How a Glimpse of 'Absolute Perfection' Changed the Course of My Life
So it turns out enlightenment is real...
Note: This is not advice. Psychedelics carry risk. Even meditation carries some risk so it’s best to work with a competent teacher. I’m still a beginner when it comes to meditation so anything I describe here is best understood as my tentative understanding.
I might be the least spiritually inclined person you’ll ever meet. I was raised to believe that the earth was six thousand years old and that evolution was the stupid idea that life somehow formed by chance. When I realized none of it was true it was so painful that I literally felt like I had the flu for two weeks. The world suddenly made more sense. I became intensely concerned with how I could separate true from false and sensitive to any inconsistency in what I believed. You could describe my core value as ‘epistemic hygiene’, or ‘How can I not get fooled again?’
That experience explains a big part of my personality to this day. I became allergic to anything ‘woo’. On dating apps I would swipe left on hot people identifying as ‘spiritual’, which to me translated as ‘sloppy thinker who probably believes in astrology’. Eventually my deep distaste for these things mellowed, but the core value remained. I even started meditating after hearing ten or twenty credible people recommend it.
I explain all this because if you’re like me I want you to be able to hear what I have to say next.
About two years ago I was visiting a friend living on Kauai. Her backyard was stunningly beautiful: a rolling green lawn sloping down into a jungle, and just beyond that, a wide view of the ocean. I’d been doing loving-kindness meditation in the last month and I was happy. As I stood there watching whale spouts for a few minutes I realized that this was the most perfect set and setting I had ever experienced, and possibly ever would experience, and if there was ever a time to do a large dose of psychedelics this was it.
So that weekend I did, went and sat on the patio and started to meditate. The first thing I noticed was that meditation was easier than it had ever been. I found this was because all the subtle and not-subtle anxious, restless sensations I could usually feel in my body were gone. Everything was silky smooth and I felt great. The meditation slowly wound down into just enjoying the scenery. I started to go very still. Even my eyes stopped moving and fixed on a single point on the horizon. My vision became blurry. The view became patches of color: green for the lawn, green for the jungle, blue for the ocean, and blue for the sky.
Watching the textures moving and shifting as they do on psychedelics, I had an idle thought: ‘It’s moving; that means it’s in here, not out there.’ Suddenly everything shifted. It became obvious that this array of colors and everything else I was experiencing were all merely appearing in awareness.
It felt as correct to say it was all me as it did to say none of it was me. This is not to say that the world did not exist, or that I was literally the ocean, but it was clear that the seeing, the hearing, the thoughts and the feeling were all equally appearing in awareness. The former distinction between internal and external sensations was clearly seen as artificial.
And all of that would just be a neat trick, if it was not accompanied by a sense of absolute perfection.
When I say ‘absolute perfection’ the words fail. All I can do is shake my hands and say ‘But you still don’t understand how perfect it was!’ Not only did it feel absolutely perfect, it was clear that it had always been absolutely perfect, would always be absolutely perfect, and that nothing could ever change that. I remember looking back and forth at every last tiny detail and marveling at how this, too, was absolutely perfect.
You know when you’re in a room where the refrigerator turns off and you realize it hadn’t actually been quiet before? It was like that, except instead of a refrigerator it was a 747 engine, and it had been revving at deafening volume my entire life. Phrases like 'The peace that passeth all understanding' or ‘knowing the face of god’ suddenly made sense. It wasn’t a pleasurable experience, ‘satisfying’ is a better word, if satisfying had less of a subdued neutral connotation and more of an 'OH MY GOD' vibe.
The possibility of this perfection was not something I could unsee.
Before, my meditation had been a hearsay based practice. Credible people had recommended it often enough to trigger my ‘I notice I’m confused’ flag which had led me to look into it further. I felt vaguely better when I meditated, but I didn’t really understand what it was about beyond feeling a bit better.
As woo-allergic as I was I also prided myself as someone who could take a clue and it was obvious that what I’d experienced was related to the ‘awakening’ thing spiritual people were on about, and that if this was possible it was clearly one of the most important things I could investigate.
Why was I meditating in the first place? I was suffering; by which I don’t mean anything too dramatic or uncommon. I’d be depressed at times and happy at others. Mostly there was a sense of restless dissatisfaction with myself and life. And I started to notice that all the things I did to feel better seemed to be surprisingly temporary measures.
If you’d told me when I was scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s that I would fulfill my ambition of starting a company, do hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, grow to 250 employees, and still feel more or less the same I would not have believed you.
I know I’m a cliche. The startup burnout to spirituality pipeline is strong for a reason.
Don’t get me wrong; money is great. It makes life much easier, but it’s surprisingly difficult to convert into lasting happiness. Maybe I could have fooled myself into believing that the next order of magnitude of success would do it, but I knew the guy at the next order of magnitude, and the one after that. To quote Justin Kan ‘Yeah I sold a company for a billion dollars, but I was looking at the AirBnB founders. The Airbnb founders were looking at Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs is fucking dead.’
Finding a Teacher
After Hawaii I talked to several meditation teachers trying to figure out what had happened. A friend introduced me to a former monk named Shinzen Young, who kindly agreed to do a video call. Our call turned into a three hour conversation. ‘This isn’t the first time I’m having this conversation.’ He told me. ‘This isn’t even the three hundredth time I’m having this conversation.’
Shinzen was the ideal person for me to meet. In addition to being a proficient meditator, he was a math and science nerd. He could speak my language. He also had among the best vibes I’ve ever found in a human being. His love and fascination with life, people, and ideas were obvious. I thought ‘If this is what meditation produces, sign me up.’
Shinzen encouraged me to find a teacher and I started working with Tucker Peck, a former meditation researcher and practicing psychiatrist who was the furthest thing from a flowing robes guru I could find.
I figured this was just an hours game and started meditating an hour or two a day. I also nervously accepted an invitation from Tucker to join an 8 day silent retreat in Glastonbury, England.
On retreat I decided to practice following my breath. I found my mind would wander every few seconds. I’d return to the breath, and almost immediately get distracted again. Despite trying to remain equanimous, frustration built and built. In normal life you can distract yourself from bad feelings by setting something on fire, finding a new Harry Potter fanfiction, or binge watching The Bachelor. None of that exists on retreat. My frustration piled up around my feet and I slowly contracted into a ball of suffering that hated meditation, myself, and the world.
After six days of pain I said 'To hell with this; it’s not working. I’m trying something else.'
On a whim I decided that whatever happened I was just going to say ‘yes’ to it. I lost focus. 'Yes'. I had a pain in my back. 'Yes'. ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.’
In the space of forty minutes I went from being in one of the worst moods I’ve ever been in to one of the best. Incredibly, I discovered that any uncomfortable sensation dissolved into pleasure if I just said ‘yes’ to it. There was a horsefly buzzing back and forth in the room and I noticed an uncomfortable contraction every time it flew near my face. 'Yes.' Suddenly that contraction felt like the thrill of being on a rollercoaster: 'Here it comes! I don’t know what’s going to happen! Weee!' There was a jackhammer outside. 'Yes'. The irritating sound turned into an enjoyable brain massage.
Tucker would later describe this arc as ‘Doing it so wrong you do it right.’ I’d created so much suffering that I accidentally found a way to stop suffering.
After a day or two I thought 'This is incredible! I never have to suffer again!' That’s where things went off the rails. It turns out that your brain knows the difference between actual acceptance, and fake give-me-the-nice-feelings acceptance.
I went back and forth on a seesaw: 'Yes' 'Oh great it’s working again', and seeing it work, my brain would form the expectation of difficulty dissolving into pleasure and it would immediately be gone. Repeated failure would eventually make the expectation dissipate, and it would work again, only to have the expectation reform and make it fail again.
There was something deeply weird about this. The prediction my brain was making was affecting the outcome, which made it impossible to predict correctly. It was the first of many paradoxes I’d experience in meditation.
I tried continuing this practice at home, but without the concentration of being on retreat I struggled for months without much progress. It didn’t matter. The nature of insight is that once you see it you can’t unsee it, and after that I couldn’t forget that I had directly experienced how I was creating all my own suffering by resisting what I was experiencing, even if I couldn’t figure out how to stop.
They’re All Parts
Eventually I did a week-long retreat in Mexico City with Janusz Welin, a former student of Shinzen Young who did both parts work (a kind of therapy where inner conflict is modeled as parts with different beliefs or agendas) and meditation instruction, which turn out to be intimately related. The meditation was simple: just mentally labeling experiences.
There were more detailed instructions, but the part I remembered was that a part was defined as any feeling not completely satisfied with the present moment, and ‘the whole’ was defined as anything that was not a part.
We cycled sitting and walking meditation and I’d label everything I noticed 'Part. Part. Whole. Part.' My brain’s initial reaction was the same as it was for every new meditation I tried. ‘Nothing is happening. Why are we doing this?’
After a week I started to get a sense of what a part felt like. If you like software metaphors (and I do) this felt like watching my brain run little programs to solve perceived problems. Any time I was dissatisfied with something my brain would launch a little program to fix it, and those programs felt like me. Any amount of dissatisfaction seemed to do it, and it didn’t need to be relevant to what I was doing. Worse, parts would invent their own problems which would launch more parts.
>Feel slightly tired while meditating
>”How much longer? I hate feeling tired.”>”Maybe I should exercise more. What if I got really into weightlifting?”
>”Do I have room for weights? I should clean out the garage…”
Weirdly, being a part seemed to be inherently uncomfortable. The stronger the desire which created the part, the more it felt like me, and the more uncomfortable it was.
>See attractive person across the room
>This should be a nice experience
>Mind launches program to figure out how to talk to them
>Now it is an unpleasant experience
After I got home, I took some psychedelics and tried noting parts again. The meditation felt way more powerful. Parts were easy to see and it was clear they were not me. Amazingly, when I mentally labeled them as ‘part’ they disappeared like a soap bubble popping.
When I discovered this I started furiously typing notes on my phone. After a few minutes I noticed a lot of tension around typing, looked at the part that was typing, said 'Part' and it dissolved so thoroughly that the phone fell out of my hands and my head slumped forward.
Sometimes I’d feel tension but couldn’t tell what it was about, which seemed to prevent me from dissolving it. There would be vague feelings associated with the part so I’d make repeated guesses until something clicked. (This felt similar to Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ technique.)
The steps for this seemed to be:
Ask dissatisfaction: “what do you want, in particular?”
Try different answers (“I feel unloved, I want more drugs, I’m confused”) until one hits home
Notice the whole structure of desire and dissatisfaction, and label it “part”
Watch the whole thing disappear
The feeling of a part dissolving was always a feeling of relief; like putting down a weight I didn’t know I was carrying. Sometimes it was a big relief, sometimes small, but it was always a relief.
‘Just as the sea has a single taste, that of salt, so too the Dhamma (teachings) and Vinaya have a single taste: that of release’ - Some guy named Gautama
I tried to see how far I could take it, repeatedly dissolving parts. Eventually I found myself in an expansive, peaceful place. There were still parts remaining, but they felt like distant candles in the dark. Their signals were too weak to lock on to.
By default, it’s really easy for parts to capture us. You know the feeling of getting carried away? You open Twitter, see an argument that you weren’t aware of before, and then, suddenly, it’s an hour later, and you’re filled with angry opinions about how people are wrong.
That’s what it feels like to be blended with a part. You feel its feelings, believe its beliefs, and want what it wants. It feels like grabbing onto a moving rope. But you can learn to notice this happening, turn to one of these newly formed views, and go, “Hey, wait, whose view is this? Did somebody leave this view here?” Sometimes I’ll notice myself getting worked up about something, realize that I’m blended with a part and just let go of it.
This ability stayed with me - not always to such a strong degree, but at any time I could notice dissatisfaction, find the part, and dissolve it. The limitation seemed to be how much equanimity and concentration I had at any given time. Sometimes I would note ‘Part’ and it would just weaken or get lighter without fully dissolving. Also, no matter how many times I dissolved parts, I was always activating another part to dissolve the other parts. There was no way to exit the system. A teacher would later describe this as an infinite hall of mirrors.
Still, this represented the first significant repeatable decrease in suffering I experienced.
I decided to do a 35 day retreat on my own. Some friends let me stay in a small cabin they owned in the northwest. Every day I’d get up and sit on my cushion facing the woods and meditate for 7 or 8 hours. I followed a hunch to practice noting arisings and passings of sensory phenomena. Birds chirping, planes flying overhead, and trees swaying would turn into 'Arising. Gone. Gone. Arising.'
My brain’s first reaction was 'Yeah, the sound went away. That’s how sound works. Duh.' But on the first day I started to have the feeling that everything, including my own actions, was just happening based on prior conditions. This view seemed to increase self compassion and reduce suffering.
Halfway through the retreat my concentration and senses felt clearer and sharper than ever. When I closed my eyes the dark static I normally saw seemed higher contrast and finer grain than I’d ever noticed. At a previous retreat I’d thought our chef was a genius because every meal she’d prepared had been one of the best I’d ever had, but this time I took a bite of Chef Boyardee and my eyes rolled back in my head with pleasure.
I started to see every difficult sensation and mistakes as an opportunity to practice acceptance. I felt genuine gratitude for discomfort. My equanimity was higher than it had ever been.
Toward the end of my retreat I decided to see where things would go with this much concentration and equanimity on a dose of psychedelics.
I started doing self-enquiry, where you ask questions like 'Who am I', 'Where am I', etc and investigate them not intellectually but in your direct experience exactly as it is right now. After a few hours another question occurred to me; one to investigate the thing that felt most like me: the source of my will, the feeling of being a doer.
'Where is this question coming from?'
Then more slowly.
'Wheeeere is thisss queeessstioon coming frommm?'
Suddenly it was obvious. Thoughts and words were clearly appearing out of nowhere. The sense of a self disappeared.
It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen and I fell out of my chair laughing. Here I was busting my ass trying to get somewhere and there was no one here. The whole time, all the struggle, stress and anxiety, and there was no one here. The feelings were real but there was no one feeling them. Everything was just consciousness experiencing itself. It was all a huge cosmic joke.
The laughter turned into sobs of relief. Everything was okay. Really, fundamentally, unalterably okay. Things could be sad or even tragic, but they were also okay. One did not negate the other. The absurdity struck me again and I started laughing. It alternated between laughing and crying five or six times. I now understood what had happened to that lady in the video.
It wasn’t just the feeling of okayness randomly activating in my brain. I could see why everything was okay and it was obviously true without needing to think about it.
What I’d taken to be me was just a bunch of circumstances that could easily have been different. None of it was essential. The only essential part was the fact that there was experience, that there was consciousness, and consciousness seemed to be a property of the universe. It made as much sense for me to be afraid as it would for gravity to be afraid. I was a fundamental part of nature.
Part of why this was obvious was because my personality kept operating without interruption.
'This is crazy. Why did it work this time? But I don’t even know who’s worried about that!’
It was just doing things, and it didn’t need a me to do them. Weird.—Had it always been this way? Apparently—the only difference was that the smallest, subtlest of perceptual distortions had disappeared.
Look, I didn’t make the world, I just found it this way.
You have a literal hole in your vision where the optic nerve connects to the retina and you can go your whole life without noticing. The self is a hole in your perception. You can go your whole life without noticing there’s no little man driving. That the you that feels like the source of thoughts, actions, and experiences isn’t there. That it’s a belief referring to nothing.
Why do psychedelics help you see this? No one really knows, but meditation and psychedelics both disrupt activity in the brain’s default mode network, which seems to be involved in creating a sense of self. The FDA has given psilocybin ‘breakthrough therapy’ status and I wouldn’t be surprised if its therapeutic power comes from re-experiencing trauma in states of high equanimity brought about by temporarily weakening the sense of self.
After a few minutes the feeling of self was more present, but weak and intermittent. Still, I couldn't unsee what I'd seen. The amount of self I did feel I couldn't take seriously. Everything seemed less serious, less dire.
I now understood why so many gurus and teachers had such human faults. Even in a state of no-self the parts forming my personality went on pretty much as before. I still wanted people to like me. Money, sex, and status still had their appeal. The only difference was that when the parts that wanted these things came up it was into a context of fundamental okayness where they would relax and slowly start letting go of their fearful grasping.
There was less frustration with my parts and instead a benevolent sense of 'Aww that's cute'. I felt more concern for other people and much less concern for myself. There was the sense that if a bear tried to eat me just then that I would fight for my life, but if I died it would simultaneously be sad but okay. It felt obvious that the natural reaction to suffering is compassion and that this is especially true if you’re not tied up in knots with fear and anxiety about yourself.
My self had mostly solidified after an hour. I called my friend Kanjun and told her what had happened. After we had chatted a bit I told her I needed to go do something.
'Hold on. What are you trying to get? What is all the seeking for?'
'I’m trying to stop suffering.'
'That’s a part.’
Something to know about Kanjun is that she has spent over a thousand hours doing parts work on herself and is probably the best example I’ve seen of someone successfully working through their baggage to the point of thriving. Her thriving was part of what made me believe wellbeing could go beyond what was typically imagined.
'Why do you need to try so hard?' she asked me.
'I need to be on top of things.'
'What if you don’t always have to be on top of things?’
'That’s an attitude for hippies living off the largess of a civilization built by people who are on top of things.’
‘Where do you feel that part?’
‘In my chest.’
‘Let’s ask it to come out onto your hand.’ I could feel something shift.
‘What does it look like?’ My mind helpfully provided an image of a bowling ball. There was a sense of a great weight rolling out of me.
‘A bowling ball’
‘Ok let’s ask it to step aside for now. What if you could just be?’
‘It can’t be that easy!’
‘That’s a part, let’s ask it to step aside too. What does it look like?’
‘An Indiana Jones looking character.’ (I told you, my brain just does things.)
At that point I got distracted. ‘It’s chaotic in here.’
‘It’s not chaotic, it’s antagonistic.’
‘Oh my god, you’re right.’
‘What does an Arram that can just be feel like?’
I looked up at the vines growing along the wood shingles of the house and there it was: perfection, leaking out of everything.
‘Air, relief, beauty, innocence, perfection.’
‘Great. Look at that feeling. This is what you are.’
My mind started trying to figure out what was happening.
‘This is amazing. I think what’s happening is’
‘You don’t need to extract maximum learning from every moment.’
‘Don’t think! FEEL.’
Something about the way she said it immediately made me aware of the machinery of thinking. I could feel tendrils of thought shooting out and wrapping everything with concepts, trying to extract maximum value and thereby sucking the life out of everything. It was hard to stay there, but to the extent I did, meaning, perfection, and joy were leaking out of everything.
Our group of friends had always joked that Kanjun was a bit magical, but after this it was just obvious that she was literally whatever the secular, not-literally-magical version of a shaman is. She could probably be a one in a million therapist if she wasn’t busy running a company
After that she had to go so we finished our call. Tucker had told me that the path of meditation could produce childlike innocence and I hadn’t understood what he meant. Now I did. There was nowhere to get to and nothing to get. There was a sense of childlike wonder. Meditation felt less serious. I knew I’d come back to it, but that evening I wandered around the woods looking at leaves and bugs and watching ribbons of mist evaporate off the pond. The world was a beautiful, magical place.
The next day I’d still experience little sobs of relief when I thought of the fundamental okayness I’d seen, but over the next three days I pretty much went back to normal.
My moment to moment experience is the same, but there seems to be a degree more compassion in my system, and the world makes more sense. The funny thing is that it felt suspiciously like my deconversion from christian fundamentalism. I realized I’d been holding my confused model of the world together with a kind of painful, effortful force. When I let go of that confusion I felt smarter and the world felt more coherent.
I understand the causes of suffering much better now. I’d seen thousands of times In meditation how trying to manipulate or coerce parts, even if I did it subtly, made them push back, unless I listened to them or considered their welfare. This created inner resistance, increasing the total pain in the system. I realized my parts had not been very kind to each other.
I realized that the interactions between my parts were hardly different from the interactions between myself and other people. In conversations with my family, for example, I notice that we’re constantly turning each other into problems, and doing this automatically, because someone turned us into a problem. It occurred to me that this is probably what was originally meant by ‘karma’.
And further, if it makes more sense to identify as awareness than the collection of habits forming my personality that means in some sense (and part of me cringes at how cheesy this sounds) we really are ‘one’.
I’m not enlightened, or anything like it, though I notice both more and less confusion about what that means. There’s about the same amount of suffering, but for the first time I feel a reasonable expectation of it trending downward.
And I’m still not into religion. 🙂
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