The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneMay 2012: Comfort Zone ONLINE
Our Spiritual Life: HSPs, Meditation, and Enlightenment, Part I

I know this article may seem a little irrelevant to those of you struggling with various more concrete, practical matters, but hopefully it will meet the needs or at least the interests of others of you. This article has been so difficult to write, even though I think it is legitimate for HSPs, so interested in things spiritual, to be informed about various ideas regarding enlightenment. The difficulty? Remember I told you that I have not one but three "spiritual teachers," Jung, Buber, and Maharishi, and that they all disagree? Well, Maharishi loves this article (although I now have some inner Buddhists hanging around who feel I got a lot of it wrong), but Jung was very disappointed in me. He says "I cannot possibly tell you what a man who has enjoyed complete self-realization looks like, and what becomes of him. I have never seen one" (Letters, Vol. 2, p. 474).

Further, Jung warns me in The Red Book, "Remember that you can know yourself, and with that you know enough. But you cannot know others and everything else. Beware of knowing what lies beyond yourself, or else your presumed knowledge will suffocate the life of those who know themselves. A knower may know himself. That is his limit" (p. 306). I certainly do not want to suffocate any of you.

Meanwhile, Buber is also breathing over my shoulder, equally negative on the subject of higher states of consciousness. He gives an account of his own intense experiences of them in Between Man and Man (pp. 15-16), but came to disapprove of them thoroughly, for himself or others, after an experience when he failed to meet another's critical moment of need because he was caught up in what he considered his self-centered ecstasy. "I have given up the 'religious' which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exhalation, ecstasy.... I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens. I know no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness of claim and responsibility" (p. 16).

Finally, I recently heard a well-known advocate of mindfulness (a.k.a. a form of Buddhism), after just advocating a mild, nonviolent manner towards everyone, say that anyone who talks about enlightenment should more or less be shot at dawn. Those who do so are misleading people in an "aggressive" manner (I remember that descriptor because it so surprised me). I am not sure if that's because of the view held by many Buddhists that we are already enlightened but just have to wake up to it, or that it can ruin meditation practice if we are fixed on a goal and always checking to see if we are getting nearer to it rather than being in the present. Of course it is true that we are all already enlightened and only need to realize it. But there's the trick, and if we don't discuss it, how do you realize if you are? In my experience, meditation can or should be able to pull you naturally deeper, so that the past and future and even the present fade away. Or so it seems to me.

So that's a large bunch of people I can annoy.

That said, at the risk of hubris, of suffocating you, being scorned, or being aggressive, I will now say some things about higher states of consciousness, or what I will usually simply call enlightenment. My reasoning is that as "priestly advisors," that as persons who have given deep thought to spiritual matters, we should have an informed view of this thing called enlightenment, along with having a spiritual practice or without it. Indeed it is quite possible that we have more success in these areas than others, and certainly more interest.

First, a Word about Meditation

Of course many of you do meditate, or practice something similar such as centering prayer. You probably began in order to help you deal with stress and overstimulation, and rightly so. It does have that effect, and hundreds of studies by enthusiastic researchers of meditation have found that consistent practice does a great many more things, from decreasing depression and anxiety to increasing intelligence and moral judgment. But all meditation is not the same, just as all medications are not the same. Thus, even if you are already practicing, you may want to know what other people are doing who are using different methods. Certainly if you are about to plunge in, you should make an informed choice, because, again, there are many methods and they really differ widely.

A good way to learn more is to read The Experience of Meditation, a short book edited by Jonathan Shear, Ph.D., in which experts on ten ways to meditate describe their traditions--both the meditation method and the philosophy behind it, including its ultimate purpose. I have described this book elsewhere in this issue.

If you look behind any of these approaches to meditation, in every case you will find that some permanent higher state of consciousness is the ultimate purpose. You can choose a method of meditation and practice it without giving any further thought to higher states of consciousness, both in general and for yourself. Yet again, I think HSPs are at least curious about what lies behind the method of meditation they use. So challenging as it may be, I thought I would try to write about what is usually called enlightenment, or in some traditions, God realization.

Preamble to a History of a Rare but Real Experience

Meditation aims towards enlightenment because all of the methods trace their origins back to an enlightened person who wanted to help others reach that state. This is obviously true for the eastern traditions--that is, all of the methods from India plus the various forms of Buddhism that came out of India and then evolved differently in different regions of Asia and now in the West. But teachers or saints who were trying to lead others to permanent higher states are also found in Islam, at least within Sufism (read Rumi or Daughter of Fire by Irina Tweedy, also reviewed in paper issue of Comfort Zone Vol 7, Issue 4); in Christianity (read the later works of Thomas Merton, for example, such as Contemplative Prayer); and in Judaism (read Buber's Tales of the Hasidim). In these traditions, the state is called something like God realization or, in some Christian traditions, Christ consciousness. ("Non-dualistic" traditions see enlightenment as a state of unity with the ground of being and all of its manifestations, so they label those seeking an ultimate relationship with an Other as "dualists," sometimes with a somewhat superior tone.)

All of these methods, whether traditional or reinvented recently, are branches off of a tree that represents a deep human interest in higher states of consciousness, especially one that might alter a person permanently for the better. What I have learned is that the experience occurs within and outside of traditions, but the traditions have piled on layer upon layer of ideas, controversies, and methods, which may or may not be that useful, even if their traditions and rituals are revered.

I am trying to write here from the most open possible perspective, although I have my bias, in that I have been practicing Transcendental Meditation for 41 years, roughly an hour twice a day. I was once highly involved in the "TM Movement," but I am at a different stage of life now, less prone to following others. If you have any knowledge of this subject at all, you have probably gained it from some tradition and therefore I will probably be contradicting something you have come to believe is true. I am all for systems; they provide wisdom and guidance. Every system is in a sense a belief system or you would not follow its instructions faithfully. Yet speaking of someone post-system, I think there is another point in life when it can be valuable to try to step a little outside of whatever is our own belief system. This can be scary--what if mine seems wrong? But we need to face that others may see all of this quite differently, and perhaps refine our own path through that seeing. Buddha admonished others to do just that, find their own path, as he did. He learned from several teachers, but in the end "did his own thing" until he found a way that took him to his goal, and he repeatedly discerned that he was not there yet and had to go still further.

It All Goes Back to Those Flying Shamans

The available evidence suggests that our relationship as humans and as HSPs to enlightenment goes back to prehistoric times and reflects the actual experiences of a few people, probably HSPs, who eventually became those now identified as shamans. Mircea Eliade, in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, traces the connection between shamanism, which humans have practiced for about 40,000 years, probably beginning in Central Asia, and the relatively modern Patanjali's Yoga Sutras written down in India between 100 BCE and 300 CE. Buddha lived between 500 and 400 BCE and was already practicing and describing methods that would later be written down in the Yoga Sutras. I recommend Karen Armstrong’s Buddha to obtain a sense of the social context that shaped Buddha’s methods and goals.

The evidence Eliade uses for linking shamanism with these "modern" 500 BCE practices is that the Yoga Sutras include methods for flying through the air or disappearing at will, knowing the future and past, and other feats or sidhis, perfections--about 35 in all--that shamans were saying they were doing long before. Eliade also cites early Buddhist texts that speak of these abilities, including a story of Buddha after his enlightenment rising in the air, cutting his body into pieces that fell to the ground, then joining them together again. Whether true or not, this is attributing to him an impressive shamanistic feat.

In fact, these feats have continued to be attributed to a few. According to Eliade, flying is probably the oldest and most universal. St. Francis was supposedly observed hovering above the ground and Theresa of Avila was said to fly up in the air about the same height during ecstatic states of prayer. Even today the TM Sidhis are based quite exactly on Patanjali's, including flying.

Whether you believe anyone has actually flown through the air or not, these experiences have always been associated with people who have mastered some very special, fundamental mental state (the Yoga Sutras call it Samadhi), and such people either can be in it at will or are in it always (Kaivalya). Achieving that state permanently was very clearly the point of Buddha's personal efforts and then teaching, and of Patanjali's writing down the Yoga Sutras. The point is, sometime along the way, long before Buddha and Patanjali, a few humans seem to have begun to experience what we now call higher states of consciousness, some permanently. Others sometimes made great efforts to duplicate the achievement, trying austerities, withdrawal from the world, vision quests, ecstatic dancing, study with masters, or anything else that had worked for others.

Letting the Enlightened Define It

When it comes to a definition, here we have hundreds of opinions. Perhaps the older the tradition, the more elaborate the views. Buddhism is probably the oldest continuous tradition. While it has divided several times, there has been a strong effort to maintain one idea, what Buddha experienced, but of course that has been explained in a myriad of ways. You can definitely get it wrong from some Buddhist's point of view, although I am sure they are quite compassionate towards each other! In contrast, in India enlightened teachers were always springing up, a Buddha in every town as it were, but the result has been the same, a myriad of methods based on a myriad of definitions. How can I define something that so many people disagree about? I will try to base my definition on fundamental experiences, described by living persons as well as ancient dead ones, but please forgive me if I tromp on a cherished belief that it is otherwise.

Okay. People who are enlightened say that.... Hm, better stop right here. It is part of tradition that the enlightened do not say they are enlightened, and if they do they are probably not. But I say, times are changing. It is also part of tradition that a truly enlightened teacher does not charge for his or her teachings. Yet if you want to make meditation widely available, money will be a prerequisite in a culture that would never support seekers of enlightenment in traditional ways such as feeding them when they come around with their begging bowls. For the purpose of understanding it, we have to listen to those who are willing to come out and claim they are enlightened, and then see what else they say. One thing that makes it seem real is that they tend to describe approximately the same thing.

Describing That Which Lies Beneath the Describable

First of all, people who confess to being enlightened say that it is not like anything else, because anything else is a thing--a sensation, a feeling, an idea--that occurs on what you might call the screen of consciousness. Enlightenment is a permanent awareness of the screen itself. Robert Forman, who wrote a charming book called Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up to Be, is a professor of comparative religions who took up that study to try to understand his own experience after he had entered a state of enlightenment when he was 25, during a meditation course. He says that enlightenment, "as I see it described in countless texts from every major tradition, is a shift in the relationship between consciousness and its objects. Enlightenment is the unmingling of a mingled reality" (p. 69, his italics).

Eckhart Tolle, who became enlightened at 29, writes that "the most significant thing that can happen to a human being [is] the separation process of thinking and awareness" and that awareness is "the space in which thoughts exist" (A New Earth, p. 96). He describes much more of his original experience in his first book, The Power of Now.

Bernadette Roberts became enlightened without understanding at first what it was, but for our purposes her definition is in the title of her book about it: The Experience of No-Self. This emphasizes another way of describing enlightenment, that one no longer identifies with the self who is experiencing the world but with a witness that has an eternal quality, beyond your ego, beyond your name, life history, personality, desires, or goals. Those still exist, but you are not quite those any more. They are what in Sanskrit is called laisha vidya, remains of ignorance, through which the higher states of consciousness still have to function in the world.

All of this also accords with the past, with Patanjali's description of Samadhi as being consciousness without objects and Kaivalya a permanent state of cessation of engagement in mental activity, even though obviously the person is still alive and thinking. And we have Buddha's description of his final enlightenment as a "blowing out" of the separate self and all that it desires and perceives, all of those obstacles to experiencing the ultimate reality.

John Wren-Lewis, who became enlightened at 60 after a near death experience, is certainly an interesting case. He was given some poisoned candy while traveling in Southeast Asia, and woke up in a hospital bed, lucky to be alive, and where he gradually realized that everything had changed for him.

"It was so palpably real that I put my hand up to probe the back of my skull, half wondering if the doctors had sawn part of it away to open my head to infinity. Yet it wasn't in the least a feeling of being damaged; it was more like having had a cataract taken off my brain, letting me experience the world and myself properly for the first time for that lovely dark radiance seemed to reveal the essence of everything as holy. I felt like exclaiming, 'Of course! That's absolutely right!' and applauding every single thing with tears."

He goes on to describe the unmingling.

"Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of eternity consciousness is that it doesn't feel extraordinary at all. It feels quintessentially natural that personal consciousness should be aware of its own Ground, while my first fifty-nine years of so-called 'normal' consciousness, in ignorance of that Ground, now seem like a kind of waking dream. It was as if I'd been entranced from birth into a collective nightmare of separate individuals struggling in an alien universe for survival, satisfaction and significance" p. 3.

The enlightened say this state never goes away, although we will see there may be exceptions. They speak of being aware like this even during their sleep. Wren-Lewis adds a sense of this Ground having to do with infinite love, and for us, infinite joy. It seems that the flavor of the experience is very much experienced by one's tradition (or lack of one). Some feel that Thomas Merton, the well known Trappist monk, was enlightened, but given his ever striving for humility, he would not have said so. This is perhaps the moment, however:

"In Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another.... It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness....

"The sense of liberation from illusory difference was such a relief to me that I almost laughed out loud.... My happiness could have taken the form of the words, 'Thank God I am like other men, that I am only a man among other men....' It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race....

"Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and "understood" by a peculiar gift." (from Merton’s Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander)

Others emphasize more a void of silence, or a sense of unity. Buddhists describe many types and levels of enlightenment. Keeping it simpler, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi emphasized seven states, waking, dreaming, sleeping, and then one he called "transcendental consciousness," something experienced in meditation (although sometimes spontaneously, especially in childhood). This is that sense of the deep silence, or the awareness of the screen behind thoughts. The fifth state, cosmic consciousness, is the permanent awareness of the transcendent along with everything else, in which the sense of separation or "unmingling" predominates.

But the separateness fades in the sixth state, "God consciousness," in which the sense of God, love, or beauty pulls one out of separateness, as it did for Merton. Merton may have actually entered this state that day in Louisville, having already experienced the others, given that at that point he had been a monk in a cloistered contemplative order for seventeen years. As one sees the commonality of the divine in everything, this can evolve into a seventh state, a sense of "unity consciousness" or oneness with everything, which according to Maharishi becomes fully established in yet another state he sometimes added, called "Brahman consciousness" (Conversations with Maharishi). But according to Maharishi, others remain in God consciousness without entering Unity. It's really a matter of tradition and preference.

How to Become Enlightened

Now here's a topic fraught with opinion. Some say you just have to "get it." In that case, you might try reading A Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment, self-published by Thaddeus Golas in 1972, but then republished and reprinted many times. It appears to all be at this address:

It is probably true that if you are ready, merely reading or hearing about it may do the trick. But if that doesn't work, well, Wren-Lewis tracked down 16 other enlightened persons and he said only two had gotten there through spiritual practice or teachings. Most had had it occur suddenly, often when under great stress, and as if by "grace." Still, it seems that most of these who had been "graced" had given it some thought or study beforehand, even if, like Wren-Lewis, it had all been negative thoughts. (He was busily writing about "mysticism as a neurotic fantasy" before his change of brain.)

Given his failure to find any teachers who were actually succeeding, Wren-Lewis is one of those who believe that practices only interfere, making enlightenment something in the future to be achieved, the opposite of realizing it is available right now. Like some Buddhists, he sees it as there all the time for everyone, although he has no idea how to help others feel it. Yet Forman was on a meditation retreat, which clearly facilitated his moment of grace. Ram Das became enlightened while with his teacher in India, Neem Karoli Baba. Peters and Merton spent long years in seclusion.

Traditionally there are many paths besides meditation: Devotion, inquiry ("who am I, really?"), practicing good works, being in the presence of a master... There are quite a few stories of each of these working, but I am not an expert on this. Personally, I am quite sure that the right form of meditation, practiced enough, is a fine path. Does it work for everyone? Do we need a path individually suited to ourselves? Not sure. The problem is how much stress we all are under all the time, which demands that we pay so much attention to the objects of the senses that we cannot experience the quiet ground behind it very often, much less have it last. Or as Merton put it in The Way of Chuang Tzu:

"But for Chuang this paradise is not something that has been irrevocably lost by sin and cannot be regained except by redemption. It is still ours, but we do not know it, since the effect of life in society is too complicated and confuses our existence, making us forget who we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not (p. 20)."

I think a meditation practice that you find very effortless and restful, physically and mentally, is probably the one most likely to give you at least tastes of the silence, especially during meditation retreats, and this probably helps it grow. What I doubt help are those aspects of any tradition that involve essentially an imitation of enlightenment: Trying to witness what you are doing all the time, for example, which only divides the mind. Trying to be present, when obviously there are times when you must think about the future or past. The "now" is something quite different, and not a very accurate term for it, it seems.

Meanwhile, John Wren-Lewis seems right that we have no idea yet how or why these occasional sudden shifts to enlightenment occur for some people. But I don't think there is any reason why we can't find out eventually. Indeed at least one person is trying to develop a list of such persons. It is a subject that was once important, then ignored, and now resurfacing in an entirely new human-cultural context. I think it is another place where HSPs can be helpful, having the intuition to sort through all of these shifting opinions. Perhaps as part of your research you will even want to visit an "enlightened teacher" if one comes through your area. But be careful--they have a way of pulling at something inside of you that may have always been saying, "I want that." It is the nature of spiritual teachers to stir up that desire, just as all good therapists make you feel cared for, but you still have to discern thoughtfully what is right for you.

Next Time...

I will venture to say something about sudden versus gradual enlightenment; more on how you might know if you are there, especially if it is gradual; and most important, the relationship of virtue to enlightenment--is it really automatic that once you are enlightened, you always behave correctly and ethically? I'll let the enlightened guy who still shoplifted and needed 20 years of therapy talk to you, and we'll think about all those spiritual teachers who had sex with their disciples or amassed wealth and forgot to pay their taxes. If all that can happen, what exactly is enlightenment good for? We'll see.


May 2012 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Our Spiritual Life: HSPs, Meditation, and Enlightenment, Part I

Coping Corner: HSPs and Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Other Illnesses Perhaps Related to "Central Sensitization"

HSPs and Parenting: Dear Highly Sensitive Parents (and Grandparents): The Book for HS Parents Is Happening, So a Renewed Request for Help

Short Stuff:


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

May 2012 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine

Our Spiritual Life: HSPs, Meditation, and Enlightenment, Part I

Coping Corner: HSPs and Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Other Illnesses Perhaps Related to "Central Sensitization"

HSPs and Parenting: Dear Highly Sensitive Parents (and Grandparents): The Book for HS Parents Is Happening, So a Renewed Request for Help

Short Stuff:

Coping: More on HSPs and Pain

Summer Reading: A Memoir, A Mystery, and an Excellent Book on Meditation



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