Kenshos: The Big Picture
by Diane Linsley

I wrote this article in 2009 when I was developing techniques
for inducing kenshos - brief glimpses of the Transcendent that
precede the experience of enlightenment, which is a life-changing
shift in perspective that permanently alters the way a person
perceives himself and the world.

Ken Wilber says, "Enlightenment is an accident, but meditation
makes you more accident-prone." After experiencing a few
accidental kenshos, I decided to purposely try to create the
conditions that would make a kensho more likely to happen.

Preparing for a Kensho

During a trip to southern Utah, I experimented with some
exercises to shift my perspective in order to experience reality in
a new way. This gave me something to do during the long drive.
Watching the road and the passing scenery, I told my mind to stop
chopping it into separate pieces and simply observe the continuous flow. This is easy to do in the passenger seat of the car. It's not recommended if you are driving.

I started out by using a meditation phrase by Genpo Roshi: "Allow me to speak to the non-seeking, non-grasping mind, please." Then I let my mind relax while I observed the scenery without naming anything.

Have you ever noticed how your mind is continually labeling and judging everything? The linear and dualistic mind wants to put it all in order, name things, and prioritize them. But reality is not linear and dualistic. It is one, big, multi-dimensional "thing-event," as Bill Harris calls it.

Obviously, the linear and dualistic mind is very useful. But what happens when you temporarily stop labeling and judging? The mind wants to focus on separate objects and compare them to each other: "This rock formation is more attractive than that one. This cloud is puffier than all the others." The mind's labeling process can be distracting when you are trying to enjoy nature.

My reverie was interrupted every few minutes by my companion saying things like, "Look at that rock over there. It looks like a man wearing a bowler hat." After listening to a few of these remarks, I said, "Do we have to see faces in every rock? Why can't it just be a rock?"

You see, the mind doesn't want to let things be what they are. It tries to put meaning on everything. Rocks are just rocks. You are the one who puts meaning on every object, person and event in your life. This realization frees you to choose your own meaning-making consciously, instead of unconsciously believing every thought that pops into your mind without questioning it.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with seeing faces in rocks and clouds. It's just what the mind does. But I was trying to clear my mind of all meaning-making in order to see raw reality. After a while, my mind let go and stopped clinging to separate objects, and I experienced reality as a continuous flow of interconnected things and events. I stopped thinking of objects as permanent and solid, and I stopped chopping time into separate segments. It was one continuous flow. I felt blissfully happy and peaceful.

Impermanence and the Big Picture

In the big picture, rocks are no more substantial than clouds. Over eons of time, rocks dissolve away, just like clouds do. There is nothing you can grasp or cling to because nothing is permanent. When you stop grasping and clinging, you are free to live in the eternal Now, instead of in mind-created thoughts about the way things "should be."

You transcend your map of reality, which includes many concepts and ideas that are unresourceful and cause suffering for yourself and others. This doesn't mean that you lose your mind. You simply step out of the map and perceive things objectively.

Initially, the idea of impermanence is scary. But when you really understand it, you appreciate it. The thing-event that we call the universe is beautiful and awe-inspiring because it is alive and constantly changing. How can you ever be bored? The universe is not a static object. It is an ongoing process. You can't take a snapshot of the universe, stick it in your brain, then go around for the rest of your life thinking that you understand it.

Impermanence gives value to everything in your life. Things appear in your field of awareness, and then they pass by. Knowing that nothing is permanent helps you enjoy what you like while it lasts and endure what you don't like until it ends.

In The Path of the Human Being, Gepo Roshi says, "It's not necessary to try to become your true self. You can't be anything else. It's impossible to be other than what we truly are - and what we are changes moment to moment. But because our tendency to grasp is so strong, it may take us some time to learn to trust and relax into our unfixed nature. Ego wants to be substantial and special."

In reality, ego is no more substantial than the faces that you see in rocks. From one direction, the rock looks like a bunny. From another direction it looks like a clown. These are just different perspectives. Any words or labels that you use to describe yourself are ultimately meaningless.

Your true nature is beyond labels. Your true self has no outlines. Genpo Roshi says, "Our very nature is unfixed and dynamic. If we can't see that, we are ignoring the natural process of change....Your true self is no-self, ever-changing and as vast and unknowable as the sky."

The Essence of Zen

The final hiking spot on our trip was Fisher Towers, which is outside of Arches National Park. The trail is quite treacherous in places, so you have to watch your footing to avoid falling off a cliff. You can't let your mind wander. If you want to look at the scenery, you have to stop walking because you can't look and walk at the same time.

This is the essence of Zen - doing one thing at a time, and doing it with full attention. Multi-tasking is not Zen.

When I was busy watching my feet on the trail, I couldn't see the scenery - the big picture. So I stopped as often as I could to look up. Each time I stopped, the scenery had changed, and I saw it from a new perspective. Several times during the hike, we sat down by the side of the trail on large, flat rocks to rest and look around. During one of the stops, I told my kids that I wanted to sit for a while and meditate. So they went on ahead, and I sat in silence.

I meditated on the saying, "There are no outlines in nature." Then I experienced a shift in perpective, and I felt how everything is connected. Instead of seeing trees, rocks, clouds and animals as separate objects, I experienced how they were all interconnected. After a few minutes, I felt a sense of deep peace and oneness with nature. I was part of it, too - with no outlines.

Then it was back to the trail. As I walked, I realized that the big picture is always there, and we are part of it. But we don't always feel that way. Most of the time, we are concentrating on the steps we are taking now. But even while watching our steps, we can maintain a sense of oneness in the background.

The hike is a metaphor for integrating the relative world and the Transcendent. Our attention is usually in the relative world, although there are some people who are stuck in the Transcendent. This happens in the Third Rank of Tozan after a mind-blowing experience of enlightenment.

You can't pay attention to your footing when your head is in the clouds. You might fall off a cliff. On the other hand, what's the point of going on this journey if you never stop to look at the big picture? There needs to be balance.

Meditation is a way to shift your perspective into the Transcendent so you don't get stuck in the relative world. The more often you shift back and forth between these two perspectives, the easier it becomes. Then you don't get stuck in either place. Genpo Roshi says, "After going through this process many times, we learn how to move freely between the dualistic and nondualistic views."

Halfway up the trail, a young man passed me, jogging as fast as he could go without tripping and falling over the edge. An hour later, he passed me going the other way. He called out as he ran by, "It's worth it to get to the top!" I wondered if he spent much time admiring the view when he got there.

I never did make it to the end of the trail, even though I hiked for another hour. I didn't want to overdo it and make myself sick. So I sat down on another rock and meditated again. When the kids came back, I asked them how it was. My son said, "It's about the same as the view from here, except there's a sign that says, "End of Trail."

Is it really the end? Genpo Roshi says, "When we look ahead, there is always further to go....If we've reached the summit, there is always another mountain to climb."

Well, I'm glad because I like personal growth :)

Here's a guided meditation for clarity and guidance.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

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