Walking in total darkness on an immense dry lake bed and investigating the workings of the mind under such extreme sense deprivation.
– A glimpse of liberation ? –
Deep in the desert, halfway down the sun-tortured Baja peninsula of Mexico, hidden behind endless barren mountain ranges lies a large dry lake. Not a real lake, water has formed it once, but it is bone dry now. In its absolutely perfect flatness it still has the unmistakable appeal of a lake, but it is dead, it’s a skeleton, the lifeless idea of a lake. A frozen message seems to linger on the hard surface, unreal, mysterious.
Half a lifetime ago, “in our youth”, we have been there one time, but were too restless to really be there. This time we deliberately drive all the way to the middle of this mud flat, an oval of maybe 1½ x 2½ miles, flat like a table, hard now, textured with tiny cracks from drying but flat as flat can be. An incredible expanse of nothingness. The surrounding panorama of mountains seems to belong to another world. In the heat of the day you can’t really see the details over the bottom because everything is blurred and moving with the drifting hot air. Mirages everywhere, imitating wind-rippled surface of liquid, of silvery patches of glistening water, memories of water, dreams of water. The flat appears measureless, stretching forever into oblivion, the mountain range, unrelated, unattached, hovering above.
We stop in our tracks, it’s still early in the day, but we have arrived. This freedom, to simply stay wherever you please, is exactly what this traveling life in a little camper van is all about.
When I see Parvin walk away toward the mountains she turns into a tiny little spot, and I lose her altogether before she got even close to the rim.
When you walk at this place and look around you feel as if you were walking on a conveyor belt or on one of these fitness-walking machines where you hold on to some kind of handle and just go through the motions of walking without really progressing. The ground is so homogenous and featureless that there is really nothing there, around you, that would change or move while you are walking and that could give you an impression of your own motion. The mountains, toward which motion could be perceived, are too far away. It feels like walking to the body, but you don’t get any sensual feedback of progress, the mind misses the expected visual confirmation of things around changing, that you actually cover ground. Nothing changes, not even slowly, you can walk for 15 minutes and everything looks exactly the same. It’s like in a dream when you try so hard to run but don’t move.
Once reason forces the mind to accept that there must be motion, it actually comes up with the sensation that the ground is moving instead, backwards, and I’m completely still, just my legs paddling and pushing the ground backwards. Not bad! What’s the difference? So I walk and make the world turn under me. Wouldn’t make much difference, would it? How do I know that this is not what’s really going on?
Ah, yes, that’s where my discriminating intellect comes in, the “experience processor” that saves us so often from getting undone or – what we so often forget – prevents us from seeing the truth!
At night a new moon illuminates the scene, just enough to see the mountains. But now, when I walk, I really get dizzy, the deceiving sensation of walking without moving is chillingly convincing. The wind stops at night, no sounds; it is so quiet that again the mind protests. It comes up with all kinds of objections, aversions, and fears. I hear my heart pounding, blood rushing, monstrous, strange sounds. “How can all this work without my control?” says mind and is confused. And then I even hear things that clearly are unreal: scary ringing gongs, piercing beeps and roaring surf. I need to stay with the irritation for a long time until I gradually manage to let it all be whatever it is without interpreting it. Have I ever experienced such enormous cosmic silence of open space? Even the concept of sound becomes uncertain, somehow, and dissolves. A completely new experience arises: not the lack of hearing something, but the sensation of hearing silence. It takes a long time before the mind gives up its expectations and objections and starts to believe this emptiness.
Much later, when the moon is gone and a thick overcast has developed that holds back even the starlight, I walk away from the motor home into the complete darkness. Now there is absolutely nothing to see anymore – it doesn’t matter if my eyes are open or closed – nothing to hear, nothing to touch, nothing to react on, nothing to work with, nothing to change. Awesome! – Nothing to find awesome. I feel a sensation of panic arise.
There is the peculiar way of the mind to insist on sense. The mind is an instrument that tries to make sense; it assumes that things must make sense. If they don’t it’s in a state of fear, it reacts, it manipulates things until they at least appear to make sense. But sense is a hopelessly subjective matter. Real things don’t always make sense at all. What happens when there is nothing to make sense of, when the mind finds nothing to do?
Sense-deprivation: like meditation another trick to turn the mind on itself, another way of investigating the processing of sensory input, of making the mind see itself working and thereby discovering its mysterious impersonal quality. Am I really the one who is doing the thinking, or am I the observer of the thinking? Isn’t the mind essentially working by itself? If so, can it see itself?
For me, to turn the mind on itself is by far the greatest adventure I’ve ever experienced. Just to see that it is even possible changed absolutely everything.
When the mind can understand itself, why shouldn’t liberation be possible? – Liberation from the dominance of our automatic reactions, from the dictate of habits – liberation from the endless pull of desire that never leads to a lasting state of happiness?
Imagine such a place: the ultimate model for the unobstructed freedom to go nowhere – you step out of your camper, spin around a few times, and start walking in an arbitrary direction. And you keep walking, for 20 minutes if you like, because – you have seen, it’s obvious – you can be absolutely certain that you cannot bump into anything wherever you go (unless you run into the van after two steps). It’s amazing how the mind gets alarmed and doesn’t quite believe it, in spite of the indisputable knowledge of no danger, how you stumble and how drastically you actually deviate from a straight line soon. You don’t walk blindly, your eyes are wide open, but there is nothing to see. You want feedback, you crave for news, you insist on information, but there is absolutely nothing happening outside.
Then, if you insist on overriding the automatic behavior pattern, or said another way: if you practice disobedience, if you resist fear because you understand its intrinsic limitation as a conditioned view, if you have the courage to trust that it is not always necessary to decide whether things make sense or not, if you see your obsession to live in anticipation of the future as a truly crippling addiction, if you resist your fear to live only NOW, no matter how unfamiliar and unknown it may seem – it is an ecstatic experience to consciously step into the unknown with every step you take and freely receive the unconditioned authenticity of each moment – receive it, embrace it, and let it go – in timeless succession, in flow without progress. And suddenly you see that is what we actually could do all the time.
The unknown: everything, really, except that little bit that has already happened, everything, except what we actually remember. We are afraid of suffering; we don’t see that our very strategy to avoid suffering actually causes suffering. We believe everything that comes our way has to be screened first: is it good or bad? If it isn’t screened it is assumed to be bad, just to be safe. Isn’t this very attitude of vigilance, this state of fear, exhausting? And, what really matters, is it realistic?
Yes we can learn from experience, we can extrapolate the past, we make models of the unknown future, it is indeed the crucial reason for our amazing success story of survival. But isn’t the price suffering?
Imagine the liberation from fear, from the unconscious idiotic habit to face the unknown with conditions. “I’m not happy with what just comes; I’m only happy when I get what I want, when I get what I know.” Imagine this incredible liberation when you can be happy completely independent of conditions, independent of what you want. Imagine the liberation from the lifelong hopeless struggle to seek satisfaction by incessantly trying to rearrange the world to our liking – and rediscovering the alternative satisfaction that comes from simply relaxing into the present moment’s experience that is continuously available without the slightest effort.
This independence of all what we have acquired or accomplished – be it possessions, identity, or habits, status, fame, history, or meaning, belonging, and even love – is freedom. The non-violent triumph over fear, our mostly dormant capability to deliberately and intelligently let go of what we know and so tragically misinterpret as security, in full acceptance of not knowing what is to come. To move on into the unknown completely free from the known. To not trust and depend on what we got hold of on our way through life and so desperately cling to in our insatiable yearning for sense and security and in our almost fatalistic resignation and enslavement to habits. We may idealize freedom so much, but do we ever see how completely enslaved by our habits we are?
Age comes with a tremendous load of memory. You can and must use it at times, and you must drop it at other times, completely, because it’s old, because it’s nothing but the shadow of reality or, more precise, because it’s only what we thought about what happened. It’s not really us who get old; it’s our memories that age.
The following night it actually starts raining – a kind of rare event in this Baja desert. Surely time to use my memory, my knowledge, my experience and quickly pack up and move out in the middle of the night. This mud can get slippery as ice when wet!
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010