Nonduality Salon (/ \)
Copyright © 1996 Suzanne Segal.
Published by Blue
Also read an excerpt here
In the Spring of 1982, Suzanne Segal, pregnant and 27, was living in Paris and waiting for a bus to take her home from a birthing class. As the bus approached, she took a place in line with other commuters. Suddenly she felt her ears pop, and was at once enclosed in a kind of bubble which cut her off from the rest of the scene, and left her acting and moving in the most mechanical way. She says,
"I lifted my right foot to step up into the bus and collided head-on with an invisible force that entered my awareness like a silently exploding stick of dynamite, blowing the door of my usual consciousness open and off its hinges, splitting me in two. In the gaping space that appeared, what I had previously called 'me' was forcefully pushed out of its usual location inside me into a new location that was approximately a foot behind and to the left of my head. 'I' was now behind my body looking out at the world without using the body's eyes."
Walking home from that bus ride, she felt like a "cloud of awareness" following the body. The cloud was a witness located behind and to the left of the body and completely separate from body, mind and emotions. The witness was constant and so was the fear, the fear of complete physical dissolution. The witnessing continued for several months, even during sleep, and Segal had to endure the fear and the accompanying stress, finding relief in long and frequent sleeps.
The 'benefit' of the presence of the witness was that it retained some sense of the personal self, the 'me'. But after a few months the witness disappeared, and with it all traces of a personal self,of the 'me'.
"When the personal self disappears, there is no one inside who can be located as being you. The body is only an outline, empty of everything of which it had previously felt so full."
Now there was no one who thought, felt or perceived, yet these functions continued smoothly and nobody noticed anything strange. Yet she struggled to understand who was living and why her body carried on its functions.
"Life became one long, unbroken koan, forever unsolvable, forever mysterious, completely out of reach of the mind's capacity to comprehend."
With the witness gone and, also gone, all vestiges of a familiar 'me', a heightened level of fear arose. She called it terror. She knew a continuous shaking of the extremities and constant and copious perspiration. Now sleep was not a blessed drug, for there was no one to sleep. It brought no relief. She could not identify anyone who gained rest by sleeping, just as there was no one who was awake.
"What had vanished was the reference point of a personal self that felt the feelings personally. Emptiness was consistently co-present with all emotional or mental states, and this co-presence precluded any personal quality from existing. No thoughts, feelings, or actions arose for any personal purpose anymore."
"The mind's hypervigilance was exhausting. Because it was constantly engaged in rejecting the experience of emptiness, there was very little attention available for anything else. My life was filled with seeing no-self, and raising questions about no-self. Even in sleep the emptiness of personal identity continued unperturbed. No mental activity ever changed the experience of no-self in any manner, and none of the attempts to figure out, organize, or evaluate it ever brought back a sense of an individual indentity."
Segal had sought out a variety therapists and teachers, and worked with them, to no avail. (As an aside, I can't help myself from telling you how humorous it was to catch her falling in love and having an affair with almost every therapist. The manner in which the book presents these romantic escapades is classically wooden and so bad they're good. Stephen Bodian, one of her editors, admits in the introduction to the book that he encouraged Suzanne to include such facets of her story in order to make it a more palatable read. What a pathetic decision, in my opinion. As if people interested in experiences of no-self need to hear details of her love life in order to keep their attention captured. Still, there is nothing wrong with demonstrating the challenges relationships posed; it's totally called for; I am commenting on the way those challenges were described.)
After ten years she began to explore the spiritual perspective on the emptiness of the no-self. She found volumes of material in Buddhism on anatta ( no-self) and shunyata (emptiness). Now she learned that not only was her experience understood, it was sought by those on the spiritual path.
Perhaps Segal's greatest the challenge the past ten years was day-to-day functioning without a 'me'. "(personality) functions floated in a vastness that referred to no one," she wrote. Buddhism, she found, explained this by describing the skandhas or "aggregates" as personality functions which remain when one is empty of the person or the 'me'. The five skandhas include form, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness. Their interaction creates the illusion of self. They do not actually make up the self. There is not self. When the truth of the skandhas is revealed, as suddenly happened to Segal at the bus stop, it is seen that there is no self, only the skandhas functioning as they function; the truth is that they are empty, they don't constitute a self, but their interaction creates the illusion of self.
Still, Segal could not find literary descriptions of the fear she had been knowing for ten years. She maintains that the language and assumptions that go into creating the notion of what real spiritual experience is, is a closed system, and that one who speaks of experiences beyond that closed system, is seen to be navigating their way to enlightenment with the use of highly questionable markers, of which one of them is fear.
"We have become convinced that the presence of particular thoughts, feelings, or actions is the only way we can really know if someone is enlightened. The checklist of enlightened attributes is both lengthy and complex. Is this really love, we ask, in the presence of a supposedly enlightened being? Or bliss? Do they still have thoughts, we want to know, since we have heard that a mind empty of thoughts is surely a sign of spiritual advancement? And what is this? Is fear present? Well, the presence of fear proves they couldn't possibly having a true spiritual experience. In fact, however, the presence of fear means only that fear is present, and nothing more."
Learning further about the fear, Segal came upon Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's assertion that the experience of cosmic consciousness was often a horrible experience, throwing a person into confusion and fear, and absolutely requiring the presence of a guru to verify the state, so that the experiencer could gain the proper perspective, accept it, settle into it, and allow Grace to bring the next stage of growth.
Verification and perspective came from many such gurus. The first solid verification came from Dr. Jean Klein, who told Segal, "You must stop the part of the mind that constantly keeps trying to look back at the experience... . Get that part out of the way, then joy will come."
Segal had realized that that is what she had been doing for ten years: looking within to her affective system (feelings, thoughts, emotions, will) and, finding nothing but emptiness, her reaction was fear. So as long as there was introspection or self-reflection, or 'looking within', there was a meeting with emptiness, which she had been conditioned to believe was a 'wrong' meeting point. For when one looks within one should find feelings, states of mind, emotions, the drive to act, not the absence of those, not emptiness.
Now Klein had verified her state as one of realization of the true nature of existence.
Others she came upon in books or in person, offered the same verification. She had correspondences with many.
(None by email, apparently. This was 1992, still the early days of the Internet, though there were nondual resources available on Usenet and a fledgling World Wide Web, and knowledgeable people to talk to via email. However, the World Wide Web didn't even begin to start to take-off until 1993.
By the way, folks, what if a Suzanne Segal entered an email forum, describing to us all she has described, and, along with her description she indicated she had a brain tumor. What would you say to her? How would you guide her? Some people seem to attribute her experiences to a tumor for which there is no proof she had at the time of her experience. So how would you deal with the human being -- not the book review -- that came into your midst? I'm not saying I wouldn't drop the ball, but how about you?) Anyway, read on...
Christopher Titmuss, a teacher of Buddhist vipassana meditation, assured her that she was not insane, but that insanity is the absence of experiences such as hers, whose absence leaves only the 'me' and the tragic consequences of limitation on personal, societal and global scales. Titmuss told Segal she need to be reassured of the spiritual significance of her experiences, and that a calm acceptance of her experiences would eventually quiet the thoughts and feelings giving rise to fear. And out of that quieting will come the full and deep understanding of the experience. She soon came to realize that her experience was neither insane nor wrong, only ungraspable.
Reb Anderson, abbot of Green Gulch Zen Center in San Francisco, helped her loosen a rigidity in the way her mind was interpreting the experience. He helped her to see that the experience of emptiness was bliss, but not relative bliss, rather the bliss of emptiness knowing itself. He imparted the knowledge that this absolute bliss cannot be known by the skandhas, thus the loosening of rigidity in her mind.
Jack Kornfield, a vipassana teacher, and well-known speaker and author Ram Dass, both offered words of support for the experience, and reassurance, reminding Segal that time was required in order to acclimate to the change in consciousness.
A.H. Almaas offered further support, recognizing her experience as similar in some ways to what he had gone through himself as part of an ongoing process. He assured her that the experience was "definitely not pathological," and that the fear and terror were common; also that she had done well without the guidance of a guru, but that extraordinary understanding is required to understand and transcend the experience and that a guru provides that.
Of all she had met and read of, Ramana Maharshi she felt was most clear, and she considered Ramana her spiritual father. Segal excerpts a portion of his talks, and states generally that, "He described my experience in such a direct and simple fashion that it left absolutely no room for doubt about what I was encountering." And also Segal says
"Reading more and more of Ramana's words led me to an astounding passage. When asked by a disciple if it was necessary to be associated with the wise (sat-sanga) in order for the Self to be realized, Ramana answered: 'association with the unmanifest sat or absolute existence (is required).... The sastras say that one must serve (be associated with) the unmanifest sat for twelve years in order to attain Self-realization...but as very few can do that, they have to take second best, which is association with the manifest sat, that is, the Guru.'"
What astounded her, of course, about the passage is that she was closing in on the twelfth year of her experiencing of no-self or the unmanifest sat.
Poonjaji, the well-known disciple of Ramana, validated Segal's experience, saying, "You have become liberation (moksha) of the realized sages."
Gangaji, another prominent teacher in the Ramana-Poonjaji lineage, said, "This realization of the inherent emptiness -- which is pure consciousness -- of all phenomena is true fulfillment. In the face of conditioned existence, much fear can be intitally felt. Ultimately , the fear is also revealed to be only that same empty consciounsess."
Segal's correspondence and eventual meeting with Andrew Cohen was fruitful.They spent several hours together talking about the emptiness of personal self, and Cohen imparted to Segal, in that time, the awareness that the emptiness "was full of exquisite infinity." In the month that followed, that awareness deepened and became her root awareness. Andrew Cohen had expressed and conveyed a tremendous excitement toward Segal's 'condition', for she was uncommon not only in having the experience of no-self, but in persisting to see it through to a stable resolution. Cohen said, "Your openness and receptivity is a sign of true humility, which alone makes all things possible."
Still, all the reassurance was yielding no joy, until an abrupt transition saw a change in knowledge from 'There is no personal self', to 'There is no other'. This occurred while Segal was driving to see some friends when
"I suddenly became aware that I was driving through myself. For years there had been no self at all, yet here on this road, everything was myself, and I was driving through me to arrive where I already was. In essence, I was going nowhere because I was everywhere already. The infinite emptiness I new myself to be was now apparent as the infinite substance of everything I saw."
So the emptiness she had known as a state of consciousness now became the vastness of all existence.
Soon afterward, while spending a weekend at a Buddhist retreat center in northern California, a new awareness arose. It was a fluidity of perception in which entities were perceived as the vastness itself, and all was pervaded by calm. Also she now came to know that she was the substance of the vastness. She knew this not through the sense organs, but through the substance that 'she was'. She describes this as a finger drawing in the sand, where the substance of vastness is the finger, the drawing and the sand.
And now she saw the fear for what it was. Previously she had assigned meaning to the fear, viewing it as an indication of the invalidity of the experience of no-self. Now she saw fear as fear without meaning. Fear was no different than form, emptiness, pain, enlightenment. Everything is made of the same substance as vastness. Seeing this, knowing this, the grip of fear broke and joy finally arose.
The remainder of Collision with the Infinite is straight nondual confession, so rather than summarize, I'll quote selections.
"This life is now lived in a constant, ever-present awareness of the infinite vastness that I am."
"The presence of any thoughts, feelings, or actions is never interpreted to mean anything other than that they are present."
"... no judgment about good or bad or right or wrong ever arises; everything is simply what it is."
"Once the mind admitted to the parameters of its own sphere and stopped pathologizing what lay outside it, the non-personal, indescribably joyful flavor of the vastness experiencing itself moved radically to the foreground forever."
"...life as usual continues to unfold; everything gets done, just as it did before the realization of the vastness occurred. Since there has never been a personal doer in any case, the realization of this truth does nothing to change how functioning occurs."
"To live in the vastness of the naturally occurring state is to bathe in the ocean of non-personal pleasure and joy. This joy and pleasure, which belong to no one, are unlike any joy or pleasure that appear to refer or belong to a someone. The emptiness is so full, so total, so infinitely blissful to itself."
"In no way...am I suggesting that practices should not be done, only that there is no practitioner who is the doer behind them. This is true of every activity. ... Just because there is no practitioner (and never has been)) does not mean that practice will not take place. If it is obvious for a particular spiritual practice to occur, then it will."
"In fact, there is no individual 'I' who can figure out how to find the infinite again. More importantly, where would the infinite go? I mean, we aren't talking about something that could hide under the rug. If you could see things as only and exactly what they are, you would see that the 'you' that is seeing is the vastness itself."
"The 'character work' prescribed by psychotherapy, as well as by some spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, leads to a similar trap created by not seeing things to be simply what they are. A relaxation of being naturally arises if one is not seduced into taking ideas to be truth. This relaxation is antithetical to 'character work', with its clear position about how we would be if our characters were worked on. When we knock on the door of 'character work', we are invited into the labyrinth of futurity. It is inherently impossible to arrive at a goal that is predicated on an 'I' that will get us there. Character work is based on the same erroneous belief that there is an individual doer who runs the show of life and can train itself to be a better 'I'.
"...I can no longer call what I do psychotherapy, since it in no way adheres to any standard principles of psychological theory or intervention. My goal for everyone is freedom -- total freedom. I don't want them to change how they feel, work through childhood trauma, or get symptoms to stop. I want them to be free by seeing that things are just what they are."
"Who distinguishes between the true and the false (self)? And true and false for whom? Thoughts, feelings, sensations, and energetic frequencies do not mean anything about some imaginary someone; they simply are what they are."
"We are the vastness, and we contain everything -- thoughts, emotions, sensations, preferences, fears, ideas, even identifications. Nothing has to go anywhere. In any case, where would it go?"
"The purpose of human life has been revealed. The vastness created these human circuitries in order to have an experience of itself out of itself that it couldn't have without them. "
"The substance of the vastness is so directly perceivable to itself in every moment that the circuitry at times requires another adjustment phase to get used to more infinite awareness. When asked who I am, the only answer possible is: I am the infinite, the vastness that is the substance of all things. I am no one and everyone, nothing and everything -- just as you are."
Suzanne Segal died of a brain tumor in 1997 at the age of 42. Many have stated explicitly or implicitly that her experiences were directly the result of cerebral trauma. In the spring of 1996, the present book had been completed and Suzanne was offering her teachings to the public through weekly dialogues and a training group for her fellow therapists.
Very soon thereafter, however, she began to experience bouts of 'vastness expansion' in which the vastness would expand greatly upon itself. These experiences sapped her life and energy and brought great fear upon her once again. It brought also doubt. She began to judge what she had been saying or claiming to know. She thought her talk about the vastness was perhaps a defence mechanism to protect her from feelings and childhood abuse memories.
She had lost her connection to the vastness, had become disoriented, experienced dizziness and a general decline in health In February of 1997 she was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor. She died on April 1.
In the Afterword, Stephian Bodian, her very close friend and the one who encouraged Suzanne to write this book, says
"Suzanne's example speaks to us of the importance of integration -- of the personal and the transpersonal, the psychological and the spiritual -- and raises questions about the relationship between dissociation -- in which parts of the psyche split off from one another -- and genuine, abiding awakening. By dying before this integration had occurred, Suzanne left each of us with the koan of discovering it for ourselves."
Segal, had she lived and integrated her vastness 'body' with
the physical/emotional/mental/spiritual body, may have composed
something like that which Adi Da composed below. Segal could only
speak of the vastness; she had not yet made the return journey,
that Adi Da speaks of, back to the body, back to unenlighenment.
I understand the problem of not coming to psychological integration, the unitive experience, in the way Bernadette Roberts clearly did. That is a gap in Segal's growth. I am viewing integration from the Adi Da dynamic of moving from the vastness back to the body. It's a different kind of integration.
By dying too early, Segal apparently did not have the opportunity to come back to her body, to reintegrate with the body she had left. Adi Da achieved un-Enlightenment and considers that event greater than any event that was "obviously spiritually auspicious." In The Knee of Listening (New Standard Edition, April 1992, pp. 533-534), Adi Da (using the name Sri Da Avabhasa) said
"You have heard the descripions of Yogis and other Spiritual figures that before Realization one tries to go beyond the world to Realize God, and then after Realization one comes down into the body just so far, down to the brain, down to the throat maybe, down to the heart maybe, but typically not any lower than the throat. I have until now invested My Self more profoundly than just down to the throat or heart, but not down to the bottoms of My Feet. I have remained a kind of shroud around this body, deeply associated with it and with all the ordinary human things, playing as a human being often in very ordinary ways, but, in My Freedom somehow lifted off the floor, somehow not committed to this sorrow and this mortality, expecting, having come as deep as I had, to perhaps teach enough, embrace enough, kiss enough, love enough to make the difference, as if through a single body I could indulge in intimacy with everything and everyone self-conscious.
"I have realized the futility of that expectation, even the futility of not being able, through a submission of my own, to utterly transform and liberate even those I could embrace and know intimately. That frustration is fully known by me now. Even the futility of liberating those most intimate with me is known by me. The kiss is not enough, even for those I know intimately, and I cannot know all intimately.
"In my profound frustration, this body died. I left this body. The I suddenly found my self reintegrated with it, but in a totally different disposition. And I achieved your likeness exactly, thoroughly, to the bottoms of my feet, achieved un-Enlightenment, achieved human existence, achieved mortality, achieved sorrow.
"To me this is a Grand Victory! I do not know how to communicate to you the significance of it. ...To me, it seems that through that will-less, effortless integration with suffering, something about my Work is more profoundly accomplished, something about it has become more auspicious, than it has ever been. I have not dissociated from my Realization or my Ultimate State. Rather, I have accomplished your state completely, even more profoundly than you are sensitive to it.. Perhaps you have seen it in my face. I do not look like I did last month, and I am never again going to look like that. Don't you know?
"I have become this body, utterly. My mood is different. My face is sad, although not without llumination. I have become the body. Now I am the Murti, the Icon, and it is full of the Divine Presence.
"The nature of my work at the present time and in the future is mysterious to me. It is a certainty, it is obvious, but on the other hand it has not taken the form of mind fully. But you will signs of it. You all must progressively adapt to something that has happened that even I cannot explain altogether."
I get the sense that Segal required a return journey. It is as though she went from the streets directly to the moon and needed to come back and see what rockets and the journey through space were all about.
To hear about another experience of no-self, connect to the Bernadette Roberts web page.