Can Anyone Achieve Enlightenment?

                                            by Alan    (with occasional interjections by Tad)


When I read your reflections on Zen, there was a feeling that most of your thinking out loud appeared at some point in my mind. There was a period lasting about 15 years when I eagerly read books like The Three Pillars but could not commit to any type of "spiritual practice", excusing myself with the same arguments as you (laziness, lack of motivation, attachment to ideas, etc).

One day I woke up knowing that it is time for me to go for a one-week silent retreat. The particular meditation tradition did not matter, since I had my own koan: "What does it mean to be undivided?" (ie not separate), which fascinated me for years. The first retreat was a tough but curious experience, although nothing much happened there. It took me another half a year of reflection and one more retreat to "pass through the gateless gate". The crossing was abrupt and profound, as described in the Zen literature.

Looking back, it took substantial effort over about two weeks. The results outshone all possible expectations. Two years later, the same perception is still there. It has a life of its own without any "maintenance". Looking forward, there is complete freedom to follow where this life is going. I do not feel committed to spend 10 years on the cushion to perfect my understanding, nor do I have an "established daily meditation practice". Although I do occasionally go to meditation retreats - just for the fun of letting go and watching how things take their course.

It should be noted that my external life has changed very little. I am still lazy and attached to ideas. If something has changed, it is some centerlessness that is now present inside every experience, including thoughts, and deeper than before understanding of what is written in the books.

Thinking and doubt

Some years earlier I met an interesting person to whom I was joyously talking away about spiritual teachings. It could have been the meaning of life or "Who am I?" (WAI) or anything for that matter. Although I was excited and happy describing my ideas (profound as they appeared to me), I remember experiencing some hesitation. I allowed for the possibility that my understanding is incomplete. No critical thinker can be ultimately sure about his position - no matter how well it is protected against criticism - this goes with thinking as such and makes it different from direct insight. My friend carefully listened and finally said: "These are wonderful ideas and you have done a great job thinking them through. But it appears to me that you are not ultimately sure about them, as if you are looking through the fog. When you see it clearly, it is like this [and he showed me the palm of his hand]. Doubt is impossible!"

After crossing it was obvious what makes direct insight different from thinking and what it means to have no doubt.

My friend also said, "But consider this: You can waste a lot of time just being happy!" This sentence stuck with me ever since. Although it was a warning, it made me feel even happier. Over the years I repeated it countless times as a great joke. Looking back at it today, I am still amazed: hard to imagine advice stated better than this! It appeals to me because of its paradoxical nature. How can I waste time while being happy? It hints that there is some other way of being that outshines ordinary happiness and any imaginable bliss by orders of magnitude. As I already mentioned, it never stopped me from being happy in my own small ways - but it reminded me of something beyond ordinary happiness, which I intuitively felt possible. This motivated me to continue my efforts.

Getting there

There are many stories similar to mine. You can quote at least a dozen of them from your favorite authors. But the authors are typically spiritual professionals who spent years pursuing their spiritual traditions engaging in systematic practices under the guidance of other spiritual professionals. Have a look at a typical bio of a spiritual teacher: "So-and-so spent 30 years doing meditation, 15 years practicing as a monk under the best meditation masters of his tradition, 5 years doing solo practice in the mountains, and 10 years teaching internationally". Knowing myself and my current place in the world, I would not be particularly inspired by an account given by such a person. In fact it would most likely be counter-productive, convincing me that the spiritual path is something one needs to spend one's whole life doing - with some rather odd chances of success. But I would be inspired by my own account - because I am an ordinary person, a scientist and programmer who always took his spiritual reading as a hobby. So now we know that some of the profound insights are available to ordinary people - and they are quite affordable! This justifies my typing and your reading.

Tad: I wonder whether reading these emails 20 years ago would have given you sufficient impetus to make the crossing. You would still have had to surmount the quartet of obstacles of liking ideas, scepticism, laziness and lack of motivation that I am currently faced with. Though I don't doubt your sincerity, the claims that you and other people make about enlightenment are so huge that my Internal Sceptic becomes activated.

I believe that for some individuals it may be relatively easy to change their perception and start continuously experiencing themselves as selfless and undivided from the world, without the slightest need to understand, remember, or imagine how it works. This is further motivated by the fact that the new perception is practical (that is, applicable to any task one happens to be doing) and comprehensive (that is, it includes the so-called ordinary perception as a special case and much more).

A short time of dedicated effort in a supportive environment (such as a meditation center) may be enough to precipitate the transition. The time needed is inversely proportional to the sense of urgency. Somebody who is lukewarm about the idea may spend years and get nowhere. (Unfortunately, such people constitute a majority in any spiritual gathering, which is one of the reasons why such gatherings may be demotivating, but fortunately nothing is lost by making one's quest a personal matter and completely avoiding spiritual gatherings.) Somebody who feels the urge but is hesitant may need time to work through the hesitation, which takes months or years. But somebody who has nothing to lose and is ready to jump into it without looking back may finish the hard part in a matter of days. The readiness may be gauged as follows: (a) being able to intellectually formulate a question, such as WAI, as the center-piece of one's existential search, (b) being able to put full intensity of one's attention on the question, (c) thinking enough about the question to understand that thinking does not help, (d) knowing that the transition is not limited to spiritual giants of the past and can happen to anybody any time, as if by divine grace.

The intensity of effort in meditation plays the key role in reaching a point of no return, which precipitates the transition. Afterwards, in the moments of high clarity, the effort is seen as completely unimportant, but it automatically resumes when the clarity is lost. Possibly because I was so wound up at the beginning, not letting myself relax a single second, it took me several retreats after the transition to "unlearn" the habit of making effort. In a subtle form, this process continues to this day. But the following dynamics are clearly seen: the less effort, the deeper and more centerless is one’s perception, which in turn reduces effort and allows for going even deeper. The attitude to meditation also changes. From being the high-pressure win-or-lose business, it becomes a fascinating adventure of watching how the mind takes different forms - sliding in and out of curious states - being tossed around by inner winds and tides - resting in spaciousness. The most profound place, which is sometimes reached after several days of sailing in perfect sunshine and cloudless weather, is when energy and motivation drain out and it seems impossible to proceed and nothing makes any sense. This state is profound because the blank tastelessness *is* the luminous immensity. This is paradoxically true even if we do not experience it as such!

One of my favorite quotes is: "Ten directions of the world have no walls. Four walls of the prison have no doors." (Zenrin-Kushu) As long as we remain imprisoned, the crossing seems (nearly) impossibly difficult. Outside of the prison, the walls do not exist.


Regarding meditation, it is important to be creative and discover your own practice. On the first retreat I attended, the teacher gave a very clear instruction on watching one's breath, which worked for me for about an hour or so. Then I noticed that, besides the effort needed to prevent my mind from being distracted, I need to make an additional effort to distinguish what is breath and what is not breath. After doing it for some time I found that this additional effort was too much. Since that time my meditation was always "formless", that is, there was no fixed idea what should be done. I do occasionally reflect on my "koan", trying to see what does it mean to be undivided and, if I feel divided, where is the boundary and how it is experienced. Is it only a thought in my mind, or is there some specific sensation of being separate - and what exactly is this sensation? This is a fascinating inquiry!

There is an interesting controversy about whether it is possible or desirable to stop thinking. The authorities seem to agree on the following: If you can stop thinking, that's great, but most people cannot stop it for more than a few seconds. It may be helpful to learn to walk the thin line of not pushing the thoughts away and not following them, just letting them happen. The only thing to watch is not to get lost in thought. This is what I try to do in meditation. I may have borrowed the idea from Krishnamurti, who talks about "choiceless awareness". Another favorite quote on meditation (pasted below) is from Alan Watts. It is a good idea to read different authors and learn about various meditation practices, but eventually we have to invent something that works for us. While following our intuition we may ignore some good instructions given by wonderful teachers. Unfortunately this is inevitable, but at least we are true to ourselves. In summary, there is no need for having fixed ideas about meditation. It works even if we do it wrong!

Alan Watts, "In My Own Way", Vintage Books, 1972, p. 367:

Zen meditation is a trickily simple affair, for it consists only in watching everything that is happening, including your own thoughts and your breathing without comment. After a while thinking, or talking to yourself, drops away and you find that there is no "yourself" other than everything that is going on, both inside and outside the skin. Your consciousness, your breathing and your feelings are all the same process as the wind, the trees growing, the insects buzzing, the water flowing and the distant prattle of the city. All this is the single many-featured "happening", a perpetual *now* without either past or future, and you are aware of it with the rapt fascination of a child dropping pebbles into a stream. The trick -- which cannot be forced -- is to be in this state of consciousness all the time.

I think it does not matter how long one meditates in one sitting. Regarding how long it takes to cross, it depends on how quickly one reaches the point of no return, which gives a chance for what is always present to manifest itself. This reminds me of a parable: If crossing were something like going from point A to point B, then we could check the distance and say how long it takes to cover it. However, crossing is more like stopping while we are going somewhere. The question then becomes, how long it takes to stop?

Everybody occasionally gets lost in thought during meditation. It is perfectly natural. The idea is to bring our mind back into the present moment whatever it is. We do it over and over again. After a while, we may realize that bringing the mind back is superfluous because our thoughts happen in the present moment while the idea that we should meditate without distractions is itself a distraction. After we have this insight, the idea of bringing the mind back into the present acquires a different meaning. It does not mean stopping thoughts and starting to count the breath. It means that whenever we awaken from being lost in thought (such little awakenings may happen many times during the meditation session - each time it is a miracle because it is not provoked by anything in the flow of thoughts), we remain exactly where we are (in the middle of thought) but with a deeper awareness. Nothing has changed (in terms of the contents of the mind) and yet everything has changed (in terms of our perspective on it) because now we are "seeing it through". This is what Watts meant when he said "to be in this state even when we are filling out tax forms or being angry".

Tad: I like the term you coined, "crossing". I think it is empty of pretension and probably as accurate as any. When people talk about enlightenment it seems like such a grand, other-worldly thing, that I immediately think, "I'll never manage to get there." However, crossing over, especially if it entails stopping, rather than movement, seems possible. Probably thinking about how important and wonderful passing through the gate is supposed to be is counter-productive to getting there because the task seems so huge that you think, "Maybe one day, but not today." Have you found a way of combating this thought? I can see that it will probably dog my own efforts.

I don't think we can do much to prevent such thoughts from arising, in particular thoughts like "Maybe one day, but not today". The only way to overcome them is to wear them out. After a week of meditation, in and out of thought, we may start visiting a place where the most seductive thoughts do not matter. Long internal monologues, so clear and convincing in normal life, appear bleak and insignificant. When it happens, the threshold of crossing is not far away.


For years I tried to figure it out and repeatedly saw the futility of my attempts. For days I exerted every drop of my will-power trying to make my mind more mindful. I thought that if some kind of awakening happens, my mind will be immediately at peace, never again wondering about a philosophic question or experiencing an existential doubt. Nothing is further from the truth! Shortly after crossing, I walked around the premises of a retreat center feeling weightless and transparent, nearly losing myself in the luminous nature of things. There was nothing to do - no problem ever existed. Everything everywhere was taking its course: the clouds sailing, the birds singing, the yellow leaves rustling under my feet, thoughts appearing and disappearing as usual. Although there were short periods of deep absorption, I vividly remember that every once in a while (maybe every fifteen minutes or so) my mind would enter a self-evaluation loop and generate a whole series of tests - whether this is a true mystical experience or it is just an illusion, a temporary intoxication after several days of meditation or something that will stay for the rest of my life. The reality was overwhelmingly clear - yet these questions continued to arise. The answers my mind would get were different each time - one time it would say "Congratulations! You got it!", another time it would say "It appears to be authentic but be aware not to fall back!", and then it would conclude "You are still thinking and judging - this is a delusion!" These answers would appear again and again, in and out of order, with varying degree of assurance - even though everything was profoundly undivided for hours, and the emotional afterglow lasted for weeks. This activity of the mind, which continues as ever to feel understanding or confused, came as a surprise, showing that thoughts (no matter how wonderful and convincing) are one thing and direct experience is another. It may take years for the mind to unwind and reduce its need to spin useless projections - but none of it really matters. "The finder cannot unsee it once it has been seen." This is why the idea of taking a running jump into undividedness is so appealing. This is the only thing we need to do to have the whole thing settled.

Tad: Your remark that once something is seen it cannot be unseen cuts to the essence. It is like when you look at some undefined object in bad lighting - you try to work out what it is and cannot, so you explore various possibilities, each seeming equally likely. But once you get a better look at it and see that it is a rubber, stone or whatever, you cannot return to the state of not knowing what it is.

Nothing is an illusion in its original state: any experience or thought that arises in our mind is true just because it arose. Illusion is what we tend to make out of our thoughts when we produce them for explanation or comparison, and especially when we start looking for causes and effects. This statement is contradicting itself... Perhaps we can put it like this: the idea of controlling our mind is just a thought. The same it true about the idea that our mind cannot be controlled because it has a life of its own. Any description of what is going on is wrong in the relative sense as an explanation, but it is true in the absolute sense as an arising phenomenon. When we experience a "momentary flare of intentionality", the experience is true in its original state - as an experience without reference to us and what we intend to do. Try to see if you can catch yourself experiencing pure intentionality as a non-verbal movement of the mind without interpretation. If you succeed, you may see it as an arising phenomenon, which is neither the same nor different from any other phenomenon. This seeing answers the most difficult koans in a split second.

We are dreaming as long as we follow the contents of thoughts, and we are awake when we experience thoughts just as they are, without using their contents to explain things.

Tad: You make an interesting point about illusion - that only an interpretation can be false, never the experience being interpreted. I have not met this idea before but I find it persuasive. I had to re-read a few times before I realised what you meant by, "This statement is contradicting itself..." You meant that the interpretation is also present experience and hence is not illusory either. What you are saying, I think, is that both the experience and the thoughts explaining it are "arising phenomena" and hence genuine; the illusion is the content of the interpretation, including the literal meaning of the explaining thoughts. The problem is not with thought as such, but with assigning meaning and importance to thought. Essentially, you are saying that experience just is, and the moment we try to say anything about it we become ensnared in illusion. But then, our interchange also belongs on this level, so to avoid infinite regress we have to live with a few paradoxes.

Tad: As I understand it, you are saying that all experience, including thoughts and intentionality, is just blips on the screen, only there is no screen and no-one watching, just the blips. Although I see this as a valid point of view, it is not something I have felt or experienced. This is where you and I differ - to you this is something you experience, to me it is just an idea. I do understand that there is no point in arguing for or against the mystical view, simply because it is not a philosophical position but an experience. Of course, I am contradicting myself because I have been arguing the point all through our correspondence. Now my brain is tired.

The nature of differences

Even after crossing one acknowledges that relatively speaking there are a lot of differences between things and people. I am different from a cup of tea and the cup of tea is different from the noises in the hotel where I am currently staying. However, when we start descending into experience, things begin to blur. When high clarity is on, conceptual distinctions are present but experientially all is one. Here is an experiment to try: consider any two recurring phenomena, for example, seeing characters on the screen and hearing noises coming from the street. Consider any two phenomena carefully, one phenomenon at a time. Obviously, they are distinct when you think about them. No doubt about this. Now, what do you experience when you do not think? I find it easy to slip into a kind of choiceless awareness when I am simultaneously aware of both phenomena, perceiving them clearly, but not being able to tell the difference - unless something pulls me out and into thinking again. When I am non-verbally watching the phenomena - there is no experiential difference between the phenomena - there is no experiential difference between phenomena and the process of watching them - the phenomena flow into each other - watching is the universe and the universe is watching. This way of seeing things is very convincing even if it lasts a brief moment. The same trick applies to everything. There are no experiential boundaries: thoughts mix with sensations, distinctions arise and disappear, now there are only thoughts and words on the screen, now there is only a cup of tea, now only the hotel noises, now only words on the screen, again and again and again... Strangely enough, this seeing does not prevent me thinking (sometimes) that I am a sane and reliable person:)

Tad: I tried your experiment to see whether "there is no experiential difference between the phenomena". I sort of got an idea of what you mean. The different sensory modalities of sight and hearing merge together to be just blips on the screen when I pay bare attention to the two simultaneously. However, it is something fleeting and not entirely convincing for me.

Think of a computer that gets all its input from only one stream, and then divides the input into several channels that appear to have different sources. This is exactly what our mind does! There is one stream of experience, which subsumes the physical and the mental, the "I" and everything else. The stream arrives at our mind in its pristine, undifferentiated state. Then, the mind's dividing and discriminating abilities filter and divide the stream into inside and outside, the five sense fields, individual objects, and their significance for this particular "I". We are normally used to observing these parts, but when we open to the deeper experience of the stream, the oneness of the stream becomes obvious, even in the middle of dividing and discrimination.

What about the ego?

When we do not experience a distinction between the inside and the outside (although we continue to think in terms of conceptual distinctions as usual), we can observe the manifestations of the ego happening all by itself. We see that our mind has a life of its own - and the degree of control we can exercise over it is small indeed - in fact the idea of controlling it is just another thought! When we see this moment by moment our attitude changes. We no longer feel responsible to follow the egoistic impulses or prevent them from arising - at least in the moments of clarity (that is, when we are "seeing it through"). This is what is meant to be like a "piece of fluff blown by the wind", the point being we are both the fluff and the wind. It seems that this attitude has a certain effect on the ego in the vulgar sense. Most of the habitual reactions remain but they soften and are often seen with humor. This gives the feeling that the person is aware that he is playing his particular "ego" as a funny role. One teacher said: "I haven't seen a single enlightened person who does not look like a unique caricature of himself".

How it feels

An interesting observation is that the new seeing comes without any guarantees. There is nothing that can be grasped intellectually (no special memory, conclusion, mantra, anything) that guarantees that the new seeing will be there next year, next day, next moment. Seen differently, this is its beauty, its purity, its inexhaustible nature. This no guarantee is a curious aspect and I sometimes find myself in an interesting place: when in an emotionally stressful situation I seem to "lose" it. The acute feeling of losing may last a moment but there were cases when it lasted several days. In this case I feel as if I am locked in the prison again with no hope of being released and have to learn crossing over and over. This shows the paradoxical nature of crossing: on the one hand, we have to do it only once and the rest will be taken care of; on the other hand, this is a moment by moment process without holidays. The contrast between feeling locked with no doors and then seeing again that there are no walls is always shocking but nothing compares to the first crossing, which some Zen authors compare to an explosion in one's head that breaks the skull into pieces.

In my case, it felt more like turning a somersault (while the body did not move an inch). While being turned around and disoriented, which could have lasted two seconds, a huge burden was dropped and the feeling of a center disappeared. One of the first things I did was standing up from the seated position and looking around, trying to locate myself in the room. Every object was there, including my body feeling weightless and transparent, but "I" was no longer there. Curiously, everything was there, including my thoughts and emotions, but there was no presence of "I". I insist that this is not a metaphor but the most concrete feeling like looking at one's hand. In the following days and weeks, the presence of "I" gradually returned, seemingly the same as before and yet different. It became both centered and centerless. The centerless part seems to have a life of its own. Sometimes it shines like never before and sometimes goes out completely, leaving me with a good familiarity of how it I felt before. I am unable to figure out how it works, but it should be noted that as time goes by, it seems easier to regain the balance. This, again, is just an empirical observation, which comes without guarantees.

One of the paradoxes is that "the crossed-over state" is not a specific state - but rather a new quality added to any state or experience. This quality is impossible to describe but maybe we can say that our states and experiences become richer, as if some new dimension is added to them - although we cannot quite tell what it is that is added. We have more time for experiences and find them more interesting. Poets know that sadness and loneliness can be sweet because of the nostalgic quality. Any other emotion, for example, nervousness or anger, can be equally sweet. With reduced resistance to negative states, they seem to pass more quickly and be less annoying - but annoyance itself could be equally interesting.

One thing to realize about "the private locus of experience" is that it does not belong to "us". Our thoughts and feelings, our so-called private life, all of this belongs to the universe in the same way the trees or the stars belong to it. These are just different aspects of the same thing. All these aspects are equally beautiful and precious. Many years ago I was greatly puzzled by the quote from Alan Watts where he says that our consciousness is not "ours". Now I see exactly what he meant.


Here is a short essay Alan wrote earlier on the same subject.


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