An excerpt from Enlightenment Ain’t What it Is Cracked Up To Be: A Journey of Discovery, Snow and Jazz in the Soul.
It all began January 4, 1972, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, in a hotel on the beach in Mallorca, Spain, on a nine-month meditation retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I couldn’t miss the change.
What I noticed immediately was that almost all of the background noise in my mind had disappeared. All those inarticulate mutterings, the endless half-thoughts beneath my thinking, just disappeared. It was as if behind the movie of my mind had been scrims behind scrims of thought, dimmer, movies I could barely make out. But that afternoon it was as if the light had suddenly shifted so that the front scrim became opaque and suddenly I was watching just one movie. I was thinking only one thought at a time.
A second effect became obvious as that last tube zipped itself off. This one is harder to describe. If you had asked me before that afternoon who or what I, Robert Forman, was, I probably would have pointed to somewhere on my mid chest and said, “I’m here, me, Robert!” I’d be trying to get at some vaguely localized sense of a self that I suspect we all have. I, me, Robert, was in there — somewhere.
But once that last strand fell into silent openness, my sense of who or what I was instantly changed with it. I was now the new bottomlessness. Or rather, it — the vast openness — was now me.
A third effect I discovered some two days later. I was standing on the triangular porch off my hotel room, looking through the mist at the white caps dotting the Mediterranean. Something about the scene was somehow different. The sea seemed particularly vibrant, the fog vivid. The drizzle against my bare arms felt unusually cool and crisp.
Then it occurred to me: what was different wasn’t the scene. It was me. The Mediterranean was so alive, the mist so cool because I was now more alive to them!
Standing on that porch, feeling the chilly January air on my cheeks, unlike where I used to be, I was no longer in the scene. Rather I was holding it, conscious of it, attending to it.
Maharishi had talked endlessly about an enigmatic aspect of enlightenment: sak_in or witnessing. In it,
“When the mind is experiencing objects through the senses, he is awake in the awareness of his self as separate from the field of experience and action. … He is awake in the world and awake in himself.”
I had always imagined this sak_in, “witnessing,” to be some sort of doubled-up consciousness, as if you’d stand back, arms folded, and make yourself watch yourself. The few times something like this had happened before, I was both looking at something and trying to watch myself look. While I was reading, for example, I’d also imagine myself as if from a few feet away, sensing myself sitting in the chair reading. It sounds, and was, pretty grueling.
But leaning against that cool porch railing, feeling the drizzle on my forearms, was just the opposite. There was no extra work in this experience; witnessing was utterly effortless. Looking over the misty dunes and the white caps, I was simply conscious that I was looking, feeling, thinking. I was at once a seeing and a separate, silent awakeness. It was that awakeness that was conscious of all this. And being so terribly conscious at that moment, witnessing myself seeing, was astonishingly fresh! I was simply and richly conscious of being there, both looking at the sea and conscious of doing so. How utterly normal! How utterly new!
I was not trying to witness, not even a little. I just was watching it all. And doing so took as little additional effort as it takes to have a right hand. I was just present to the white caps, present to the cool of the porch rail, present to the mist. I was conscious and conscious of being conscious, that’s all.
I became aware of one final effect about a week after that cumulous walk. I woke up one morning certain that, although I’d clearly been asleep, all of me actually hadn’t been. Some odd bit of awareness had persisted through the night, awake. I had been fully asleep, for sure, but not quite, not all of me.
Maharishi often told us that one of the marks of enlightenment would be what he called “wakefulness in sleep.” Even though you’re asleep, something inside remains conscious.
“The transcendent state continues to maintain itself at all times, in a natural manner, irrespective of the different states of waking, dreaming or sleeping.”
You or “it” remains aware of your own consciousness even while sleeping: “Even when it is night for all others,” as the Gita put it, “you remain wakeful.”
Frankly, wakefulness in sleep had always sounded pretty awful. Sometimes I had lain half awake all night, worrying about how tired I was going to feel the next day, wondering what I had eaten that had caused such insomnia and thinking maybe I should get up and open the window and…. But then I’d get up and feel surprisingly refreshed. The idea that I’d have to go through this every night for the rest of my life sounded positively grueling!
But witnesseing sleep that night, and every night since, actually seemed quite natural. I was awake inside, sure, but the wakeful part was so understated, so unobtrusive and natural that there was nothing at all traumatic about it. Even today, I hardly bother to notice whether I was awake inside, unless like last night (when I was writing this section) I have some reason to notice. But it’s there, it was and is how I sleep.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’ve actually slept. Here is another peculiar side effect of all this. Since waking and sleeping are so continuous, to know if I’ve been asleep I have to check the clock to see how long I’ve “not been asleep.” Weird, but you get used to it.
Despite all these changes, big and small, and with all the perspective of an impatient 25 year old, all I felt back then was disappointment. My mind hadn’t become totally silent, the world hadn’t been transformed. I still got nervous before I went downstairs to dinner. I was still afraid I’d never make a decent TM teacher and I was still often lonely. Those tubes and sleep changes were interesting and all, but compared to the end of all suffering for which I was waiting, this was pretty much squat.
Ah, the impatience of the young! For ever since that January afternoon, behind everything I do now is this bottomless emptiness, so open as to be without end. I have grown accustomed to the fact that this is now me. Not the me of doing dishes, not the me that is worried or writing a paper, not the me that feels alone or scared or happy. But it is the me that watches and lives and holds it all. I am, strange to say, infinite. And astonishingly, miraculously, the old me is here as well.
And I am grateful.