The most surprising thing that ever happened to me

Instead of the title you see on this article I could have chosen, “The night I completely lost interest in my thoughts.” Both names are accurate.

The experience that I’m about to describe occurred about 20 years ago, shortly after I became an earnest seeker, on a particular night when I made a much greater effort than usual. I concentrated much harder and for a longer period of time.

What I Did

I did Self-enquiry that night or tried to do it. Self-enquiry for me at that time was different from what it became later. Ramana once said, “Self-enquiry begins when you cling to your Self and are already off the mental movement, the thought waves.” At that time I had not yet gotten off the thought waves.

The way I did Self-enquiry that night was by attempting to focus attention on “me” instead of on an object. But each time I focused on something that I hoped would be “me”, I realized that I was aware of it in the same way I’m aware of objects. Which meant that it was an object, not me. So I stopped looking at that object and started the process again with a fresh attempt to find “me”.

I did this over and over. The effect was hypnotic.

I felt like I was located behind whatever I was looking at, so I kept trying to focus backward. After a while I felt like I was sitting in a boat trying to row backwards in my mind, as if I were trying to get to a place behind myself. The rowing was futile because I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Each time I thought my rowboat had reached a point behind the objects, I realized I was wrong, because whatever I saw in my new location was still an object.

Normally I’m bad at meditation because I lack discipline but on that night I focused like a laser. My concentration was stupendous.

And yet I could see that my effort was futile. I was getting nowhere.

For about 45 minutes I did what I described. And then suddenly I thought, “This is absurd. This can’t possibly work. All I’m doing is pushing thoughts around in my head. I know this can’t lead to enlightenment because I’m 48 years old and I’ve been thinking thoughts for 48 years and if thoughts could make me enlightened, it would have happened long ago.”

At that moment, I was so convinced that thoughts are useless that I totally lost interest in them.

It’s hard to express with words how completely I lost interest in them.

My loss of interest was a spontaneous reaction to having concentrated with extreme intensity for a long time and then suddenly realizing that my concentration was futile.

It was as if I had compressed a powerful spring and now suddenly it got released. My intense concentration was like compressing the spring, and my loss of interest was like the spring letting go. The degree of letting go was proportional to the intensity of concentration. Since the concentration was intense, the letting go — the loss of interest in thoughts — was extreme.

Let me try to explain that again with a second metaphor. It was as if I had been clenching my fist as hard as I could for 45 minutes and then I suddenly relaxed. Because I had squeezed my hand so hard, the relaxation — the loss of interest in thoughts — was extreme.

At that instant, because I had completely lost interest in thoughts, something astonishing happened.

Why I Was Astonished

Suddenly giant machinery seemed to come alive in consciousness, at the edges of my mind, and go into motion. It was like the scene in one of the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies in which the explorers are in an ancient temple where everything appears to have been dead for millenia and then suddenly hidden machinery wakes up and the walls begin to move. My mind was creating this animated image — I actually saw it — to try to represent what was happening to itself. Let me try to explain what was happening.

Up until that moment, it had seemed as if all my thoughts and feelings took place in an enormous field or realm.

But I had not known that realm was there because everything I had ever thought, felt, sensed, or remembered had taken place inside it. That realm was my mental universe. It had been to me like the ocean is to a fish. I had never thought of it as a thing or suspected its existence because there had never been anything to compare it to. There had never been anything outside it. I had never seen its edges.

Now, suddenly, that whole inner realm, my entire mind, tore lose from the space in which it was located and I saw its boundaries for the first time. I saw its edges. I saw for the first time that my mind isn’t everything that exists in consciousness, not even as an object.

I was astonished, absolutely astonished, to see how big it was. It was so enormous that everything that I could ever think, feel, remember, sense, or imagine was contained inside it.

Then that universe shrank. That was the second surprise. That gigantic inner subjective universe, all of it, everything I ever could be aware of, shrank to a tiny ball in the corner of inner space. I saw that it was nothing more than a insignificant little blob of confetti in the corner of a much larger space or realm or field.

I knew that ball was my mind.

I was astonished for two opposite reasons. First, my mind was so big. Second, it was so small.

Two opposite surprises at almost the same instant.

It was big because it contained everything, or what had seemed until a moment earlier to be everything. Yet it was small because that everything was insignificant.

Without a doubt, this was the most astonishing thing that has ever happened to me.

The Glimpse I Received

From that moment, for the next several hours, I was in a state unlike any state I had ever experienced. It had the following characteristics:

1. I was completely at peace because the urge to think something or do something stopped. Up until that moment, during every minute of my life, my mind had been busy planning what it needed to do next. It was if my mind had believed it needed to take action to make time pass. This activity was now absent. I realized “I don’t have to do anything. Whenever anything needs to be done, it will happen at that time. Time passes without any assistance from me.” (Compare Jesus’s remarks about lilies of the field in the Sermon on the Mount.)

2. I could see that the reason why this state had not happened earlier was because it had been obscured by mental activity. Lots of spiritual books say this, and probably everyone who is reading this has heard of this, but now for the first time I saw it. I saw this as concretely as a spoon in a bowl. The fact that I saw this so vividly turned out to be a big factor in my life for the next four or five years, as I will explain in the final section of this article.

3. There was complete quiet internally.

4. I recognized that from the perspective of my usual state, the one I had just left, a gigantic change had just occurred. But from my new perspective I could see that nothing had happened. I had always been in this state. In fact my usual state doesn’t really exist. The usual state is simply how things seem when I focus my attention on thoughts.

The photo at the top of this page was chosen to illustrate point 4. This event was like walking through the door in the picture. From one side, before I walked through, the door is significant and something astonishing happened when I went through. On the other side, after walking through, I realized that everything is identical on both sides of the door and nothing changed. The title of one of David Godman’s series of books, “Nothing Ever Happened,” comes to mind.

This new state, this glimpse, remained with me for three or four hours until I went to sleep. The next morning it was gone and I was back in the mind with no apparent way to escape from it.

This was very frustrating because I now knew that I was trapped in a tiny ball of confetti, but it no longer looked that way. The illusion that it was the entire universe had returned.

The Aftermath

This experience had a strange and unexpected effect. I’ve never heard of anything like what I’m about to tell you happening to anyone else.

As I said above, I saw very clearly that the reason why this state had never happened before was because my view of it had been obscured by mental activity.

I saw this very, very, very vividly. I could not forget this discovery. It was now burned into my brain.

Meditation as I understood it at that time was a kind of mental activity.

Therefore I could not bring myself to meditate. I could not force myself to do it. My mind refused because it was completely convinced that mental activity was counterproductive.

For the next three or four years, no matter how hard I tried, I could not meditate. It was literally impossible.

And yet I wanted to continue making spiritual progress. But how?

I solved the problem by discovering a new kind of meditation that didn’t involve mental activity. When I say “discovered” I don’t mean I was the first person to notice it. I just mean I stumbled on it by myself without hearing about it from anyone else. What happened was that one day I noticed that I was normally unconscious. The reason I noticed this was because I had momentarily become conscious and I compared the two states. Then I decided to follow a new practice in which I simply tried to remain conscious.

This is the practice that I described in the first article I ever wrote on spirituality, “How to Stop Thoughts,” which was the start of this website.

This is how I got myself “off the thought waves” in Ramana’s phrase.

I now realize that this new kind of meditation was simply a type of real meditation. My earlier meditation which involved the mind wasn’t real meditation.

Real meditation begins when you get off the thought waves.

And yet the experience described in this article was caused by not-real meditation.

The events described here took place on January 20, 2001.

Photo: “Nowhere Man” © 2013 James Hilgenberg. Built in the Bavarian Alps by artist Günter Rauch as part of his project Porta Alpina.

7 thoughts to “The most surprising thing that ever happened to me”

  1. I have little experience in meditation but I will share my own.

    Twice, while doing “non real meditation”, I shifted my attention to the fact that I as I was the background of my entire life and that mind was superimposed on it. As you say it was nothing new, but something that Was even before but I had failed to notice. In those moments it didn’t matter if my was thinking or not at all. I was there anyway. It felt as that background was something I was but not in the sense of Me. The entire thing felt somehow funny afterwords. I felt like unbelievable that I could be so stuck on my thoughts for no reason. After I tried to grasp at this and I lost it all.

    Another experience through non-real meditation akin to mindfulness was perceiving clearly that my thoughts were thoughts. Before even when I thought “I am not my mind” I was still taking my thoughts as real facts. In that moment, I clearly distinguished my thoughts from reality and I realized I had been treating them as facts, or characteristics of the world. In that “switch”, I literally saw them as neutral images on the film of my consciousness and not as a “story” which I was participating in.

    In both of these cases I had direct perceptions not “mental insights”. I am just trying to describe them now.

    I know they pale in comparison to yours but I find that they are similar in that they were direct perceptions.

    In my case they were caused by mental effort in some specific direction.
    In the first case, in the direction of not trying to get involved in any mental movement, not even in the movement which identifies as l.
    The second was really a simple mindfulness exercise

    I am also very familiar with the idea of feeling that “I” am located always back. It’s always been a paradox to me, and a reason why I couldn’t understand Self inquiry as it’s normally described.

    1. I know they pale in comparison to yours but I find that they are similar in that they were direct perceptions.

      I don’t think they pale. I think all three experiences (yours and mine) were authentic glimpses of the workings of our minds. Maybe we can call these glimpses “a peak behind the curtains”.

      I am also very familiar with the idea of feeling that “I” am located always back. It’s always been a paradox to me, and a reason why I couldn’t understand Self inquiry as it’s normally described.

      Why is that inconsistent with Self-enquiry? Self-enquiry could be to withdraw into that “I” as intently and fully as possible to find out what it really is. And then, if we notice something beyond that “I” or behind it that allows it to be “I”, to examine that further “thing.” To follow the feeling of “I” as far we can, and find its source.

      To find out, “What is that ‘I’?” and “Why does it feel like ‘I’?”

      My feeling of “I” is also usually located in the middle/back of my head, although over the years it has expanded and it sometimes moves down. It has descended all the way to the chest, and it has moved forward to the forehead and descended down the front of my face at least as far as the neck. Isn’t this similar to Anadi’s teaching? He says “embody different centers” and “use pure attention” instead of “move” but isn’t it empirically the same thing?

      My girlfriend’s “I” is always located in her heart, although once she did an experiment based on Anadi’s teachings about “pure me of consciousness” and she moved her “I” behind her head. It got stuck there for about a week and that made her very unhappy. I should write an article about that. I finally had to use transmission to help her move it back.

      Over the years I’ve noticed that there is “something” that knows. My I doesn’t really know. As far as I can tell this something has no location relative to the body. It is completely unrelated to the body. Nevetheless, like you say, there is a feeling that “I” am located in a particular place in the body. I think this “knowingness” is the real basis of the sense of I. However it doesn’t feel like “me” in any way. I don’t know if Anadi talks about this.

      If I understand Anadi correctly, he thinks these me’s feel like me because they have a power of self-recognition, although he also says, I think, that this power is delegated from the main “me” in the forehead (I forget what he calls that me). I’m not sure he’s right about this. I think maybe the only “thing” that has the power to know anything, and therefore recognize anything, is the knowingness I just mentioned that has no location and lacks a sense of me. As far as I can tell this knowingness is totally orthogonal to the body and to objects, even subtle ones. If this sounds like standard Advaita Vedanta, yup, it sure does. Maybe Anadi’s new teachings about the “knower” are relevant here. I haven’t kept up with his evolving teachings for the last year or two.

  2. I found what you wrote very clearly expressed and useful for the way of self-investigation.
    The last couple weeks the bodies diet has changed and this affects the way body identification occurs or doesn’t occur.
    This in turn affects how language arises or doesn’t arise. Like hunger for a certain type of food arises and then falls away once it is not provided, the feeling to convey in language arises and falls away as well. There is something I am trying to convey but then the ability to use language disappears. So, mainly, I’ll just say, thanks, I like the clarity of how you use language.

    1. Thank you Rafe. I really appreciate that because when I was young, I used to try to make my writing pretty. But as I got older I noticed how hard it is for people to understand each other. Now I try only to write as clearly as I can.

      You sound very different! What’s going on with you? Some kind of change or breakthrough?

      1. The giving up of tobacco, coffee, sugar is going on. It leaves a different dynamic in terms of inquiry because it affects how thoughts arise. Sattvic food in small quantities as Ramana instructed seems to be an aide to being free of thoughts, as Ramana said it would.

          1. Mainly just eating nuts, fruits, vegetables, and bread and olive oil.
            Trying to be more in tune with the role sugar plays on moods. Having grown up in America eating sugared cereal for breakfast and drinking lots of Coca-Cola, sugar was a big part of my childhood.
            To quest for one’s true identity will inevitably reveal deep rooted patterns stemming from childhood and it can happen that these patterns get removed and replaced by new patterns that reflect a clearer expression of the true identity that is being discovered.
            Or something like that…

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