Fear has arisen from an uptaken stick:
Look at people in conflict.
I shall relate to you a feeling of deep urgency,
I shall relate to you a feeling of deep urgency,
How it was felt by me.
Having seen mankind thrashing about
Like fishes in little water,
Obstructed by one another—
Having seen, fear took hold of me.
Obstructed by one another—
Having seen, fear took hold of me.
The world was entirely without substance;
All the quarters were shaken.
Wanting a settled abiding for myself
I saw nothing that had not succumbed.
Wanting a settled abiding for myself
I saw nothing that had not succumbed.
(—attributed to the Buddha, in the Attadaṇḍa Sutta of the Sutta-Nipāta)
In part 1 I discussed the phenomenon, or principle, or theory, of profound psychological changes, especially spiritual awakenings, occurring as the result of a crisis, or despair, or being at wit’s end. Here I intend to discuss the two main ways in which these life-changing crises can occur: they can be more or less accidental, or more or less intentionally cultivated.
The accidental way appears to be much more common, and in the West it is almost the only way, since few people in the West nowadays try deliberately to bring themselves to a crisis, or try for spiritual awakening with such wholehearted intensity that they arrive at a cataclysmic breakdown. This sort of awakening can happen to people who are not involved at all in spiritual matters—in fact, a deep, sensitive person who has been guided into a life of superficial worldliness may experience the crisis as a result of sheer frustration and despair from a lifestyle that is profoundly unsatisfying.
One form of this that is fairly common in the world is that great misfortune may inspire a person, maybe an average Joe (or Mary Jo) living a relatively ordinary life, to reexamine the value of his or her existence. In other words, it may serve as a beneficial wakeup call, a blessing in wolves’ clothing. For example, I used to know a person who was very materialistic, and rather shallow and self-centered. Then she got cancer, and was suddenly faced with her own mortality. It scared the hell out of her. She fortunately survived the illness, and afterward she was noticeably much more thoughtful, sensitive, and unselfish. She became a better person because of it. I suppose quite a lot of people go through experiences like this. It is one reason why a misfortune is not necessarily something to be avoided at all costs.
In fact, this beneficial result of misfortune and pain is a main reason why Buddhists say that a human birth is better than any other. The beings in the heaven realms are happier, but they don’t have suffering acting as a goad driving them toward Dharma. Things are pretty good as they are; and adopting the attitude “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” they tend to be little inclined to improve themselves spiritually. And of course the beings in the lower realms, such as animals, lack the knowledge and opportunity to practice or ponder Dharma, even though they may experience plenty of suffering. So although it would be stretching it to say that misfortune and suffering are good, still they are major ingredients in our inspiration to be better. This applies to almost everybody.
However, more interesting to me, and more to the point of this essay, are the cases in which accidental or unforeseen calamities result in something apparently “supramundane,” in a profound spiritual awakening. One such instance is the case of John Wren-Lewis, a mathematician, scientist, and humanist who allegedly was a leading member of the British “Death of God” movement, and who was not a particularly spiritually-oriented person. When he was about sixty years old he and his wife were traveling through Thailand. On a bus a man gave them both some candy, which was poisoned—as he intended to rob them after they lost consciousness. Wren-Lewis ate the candy, but his wife did not, causing the thief to lose his nerve and get off the bus, and also allowing her to attend to her husband as he became extremely ill. In fact he almost died, and had what is called a near death experience, which in his case was a very mystical one, so that after his recovery his perspective on life was radically altered. After that and up until his death in 2006 he became a teacher of spirituality, claiming to have an abiding mystical awareness which he considered to be more real than the so-called “real world.”
The most important experience of my life was in 1983 when I came "to the brink" in a near-death experience (NDE). I found a meaning I'd never dreamed of in Shakespeare's statement that love "looks on tempests and is never shaken." I discovered, in the moment of time-stop, that human consciousness is grounded in the same fundamental energy that moves the sun and other stars and tempests too—an energy for which "love" is the only word we have, though its common sentimental associations are hopelessly misleading. (—John Wren-Lewis)
Wren-Lewis also pointed out that brain damage or serious injury is not necessary for a near death experience such as the one he had on the bus in Thailand; for example he mentioned mountain climbers who fell from cliffs, and who experienced the extreme slowing of time, their entire life vividly flashing into memory practically simultaneously, mystical experiences, etc., while falling, only to land unharmed in deep snow at the bottom. It’s the extremity of the crisis, not oxygen deprivation or whatever, that triggers it.
A much more famous case of crisis-induced accidental awakening was that experienced by the allegedly enlightened being Eckhart Tolle. By his own account, until he was thirty years old he “lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression.” One night as he lay in bed he was overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of dread and misery. He began repeating, “I cannot live with myself any longer,” until suddenly he realized that this implied two selves: the “I” and the “myself” that the “I” cannot live with. Then he considered that maybe only one of them was real. This strange idea somehow jolted him into an intense awakening experience which radically changed his life, eventually resulting in him becoming one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the modern world. In his own words:
…the intense pressure of suffering that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and deeply fearful self, which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. This withdrawal must have been so complete that this false, suffering self immediately collapsed, just as if a plug had been pulled out of an inflatable toy. What was left then was my true nature…consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.
My favorite case of all involves the great Hindu saint and sage Ramana Maharshi. He started out in life as a seemingly ordinary Indian kid living as a subject of the British Empire. His Brahmin family was rather westernized and not particularly religious; they went to public festivals and ceremonies at nearby Hindu temples, but not much more than that. He attended a British-style high school and was studying to become, if I remember correctly, an electrical engineer. One day he was home alone doing his homework, when, somewhat like Mr. Tolle, he had what could be called a panic attack. He suddenly felt as though he were dying. He felt that if he were going to die he might as well be prepared, so he lay down on his back on the floor. Since people generally don’t move around when they are dead, he stopped moving, and waited. Then he considered that dead people don’t think, either—so he stopped thinking, to feel what death would be like. At this point, with his thinking process stopped, he suddenly had his great realization. He claimed that those few moments lying on his back as a teenager were the only real spiritual practice he ever did. (In later years if he would tell this story, he wouldn’t say “I did this” or “this happened to me,” as he no longer considered himself to be a separate individual, apparently no longer identifying with an ego; if it became necessary to refer to himself personally, he would simply point to his chest and say “this.”)
Continuing a bit with the story, he attempted at first to continue being an ordinary Indian high school student, but his heart just wasn’t in it anymore, and he much preferred just sitting in meditation. One day his brother, a college student, seeing him ignoring his schoolbooks and sitting as though in a trance, exclaimed in disgust, “Oh, you might as well just go off and become a sadhu!” Although he was being sarcastic, the young Maharshi knew that he was right, and shortly afterwards he ran away from home to renounce the world. Because his upbringing wasn’t particularly religious he didn’t know where to go; but he had heard of a hill sacred to the god Shiva which was not far away, so he went there. Upon arrival he had his head shaved, gave away his Brahmin earrings, threw away his sacred thread, tore a strip of cloth off his clothing to use as a loincloth and discarded the rest, and sat down in a nearby temple to meditate. He spent the rest of his life there, at a hill called Arunachala. He’s considered to be one of the greatest Hindu saints of the twentieth century.
Although inadvertent crisis-induced awakenings may be the most common, still there are obvious advantages to triggering them deliberately. It not only increases significantly the odds of the awakening happening, but it may obviate the need for a car wreck or a dangerous illness. The conditions are more controlled, and rather safer. Also, it much increases the odds that a wise teacher will be nearby to assist in any “reorientation” that may be necessary; or at least it may provide the subject himself or herself with some theoretical or practical knowledge to help as a guide through the aftereffects of the crisis. The crisis itself, however, presumably still has to be a real crisis: making it too controlled and safe and non-threatening could prevent any possible breakthrough. One still has to go through the wringer.
Early forms of crisis-induced spirituality dating back to the Stone Age would include so-called vision quests. Techniques for facilitating the “vision” include, but are not limited to, fasting, sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, self-torture, and simply being scared witless. I have been told that a traditional Alaskan Eskimo method for initiating young shamans is to send them out into a wilderness with no food or water, with the instructions to find a fist-sized round stone and a larger, circular flat one, and to sit on the ground and rub the small stone on the flat one, in a circular motion, without eating, drinking, sleeping, or stopping, until the vision finally comes. It may take days. Obviously, they have little choice but to have a crisis. The vision quests of the American Plains Indians tend to be rather more elaborate than this, and developed into more of a ceremony, although with essentially the same stress-inducing purpose. The ayahuasca ceremonies of South American Indians and New Age Westerners are a well-known example nowadays; and anyone who has undergone the ordeal of ayahuasca can vouch for the fact that one if its main spiritual benefits is a more or less violent purge of habitual thought patterns.
A striking example of this principle among the more well-known religious systems is what occurred during the early decades of the Methodist Church in rural England, which I have discussed in a previous article. The evangelist John Wesley developed a way of preaching sermons that would have people literally undergoing mental breakdowns. In the 18th century most English people, especially in the countryside, could not doubt the authority of the Christian Bible; so Wesley would hammer away at the incontrovertible “fact” that if people do not repent and change their ways, they will burn in Hell forever and ever. He would then describe in gruesome detail the torments of Hell that awaited all who didn’t repent. The listeners very much did not want to believe what he said, but on the other hand were compelled by their culture to believe it—flinging them into such an emotional crisis that many of them would fall to the floor convulsing and foaming at the mouth, after which they would lose consciousness. After they regained their senses, with some subsequent coaching from Methodist teachers, they would be Born Again, and would adopt a much more saintly Christian lifestyle with rejoicing and gratitude. It could be called brainwashing of a sort, but most of them were very grateful for it, and apparently were better and happier people after the religious meltdown.
Possibly a more sophisticated, enlightened approach to cultivated mental breakdown can be found in Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on koans. A koan is a riddle with no answer; yet a Zen practitioner may be required to answer it. It is his sacred duty to answer it. He grinds away at trying to find the impossible solution to the riddle until his thinking mind finally reads “error” and comes to a stop—whereupon the truth that lies beyond the thinking mind becomes manifest.
The paradoxical approach of Zen to Reality can itself be conducive to crisis-induced Awakening. The following koan, case 15 of the Mumonkan, gives some indication of this without anyone even having to sit in meditation:
Tōzan came to study with Ummon. Ummon asked, “Where are you from?” “From Sato,” Tōzan replied. “Where did you spend the summer retreat?” “Well, I was at the monastery of Hōzu, south of the lake.” “When did you leave there?” Ummon asked. “At the end of August,” Tōzan replied. “I spare you sixty blows,” Ummon said.
The next day Tōzan came to Ummon and said, “Yesterday you said you spared me sixty blows. I beg to ask you, where was I at fault?” “Oh, you are good for nothing!” Ummon roared. “You just wander around from one place to another!” Tōzan thereupon experienced a profound enlightenment.
Think about it. If you can explain it, you win! In Katsuki Sekida’s commentary to this case, he observes,
All night Tōzan had tossed and turned sleeplessly, trying to work out where he had gone wrong. He could find no answer to his rigorous self-searching and came to Ummon in a desperate state of mind. This is the condition that the skillful Zen master brings about by timely beating or harsh words. When the student has been brought to this extreme an explosion occurs, just as a ripe pea pod bursts open at the touch of a finger.
I may as well add that, at a deep level, Ummon’s bellowed reproof was absolutely right, and Tōzan realized this. Ummon himself, legend has it, became enlightened when his own teacher broke Ummon’s leg while slamming it in a door.
In Theravada this principle of crisis opening the door to enlightenment is less emphasized and less obvious, but it is still there—although it was much more there in ancient times, when it was closer to what the Buddha actually taught and experienced for himself. The lifestyle of a primordial Buddhist renunciant, living homeless and without money, begging for his food in the streets, being exposed to the weather as well as parasites, dangerous animals, and antagonistic humans, was itself fairly crisis-inducing. Add to that the ancient Indian attitude, taken very seriously, of the whole world being a great mass of suffering, a cosmic conflagration, and an early Buddhist was well set up for a profound existential breakthrough.
I would prefer not to save my own case for last, so I will give a few examples from my own life here, since my practice has been more Theravadin than otherwise. I’m pretty sure that both incidents to be related have been described elsewhere on this blog, but they are worth repeating.
One time, when my attempts to imitate ancient Indian bhikkhus were going full blast, I was living under a rock ledge at the edge of a large, malarial Burmese forest. Living in solitude like this was already somewhat of a strain, with a noble yet perhaps unrealistic and impossible ideal in my head being even more of one; yet what eventually put me over the edge, so to speak, was prolonged, sweltering hot, humid weather. There were times when I would go for days without being able to be comfortable or to stop sweating, except while sitting in a creek. Even in the middle of the night I’d be lying there on the ground sweating. Finally one night I snapped and was pacing furiously back and forth like a caged leopard, raging inwardly. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Then suddenly there was a shift of consciousness. It was as though my misery went right off the scale, ejecting me from the box I was in: I was still pacing and raging and sweating profusely, yet there was another level of consciousness involved, just observing with complete detachment. It was as though I had suddenly become an actor merely playing the role of someone quietly throwing a desperate conniption. The conniption continued, but the “person” throwing it stopped being the center of attention, and became almost irrelevant, as did the whole point of the desparation itself.
On another occasion I had been feeling a vague, quiet despair and sense of futility with regard to my practice for about a year. I was walking down some stone steps through a forest on my way to the monastery well to take a bath, and suddenly I began feeling intensely painful stomach cramps. (Such an event was not particularly uncommon—with no electricity and no refrigeration, as well as little concept of hygiene on the part of the villagers who offered me food, eating food that had gone a bit “off,” like some spoiled shrimp curry, did happen from time to time.) I was doubled over, holding my belly and thinking that what this meant was that I would be making three or four emergency trips to the outhouse that night. Then, at around the same time, it started raining. I had no umbrella with me and no extra set of clothes at all, so I was also thinking that I’d be wearing wet clothes the next morning, until my body heat dried them out. So there I was, doubled over in pain, with a look on my face as though I were dying, with the midnight trots and a wetly-clothed morning to look forward to…and again, suddenly there was a shift in consciousness. It seemed like all the pain and trouble and commotion were like waves on the surface of a storm-tossed lake, with “me,” or rather my new center of attention, deep below it in water that was calm and still. I remember feeling as though I were looking up through the still water at the trouble and commotion at the surface, being quite detached from it; and although my body was still doubled over in pain, with a grimace indicating I was dying, the profound blessing of experiencing even the possibility of such detachment and bliss had me so happy and so grateful that I was on the verge of weeping tears of joy and gratitude.
Such experiences could be called glimpses or brief approximations of enlightenment; and although they didn’t last, they stay with me as reminders of what is possible. They serve as frames of reference which help me to maintain a detached perspective while wallowing in this world. They didn’t last, but nothing lasts really. Everything that has a beginning also has an end. But I do feel intuitively that the source of that higher perspective, which I have experienced many times, may have no beginning and no end. I consider such experiences to be possibly the most important of my life, and well worth all the desperation and trouble that helped to trigger some of them, or maybe all of them.
Moving on to Theravada as found in the Suttanta, I’ll give two more examples. One is venerable Godhika, whose story is told in the Saṁyutta Nikāya (S.1.4.23). A rather desperate crisis in his practice inspired him to commit suicide; and the of course emotionally intense experience of cutting his own throat, in addition to the preliminary crisis, happened to trigger the realization of full enlightenment. He died and became an Arahant at the same moment. In fact there are some teachers, like Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle for instance, who say that the moment of death, or the moment immediately before it, is a golden opportunity for liberation from Samsara (totally setting aside the materialist notion that everyone is liberated at death regardless). Godhika is not the only one to have become enlightened at the moment of death, allegedly.
Another example from the texts is the non-Buddhist renunciant Bāhiya, whose tale is told in the Bāhiya Sutta of the Udāna (Ud.1.10). He was relatively advanced spiritually, and began considering himself to be possibly already enlightened; and upon realizing that he wan’t enlightened, he was overwhelmed with a feeling of intense urgency (saṁvega), and set out immediately to find the Buddha, of whom he had just heard, and to learn from him. He was in such a highly wrought state of tension that just a few words from the Buddha standing in the street were enough to trigger his realization.
Of course we can listen to such stories with mild interest (at best), largely because we modern Westerners are almost immune to feelings of deep spiritual urgency. Almost. Even so, it helps to be very sincere about what we are doing, and really to put our whole heart into it—if only because it is only then that we arrive at complete despair when we hit the stone wall.
Nowadays, especially in the West, crisis-induced spiritual breakthroughs are most likely to occur at relatively intensive meditation retreats, as was mentioned in part 1; or else they are of the accidental variety, with maybe some elementary Buddhist training serving to guide the person through the aftereffects of the crisis. But for the most part Dhamma practice has devolved into a comfortable, safe, non-threatening hobby (in the West) or cultural tradition (in the East) which is not particularly conducive to enlightenment and is not even directed toward it. The modern mania for safety and comfort have practically guaranteed that spiritual mediocrity and lukewarmness prevail, especially in the West. So again, we mostly wind up with the accidental kind, possibly along with some kind of terminal disease.
Some years ago I watched an interview with Ram Dass, the video itself probably being some years old at the time; and in this interview Ram Dass made the interesting statement that he was a member of an organization which promoted whatever would cause the greatest heightening of consciousness for the greatest number of people, even if that necessitated World War Three. It is a strange reminder that misfortunes, and especially terrible calamities, spontaneously evoke the best and noblest in people, not only the worst.
Anyway, I’m not suggesting that we should all go out and cause a cataclysm, or catch a life-threatening disease—calamities have a way of happening without our trying for them, so there is no need for that. Besides, doing it on purpose causes bad karma, and is cheating besides. What I am suggesting is that if we do practice Dhamma/Dharma, we should do it wholeheartedly, and as well as we can, regardless of whether or not we are destined to hit a stone wall in the process. Lukewarmness just isn’t going work so well.
Why is it that something like a close brush with death is normally needed for the heavenliness of the world to be experienced? (And even that works in only a minority of cases!) The film's answer [the film being Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges], if I understand it right, seems to be that the natural biological fear-response seems to have gotten out of hand in the human species, to the point where it governs the whole organization of social life down to the minutest detail, blocking out aliveness in the process. For the fortunate minority, coming close to death unravels the knot, but then we have the problem of finding out how to organize practical affairs with fear as life's servant rather than its master, something about which even the world's greatest mystics and religious teachers have left us only very partial blueprints. —John Wren-Lewis