Autobiography Part 7: "Like Space"

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In this post, I'm a bit past the half-way point of my first Zen retreat, a week-long sit in 1988. Earlier posts have detailed my initial struggles with formal sitting and self-inquiry, as well as the daily interviews (koan or kong-an practice) with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim.

Four or five days had gone by, filled with endless hours on the cushion, bringing up the great question, looking for the true nature of my self and this moment. Over and over, answers would appear in my mind. Then another thought would appear, recognizing my answer as an idea, as just thinking. The cycle had repeated itself -- I can only estimate -- approximately a billion times. Still at square one. I hadn't advanced a millimeter, hadn't made a dent in "What am I?"

I'd gotten nothing but exhausted on every level. Even the thoughts themselves seemed tired, not passing in a blur, but kind of limping by on crutches. At least that made it easier to see each thought for what it was. Like watching a magic trick in slow motion: after a while, it's no longer amazing, it's just some guy pulling a Nerf ball from his sleeve.

I'd been tangled up in my efforts to crack the great mystery of existence. At this particular point, I started to get a little perspective. I felt like I was watching these physical and mental struggles... as if I were in a movie theater, and thoughts (feelings, perceptions, sensations, everything) were flickering lights on the screen.

This witnessing perspective wasn't so new or unusual. It was just that the first part of the retreat had been so challenging that I'd been enmeshed in my efforts for days, unable to simply observe till now. It was a bit of a relief.

Then, I dunno, something shifted. Hey, it wasn't that I was watching flickering lights on a movie screen. Holy Shit! EVERYTHING was like flickering lights, INCLUDING that thing called "I"! Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ! For so so long, that "I" had seemed so so solid. But it was a thought, appearing and disappearing, just like the rest of them.

Suddenly, all pain and fatigue disappeared. There was no problem; there wasn't even the possibility of problems. There wasn't anything solid to which a problem could adhere. This wasn't fuzzy like drug-induced euphoria. What did ZMSS always say? Don't Know is "clear like space." Of course! What's space like? It's empty; it's like... nothing at all.

The rest of the sitting session passed by seamlessly, with all thoughts, all things, just appearing and disappearing. Except that now and then, a thought would appear that was a bit stickier than the rest, a thought that started to gain weight, and threaten to become substantial. Thoughts like, "Will this last forever? Is this that Spiritual Enlightenment I've heard about?" But each time, within a second or two, it became clear that this too was just insubstantial thinking. Self, no-self, enlightenment, no-enlightenment, temporary, permanent... all just thoughts, coming and going, by natural process.

The sitting session ended, time for an hour-long break before dinner. What to do? I left the house, and walked towards the U.C. Berkeley campus a block away, curious about what the world would be like. It felt as if for my whole life, I'd been walking into a stiff wind, fighting resistance with each step. The wind had been so constant that I didn't even notice it. And now, my body had somehow become porous, transparent, empty or something, so the wind could pass right through it. There was no more resistance, everything was effortless.

The northern border of campus was a busy street without a traffic light. I'd crossed it here hundreds of times. Often it wasn't reasonable to wait till there was no traffic, so I'd make an automatic calculation of how far away the cars were and how fast they were going, and attempt to walk across safely.

Walking across the street was the same this time... except wait, there was something missing. Typically, as I crossed, there'd be a little voice in my head, saying something like, "What if I misjudged? Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'll get run over. Damn, that'd make me feel stupid!" Maybe that voice was what ZMSS had called "checking."

I hadn't noticed my checking so much all those other times. Now, though, its absence was evident. Of course I was trying to avoid getting killed, but there was a limit to what I could know for sure. My job was to do my best to cross correctly, step by step. Beyond that... hell, that was all! I had to laugh.

I hadn't walked 50 feet into the campus when I saw a young woman approaching me. There was something about her body language, or maybe it was the stack of pamphlets she was carrying, that made me suspect she was a Jesus Person. Y'know, one of those folks who stop you on the street and try to get you to accept Christ and save your soul. I'd always been a magnet for them. This should be interesting.

In upcoming entries, I'll tell an amusing story about getting proselytized, and then describe how I finished the final days of retreat, got some key direction from ZMSS, and tried to digest it all. Kindly bear with me; just a couple few more of these blogs and I think I can bring this long and tiresome story to a close.


For the original posting of this story, please follow this link to my blog: