Recently I was attending a talk by a teacher from the Karma Kargyu school of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and he was commenting on the Buddhist ideas of ‘space’ and in particular, ‘emptiness’. The word ‘emptiness’ is a somewhat inadequate translation of the Sanskrit term shunyata, which refers to the formlessness of ultimate reality, and in particular to the understanding that nothing possesses discrete, intrinsic existence.
At one point in his talk, the teacher then made an interesting remark. He commented on how the direct realization of emptiness often results in the arousal of fear from within the mind. I call this an ‘interesting’ observation not because I think it is surprising, but rather because I’ve found that it is so rarely mentioned or discussed in general.
I had the fortune to begin my path of spiritual seeking at a rather young age. (This was partly brought on by a disturbing recreational drug experience I passed through in my early adolescence, the difficult aftermath of which eventually compelled me to search for the deeper meanings of life). In my early 20s I underwent lengthy periods of sustained spiritual practice. On one occasion, when I was around 24, I undertook a three week long solitary vipassana retreat (vipassana being a Buddhist meditation method that involves following the breath with one’s attention, while seated in meditation). During this retreat, which I was able to sustain with a daily practice of many hours of meditation and periods of fasting, I found myself entering progressively into deeper stages of practice. The whole thing culminated, near the end of the three weeks, with a type of ‘inner explosion’ in which I underwent a satori (the Zen term for a ‘sudden awakening’).
The main feature of this sudden awakening was a profound and direct realization that the ‘I’ or personal self is ‘empty’, non-existent beyond the level of conceptual appearance. In one sudden deepening of awareness and understanding, I ‘saw’ that the ‘I’ is a mental construct, a type of ongoing daydream, with no real substance. In the realization of that ‘emptiness’ were found qualities best defined by terms such as vastness, aliveness, and enormous vitality. (These terms are of course just terms—they are pointers to an experiential reality that is beyond concept).
Moments after this awakening, I found myself sitting in my kitchen, marvelling at the aliveness of a red dishcloth in front of me. I still remember vividly what happened next: what seemed to be a wave of pulsating energy rose up my spine, until it reached the area of my heart. There, it suddenly stopped, as if meeting a barrier of some sort that it could not move beyond.
Suddenly, a thought arose in the mind, which went something like ‘this is too much for me, I can’t handle it’. In that moment, my world turned upside down. Within seconds I found myself moving from a blissful state of aliveness to a sheer panic attack. My heart began racing, and I suddenly found myself terrified about something, although there was no way to define what that something was.
Try as I might, I could not control the fear, or let go of it, or move it through me in any way. My whole body-mind was engulfed in this fear, which included both sheer panic and an impending sense of doom. It seemed as if my heart might pound out of my chest, which of course amplified the fear-thoughts, compounding the whole matter.
This state of abject terror subsided somewhat after a few hours, but only to leave me in a deeply disturbed, dissociated state. I felt numb and cut off from reality, disconnected from everything. For several nights I could not sleep, as whenever I would close my eyes, and dull yellowish glow was shining like a lamp ‘inside’ my head, making sleep impossible. When, exhausted, I finally fell asleep after three or four nights, my dreams were violently primitive to a shocking degree.
I’ve forgotten subsequent details, but the inner storm eventually passed. After a few more days, still somewhat ill at ease, I felt well enough to venture out. I met up with a fellow spiritual seeker, a man who had been ‘on the path’ for several decades. He told me about a similar experience he once went through, which was comforting to hear, reinforcing my belief that I had not in fact nearly gone insane.
About six years after this experience, I was doing a month long meditation retreat in a mountain cabin, when the panic happened again, only this second time to a milder degree. I began to understand that much of this was about psychological purification, a type of catharsis of the unconscious, but that what was ultimately going on was that I was working through the ego’s fear of emptiness, the fear of its own death.
There are some memorable accounts of this process of encountering deep fear in the face of the realization of the emptiness of the personal self, within the literature of some 20th century seekers. Two vividly described accounts can be found in Gopi Krishna’s Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man (1967) and Suzanne Segal’s Collision with the Infinite (1997). Both these writers described prolonged horrific states that they passed through that were terrifying and recurring. Another good work is Robert A. Masters’ Darkness Shining Wild (2005) telling the story of a spiritual guru with a large following who suffers a six month long ‘bad drip’ after overdosing on a powerful psychotropic, including his often fruitless struggles to overcome his inner horrors with meditation and therapy.
Masters’ ordeal was brought about by a drug, but Gopi Krishna’s and Suzanne Segal’s were entirely triggered by meditation practice, as was my own. Either way, the fear encountered is the result of the ego-self’s attempt to maintain its existence in the face of the overwhelming realization that it does not truly exist. It is something like standing in front of a mirror, and watching one’s body slowly disappear before one’s very eyes.
Over the years I’ve always been puzzled by the relative scarcity of descriptions of this process in print. That seems to be reflected by the fact that very few spiritual seekers I’ve talked to over the years are familiar with the experience. I think of that as being a good thing, of course. To live through this type of experience is truly hellish, and one can only be relieved for the sake of others if they are spared it.
There have been some specialized writings that have addressed the matter, most noteworthy being the excellent work of Stanislav Grof, via his anthology Spiritual Emergency (1989) and The Stormy Search for the Self (1992, co-written with his wife Christina). In these works Grof and other writers explore the matter of difficult and even terrifying states encountered by one committed to an awakening process. But by and large this is a field of research that is not generally familiar to the average seeker.
I have, naturally, questioned deeply over the years what could bring about such difficult experiences. Some suggest it is related to spiritual zeal and over-extending oneself without proper guidance (Gopi Krishna’s angle). Others suggest it is connected to significant psychological wounds (such as repressed memories of abuse or early life trauma, including the birth-trauma), or even to medical conditions (all of these were speculated on in Segal’s case). My own view includes all of these possibilities, along with the idea that any sort of spiritual practice that is undertaken with a view to escaping this world, as opposed to waking up within it, is susceptible to inner disturbances.
Right motivation for beginning a spiritual search is always important, because if we are ‘using’ the spiritual path for any other purpose than Self-realization, then we are going to get burned sooner or later. That is because the process of awakening is inherently deconstructive. Elements of the ego-mind get ‘taken apart’, so to speak, and illusions, delusions, and all sorts of lies get exposed. This is why the Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa once issued the warning: ‘Better not start on the spiritual path. But if you start, you had better finish.’
Some Western esoteric teachings (such as those drawing from the Jewish mystical teachings of the Kabbalah) are well familiar with the challenges of authentic awakening, referring to a type of ‘abyss’ that a seeker must pass through in which the ego-mind is stripped away, leaving one a ‘naked babe of the abyss’. That is a good metaphor for deep awakening, because it indicates just how much is at stake in the process. There is a tendency to underestimate the strength and tenacity of the ego-mind. But if we take teachings such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, seriously, then the tenacity of the ego-mind to survive is such that its impulses and habits pull us back into incarnation again and again. (Pull ‘what’ back into incarnation? Exactly, and that is the Zen koan to trump all Zen koans).
In my own case, it was in part via the words of the great Advaitin sage Ramana Maharshi that I began to understand more fully what was going on with the whole process of encountering deep fear in the face of the intention to awaken to one’s true nature. It was really the second of his ‘Forty Verses on Reality’ that summed up the whole matter for me:
Those who have an infinite fear of death take refuge in the Feet of the supreme Lord Who is without birth and death. Can the thought of death occur to those who have destroyed their ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and have become immortal?
The implication is that our deepest fears derive from our identification with separate form, and in particular, with the body. The ‘I’ is perpetuated by identification with form (body, of whatever sort).
Anyone who has ever had the odd sleep-state experience of being ‘stuck between worlds’, caught in a dream world, knowing one is caught, and feeling unable (or, commonly, paralyzed) to get back into one’s body, has a good idea of how deep our attachment to form penetrates into the unconscious mind. A well known Tibetan master (Lama Thubten Yeshe) once ‘returned’ from a near-death experience (he had a heart condition, and eventually passed on at age 49). Upon his return, he remarked on how difficult it had been to remain clear and conscious in the ‘inner realms’ while his bodily life hung in the balance. Even he, a highly trained lama and meditation master, found the material of his unconscious mind that he was encountering very difficult to deal with.
What seems to happen as the barrier between conscious self and unconscious mind dissolves—the experience of which both deep meditation and impending death tends to provoke—is that we face the deeper reality of our ego-mind, and the full power of its attachments and delusional thoughts. This is why Trungpa said ‘better not to start on the spiritual path unless you’re committed to going the whole way’, because once faced with the deeper reality of our ego-system, the temptation to retreat (in whatever fashion) can be very strong.
According to most reincarnation theory, it is attachment to form—an attachment that is itself arising from a deep fear of formlessness—that compels us to re-associate with another human life form (body). This need not be taken literally; it is a valid and powerful idea as metaphor. We are literally repeating our erroneous and delusional viewpoints over and over throughout a typical life, continuously re-inventing the wheel, going over old ground that we have walked many times before, thinking that now, finally, we are really getting it right, and so forth. Most lives are deeply repetitive, much like being born over and over in a kind of mindless fashion. (Anyone who has been in multiple love-relationships—in current times a relatively common thing—can attest to this with a little bit of hindsight. The same patterns repeat, just with different outer forms).
The deep fear of embracing formless Consciousness is there because from the ego’s perspective, it is deeply unknown. The ego knows form; indeed, it perpetuates form, and a powerful attachment to it. The irony of course lies in the reality that Consciousness is our actual nature, the one thing we truly do know—the one thing that we truly are. But the trick of the ego-mind is to convince us that we do not know Consciousness-without-form, and that moreover, it is dangerous and deeply threatening.
When Ramana says…
Can the thought of death occur to those who have destroyed their ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and have become immortal?
…he is not providing any ‘medicine’ to heal our fears by investigating them, catharting them, embracing them, etc. He is proposing something far more radical and direct. He is telling us to stop pruning the bush and instead go to the root of the matter, the very conceptual structure of the ‘I’ itself. He is saying that all fears stem from the primal position assumed by the egocentric psyche, that of being a separate self.
But how actually do we ‘go the root’ of this matter? There are basically two approaches, apparently distinct, but actually working well in tandem. They are the meditation methods of ‘resting’ (or ‘witnessing’) and ‘inquiry’ (or as it is sometimes called, ‘analytical meditation’).
In the Tibetan tradition, the term for ‘resting meditation’ is shamatha, and it literally means ‘getting used to’, or ‘becoming familiar with’. In this practice we put our attention on the out-breath, and simply witness the arising of this moment, and all movement of thought within the mind. We let-go, yet remain sharply present and alert, not focussing the mind on any particular thing. In so doing, we ‘become familiar’ with the nature of resting awareness. The second approach, inquiry, involves an active usage of our mind as a type of ‘probe’. We use the mind to actively search for the ‘I’—within the body, within the mind, anywhere we imagine we can look.
Inquiry shows us, directly, that we cannot truly find this ‘I’ no matter how long and how intensely we search for it.
Now you may be wondering, how exactly does this approach to uncovering the ego-mind’s fundamental delusion handle the problem of the fear that can be aroused in the face of this realization? Are we not simply back where we started, at the top of this article, when I reported the deep terrors encountered in the face of deconstructing this core delusion?
We are, and that is why we’re left with the essential issue underlying all of this. It is motivation.
We need to have the correct motivation for engaging the awakening process. This correct motivation can be characterized broadly as a mature longing for ultimate truth, helped along by an open and deep curiosity.
The problem with my ‘awakening nightmare’ of my early 20s was that although I had the open and deep curiosity, my longing for ultimate truth, though there, was not yet mature. What that meant is that I was not purely seeking ultimate truth, I was more properly engaged in a deep desire to escape the pain of my present-time existence.
We awaken through our existence, not away from it. Awakening is not a dissociative process. It is both immanent, and transcendent.
The first part of Ramana’s passage above...
Those who have an infinite fear of death take refuge in the Feet of the supreme Lord Who is without birth and death
...speaks to the ‘function’, if you will, of the fear of death. It actually serves to compel us to seek the deathless—our timeless essence, pure Awareness without cause.
Ramana, of course, was himself famously driven by his sudden fear of death to seek his deathless true Self, which he did in one revolutionary burst of pure intention. He himself was gripped by deep fear just prior to his Realization, and though just 16 years old at the time, was imbued with uncommon ‘inner maturity’ and readiness to surrender totally to what unfolded within him. (Years of refining his understanding lay ahead, but the ego’s existence as a supposed discrete entity basically evaporated for him at that moment).
The cause of what makes one seeker ‘ready’ and another not, is a mystery and one that we need not concern ourselves with. We need only apply consistent purity of intent, and the clouds of fear will gradually—and suddenly—be parted and dissolved by the rays of the light of Understanding. Persistence is the key.