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Reader Reflections

A Return to Original Nature    (Name withheld by request)

Author's Introduction
Reading the account of your epiphany at the Rodeway Inn struck a deep personal chord....I spent the day at 10,000 feet on a pass in the Sierras. Before I left, I printed out your 'Epiphany at the Rodeway Inn' and took it with me to read with lunch.

It was perfect company, and matched an experience I also have had. Actually reading about it in your words brought it back just as strong as it was seven years ago.

It was a few hours after I had read your story and I had actually started back home, when suddenly I could take a deeper breath. Everything lit up. The sun on the pine needles, the sparkle of the stream I was driving along, each tree stood out and glowed with visible energy. The feeling of joy was deep and quiet and undisturbable. This lasted for many hours, until I went to bed, about midnight....

Thank you for sharing your story of the epiphany, and for your interest in helping others Awaken into Awareness.

Author's Account
A young man practicing Zen Buddhism had written something about how wonderful the concept of no-self felt. My answer to him was that if he had actually experienced this, he would call it the "mother of all fears." This fear is a fake, but it underlies everything, and is what keeps us from letting go. He asked me if I could tell him about my experience of letting go and how I got there. The following is my letter to him:

So glad you asked! Here's my recipe for awakening:

Sincerity and willingness...these you seem to have plenty of already. Read everything you can get your hands on. Since this experience already exists in you, in fact, it has already happened. What you're looking for is its TRACKS. When you read the account of someone else's experience, you are reading their TRACKS. When these match your own, you know by an internal intuitive reaction. Some people call it the "Ah-ha!" experience. When Hui Neng, the 6th Patriarch of Buddhism in China, heard it he exclaimed, "That is my experience exactly!"

Then, some night when you don't have anything else to do, sit down and do it.

I will answer your questions on "letting go."

You're right: the experience is difficult to put into words. The effort to do so always recreates the original experience, and so I always love to tell the story.

But, there is a basic dissatisfaction with the words themselves. They always fall short of the experience, and so what is left is just the description of my physical reaction. That is not the experience. When you read it, you supply the feelings you usually have with the reactions described. These are not always the same, even if the writer has done a good job of describing the experience.

The experience of awakening happens when everything else that is not that experience has been let go. I know that's vague. This is how it happened to me.

One day on my drive to the monastery (which is some distance from my house), so I can be alone and quiet for about an hour, I became aware that I was physically adding a resistance as I got closer. I also knew that it was very familiar. It was something I always did, but I think I thought of it as "paying attention," or "being in the moment." It wasn't actually either of those. It was almost like putting on armor. I could feel it in my chest.

It was like setting myself against or protecting myself from anything getting through or from being vulnerable. When I noticed it, I wondered if I could do the approach without this armor. So it would get dropped and then come back -- on and off, over and over. Whenever I became aware of it, I dropped it.

When I got to the monastery and was talking to the Roshi about this, it just kept right on happening. I told him that I had to stop because I was going to throw up. He just laughed. Here's a tip he gave me. If you are so upset you think you are going to throw up, put your attention in the soles of your feet, and the nausea will pass.

Throughout this conversation I was very aware of this resistance. This began to be what I was aware of in everything I did. It was not just associated with the monastery; I added this to my experience of everything. So this is what I lived with -- recognizing my resistance and letting it go.

After a few weeks of this, I began to be aware of what thoughts were associated with that -- what thoughts would arise when that was going on. That's where I hung out for several more weeks. It was long enough to become thoroughly disenchanted with my own thinking. The kind of thoughts that come up are not the kind of thoughts you associate with yourself as the reasonable thinking person. You usually just let yourself be aware of the thoughts that fit with your idea of who you are. But actually there is this incredible soup of thoughts about who you are, what has happened to you, what you like or don't, on and on and on. After a while you think I will do anything if I don't have to listen to this person anymore! You begin to realize you are a walking, talking, bag of inconsequential mutterings.

When my son was about three years old, he used to walk around and talk to himself all the time. I remember listening to him when he was in the bathroom on the potty just talking to himself, yacking, yacking. I thought, "I wonder if that is going to go on for his whole life?" Whenever he was alone you could hear this constant stream of chatter. Shortly after that it became internalized. It's what we all walk around doing, and what I call "potty thoughts." It's the kind of thinking you just do so you know you are alive. when you're alone driving or something, you're just thinking so you know you're ok. The parts you are aware of are the parts that fit your ideals. Otherwise it is just this soup of thinking with no particular direction. It's only done to feel secure and alive.

Now we come to that no-self thing. That's the whole purpose of this thinking protect us from the realization that in fact, we are not! So you see, after we have seen this we know we have always known and protected our thinking mind from finding this out. That's why I call it "the mother of all fear." It's because it starts when we are very young and is the directing force for most of our lives.

On with the story. With the discovery of the "potty thoughts," an ability arises to remain in the thought itself without clutching it or believing it. Then as that develops you have the ability to remain in the place before the thought arises. I think this happens because you are paying very close attention, not to the content, but to the process.

This space has just the inclination to think which feels like a subtle pressure. This takes time, practice, and a willingness not to be engaged with the content of what is happening. Just simply the awareness of the thought: here it comes...there it goes.

Now I want to diagram this process for you so that when you are practicing you know where you are. When you are paying attention or practicing mindfulness, what you first become aware of are your feelings...your reactions to things. This is like catching hold of the tail of a dragon. All you have is the tail. You have to follow it all the way up the back to get to the fire. Feelings are produced by thought. Unless you are aware, every thought that arises produces a reaction in the body.

That's why we are doing them. Thoughts are produced by the inclination to think. So, going in the other direction: first there is the inclination to think, then the thought arises, then the body produces the reaction to that thought. Don't take my word for it. Check it out!

On to the experience itself. (Remember, you asked for this!) One night I was just sitting down in my living room doing the practice I have described to you...letting go, letting go, as each thought arose. Then something profound happened.

A gulf opened up in my mind and I was aware of not thinking at all. Somewhere thoughts still arose and disappeared, but that was not my identity any longer.

As this space opened up I had the thought, "What will I be, how will I get through to the other side of this? How will I ever come back to who I am if I let go now?" My answer was, "Oh, what the hell!" You see, I was very familiar with the nature of this thinking mind. There was no way I was going to let it keep me from this experience.

With that letting go, a new experience occurred. It is the most full and satisfying experience of peace, of absolute quiet -- the quiet of the absence of even your own noisy mind. I was sitting in what IS.

And the ISNESS is emptiness itself. It is impossible to describe. The reason is that this emptiness has no marks, no physical characteristics, nothing definable in a sense way. What I can describe is my physical reaction to it, but not the experience itself.

I noticed after a while that tears were welling up in my eyes, running down my cheeks, and dripping on my shirt, without any sense of crying or sadness. This went on for three hours and completely soaked my clothing. The experience itself was so overwhelming that this was the body's way of dealing with it.

The feeling that brings tears is a feeling of recognition of a loved one. My mother has been dead for 11 years and the feeling is as if your mother (long dead) walks into the room. You have a love, a bond, a recognition, a feeling of safety with what has arrived..."Oh, thank God! After all this time I see you!" Of course nothing is standing there (not God -- not my mother). I am looking at emptiness. That feeling of the recognition of the beloved, the long-absent beloved, that feeling, a return to original nature, that feeling.

I began to notice a sensation of heat in my lower back. It was in the area where I had had back surgery three years ago. That area began to pulse with this heat. That feeling spread out along the nerves until I could feel my whole nervous system light up. I could see the whole network carrying this something between light and heat throughout my body. The experience felt ecstatic, healing, and comforting at the same time.

After experiencing this for a while I looked at the clock and two hours had gone by without any sense of time passing. I was amazed. I looked again and another hour was gone. In this experience all time disappears; all sense of time passing, all the discomfort that you would feel from not having moved for two hours. None of that exists. There is only this feeling of oneness with everything.

While sitting in this, I knew beyond any past feeling of knowing, that this is what I am. This is what I have always been, before I was born and after I die. THIS IS WHAT IS!

As this knowing percolated through my consciousness, I was aware that I would never be afraid of death again. I knew it would be just this. So it erased fear of death and all fear, because all fear is the fear of death or loss. The joy was almost impossible to contain.

There was throughout this experience no distinction of where I stopped and anything else began. There was a fire in my wood stove, and my dog and cat were curled up in front of it. I had the sense that I was lying there also. There was no difference between me and the fire, me and the house, me and the animals. I was part of everything.

After the three hours had gone by, I got up and had a drink of apple juice. As I lifted this glass of juice to my lips, it seemed to take forever for the glass to reach my mouth. As that cold juice touched my lips and slid in, there was no distinction between me and the juice. I was the juice, the cold, the mouth, the throat. It rolled down my throat and it seemed like every part of that action took forever. Each separate thought-moment presented itself and there was no separation in anything.

There was also a knowing that I could understand everything...comprehend everything. Everything fit in a pattern that made sense. I felt I knew the answer to everything and if anyone had asked a question at that time, I would know, because I was in the place where all true answers arise.

It was a most amazing experience. For days after, people who knew me asked me if I had fallen in love. I laughed and was silly. I glowed. And I felt there would never be a problem on my plate again. Other people have written about this reaction. Although as I struggle to write this accurately and know it fails to do justice to the experience, I have read other's accounts of what happened to them and know it matches exactly. The words are different, but the experience revealed by the words has the same flavor.

It gradually fades. But the essence of that knowing has sunk down to my bones and I can never again tell myself I don't know. I can never again experience fear or suffering without knowing its true nature.

All this sounds terribly pretentious. I can hear it. I am always the beginner, always the person just taking the next step, always that little kid with stars in her eyes in love with Buddhism. In describing his experience, Nyogen Senzaki, my teacher's teacher said: "Like a dew drop entering the shining sea." And my teacher talking about his experience said: "The everlasting beauty of undisturbed vastness."

Maybe after some time I will be able to distill what happened to me down to something profound. Although the words are inadequate, there is nothing inadequate in the experience.

Thank you -- for asking. The experience of there telling is delicious! Its joy never ends. If these tracks match anything in you, use them. Look particularly at where it struck you -- your own tracks. It's "how to know how to know" that is activated. Find the thread in yourself and follow it. Here are the words of my teacher:
         STOP....WAIT....ALLOW!    DON'T BE AFRAID!

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