly reminiscent of addictions.
Traditionally fantasy has been seen as ranging from being a source of creativity and pleasure in well-adapted individuals to a central hallmark of psychopathology when excessive. When the individual believes his fantasies to be real, and they are discordant with those of the majority of society, the fantasies are called hallucinations and he is labelled psychotic. Also, when the fantasies are especially painful and egodystonic, the individual may experience himself as, and be diagnosed as, mentally ill, even though he knows them to be fantasies. Thus, in Western psychology fantasies are seen as normal or even beneficial, unless they prove especially painful or overwhelming.
However, a remarkably wide range of meditation and yogic disciplines from a variety of cultures hold a very different view. They assert that, whether we know it or not, untrained individuals are prisoners of their own minds, totally and unwittingly trapped by a continuous inner fantasy-dialogue which creates an all-consuming illusion or maya. "Normal" man is thus seen as asleep or dreaming. When the dream is especially painful or disruptive, it becomes a nightmare and is recognized as psychopathology; but since the vast majority of the population dreams, the true state of affairs goes unrecognized. When the individual permanently disidentifies from or eradicates this dream, he is said to have awakened, and can now recognize the true nature of his former state and that of the population. This awakening or enlightenment is the aim of the meditative-yogic disciplines.
With continued practice the speed, power, loudness, and continuity of these thoughts and fantasies began to slowly diminish, leaving subtle sensations of greater peace and quiet. After a period of about four or five months there occurred episodes in which I would open my eyes at the end of meditation and look at the outside world without the presence of concomitant internal dialogue. This state would be rapidly terminated by a rising sense of anxiety and anomie accompanied by the thought, "I don't know what anything means." I could be looking at something completely familiar, such as a tree, a building, or the sky, and yet without an accompanying internal dialogue to label and categorize it, it felt totally strange and devoid of meaning. It seemed that what made something familiar and hence secure was not simply its recognition, but the actual cognitive process of matching, categorizing, and labelling it; and that once this was done, then more attention and reactivity was focused on the label and labelling process than on the stimulus itself. Thus the initial fantasy- and thought-free periods may feel both strange and distinctly unpleasant, so that we are at first punished by their unfamiliarity. We have created an unseen prison for ourselves, whose bars are comprised of thoughts and fantasies, of which we remain largely unaware unless we undertake intensive perceptual training. Moreover, if they are removed, we may be frightened by the unfamiliarity of the experience, and rapidly reinstate them.
Presumably this labelling process must modify our perception in many ways, including reducing our ability to experience each stimulus fully, richly, and newly, by reducing its multidimensional nature into a lesser-dimensional cognitive labelling framework. This must necessarily derive from the past, be less tolerant of ambiguity, less here-now, and perpetuative of a sense of sameness and continuity to the world.
The first meditation retreat, begun about one year after commencing sitting, was a very painful and difficult two-week affair. I had never meditated for more than an hour at a time, so continuous walking and sitting brought me to a screaming halt. Within three hours I felt as though I had ingested a stimulant, and by six hours there were significant psychedelic effects. A marked hypersensitivity to all stimuli, both internal and external, rapidly developed, resulting in intense arousal, agitation, discomfort, and multiple chronic muscle contractions, especially around the shoulders. This agitation was associated with an increased sensitivity to pain, which seemed like part of a more general hypersensitivity. This was particularly apparent during the first three or four days, and any exercise such as running would result in extreme tenderness in the corresponding muscles.
One of the most amazing rediscoveries during this first retreat was the incredible proportion of time, well over ninety per cent, which I spent lost in fantasy. Most of these were of the ego-self-aggrandizing type, so that when eventually I realized I was in them, it proved quite a struggle to decide to give them up and return to the breath; but with practice this decision became slightly easier, faster, and more automatic. This by no means happened quickly, since over the first four or five days the proportion of time spent in fantasy actually increased as the meditation deepened, and on days three through five of the retreat reached psychotic proportions. During this period, each time I sat and closed my eyes I would be immediately swept away by vivid hallucinations, losing all contact with where I was or what I was doing, until after an unknown period of time a thought would creep in, such as "Am I really swimming, lying on the beach?" Then I would either get lost back into the fantasy, or another thought would come: "Wait a moment, I thought I was meditating." If the latter, then I would be left with the difficult problem of trying to ground myself, i.e. of differentiating between stimulus-produced percepts ("reality") and entirely endogenous ones ("hallucinations"). The only way this seemed possible was to try finding the breath, and so I would begin frantically searching around in this hypnagogic universe for the sensations of the breath. Such was the power of the hallucinations that sometimes I would be unable to find it and would fall back into the fantasy. If successful, I would recognize it and be reassured that I was in fact meditating. Then in the next moment I would be lost again in yet another fantasy. The clarity, power, persuasiveness, and continuity of these hallucinations is difficult to adequately express. However, the effect of living through three days during which time to close my eyes meant losing contact almost immediately with ordinary reality was extraordinarily draining. While this experience was uncomfortable and quite beyond my control, it was not particularly frightening; if anything, the opposite. For many years I had feared losing control if I let down defences and voyaged too far along the road of self investigation and discovery.
During this first retreat a lot of old, almost forgotten, highly charged memories would arise into consciousness, remain for a moment, then slowly sink back out of awareness. Not infrequently, as they did so I would be aware that the affective charge, e.g. anger, sadness, which was originally associated with them, would tend to diminish while they were held in awareness, and that they had attained a neutral status by the time they disappeared back into the unconscious. Some of these memories ranged all the way back to age three or four, and to the best of my recollection I had never recalled them previously since their original occurrence.
While a good ninety per cent or more of this first retreat was taken up with mindless fantasy and agitation, there did occur, during the second week, occasional short-lived periods of intense peace and tranquillity. These were so satisfying that I could begin to comprehend the possibility of the truth of the Buddhist saying that "peace is the highest form of happiness." Affective lability was also extreme. While more than eighty per cent of the time of the first retreat was sheer pain, there were not infrequently sudden, apparently unprecipitated wide mood swings to completely polar emotions. Shorn of all my props and distractions, there was just no way to pretend that I had more than the faintest inkling of self-control over either thoughts or feelings.
The type of material which forcibly erupted into awareness and disrupted concentration was most often material -- ideas, fantasies, thoughts, etc. -- to which I was attracted (addicted) and around which there was considerable affective charge. Indeed, it seemed that the stronger the attachment or charge, the more often the material would arise. There was a definite sense that attachments reduced the flexibility and power of the mind, since whenever I was preoccupied with a stimulus to which I was attached, then I had difficulty in withdrawing my attention from it to observe other stimuli which passed through awareness. The attachment or need to understand, itself proved a perceptual and information limiting factor. As long as I needed to understand something it was necessary to keep that something around in awareness until it was understood rather than allowing it to pass away of its own accord to be replaced by the next object; that is, "to understand" my experience I had to retain and analyze it and thereby stop the free flow of awareness.
During the last retreat I sometimes found myself experiencing mind as a vast space in which thoughts could be observed to materialize, move, and disappear. They would first be detectable as a physical sensation soon to be accompanied by a visual image. To the physical sensations would soon be added an affective tone, and then also a body of information. At my clearest I could watch thoughts materializing into consciousness in the form of a visual image of a bubble arising from the surface of some invisible material arching up into the mental space, and then, if not identified with, diminishing in size and brightness and disappearing, sometimes back into the material from which it arose. In some cases bubbles would begin to form but then would merge back into the invisible medium from which they appeared without breaking free and reaching clear awareness. The image of an individual thought appeared to be composed of two spherical parts of unequal size and intensity. The larger sphere appeared dull and amorphous, and seemed to be composed of affect and to be carrying a smaller sphere within it. The smaller one appeared to be brighter, to be situated within the upper portion of the larger, and composed of a highly compact body of information, i.e. the cognitive component of the thought.
It seemed that the positionality of the thought in the visual image was directly related to, and informative of, my degree of identification with it. Thus thoughts which I was clearly observing without identification appeared to be in front and to arise out of and return to unconsciousness below me (here I am using "me" in the sense of the observer). However, if a thought arose and, after it had appeared, I identified with it, then it seemed that in a very small fraction of a second my awareness moved towards and centred in the sphere, and perhaps especially the brighter information component. I would suddenly find myself in the middle of, and surrounded by, an complex three-dimensional fantasy. On the other hand, if I gradually became aware that I was already in, and identified with, a formerly unrecognized thought, then that thought would appear from behind and gradually separate from me.
The nature of the thoughts which would arise seemed clearly related to the affect which I was experiencing at that time. Furthermore, both would elicit further thoughts and feelings of a similar kind. Thus, if I was experiencing anxiety, then anxiety-provoking thoughts would appear and elicit more anxiety, in a self-perpetuating stimulus-response chain.
What, then, is a thought? Usually we tend to think of thoughts as being distinct from emotions, but these experiences suggest that the demarcation is not so clear. Rather, thoughts appear to be comprised of both informational and affective components. Subjectively it seemed that the affect acted as an energizer or carrier wave to power the information component or signal wave, into awareness. Certainly, at a grosser level it is clear that affective arousal tends to increase the number of thoughts, and this carrier-wave:signal-wave concept provides a rationale for the meditative approach of reducing desires and arousal as a means of reaching a thought-free state.
The obvious capacity of thought to act as components of stimulus-response chains raises questions concerning conditioning and identification. It seemed that if I was watching as a non-identified observer, then one thought did not necessarily stimulate another. However, if I did identify with it, then it seemed that there would very rapidly arise multiple cascades of further thoughts, so that I would rapidly be buried within thoughts and fantasies within thoughts and fantasies. That is, I would almost immediately be back again in my multi-layered fantasy universe. Thus, identification with a single thought may be all that is necessary to remove us from the here-and-now and to initiate stimulus-response chains.
One of the most fundamental changes has been an increase in perceptual sensitivity, which seems to include both absolute and discrimination thresholds. Examples of this include both a more subtle awareness of previously known percepts, and novel identification of previously unrecognized phenomena. It seems that I can discriminate visual forms and outlines more clearly. The experience feels like having a faint but discernible veil removed from my eyes, and that the veil is comprised of hundreds of subtle thoughts and feelings. Each one of these thoughts and feelings seems to act as a competing stimulus or "noise," which thus reduces sensitivity to any one object. After meditation any specific stimulus appears stronger and clearer, presumably because the signal:noise ratio is increased. These observations provide a phenomenological basis and possible perceptual mechanism to explain the findings that meditators in general tend to exhibit heightened perceptual sensitivity and empathy.
Visual images during meditation constitute another example. Visual images go through a process of appearing and then, after a variable period of time, disappearing, or rising and passing away. When an image arises there is the possibility that I will become completely lost in and identified with it, so that my experience is of living in the fantasy and experience created by the image. On the other hand, I may recognize the image for what it is, and be able to watch it without identification or getting lost in it and forgetting that I am meditating. This recognition may occur at various stages, which seem to come more rapidly with practice.
With increased sensitivity has seemed to come an increased awareness of the continuously changing nature of experience. More subtle awareness leads to finer and finer and more and more rapid discriminations of change within what formerly seemed to be a static experience. For example, during the periods between thoughts the general background of awareness may initially appear uniform and relatively constant, but with a finer awareness each of the smallest component areas seems to be in continuous flux.
One unexpected demonstration of greater sensitivity has been the occurrence of the synaesthetic perception of thoughts. Synaesthesia, or cross-modality perception, is the phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory modality is perceived in several, as for example, when sound is seen and felt as well as heard. Following the enhanced perceptual sensitivity which occurred during my prior psychotherapy, I began to experience this phenomenon not infrequently, suggesting that it may well occur within all of us though usually below our thresholds. Now, during moments of greater meditative sensitivity I have begun to experience this cross-modality perception with purely mental stimuli, for example thoughts. Thus, as previously described, I may initially experience a thought as a feeling, and subsequently become aware of a visual image, before finally recognizing the more familiar cognitive information components.
Undoubtedly the most fundamental question raised by the practice of meditation is that of identity. Most commonly in the West this question is framed in the form "Who am I?" meaning "What kind of person am I?" During the last six months it has become apparent that intensive meditation raises the much more fundamental question "What am I?" Since the experiences that arise within meditation are so inconsistent with the concepts of identity which we usually hold, they call into question our usually unquestioned beliefs and assumptions about who and what we are. The following paragraphs, then, represent an attempt, first to describe some of my experiences, and then to examine some of their implications for different models of man.
The following experiences are described in the order in which they occurred over a period of some six months, most often while in meditation retreats. There is no clear progression, nor is their precise relationship to one another clear.
The first experience occurred during a moment or two of special clarity in which I was observing -- in what I thought to be a non-identified manner -- the arising of thoughts. However, I suddenly noticed that I was in fact identifying with, and hence unaware of, certain thoughts, mainly "I" thoughts, e.g. "I'm not identified with any of these thoughts." Having seen this process, I was able to observe without identification at least some of these "I" thoughts, although obviously I cannot say what percentage of them, since identification with them renders them impossible to observe. At this point there was a moment of heightened clarity, and I saw that "I" thoughts were somehow differentiated from others; they were somehow grabbed by and absorbed into consciousness. It seemed as though the "I" thoughts were recognized as belonging to a special category and were then somehow grasped and incorporated by the awareness which had been watching them. In the instant of recognizing this, the "I" thoughts ceased to be differentiated and grasped, and then existed as "just thoughts" without their former significance. Immediately there followed a powerful awareness, accompanied by intense emotion, that "I" did not exist, and all that existed were "I" thoughts following rapidly one after another. Almost simultaneously the thought, "My God, there's no one there!" arose, and my consciousness reverted to its accustomed state. It is difficult to convey the power of these seconds of experience, but it was sufficient to disrupt my meditation for the next two days.
A further sense of the non-existence of the observer or "I" has come from attempting to focus awareness on the observer. In this procedure, concentration on objects, such as the breath, is developed first, and then turned back on the observer. Due to the limits of my concentration, my attempts have seldom lasted more than a few seconds, but the experiences have all been somewhat similar. Often there is identification with that which is looking for the observer, the latter apparently having simply switched positions. However, on those occasions when I have been able to avoid this identification I have had the experience of looking into darkness and sensing that there is no one there.
Another, more frequent experience has arisen within the last few months as a result of a change in technique in which percepts and mental objects are named, e.g. "thought, thought; anger, anger." The process of naming objects seems to reduce the risk of identifying with them. Thus, there have been periods lasting several minutes in which I have had the experience of being a point in a vast space constituted by my awareness, in which thoughts, feelings, and percepts occurred, but which were separate from and did not necessarily influence me. During and after these states there is the feeling that what I usually identify with is the mental content, e.g. thoughts and feelings, and that this "I" represents a very narrowed, limited, and driven portion of awareness which has lost sight of that which is much larger. This progression from lesser to greater awareness seemed to begin with an initial identification with and failure to recognize thoughts; then came a recognition of some thoughts and a beginning awareness of the space between them, which usually had an affective quality attached to it; and finally a sense of vast space or context within which these phenomena occur.
One particularly powerful experience occurred during a meditation in which I was having great difficulty extricating myself from identification with numerous fantasies. I would realize that I was lost in a fantasy, bring my attention back to the breath, and then rapidly get lost in yet another fantasy with which I would stay identified for varying periods of time before recognizing what was happening and beginning the cycle again. Over the course of a sitting, this process of disidentification became more rapid. Eventually there came a point at which I seemed to be recognizing the fantasies for what they were almost as soon as they appeared, and I had a sense of sitting behind them, letting go of one after another at a faster and faster rate. This process seemed to speed up more and more until at one instant I found myself looking at what appeared to be another fantasy, and that fantasy was what I thought I was. That is, I felt that my sense of identity -- e.g. the person, the striver, psychiatrist, writer, worrier, achiever, player -- was just another fantasy, a creation of mine whose illusion of continuity and permanence was derived from the piecing together of salient patterns and behaviours; and that who I really was was the awareness which had created -- and was now watching -- this fantasy. In the next instant there arose a visual image of a huge sphere of consciousness, on one side of which was a small mask of a face called "Roger." "I," a sphere of consciousness, was looking at the world through the eyes of the mask, identifying with the mask, and forgetting everything else that I was. Immediately there appeared a sense of awe, followed by two thoughts: "Now I understand what they mean when they say, 'You are not who you think you are'," and: "I already am everything I am striving to be -- I just don't recognize it."
A similar image arose during an experience of "big mind," as described earlier. The image comprised a large clear sphere representing a consciousness overlaid by an incredibly complex superstructure of desires, fears, and anxieties, together with plans, doings, and strivings aimed at fulfilling the desires. This superstructure was in ceaseless activity and of such incredible complexity that it was impossible to figure it out or work one's way out of it, especially since any effort to modify it only fed more energy into it and so was self-perpetuating and self-defeating. However, when this consciousness turned its attention towards itself -- towards the big mind -- and withdrew attention from the desires and merely allowed them to be, then the whole elaborate superstructure was drained of energy, collapsed, and disappeared.
Assuming that these experiences are at least partially valid sources of information, what do they indicate about identity? The one thing I am certain of is that I am not who and what I thought I was. The following represents an attempt to conceptualize my experiences and current understanding of this process. Clearly, these experiences and concepts lie close to the limits of my present perception and understanding, and hence must be regarded as highly tentative.
What seems clear is that who I thought I was represented a product of identification with mental content; that is, I thought I was my mental content. By identifying myself solely in this way, I lost sight of the broader context which held this content. It seems that what I identify with runs me, and provides the motivation and the context within which I interpret other content, determine my reality, and adopt a logic. Thus, identification with mental content transforms that content into the context which holds, interprets, attributes, and elicits other content, in a manner which is congruent with, and reinforces, this context. For example, if the thought arises "I'm scared," and I observe it as just another thought and do not identify with it, then it exerts little influence on me. However, if I identify with it, then the reality at that moment is that I am scared, and I am likely to identify with a whole series of fearful thoughts and to interpret any nondescript feelings as fear. Thus identification sets in train a self-fulfilling prophetic process. The thought "I'm scared," when identified with, constitutes a belief, or in behavioural terms, a self-attribution.
The two major (and to some extent mutually exclusive) factors determining the sense of who I am appear, then, to be mindfulness and identification with mental contents. Mindfulness of an experience affords the potential for disidentification and for reducing context to content, and in so doing minimizes its motivational influence. Awareness thus becomes the ultimate context for experience. If the "I" or observer, which is what I usually think myself to be, is also an illusion of identification with mental content, then this leaves only awareness and content, and both are effectively devoid of any "I"; that is, there remains just an impersonal flux of mental phenomena and the awareness of them. This concept seems analogous to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or "not self," which states that both awareness and objects of awareness exist as automatic processes devoid of any "I." If this is true, and at this stage I am forced to agree that it probably is, then it provides a solution to a long unanswered mystery of neurophysiology. Researchers have been able to follow the perception-induced train of neural excitation up the sensory pathways into the brain, but have long been puzzled as to how the excitation of the brain's sensory areas is "observed." Various types of observing homunculi, "the ghost in the machine," have been hypothesized, but none have produced satisfying explanations. Now it seems that the subjective experience of the observer is an illusion, and the question becomes one of explaining the illusion rather than explaining an observer.
At the completion of a retreat the re-entry into the world may provide quite an experience in its own right. In my case, for a day or so I am aware of a heightened sensitivity, and this is particularly apparent with regard to negative experiences. Indeed, not infrequently I am dismayed at the amount of pain and suffering in the world. On more than one occasion I and other meditators with me have experienced marked discomfort during the first week. I can give one graphic illustration of this sensitivity by describing my reactions, and those of a friend, to a movie which we watched twenty-four hours after completing a retreat. We had decided to view the in-flight movie on our return flight home, and to watch it as mindfully as possible for half an hour as a type of meditation. However, we were unable to complete it, since this unremarkable police drama left us both so shaken that by the end of twenty minutes both of us were sweating, unwilling to continue, and felt the need to meditate to regain our equilibrium. Each picture of aggression, pain, and tension elicited strongly painful responses in us, which, in addition to being highly uncomfortable, made it extremely difficult to remain mindful. With this degree of sensitivity, it is perhaps not surprising that, on another occasion when I left a retreat for one evening, this produced sufficient agitation to require almost a full day of meditation to return to the calm which I had previously experienced there.
The reliability, validity and generality of the principles enumerated throughout this paper are as yet unknown, but most are open to testing. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, more precise descriptions employing groups of subjects, will expand far beyond the limits of this account. However, if this paper spurs the production of these more advanced reports, it will have served its function as the preliminary testing and reporting of a novel -- but perhaps essential -- experimental paradigm. In addition to being only a beginning from a scientific perspective, the same seems true for me personally; since the more I learn, the more I sense that what I and many of us have assumed ourselves to be, represents but the merest glimpse of our true nature.
[Originally published as: Roger Walsh, "Initial Meditative Experiences," Parts I and II, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 9 (1977), 151-192; and 10 (1978), 1-28. Republished in The Meditative Way: Readings in the theory and practice of Buddhist mediatation, edited by Rod Bucknell and Chris Kang (Richmond: Curzon, 1997).]
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