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Mirror Mind in a Meditation Retreat - a Phenomenological Description

The mind can be shifted into an altered state of consciousness through Mahamudra meditation teaching

How do you react to the term "awakening"? Or enlightenment? If one is distant from Buddhism or spirituality at large, the concept may come across as weird, arrogant, self-deluded, etc. Indeed that is still my spontaneous reaction. So I defined it here in a more scientific approach.

And yet, I made two experiences that resembled very closely the description of "awakening" that is typical for the Buddhist Mahamudra tradition.

The first such experience happened in the course of a few minutes during an Ayahuasca ceremony. It happened spontaneously without any preparation, expectation or prior knowledge of Buddhism.

The second, which I describe here, happened in a proper meditation setting. It occurred during a 6 day Mahamudra retreat with Dr Daniel P Brown in 2011 (described here) and was likely triggered by the highly targeted instructions for mental operations given by the teacher.

These two experiences were not identical to each other, but they shared key characteristics.

I added a link to a strikingly similar experience in the same Daniel P Brown Level 1 retreat by Charlie Morey, a lucid dreaming teacher.

Meditation and psychedelic experience

My interest in Buddhism had been sparked by the mentioned mystic psychedelic experience three years before the retreat in 2021. It had sparked an interest in meditation as a possible way to "re-create" the particular psychedelic experience without substances. This used to be the common transition of many teachers of Buddhism in the 1960s who were introduced to mysticism through LSD. Let me just mention Jack Kornfield, Shinzen Young and Culadasa. Many more are mentioned in "Zig Zag Zen". For many years now, there is a conflict in Buddhist factions regarding whether psychedelics should have any role in speeding up or intensifying meditative insights. For me, there is no doubt that they can overlap and be supportive of each other.

Disclaimer on awakening!

Here is the warning in The Royal Seal of Mahamudra Vol 2, a key text for Mahamudra, to not brag about such experiences.

In brief, the borderline between an ephemeral experience and the realized essence is that when there is an experience—no matter how stably bliss and clarity may occur in the mind—its essence is not realized and its nature is not known. Experiences are stained by such conceptual mental stances as doubt, fixation on attributes, and clinging to superiority, as well as pride, self-importance, and verbally spouting one’s conviction.

So, what I write is not meant as bragging. I do not claim any achievement or "attainment" as the Buddhists call it. All I want to describe is a completely unexpected quasi psychedelic experience in an online meditation retreat.

The setting of the experience : a late night Zoom event

The retreat was an online Zoom event with a large number of participants around the globe. Due to the time difference between Germany and California, for me, I sat through a late evening / nightly event. I started at 21:00 and ended close to morning. This may have affected my receptivity.

I had a spacious and quiet yoga studio for myself.

My mental set before the experience: nearly movice

I came to the retreat with curiosity. I believe that I was "prepared" for the retreat in two ways:

Reading Culadasa

Starting at age 64, I had already done some meditation for a year, not very regular, but with increasing fascination, guided solely by Culadasa´s "The Mind Illuminated". This book is a compendium on concentration training (shamata).

Thus, I was somewhat familiar with some fundamental concepts and practices. Culadasa´s book had been excellent at providing a neurologically founded introduction to key concepts, such as the differentiated view on attention, awareness and metacognitive awareness as three pillars of consciousness.

However, I had never before been on a physical or virtual meditation retreat. Neither had I experienced the style of pointing-out instructions used by Daniel P Brown.

A mystical experience through Ayahuasca

But my mind was perhaps primed for special experiences through my mystical Ayahuasca experience two years before. The idea of priming the mind (the serotonin system) for meditative altered states through psychedelics is also mentioned by Shinzen Young as an explanation for his initial easy access to altered states in meditation.

Going into a trance

I remember on this day increasingly feeling like being in a hypnotic state.

This was surely an intended effect since Dr Brown has built hypnotic elements into the retreat. There is a deep connection between Mahamudra teaching and hypnosis.

When I think back, the entire meditation retreat had an air of trance for me. This is possibly true also for others participants since, in the times of sharing and asking, several participants had deep emotional moments and were in tears.

The key moment: a luminous blue space appears, then awareness turns toward itself

I followed the verbal guidance of the teacher exactly, without thinking or trying to analyse. Dustin DiPerna, the senior co-teacher of Dr Brown, gave the pointing-out instructions in an extremely articulate way at the end of one of the typical 20 minutes guided meditations.

The next few minutes are not so easy to describe. I have a visual and emotional memory of them.

Suddenly my inner space somehow began to unfold as a giant luminous internal space that wrapped around the external space of the small room.

It slowly acquired a blue-ish luminescence. I had my eyes open, and I noticed that the lit physical room darkened down somewhat while inner space began to glow more and more intensely.

Somehow it felt as if my brain was going into an entirely different mode at the biological level (neurological research of brains during meditation shows that this is the case ). I had the distinct impression that "an additional module was coming on board". I could nearly "hear" the mind´s activity like an open burning gas flame.

I had the vague impression of approaching some kind of threshold, and I was careful to not interrupt the developing process of intensification by thinking. I guess this means that I had developed sufficient meta-cognitive introspective awareness. Thus, I was not completely lost in the experience but was monitoring it as it unfolded.

Then suddenly there was a kind of felt breakthrough. A wave of what I could call "recognition" developed within this blue-ish giant space. I use that term because it felt like that. The recognition came with a huge wave of an expansive felt "Ahh: THAT is how it is!" This phrase tries to capture the feeling. It resembled very much the description of the "Ahh.." that Dr Brown gives in his take on the Heart Sutra as the last stage of the entire Bhuddist path.

This recognition embodied the pointing-out instructions given at that moment. Their core was the instruction that

"awareness shows itself by itself through itself to itself".

This verbalisation, at that moment, had an immense effect on what was going on in me. My mind felt literally as it if it was looking at itself.

Reinforcing this "looking at itself", there now appeared an inner visual representation of this looking, as if the giant bluish space had somehow folded upon itself, consciously looking at itself and mirroring itself. There was only one consciousness reflecting itself through itself to itself.

I remember it very clearly, although at the time there wasn't really an observing self. Instead, my "I" was nothing else but this mirroring / reflecting / recognising itself process.

This very particular moment which lasted perhaps 10 seconds was identical in its experiential tone, and in the mirror / self reflection phenomenology to the "mirror" moment during my Ayahuasca retreat.

As in the Ayahuasca moment, this experience had a feeling tone of deepest sacredness, gratitude and coming home.

The coming home feeling was not like coming home from a day of work. It was more like coming home after a journey of a million years. It perhaps resembled some of the key metaphors in Mahamudra meditation teaching for that moment:

Mother and son meeting again after a long separation
Two people from one country, speaking one language in a country with a foreign language, meeting in another country and immediately recognising each other

And, in particular, the following one:

This singular and unique state of awareness can only be found within oneself. If that is the case, then, when one recognises one's essence, everything is brought together in a single moment within which a cognition is present that does not go beyond the knowledge of that singular essence, wich is rig pa. This is like a man and a woman who are in love and who meet together secretly in solitude in order to make love" (Garab Dorje)

The experience had no sexual overtone. If anything it could be described as bliss although there was no personal experiencer of bliss.

It's interesting though, that in the Tibetan literature sex is occasionally used as comparison :

Under "practicing the meditation with give special experiences", Shardza describes "familiarity"

The degree of bliss (caused by familiarity) is like a young girl first tasting sexual bliss. (S. T. Gyaltsen et al., 2022)

Afterwards: I am moved

The experience was utterly moving. I did not want to speak in the sharing. Instead I left the meeting and needed 10 minutes to process this moment which appeared deeply sacred. I had recognised that the core moment - mind seeing mind - was essentially nothing else than the mirror experience I had had with Ayahuasca, and I was deeply moved by the power of the spoken word (the Mahamudra pointig-out instructions) to shift the mind into a perspective like none one normally has.