On March 6th, 2009, a Twitter message from Alan in India lit up my screen at work: It is finished.
This could mean only one thing: he'd attained arahatship, that degree of understanding traditionally described as 'enlightenment'.
Wonderful news. But now what? One of us getting enlightened meant The Baptist's Head had fulfilled its aim. So what would follow? And strongest of all were the feelings about how this impacted upon me: envy, frustration, fear that I might never achieve the same level understanding.
Bodhi svaha! I tweeted back to Alan, at the same time resolving to bring myself to the same level as soon as possible.
The Powers That Be
The last couple of fruitions in my meditation practice had been biggies. I'd sensed I was close, and had even wondered whether I might get there before Alan. (That would have been sweet! I'm pretty sure I beat him to stream-entry, by the way, but I've been trailing ever since.) It was time to obtain some heavy-duty guidance so, that same afternoon, I lit some incense of Abramelin, banished the temple, and invoked my Holy Guardian Angel.
The presence of the angel came through very strong. In answer to my question 'How can I make the grade of arahat as quickly as possible?' it gave me three runes: TYR (reversed), BEORC and WUNJO.
WUNJO was easy enough to decipher. It symbolises joy. In all communications my angel has used it to represent fruition or enlightenment. The outcome seemed assured, then, but how to make it happen quickly?
TYR reversed, according to the book I consulted, symbolised impatience and effort incorrectly applied. I had stepped up my practice recently in a bid to precipitate a final breakthrough. This was worrying; it was evidently the wrong approach. BEORC, however, was more positive: it represented a birth or coming into being. 'Any schemes in the works should be implemented right away', the commentary advised me.
I asked for a sign from my angel. The sky outside the window, which had been empty, instantly filled with birds.
For the weekend of March 14-15th I'd reserved a place on two workshops with dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss who, I imagine, is no stranger to enlightenment. I'd also booked a two-week residential retreat at the beginning of April at a Buddhist centre. These would form the elements of a new plan: I would ease up on my meditation practice and try to relax into enlightenment, rather than forcing it through; and I would try to use the retreat and the contact with Titmuss as catalysts.
Yet even before deciding this – in fact, right from the moment I'd received Alan's message, a softening in my practice had already begun to set in. It had already begun to seem absurd to attempt to 'pressure' Emptiness into a conclusion. But after only a couple of sittings, this softening itself also became problematic.
I was confident that I was well-established at the level of realisation before enlightenment, known as 'third path' or anagami. This stage is characterised by the appearance of Emptiness to the meditator over extended periods, or 'in real time'. The apprehension of Emptiness, however, was limited to a particular point in my field of awareness, specifically associated with with my brow (ajna) chakra. Emptiness always gave a strong impression of being on one side, with me on the other side, set against it, although there was a paradoxical awareness that both were actually on the same continuum, as if situated at different points along a mobius strip. There had also been experiences – usually at or approaching fruition – when me and Emptiness would flip places, sometimes with Emptiness seeming 'over here' and me on the 'other side'. From my reading and my contact with highly-realised practitioners, I'd been led to believe that enlightenment comes when 'me' is completely identified with Emptiness, or – in other words – the process of identifying the self with sensations comes to an end through its having been seen for what it is.
So how was I to make that final jump from identifying with sensations to identifying with Emptiness? The softening tendency had already led to my abandonment of formal vipassana practice. It simply seemed more natural just to sit with Emptiness. But what was I supposed to do with it? If I focused my awareness on Emptiness, it solidified into an object of concentration, and I would find myself moving up and down through the various concentration states, or jhanas, which was pleasant enough but wasn't leading to any new insights. Yet if I left Emptiness alone and just sat, this seemed to go nowhere either, except into increasingly more contentless states that at times seemed to slip into that almost utter cessation known as nerodhi samapatti.
When in doubt, ask someone who's been there and done it! The workshops with Christopher Titmuss synchronistically rolled around. Titmuss doesn't teach meditation on these dayschools; instead he talks, and encourages people to talk to each other. Probably he's learnt the hard way that people don't themselves tend to like to learn the hard way, but talking about psychological stuff is the most likely inroad to the dharma that most modern westerners would be willing to follow. His themes for the weekend were: 'Does Anything Really Matter?' and 'The Powerlessness of Now'. Titmuss is a compassionate and lovely man who oozes realisation from every pore. By the end of the weekend I was so calm and focused on the dharma that in itself this seemed to have an effect. At the end of the first workshop, I asked if he would listen to a question about my practice. I briefly described where I'd got to. Instead of the struggle I'd had explaining myself to teachers in the past, he seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and what I needed.
'You don't need to practise anything,' he said. 'Just attend to that which is not Emptiness.'
That was it. I was confident this advice would prove correct. It was Saturday evening, and I sat two further sittings in which I put Titmuss's advice into practice. I noticed no particularly unusual states during these, except the feeling that my practice was moving forwards again. It felt 'right'.
The Eye in the Pyramid
A few days earlier, at the beginning of the week, I'd had a vision during my morning sitting. First, I'd seen an eye: unblinking, persistent and staring. Then I'd felt myself picked up and moved. My 'soul' was being transported. It was taken to a pyramid and ushered directly through the walls into the innermost chamber. Radiant white light filled my being as I entered. Inside, also bathed in white light, Alan's soul was waiting.
It was so cheesy it made me chuckle, but there was no denying the unusual power of the vision. Success seemed assured, but there's no oracle I've ever come across that seems able to put accurate timescales on its predictions. It might be years before I joined Alan in our gay Egyptian hideaway.
The timescale that Destiny was working to turned out to be far different from anything I'd expected.
On Monday 16th March I woke at 2.50am wondering if someone in the building had put their washing machine on maximum spin. There was a sensation of heat and a strong, fast vibration in my solar plexus. It was a moment before I grasped the cause of the feeling was internal. And then, a moment afterwards, I noticed consciousness had changed in some strange way. There was a feeling of collapse and relaxation. A peculiar absence of striving.
I waited for a few minutes. If this were a dream or trance, then it would pass. But although the vibrations faded, the alteration in consciousness remained; in fact, it grew, and a sense of utter certainty established itself.
I knew it was done.
I got out of bed to meditate. Looking inward, I saw the configuration of the mind had changed to a degree I'd only experienced before after gaining a new path. When I tried to resume the practice that Titmuss had given me – 'attend to that which is not Emptiness' – I couldn't, because the practice had become redundant. Emptiness was apparent, but it was no longer set against or beside anything. The structure of my mind had shifted so that now, wherever I looked, everything was Emptiness.
My personality being the thing it is, I was gripped with doubt, anxiety, fear. Was this what it seemed? Would it last? But the doubts, anxieties and fears were arising against the background of this new configuration, where there was no sense of a separate me set against anything. So although my personality was doing the kind of thing it usually does, its products were seen through effortlessly as soon as they arose, or with the merest reflection.
Often, indeed, there are still things I experience that include a sense of 'me'. But under the new configuration these have become just that – i.e. they are experienced not as 'me', but as sensations giving rise to that. The whole, entire field of awareness is shot-through with Emptiness, which seems the most salient aspect of the new understanding. It is this that prevents 'me' from setting itself up in opposition to anything, as it used to. The old solid and separate 'me' has been stifled at its very root, and seems unlikely to return. This domination of the field of awareness by Emptiness is what is meant – I assume – by the saying 'Emptiness is Form', which is the realisation upon which arahatship depends. There is, then, a sense that all phenomena (including the sense of a perceiver) arise against a background of Emptiness. It might be described as seeming as if phenomena were 'blocking the view' of Emptiness; as if true seeing would occur if it weren't for all these impressions of objects in the way. From this perspective I understand the saying 'in the seeing, just the seen; in the hearing, just the heard', etc., which supposedly describes the moment-to-moment consciousness of the arahat.
A few minutes after 4am I returned to bed and slept. I dreamt that someone brought me a selection of nice PVC trousers to try on. I chose my favourites, then stood and performed the song 'Bombers' by Tubeway Army. I was aware that probably I looked absurd, but I enjoyed the song and the singing anyway. Why hadn't I done this sooner? I wondered.
I woke again at 6am and everything was in the same new state. I got up, meditated, and my observations were again the same.
The teaching and the workshops with Titmuss had created the space for the most unexpected thing to occur. I'd never expected it to come so soon, nor for it to be like this – which is a good indication that it really has occurred, because I still remember how third path (anagami) was completely beyond my wildest expectations. As this is too, with its bizarre mix of the ordinary and the strange. Of all the paths this one bears the strongest resemblance to no path at all.
Nothing has ceased of its own accord. Rather, an understanding has been arrived at that enables a view through and beyond everything that continues to arise same as it ever was.
I can't pretend the last week has been a blissful joy-fest. There is a lot of integration to be done. My obsession with enlightenment is unfortunately still in place: I catch myself obsessively scanning my inner processes for traces of unenlightened behaviour, checking I still 'have it', even though this makes no sense. The habits and obsessions are seen through as they arise, yet the tendencies that give rise to them are still fully active. My mind gives the impression of a flywheel mechanism that's no longer needed to carry the strain it used to, and now it's spinning super-fast, out of control, because there's nothing else for it to do.
On the two nights following awakening I was again disturbed by vibrations and heat in the solar plexus. Each night was weaker than the last, and there has been no recurrence since. I've also been bothered by headaches and migraine-like symptoms for a few days. These, too, seem to be passing. What remains at the moment are anxiety-dreams, which, I'm hoping, are a means for all the obsessive tendencies and unhelpful impulses that have grown up around my dogged pursuit of enlightenment over the years to blow off some steam and perhaps one day cease.
In the meantime, I intend to get on with things, just as I've always tried. I'd be untruthful if I said there's absolutely no change to everyday awareness. This path seems to have a very subtle background sensation, like the mental equivalent of constantly falling backwards. It reminds me of looking up into a colourless sky and watching snowflakes come tumbling down.