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Mirror Mind in an Ayahuasca Ceremony

What does my sudden experience of the world as a giant surround mirror that happened in an Ayahusca ceremony have to do with classical Buddhist writings and meditation teaching?

(Originally published 23.09.2019)

Ocean and Waves - Awakened Awareness in Buddhist meditation
Ayahuasca preparation. Source: Terpsichore, Wikipedia

To realize directly that all out appearances appear separately like images in a mirror but are nevertheless one, this is realization (Wanchuk Dorje 2017, p 249)I

Looking into mirrors

Tiredly looking into the bathroom mirror in the morning typically does not change one´s life. One normally does not leave the bathroom on a year-long quest to find out what that moment of looking meant.

But, unexpectedly finding oneself looking at one´s surrounding as if the entire universe truly and genuinely was an optical mirror of the Self, at the deepest level where there is not even an individual Self, so that there is only the mirror, may have this effect.

As I now know, looking into this kind of mirror has had such impact for centuries.

"The mirror of Kun tu bZang Po... is an extraordinary place, the main place that the gods and humans, eternal boddhisatvas, mahasattvas and dakinis aspire to...This is the initial metaphor of all metaphors for pointing out" (T. S. Gyaltsen et al., 2022, p. 985)

That is an example from a recently translated book "The Precious Treasury of the Expanse and Awakened Awareness", a book from the Tibetan Bön tradition. Here two further examples of many for the significance:

  • Ken Wilber calls it a "major stage of meditation (e.g., gross, subtle, very subtle, mirror mind, nondual)." (Wilber, 2021)

  • The Journal of the International Dzogchen Community is called "The Mirror"

The following describes my personal mirror-experience during an Ayahuasca ceremony. It lasted for a few minutes.

On a sunny afternoon, on the grassy land of a Dutch barn that housed an Ayahuasca ceremony, without preparation I looked into a very real and infinitely large surround mirror. The mirror had replaced my normal visual field. Wherever I looked, it was a reflection. The reflection had the characteristic to be somehow alive and scintillant. What did I see in the mirror? I saw myself, I saw the entire content of my consciousness. Everything I saw and experienced was "me". "My" consciousness was reflected in that mirror. But there was no real "me" as individual Self. There was one consciousness or awareness on both sides. Consciousness knew with absolute certainty, awe and gratitude that there was nothing except consciousness. There was no more separation between what was seeing and what was seen. This was like coming home to a knowledge that had been hidden to me until that moment.

This visceral deep so-called non dual experience had such a cognitive and emotional impact, that I researched for years what the significance was.

I had until then neither meditated nor any knowledge of Buddhism, apart from reading with fascination (but without real understanding) the books of Steven Wolinsky, a American Advaitate Vendanta teacher.

My few minutes were apparently an utterly lively instanciation of the mind-only theory in Buddhism. Whatever it was, it felt so real, that the term "realization" in Buddhism and other mystic traditions now has a meaning for me.

Later I read this Buddhist description. I indeed experienced this "at a single stroke".

The wisdom that sees that mind is empty of a perceiver/perceived duality (i.e. empty of outer perceived entities different in substance to the inner perceiving consciousnesses), at a single stroke, cuts through attachment and aversion and all the associated suffering. On the most subtle level every moment of consciousness is purified of all stain of ignorance and there is not even the shadow of the idea of a difference in substance between mind and its objects. .... The light of the wisdom mind, the self-aware self-illuminator, is experienced. This is a very profound experience and even for those who experience it, it is difficult to explain. (Khenpo Tsultrim Gymatso, & Hookham, p 56-57)

Of mothers and lovers

In Mahamudra, such non-dual perception is variously described a mirror mind, reflective mind, illluminated mind or similar.

In essence, the texts and experiential reports describe a moment, where consciousness is extremely aware of itself, or, has the experience that everything is consciousness, or that everything is made out of consciousness. They also describe a moment of deepest emotional significance.

There are many metaphors that describe this moment of re-cognition, of a sudden re-memberance or re-union. Here a selection of metaphors:

Mother meeting a long absent son
Two people from the same country meeting in another country and immediately recognising each other
A mirror held up to a mirror to recognise itself
A man and a woman who love each other, meeting in secret to make love.

These are all metaphors for the mind (awareness, consciousness) becoming truly aware of itself in an extraordinary moment.

And of course, as a novice, I began to "chase" this experience. And equally of course, seeking experience doesn´t result in getting it. While I have, through meditation, been in a very weak version of this state, I never had this awe-inspiring completely real way of looking again. Being me, I still try to sneak may way into it.

My experience as "subject-object nonduality experience"

My experience was a classical "non-dual" experience. Such experience, where in some way the boundary between self and not-self has disappeared, is one of the types of mystical experiences that can occur spontaneously, in a religious context, through psychedelics, through physical activity.

The particular form of my experience has been classified as "Subject-Object non-duality" (Burns 2022). This is the experience of non-duality between myself as perceiver and all perceived phenomena. The other experience types are object-object and subject-subject non-duality.

In the Mahamudra tradition, my experience probably corresponded to "the first of the four stages of looking at the mind" :

The first of the four stages of looking at the mind within appearances is seeing appearances as mind. (L. T. Namgyal & Rinpoche, 2011, p100)

It continues, describing my Ayahuasca experience:

if you keep on looking, you start to notice that that is not really what is going on. If you can continue to rest within, for example, the experience of looking at an object of visual perception, you realize that what is happening is not so much the mind contacting something outside itself, as it is the mind acting like a mirror which reflects an image of something. In that sense, the image is contained within the mind. So when you actually look at what you are looking at, you realize that you are still looking at your mind. This is what we call “seeing.” This is something that you can gradually realize through your own experience and through your own practice. (L. T. Namgyal & Rinpoche, 2011, p109)

The only difference: I was given this way of looking without ever having meditated. The causative agent for its sudden occurence was a small glass of Ayahuasca.

Btw, as outlook, there would still be 3 stages to go through, if one follows Mahamudra teachines :

POINTING OUT THE MIND within appearances has four parts: pointing out that appearances are mind, that mind is emptiness, that emptiness is spontaneous presence, and that spontaneous presence is self-liberation.

For example, as I now know, there was still a sense of localisation of a Self that was looking at itself

Views and perspectives as core of meditation

Ayahuasca usually provides one with a huge variety of experiences and insights, often several of them in the course of a few hours. They can be emotional, physical, intellectual, creative, or ontological. The Israeli cognitive scientist Bennie Shannon in his Oxford Press book "The Antipodes of the Mind" has gone into exhausting detail to classify the types, based on reports and on his own experience.

The particular Ayahuasca experience of this day resulted in a sudden shift of the perspective from which I perceived the world.

In Mahamudra meditation, some other terms for such a perspective are "view", "base of operation" (D. P. Brown & Thurman, 2006), "perspective" or "perceptual position", or "way of looking" (Rob Burbea 2015).

For example, a very famous way to induce such a shift of view in Mahamudra teaching is via the metaphor of ocean and wave: through pointing out instructions, the student is guided to "become the ocean watching its own waves" as an experience of non-duality of mind and objects, of seer, seen and seeing.

Daniel P Brown (D. P. Brown, 1981) in his dissertation on traditional Mahamudra meditation stages says that

the yogi is trained, from the start, to see reality not as a collection of external objects, but as an inner reflection, as mirror of mind itself.

Learning to take this perspective can take anything from a a few hours for the very gifted student to a lifetime or never, depending on the student and luck. Ayahuasca gave me a bit of luck, I suppose, because it happened out of the blue in seconds.

In the years following this Ayahuasca / Buddhist mirror experience I had discovered meditation in 2019 through a podcast by Peter Attia. By accident I found that the mirror is a key metaphor for the mind in Mahamudra and Dzog Chen.

Through a further mere accident I became aware of the work and the Mahamudra/ Dzog Chen retreats of the recently deceased Daniel P Brown, and I signed up for a six-day online retreat during the Covid lockdown period.

There, on the fifth day, I had again a mystical experience that was very close to the Ayahuasca experience. I have described it here.

Is my experience recognised by a Buddhist teacher?

I had asked myself, whether any reputable Buddhist teacher (ie a a true authority standing in a tradition, or lineage) would validate my I experience as a genuine meditation experience. I used an opportunity to ask the late Culadasa on his Patreon group. Culadasa is the author of the famous, neurologically founded meditation guide "The Mind Illuminated". .

Please believe me that I do not show this as proof of an "attainment". It is intended as evidence for the identity of this way of looking in my Ayahuasca experience, and what is the mind-view in Buddhism. (full length hearing recommended)

Please do not think that now I believe myself to be an awakened person! I just had an experience. This is also stressed in the reply by Culadasa. He intentionally said "It is good that you see that as experience". This means, in Buddhist language, that one should not confuse experience with realisation or awakening or enlightenment or such. In Mahamudra, these are still conceptual ideas.

Neither have I become a Buddhist - whatever that is. But I admire and take to heart and practice many of their subtle and powerful teachings on the mind and the heart. Buddhism is not a religion for me, but an expansion of consciousness through self-exploration, just like psychedelics.

My intention: to provide a detailed phenomenological description and compare to Buddhist scripture

The similarity between certain meditative and psychedelic experiences has often been described. But I have not seen a detailed phenomenology and comparison of a singular classical Buddhist meditation experience. Instead, most descriptions at a high level, such as a feeling of one-ness, sacredness, or timelessness.

All of these characterised my experience. But I want to provide a more detailed and granular phenomenological information than that, and to compare it to descriptions in Buddhist scriptures and academic writings.

This post is, in a way, a phenomenological addition to Tim Ferris´question to Henry Shukman how one can compare the Zen "Kensho" awakening experience with a similar Ayahuasca experience.

For the comparison, I relied primarily on material made available through Daniel P Brown as new translations. You see a selection of them below.

Main Characteristics of the Experience

The experience unfolded in two stages: first, as an immensely strong appearance of the subjective personalised , localised perception of "I AM" .

And then in stage two, the mirror experience occured where there was no more a localised Self , but a generalised awareness of awareness itself.

The following describes perceptual characteristics of particular significance during these minutes, and aligns them with texts of the Buddhist tradition.

I do not claim completeness of description - it still occasionally unfolds in my memory. Also, I am not a trained scholar of Buddhism, who would probably find many faults in what I write.

Stage 1: "I AM"

The core non-dual experience, described in the subsequent sections, was preceded by another kind of experience:

I had the experience of "I AM" as singular, powerful, completely obvious, all-pervasive feeling of existing. While I was having it, I was amazed that during my entire life I had never truly felt to BE. The comparison that came to mind was that of the bright sun as opposed to a dim lightbulb. I had spent my life as a lightbulb. Now I experienced myself as the sun. It was exhilarating and wondrous.

This feeling, of which I was fully aware in metacognitive awareness, left me with appreciative wonder, developed in the course of a few minutes. The feeling began with a light wonder, and then became more and more powerful until it reached an extreme and very joyful "I-Am-ness"

Another observation during this time: wherever I looked in the room where I was, I saw two bright circles of light seemingly projected by my eyes on any surface I looked at, a typical Ayahuasca experience. A common effect is that part of the visual field being focally Illuminated. Typically, it is as if a flashlight were illuminating it" (Benny Shannon, p275) . Light phenomena also appear in deep meditation.Shinzen Young discusses them in a podcast touching on the energetic phenomena experienced in meditation.

As a more poetic description for this light phenomenon, I liked a passage from A. H. Almaas book "Keys to the Enneagram". He equates the phenomenon of appearing light to a "point of presence", and references Nisargadatta Maharaj - who is the author of talks collected in his major work, called "I Am That".

This experience still reflected a subject, an experiencing separate Self. In terms of Daniel B Brown´s "stages of meditation", it was not a non-dual experience. It was still "localised". The next stage would go further, although it was still an experience with an experienc-ER, and as such far from non-dual as Stephen Wolinsky would point out.

Stage 2: The mirror experience

Sudden onset of the mirror mind phenomenon

When, now with the Ayahuasca brew fully active, I left the communal hall to go outside into the surrounding nature, my perception was suddenly transformed.

My perception instantaneously switched into a wide, immense panoramic view, where I was looking into a giant surround mirror that reflected "me". This "me" was not the usual feeling of self, but one of all-encompassing awareness.

This sudden onset very much resembled James Austin´s Kensho experience that he describes in "Zen and the Brain" :

With no transition, it is all complete. Every detail of the scene in front is registered, integrated, and found wholly satisfying, all in itself (p 537).

Austin's description of the Kensho onset aligns with Daniel P Brown description of the "crossover" to enlightenment as immediate and compelling:

Contrary to the slow ripening of meditative experience throughout the preliminary and essential stages of meditation, and even the gradual ripening of awakened wisdom during extraordinary meditation, crossing over to enlightenment is an immediate and compelling event, wherein the mental continuum undergoes a series of fundamental and enduring reorganizations. (PoW, p. 500)

Mirror-like quality

I believe that this particular element of the psychedelic experienc