The fly and I

A very personal account of a significant moment of learning in meditation.

– The freedom to not do what you want –

It was years ago, when I still thought that meditation was an activity, something you do, something you can do right or wrong. When you do it wrong nothing happens, when you do it right certain mysterious sensations would occur, sensations that would be overwhelmingly pleasant and would come with enigmatic revelations like voices or visions, sensations I sometimes actually thought I got a glimpse of but that persistently kept revealing just their phantom nature. It took many more years to figure out that meditation doesn’t so much create sensations but rather is a way of exploring, investigating, and experiencing sensations.

It was when I sat with clenched teeth most of the time, so determined to ensnare these mystical sensations that, I was sure, would finally appear and prove to be the key for changing me, changing me into that kind of person I somehow thought I had to become. Today I feel both, odd surges of discomposure and embarrassment, and warm compassion when I recall these times.

I was longing for some feedback, some confirmation that I was doing it right, yearning for something that would make me see, so much that, of course, I completely forgot to actually look at all. It is this desire to still the mind that is precisely what prevents the mind from being still. I sat out in the desert where the heat tormented me, the wind, the flies, not to mention, of course, the apparently unstoppable gossip of thoughts, all these “problems” – I was so convinced – that constantly sabotaged my efforts to meditate “successfully”.

Of course, I never became another person, a better person, however, instead I began to figure out the strange phenomenon of personhood as such and why we do get caught up so easily in the crazy idea of becoming somebody else.

One day, early in the morning, I was determined as ever – maybe this little extra dose of diligence I was so obsessed with, this extra 20% on top of the 100% concentration, had somehow been left out this time. When I had sat for a long time already, something happened: a fly landed on my ear. One of those tiny “useless” creatures that don’t bite or do anything harmful but walk around on your skin and tickle.

I don’t know how it happened – maybe it was plain laziness at first, maybe it was not more than common sense, thinking that it would soon fly away by itself, but maybe it was indeed the result of skillful practice, of previous objective observation and careful investigation – somehow I was able to delay my automatic reaction to raise my hand and brush the fly away. I delayed it just long enough to notice something and make a life-changing discovery: I was aware of making a habitual decision, of acting mindlessly.

There was no mysterious sensation, nothing spectacular at all, however, there was an intense clarity, super sharp and yet almost trivial at the same time. The mind was wide awake and watching, but it was watching as if not interested in anything particular. In fact – and I only began to understand this phenomenon much later when I finally had the courage to fearlessly look at the profoundly counter intuitive character of the whole process of perception – the mind was watching itself: the mind watching itself watching. It was observing with undivided, skillful attention, concerned mostly about precision and quite unconcerned about the sense, about the meaning of what it saw. There was a calm, cool, uninvolved, steady commentary, but it was in the background, like a footnote in the actual text:

There is a fly, there is tickling, there is aversion, there is a way to avoid it: action. Usually this goes quite automatically, unconsciously. Often the whole process, neither the presence of the fly nor the reaction, is actually registered at all. We don’t really know that it’s happening. Our whole body basically works like this. The vast majority of actions we are responsible for follow this pattern. But – and this is where our wisdom mind comes in, if we let it, if we take our time to listen to its so surprisingly passionless, unintrusive, undemanding whisper – who says that it is always necessary and wise to actually run these programs? I could go ahead and wipe the nuisance away, there is no good reason against it. But is there a truly convincing reason for it?

In my evolutionary past some humans must have gained an infinitesimal survival advantage by using this reflex-habit in order to avoid potentially harmful insect bites: “tickling on skin – move hand to brush fly off”. Now it’s in my genes too. But do I have to do this all the time now? Am I really nothing but a powerless slave to my past, to my inherited conditioning, to my, after all, accidentally acquired conditioning, to my habits? In my genes is also the capacity (and, in a strange way, perhaps the burden) to form decisions out of awareness and intelligence.

In real life it is imperative to have default options ready, no one can make well reflected, “wise” decisions all the time. What is a default action, the option that is selected automatically unless an alternative is specified? Is it really just what I did yesterday and it worked? Isn’t ‘doing nothing‘ the better, more basic default ?

What are decisions? Where is this place where decisions are made? When it is possible, in this place, to really choose, to create, to change reality, and when it’s also possible, if appropriate, to delegate this task of decision-making to other quite machine-like sections of our mind – to switch from “manual” to “auto pilot” and reverse, so to speak – isn’t it extremely important to be familiar with this place and have control over which mode is selected at any given time and how the decision is really formed?

Every second I feel the urge grow to get rid of this disturbance. But what is it really? A nerve reaction to an objectively slight mechanical stimulus, a sensation. When I make the effort and look directly at only this sensation it is somehow ridiculous, it’s nothing, tickling, what’s the big deal? What I seem to be really impressed with is my aversion: the interpretation of this sensation that it is undesirable. So the real issue is not the fly, not the tickling, but how I interpret it, my opinion about it.

And I see that the sensation and the opinion and the reaction based on this opinion are all completely separate things. They seem to be linked in an inescapable chain reaction, but are they really?

Now I feel the fly actually crawl into my ear. The intensity of the tickling instantly reaches astronomical dimensions. An uncontrollable shiver runs through my body. “Are you crazy? You’ve got to get rid of this! Trust me, I’ve done this a million times! If you really need a reason, do it because you did it yesterday and it worked, nothing bad happened. It’s safe! Come on, this is unbearable! What’s the purpose of enduring this? Hey, where are you? Let me act!”

In a way I’m “out of my mind” ; how else could I actually hear it talking?

Isn’t it amazing how excited I get over this bagatelle? There is no way it could really harm me. There is no objective need to act. When I stay with this view and see only my aversion instead of the cause of it or the apparently obvious reaction to it, everything seems to change.

The fly moves around now, deep into my ear, it climbs over all these little hairs there, and each one is like a trip wire, connected directly to my alarm system. I hear the crackling noises from its motion, roaring like a huge terrible reptile thrashing through the brush of the jungle toward me. My ear is on fire, I feel the heat radiate into my head. The “firebrand” is so convincing that real sweat runs down my spine. Flashes of tension sweep over my face like sheet lightning. However, when I really put my attention to it, my body is quite calm. My hands in my lap are wet with sweat, I know what they could so easily do, but they lie there, motionless.

Each little movement of the fly feels like a devastating earthquake. Deafening alarm sirens are blaring through my whole body. Even when it doesn’t move for a few seconds the mere expectation, the anticipation of more suffering is almost worse. I’m in total agony. “This is hell! This is absolutely unacceptable; no one in his right mind would ever voluntarily allow this to happen! I’m going to act! Watch me!”

But I don’t move.

After one ultimatum after the other went by without consequences, I am still there, alive, breathing, calm – I’m actually calm! Look at my breath coming and going, unchanged, unimpressed. My hands: completely relaxed, resting in my lap, warm but unused, bones, muscle, tendons, gravity, stillness: peace. The pressure of my weight on my buttocks. My face muscles: relaxed. All the tension, where is it? I can see the incredible urge to be tense, but somehow the suggestion is not executed, the advice not taken.

I have no idea what the fly is doing now, it is quiet. But my mind is busy anticipating, ready to explode:

“This is killing you! You are insane, this stupid meditation stuff has finally driven you nuts! You lost your self-respect! You are irresponsible! I’m sure this is dangerous! You are out of your mind!”

Finally, the inner screaming and yelling suddenly stops. The fly is still there, deep in my ear, but doesn’t move, as if it’s listening. But it’s me who is listening. Suddenly I see myself listening, paying attention, with all my heart. Yes, I notice, I’m out of my mind. I am as present as I could ever be and not moving a muscle, not reacting, not adding anything to what I perceive. It’s as if I am not there, at least not the one I thought to be.

And there was one more detail that suddenly turned up, and this too only made sense much later when I began to mistrust the mental, intellectual perception even more and instead trusted the direct experience of my senses: In our everyday state of mind there is always the sense of duality. We see an experience represented as a double event, the perceiver and the perceived, the observer and the observed etc., the subject: I, who has the experience and the object: the sensation that is perceived. When we refer to our so familiar physical observation only this separation seems to make sense. But now, when I look not with my physical eye but from a perspective of pure awareness, as if the world has completely changed, there is no separation between subject and object, there is total participation in the experience, no discrimination between I and other.

And, there is enjoyment! Surges of energy rise up my spine, orgasmic waves of surrender, a flood of something I don’t have words for (the word ‘happiness‘ offers itself, but it all happens on a level where words and speech, not even thought apply). Tears fill my eyes and run down my cheeks, warm and heavy, but they are just happening, there is no real significance in them, an empty kind of mechanical phenomenon.

Is this what freedom is? I can see I’m completely free to act and just as free not to act. There is someone inside of me who wants to do something, it’s the one I usually think I am, he’s screaming at the top of his voice, his arguments are absolutely convincing, impossible to reject, there is nothing I could hold against him. But – in spite of all his force – it takes no effort what so ever to not do what he wants. I don’t win the argument, instead I see the reason for his argument, for his behavior, I can see who he is and that he is not who I am, that he is only something I can be but don’t have to. I am much more than that and free.

In meditation one can see – very painfully at first and then with growing compassion – how profoundly conditioned we are, shaped by influences out of our control, in fact outside of our awareness, how illusive, entirely imagined our whole so-called personality is, and therefore how quite “impersonal” our reactions and habits are. The discovery of the unreliability of our mind, of our thinking, is a powerful wake-up call but also the key for the solution: We don’t need to do what we think, we don’t have to do what habit and conditioning prompts us to do. Disobedience towards the thinking mind is quite possible. We are so full of shit, and we were never consulted or asked for permission when it was dumped into us. But we are actually free to not do what we want, what this shit tells us to want.

The fly moves again and appears to be trapped. An explosion of wild thrashing and buzzing jumps the intensity of this experience to yet another level, far beyond sense. But I’m not looking for sense. And, while I’m just receiving the full catastrophe and taking it all in, I’m calm. I feel the gentle breeze on my face, cooling the tracks of my tears. I feel my posture and again the breath – the ultimate mystery, always there, never quite the same, never failing to come and go.

At some point, the fly finds its way out and is gone.

I have forgotten the time. There has not been any experience of time, no concept and recollection of duration. The ear feels like a smoking, smoldering battlefield. It cries for healing, for sympathy and caring. But I just sit and feel the reverberations slowly fade. Soon nothing is left, just memories, memories of tiny fly legs touching my nerves and the gigantic stories wrapped around it. I let them go, too.

Later, I’m not sure at all, was this just terrible or immensely beautiful?

  * * *

                           Klaus    Written and revised between 1995 and 2010

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