Chapter 13: Like, Wow, Everything Is One (at Most)

Recounting experiences you’ve had while meditating is a delicate business. They’re most worth recounting if they’re unusual—but if they’re too unusual, people look at you like you’re crazy. I once had an experience that I hope falls in the sweet spot: weird enough to get people’s attention, not so weird that they notify local authorities.

It was the fourth or fifth day of a meditation retreat. I was sitting on my cushion, legs crossed, eyes closed, as usual. I wasn’t making a point of focusing on any one kind of thing—not particularly on sounds, not particularly on emotions, not particularly on physical sensations. My field of awareness seemed wide open; my attention moved easily from one part of it to another, resting lightly on each new perch, and meanwhile a sense of the whole remained.

At one point I felt a tingling in my foot. At roughly the same time, I heard a bird singing outside. And here’s the odd thing: I felt that the tingling in my foot was no more a part of me than the singing of the bird.

You may ask: Was I feeling that the singing of the bird was actually a part of me? Or was I feeling that the tingling in my foot wasn’t a part of me? To put a less fine point on it: Did I feel like I was at one with the world, or was I closer to feeling like I was nothing? If you are indeed asking these questions, you’ve hit on a fascinating philosophical issue that highlights a contrast among different strands of Buddhist thought and that, more fundamentally, divides mainstream Buddhist philosophy from mainstream Hindu philosophy. But you’re probably not asking these questions. You’re more likely to be asking whether I’m crazy. So I’ll address that question first, and get to the deep philosophical questions later.

For starters, let me emphasize that if this experience makes me crazy, I’m in good company. I’ve had several chances to describe the experience to truly accomplished meditators—some of them monks, some of them famous meditation teachers—and invariably they’ve recognized the kind of experience I’m describing as one they’ve had.

What’s more, it’s a kind of experience that, they tend to believe, is very important. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that this is the central experience of Buddhism. Not central in the sense of most profound or most important, but, rather, central in the place it occupies in the landscape of Buddhist philosophy: the place where Buddhism’s two fundamental, crazy-sounding but arguably valid concepts—not-self and emptiness—come together. It’s a kind of grand unifying meditative experience.

Before explaining what I mean by that, I should try to put a little more flesh on the experience itself….