The Servant Experience

Marywood Retreat Centre lay on the outskirts of Cranbrook, British Columbia. My first visit was on a beautiful sunny weekend in September 2008.

I appreciated the stillness so much that I returned two years’ later for one of their week-long silent retreats. Though I was the only person who had registered for that week, the Sisters kindly allowed the retreat to go ahead.

For the first six days, my practice was the Christian Meditation of Father John Main. I did not sit for very long each time — twenty or twenty-five minutes — but because this was a retreat, I sat for six or seven meditation sessions each day.

On the seventh day, which happened to be a Sunday, I decided I would try something different. Now I sat for an hour at a time, but without any specific practice. I simply sat still with my eyes closed. I did three of those hour-long sits that Sunday.

That evening around 6:30 p.m. — it was May and still light at that hour — I had a sudden mystical experience. All the chattering in my mind stopped completely — all the thinking and all the planning for the future. While this was happening, I perceived myself to be a “servant of the universe.” Those were the words that came to me. The universe I perceived to be a huge, perhaps even infinite, being around me.

This being — the universe — was alive and intelligent, but not in a human way. It was alive and intelligent in a bigger than human way, a trans-human way. And it was this universe of which I was the servant. In that condition, there was no need for me to think of anything, because my role was simply to respond to orders, in the way a servant does. This state of mind lasted for about a half-hour.

Insight Meditation

That summer I decided to get more serious about meditation. At the time, I did not relate this urge to the servant-experience in May. I see now that they might have been connected. Like Piaget’s child who has reached the stage of object permanence, I now knew the ball was there. This is from the point of view of the conscious mind, with its central “I” character and all its strivings. From the point of view of the unconscious mind, the servant-experience had loosened the grip of the defense mechanisms. Repressed energy now pushed to find a way to come forth.

I took some time off work to meditate at home. After researching on the Internet, I settled on a method I had encountered earlier in life. The “noticing-and-naming” technique, I learned, promised quick and certain results if practiced correctly. So began a routine of several hour-long meditation sits each day.

At this point I had a coaching session on the noticing-and-naming technique from Kenneth Folk, who offers meditation instruction by Skype. Now, this form of meditation is called vipassana, which just means “insight.” After my session with Kenneth, I went out to a strip mall. There I had an extraordinary experience. Parked next to me was a commercial van with the name of a business painted on its side, “Insight Plumbing” or something similar. At that exact moment I had a sudden and inexplicable urge to look sideways and up. There my eyes fixed on a second-floor optician’s office with the words “Insight Opticians” painted on the window. The combination of these events, together with my having practiced “insight” meditation at home with Kenneth that morning, challenged my notion of reality. The “naive realist” view is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter. Now it seemed possible that it was the other way round — that matter is an epiphenomenon of consciousness. Or perhaps both could be true, in the same way as subatomic physicists find that both wave theories and particle theories produce results that fit the observable facts. Whatever the explanation, I began to sometimes get the impression after this that all I was aware of was my own mind — that there were no real, external objects, but only the sensations in my mind.

Over the winter I read a short passage from the book Emptiness Dancing by Adyashanti every evening before I went to bed. I would then reflect on what I had read. It began to occur to me during the day that some of the thoughts I observed included the word “I,” and the realization dawned on me that this word “I” was really no different from any other word.

At this point a certain fear seized me. I began to suspect that, if I carried on with this program of inner observation, I would come to a place where there would be “nothing left of me.” This was a horrifying thought. It was only out of sheer curiosity that I decided to press on. I do not know how much of what was happening was related to my reading of Adyashanti and how much was related to the meditation.

In early March 2011, I drove down to Seattle, Washington, for a weekend seminar with Adyashanti. We had a pleasant enough weekend at the Shoreline Conference Center, just north of Seattle, but nothing more than that. Certainly, nothing special happened that weekend.

Born Again

On March 22, 2011, I was driving along the Coquihalla Highway in southwestern British Columbia, a newish highway that climbs the Coast Mountains from almost sea level to 4,000 feet. It was late afternoon in spring, and the sun was shining in a clear blue sky. With very little traffic on the road, I could relax and enjoy the scenery.

All of a sudden, for about half a second, I experienced the feeling of having recognized something very obvious. In the next half second, the thing recognized came to me. The sky and the mountains and the trees were me, smiling back at me. This glorious experience of unity, of recognizing the world as myself, lasted about a half-hour.

This kicked off an eight-day period I call “the turbulent period.” As I lay in my bed that night, insight after insight came to me about the nature of life. I slept for only two hours that first night. The next night, despite being tired, I slept for only four hours. This pattern of little sleep continued for all eight days of the turbulent period.

Sometimes I would wake in the mornings and feel unfamiliar to myself. The image that came to me was that the person I used to be was being burned up from the inside out. Insights about God, the universe, and the nature of life continued to come to me each day.

For much of the eight days, the only kind of music I wanted to listen to was gentle, Christian music. I would lie on the couch listening to one particular CD, Sounds of Healing by Julie True, over and over again.

On the eighth day, in the morning, a single word came to me: “completion.” Sure enough, later on that day — it was a Friday — the turbulent period came to a completion.

The perspective that emerged during those eight days was that there was no “me” to be separate from all of life. There was, in fact, no separateness at all, anywhere in the universe or the world. There was only one thing happening in the world, and that was life as a whole. It felt as though the idea that I was something separate from life as a whole was something I had woken up from, like waking up from a dream.

The words that fit the experience best for me were words from the Bible, and in particular a couple of expressions from John’s Gospel. One was the expression “born again” (John 3:3, 3:7). It felt as though I had been born again. And when I say “I” had been born again, of course I am using the word “I” in its conventional sense, where we pretend that there is some separate thing to which the word “I” can refer. The whole point of the realization was that this word “I” did not really refer to anything with an existence of its own. The other expression that meant a lot to me was the expression “eternal life,” again from John’s Gospel (John 3:15, etc.). Eternal life, it seemed to me, was all that there was. Everything was eternal life; eternal life was all that existed.

The first benefit I noticed was that I was able to do simple tasks without having something else happening in my mind at the same time. For example, I could carry a plate into the kitchen, and that would be all that was happening — “carrying a plate into the kitchen.” There was no thinking happening at the same time. I was not wishing that things would be other than they were, I did not have an agenda, and I was not planning for something to happen later in life. I was just carrying a plate into the kitchen. I had heard of attending to the moment being taught as an intentional spiritual practice, but now it was happening by itself. Occasionally a wispy thought would cross my mind, only to disappear as quickly as it had arisen.

The subjective experience was that the mind was “clean,” with no “stickiness” in it. I was no longer struggling to make something in particular happen in life. If things worked one way, they worked that way. And if they worked another way, they worked that way. I had no preconceived plan for what direction I wanted events to flow in.

During the turbulent period, I could only plan for just the one day that was happening now. At some points I could think only of the present moment. My mind would not go to anything other than the present moment. This made it difficult to mix with other people, since I could not plan ahead. That phase did come to an end, however, and my ability to put dates and times in my schedule returned. It was as though the cognitive part of my mind had been temporarily torn to pieces and took some days to rewire itself.

In Bernadette Roberts’ account of a Christian journey to no-self, she asks where Christ is in all this. She concludes, “Christ is not the self, but that which remains when there is no self.” I would use different words. For me, what remains without a self is life — eternal life.