Transcript of Episode #103 of the OEITH podcast, The Terrors of Awakening, exploring the potentially destabilising effects of awakening and the possible relationship of these to alienation abductions, MK Ultra, conspiracy theories, and more.
I remember very vividly that first awakening experience that I had in 2009. I had a regular meditation practice. I was sitting for about two hours a day. And I came down one morning to meditate and realized on sitting that something was different. Something was really different.
There was a new awareness. There was something in my mind that didn’t make any sense at all. It felt like almost as if a part of the external world was somehow inside the mind. There was something and it was indescribable: it wasn’t a thought; it wasn’t a sensation; it wasn’t an emotion; it wasn’t a concept; it was something beyond the mind entirely that somehow seemed to be in there, and I remember sitting, looking at this thing and thinking: How can I be aware of this? How can this even be possible?
In that moment I realized that, obviously, experiences of this kind were what people down the ages had described as “God”. There seemed no better word for it. It felt like I was in touch with something that was outside of material reality. It wasn’t me but somehow it was part of my awareness.
Other feelings came up as well, which was: What do I do with this? What the hell do I do now?
When I sat down that morning to meditate that experience just instantly made redundant everything that I had been trying to do. What was the point in sitting to meditate now that this was here, because before then, an experience like this was presumably what I’ve been trying to reach but now, now it was just there all of the time, blaring in my face, and it was disturbing and it was terrifying as well as amazing and incredible and filling me full of wonder, because where was I supposed to go now? What was I supposed to do? What was supposed to happen?
Somebody had once said to me, knowing that I was into awakening and enlightenment and all of that; they said to me once: “Well, what if you get enlightened and you don’t like it?” At the time I thought that was one of the most stupid things I’d ever heard anybody say. But then after that experience, that first awakening experience, suddenly it didn’t feel so stupid. There is something about experiences of awakening that – besides all the bliss, amazement, wonder, fusion with the divine, which those sorts of experiences can bring – is troubling, disturbing.
I find myself inclined to describe it as a kind of positive trauma. I like the way that those two words contradict the normal sense of things. Awakening experiences are deeply destabilizing, de-centring, but at the same time full of light and bliss and amazement. Does it make any sense at all to think that there might be such a thing as positive trauma?
Normally we take the view that trauma is a negative experience. But if it’s possible to frame trauma in a positive light, such as awakening experiences might suggest, then perhaps that takes us into some interesting realms.
There’s a famous moment in a television interview that Jung gave in 1959 when the interviewer asks him does he believe in God.
Interviewer: Do you now believe in God?
Jung: Now? Difficult to answer. I know. I needn’t – I don’t need to believe. I know.
The first time I ever heard that I was just struck by how arrogant Jung seemed, the fact that he was saying that he knew God existed. Could anyone have that certainty? Now, when I listen to that clip, it’s the silence as Jung struggles to find the answer to that question that I can hear. I can hear him trying to somehow put that experience that he’s had into words. He had already put it into words, however, in The Red Book, although it wasn’t published at the time, of course. I’m going to read the passages from The Red Book where he talks about his experience. And maybe keep in mind again that idea I’ve put forward of awakening as a kind of positive trauma… This is what Jung writes:
“Through uniting with the self, we reach the god. I must say this not with reference to the opinions of the ancients or this or that authority, but because I have experienced it. It has happened thus in me, and it certainly happened in a way that I neither expected nor wished for. The experience of the god in this form was unexpected and unwanted. I wish I could say it was a deception, and only too willingly would I disown this experience. But I cannot deny that it has seized me beyond all measure and steadily goes on working in me. So, if it is deception then deception is my god. Moreover, the god is in the deception, and if this were already the greatest bitterness that could happen to me, I would have to confess to this experience and recognize the god in it. No insight or objection is so strong that it could surpass the strength of this experience, and even if the god had revealed himself in a meaningless abomination, I could only avow that I have experienced the god in it. I even know that it is not too difficult to cite a theory that would sufficiently explain my experience and join it to the already known. I could furnish this theory myself and be satisfied in intellectual terms, and yet this theory would be unable to remove even the smallest part of the knowledge that I have experienced the god. I recognize the god by the unshakableness of the experience. I cannot help but recognize him by the experience. I do not want to believe it. I do not need to believe it. Nor could I believe it. How can one believe such? My mind would need to be totally confused to believe such things given their nature. They are most improbable. Not only improbable but also impossible. For our understanding only a sick brain could produce such deceptions. I am like those sick persons who have been overcome by delusion and sensory deception. But I must say that the god makes us sick. I experience the god in sickness. A living god afflicts our reason like a sickness. He fills the soul with intoxication. He fills us with reeling chaos. How many will the god break? The god appears to us in a certain state of soul. Therefore, we reach the god through the self. Not the self is god, although we reach the god through the self. The god is behind the self, above the self, the self itself when he appears, but he appears as our sickness from which we must heal ourselves. We must heal ourselves from the god since he is also our heaviest wound.”
When I read that passage in The Red Book, I immediately recognized my own experience in that. But of course, Jung puts it in a way that I couldn’t equal. There’s that sense there that the awakening experience is a kind of sickness, a kind of wound is the word that he uses, a wound that is inflicted upon us and, after the experience, we need to heal from that in some sense – and just the sense in that passage of Jung’s reluctance, inability to accept what it is that that he has experienced really struck a chord with me.
Now, just to say that awakening experiences take different forms to different people. I was talking with a friend yesterday and we were laughing because although the experience I had put an end to me describing myself as an atheist, for him it very much confirmed his atheism. I’m pretty certain that he’s had the same experience that I’ve had, but whereas for me it was an experience in which I encountered something that it seemed to me obvious was what people had described as “God”, for him it was an experience of encountering something that was so unlike what he had conceived of God as being that for him it confirmed that there is no God. But I’m pretty sure, as I said, the experiences that we’ve had are the same, and this points to something important that also seems to be in play here, which is: we approach these experiences through the filter of our own personal ego.
For some people, I think, awakening doesn’t have a traumatic aspect to it at all because it’s something that perhaps people respond to in different ways, that people can be more open to than others. But certainly, for me, there were aspects of it that were definitely disturbing, and I recognized that as well in in Jung’s description of his experience.
There’s a really interesting book by a guy called Russell Razzaque with the title Breaking Down Is Waking Up. Now, Razzaque is a psychiatrist, and he happened to get very interested in meditation and went off, did a retreat, got hooked, kept meditating and eventually had an awakening experience, some of the elements of which were quite destabilizing. Immediately afterwards, and being a psychiatrist, he was struck by seeming parallels in what he was experiencing and the sorts of symptoms and experiences that his patients described to him. What he does in this book is present a model that casts interesting light on the possible relationship between psychosis and awakening. How he ended up visualizing that model was seeing the two on basically a continuum. He visualizes psychosis and awakening as two points along the continuum and he suggests that when we exercise self-awareness, when we’re meditating, that takes us in one direction along the continuum, whereas stress and trauma take us in the other direction. The main thing that seems to determine what direction we’re moving in seems to be intention. If we’re meditating then we’re usually meditating because we’ve decided to do so, we’ve made a conscious choice to engage with it, whereas if we’re stressed or traumatized then that’s against our will; that’s something that has been forced upon us. But in either case we’re being driven along the continuum in one direction or the other. And what that continuum itself appears to be is basically just the way in which the ego is reacting to its experiences. If we’re meditating, then the ego is quietly dissolving in an intentional way. But if we’re stressed or traumatized then the ego’s struggling to defend itself as best it can in the face of hurt, injury, destructive forces coming from outside.
Razzaque provides a metaphor. He talks about the ego “rising like a souffle” when it’s under stress. So, when we’re subjected to trauma or stress, the ego tries to make itself bigger to withstand the attack, but it rises up like a souffle – it disintegrates even as it gets bigger. That’s the image that he uses, whereas, presumably, when we meditate, when we intentionally still and calm the mind, the ego just gently dissolves away. In both cases – awakening, and psychosis or trauma – something beyond the mind is invading the mind. In the case of awakening, generally that’s something that we’re inviting; that’s something that’s being invited. In the case of trauma or psychosis that’s the mind coming apart as things from outside force their way in. So, when I’m talking about positive trauma, what I’m suggesting is there can be an invasion of the mind that’s invited. It may be destabilizing, frightening, terrifying to some extent, but what I mean by positive trauma is that this is something that’s been invited and it’s something that we can also step back from if we need to, at any point, if things get too overwhelming.
Somewhere in the middle perhaps are psychedelic experiences. We may well intend to take a psychedelic substance and have an experience from that, but of course once we’ve taken it, we’re on a ride that we can’t get off, and if we decide that we don’t like it then there’s seven or eight hours that we’ll need to get through before we get back to normal, and sometimes it can become more of a traumatic experience than something that we’ve willingly undertaken.
If we’re meditating, generally we can only get as far as our ego can tolerate and usually, if the experience is too much we can easily take a step back. But psychedelics and trauma can easily push us past our limits, and we can end up in places or having insights that we may not in a spiritual sense be ready for or prepared for, and that can sometimes throw up odd paradoxes.
I came across somebody a while back who had taken LSD and found themselves having an experience of the oneness of all things: that sense that there’s just one consciousness that we’re all part of. This had come unexpectedly out of the blue and the person concerned had been very disturbed by this and it seemed that they were seeking reassurance that what they’d seen during that trip wasn’t true because, as they expressed it, if it were true then that would mean consciousness went on forever and there was no death and they would never die.
I wonder if instead of taking psychedelics they’d been meditating and they’d got to that insight at their own pace, in their own time, whether in that case it would have felt a lot more tolerable and whether then they wouldn’t have ended up feeling, as they did, that the idea of death was actually more consoling than what they’d actually stumbled upon.
This idea of trauma, psychosis, and awakening all being on a kind of continuum leads us into some dark and strange places, but perhaps also into a useful perspective for making sense of some of the phenomena that we see on the occult scene, and helps us make a bit more sense maybe of the darker, more conspiratorial dimensions of occultism.
What sent my thoughts heading in this direction recently was, as often happens, just the coincidental coming together of ideas I’d come across in a few places, and one of these was a podcast, an interview that Alex Tsakiris did with Whitley Strieber a while back.
Strieber, of course, is the author of Communion. He’s a prolific and accomplished writer who basically created the whole alien abduction phenomenon. Strieber was talking with Tsakiris about how his uncle and father were both in the US military and both seem to have been involved in the intelligence services to quite a high degree. Strieber was talking about how he remembers being enrolled in some kind of intense educational programme in around 1952, when he was about seven. From this time the memories that he has are sort of vague and uncertain and he himself wonders whether some of them might be half-imagined, but what brought things to a head was when he mentioned these memories to a close friend who was from a similar background, and this friend, who was a little bit older, remembered being on the same program, which was pitched as a educational program for bright children, and it was presented to them as an honour for them to take part in this. Strieber remembers it was on Thursday nights and he went along quite happily for the first time, but then when he was about to leave for the second time he panicked and would not attend.
From what I gather, though, he does remember going back on a number of occasions and on one of these he remembers getting upset while he was actually in the class, and they took him outside – it was on the airbase, apparently – and they took him outside to sit in a jet but even that didn’t distract him or calm him down. He remembers that this program started about two weeks before the autumn school term, but after school had started his immune system collapsed and he remembers getting ill and he was taken to the military hospital and isolated for three or four days, and when he went home he was not allowed to be in school for a few weeks or see any of the other children, and when he finally returned back to school in January he was no longer on the educational program.
Strieber doesn’t go into a lot of detail about things that he actually remembers from this time, but the impression is very much that some of them were strange and disturbing. One of the things he does mention is being on the educational program and being placed in a Skinner Box: a piece of equipment from behavioural psychological experiments. It’s a contraption. You would typically put a rat inside a Skinner Box and it would have a bar that the rat would press to get rewards. That kind of an apparatus. So Strieber can remember being put into one of these as part of this program that he was on. The suggestion is that he and the other children were part of psychological experiments and were being conditioned in some way.
Now, at this time it’s now known that the US Government was running a secret project called MK Ultra. This was headed up by a guy called Sidney Gottlieb and it was run by the CIA. The project had quite a wide scope. All of what it did was very secret. Some of what it did was illegal. What it was mostly focused upon was psychological warfare and finding ways to, in effect, influence or destroy the human mind. Supposedly, at the end of the project Gottlieb came to the conclusion that it wasn’t actually possible to control or destroy the human mind, but it seems that they spent a lot of effort on trying to do that and, as well as psychological techniques, they also experimented with various drugs, including LSD, as is quite well known.
Strieber, understandably, doesn’t specifically remember what it was that was done to him during these so-called educational sessions, but he does express the view that whatever it was it seemed to incline himself and the other children on the program to later contact with the alien beings that he described in his book Communion, and commentators have come up with various theories about what the true aims of MK Ultra might have been, which, of course, you can find all over the internet, some of them being the idea that the CIA was intentionally inducing dissociative identity disorder in people through traumatizing them, because by breaking down the personality this opens people to telepathic contact with extra-terrestrials.
By all means draw your own conclusion about that theory, but I came across another take on MK Ultra on Laura London’s podcast, Speaking of Jung, where she interviewed a guy named Walter Bosley who has recently written a book called Shimmering Light, which contains his reflections on MK Ultra and what its true aims may have been, which he based on personal experience. His father was in the air force and told a rather strange story that he experienced as a memory, which we’ll come back to in due course. Bosley’s theory is that what MK Ultra may have been trying to achieve, and perhaps did achieve, is a technique for implanting false memories. Bosley himself worked in the intelligence service and his idea is that the CIA would have found such a technique really valuable. It would be a way of ensuring that servicemen didn’t divulge state secrets. Suppose you had some personnel who’d been involved in something that you wanted to cover up. What you could do would be to subject them to this technique, implant a false memory in place of what had actually happened, and make the false memory something outlandish so what the servicemen would end up telling instead would be some strange-sounding story that no one would take seriously rather than what had actually happened to that person.
But let’s return to Whitley Strieber for a moment. Now, one of the things that Strieber definitely recalls is being placed in a Skinner Box and he feels that whatever was done to him as part of whatever conditioning or psychological experiment opened him up to communication with aliens later in life. The experience of being put inside a machine, the experience of being under the control or influence of a machine, is a common feature of psychotic delusions, of psychotic experiences, and here we start to venture into very murky, very dark and uncertain territory.
Strieber also suggests that some of the memories that he has from this time in his life are of very disturbing, possibly atrocious things. The idea of satanic, sadistic cults carrying out atrocities can be a feature of psychotic delusions also, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that satanic ritual abuse isn’t something that could possibly happen to somebody. Likewise, being put in a Skinner Box and being subjected to psychological experiments isn’t something that couldn’t happen, and supposing it did happen, supposing an individual were subjected to being put in strange machines and having strange things done to them, or being the victim of ritual abuse, witnessing atrocities, those would be extremely distressing experiences very likely to produce in someone psychological trauma or possibly psychosis. And if that is the case then we find ourselves in an area where, by definition, it’s almost impossible to say what’s going on, what’s real and what isn’t. If you’ve intentionally subjected somebody to a situation like this then you’ve made the cause of their condition indistinguishable from the symptoms of it. You’ve in effect hidden what you’ve done to them at the same time as you’ve discredited any account that they might give of it.
The story that Walter Bosley’s father told him as a child, and this was many years after the events were supposed to have taken place, was that as a member of air force personnel his father had been sent as part of a rescue operation to Arizona. They were briefed that the military were aware of another civilization living in parallel with us on earth, a hidden civilization, and that from time to time there would be contact between us and them and that Roswell was actually one of the craft belonging to this other civilization crashing. So, Walter Bosley’s father maintained that they were sent to Arizona because another craft had crashed and there was reason to believe that the pilots of this craft were alive and needed to be rescued, and what subsequently happened was a descent into a subterranean cavern and, unfortunately, coming into conflict with members of this other civilization, and one of the men with Bosley’s father was killed during this altercation, and Bosley recalls that this is usually where the story would end with his father getting very emotional about what had happened.
Having worked in intelligence himself, Bosley’s theory is that his father had had some sort of false memory implanted. His father had been involved in some sort of secret mission, perhaps, and the powers that be had wanted to cover this up so they’d implanted this memory that no one would believe, no one could verify, and presumably this had been achieved by conditioning or traumatizing Bosley’s father in some way.
Bosley in the podcast suggests that Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the MK Ultra program was very interested in New Age thinking and also in myth and folklore, and also around this time we have The Schaefer Mystery: these were a series of stories published in science fiction magazines that developed a mythos of an underground civilization living in parallel with those of us dwelling above ground level. Bosley suggests that this may have been the reason why those particular memories had been implanted into his father, because that was the sort of stuff that Gottlieb was into.
I’ve only done a little bit of searching, but I’ve not been able to confirm that Gottlieb was interested in those sorts of myths, but there is an interesting question here of why it does seem to be certain sorts of narratives, certain sorts of symbols and stories, that seem to prevail in this area, in this realm: the idea of a sinister, hidden group that has evil intention, that perpetuates atrocities against us, that hides in the shadows or literally lives underground in caves, that has technology superior to ours, that can influence us in strange ways that we don’t quite understand.
If the intelligence forces wanted to obscure what Walter Bosley’s father had been up to then they could have chosen any sort of narrative. Why not unicorns and tigers? Supposedly they concluded that it was not possible to destroy the human mind, but maybe they did find ways to seriously obscure memories, the truth of the past. Or could it be that actually you don’t need to implant a narrative at all. Could it be that these narratives lie close to hand in some sense, that they’re part of the architecture of the mind?
Razzaque suggested that when the mind is subjected to stress or trauma the ego inflates like a souffle – sort of blows up. Maybe it cracks along specific fault lines. Unlike spiritual practice, in trauma the ego doesn’t willingly surrender, in which case it’s having the experience of being invaded by something from outside itself. So, is it not understandable if that souffle has a specific flavour, which is the flavour of being in telepathic contact with aliens, of being subject to the influence and cruelty and atrocity of shadowy groups of people who are vastly more powerful than ourselves? What these narratives possibly might be is an image of trauma itself, seen from the perspective of the ego. That’s why these narratives keep coming back, because they embody the story of the ego’s forced dissolution.
Strieber says something really interesting in his interview with Tsakiris and I’m going to quote it. He says: “Let me tell you something about black magick. First, it’s quite real, and second, it’s like flypaper. You touch it, you can never escape. An organization touches it, that organization is part of it. The more you try to escape from it the deeper you get.” And then he says there’s only one way to escape: “and that is to live a life of love, compassion, and humility. If you do not actively work on that you will not escape.”
It’s interesting there, maybe, that what Strieber is advocating is a kind of spiritual practice. You need to live a life of love, compassion, and humility, he says, which is moving in the opposite direction that we talked about in Razzaque’s model: finding a way to intentionally make the ego small, in contrast to having it smashed apart by unintentional forces outside of itself. The antidote to the horror of being invaded, Strieber seems to be suggesting, is to practise compassion, humility, love; to find ways to open yourself up intentionally to what’s beyond the ego. He seems to be suggesting that that’s the only way to cope with it and to transform it into another type of experience altogether. Still traumatic, of course, but bringing in an element of intentionality, of opening.
So, we began by considering how awakening can sometimes lead into trauma, and where we’ve arrived at now is perhaps how trauma can lead into awakening, with Strieber talking about how he came to cope with his experiences by developing what is essentially a spiritual practice, exercising compassion, humility, and trying to find ways to accept the “visitors”, as he calls them, into his life. But it’s not that “acceptance” (to whatever degree that’s achievable) means that there isn’t pain and suffering involved in those visitations.
What I wanted to turn to now is that other side of trauma turning into awakening, thinking back to the story that Walter Bosley’s father talked about: the rescue mission in the caves and the hidden civilization that lived in the caves. It links up with the Schaefer Mystery that was in circulation around that time, but it also links up with the documentary series Hellier, which was released a few years ago.
Hellier is a documentary record of a group of paranormal investigators who receive a series of emails from a guy based near or in the town of Hellier who sends through some evidence of visitations to his property by creatures that look like goblins or alien greys and which he suspects are coming from nearby cave systems. So, this group of paranormal investigators they go to investigate and over the course of two seasons of episodes they get drawn into an increasingly bizarre web of coincidences, connections, synchronicities, that lead them progressively into occultism – away from paranormal investigation into very much the occult world in which Aleister Crowley and ideas taken from his system of Thelema begin to feature more and more. And towards the end of the series, they find themselves drawn towards performing some kind of ritual in the system of caves that is designed to invite the god Pan back into the world. It’s as if these sorts of narratives, these sorts of symbols, spontaneously create themselves, continue to re-echo, re-emerge.
I must confess I’ve never actually taken the time to read his books, but Kenneth Grant also comes to mind: that same circle of ideas about threatening, dark forces and underground places and spaces, and alien intelligence about to burst into the world. They keep coming back, they keep returning. They’re the very stuff of trauma and psychosis, and sometimes these ideas return as that, but we have to be careful with pathologizing them because, as we’ve seen, these sorts of images can be symptoms, but they can also be the causes of those symptoms. Trauma and psychosis are sometimes expressed through these images but these images, if they relate to actual happenings, could just as easily be the cause of those conditions. Somebody might end up with a memory of alien abduction due to traumatic experiences, or psychosis, but they could also end up with a memory of alien abduction because they’ve been abducted by aliens.
When you’re thinking and working in this area you simply have to keep both of those options in play. But we considered also Razzaque’s idea that when confronted with trauma and stress the ego disintegrates even as it expands to try to counteract the impact of what’s attacking it, and therefore the possibility that these images and symbols might be a kind of debris that tends to appear when the ego responds to overwhelming experiences that it can’t in any way integrate. In that case, if awakening experiences can also be experienced as traumatic, could it be possible that these images might also arise as a response to the prospect of awakening?
In terms of stress and negative trauma, these images would arise as a consequence of that, but could it be that in cases where someone is approaching an awakening experience, these images might arise as a kind of prelude? As somebody moves towards an awakening experience and that encroaches upon them, could it be that the ego starts to break down, starts to try to defend against that, and these images are thrown up as part of that breaking down process? Thinking about this in terms of the documentary series Hellier, the team begin as paranormal investigators doing the sorts of things paranormal investigators usually do, going around haunted sites calling out to spirits, trying to get measurements of EMF fields and doing EVP research – all that kind of stuff, which I’ve always tended to think of as not the science that often these paranormal teams think that they’re doing, but as really a form of magick, a form of ritual.
Paranormal investigation teams, unless they’re guided by a strictly scientific methodology, in my view are usually performing unwitting magick; they’re creating experiences. But as the team in Hellier get drawn more and more into weirdness and synchronicities, and it does seem possible in Hellier that there may be some sort of guiding intelligence behind this, because they continue to receive emails from an anonymous source that seems to be steering them in a particular direction – as this continues, as this proceeds, they become drawn more and more into what is explicitly magick and occultism to the extent that they end up performing what is explicitly a ritual to invoke an ancient god. Hellier is in essence the story of an initiation into ceremonial magick. A team of paranormal investigators become, by the end of it, occultists.
Towards the very end of the series references start to appear to a ritual called the Star Sapphire ritual, which, when you look at the details, is a sex-magical practice for inducing states of non-dual consciousness; and references to the number 418, for instance, appear, which is the number of the Great Work of magick, the union with the Holy Guardian Angel. At the very end that’s where it seems to have been leading them all along, but to have reached that point they’ve done an awful lot of stumbling around in caves looking for goblins and possible traces of sinister satanic groups performing atrocious rituals in dark places. Are these types of stories, these types of images possibly the necessary outcome of the ego rebelling against the encroachment of awakening, initiation? Is Whitley Strieber describing something similar in his trajectory, involving brutal, terrifying invasion by entities from another place, which, as he describes, over time he had to respond to by trying to find a way to accommodate this phenomenon that’s entirely from beyond? And what that entailed for him was compassion, love, humility. These images, as we said, are the very stuff of trauma and psychosis, but they’re also the stuff of conspiracy theory.
Now, I really enjoy listening to Alex Tsakiris on his Skeptico podcast, and on almost every episode he challenges the secular materialist paradigm that views human beings as “biological robots”, as Tsakiris puts it. “Biological robots in a meaningless universe.” And, as he sees it, science so completely and wilfully ignores evidence to the contrary, such as near-death experiences or the placebo effect, and this seems so nonsensical to him, that, for Tsakiris, he argues that science as it is today has to be run from a conspiratorial framework. In other words, his view is that science is intentionally suppressing evidence that runs counter to the dominant materialist paradigm and pretty much every guest he has on he tends to run this idea past them, to see what sort of a response he’ll get. And sadly, for the most part, most of the guests, from what I’ve seen, tend to sidestep that question.
The view I tend towards at the moment is that materialism, scientific materialism, is not a conspiracy; it’s just a very, very crappy version of the truth. Let’s break that down a bit. So, if we take Tsakiris’s characterization of materialist science, which presents human beings as “biological robots in a meaningless universe”, well, let’s compare that notion of reality with a non-dual experience that you might encounter during meditation, say, or during a psychedelic experience. When we’re in the midst of a non-dual experience, is it true to say that we are a human being? My view is that I don’t think it is true in those sorts of experiences: we are merged with the divine. There’s a kind of awareness that is very much beyond ordinary human awareness. And consider as well, in a non-dual experience do we have free will? And again, my view is that no, I don’t think we do. When we find ourselves in such an experience, we cease to be individuals. We don’t have a sense of our self as a separate, individual person anymore. So, the idea of free will doesn’t apply.
Okay, taking stock of that in a non-dual experience we are not a human being, and we do not have free will, and it is perfectly evident to us in that experience that this is the nature of reality, so now comparing that with materialist science, that asserts that we are “biological robots in a meaningless universe” – those two perhaps aren’t so far apart. Common to both of them is what looks like a sort of objectification of our humanity, although it’s a bit more complicated than that in the non-dual experience.
I don’t think science is a conspiracy. I think it’s sincere, and it’s a sincere adherence to what is, in comparison to the non-dual experience, a kind of crappy version of it. It’s got all of the objectivity but none of the transcendence. Likewise, maybe the idea of being taken up into a UFO and whisked away by alien beings and subjected to invasive procedures by them, maybe that too is really just a sincerely held but kind of degraded picture of the non-dual experience, which in a sense is also like being swept away and totally taken apart by something immeasurably vaster than ourselves.
Spiritual awakening can be hugely traumatic, and perhaps we can sometimes find ourselves fending it off just as vigorously as we would fend off any other kind of trauma. I’m thinking again of the person I mentioned earlier, who felt more consoled by the notion that he would be dead forever than the notion that he might be part of one consciousness that was ceaseless and eternal. But maybe here as well are symbols, images, that incline in a slightly different direction. And I’m thinking of Strieber, how, in his book Communion the dominant female alien that he encounters, and whose face is shown famously on the cover of the book, he comes to identify her with the goddess Ishtar.
This entity tells him that she is very ancient, and he wonders whether Ishtar was a form in which she was perceived by our ancestors. Alongside all the caves and goblins and extra-terrestrials and satanic cults, what we also sometimes glimpse is an encounter in a place of darkness with the goddess. In Hellier the team end up venturing into the caves to intentionally evoke the god Pan, and I’m reminded of the Greek philosopher, Parmenides, although this takes us far beyond where I wanted to go, who creates the very foundations of Greek philosophy in a vision that he reports whereby he arrived at the truth by first having to venture into the underworld and meet a goddess there, the goddess of the dead. But this is material for another time, perhaps.
Recently I was meditating. After a lengthy spell of practising concentration upon the breath, I have decided to return to vipassana.
There was a sense of something – a roughly cylindrical object made of flesh or plant matter. My sense was that although this might slowly decay, it would never quite dissipate. A story started up in my mind about how I would never be free from it. But instead of buying into this, I included the arising of the story into my investigation of my current experience. This felt like an effort, and resentment against the effort arose, and another story started up about it not being right that this should feel so effortful. But again, I included the arising of the story into my awareness of what I was experiencing.
Then – wham. It all released. Suddenly, shockingly, the cylindrical thing was gone. It was all gone and never had been. There was a sudden and total silence of the mind in which nothing needed to happen and never had or could.
The impermanence door aspect relates to realizing what is “between the frames” of the sensate universe […] and it tends to have a dat.dat.dat-gone! quality to it, as if all of space has stuttered three or four times in very rapid succession (about a quarter of a second or less for the whole thing) and disappeared. It is the fastest of the three and tends to be the most surprising. (Ingram 2018: 260-1)
Some of the most perplexing passages of Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (2018) are in the sections in which he describes fruition. Only gradually have I felt able to apply these to my own experience. What I have described above was a fruition through the door of impermanence. It is the first time I have managed to recognise one of these as such.
For readers unfamiliar with Ingram’s work, here is a brutal introduction: Daniel claims the status of an arahat (a term from the Therevadan Buddhist tradition applied to a fully awakened person) and provides specific descriptions of maps and practices through which the reader can replicate his attainment for themselves. Because of its strong emphasis on method, his work has found an interested audience in the occult community and among those involved in contemplative science research.
Central to Daniel’s description of how awakening occurs are the stages of insight: a cyclical sequence of changes in awareness that produces a deepening understanding of what reality truly is. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha describes how this sequence is traversed in meditation, how to facilitate the process, and thereby how to move towards awakening.
Fruition is the climactic stage in the insight cycle that I would attempt to describe as when the meditator’s awareness and reality synchronise for an indescribable instant. As Daniel describes it: “‘Reality’ stops cold and then reappears” (Ingram 2018: 256). In fruition, self-awareness vanishes because the illusion of self drops away, yet the prelude to it can take various distinct forms, which Daniel describes (metaphorically) as determined by entry through one of three possible “doors”: impermanence, suffering, or no-self. These, in Buddhism, are also known as “the three characteristics”. They are qualities found in each and every sensory and non-sensory experience and so, as such, are the bedrock attributes of what presents itself as “reality”.
All of this may sound very obscure, but the aim of vipassana is to refine our observation of experience to a degree where we can start to see some of this for ourselves, in our own way, and to the best of our ability.
Daniel has a gift for phenomenology, a disconcerting talent for unflinchingly and directly grasping the complex minutiae of experience exactly as they are with a minimum of storytelling or interpretation. For instance, regarding another, specific type of fruition he writes:
The rarest no-self/suffering variant is hard to describe, and involves reality becoming like a doughnut whose whole outer edge rotates inwards such as to trade places with its inner edge (the edge that made the hole in the middle) that rotates to the outer edge position, and when they trade places reality vanishes. The spinning includes the whole background of space in all directions. Fruition occurs when the two have switched places and the whole thing vanishes. (Ingram 2018: 262)
However, as a friend and fellow vipassana practitioner sceptically remarked: Whilst meditating I have never ever seen a fucking doughnut!
It has taken me a long time to understand how Daniel’s descriptions of fruition can be helpful, even if they do not match my experience. In the moment before a fruition I often experience a vision. These are like waking dreams in which I seem transported into a completely different place. You do not need a vision to have a fruition; I just seem to have the type of mind that does this. My very first fruition I described in The Blood of the Saints:
I was outside a dark doorway in a hot, desert country. I was there to interview [Primal Awareness]. He was waiting inside. But then I simply realised that Primal Awareness and I were the same thing. There was no need for an interview; I would only be interviewing myself. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go; there was bliss and hilarity. It was obvious that awareness had nothing to do with “me”, because “all this” was already “it”. (Chapman & Barford 2009: 137)
I did not recognise it at the time, but this was a fruition through the door of no-self. Compare my vision with Daniel’s barer, more functional description:
It relates to observing directly the collapse of the illusion of duality, the collapse of awareness into the intelligence or cognition of the perceived. It is a bit like staring back at yourself (or something intelligent regardless of whether it looks like you) with no one on this side to be stared at and then collapsing into that image. […] The no-self door is the opposite of the suffering door, in that everything comes this way (rather than everything going that way). The no-self door aspect tends to be the most pleasant, easy, and visually interesting of the three. It is slightly slower than the others, maybe a half of a second for all three to four moments of it. (Ingram 2018: 261)
Most of my fruitions have been fruitions through the door of no-self. More than once the vision has taken the form of looking into the eyes of a deity and all sense of separation collapsing. In an interesting variant, a beautifully cut crystal appeared. It was gradually, slowly revolving. The light was such that I knew the crystal would soon reflect a dazzling ray from one of its facets directly into my eyes. There was an exquisite, agonising moment of expectation. The crystal continued slowly to turn, and then – wham. The light hit and I was totally gone.
So regularly were my fruitions entering by the door of no-self, I set myself the task of intentionally entering through the door of suffering. I changed my practice to investigating whatever happened to be the most unpleasant sensation I was aware of. Although not much fun, it was interesting. First, I had to realise how having a crappy experience is not the same as the supposed crappiness inherent in reality itself. In fact, neither satisfaction nor non-satisfaction reside in reality, but only in the story we tell ourselves about an “I” that decides it is having an experience of one or the other. Wherever this was leading, I shuddered to imagine what sort of ghastly vision Daniel’s description of this door might entail:
The suffering door relates directly to “the mind” releasing its fixation on the whole of relative reality and allowing the whole of it to fall away completely, meaning away from where we thought we were. It can also feel like all existence is suddenly ripped away from us. In this, as with the other doors, the mind followed a phenomenon to its final and complete disappearance and didn’t do the strange, blinking-out, glossing-over thing that it typically does regarding this gap between moments. The suffering door aspect tends to be the most unsettling or wrenching of the three doors, the most death-like. It is always a touch creepy. (Ingram 2018: 261)
The vision, when it came, was recorded in my journal as follows:
Looking up at a tall building on which was an inexplicable kind of mushroom sculpture. Suddenly the whole thing was snatched away by something invisible. It was jerked suddenly away and out of sight in a manner that felt violent, cruel, and sinister – because I could not see who or what had done this. In that moment of shocking, unexpected movement, there was nothing.
Fruitions come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the mind that hosts them. In minds like mine they are accompanied by visions; other minds seem capable of registering them in a more direct or abstract mode. It also seems possible to overlook fruitions altogether, noticing them only in retrospect by the effects left behind.
If we approach Daniel’s descriptions as templates rather than specific descriptions, then, of course, it increases the risk of identifying as a fruition experiences that might be nothing of the kind. On the other hand, it offers the possibility to refine and sharpen our observation of the minute details of experience.
One day, maybe, we will all see the doughnut.
Chapman, Alan & Duncan Barford (2009). The Blood of the Saints. Brighton: Heptarchia.
Ingram, Daniel M. (2018). Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Revised and expanded edition. London: Aeon.
Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency (Evans & Read 2020) is perhaps the first book of its kind, containing open and honest accounts of its contributors’ struggles through mental distress to spiritual insights and awakenings.
Some are contending with trauma from their past and arrive at spiritual insights through a perilous confrontation with mental breakdown. Others reach the same crossroads by engaging with spiritual practices and/or entheogens. What becomes apparent is the close affinity between mental illness and spiritual awakening.
Our culture regards mental illness as real enough to require intervention, but experiences of enlightenment fall under “delusion”. If spiritual awakening indeed offered a way through and out then the dominant ideology would be perpetuating mental illness rather than providing a socially sanctioned means of arriving at its resolution. Every contribution to Breaking Open re-tells a story of how its author had to find their own ways and means of achieving this.
The day before yesterday I was meditating, when it became self-evident that I was the incarnation of a long-forgotten god and should now re-introduce myself as such to the modern world. Having experienced this realisation, I took a moment to check in with myself. “Have I really bought into this?” I wondered and was relieved to discover that I had not.
The average mindfulness teacher is unlikely to issue warnings that meditation leads to experiences like this, or that the more expert at meditation a person becomes the more likely it is that such will arise. Meditation supposedly produces relaxation and stress release. Any odd effects will be regarded as due to poor mental health. However, through meditation I have arrived at veridical experiences of psychic phenomena, messages from the dead, interactions with discarnate entities, and spiritual awakenings. Yet we are not to suppose that these are what meditation might actually be for. As Louisa Tomlinson puts it:
Having a mindfulness practice is acceptable, marketed as “good for your health” and “giving you the edge”. But God forbid you go beyond the five senses into the ineffable fabric of cosmic reality. God forbid you actually have a spiritual experience. (Evans & Read 2020: 44)
In her contribution to the book Amy Pollard writes on how Brexit precipitated a breakdown. She describes herself as white, middle-class, living in North London from a socialist, feminist family, and working for a democracy charity. The murdered MP Jo Cox was part of her professional network. At the time of the Brexit vote Amy was bringing up small children and acutely sensitive to the ways babies signal their needs. “It had made me notice, with amusement”, she writes, “how many things adults do which are really grown-up versions of this” (Evans & Read 2020: 92). It is difficult to imagine anyone for whom Brexit could have been more of a disaster.
As the days and nights wore on I started becoming more sensitive. I noticed the self-soothing that was evident in the inflection of the newsreaders as they were talking. If you listened, you could hear the little tells in their voices that let you know where their attention really was – whether they were needing to connect or disconnect from you […] You could hear, in very subtle and understated ways, the pure despair of the British establishment. The more despair I could hear in the voices and bodies of others, the more panicked I felt that nobody was out there who knew what to do; and the more responsibility I felt to try to do my bit. (Evans & Read 2020: 93)
Awakening and mental breakdown are alike in that they confront us with uncontainable experiences of a truth that we must go out of our minds to apprehend more fully. Everyone, all of the time, really is a grown-up baby. Everyone really is a deity, utterly forgetful of their real name and wearing a human identity in the modern world. Spiritual insights are truths that are too big to be lived in our limited human form.
Amy’s “madness” offered me some perspective on the US Election this week: the tantrum thrown by the liberal left when it looked as if Trump might win, as if this would be somehow inexplicable or not allowed; and the inability of the dissenting right to tolerate due process as it became clear that Trump had lost. Madness erupts out of culture as well as out of individuals because culture, too, is sorely limited in comparison to what reality can throw at it.
Brexit was a bolt from the blue, a trauma that the liberal-left mindset could not contain. If Brexit could happen then it seemed no one was in control; everyone was a baby, and Amy was left struggling with the necessity to become a super-human mother who could respond to the needs of everyone. Amy described this sensitivity as “the motherhood ear”. To integrate the immensity of Brexit and the other pressures she was facing, she went out of her mind and into the realm of spiritual insight. Gradually she reached a turning point:
I had found the strength of my motherhood ear to be utterly overwhelming. It felt almost like I was controlling other people, or predicting what they were going to do. But gradually I came to see this ability not as any new power of mine […] It wasn’t so much that I was controlling or predicting what people would do; it was that noticing the interplay between me, other people, and the things around us was exploding the illusion that we are each separate people at all. (Evans & Read 2020: 98-99)
This lead to major changes and insights into an underlying reality, enabling Amy to accommodate greater and transpersonal dimensions of truth.
A few days ago I was afforded another vision, which maybe offers a useful analogy. I was in an antique laboratory. Upon a table or plinth, some kind of alchemical process had been erected: a mass of complex equipment, channelling bubbling liquids and emitting steam. The entire caboodle was sealed inside a huge glass vessel. As I looked on, everything inside the vessel violently exploded and all was destroyed. Although it had protected me and the laboratory from any damage, the glass vessel too had been utterly disintegrated. What remained was a pile of smouldering black ash and red embers, but also a sense that the alchemical process was continuing – indeed, that it was proceeding as planned, albeit in a more subdued form. My Guardian Angel appeared at my right-hand side. “The vessel cannot hold,” he explained.
I wondered if the vision were a warning, but now I think it shows things simply as they are. The process running in the laboratory remains mysterious. It explodes, yet the sense endures that it is proceeding on track. What is unfolding is therefore what is supposed to unfold, although this might not agree with our expectations.
The vessel does not hold, not because it fails, but by disintegrating it fulfils its function. It protects against the explosion yet must disintegrate with it, so that the process can smoulder, continuing in a different way.
Maybe our culture is undergoing an unknown process. Maybe the vessel of our beliefs and knowledge protects us but, to stay on board with that process, we will need to let it disintegrate so we can accommodate bigger truths. Perhaps madness is what happens in both the individual and in culture when the vessel attempts to contain rather than to yield.
Evans, Jules & Tim Read (2020). Breaking Open: Finding a Way Through Spiritual Emergency. London: Aeon.