But it might be a very good joke.
In the west, we say humans have five senses. But elsewhere, they say we have six – including the mind. (I wonder if there aren’t really seven senses, with proprioception being as basic to our reality-construction project as are sight and sound.)
But back to the idea of the six. If the mind is a sense organ, then the inner pictures, and feelings, and talk the mind generates can be described with the same (arbitrary) vividness as sight and smell.
This morning after practice, someone with a fire for self study asked me— distressed—if it’s wrong to meditate. What? I don’t know. Patanjali said that’s where the action’s at. Pattabhi Jois said don’t do it if what you get is “mad attention.” Like, maybe don’t sit if it makes you feel mad.
Ok. I see no right or wrong here. If you dislike the idea of sitting, don’t. You’re a good person already. Sitting won’t make you superior, IN ANY WAY, to those who don’t. (Smug meditators are so fake.)
Still, I submit that svadyaya is not a crime.
This morning, I told the distressed student that I would confess to the internet to being someone who sits. So now I’m on the hook for a blog post, and here it is. I’m a cushion fiend. Zafu zealot. Gomden head. Last week, I took silent retreat for the ninth time in as many years. A ridiculous (AWESOME) week of doing nothing, at great financial expense. At home, I’ll sit immobile on a cushion for between 30 minutes and 2 hours per day. Every day. When I could be doing something useful.
Those sentences make the habit sound volitional, but I’m not even sure why it happens. It’s probably that when my body-mind is very still, consciousness learns to sense itself. And some part of me loves that. This corner of consciousness comes to know itself intimately: from the psychedelic and sublime mental states that draw one in to the illicit affair of a lifetime (with the no-Self), to the mundane ones that iterate the daily life of a devoted love. It’s like that. My small self has a love of consciousness.
Or a lust. Sitting practice is not innocent. I’m not doing it to be a “good yogi,” or a “nice person.”
Krishna is a beautiful hole in the universe. He says I am the taste in the water… I am the heat in fire… I am the fragrance in the earth…. I am the austerity in ascetics. Oh GOD. So beautiful. But what, consciousness, ARE you?
I have no idea, but that is what I want to know. Or I want to be known by it. Intimately. Carnally. Completely. Known. Blown to bits at a cellular level, made transparent, made impermanent, made nothing, by a habit of being dissolved by mind. Dissolved into mind.
Sitting pratice has been criminalized in so many ways, in so many times. Especially women’s sitting. And especially when it’s been the contemplative sort of practice, without structure or control. That stuff is dangerous. It leads to direct experience. It generates confidence and passion. It cures spiritual insecurity – the widespread disease that religions once used to run the world.
I thank evolution, and you, that nobody will persecute me for sitting. You will not shun me, at least not with your whole heart. You will not call me a witch. Those who have been around a while might note that I’m not the same person I was a decade ago (or a year ago), and that this is not a bad thing.
The old mystics had to be such good writers in order to code emptiness inside a religious language that would please the orthodoxy. St. Theresa of Avila was so careful. Even TS Eliot. I don’t see as far as they saw; and I can’t write like they could write. I’d take their vision over their diction, but in the absence of both here are some attempted sentences about my sixth sense. From the mind that experiences mind.
Sometimes I’ll become aware of the bubble. It’s always there, so softly enveloping all of awareness.
The bubble is not metaphor. It is the direct, sixth-sensory, experience of a membrane. Something almost liquid, blown into being from water, with a smear of sludge to hold it together.
If it were metaphor, the bubble would be the line in consciousness between inside/outside, subject/object, self/world. Thank god, thank evolution, for that line. It’s how we can have private thoughts, and also shard reality. Because of the perception of a line between inside and outside, we understand that the reality we share with others does not always include the subjective thoughts, feelings and pictures inside the bubble. The membrane distinguishes inner talk from outer sound; it separates the pictures imagination creates on the movie screen of the mind from the view of the world around us that’s shared with another.
When I’m sitting on a cushion, inside the “real,” actually-experienced bubble, everything is suspended in nothing.
The twitch of a neuron shatters awareness. This probably happens ten thousand times a day without my even noticing. Like just there. Twitch, fidget, twitch. Thought-streams sustain themselves across the flickering nothingness the way eyes patch up a perception of continuity when we watch film.
But in the moments I perceive the bubble around consciousness, what I’ve doped out is that there are thoughts I can spontaneously not think. The entire inside of the head crackles, a mess of frayed wires charged with fire, itching and aching for a place to discharge. And I say no, wait, let that self-making pattern rest.
In that moment it’s possible to do nothing. No human could have shown me that; and this explanation itself would have been worthless to me to find the feeling of it. t’s only some disembodied intuition that said no, don’t touch the membrane; don’t move a neuron; don’t breathe.
Sometimes then, if I just stay and don’t lose my nerve, the bubble explodes. Other times, it implodes. Explosion creates a column of white noise and empty chaos. That’s love, the chaos. It feels like it’s creating everything while being nothing. I want to go to the inside of an actual hurracaine to see if it’s the same kind of a place.
When it’s over, I’m all existential hope and spiritual lust, and then my body requires a breath.
Implosion I don’t understand, because I can’t stay conscious for it. For now, it’s a kind of death, and afterwards I feel lost in the dark, and then I wonder if it’s 5 minutes or 2 hours until the meditation bell rings.
Minds are just minds, the way bodies are just bodies. It’s not so personal. But this is what my view looks like of late, and I guess it’s no big deal to say so.
Here’s another story about the bubble, about the time when it first showed up.
At first it was outside of me. (Shudder quotes implied for I and me throughout.) This was around 2007. A light popped up in the greyscale blank space beyond the closed eyelids, out on the horizon of consciousness. Nothing metaphorical here. There was a literal pinlight out there, when I would sit on the cushion with the eyes closed. It became more bright at the top of an inhalation; and sometimes it bounced around in a way that felt linked to a tiny balloon bobbing in the dead center of my head. Notably, it only showed up when the eyes were closed, and when there wasn’t much ambient light in the room.
After it grew a little, it became just like in a movie about a ship lost at sea, when the flicker from a lighthouse shows up far in the distance. That light in the storm is hazy and intermittent, and it bounces around out there. It’s entrancing and beautiful and with all your heart and with all your will to live, you want to go to it.
The light-bubble got my attention and held it because it was beautiful, and wrong. It did not exist in the movie-like space where my mental pictures self-generated (that is, my private, primitive, fantasy-mind). But it also wasn’t in the exterior, physical space of my visual field. What or where was this thing? If I was not seeing it physically, and also wasn’t imagining it, what other sort of seeing was this?
I wish I had language to convey the completeness of this paradox as experienced.
Was this light actually the most beautiful thing ever, or was the beauty just a function of my mind getting blown? (I haven’t seen the light-bubble much lately, but I’m pretty sure it is—objectively—the most beautiful thing that I’ve seen.)
I had no word to google, and no framework to consult, and no teacher to tell, but I loved the light. So for maybe a year, I’d look for it. It would come when there wasn’t too much sound outside (or inside) my head. On retreat at Spirit Rock in 2008, the light started to get get more clear and still. I just sat on my cushion that week, blissed the hell out, watching the light on the horizon. Was that even “meditation”? Does it count? I don’t know. I was probably cheating. The light nirodah’d most other vritti. I didn’t see much of my functional small self all week.
I kept it a secret, like monkeys do when we have shiny objects we think belong to us. The grasping to spiritual experience is such a sharp edge, but in retrospect I don’t know if I would have been able to chill out about that even if I had a teacher to point out to me what my infantile ego was doing with the experience. The bliss my mind was generating that week might have had a dark side: I suspect my addiction circuits were all over it.
It went on like that in self practice, and then on January 10, 2009, Saturday morning, a key PhD adviser drove his BMW motorbike into a tree in Malibu Canyon. My Department Chair called within an hour and said, “It’s Peter. He’s dead.”
Peter Kollock was a brilliant teacher – one of the best at UCLA; and he was the economic sociologist who taught me to write about money without letting it turn itself into a thing through the process of my prose (which is what money –a fluid social agreement—is always trying to do). He was also a direct student of Thic Nhat Hanh, and part of our making-our-own-rules teacher-student arrangement was that I’d cover for Peter when he was on silent retreat for months on end. So that his colleagues in the department wouldn’t know he ditched work for contemplative practice: they would have despised him for it.
Once when Peter returned from three months at Deer Park with Thay, I went up to his place in Malibu Canyon to brief him on what little of importance he’d missed. We drank tea under his orange trees and he told me that he expected better of me when it came to owning up to my practice. It’s going to be easier for you, in your generation. It’s going to be more accepted to have a meditation practice. You can’t keep it a secret forever.
That’s when I was writing this blog anonymously, and spending every lunch hour at the university locked behind double doors on my office floor, doing the full ashtanga pranayama sequence between shelves of Sociology books. And thus gradually, irreversibly, dropping out of the professional game.
On January 11, 2009, I was principle investigator on a futures market project that Peter would never finish; and I had a funeral to help plan. I was traumatized and felt that in order to forgive Peter for leaving, I had to come out to my Department as having a spiritual practice. I’d been practicing ashtanga for 8 years with no thought of India, but when the funeral was over, I got on a plane to Mysore with the idea it would be a first and last pilgrimage.
In Mysore, Pattabhi Jois was dying. I bonded with his grandson on contact, and stayed to practice with Saraswati through the bitter sad heat of early April. Some mornings, Guruji would take a step or two out on his balcony, while I was wedged up against the concrete across the street after practice.
By the last day of the trip, I knew I was coming back the next year, though I had no idea yet how that decision would begin devastate my old life and restructure my self. So much the better.
After practice that morning, I sat against that wall, looking up to Guruji’s window in the oppressive heat, saying goodbye and hello to this new life. Being for good reason an anti-superstitious person, and a person who laughed at prayer, just then I stared into his dark upper windows and asked for a sign. I was dehydrated, exhausted, drunk on gratitude and santosha and forgiveness and sadness, and well on in to a multi-day trance state.
And that’s when the light-bubble burned through to the other side. Open-eyed, I looked up at his dark window, and between me and it –not in this world, but not in my mind’s eye either –the light-house signal flickered on. Holy shit.
An utterly liminal object. Not out there, not in here. It stayed after the trance subsided, after Mysore wore off, I settled back into Los Angeles and took up the behaviors of my then-normal life. Any time I wanted to contact the not-this-not-that reality, I’d shift my gaze to the horizon and the light-bubble would be hanging out waiting to be noticed.
This had a subversive and mostly healthy effect on daily life, one of integrating mundane life and absorption. But if I take time to tell you about all that, I’ll have to go to bed before I tell you the best part.
First though, a Shinzen interlude. I finally found a teacher (he insisted on calling himself a “coach”) who understood and whole-heartedly supported my ashtanga practice as meditation (whatever “meditation” is; I don’t know what to do with a word so loaded), and finally talked with him about my mind in August of that same year. This light bubble thing? No big thing, little grasshopper, he more or less said. It’s a nimitta. Not so unusual a phenomenon among the breath-obsessed.
In 2009, googling nimitta got me nothing, so I ended up in the university library with the Theravada literatures, where indeed nimittas show up. They say it is a manifestation of the clarification of consciousness; and they talk about the nimitta as having different attitudes—shy, bold, distracted, and so on. How cute. Sometimes, they say, it goes from being a closed-eye to an open-eye phenomenon; no big thing.
Fast forward to fall of 2010, when I became a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and got some very fancy healthcare. Their annual eye exam was high tech, and done by a research physician at the top of his field. I asked him to check if there was something weird with my physical eyes that might cause me to see an, ahem, bouncing beautiful light bubble.
Can you see it now? Does it change brightness when I move the light? Does it move when you move your head?
Yes; yes; yes.
The researcher-doctor dilated my pupils and used a backwards-Hubble machine to examine the seat of my soul.
Oh yes, just as I thought! You have a medium-sized physiological floater. It’s a piece of tissue that has dropped down onto the back of your retina. I’m looking at it right now. Most people have something like this as they age.
So, what I’m seeing isn’t out there, but it’s not in my imagination either?
Right, exactly! Some people have huge floaters that become very emotionally distressing. We prescribe anti-anxiety meds in these cases. But luckily most people never know they’re there.
The thing with you is that you seem to be very aware of yours, whereas most people wouldn’t perceive a floater of this size. You can also get it to stay still. And, for some reason, you associate it with positive mental experience, instead of being distressed by it.
That’s how I learned that the nimitta’s neuro-correlate is a dust bunny in my brain, whose scientific name evokes improper poo.
That’s contemplative practice, so far as I can tell. At its best, it self-destructs just slightly faster than I can self-transcend.