I just finished up a 10-day retreat with Shinzen, which was pretty fantastic – though not as activating with experiences as previous retreats I’ve been on.
I did however, have a powerful experience of the nothingness and emptiness of self and all things, and I wanted to share the chain of insights that led me to there.
My first powerful meditation insight was a year and a half ago while on retreat. It was essentially a window into what Shinzen describes as The Source – the source of conciousness, and creation, and basically everything. There was an expansive moment in meditation quickly followed by a falling sensation, as if I were getting sucked into a black hole – at the end of the black hole was a brilliant white light. At the time knowing nothing about buddhist philosophy, I remember sensing that this was my “true self”, the self below all the conditioned aspects of myself, below everything I ever thought myself to be. I was sucked into this light and consumed by it. Next was another expansive event, and I zoomed out for a broad view and saw every person and tree and living being on the planet was connected to the same source underneath layers and layers of conditioning. This was a powerful enough experience that afterward for weeks I saw this small light in everyone (not visually, but energetically – a sense) – their connection to Source.
On retreat in January I experienced my first “blip” or cessation of awareness experience, coupled by a series of “sucked into 8th jhana” experiences on preceding days, in which I fell back into the void through a tunnel, and awareness felt pushed through the eye of a pin. There was then a release of awareness into what both my teachers believe was 8th jhana, coupled with a slight “flickering” of awareness. The cessation was an all out on/off switch, which was surprising and came out of nowhere. It was followed immediately by a feeling of inevitability as I was sucked again into the void, my heart started racing and I got scared enough to stop the process in it’s tracks – though it seems to have picked up where it left off the following day. The “flickering” of awareness in the pin experiences was different then the glitch in the matrix style on/off of the cessation experience the day before. The flickering was more like a short in a lightbulb vs turning it on and off with intention. The days following this on retreat flow was in full force, including visual flow – where I would see the physical world melting and sparkling like I was on some psychadelic trip.
After that retreat high equanimity kicked in for weeks – I would close my eyes and immediately be in 4th Jhana, and it was rock solid. I would be at work and just close my eyes for a moment and be “there”, like it as always right there if I closed my eyes. Equanimity was super strong, and I could meditate through a hurricane. I frequently in the morning would meditate through my boyfriend stomping around getting ready for work – and the noise and banging and kitchen shuffling would just get folded into my flow experience. Accompanying this was another cessation “blip” experience during my home practice one morning. I was focusing on holding all sensory experience in awareness at once (which feels kind of like sticking my head in a snowglobe of everything) – then noted gone and quickly saw everything fall away. There was a contraction event, a building, and then Boop! I dissapeared for a moment. I came too very disoriented and remember immediately doing into my bed room and face planting into my bed as if I lacked the ability to stand upright on my own. Then I realized I had to go to the store and go to work and part of me couldn’t figure out why, and the other part kept insisting.
On my drive to the store (just a few blocks), the whole world went into fisheye view – my periphereal vision bent around my car as I drove giving the impression that I was driving through a tunnel. At the store when I walked in, everything began to melt, and I began to feel the energy being emitted by other people in the store as they walked past me. I stood there stock still for a while kind of freaking out, watching the salad shelves melt and morph and move, while all the people popped out of reality like they were animated cutouts. Seriously trippy stuff. It calmed down, but I completely forgot who I was and what I liked to eat – and had a hard time chosing my food. I quickly just grabbed stuff and got out of there. The visual distortions lasted for a couple hours, but by lunch everything was (visually) back to normal. Over the next couple weeks weird stuff would pop into existence – while driving there would be a reversal where I felt like I was stationary and the world was moving past, also a few experiences where I lost depth perception. I could tell how far things were away because intellectually i knew they were smaller. But that spidey sense we have for depth was totally absent. It was freaky.
So over time all that stuff faded away, and my meditation returned to relative normal by March or so. Then I just went through several months of meditation varying between “fine” and “ok” and “meh” – not good or bad, just no more intense solid flow access like before. I could get to the jhanas if I really tried but I suspect I was still in enough equanimity that it didn’t feel necessary or important. So it was just kind of sailing along – one of my teachers suggested that was a Review stage. Which makes sense, since there were a few times where I just didn’t even bother with daily sits, and multiple times I felt like I had to force myself into them.
Fast forward to this retreat – I essentially cycled through all of these previous experiences only at a deeper level of awareness. I again had the source experience, but this time instead of recognizing the light as “ultimate stillness/rest” which is how I described it before – it opened up to reveal it’s emptiness and “nothingness” which of course would give it the “stillness/rest” qualities I associated with it. This led to an experience of the next logical step – which was having awareness for the first time, not that I have at my center a deep stillness, but that I have at my center a deep emptiness, or “nothingness”. I felt this void in my meditation, which kind of felt like a torus – awareness expanding past my body, with a nothingness hole in the center. That sensation lasted for a few hours, but after lunch it had faded slightly in walking experience though if I brought it to mind I could bring it back to awareness again.
This was all coupled with various floating, dissolving from my physical body feelings during meditaiton – where I felt like body parts were dissapearing. It’s funny, this have been happening since I started meditating, and now it just does not seem very notable to me anymore.
I then spent the next few days working on exclusively noting “expand/contract” or “arising/passing” and had an experience in the Labyrinth that really opened up insight. I noticed as I was walking that energetically there was a tension between beginning and ending (as designed!), and that tension was also the expand/contract overlapping to create heightened energy. I then noticed that the frequency of that energy would then open (or morph into) a deep stillness – and that they seemed to exist on top of eachother – absolute activity/tension, and absolute rest/void. It was like schrodingers cat – and it’s applications for my life were so profound to me that I cried the rest of my walk to the center, where I then took a moment to breath and watch the visual distortions, and then start my walk again out of the labyrinth. Realizing that just like the A&P phenomena, the are no ends, only new beginnings.
This led to an intense A&P experience where again depth perception fell out, and the concept of distance between things became a weird intellectual construction and not a felt experience. I was looking out over the valley to the distant buildings and had this thought of how the distance was all constructed reality and boom! everything was flat. This didn’t last long, maybe only an hour or so.
The next few days were just noticing flow states with various fluctuations and experiences but nothing notable enough to record (oh, except encounters with angels and nameless ancient gods, demons, and spirits – which were notable in that they were very vivid, but they were very brief flashes and/or “knowings”, and fortunately for me no communication. It was like they were just poking their heads in to say “hey” and then popping out of existence again. These things surprisingly didn’t bother me much and just felt like “whatever, weird meditation stuff”).
On one of the final days of retreat however, I did repeat my head of the pin experience in a variation of form. This time as I was getting sucked in, there was a flash of strobes with black boxes in the center, like windows maybe. I blew through them, 3 or 4 distinct strobes (boom boom boom!) then a bright light, and the tension released. I drited/floated with a light flickering of awareness in a total void, with no recognizable structure or space. A true “nothing” (8th jhana)
I spoke to Shinzen at the very end of the retreat about all this. He already knew a lot of my background as I had shared when I arrived. He was excited about how this was all very “classic” and told me I was “one of the lucky ones!” then went on to tell me how everyone wants spiritual experiences, but they don’t necessarily understand what they’re asking for. So we went deeper into some of the visual distortions and how to equanimize those, and then he asked if any “weird shit” had been popping up in meditation – to which I replied “yes” thinking of the namless gods, angels, etc. He told me just to note it as “see” and assured me that stuff would get worked through in time. He went on to announce how classic all these experiences were and that I was doing really great. I hesitantly commented “but this isn’t like stream entry right? I didn’t have a clear cessation/fruition combo experience” and he said “Yeeeeahh… I mean, that’s exactly what all this is.” I expressed doubt, and he said “Just check in, do you feel a sense of self inside you?” and I checked in for the first time in a few days, and just like a few days before…. there was nothing there, an emptiness, a void, but not in a scary way…. in a liberating way. He then added that if it wasn’t stream entry per say, it was certainly on the continum. It was an interesting insight that he sees this first path of enlightenment as a continuum and not necessarily a singular event.
So the next several days I felt the torus/donut/bagel of my “self” awareness spread out beyond my body with an emptiness at the center. I felt my personality was really as pure as it’s ever been and I felt so unencumbered by social anxieties – it was quite remarkable. Then the effect faded a bit, and as I was about to go back to work I started to feel that familiar knot in my chest that I previously identified as “self” only when I felt it this time I actually was surprised that the actual sensation was tension or anxiety – and still not actually “self”. So now I’m sort of experiencing the empty void, with an overlay of a small anxious contractive ball in my chest awareness space – which I used to identify with self, but now I think is just an anxious reaction to daily survival. I’m not sure what exactly that means for my enlightenment process – but it’s an interesting experience to be sure. 🙂
There you are, a full summary of all of my meditation experiences up to this point. I’m sure I’m missing random things – but that’s pretty much it!