Enlightenment as a Skill — Part IV: A Closer Look
The experience of oneness occurs when the personal and the impersonal, in essence, unite. Let’s reexamine my Frog Master experience — the event which awoke Witnessing consciousness — in this new light.
Below is a simple image of my brain thinking me-me-me (introspective) thoughts. These thoughts of discomfort and distraction filled my mind as I sat on a rock overlooking Mt. Hood. Because I was so distracted with personal thoughts, I wasn’t even aware of the majestic view in front of me.
The personal part of my brain was active (represented by the light side). The impersonal part was inactive (represented by the dark side):
Next is an image of my brain when I’d look to see if my Frog Master had hopped off his rock. Instead of focusing on interior me-me-me thoughts, my mind focused on “not-me” stuff. In this case, the frog:
As the meditation contest wore on, my mind started to oscillate between the two sides. Back and forth between the personal (me-me-me) and the impersonal (the frog). This fluctuation happened so fast that sometimes they overlapped. Sometimes — for a brief moment — both sides were active at the same time:
In those moments when both parts of my brain were active, I experienced “tastes” of oneness. The frog felt both inside of me and outside of me. My thoughts felt both inside of me and outside of me. Frog and thoughts felt personal and impersonal at the same time.
But my experience of oneness during the meditation contest wasn’t stable. It went something like this:
Me. Frog. (Oneness). Me. Frog. (Oneness). Me. Frog. (Oneness)….
At the time, I made the mistaken assumption that personal thoughts blocked enlightenment. My logic: Frogs can sit for hours. Sitting for hours drives me nuts. What’s different between us? I have thoughts and frogs don’t. I’d get a taste of oneness, then I’d lose it. Why? I’d lose oneness as soon as I thought of me. Thus personal thoughts stand in the way of enlightenment.
During my first years of awakening, I was saying the same thing as every other spiritual teacher. “See your thoughts. Push away the thoughts. Drop your ego. The ego is just a collection of thoughts.”
But as we’ve seen, the conscious action of dropping the ego isn’t what happens. What happens is the personal and the impersonal — in essence — unite. They link up. They act as one.
During Witness consciousness, we can view thoughts as impersonal. We can see them as other. They arise as your thoughts — they come from the personal side — but then they become other. They morph. Thoughts become impersonal.
The Me-Story, the ego, is just a collection of thoughts. When the Witness first awakens, the ego arises as me (personal), then poof! It morphs into other (impersonal). It feels like you dropped the ego, but you didn’t drop anything. The ego simply dissolved into the impersonal.
In Fading Toward Enlightenment, I describe my first glimpse of enlightenment nearly two decades ago:
At dawn on the beach on a late autumn morning, as I sat in silent meditation, I felt a tingle cover my skin and my ego shot straight out my head.
Right out the crown I felt it go, and what remained surprised me. For what is left when you drop Yourself? What is left when you are empty?
I looked at the sea and at the sky. I looked at the clouds and seagulls and sand. I saw the same thing everywhere: Stillness within everything — and Stillness is Stillness is Stillness.
When the words are dropped and meanings forgotten, the core of everything is the same. Boundaries fade, the illusion revealed, and the One becomes radiantly apparent.
I didn’t drop anything. The ego “shot straight out my head.” The ego vanished into the Stillness. All boundaries collapsed as the personal united with the impersonal.
The Gateless Gate
In Zen, the gateless gate is as an illusionary barrier standing in the way of enlightenment. It’s a barrier that doesn’t really exist. The image of stepping through a gateless gate though, is an almost perfect description of the awakening experience.
The moment one awakens to enlightenment, it feels exactly as if one has “stepped through” a barrier. The “gate” felt impenetrable moments before, then the next moment… it was gone. One moment you felt separate from all that was out there, then the next, you felt one with it. In an instant, you realized that the thing you thought had been separating you from the rest of the world never existed in the first place. The gateless gate.
Let’s look at our diagrams again. Normally we are either “in here” thinking about ourselves, or “out there” perceiving something that is “not me.” Only one part of our brain is active, either the personal or the impersonal. For example, here is an illustration of my brain during the meditation contest. I was sitting on the rock by a stream on Mt. Hood, focused on my discomfort: God, these thoughts are driving me crazy. I should just leave. I should just quit. You suck at meditation. Thirty years at this and you still suck. You’re a loser. You’re no good. Quit kidding yourself. …
Notice something: The outside world is completely blocked out. There appears to be a barrier — a gate — between the personal and impersonal. There appears to be a barrier between “in here” (I suck) and “out there” (frog).
Look again at the diagram above. See that line separating the two “rooms?” That line is the barrier. That line is the gateless gate.
When we are thinking about ourselves, there is almost no communication between the personal and impersonal parts of the brain. There has to be some — otherwise we couldn’t daydream while driving — but for the most part, one side is “lit” while the other side is “dark.” There is a perceived barrier between me and not-me.
Now let’s look at what happens when the personal and impersonal are both active. Let’s look at your brain on Witness consciousness:
What happened to the barrier? Where is the gate? As it turns out, there never was one. There is no gate. It was just an illusion. Thus the term, “the gateless gate.”
Side note: During Witness consciousness, all “I suck” thoughts become impersonal and self-judgement vanishes. The “I” which sucked, is now seen as “other” — as impersonal. The frog doesn’t suck. The rock doesn’t suck. Mt. Hood doesn’t suck. The me-me-me doesn’t suck. Me-thoughts are just more things experienced as other. They’ve become impersonal.