- by Philip St. Romain
- also published as a chapter in Critical Issues in Christian Contemplative Practice
For several years now, I have been experiencing what I have called an "awareness state," or "cosmic state." in my journals. It may not be appropriate to call it enlightenment since that terminology belongs to the Zen tradition, and my own experience has not been validated or confirmed by a representative from Zen. The term, "Christian enlightenment," is, perhaps, sufficient nuancing since it acknowledges both the context in which this state has been developed and its similarity to descriptions of the Zen experience.
My first experience of this was while taking a shower sometime in 1988. It was just a regular old shower--not particularly enjoyable. But at some point, I "noticed" the droplets of water running down the wall and felt as though I had entered another world. There was nothing outstanding about these droplets, only that I found myself observing them in such a manner that they were immediately present to me. I use the words "I" and "me" here only as conventions of language, for what was most unique about the "experience" was that it was as though there was no personal, intentional self at all. Observer and observed had fused somehow; the droplets were dribbling "inside of me." Within a few seconds (I don't really know how long it was), my mind snapped into action and I began to try to understand what had happened. The experience vanished just as quickly as it had arisen.
During the days and weeks that followed, this sort of thing happened again and again. I would be talking to someone, walking, working in the garden, and then all of a sudden, I was immediately present to what was happening. All boundaries seemed to disappear, and with them, all fear. I did not know what was causing this to happen, although I sensed that it had something to do with the deepening of my prayer, and the activity of the energy I was calling kundalini in my brain--especially in the third eye.
Having experienced contemplative prayer many times through the years, I noted similarities between this new experience and contemplation. There were distinctive differences, too, however. Whenever I experienced contemplative prayer, there was absolutely no doubt that I was in God's presence. The silence was of varying degrees, sometimes so deep that the mind could not even think, other times a bit more shallow, as in the prayer of quiet. I felt as though I was being grasped from deep within by God, and was being drawn to deeper union with God through the energy of love. This new experience was similar to mystical contemplation in the depth of mental silence and in the clarity of perception which ensued. It was distinctly different, however, in that there was no sense whatsoever of a relational union with God through love. In fact, it seemed as though God disappeared completely (or else "I" disappeared); it is difficult to describe this non-duality, but that is one of it's primary characteristics.
After a year or so, I had learned how to "tune in" to this state, and how I fell out of it. No operation of the mind or will could produce it; what was called for was a certain shifting of my awareness from the particular to the general, then the state came in an of itself. It was never the same in depth and clarity; the condition of my body, mind, and intention seemed to account for something of its intensity and clarity, but not its manifestation. In time, I came to see that this state was, in fact, always there, and had always been there. It was the "background consciousness" out of which all my experiences of intentional consciousness had arisen. Everyone has it, only most people take it for granted and don't know how to tune into it.
Description of the State
It is difficult to make positive statements about this state. In fact, there is a danger doing so, for the mind can then latch onto the words and try to create something similar using its own creativity. As I have mentioned, however, the mind can do nothing to create this state; it adds nothing to it, and enriches it in no way. It is possible to think while in this state, although there is a very definite disinclination toward judgmental thinking, philosophy, theology, and other exercises of the mind that attempt to organize reality in conceptual terms, or to project judgments onto it. And yet, it is possible to think out plans, to converse, to create, to describe, and even to problem solve in this state. Mostly, it seems to be intuitive in its operations.
Again, words are a danger, for the intuition I am referring to here is more mystical than imaginative. This is not the intuition of Jung, but of the mystic, who knows things without knowing how she or he knows them. This kind of intuition is quite at home with sensory awareness, while Jung's is not. In the state of awareness, there can be intuitive knowing happening simultaneously with profound sensory perception. Awareness is not an introverted state, nor is it extroverted. Inner and outer have no meaning, here, for it seems that there is no boundary between the inner and the outer. "External" events like a bird singing or the sun shining seem to be happening inside of one's being just as surely as they are happening outside. And yet, simultaneously, one knows that one is not the sun or the bird. The unity of all things is a reality experienced in varying degrees of depth, depending on the quality of the state.
In particularly intense experiences of unity, I have a sense that the one who is looking out of my eyes is looking out of every one else's eyes, including animals' and even plants'. Plants have no physical eyes, of course, but it seems, nonetheless, that they are apertures through which awareness views reality in the space-time world. This overwhelming sense of unity does not annihilate one's ability to relate to others, nor to fulfill one's responsibilities. Quite obviously, it provides a qualitatively different context in which individual life is exercised. Individual life is real, and this is seen clearly. It is not separate from other lives, however, nor from the awareness which "sees" through all reality.
Several other positive characteristics of this state deserve mention, here:
This last characteristic is a highly distinctive one. It is what I noticed when I first saw the droplets of water in the shower. By immediacy of attention, I mean that whatever comes into the field of attention is present without triggering a mental reaction of any kind. There is no movement of the mind to relate the perception to a previous one, nor to a particular intention we may be working out of. What is seen (or heard or touched) is present to one without distortion, as though reflecting off of a spotless mirror within one's being. In this state, it is possible to know an object "as it is," rather than for any kind of meaning interpreted by the mind. There is a natural delight in encountering anything in this manner. Even the simplest of things--a leaf, or blade of grass--can be a source of deep mystery and wonder.
Conditions for Realizing the State
In one sense, there are no conditions for realizing this state, for it is always there and only needs to be noticed. It is, in reality, the simple fact of awareness. After one learns to become attuned to this, one can tune into it at any time, although the depth and clarity will vary depending on a number of circumstances. This does not change the fact that, as the Zen people say, this state is naught but the ordinary, everyday mind. By mind, here, I am sure they do not mean the reflecting, analyzing intellect. They mean mind in the larger sense, as our native intelligence, prior to its conditioning by society. We all possess this "natural mind," or general awareness state. We just need to learn how to get in touch with it.
The primary obstacle to experiencing this state is the noisy mind. Even so, once one learns about this state, and how to tune in, even the noisy mind is no obstacle (but it does diminish the clarity). When the mind is noisy with fragmented thoughts, desires, emotions and memories, attention is also fragmented and dissipated. The natural, compensatory nature of the psyche is to correct this disharmony, and so psychic energy is recruited in the interest of reconciling conflicts within. There is little inclination to notice the background awareness, for the natural focus is toward specific kinds of issues, some of which carry great personal import. Most of life can be spent attending to these narrow issues, with the consequence that one never "wakes up" to the larger reality out of which the psyche itself emerges.
The mind must be calmed, and the self-seeking tendencies of the will must be diminished. There are many, many ways to do this, of course, and Christian spirituality has much to contribute unto these ends (as do all the world religions, of course). So long as one desires anything with sufficient intensity to generate anxiety about not getting it, this constriction of consciousness will detract from opening to cosmic awareness. Self-seeking must go, and the mind must be content with the limited knowledge it has about reality.
Learning to tune into the background awareness is the next step, and it is here that some very specific disciplines can be helpful. The simplest and most effective way for me is to let go of all ideas concerning "who I am," and to look out of my eyes as though they are windows into space-time reality. I then simply note that a being is peering out of these eyes, and I rest in this awareness of the fact that I am. Sometimes, I will also note that the observer is greater than the body, and I experience that this is so--that my body is part of my being, and that my being goes out beyond my body. The mind can suggest these simple disciplines, but what happens after that is not in any way created by the mind. Before the simple awareness that I am a being whose boundaries are virtually limitless, the mind is struck dumb, for it has no sensory perceptions upon which to operate. Its conceptual understanding of God and soul is such that it does not shut down the experience by generating anxiety or confusion, but I wish to make it clear that the awareness state is not like other roles or identities created by the mind to accomplish a certain task. It is, instead, an experience of being-here-now: nothing more, nothing less.
Certain meditation practices can also help to awaken one to this state. I am convinced that contemplative prayer makes this state more easily accessible, as one learns to rest in God's loving presence beyond thoughts and images, and, hences, becomes acclimated to non-conceptual consciousness. One also learnt to trust in mystery, and becomes more spiritually alive.
One prayer practice that I use is, with eyes closed in a quiet place, to simply be present to God in the moment, consciously surrendering to God all thoughts and desires that make any claim on my attention. This is similar to Buddhist vipassana meditation, only it is done in a relational context. By surrendering to God more deeply, the mind and will are calmed. If the grace of mystical contemplation is given, I enjoy it. If not, I rest in the deep silence of cosmic awareness with eyes closed. There is boundless tranquility, and sometimes I see brilliant blue and purple lights, which energize the mind and heart.
At one point in my journey, I made a Zen retreat. That was before I knew of this state, and Zen meditation (zazen) did not help to awaken it in my case. I do not see how zazen has any connection with this state, other than helping to calm the mind and will. Indeed, if one takes up Zen or any other practice with the idea that the practice can awaken this state, this very intent will frustrate it. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do to create this state. As long as one is engaging in a practice in the hope of somehow producing or realizing this state, it will not work.
Until one has experienced cosmic awareness a few times, however, I am not sure one can tune into it. It is so utterly simple and obvious that it goes unnoticed. If it does not make itself known somehow, then I do not know how one can learn to live in it. It must emerge as something of a grace, and then one can learn to see it for what it is. The confirmation of it by another who knows it can also be helpful. This I received from a friend and from the literature on Zen, particularly the Zen master Bankei.
It was while presenting a retreat in Amarillo, Texas, and visiting with Bob Curry, the director of the DeFalco Center there, that I became acquainted with The Unborn, a book of sermons attributed to Zen master Bankei (1622-1693). I had been having these spontaneous experiences of cosmic awareness, as I have described above, and I shared this with Bob. He was well versed in Zen literature, owing primarily to his relationship with Fr. Patrick Hawk, a Catholic priest and Zen master who resides at the DeFalco Center. "That's it!" Bob exclaimed, when I told him of my experiences. "That's enlightenment!" He then gave me Bankei's book, which confirmed Bob's words. Here is an example of Bankei's teaching:
When your mother bears you, you have neither bad habits of behavior nor selfish desires of any kind; your mind has no inclination to favor yourself. There’s nothing but the Buddha-mind. But from the age of about four or five on you begin to learn all manner of wrong behavior by watching the people around you, and by listening you learn from them their ill-favored knowledge. Making your way through life under such conditions, it’s little wonder that selfish desires emerge, leading to a strong self-partiality, which is the source of all your illusions and evil acts. If this self-partiality ceases to exist, illusion doesn’t occur. That place of nonoccurrence is where you reside when you live in the Unborn. Buddhahood and the Buddha-mind are found nowhere else.
(The Unborn: The Life and Teaching of Zen Master Bankei. North Point Press. San Francisco. 1984. p. 83).
This was it, all right. Even the term, "The Unborn," validated my sense that cosmic awareness was uncreated insofar as it was not a fabrication of the mind. None of this is to suggest that my experience was formally validated by a Zen master (I never got to discuss this with Fr. Patrick Hawk (a zen master), who was also leading a retreat at the time). What I was left with was a conviction that others had known experiences similar to my own, and that it was recognized to be liberating and valuable.
In terms of conditions for realizing the experience, one can see that Bankei emphasizes "that place of nonoccurrence," or the inner freedom which is awakened when self-seeking is relinquished. This is the most critical of all conditions, as I have already stated. It is also the most difficult condition to attain.
Christianity and Enlightenment
But what to make of all this from a Christian context? After all, I was not (and still am not) a practicing Buddhist. Even though I had read about the beliefs and practices of other religions for years, and had made a retreat on Zen, my coming to this experience was in the context of Christian spirituality. I had heard of enlightenment, and had an inclination of what is was--thanks in large part to the writings of Thomas Merton. But I had never expected to experience it, and had certainly not set the realization of it as the goal of my Christian life. It appeared spontaneously, and whenever it did so, I endeavored to learn what I could about from whence it came, and how it went. That I could eventually tune into it at will distinguished it from mystical contemplation, whose comings and goings I could not control, even though I desired it greatly. It was, to me, an experience of the "natural" order. But what kind of experience was it? A good one, for sure: there was no doubting that! Yet finding confirmation of this experience in the Christian literature has not been easy. The overwhelming concern seems to be with mystical contemplation.
I will not pretend to have a completely satisfactory philosophical or theological explanation of this experience. To say that it is natural, for example, does not in any way imply that it is not also an experience of God. The identity of the "observer" is a great mystery. It is clearly not the intentional Ego, and yet it is very familiar. That it leaves no impression in the personal, affective memory also makes me suspect a transpersonal origin; so does the experience of the observer looking out from all of creation. It is difficult to attribute this to any kind of individual self, and so increasingly, I tend to think of it as Christ in his cosmic aspect of manifestation, who has also bound himself to me through his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension so that my life and all of creation now unfolds in him.* The absence of fear and the benevolence toward all is also testimony to the presence of the Love which knows no anxiety and wishes the best for all. Between Christ and my deepest self, from which my individuality springs, there is no separation. So it seems, at least.
And yet, as I have related, mystical contemplation is a different encounter with Christ. In contemplative experiences, I sense that Christ is sharing with me his own inner, Spirit bond with the Father. In mystical contemplation, one is brought into the inner life of God--a life which is present to the deep Self, but which the Self cannot penetrate. Even in the state of cosmic awareness, where other people are seen in clarity and freshness, the inner life of another remains an inaccessible mystery. I might see the other clearly and know my spiritual connection with him or her, but the other must reveal his/her inner life to me for me to know it. Cosmic awareness cannot penetrate into the inner life of another person, much less God. Mystical contemplation is such an experience of God, and so it it a supernatural grace rather than a natural capacity.
In my view, there is no conflict between the two states. Even though they are not the same kind of experience of God, they can co-exist in a person, and even enrich one another. Mystical contemplation can help to open one to cosmic awareness, and cosmic awareness can provide the optimal conditions for opening to mystical graces. The role of faith, here, is extremely important. Cosmic awareness does not annihilate Christian faith in any way. When in this state, there is a disinclination to seek God through words, symbols and rituals, but faith preserves an openness to receive communication from God (Who is not a concept). One is content to simply rest in God as the Ground of one's being, but this does not imply a resistance to mystical grace. If it should happen that the Ground wants to erupt, or to communicate something of Itself, there is no boundary to obstruct It. This openness to a mystical relationship with the Ground is a contribution of Christian faith, and it is in no way diminished by cosmic awareness. Faith transcends all states of consciousness, and continues to be one's primary stance toward God even in the state of cosmic awareness. For this reason, there is no reason whatsoever for a person of Christian faith to denounce Eastern experiences of enlightenment. Nor, as I have shared in this brief report, is it really necessary to turn to the East to come to enlightenment. As the Buddhists say, we are already enlightened! We just need to learn how to wake up to this fact. That we can do so within the context of Christianity is, perhaps, an affirmation not sufficiently appreciated thus far.
* In Critical Issues in Christian Contemplative Practice, I noted that this experience can also be accounted for, in part, by acknowledging a non-reflecting aspect of the human spiritual soul. The soul being spiritual, it is open to the cosmos and can "feel" interiorly its connection with other creatures.