It was about 10 PM, and I was commuting from Boston to New York in late September of 1984. It had been a bumpy year, so to speak, and I was on the brink of a rather complex career turning point.
Earlier that afternoon, I had just retrieved my car from a Boston body shop after an unenviable encounter with a runaway bus in Cuban Harlem. This had been my second visit to that particular sheet metal doctor, who was kind enough to remind me, as I drove away, that “the third time is the charm”.
In retrospect, I must admit that these little clichés, floating around in the vast collective consciousness, have an odd way of validating themselves.
I was overly familiar with the stretch of highway that I was currently navigating, and mind had slipped into semi-automatic, entertaining the random road musings about God and mortgage payments, love and marriage, pasts and futures vying for attention, even as the breathless present was rushing to itself with arms wildly waving.
Glancing up, I noticed that I was approaching my designated exit along the Saw Mill Parkway. It had come up sooner than expected, punctuating my reveries. I checked the rear view mirror to see if I could move into the right lane to exit, and saw a pair of headlights in what seemed a good bit of distance behind me in the right lane. I felt comfortable about the lane switch, but as I began to cross over, I was rear-ended by the oncoming car, which had been moving at much faster speed than I had calculated. I was pushed into the guardrail to the right, then lost control and swerved through the rail on the left, plunging over the side of the mountain.
As I plummeted down the hillside, my visibility was thwarted by the darkness and the strobe-like streaks from my headlight beams as they bounced wildly off the onrushing landscape. The mind knew with complete certainty that “this was it.” Not only was I about to die, but it was actually going to be really gruesome, with mangled crispy body parts and all the attendant horrors now swarming back from the 60’s cautionary “Drivers Ed” films we had to sit through back in high school. An enormous fear raced through me on the wings of adrenaline – the primal survival response crushing up against sure knowledge of sheer ruin.
Suddenly I hit the bottom of the hill, but unlike the movie finale, I did not explode in a blazing fireball. Rather, my car catapulted up through the air, flipping over and over as it crossed the oncoming 2-lane highway. It continued air-borne across the service road, finally slamming into the side of the hill on the other side, where it proceeded to roll down a bit until it hung, teetering, on the edge of an embankment.
It must have been while I was in mid-air (although my recollected sense was that time itself had truly stopped) that the fear was swallowed up by a great silence. I had somehow been lifted out of the accident and into an infinite dark. This ebony silence was deeper than I had ever known and certainly beyond my feeble adjectives, and yet curiously “familiar”, as if it had always been here, just behind the chitchat of everyday mind and presumed identity.
Spontaneously, there was a direct “knowing” that there was no death, but more to the point – it was self-evidently obvious that there had never been, nor could there ever be, the person I had taken myself to be. All that had been like a brief restless dream, an imaginary figment. There was no car, no accident, no trace of any reference point. There was no narrative or story line of “my life”, any life, any world, any past or future. There was nothing to remember, nothing to forget, nothing to hope for, nothing to fear. In fact the whole history of human experience was revealed as a non-event, or what I came to call a virtual reality. When one is identified with it, it all appears totally real, time and space seem real, other people seem real, places and events seem real, but once outside the illusion, it all dissolves as if it never was.
What became clearly obvious was that nothing had ever happened, nothing had ever arisen. This was not in the form of an idea, but vivid beyond anything seen in the normal waking state. The accompanying sense was not of some existential angst, but on the contrary, immense joy and gratitude, and then “behind” that, just this impersonal knowing quality that remains ever untouched, just a pure awareness without any object or emotion or anything perceivable or conceivable, except the recognition of its own sufficiency (to use words that cannot even really say it).
Alone, yet with no sense of lack or feeling of incompleteness — nothing to be desired or avoided, accepted or rejected. A self-illuminating Awareness — boundless and inexpressible, vastness with no center, motionless, serenity with no opposite, and thus not even serenity – such words and phrases don’t even touch it — and it went on forever, yet without even any sense of time. The timeless limitless Void, but not with any quality of lack or vacantness one might associate with that concept. In fact, there are no associations or qualities that could be applied, while immersed in that suchness. It defies any attempt to frame it, since it is without reference to frame, and so I will cease my efforts in that regard. If one has had that experience, no words are necessary. If not, no words are sufficient.
Suddenly “I” (or rather, the matrix of attention, for lack of a more precise terminology ) was back in the crushed driver’s seat. The left foot had pierced through the floor board of the car, and was dangling shoeless in the air over the embankment, shattered. People were milling about, sharing their disbelief that someone could have survived such a disaster! I was barely aware of them, just in shock from having entered into time and form once more – what a strange and bizarre experience: body, mind, self-sense! The only comparable events had happened to me early in life, at the ages of two and then again at 8, but nothing as dramatic as this.
I was engulfed in tears, but these tears had nothing to do with the accident, or survival, or relief to be essentially in one piece. I hardly cared about any of that at this point, like last night’s dream. These tears were tears of gratitude, and yet I didn’t even know what I was grateful for – just an endless gratitude for what I had been shown, but also tinged with a bit of grief at having been shrunk back down to this dense and heavy human level.
An interesting postscript to that event was brought to my attention later by friends. Several reported intense experiences of Presence timed to that very night. Another, who was sitting hospital vigil with her husband in the final stages of his terminal illness, reported that — at around 10 PM that night — she was overwhelmed by a brilliant streak of light which shone through her heart and into and around her husband for several minutes. By the next day he had recovered completely from his illness, much to the bewilderment of the medical staff. I have no way of verifying any of this, but it seemed sincere when it was all related to me.
After the incident, however, I found that my interest in spirituality and spiritual groups in general had fundamentally dissolved. I went through the motions for several months, but had a hard time raising any enthusiasm for that game any longer. All of the various practices, doctrines, beliefs, and claims of the human spiritual and philosophical systems that I had encountered and even participated in over the previous years now seemed rather superfluous, and even naïve.
Moreover, it seemed as if I had even fallen into a semi-amnesia about the experience itself. Coming back into the body was such a step down in awareness that I felt as if I had gone through a lobotomy just to be human again. It also felt that, in the midst of the timeless state, I had received a kind of download of “recognitions”, but it would take many years to even start to process the import and implications of all that.
Among those realizations was the sense that there seemed to be two truths, or perceived realities – the world of the absolute, in which nothing happens, and the world of the relative, where there is a you and me and everything. (Much later, I came to realize that too was an incomplete understanding, and that in reality there are no separate realms of the absolute and relative. That is merely another idea of mind to which one might attach.)
Thus began a long period in my life (about 15 years) where I became totally immersed in the “ordinary” world (although I did continue Zen meditation), focusing on career, spending time traveling around the globe, just soaking up other cultures and exploring the human experience in all its variety, enjoying all that incarnated life had to offer. I bought and sold homes, became a big success in my career, stocked a wine cellar, and unreservedly threw myself into the phenomenal world. It was play, like pretending to be the character in a virtual reality game, but knowing clearly that this fictional creation was not my real identity.
Nevertheless, I noticed that I would be drawn into that Void “state” of impersonal awake awareness in meditation, and although it was strange at first coming back into normal waking consciousness, I eventually began to adapt to the transition. As time went on, I found that I could almost merge the two states in the midst of everyday life. As long as I didn’t fixate on any particular issue, I was able to keep a non-dwelling consciousness, and in the midst of that, the open empty spaciousness of the Void “state” would rise to the forefront. Otherwise, it remained in the background, but informing all that appeared in consciousness. Everything became transparent, anything could be manifested, and yet nothing made any difference. It was like an absorbing movie that would be utterly forgotten the next day.
This provided a particular perspective on events, experiences, and relationships with the so-called ‘world”. I could recognize how it was all arising from thought-energy, and thus was a constant creation, held together by the power of that thought-energy. It was not a fixed or stable thing at all, but in each “moment”, became a whole new creation, as the thought-energy morphed kaleidoscopically. There was in fact no solid material world, just a subjective creation endlessly modifying itself, and yet although I could see the function, I still had not touched on the Basis for it, the motive that compelled and informed the universal unfolding.
That period came to an end with a big bang when I was out for a walk one day during a lunch break, and out of nowhere was suddenly knocked down to my knees and pierced at the heart by an arrow of Love. This was to be the beginning of an immense heart opening that paved the way for meeting my Beloved again for the first time in this life. That’s when things got really interesting, I was given the Pearl beyond price, and the Poetry came alive!