Question: I was wondering if you can describe a peak experience from your practice. During my own explorations I sometimes arrive at a state where I have no thoughts, but I perceive, I have visual perception and I feel a kind of spacious being with no other taste, no emotion; it is neutral, neutral spaciousness. This is my peak experience and my mind asks: what next?
Response: That sounds like an interesting experience. It shows you that our ordinary way of perceiving, which we use to orient ourselves in daily life, isn’t necessarily the one true way the world is. Sometimes in meditation – actually, it can happen at any time in our life, whether we are meditating or not – parts of our perceived reality just fall away, because it is constructed and can therefore also be de-constructed. Sometimes that can happen in pathological terms. If your brain is injured and parts of it no longer function, you might experience our shared world in a totally different way.
But let’s stay with non-pathological cases. In meditation, for example, you might stop thinking and then realize for the first time that thinking is not obligatory: you can be without thought for a while at least. Or you might observe certain things and then stop recognizing what they are; you don’t join the dots up anymore.
This can also happen when we wake up in an unfamiliar place and, for a while, don’t know where we are. Sometimes the disorientation can be so strong that for some moments we don’t even remember who or what we are, or even what anything is. We open our eyes and see something, but don’t know what it is. Then perception gradually sets in again. We start to recognize, first: ‘Okay, it’s black’, but we still don’t know what it is; then we suddenly realize: ‘Oh, it’s a piece of clothing’, and gradually our reality comes together again until finally we think: ‘Ah, yes, I’m in my mother’s place and that’s actually my t-shirt hanging over the chair’.
We have been disconnected from the continuity of our conscious experience during sleep, and we are not used to having this perception when we wake up in the morning, so it disorients us and for some time disrupts the smooth flow of the perceptual creation of our environment.
Those experiences can be informative, showing the constructed nature of our reality, but of course they are largely dysfunctional states; you cannot function normally if you stay in them. If you have no idea who and where you are, or what anything is, it is very difficult to relate to anything in a meaningful way. These are altered states of consciousness, which can indicate the constructed nature of our ordinary consciousness.
Hopefully, after we have had such an experience and return to a more ordinary way of perceiving, we won’t believe our habitual perceptions in the same way; we won’t profess a naïve realism about the world anymore. We will be able to use our perceptions, but we won’t see them as real in the same way as before. And this may also change the way in which we seek satisfaction and peace of mind. That is really more to the point of the Buddha’s concerns, what he had to say about attachment to greed and aversion.
Whether I recognize a television screen as a television screen, or come from a culture that doesn’t know what a television is and thinks it is a god, is not the most important point. The most important point is the sense of neediness that underlies our relationship to the objects we create, our belief that we need things to be in a certain way. Some altered states of consciousness can undermine this neediness because they change our sense of reality as a whole, but what the Buddha suggested is that we should thoroughly investigate how much we depend and need to depend for our comfort on the perceived circumstances of our life being in a certain way.
This reflection by Ajahn Abhinando is from the interview, Awareness & Desire.