The Andrew Cohen Community at Foxhollow, Massachusetts, 2002
Did I fail in Part 4 to show, as any storyteller should, those ‘deep’ or ‘heightened’ states of ‘non dual’ consciousness I say were milestones on my road to culthood? In fairness I set out to do no such thing. Others have tried – here for instance – but I do have some sense of my limitations and did say early in that post that I was standing at the outer edge of my experience. I also laid down a note of caution on ineffability; that which by definition cannot be captured in words.
This of course is deeply unsatisfactory to the rational mind, a fact which takes us to the heart of the matter. If my experiences mean anything at all they suggest that we are not our minds; that the ‘me’ to which we make such frequent reference, and around which our awareness habitually revolves in painfully and destructively narrow circles, is not separate from a Vastness of Being to which the attachment of labels like ‘God’, ‘The Absolute’, ‘Immanence’ etc seems a feeble attempt to make finite and known – while insisting on the very opposite – that which is Infinite and Unknowable.1
By the same token, that ‘me’ is not reducible to the play of thoughts and feelings which crowd out our internal landscapes pretty much 24/7.
Which would point to there being more to the confusing soap opera I call My Life than rational inquiry can uncover. Our powers of reason serve us admirably, especially when combined with empirical observation, but empirically based reasoning is still just a tool and even the best and most versatile of tools have limits to their usefulness. That’s no bad thing while we have others in the toolbox but, when we don’t, an excellent servant can easily become a terrible master as we fall back on ingrained habit and superstition.2 As the saying goes: when our only solution is a hammer, we do so tend to view every problem as a nail.
Then again …
… the moment we cordon off any arena of experience as off-limits to reason and evidence, we step onto terrain fraught with such dangers as arbitrary authority – unchecked, unaccountable and underpinned by that most treacherous of credentials, charisma.
I’m just saying, is all. I didn’t get to write the rules here. And let’s remember that what got me into this in the first place was Andrew Cohen’s observation, perfectly accessible to reason and demonstrably accurate, that almost every one of us has a superstitious relationship with his or her mind. This from Part 3:
Walking down the street, you experience a generous and uplifting thought. Unconsciously, you feel good about yourself, concluding yourself a noble soul. A few minutes later you’re assailed by a mean-spirited and base thought. Now you feel a louse! Why? In both cases you drew conclusions about who you are from the content of thoughts (99.99% of which are inconsequential firings of the nervous system) which you think of as (a) ‘yours’ and (b) significant when in reality they are usually neither. To any observer, nothing happened.
Let’s also remember that meditation as taught by Andrew and others is a practical thing. In its simplicity and repeatability it meets some at least of the key criteria of experimental science. I can’t say exactly what you will experience if you practise no relationship to thought in a setting where, for an hour or so, it is safe to withdraw from the demands of daily life. But I can say that those who do so on a regular basis find that (a) no relationship to mind is indeed possible, ergo we are not our minds;3 (b) the practice is highly conducive to states consistent with what some have spoken of – here’s a second instance – as non dual consciousness.
Unconvinced? Never mind. For my purposes – charting how and why I joined a cult – I need not prove that these states are attainable, or attempt a graphic account of them. Far less need I say what they signify (a point I’ll return to) or whether they might help us to become better people (ditto). I need only place a marker: these were my experiences, and such was their power.
Whether, to borrow from John Lennon as quoted at start of Part 4, “the dream I had was real” is beside the point. I thought it real, and yearned to go deeper. If Part 4 left you none the wiser as to what I experienced at the London School of Dentistry in June 1996, and a few weeks later in the Swiss Alps, it really doesn’t matter. Not for my purposes it doesn’t.
Still, it would be nice – for you I mean – if you had at least an inkling. And maybe you have at that. I don’t claim my experiences to be unique, or even rare. Just extraordinary.
Which isn’t the same thing.
* * *
- Religions seek to encode that which cannot be encoded, to name that which cannot be named. And even their most ardent followers are hard put to deny the harm they do; the shelters they give our raging egos. (But then, ego – defined here as arrogant self importance, often working under cover – can hide anywhere: in science, any of the isms, enlightenment – whatever that means – and even our capacity to love. No idea or impulse, however pure, is immune.) Are the world’s religions obsolete then? After all, every one of them came into being in the late neolithic era. Their gods and prophets knew nothing of Charles Darwin’s discovery – resoundingly upheld in recent decades by technologies and methods he had no access to – that the universe, and life in our tiny corner of it, are (a) far older than their creation myths could possibly encompass and (b) in a state of permanent evolution. But rationalist scorn of their tall tales falls wide of the mark. Explanation is only part, and not the most important part at that, of what religions do. Other tasks are: managing, by way of moral absolutes tempered to greater or lesser degree by compassion, those tensions arising from our dual nature as social but individuated animals … establishing a social glue through shared cultural referents … addressing our seemingly innate desire for transcendence and existential meaning. I don’t say they do these things perfectly, uniquely or even adequately. But that subset of atheists who think that, in demolishing the explanatory role of religion, they ipso facto make religion null and void have failed abjectly to get the measure of their bête noire.
- Long ago a friend told me that people who believe in astrology not only inspired his derision but also his anger. I can think of worthier targets of my ire, and asked: if the movement of celestial bodies can influence our tides, why not our psychology? FWIW I’ve a sneaking suspicion that astrology has a predictive power of marginally higher than random significance but, right or wrong, my argument was pretty weak. But then, so was his protesting response that: we know why the moon affects the tides. Yes, we can and should bring scientific methods to bear in attempting to show that a putative phenomenon, in this case the predictive power of astrology, does or does not exist. But it is highly unscientific to deny, a priori, that phenomenon on the curious ground that we can’t explain it. And no, I’m not looking to add to my already uphill task by demanding belief in astrology! Simply saying that even our much vaunted rationality can be deployed in superstitious ways born of our addiction to fixed and finite mental habits and categories.
- ‘.. no relationship to mind is indeed possible, ergo we are not our minds.’ I’ve no wish to get into a debate here on semantics; on what the lexical signifier, ‘mind’, points us to. Yes, it may be that one part of ‘mind’ has simply distanced itself from another. In which case the part doing the distancing is so rarely engaged – and the part being distanced from so rarely disengaged – as to make no practical difference to what is being said here: viz, that a superstitious identification with thought and feeling leaves us with a tiny and needlessly tormented perspective on life. It would, however, have adverse implications for how Andrew Cohen interpreted non dual experience. But as I so often do, I’m getting ahead of myself.