Why Do Spiritual Experiences Fade?

This is an excerpt from The Heart of Zen

 Jun Po Roshi (JP): Let’s look at that question. Does Enlightenment come and go? 

Keith Martin-Smith (KMS): Okay, so anyone who’s read a book or two on spirituality knows the answer to this. It’s shocking for new practitioners, but even though I had heard a version of this koan 100 times, when you first asked it of me, I felt the burn of the question.  I mean, I knew the answer was no.  Of course. I knew that vast, empty, eternal, boundless, timeless, fearless emptiness didn’t come and go.  That it couldn’t come and go. 

JP: You had known it philosophically.  But not experientially. 

KMS: That’s right. And presented with that koan, “Does this Awareness come and go,” I realized what a horrible trick you had played on me. 

JP: Not a trick.  The truth.  It’s very simple really: unless there is a Clear Deep Empty Mind, unless there is turiyatita or Dhyana Mind, there is no place for sensing, for ego, to take place.  It’s not philosophy.  It’s experience.  But you have to be willing to have the experience, to drop under the noise of your mind and see what’s really there.

KMS: “No,” I remember telling you.  “This mind, this Awareness, doesn’t come and go.”  And you leaned in and growled at me, “That’s your experience?”  When I nodded, you followed up with, “Who comes and goes?”  It was such a hard thing to admit!  I really struggled, because I knew the implications of what I had to admit.  “I come and go.”  My ego awareness of this depth of mind comes and goes, which is a hell of thing. And it was the only truth that fit what was going on inside my experience.   

JP: (nods) That’s the beginning of a fundamental shift in our understanding.  This is what all the masters through all the ages have been trying to tell us, over and over and over again.

What I’m saying isn’t new. Enlightenment is closer to you than your own face.  How? Because when you experience this depth of Awareness, not as a philosophical construct but as a felt reality, it’s obvious that Awakening Awakens, and that the ego only provides a lens, a window, for Awakening to see and speak. Ego is then what I like to call a figment of Divine Imagination. It’s real, but it is most definitely not permanent.

KMS: That’s the view from Emptiness.  The view from ego is far less certain.  I can imagine many people reading this are feeling a little lost, a little confused. 

JP: An ego insists upon its view. An ego cannot Awaken.  Only Awakening Awakens, which is why Trungpa Rinpoche said Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.  An ego is informed by Emptiness, even transformed by Emptiness, but the ego’s view is still relative, partial, finite, dualistic, and limited.  So long as the ego is informed by Emptiness, it will see and accept its limitations and become an ally of deeper awareness. 

KMS: Someone once said the ego makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Baker Roshi said, famously, that Enlightenment is an accident and meditation makes us accident-prone. 

JP: It’s true that no one understands why some people Awaken easily, and some struggle. We have to be very careful here, though.  If we’re sitting around waiting for the accident of Enlightenment, where is our will? Where is our choice?  Enlightenment is right here, right now. It’s no accident.  There are no accidents.  

KMS: Perhaps Baker Roshi was speaking to the paradox of pursuing Enlightenment from an egoic place?

JP: We’ve covered this already, if you recall.  There’s nothing wrong with Seeking Mind, remember — it’s only neurotic seeking that’s the problem. Seeking Mind will resolve itself on the path, without any effort on your part.  Until that happens, it’s important to followthe energy.  It’s important to take ownership, you see. 

KMS: Why?  And of what? 

JP: Because otherwise you’re in a prison of you own making.  We have to watch out for highly sophisticated victim mentalities, where we passively sit around and wait for the day Awakening comes, like it did to so-and-so.  Or you wait for your teacher to bestow their blessings on you so you can Awaken.  (shakes his head)  My insight is of little value to you. 

After a talk, I can’t come home with you and sit behind you while you meditate; I can’t step between you and your spouse when you become angry and show you how to slow it down; I can’t follow you to the grocery store and ask you how mindful you’re being about your choices and their consequences. 

I cannot give you your seat.  You must take it. Not from me, but from and for yourself. 

The world needs more awakened souls living, playing, and interacting.  I’m old and tired these days; my body is heavily damaged from my cancer treatments.  It is up to you, you reading this, you listening to this, you who are concerned about a better future for our species; it is up to you to move the world forward. 


Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest. 

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