Recounting experiences you’ve had while meditating is a delicate business. They’re most worth recounting if they’re unusual – but if they’re too unusual, people look at you like you’re crazy. I once had an experience that I hope falls in the sweet spot: weird enough to get people’s attention, not so weird that they notify local authorities.
It was the fourth or fifth day of a meditating retreat. I was sitting on my cushion, legs crossed, eyes closed, as usual. I wasn’t making a point of focusing on any one kind of thing – not particularly on sounds, not particularly on emotions, not particularly on physical sensations. My field of awareness seemed wide open; my attention moved easily from one part of it to another, resting lightly on each new perch, and meanwhile a sense of the whole remained.
At one point I felt a tingling in my foot. At roughly the same time, I heard a bird singing outside. And here’s the odd thing; I felt that the tingling in my foot was no more a part of me than the singing of the bird.
You may ask: Was I feeling that the singing of the bird was actually a part of me? Or was I feeling that the tingling in my foot wasn’t a part of me? To put a less fine point on it: Did I feel like I was at one with the world, or was I closer to feeling like I was nothing? If you are indeed asking these questions, you’ve hit on a fascinating philosophical issue that highlights a contrast among different strands of Buddhist thought and that, more fundamentally, divides mainstream Buddhist philosophy from mainstream Hindu philosophy. But you’re probably not asking these questions. You’re more likely to be asking whether I’m crazy. So I’ll address that question first, and get to the deep philosophical questions later.
For starters, let me emphasize that if this experience makes me crazy, I’m in good company. I’ve had several chances to describe the experience to truly accomplished meditators – some of them monks, some of them famous meditation teachers – and invariably they’ve recognized the kind of experience I’m describing as one they’ve had.
What’s more, it’s a kind of experience that, they tend to believe, is very important. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that this is the central experience of Buddhism. Not central in the sense of most profound or most important, but, rather, central in the place it occupies in the landscape of Buddhist philosophy: the place where Buddhism’s two fundamental, crazy-sounding but arguably valid concepts – not-self and emptiness – come together. It’s a kind of grand unifying meditative experience.
Before explaining what I mean by that, I should try to put a little more flesh on the experience itself.
First, I should stress that any sense of continuity I felt between myself and the bird doing the singing wasn’t really about the bird in particular. It wasn’t like the feeling I had toward the lizard in the previous chapter, when I realized that the lizard and I had more in common than I’d previously appreciated. It was less cognitive than that and more purely perceptual. It was a kind of dissolving of the perceived boundary between me and the rest of the world generally. In other words, this was an apprehension, not a conclusion. It’s not like I had become convinced via some logical argument that a bird’s song is no less a part of me than my foot’s tingling.
Still, in the wake of this experience, I started to think that maybe there is an argument of this sort that you could make. It would start something like this: How much difference is there, really, between feeling my foot tingle and hearing a bird sing? In both cases, the perception seems to register somewhere inside my head, at some kind of center of consciousness – which means that in both cases, the perception requires that information be transmitted to my head from a remote location. My foot transmits information about a tingling; the bird transmits information about a song. What’s the difference?
The obvious rejoinder is “But the tingling originates inside your skin; it’s part of you!” Well, yes, it’s inside my skin. But the whole question I’m raising is whether my skin is really as significant a boundary as we instinctively assume – whether it really makes sense to think of everything on the inside as me and everything on the outside as other. So you can’t just reiterate that instinctive assumption and put my question to rest. If that tactic were considered fair, no assumptions would ever be overthrown.
Another rejoinder you could make is “But tingling and other bodily sensations tend to come with deep, inherent affective qualities.” A pain in your foot, for example, is inherently painful. A bird song, on the other hand, is a matter of taste – pleasant to some, annoying to others. The problem with this objection is that pain isn’t inherently painful. I’ve already recounted the time that, via meditation, I converted an excruciating knot of anxiety into a mere object of interest; and the time meditation made waves of acute tooth pain kind of beautiful. And there was another time when, by changing my perspective toward modest lower back pain, I turned it into a mildly pleasant sensation. Granted, this transformation of lemons into lemonade isn’t routine; it’s the kind of thing that’s easier to do on retreat, when I’m immersed in the meditative lifestyle, than when I’m back in the real world, saying things like. “It’s such a pain that my back causes me pain.” And to go even further than this in the reconceptualization of pain – to achieve the mind-set of that Vietnamese Buddhist monk who immolated himself without flinching – would take much deeper immersion.
But the point is that such immersion is possible, and it undermines the easy claim that “internally” originating sensations have fixed meanings, whereas “externally” originating ones don’t. Besides, if the key criterion for whether something is part of my self is how close to “automatic” my interpretation of the signals it sends are, then what about the case of offspring? My daughters don’t reside within my skin, yet when I see one of them in pain, it causes me to suffer as reliably as my own pain does.
The great American psychologist William James wrote, “Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw”. In that sense, he observed, “our immediately family is a part of ourselves. Our father and mother, our wife and babes, are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. When they die, a part of our very selves is gone.”