People start seeking enlightenment or unitive consciousness (aka transcendence, pure consciousness, mystical union, etc.) at different times and circumstances in life and for different reasons. One of the spiritual teachers I recently interviewed told me that when he was three years old, playing one summer afternoon with a Goofy toy on the front porch of his parents’ house in Texas, the boundaries of his consciousness suddenly dissolved and it opened to infinity. At the time he didn’t have any way of understanding or verbalizing that experience, but it was so deeply etched in his consciousness that twenty years later it made him go and spend many years in monasteries in Japan and Korea, in an attempt to re-live that state. The old Zen teacher, in whose monastery I meditated in Japan, underwent a similar experience at the top of a mountain he climbed when he was seventeen years old, and he describes: “…I was experiencing the reality of being one with and cared for by all things of this world, experiencing the greatness of the life I have been given… At that point I couldn’t contain myself anymore, so in a giant voice I shouted my name seven or eight times into the far-off horizon.”
I was “brought to the path” by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I read (with considerable effort) at the age of sixteen. In this book, Kuhn claims that the scientific community operates at any given time within a paradigm – a worldview based on certain basic assumptions – which defines the boundaries of its world and determines the nature of the activity conducted within them. While reading it I realized that this description applies not only to the scientific community but also to me: I also live and operate within boundaries, created by certain assumptions and thought-structures, which I adopted from others, and my connection with the world is filtered, mediated, limited and distorted by those filters. I determined to do whatever I must do to remove those filters and be in direct, unmediated connection with reality or “Truth”.
A few months later I ran into a small booklet of Zen stories and koans, and reading it I realized that I wasn’t the first one with that aspiration, and that in Zen it’s called “enlightenment”. Reading books led me to “Enlightenment Intensive Workshops”, in which I relentlessly inquired for days “Who am I?” and “What is the world?”, and from there I continued to a Zen monastery in Japan, where I practiced for two years in order to “reach enlightenment.” The possibility of being in direct connection with reality became like a living magnet, that pulled me deeper and deeper into my soul, and the quest for this mysterious state became the foundation of my life.
Meeting an Enlightened Person
In the summer of 1987 I was 29 years old and at the end of the fifth year of medical studies in Jerusalem. A very close friend of mine and a “dharma brother” went to Amsterdam to meet an “enlightened teacher”, and when he came back, a month later, he told me that that teacher “evoked enlightenment” in those around him, and that he invited him to visit and teach in Israel. I recognized a profound change in my friend – ease, confidence and joy, the like of which I had never seen in him – and I waited, excited but also with some apprehension, to the arrival in Israel of that teacher, whose name was Andrew Cohen.
When I finally met the man, in a friend’s apartment in Jerusalem, I was surprised. “He’s just a typical neurotic Jewish kid from New York…” I thought to myself. It was not at all how I expected an “enlightened teacher” to be. But during that evening, in which we spoke for hours about enlightenment, time and spiritual practice, I sensed that the man was the most open and vulnerable, unassuming and unpretentious person I had ever met. I felt that in his presence, a kind of tough knot within me started to relax and dissolve.
At one point during that evening I asked him what he thought the reason was that I was not yet enlightened, even after years of spiritual practice. He looked at me for a while and said “because you’re afraid”. I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you think I’m afraid of?” I asked. He replied that I would have to answer that question myself. That night I sat on my bed for hours and tried to work it out what it was that I was afraid of, until I found an answer that satisfied me. In the morning I called him and asked to meet him. When we met, I told him that more than anything I was afraid that I would waste my life and die without knowing who I was and what all this (gesturing at the world) was. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said that – he was so happy! Then he looked at me very seriously and said: “You should treasure that fear. It will take you all the way.”
It was the first time in my life that somebody validated, with such confidence and conviction, my quest for enlightenment. I felt that he knew exactly what I was talking about, and that his confidence and conviction were based not upon belief but upon his personal experience. Suddenly I had no doubt that I would succeed.
A State of Unitive Consciousness
Over the following three weeks we met with Andrew every evening, a small group of people, in that friend’s living room in Jerusalem, and he continued to answer simply, directly and clearly, based on his real-time experience, questions about enlightenment, spiritual liberation, absolute reality and the spiritual path. I felt as though those conversations were releasing and moving “tectonic plates” in me. And then, one evening, without a warning, a strange question appeared and refused to leave me: Could Andrew be my teacher?
I had no idea where the question came from. During my more than dozen years of quest for enlightenment I was always suspicious of and even hostile toward the possibility of becoming a follower of a teacher or a teaching, which I saw as replacing my existing set of conceptual filters with just another set – a move that wouldn’t get me one step closer to my goal. But that strange question wouldn’t let go of me, and as if forced me to take it seriously. But how can I answer it? How can one know? And what does it even mean, that “Andrew is my teacher”?
On one hot and humid morning at the end of June, the upheaval I was experiencing was so intense, that once I arrived at the hospital, where I was studying, I couldn’t imagine joining my team (which was at the Surgery Department studying anesthesia that day). I need to figure this out, I told myself, and without further delay; my life depended on it. But how would I know? My mind seemed completely useless in the face of this question. I walked back and forth the hospital lawn in an agitated state for what felt like hours. Then, in despair I thought: I should try to have a nap; maybe the answer would come to me in my sleep. I lay down under a tree but the heat, the flies and my agitation made it a hopeless attempt. “I give up,” I thought, “I might as well join my team and use the rest of the day for studying.” I started to get up and just as I was half-way to standing I had an experience of unitive consciousness (See at the bottom of this article).
I have no idea how long I was in that state, for there was no perception of “I” nor of time in that state. It seems to me that if somebody was standing next to me with a stopwatch, they would have measured only a few seconds, but I was in a “dimension” or “state” in which a fraction of a second and eternity are the same. I cannot use the words “experience” or “knowing” for that state, because “experience” or “knowing” require a split between the knower (the subject, “I”) and the known (the object of experience or knowing), and in that state there was no such split. Some report of absolute goodness, cosmic intelligence, vitality, sacredness, etc., that characterize that dimension or state, but those terms are borrowed from the human dimension and experience and don’t apply to it.
When I found myself “back” in the world of “self”, “time”, and “world”, I immediately became aware of two things: my senses were much sharper; and I knew that Andrew had always been and would always be my Teacher, and that I had always known that. I stumbled to the phone booth at the hospital entrance and called the house where Andrew was staying, to tell him that. It was completely clear to me that my life, as I had known it, was over. I had no idea how the new life, into which I was just born, would look like.
As a result of this event, and many that followed, I left medical school and Israel and moved to Europe and then to the US, to be with Andrew and others who gathered around him. I was a member of the community that formed for more than two decades and left it – and him as my teacher – about eight years ago. I now longer see Andrew as my teacher.
The Absolute and the Relative Dimensions
The states of unitive consciousness I experienced not only fulfilled my wish, to be in direct and unmediated connection with reality, but also revealed to me that, on a certain level, we are always connected with it in this way (although we usually don’t pay attention to it and therefore are unaware of it). Since that discovery I live in a state of “dual consciousness” – simultaneously (although at varying intensities) aware of the dimension of time, space and relationship, in which I live and function through thought, concepts, beliefs and language, and the dimension out of time and space, with which I am in direct, unmediated and ineffable connection. I’ll call the former “the Relative Dimension” and the latter “the Absolute Dimension”.
Those states also revealed something else to me, which I’d like to discuss here a bit: that since in the Absolute Dimension there is no “I” (in the usual sense of the word), no language, no time and no world (in the sense of “not-I”), I cannot “bring” anything from it into the Relative Dimension: no description, no conclusions and no guidance about how to live in the world of time and space. Nothing. Zilch. All these do not exist in the Absolute Dimension and only “stick” when I “shift” into the Relative Dimension and starts again (unavoidably, because of the nature of that dimension) relating to myself and a subject and to the world as an object, to verbalize and conceptualize.
Since we are apparently incapable of living and functioning in the world without the mediation of thoughts, language and concepts, we cannot relate to our experience or knowledge of the Absolute Dimension but through those. If this is true, it means that we “impose” on the state of unitive consciousness, which is ineffable, our conditioned and limiting ideas, beliefs and worldview – and our wishes and desires, conscious and unconscious. Enlightenment is, therefore, like an empty canvas, upon which each of us leaves his or her impression.
This is how, for example, I can understand the message I received during the “shift” from the Absolute to the Relative Dimension, about my relationship with Andrew: for various reasons – psychological, karmatic or spiritual – I “imposed” on that wide-open space, in which I was up to that moment, my hidden wish to find me a teacher, and then I imagined that the message came to me from the Absolute Dimension. In the same way, a person who would stumble upon a state of unitive consciousness in a Buddhist context would relate to it very differently from a person who would reach it in a Jewish, shamanic, Christian, postmodern or Anthroposophical context, and each one would interpret it differently and reach different conclusions, based on their conditioning and tendencies.
To demonstrate the point I’d like to go back to the Zen teacher I mentioned in the first paragraph. A few years after his enlightenment at the top of the mountain, the man volunteered to be a kamikaze pilot and to go on a suicide mission for the Emperor and the Japanese nation, and he tells that, when Japan surrendered only a few hours before his scheduled suicide flight, he wept with disappointment. His psychological and cultural conditioning, related to the time and place in which he lived, made him paint the empty canvas of his enlightenment with the colors of self-sacrifice for his people and country. Fortunately, he was given another chance to reinterpret his enlightenment.
The lists of characteristics of a typical state of “unitive consciousness”, identified by Walter Stace and Walter Pahnke, include the following:
As this list indicates, in a state of unitive consciousness one feels freed from the usual split between self and other, subject and object, and reaches a state of ecstatic wholeness and union with humanity, nature, the cosmos, reality or God. This is associated with intense feelings of joy, bliss, serenity, and inner peace. The numinous quality of this state has nothing to do with previous religious beliefs; it reflects a direct apprehension of the divine nature of reality.
Descriptions of states of unitive consciousness are usually full of paradoxes. The experience can be described as “content-less, yet all-containing.” It has no specific content, but seems to contain everything in a potential form. One can have a sense of being simultaneously everything and nothing. While one’s personal identity and the limited ego have disappeared, one feels that they have expanded to such an extent that their being encompasses the entire universe. Similarly, it is possible to perceive all forms as empty, or emptiness as being pregnant with forms. One can even reach a state in which one sees that the world exists and does not exist at the same time.
In that state, one often feels that they gained access to ultimate wisdom and knowledge in matters of cosmic relevance, although what they have learned during this experience is ineffable; it cannot be described by words. The very nature and structure of our language seem to be inadequate for this purpose. Yet, the experience can profoundly influence one’s system of values and life plan.
(States of Unitive Consciousness and Their Implications: Amir Freimann, December 2016; Artwork: Axel Malik)