Recently I had a strange and rather harrowing experience which evoked some deep insight, as well as a fair amount of humility. I actually found myself saying NO to Nirvana, to enlightenment, to infinity, to God.
Those of you who have read my previous blog post may know that I have been considering the idea, or ideal, of having a wide open heart, feeling that there may be real wisdom in some feminine advice I have been lately receiving. (However, within the past two days I've also received two emails from relatively spiritually-oriented men telling me that my supposed need to be more heart-opened is probably nonsense. It just goes to show, "men are from Mars, women are from Venus.") So, a few nights ago I was deeply investigating my heart, and whatever lurks in that mysterious dark place. I began feeling very intense energy flowing through my chest. It felt as though people, especially people here in the West, have so much inward pain that they cannot bear to look at it, and so it is repressed and hidden in some collective subconscious reservoir---and that it had found an outlet through my heart. It seemed I was in intimate contact with what Eckhart Tolle calls the "pain body." And as a leak in a dike gradually washes away more and more soil, causing the leak to become bigger and bigger and the flow of water to become more and faster, even so the intense rush of energy became more and more painfully intense until it was very near to unbearable.
I deeply intuited that I should experience this as fully as possible without repressing it or turning away from it, so I stayed with it as well as I could, feeling it and realizing that many people in this world feel this kind of pain very much of the time. As the sensation became more unbearable I began using "Yes" as a kind of mantra, trying to accept the experience as totally as possible---Yes…Yes…Yes…until sometimes I would find myself clinging to the word for dear life, like clinging to a piece of wreckage while floundering in deep seawater. Then I would have to back off from the word Yes, as that itself was a way of distracting myself from the painful intensity in my chest. I was becoming desperate.
I realized that someone like Jesus, or Neem Karoli Baba, or maybe Ammachi who is alive today in India, or maybe also Gotama Buddha (although the Pali texts describe his orientation somewhat differently) could probably accept this intensity of experience even if it were to increase to infinitude, that their hearts were strong enough and boundless enough to hold it all. But after many minutes of desperate surfing atop the tsunami, I faltered. The pain became too much, and after repeated doubts, renewed repetition of the mantra Yes, and more doubts, I reached a breaking point. I tried to stop it, or at least to distract myself enough to more easily endure it. It wouldn't stop though, and eventually I started essentially praying. As I panted and reeled I thought, "This is too much…I can't do this…it's just too much…please have mercy…" and began silently calling out to God or anyone else who could relieve me of this burden of pain in my heart. Allowing it to flow through my chest was painful, but trying to stop it caused a new agony in a way much worse than what was already there. It was the pain of friction, of shutting down, of saying No to what was happening, to the reality of the moment. I felt that it was a kind of defeat also, an admission that at that moment I was not ready for enlightenment---which is, after all, the experience of infinity.
While having these feelings of not being ready another thought occasionally arose: "If not now, when?"
Also I dearly sympathized with my fellow humans, most of whom probably suffer more than I do, and most of whom have systematically prepared their minds to experience this kind of intensity much less than I have. If I couldn't do it, how could I expect ordinary people living ordinary worldly lives to do it? It seemed like we are all stuck in a kind of purgatory, which, of course, we are. I would have really appreciated a hug or a kind, gentle word.
What struck me the most at this time was the idea that by saying No to this experience I was essentially saying No to enlightenment; or in theological terms, I was saying No to union with God, as God contains all experiences, including all the suffering in the world, within It. By desperately putting up any barrier I could to protect myself from this intensity of feeling I was also barricading myself against Nirvana, as Nirvana is the transcendence of all barriers and boundaries. I was shutting down, and not only voluntarily admitting defeat, but voluntarily insisting upon defeat. Then again, it is not necessarily defeat to be limited and finite, but it is being only an infinitely small particle of infinity instead of consciously being at one with infinity. Of course, by closing off (or at least trying to close off) to this suffering tending toward an absolute, I was at the same time closing off to the possibility of infinite rapture, infinite beauty, infinite love, and every other limitless blessing there is. It goes both ways.
Sometimes I would get a glimpse of the idea that being partly closed to begin with was causing much of the pain; if I had been truly wide open all might have been still, like the depths in the middle of the sea. It is said that an enlightened mind enjoys this kind of stillness. But the presence of some incomplete opening and constriction at the beginning was causing the feelings to emerge in a pressurized gush like water from an opened fire hydrant. Even so, I still think an enlightened being could endure much greater intensity than I did, possibly infinite intensity.
We put up walls to protect our weakness, but the walls reinforce the weakness; the weakness itself is protected and reinforced. Perhaps if I could have held out and continued saying Yes to the intensity gushing through my chest I would have become enlightened that night...but I was afraid.
Later on, after the experience had waned and I was able to reflect a little more calmly, I considered the possibility that classical Theravada Buddhism is a system that systematically reduces suffering to zero, but that this other method I had glimpsed was a way of attaining enlightenment in which one increases painfully intense experience until it reaches infinity---which is purified and transmuted through totally accepting it, through saying Yes to it and really, really meaning it. The first method is ultimately easier, and saves "oneself"; however, it is not a realistic method for most people in the West, as most of us are unwilling to follow the method---renouncing the world, being homeless, having no money, greatly restraining our conduct, gradually cultivating refined contemplative states, etc. The other method is more difficult and painful, and requires a very strong heart, but not only saves "oneself" but can also save the world. It involves an acceptance and transmutation of all the suffering in the world through compassion. It does not require renunciation of the world, but whole-hearted acceptance of it. The experience was a difficult trial for me, partly because I've been following the very ancient Indian "reduction to zero" method for many years, for most of my life actually. Ultimately they both wind up at the same state, however, since absolute zero and absolute infinity cannot really be differentiated; they are opposite ends of a spectrum bent into a circle so that the extremes meet. But the two ways follow virtually opposite means.
If the world is to avert the destruction threatening it by spiritual bankruptcy, selfishness, overpopulation, pollution, disruption of nature, war, new diseases, and so on I feel it will be by this stereotypically feminine approach of compassionately feeling everyone's suffering as well as our own. If we can't accomplish this, then those of us who are able may save ourselves by escaping from the conflagration, with every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost.