Category Archives: Practice

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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Standing at the End of the Line

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I thought I would share with you a testimonial that I just wrote for my friend, teacher and brother, Jeffrey S. Brooks — aka, Jhanananda.

The path of a contemplative is a lonely one.  The few of us who’ve ended up in Jeffrey’s orbit are either averse to spiritual authority in general, or have experienced ecstatic phenomena that are alien and/or threatening enough to mainstream religious/spiritual traditions that we’ve been marginalized, shunned or otherwise made to feel outcast from those traditions.  Perhaps a few of us have just stumbled onto Jeffrey’s advice through some unknown agency.

Being a preacher’s kid, I rebelled against spiritual authority at an early age, and was able to run away from the religion of my upbringing at the age of 19, in 1981/82.  I spent the next ten years or so living it up, hell-raising and workin’ for a living, doing drugs and swilling alcohol like there was no tomorrow.  Then, in 1991, I moved to Boulder, Colorado and fell headlong into an abundance of “alternative” spiritual expressions, learning Tarot and astrology, hypnotherapy, dreamwork and many other practices — including lucid dreaming and out-of-body exploration.  In 1993 I started to experiment with trance states, and by 1994 I was spending up to ten hours a day working with techniques to induce OOBs.  I did not know at that time that I was actually engaging in rigorous and skillful ecstatic meditation practice, so I was a little freaked out when, in 1995, my third eye started tingling and the “celestial choir” started singing in my inner ear.

At about that time, I started following the “satsang circuit,” which has a major stop in Boulder.  These are mainly followers of Papaji, who was a student of Ramana Maharshi — teachers like Gangaji.  I immersed in what I call “pseudo-advaita” teachings for several years, during which I became very good at speaking the lingo — to the point where people were seeking me out for clarification on the teaching.  I came very close to putting myself out there as a teacher at that time, and would probably have gone that route had I not run into a woman named El who knocked me off my high horse.  I was really hurt by her “attack” for about three days, but after licking my wounds, I ended up writing her a long thank-you letter, to which she responded, “There’s hope for you.”

Late in the 90’s, maybe in 2000, I was surfing various advaita Yahoo! groups, since I didn’t know where else to go.  The charisms had become VERY pronounced by that time, and I would say that I was already saturated in them, although I was only meditating once a day for between 30 and 60 minutes — feeling guilty for doing so, since all my teachers were telling me that meditation is just a distraction from “what is.”  While reading down the list of entries on one of those listserve groups, I noticed a post by Jeffrey that challenged the group’s premises, and at the end of his post, he left an invitation to come check out the GWV group.  Then, Jeffrey got banned from the group… a fact that appealed to the rebel in me, for sure… so I checked out his teachings.

Within a short period of time, I became active on the GWV forum and was working with Jeffrey through private emails to establish myself in a daily practice.  In 2003 (I think) we met at a Bhante Gunaratana 9-day retreat in Riverside, California, along with several other GWV members, including my future wife, Karen.

Suffice it to say, I find Jeffrey’s human-ness and lack of pretense to be refreshing and reassuring.  Once, when he came to Boulder to lead a 10-day retreat up in Gold Hill at one of my Buddhist friend’s kiva, I witnessed Jeffrey go off on a long diatribe and argument with my friend — it was about Bhante Gunaratana and the marginalization of Jeffrey in the Buddhist community — Bhante G. is my friend’s guru — and it was clear to me at that moment that Jeffrey will always be Jeffrey, that he is a bulldog through and through, and that as long as we are in human form, our human traits will continue to express according to things like karma, DNA, family heritage, childhood influences and so forth — but that our attachment to all of that is what eventually falls away.  So, I did not judge Jeffrey’s outburst as a sign of anti-enlightenment, and my affection for him in fact increased, because I see what he is up against in this world, which not only doesn’t understand the ecstatic basis for all religion and spiritual tradition, but actively represses it to the point of putting someone like Jeffrey out on the street.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this forum, I’ve been in a very dark and difficult place with my practice and with life for the past several years.  Jeffrey, who is my friend, teacher and brother, has been lurking in the background of my experience throughout this period.  I’ve retreated with him, Skyped with him, emailed with him, talked on the phone with him… but, mostly, I’ve just meditated, studied, and grinded it through each day, feeling his presence as a genuine support that allows me to keep going straight ahead.  Eroding the fetters is NOT for the feint of heart, let me tell you — it is death by a thousand knife slices, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who is just dabbling in meditation as something “cool” and “peaceful” to do.  Jeffrey is here for SERIOUS MEDITATION PRACTITIONERS who literally have nowhere else to go — he is standing at the end of the line, folks, making himself available to those very few who walk through the narrowest of gates.  Years may pass without him encountering another jhana-hobo at the terminus where he resides — so, in the interim, he works on his scientific projects, he fulfills his correspondence responsibilities, he meditates, he flies out of the body each night, he writes poetry, he finds free food… and he lives in the moment as Jeffrey S. Brooks, even though he knows better than to buy into that particular illusion….

Dive Into the Scary Unknown

Great Unknown

From the moment I noticed that jhana/samadhi had re-arisen in me — some time in late 1995 — two competing realizations appeared:

Any ambitions for worldly success that I may have carried into the 90’s rapidly disappeared.

A simultaneous and overwhelming sense of peace and contentment accompanied me throughout each day.

An ongoing orientation process began.  I was somehow able to keep this job or that job, to show up on time, do some work, and keep from crashing cars or getting ticketed for erratic driving.

I could not account for the fact that, somehow, I had a roof over my head, clothes to wear, food to eat — the universe kept the flow going, despite my nearly total lack of participation.  To this day, I am amazed that I’ve not only been sustained in this body, but that I’ve been comfortable, healthy and — much of the time — happy.

Some time in the late 90’s, I cut back to half time at work.

My landlord — a successful and nearly-retired lawyer — called me into his office and said, “The only difference between me and you is, you’re content with your life. I’m not.”

I wore his words like a parka wrapped against the Chinook Winds of life.

On February 1, 2005 I posted a daily meditation and dhamma study schedule on the refrigerator door and proclaimed myself a jhana yogi.

The dharma of a yogi was for me — you can have the world, I’m finished with it.

I’ve walked through the Dark Night and emerged on the other side.

Goodbye.

* * *

Well… okay, I may have been finished with the world… but the world was definitely not finished with me….

There was no resurrection of ambition.

I did not spit on the ground, shave my face and climb onto the corporate ladder.

I kept up my meditation practice.

I wrote.

I mentored.

I retreated.

I did “yogi” things every day, like a good Cub Scout striving to evolve into a Webalo.

As relinquishment settled in, however, and the future blotted out, an unaccounted series of afflictions, setbacks and difficulties crept into the cave of my life.

My mother died after a long period of suffering — cancer, radiation, chemo… rinse, repeat….

I turned 40.

“Being a writer” fell away.

I turned 45.

I quit the half-time job.

I lacked enthusiasm for “vocation.”

“There IS something wrong with me,” I thought.

“I suck.”

Finally, “I hate myself and the world would be better off without me.”

* * *

The world, in keeping this body/mind organism alive and kicking, insists that I “get it”:

To the extent that I judge and condemn myself, I will draw the exact mirror of judgment and condemnation back to me — so I need to look closely at my projections of guilt, rage and helplessness.

To the extent that I recognize what’s “out there” as just another “me,” and I regard what’s “out there” as worthy of absolute, unconditional love and forgiveness — to this extent, I can wake up from this strange and confusing dream.

Which brings us to the purpose of this message.

Come to find out, the work only begins at “tune in, drop out, turn on”.

There may be a honeymoon period, but sooner or later we’ll be confronted by our scary monsters.

We’re going to be tested.

We’re going to fail.

When we pick ourselves up from off the ground, we will quickly come up against the same, though slightly-altered test.

We’re going to fail even more miserably than before.

We’re going to bang our heads against interminable tests, usually without knowing they’re a test — we’ll be too busy screaming and tearing at our flesh.

The test will become the teacher.

* * *

For me, a point arrived at which I realized that I can’t do this alone.

I can’t get out of this hole.

I’m drowning in torpor.

* * *

It was there, in the torpor, that I finally knew I’d reached 51 % love — more than half — just enough to get unstuck.

At about 57%, I started to jog instead of walk.

At 62% I wrote a blog essay.

At 69% I created a mind map and wrote some letters.

At 72%, I’m getting that the only “control” I have is in choosing to love — and to make subsequent choices with this love in mind, as much as I can.

This is a Big Relief.

Why?

Because if all I have to do is remember how much I love and appreciate you, I can drop the rest of it and know that I’ll be more than compensated for performing this one simple task.

* * *

These days, I’m grokking that no one gets out of here alive, so we may as well go down now into Sheol to face the scary Unknown in as conscious and determined a way as possible.

Make it a swan dive from the Acapulco Cliffs.

The more we kick and scream, the harder we fall.

There’s no rushing it, but there’s also no holding it back.

As my Disc Golf teacher John tells me, “Stop trying so hard.”

Which is to say, keep it simple, get yourself out of the way.

Let something beautiful happen.