For thousands of years in every advanced culture, people have sought ultimate truth and a way of living that awakens the mind and energizes the soul. Approaches to this quest are vastly different across centuries and civilizations, but buried in the variety of human experience lies a common pattern. Discovering this pattern can transform one’s outlook forever.
In a remarkable book titled The Common Experience, first published in 1979 and now out of print, this pattern is lucidly presented. The authors, J.M. Cohen and J-F. Phipps, combine stories of everyday people with writings of exceptional thinkers across the ages to achieve a rare, lucid perspective on the ultimate issues of life.
This web page is a tribute to their work and an effort to make their ideas more widely available to sincere seekers of truth.
A glimpse of ultimate reality
When people report sudden glimpses of a higher reality it is good to be skeptical. Cultural conditioning and individual bias make human perception unreliable. But when reports contain similar elements and common themes, it is useful to consider them. Here is one to start with.
[All quotes appeared in The Common Experience, 1979, by J.M. Cohen and J-F. Phipps. Many originate from the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford (“RERU”) which collected extraordinary reports from ordinary people.]
Vauxhall Station on a murky November Saturday evening is not the setting one would choose for a revelation of God! The third-class compartment was full. I cannot remember any particular thought processes which may have led up to the great moment.
For a few seconds only (I suppose) the whole compartment was filled with light. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming, sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy.
I felt that all was well for mankind. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable, all this they would inherit.
Meditation and contemplation
That remarkable experience on a dismal English train was a rare, unsought glimpse of a higher reality. For most people a focused effort is needed to raise one’s consciousness, with meditation a key method. But the paradox of meditation is undeniable. How can human reason emerge from itself?
An alternative was proposed by Richard of Saint-Victor, a twelfth-century European mystical theologian. He describes this approach as contemplation.
Thinking, slow-footed, wanders hither and thither along bypaths, caring not where they will lead. Meditation, with great mental industry, plods along the steep and laborious road keeping the end in view. Contemplation, on a free wing, circles around with great nimbleness wherever the impulse takes it.
Thinking crawls along, meditation marches and sometimes runs, contemplation flies around and when it wills, it hovers upon the height.
Thinking is without labor and bears no fruit. Meditation labors and has its fruit. Contemplation abides untoiling and fruitful.
Thinking roams about; meditation investigates; contemplation wonders.
-Richard of Saint-Victor
Such clarity should have led to an emergence of an enlightened religious tradition. But instead it was suppressed by human institutions which regarded such ideas as heresy.
These ideas emerged again in the seventeenth century. Miguel de Molinos, a Spanish priest living in Rome, wrote a guide for achieving enlightenment. He soon faced the Holy Inquisition as part of the final destruction of popular mystical traditions in western Europe.
In order to keep the mind fixed on God--this is contemplation--it is necessary to leave behind all rational and discursive thinking, however exalted--that is mediation. Mediation, say the saints, is the seeking, discussing, ruminating and chewing of the divine food. And if this food is always ruminated, if it is perpetually chewed, it remains in the mouth and is never swallowed. Thus it cannot be quietly held and digested in the stomach and it brings no life or nourishment to a man. Indeed, he gains nothing from it.
Mediation is a means of reaching an end and the end of meditation is contemplation. Contemplation is finding; it is the enjoyment and retention of the divine food in the stomach. It is the goal, the end of the road where a person understands and knows God.
-Miguel de Molinos
Fruits of contemplation
A twentieth-century example of the state of consciousness possible through contemplation can be found in the files of the Religious Experience Research Unit.
I had travelled up to Keswick for a short holiday alone. I was sitting eating dinner in my small boarding house. The dining room was filled with a lively group of students, but I sat alone, looking out over Lake Derwentwater.
I was thinking at the time about the problem of the existence of God, and was trying purposely to direct, even to force, my thoughts along certain tracks, instead of allowing them to come to mind haphazardly as usual.
‘Why, if there is no God, should anything exist in the first place? Indeed, how could anything exist? Why not just nothing?’
At this moment in my reasoning it was as if suddenly a door had been opened in the mind. I glimpsed what I can only call the Kingdom of Heaven. For a moment all time seemed to stand still. It was if I was looking down into a great hall, but unlike an earthly hall it defies description. It was like an intuition of infinity and pure reason.
I had caught sight of Truth, which the human faculties in their frailty are unable to grasp. There were the answers to the mysteries of human life and of the existence of the universe. And if I could not understand those mysteries, at least I could know that there is something beyond.
The power of contemplation originates in abandonment of self, which avoids the paradox of meditation. In meditation, no matter how disciplined, the ego-centric self interferes with a higher realization. But contemplation, even if triggered by darkness and crisis, can create instantaneous emergence into light.
Often during my late twenties and early thirties I had a good deal of depression, not caused by any outward circumstances. At the age of thirty-three I felt I must be going mad. I felt shut up in a cocoon in complete isolation and could not get in touch with anyone. Things came to such a pass and I was so tired of fighting that I said one day ‘I can do no more. Let nature, or whatever is behind the universe, look after me now’.
Within a few days I passed from a hell to a heaven. It was as if the cocoon had burst and my eyes were opened and I saw. The world was infinitely beautiful, full of light as if from an inner radiance. Everything was alive and God was present in all things; in fact, the earth, all plants and animals and people seemed to be made of God.
All things were one, and I was one with all creation and held safe within a deep love. I was filled with peace and joy and with deep humility, and could only bow down in the holiness of the presence of God.
If anyone had brought news that any member of my family had died, I should have laughed and said ’there is no death’. It was as if scales had fallen from my eyes and I saw the world as it truly was. How had I lived for thirty-three years and been so blind? This was the secret of the world, yet it all seemed so obvious and natural that I had no idea that I should not always see it so. I felt like going round and telling everyone that all things were one and that knowledge of this would cure all ills.
No methods, only paradox
But these stories of enlightened consciousness don’t provide a meaningful method to follow. How is one to proceed?
Eastern religions offer a multitude of paths towards personal enlightenment, but the paradox of meditation remains. Ancient literature addresses this conflict, as shown in one Buddhist example.
Any good pious disciple who undertakes the practice of concentrating his mind in an effort to realize most perfect knowledge, should cherish only one thought, namely: When I attain this highest perfect wisdom, I will deliver all sentient beings into the eternal peace of Nirvana.
If this purpose and vow is sincere, these sentient beings are already delivered. And yet, if the full truth is realized, one would know that not a single sentient being has ever been delivered. And why? Because if the great Bodhisattvas have kept in mind any such arbitrary conceptions as one’s own self, other selves, living beings, or a universal self, they could not be called perfectly enlightened ones.
And what does this mean? It means that there are no sentient beings to be delivered and there is no selfhood that can begin the practice of seeking to attain most perfect knowledge.
Given the ultimate paradox facing even the most advanced seekers of reality, how is one to proceed? The answer lies beyond the mental efforts of meditation and contemplation.
Pursuit of enlightenment can lead to abandonment of the world, but a more sensible approach is to live one’s life but in a new way. Ancient Hindu scripture suggests a solution for those who want to pursue enlightenment while remaining active in the world of daily events.
Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work.
Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure. Yoga is evenness of mind--a peace that is ever the same.
Work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom. Seek salvation in the wisdom of reason. How poor are those who work for a reward!
In this wisdom a man goes beyond what is well done and what is not well done. Go thou therefore to wisdom: Yoga is wisdom in work.
When thy mind leaves behind its dark forest of delusion, thou shalt go beyond the scriptures of times past and still to come.
When thy mind, that may be wavering in the contradictions of many scriptures, shall rest unshaken in divine contemplation then the goal of Yoga is thine.
The essence of right action is right attitude. Without these personal attributes, clear contemplation isn’t possible and meditation leads to delusions.
Many philosophical and religious traditions encourage a deluded approach to personal advancement. No progress is made because reason and intellect are tainted by ego and self-interest, or the soul is deadened by blind adherence to the ideas of an elite class of so-called spiritual leaders.
Elaborate systems are a barrier, and Zen Buddhism suggests an alternative:
When Chao-chou came to study Zen under Nan-chuan, he asked, ‘What is the Tao (or the Way)?’ Nan-chuan replied: ‘Your everyday mind, that is the Tao.’
But even if we find a simple, effective path in our daily life, how are we to escape from the overwhelming effects of self-interest?
The obvious way is to become less interested in one’s self and more interested in others. Compassion, or the spirit of love, provides the mental state to achieve this.
Western religions encourage one’s development of the spirit of love through prayer, but for non-believers, this is rarely an option. Eastern religions focus on a more practical form of compassion that resembles unlimited friendliness. One’s self is a good place to start:
First of all friendliness should again and again be developed for oneself, ‘May I be happy, free from ill’, or, ‘May I be free from enmity, free from injury, free from disturbance, and may I preserve myself at ease.’
-Conze, Buddhist Meditation
The meditation progresses with friendliness towards one’s teacher, then to ‘a very dear person’, then to ‘an indifferent person’, then towards an enemy. The goal is universal compassion, or the unselfish love of Christian tradition.
One must avoid the hypocrisy of a mere intellectual exercise, which never truly abandons the self-absorption that plagues modern culture. Instead, the self is abandoned and the heart opens. Then the mind becomes clearer, meditation becomes more productive and wrong action is abandoned.
And what are the four motives of evil-doing, free from which he does no evil deed?
‘A man does evil deeds by going on the wrong path through desire, through hatred, through delusion and through fear. But since the disciple does not go on these four wrong paths, he does no evil deed through these four motives of evil-doing.’
-Some sayings of Buddha
Compassion can overcome hatred, delusion, fear and desire, placing one on the path towards right action, which in turn leads to clear contemplation.
Compassion is not just a fervent emotion, however, which quickly fades, but is instead a lifting of consciousness. An account from RERU provides a good sense of transformation from cynicism to pure compassion.
Although religion had meant a lot to me, at the time I was going through a period of doubt and of disillusion with life and was torn by conflict. On this particular June day I had time to fill in. It was a glorious sunny evening and I walked through St. Jame’s Park and sat down by the water intending to read. I never opened my book.
It was very beautiful, with the sun glinting through the trees and the ducks swimming on the water, and quite suddenly I felt lifted beyond all the turmoil and the conflict. There was no visual image and I knew I was sitting on a seat in the park, but I felt as if I was lifted above the world and looking down on it.
The disillusion and cynicism were gone and I felt compassion suffusing my whole being, compassion for all people on earth. I was possessed by a peace that I have never felt before or since and--what is to me most interesting and curious of all--this whole state was not emotional; it was if I was not without emotion but beyond it.
But even the achievement of compassion is fraught with paradox. This difficulty is explained by R.P. Kaushik, a twentieth-century teacher from India, who addresses the pursuit of compassion, clarity and superior state of mind.
A mind which is seeking something in particular is incapable of looking, incapable of seeing. The very search creates a blindness.
If you are looking for a spiritual state of mind, a better state of mind where there is clarity of sensitivity or perception, who is looking for this state but the thinker, the very mind which is confused? It is looking through its confusion.
Whether you are looking for love, or God, or clarity of mind, it is the same movement--you are looking out of frustration and confusion, looking for something in the future. And therefore you deny the possibility of it being in the present--you imply that clarity does not exist now.
-Dr. R. P. Kaushik
Another RERU account describes acceptance of this paradox.
After years of intensive study and meditation it has become clear to me that in the intuitional sphere there is no path, no seeker, no method and no enlightenment. I am relieved from the weight of intellectual effort in this direction.
But is abandonment of spiritual pursuits the only reasonable approach? Or can right action, pure compassion and clear meditation bring us closer to an advanced state of consciousness?
A better understanding of the end result is useful in focusing one’s attention. Enlightenment, regardless of how it is described, is a state of consciousness that is commonly reported as extraordinary compared to normal life. Great sacrifices thus become reasonable for those who aren’t mesmerized by their daily routine.
What is the nature of enlightenment? Is it merely an abstract intellectual achievement or an intense emotional high? Maybe it’s the ultimate in self-delusion. Or is there an upward shift in consciousness to which we can all aspire?
One day as I was walking along Marylebone Road I was suddenly seized with an extraordinary sense of great joy and exaltation as though a marvellous beam of spiritual power had shot through me linking me in rapture with the world, the universe, life with a capital L, and all the beings around me. All delight and power, all things living, all time fused in a brief second.
The state of enlightenment was described as “cosmic consciousness” by nineteenth-century doctor Richard Bucke. His own experience (described in the third person) was inspired by reading metaphysically oriented poetry, especially Walt Whitman.
He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next he knew the light was in himself.
Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain steamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven.
Among other things, he saw and knew that the cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone in the long run is absolutely certain.
A common view of those who experience a higher consciousness is that it can’t be described. Enlightenment can perhaps be understood by its contrast with everyday life. Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda reports his return from unification with the “Spirit of God.”
Suddenly the breath returned to my lungs. With a disappointment almost unbearable, I realized that my infinite immensity was lost. Once more I was limited to the humiliating cage of a body, not easily accommodative to the Spirit. Like a prodigal child, I had run away from my macrocosmic home and imprisoned myself in a paltry microcosm.
-Autobiography of a Yogi
Those who experience the profound, followed by a return to the mundane, are transformed. Detachment becomes a dominant attribute, as described by the authors of The Common Experience (who employ Dr. Bucke’s phrase for an enlightened mind, “cosmic consciousness”):
It is not rare to meet people who appear to have attained, or to have been born with, cosmic consciousness. Of one thing one may be certain: that they will not claim any special qualities, nor in any way call attention to themselves.
One will observe a certain detachment, which may at first glance seem cold, but will be found to conceal a true concern for others; an absence of ‘grasping’; a scrupulous attention to any task in hand; a capacity for listening, and a talent for answering sensibly and objectively; a liking for silence, the countryside, mountains, solitude; and above all, an absolute reliability, a consistency from day to day which is lacking in people at large, who are swayed by a succession of moods and desires.
-The Common Experience
In a state of detachment, one’s ego is absent, allowing for oneness with the essence of the universe.
Then the soul neither sees, nor distinguishes by seeing, nor imagines that there are two things. It belongs to God and is one with Him. In this conjunction with Deity there were not two things, but the perceiver was one with the thing perceived.
This sense is described by fourteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart, in a story about a nun experiencing unity with the divine. She reports to her confessor in shockingly simple terms:
Sir, rejoice with me, I am God.
In this higher consciousness, one can perceive oneness where normally only separate individuals appear to exist. Plotinus, ancient Greek philosopher and founder of Neoplatonism, described higher consciousness as “There” and contrasted it to “our realm”:
In our realm all is part rising from part and nothing can be more than partial; but There each being is an eternal product of a whole and is at once a whole and an individual manifesting as part but, to the keen vision There, known for the whole it is.
In a repudiation of the scholarly approach to finding enlightenment, the Buddhist text Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch describes how an illiterate servant at a monastery finds enlightenment. He recounts the moment when the patriarch conveyed a higher sense of reality:
When he came to the sentence, ‘One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment’, I suddenly became thoroughly enlightened and realized that all things in the universe are mind-essence itself.
I said to the patriarch, ‘Who could have conceived that mind-essence is intrinsically free from becoming and annihilation! That mind-essence is intrinsically self-sufficient and free from change! Who could have conceived that all things are manifestations of mind-essence!’
-Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch
Free from attachment, we can achieve a “keen vision” of higher consciousness, a transformative sense of reality where individual ego plays no part. We achieve this freedom through a life of right action, pure compassion and clear meditation.
However, the transition from everyday life to a higher sense of reality ranges from incredibly difficult to completely overwhelming.
The void and the light
One’s potential for progress depends on abandonment of ego, self and routine thought. Zen Buddhism offers an approach to deep meditation that emphasizes emptiness, lifting us above the “perverted views” of everyday life.
A Zen parable tells of monks arguing whether the flag is moving or the wind is moving, when the patriarch points out that the mind is moving. But even his wisdom is invalid.
Wind, flag, mind moves.
The same understanding.
When the mouth opens
All are wrong.
-Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Thus we are led to the void where a higher reality can emerge. A twentieth-century experience shows the occurrence of this void through personal despair:
The following occurred at a time when I had no feeling for religion. It was not the result of religious ecstasy or a joyous heightening of the spirit.
A certain event had hurt and humiliated me. I rushed to my room in a state of despair, feeling as worthless as an empty shell.
From this point of utter emptiness it was as though I were caught up in another dimension. My separate self ceased to exist and for a fraction of time I seemed part of a timeless immensity of power and joy and light. Something beyond this domain of life and death. My subjective and painful feelings vanished.
In a near-death-experience, people describe a dark tunnel leading to the light of a higher reality. In the same way, those who glimpse a higher consciousness have described an emerging from the void of mental darkness into an all-encompassing light.
In a case from the Religious Experience Research Unit, someone reported an experience in college. During a discussion of “the life force”, her friend asked “But where is it? What is it?”
In between her question and the uncontrollable tears which started to filter down my face, was a timeless moment. Then I experienced great fear; something invisible, yet momentous, was happening in the room which all of a sudden seemed to be filled with light, a whitish, yet warm, light. It seemed to be both in the room and within me.
Although ‘it’ was obviously outside me, it was also part of me; yet a part with no physical location. It was united completely with a region of my mind. The curious thing is that I felt the light. Although my eyes were open, the perception of the light was an interior perception. I continued to see everything in the room quite clearly, but all the objects were lit up by this interior light.
As soon as I perceived this light I felt great joy and peace. I wanted to worship the force which was manifesting itself in such an inexpressible way.
Sometime during the experience I had a thought, which (like the light) I ‘felt’ or perceived inwardly: ‘thirty, forty, seventy years are nothing. Only when you are united with this force does life really begin.’
It ended with an indescribable feeling of strength, certainty and great serenity.
This emergence into infinity is closely associated with an emergence into eternity. Once again, meditation offers a method:
To meditate is to transcend time. Time is the distance that thought travels in its achievements. The travelling is always along the old path covered over with a new coating, new sights, but always the same road, leading nowhere--except to pain and sorrow.
It is only when the mind transcends time that truth ceases to be an abstraction. Then bliss is not an idea derived from pleasure but an actuality that is not verbal.
The emptying of the mind of time is the silence of truth, and the seeing of this is the doing: so there is no division between the seeing and the doing.
For the mass of humanity who never experience the timeless void during their lifetime, the Tibetan Book of the Dead offers the hope of ultimate enlightenment in the hereafter. The death-guide describes the emergence into the ultimate reality of existence:
Now thou art experiencing the clear light of pure reality. Recognize it.
Thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regards characteristics or color, naturally void, is the very reality, the all-good.
Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the all-good Buddha.
Thine own consciousness, not formed into anything, in reality void, and the intellect, shining and blissful--these two--are inseparable. Their union is the state of perfect enlightenment.
-Tibetan Book of the Dead
For those who are genuinely open to truth and willing to abandon the known, achievement of enlightenment is inevitable.