51. The Second Bodh Gaya Retreat
Now, armed with my experiences and teachings received at MBMC, Practical Insight Meditation, and In This Very Life, I was overtaken by a deep aspiration and tremendous urgency for nothing in the world but stream entry at all costs. Adding to that were Katie’s advice and then Kenneth’s advice, and the helpful instruction, encouragement, and living, embodied examples of the awakened teachers on that retreat in Bodh Gaya, this time a twenty-seven-day retreat with Christopher Titmuss, Sharda Rogell, Yvonne Weier, Norman Feldman, and Fred von Allmen. I hit that fourth retreat in January of 1996 like a freight train.
I powered through the early stages like butter, noting like a man possessed, blasted beyond the Arising and Passing Away again on day three, hit the Dark Night on day four, faltered for a few hours, and then simply noted. I knew I was beaten, but I noted. I was weary yet volatile and tight, but I noted. I felt I was cracking at the seams, but I noted. By that point, insight could have torn me to pieces and killed me and I could not have cared less so long as I got stream entry. Thus, undaunted by anything that arose, I stayed with what was happening, clearly perceiving and reluctantly accepting the sensations that made up my world. The weight lifted, and then the little mush demon buddha thing I described earlier (in the “Equanimity” section of the “Progress of Insight” chapter) showed up. Soon thereafter, I soared effortlessly in realms of vibrating suchness, similar to what I had on the last day of my MBMC retreat but without that degree of extreme, refined, formless abstraction. When not sitting, there was an amazing sense of being free from the ordinary cares of the world. Soon this became boring, and then I just sat and walked.
I had a good interview with Norman Feldman some time on day five of that retreat in which I described to him that everything was fluxing and it felt like things were all trying to sync up. I was pretty sure I knew what would happen when everything finally did sync up, and that it felt like everything was plunging on towards vanishing, and he got this big smile on his face and simply said, “Plunge on!” It was good advice and exactly what I needed to hear. More than that, the basic spirit represented by that open-hearted smile and the simple instruction seemed just perfect, welcoming, and extremely kind. It meant that it could be done, that I could do it, and I should just do it or just let it happen, so I did.
On day six of my fourth retreat, that being January 13, 1996, in Bodh Gaya, India, in the meditation hall of the Thai Monastery at about 10:30 a.m., I had largely stopped doing anything that could really be called practice. Everything seemed just right on its own without my doing anything. Instead, there was this little, vivid, fantasy-like daydream that showed up as I just sat there doing basically nothing. In it, I was imagining that there was this gerbil on a gerbil wheel, and that this gerbil was both a meditator trying to get somewhere and yet also God, and yet God was watching the gerbil that was God. Suddenly, the gerbil-God and the Big God who just happened to be what seemed to be subject looked at each other, they recognized in this instant they were the same thing, or that their awareness was the same, and in that moment the “observing” side collapsed totally into the eyes of the little God-gerbil (specifically, the no-self door, which you probably already guessed), everything vanished, everything reappeared, and then the aftershocks following stream entry started coming.
By the time I stood up off the cushion about ten minutes later to go tell Christopher what had happened, I was high as a kite with waves and waves and waves of relief, joy, and gratitude, as well as insight after insight after insight, as what felt like zillions of connections were suddenly made that could not have been made before.
As an aside, as far as I can tell, the specifics of the gerbil-God imagery are strictly idiosyncratic, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend visualizing a gerbil-God, just in case anyone is asking. That basic concept of recognizing divine aspects of a deity and then yourself, however, is the basis of various tantric generation stage practices, but none that I know of specify gerbils. If that basic type of practice appeals to you, perhaps give those a try. [No gerbils were harmed in the making of this insight.]
As promised, the spiritual path is not a linear one. During the next few days, I swung wide from the greatest spiritual highs to the horrible lows of what can happen during Re-observation. In fact, the closest I ever felt to losing it entirely during my whole nearly two decades so far meditating was the next insight cycle I went through as a new stream enterer (my first Review cycle) when I hit Re-observation.
I felt so volatile that I broke the guidelines against leaving the monastery and eating dinner:
I left the monastery, went across the street, and got something to eat at a little seasonable Tibetan noodle hut, not because I was hungry, but because I thought it would help ground me, which I desperately needed. I remember a young Indian man saying hello and asking where I was from, which had happened literally thousands of times during that year in India, and I remember nearly snarling at him to leave me alone, which is not at all my usual mode of relating to people. At the time, it just felt like way too much input, and I was edgy beyond anything I had known before and very much not in a mood to talk to anybody. The horrible feeling and mood lasted a few hours, and by the next day I had managed to get a repeat Fruition.
For the next few weeks my mind was powerful beyond reason, and yet I was a complete novice in this new territory. I was a bit like a newly licensed sixteen-year-old driver who has just been given a Ferrari with no brakes and a pair of night-vision goggles. Might I mention here that I was also practicing at what can only be described as far beyond full power, or at least beyond what was full power before, as now there was meditation power like I had never known, staggering amounts of it, and I was using every single bit at basically every single instant of the day to try to see every single sensation in the light of vipassana.
Here we get into a theoretical conflict. You see, Kenneth had advised me to do strict Fruition practice after getting stream entry, in which I would practice hard and drill hard to get repeat Fruitions as quickly and as often as possible. Part of this instruction might have been motivated by the fact that, as a stream enterer, Kenneth wasn’t able to get repeat Fruitions, a fact I learned about seventeen years later. He gained the ability to get repeat Fruitions reliably only after attaining second path. I had taken Kenneth’s instruction to heart, and in this way managed at least a Fruition a day for the first few days, then more after that. This is clearly of benefit, as it seems better to be able to get repeat Fruitions than not, as not only do they teach you profound lessons about reality and confirm that you got what you think you got, but they also are very nice, at least until their afterglow wears off. However, by practicing with what can only reasonably be described as horribly imbalanced effort, I also succeeded in basically totally frying myself. It was all way too much.
Christopher Titmuss had warned me against this in his totally non-map-based way, specifically saying, “All right, let it settle.” While I really respected Christopher Titmuss (whom I consider an arahant) and his knowledge of insight practices, he wasn’t a map guy, and I had a real bias for the maps, as the maps had helped me a lot. So, instead of listening to Christopher, I listened to the map-side of the available advice, as interpreted by Kenneth and his possibly reacting to not being able to get Fruitions and really wishing he could have had them after stream entry. I powered myself deep into some amazing territory, and then trouble visited.
The amazing territory went like this. First, I was cycling about once per day and getting at least a Fruition a day, and they were staggeringly clear. Each door presented with its own beautiful signature: the impermanence door with its rapid, staccato frames of reality vanishing after three or four quick pulses; the no-self door with the merging collapse of this side into the luminous, intelligent eyes of the image on the other side; and the suffering door with everything suddenly utterly vanishing after being ripped away from what seemed to be an observer. These were happening even when I stopped formal practice, such as when lying down to nap. I didn’t realize these were classic experiences at the time, as I didn’t know very much theory then, but they greatly helped me later when I started writing about meditation phenomenology.
After a few days, I wanted to see what the jhanas were like. During one sit I resolved to have the jhanas present themselves, and sure enough, one after the other, all eight jhanas presented, easily, nearly effortlessly, each shifting after a few minutes to the next one. They went from bliss to deep rapture, out to a broader, silent cool bliss, further to the neutral panoramic perfectly quiet ease of well-done fourth jhana that I would recognize from when I was three or four years old.
That neutrality dissolved into space, with body totally gone in true, silently glorious, full-on formless style, everything just boundless. That space became luminous, and that vastness felt so present and clear. That all vanished to nothingness. That vanishing somehow tuned itself to not anything in particular, not even nothingness, then the mind came out from that, and then—wham!—another Fruition. It would have been an interesting skill to practice and get good at, but I didn’t really have much interest, being a totally vipassana-rules-over-samatha snob at the time, influenced by my misinterpretations of Mahasi Sayadaw’s tradition as I was, and I wouldn’t regain the ability to get into jhanas of that depth and cleanliness until about nine months down the road.
One of the things that stream entry did to me was that I began to perceive the world and those around me very differently. Everything suddenly seemed to me the inevitable movement of empty compassion. All emotions were the natural result of confused empty phenomena trying to be happy and reduce suffering, however unskillfully. All meditators were similarly just this empty process moving towards inevitable wisdom. The convergence of attention in Fruition seemed an inevitability for all beings, like leaves falling off trees—one day it is just going to happen to all conscious entities. The section earlier in this book that discusses compassion underlying all negative emotions comes from the insights during this period.
I should also mention that I was becoming extremely edgy, and as the days went on, I got more so. I hadn’t learned yet that I possessed the ability to go much too far into the realm of over-application of effort and energy. The momentum that I had built up was now very hard to ground down, integrate, or embody skillfully. My mind was like a forest fire, and everything just seemed to make it blaze hotter. At points I was physically shaking, but not really in that A&P insight way, just in an ultra-jacked-up-on-hyper-gonzo-practice-on-the-runway-to-crazy kind of way. I saw myself as being at once staggeringly wise and a complete basket case. My practice was seriously out of balance. For the remainder of the retreat, I worked to stabilize, get grounded, and regroup so that when the retreat ended I wouldn’t make a complete mess of things. I was only moderately successful.