Jhana and the Death of Self-Identity

May as well dive in, go for a swim....

May as well dive in, go for a swim….

Charisms, which are inevitable manifestations of spiritual awakening, are more than just pleasant sensations. We know them as expressions of jhana, samadhi, kundalini, chi, or any number of names pointing to mostly-pleasant “signs of absorption.” While they may arise as euphoric, blissful or overwhelmingly powerful waves of energy, we need to remember that these phenomena are not meant as a reward or prize for having meditated a certain number of hours, for praying fervently enough, or for being lucky.

From the moment these phenomena begin to arise, we are subject to a series of changes that flood into every area of our lives, and these changes continue for the rest of our time on Earth.

When “it” started happening for me – some time in 1994, during a cycle wherein I practised “trance work” (later known to me as “laying-down meditation”) upwards of ten hours a day – my first thought was, “Well, this certainly is interesting – I wonder how long it will last?”

Twenty years later, those initial inklings – a gentle vibration on the forehead between the eyes, a “halo” around my head, persistent vibrational sounds independent of my outer ears – have matured, expanded and integrated into my experience of life. They have become ever-present and stabilized – although there are times when a “spike” will throw everything into chaos and uncertainty, when I’m taken to levels of absorption I’ve never been to before, and I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to “normality” again.

What I did not know back then is that these charisms were not just giving me validation as a dedicated, practicing contemplative.

They were ripping me apart from the inside out.

* * *

There came a time, about eight years after the onset of these “signs of absorption,” when I gleefully committed myself to the life of a contemplative – a meditator, a prayer-warrior, a studier of Scripture. Such liberation! “I am a monk! This is IT! This is ME for the REST OF MY LIFE!” February 1, 2005 is when I made a formal announcement to this effect. A flash of spiritual lightning had hurled down from the heavens, struck me between the eyes, and given me absolute conviction that my “marching papers” had finally been delivered – my life would be one long meditation retreat, and the world would just have to get used to it.

Looking back, I see that this lightning-struck declaration of who I AM was a “gift” from the charisms, and that this gift signified that authentic, undeniable transformation had commenced.

What I did not understand at the time, however, was that this “gift” would not always lead to bliss, joy and ecstasy. Granted, bliss, joy and ecstasy are always present, but they do not define my total state – they only define my presence without reference to the context of my life.

In other words, while these twenty years of daily meditation and living with the charisms have saturated me in bliss, joy and ecstasy, there is still the matter of living life. Living life creates friction, in my experience – friction resulting from the expectations, demands and requirements of a world that does not value its contemplatives, wanting them to “get a job” and spend hours at work, buying things, paying bills and contributing to the economy, rather than sitting silent for hours at a time on a meditation cushion.

This friction has been wearing at my self-identity for two decades.

It has been challenging all the beliefs I’d previously taken for granted – about myself, about the world I inhabit, about the nature of existence itself.

The charisms, once they take hold, gradually whittle away at the contemplative – and, depending on how enlarged the contemplative’s ego was upon onset, and how much the contemplative kicks and screams as the process unfolds, the “fall from grace” can form one long, tortuous, humbling period of relinquishment.

If I could counsel a “newbie” contemplative who is just coming into the charisms, I would say that there is nothing more important than to discard one’s need for self-justification as quickly as possible. If we are habitually defensive when validation and respect are withdrawn from us, we need to go straight into that burning need for validation and we need to let it go, once and for all.

I know, because I have kicked and screamed, I have issued rationalization after rationalization, and I have retained a stance of self-justification out of sheer habit – all while maintaining a vigorous daily meditation practice. The whittling away deepens as time goes on, adding torque and pressure to the imperative to relinquish. Relinquishment WILL HAPPEN, one way or another – some of us take the easy way, some of us bang our heads on every rock in the road.

While it’s true that ALL of life constitutes a challenge to let go of our erroneous beliefs, I can say that the charisms represent a guarantee that we won’t be able to avoid the utter death and destruction of our self-identity. The charisms are here to smash all of that, no matter what it takes to get the job done. Until our habituated sense of self is broken beyond repair, we are just pushing against the tidal wave – and no human is strong enough to hold it back.

Better to dive into the wave and swim wherever it wants to take us.

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3 responses to “Jhana and the Death of Self-Identity

  1. Yes, this post contains a few hints as to why I’ve been so silent and unavailable for the past year or so. Hopefully that cycle is ending, giving way to availability and communication — we shall see…..

  2. It is so good to hear from you again, after so long, and to read one of your excellent essays. I imagine some day all of these essays will become a book that will inspire many future mystics.

    This transformation, or ripping apart is all about reorganizing our life around the contemplative life; but when i read the description of our charisms in another religious context it is often believed to be, “the work of the devil.’ I often have reflected upon why mystics are almost consistently marginalized in every culture and period; and who does that marginalizing? It is the devout who martyr the mystics, because they erroneously believe that what we are about is evil.

    The world of humans does not value its mystics, and wants everyone to work themselves to death; and does not want to support its mystics who can no longer stand the struggle for life. Life is full of struggle, and the the struggle for life has worn me out, and it seems it has worn you down as well.

  3. Thank you, Jeffrey.

    Anyone wishing to follow or engage this conversation, do check out the Fruit of the Contemplative Life forum: http://fruitofthecontemplativelife.org/forum/index.php/topic,623.msg2294.html#msg2294

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