This is a story about a chance experiment in consciousness I suddenly tried at the age of twenty-two which turned my life in a different direction. Over thirty-two years later, the experiment is still going on.
Or was it chance? Accounts of similar experiments were certainly in the air:
in 1968, a graduate anthropology student named Carlos Castaneda published The Teachings of don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge, describing his experiences learning
native American sorcery from an alleged Yaqui brujo named don Juan Matus. I picked it up at the Aztec bookstore at San Diego State University. Wisdom from this hemisphere was a novelty to me back then.
This book affected people in different ways. D.D. went out to the desert regularly and took peyote and magic mushrooms and tried to fly. At the student union one evening three chicanos informed me that it was a sociological fable inaccessible to gringos.
I found don Juan fascinating but didn’t draw a connection between the book and my own experiments starting about this time. I only noticed similarities beginning with his next two books, A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan: we were both engaged in a practice he called ‘not-doing’ to build up a special kind of energy normally inaccessible to us; and we both tried to conserve this energy instead of squandering it.
This, then, is an account of my own explorations. I have worked mostly alone, although at times I have had partners, who are listed in the dedication. Where an exploration comes from them, I append the explorer’s initials in brackets.
It still seems funny to me that a barking dog changed the course of my life.
A Barking Dog
In 1968 I was living in a small studio apartment on Winona Avenue in east San Diego, and feeling frustrated. I had been trying for several minutes now to meditate in the Hindu manner, by withdrawing my mind from my senses. The trouble was this dog next door who insisted on barking every three minutes. I’d start withdrawing my attention from my senses when, bark, bark, in they rushed again.
Suddenly for no reason I turned my attention to the barking, letting it in instead of trying to keep it out. In a few moments I felt very light and relaxed. My ears were taking in all available sounds together, including the dog, traffic on University Avenue nearby, the refrigerator motor kicking in, an occasional plane passing overhead, somewhere a radio. It wasn’t a clamor; there were spaces between and around the sounds.
I started noticing things that were invisible before: the shadows of the bushes by the window, quivering a little from wind; overhead, squiggly lights playing across the fishnetted ceiling; Navajo white paint in the upper left corner of the wall starting to chip and peel away. Suddenly I was aware of a cramp I’d been ignoring in my left side, and shifted positions.
I went for a walk up Winona towards El Cajon Boulevard: birds, car engines, horns, barking here and there; telephone poles, power lines, cracks in the sidewalk, an alpine forest of TV antennas. Everything was in view, not just the stuff in front of my eyes.
I felt very light and peppy. Feelings out of old memories flowed through my mind, the nameless flavors of forgotten moments. Very loose feeling. This energy, I saw, had always been available, but was always tied up in filtering out supposedly irrelevant sensations. Apparently, filtering them out took a lot more energy than including them in awareness, because now I had a surplus.
Looking and Gazing
As I listened to background sounds, I became aware of things seen to the side, out of the corners of my eyes. I had the power to shift part of my attention to the side of wherever my eyes were pointing.
I experimented by placing two objects side by side, a clock and a framed photograph, and standing four or five feet back from them. First I looked at the clock; then, without moving my eyes, I shifted more of my attention to the photograph, then brought it back to the clock again, and so on back and forth several times, pausing now and then to feel the effects. When I shifted part of my attention to the photograph, something seemed to open up in the back of my head and there was a gentle flow of energy there.
While talking to C. one day, I tried extending my attention from her face to a potted plant on her right. Almost immediately, the tension in the room went down. I could look at her without falling into her face, mentally speaking, so I could really look at her now, in a relaxed sort of way. Of course I wasn’t really looking at C., I was looking at C.-sitting-in-the-chair-next-to-the-potted-plant; but she seemed unaware of that and liked the change.
If I paid attention to things where my eyes were pointing, I called that ‘looking’. If I kept my eyes on something and directed part of my attention to the side of it (or above or below it), I called that ‘gazing to the side’. Pointing the eyes to the side of an object and spreading the attention to the object itself I called ‘gazing from the side’. The first sort of gazing was easier to do with things nearby, the second with things farther away.
Like Castaneda I gazed at foliage and shadows. Shadows seem to acquire a depth or sheen when you gaze at them. They are all colors and blown by the wind. At noon cars glide by on their shadow carpets. Passing along store windows, I gazed at the reflections in the windows of cars driving by. When G. and I went for a walk down the beach, I gazed obliquely at the ocean while listening to the surf. Suddenly I started running, my ears full of falling waves. I was not a runner, I was generally out of shape; yet I ran without weight and felt no fatigue, just stopping when I stopped. G. was a block and a half back, trudging along amiably.
“ ‘Do you know anything about the world around you?’ he asked.
‘I know all kinds of things,’ I said.
‘I mean do you ever feel the world around you?’
‘I feel as much of the world around me as I can.’
‘That’s not enough. You must feel everything, otherwise the world loses
its sense…I am talking about the fact that you’re not complete. You have no peace…You think about yourself too much…and that gives you a strange fatigue that makes you shut off the world around you and cling to your arguments. Therefore, all you have is problems.’ ” 1
Passages like these in A Separate Reality, which appeared in 1971, convinced me that I was practicing a subset of what Castaneda called ‘sorcery’. I identified ‘feeling the world around you’ with sensing everything I was aware of at once, with equal attention. Engulfed in my senses, I thought about myself rarely, and felt very peaceful and energetic as a result. It felt like I was living on the outside of my body; every day was a day at the beach. Apparently, mental talk produces a feeling of being divided from sensations, but over the years I had ceased to notice this because it was nearly constant. I only became aware of it when my mind grew quieter and the division blurred.
In Journey to Ixtlan, don Juan calls this ‘not-doing’. ‘Not-doing’ means not doing what you usually do, or doing what you usually do not do, performing everyday acts in an unusual way. By including ignored sensations in my awareness, I was doing what I don’t usually do; and because this switched off talking to myself mentally, I was simultaneously not doing what I usually do. Thus, every act of not-doing has two sides: something unusual is done, and something usual is not done. The effects of the former are felt almost immediately, while the effects of the latter are felt only over time.
While healing in inner silence from years of mental chatter, I began to see that the thoughts I habitually indulge in poison my life.
Lumina and Penumbra
While I could do these things in any situation, I was most aware of their immediate effects in quiet moments, and their cumulative effects during relatively peaceful periods of my life. Though far-reaching, these effects were subtle and I had become insensitive from years of mental talk and frontal focus.
I liked to sit quietly for a while after each exploration, feeling its effects. Similarly, each exploration began while my mind was still engaged in following some train of thought from the previous moment. Letting in background sensations, I watched each mental conversation fade away, the way one watches a sail disappear at sea. Thus, each exploration began and ended in savoring the moment just past. Sitting quietly afterwards became as important as the exploration itself.
As I grew more sensitive I could detect more rapid fluctuations in my attention. I discovered that I didn’t really look and think at the same time, but the two alternated rapidly. They seemed to be happening together when my attention to energy flows in my body was duller. In motion photography, images succeeding each other too swiftly for attention produce an illusion of continuity; so in this case, thinking and frontal vision seemed to coexist in the same moment. The old silent films had fewer frames per second, so that the images seemed to flicker. I was catching the flicker as attention oscillated between frontal vision and thought.
Thinking and looking, I reasoned, must use the same mental space or frequency. Because this space was like the narrow beam of a flashlight, I called it the ‘lumina’.
When I spread more of my attention to peripheral vision, hearing, and the other senses, I talked to myself less. Background sensation is more continuous because there is less interruption by thought. Withdrawing the extra attention from the periphery and confining it to frontal vision once more got me back into thinking again. Peripheral sensation, then, must use a different mental space. Things seen from the corners of the eyes were half-hidden, like objects in half-shadow, so I called this mental space the ‘penumbra’.
Periphery and Umbra
In 1969 I was living alone on Estrella Avenue in east San Diego. For days at a time I saw no one except when I had breakfast at a corner coffee shop at Winona and El Cajon Boulevard, for, as I recall, $1.25! Outside of giving my order, I would go for days without talking to anyone. When this happens, it becomes difficult to talk at all; you feel a certain hesitation due to lack of practice.
I was exploring the penumbra a good deal, taking advantage of my unusual isolation. My attention was evenly distributed throughout my visual and auditory fields. My thoughts quieted down to whispers, ultimately becoming flickerings on the edge of vision, like distant lightnings. If I kept my attention on the edge of the visual field, these flickerings or pre-thoughts died out there; if my attention wavered, they entered the lumina and stimulated auditory memory, the basis of mental talking. At that time, on walks to and from breakfast, that didn’t happen very often. My mind was unusually quiet that spring. Where do these impulses to thought come from?
This limit of the visual field, which I called ‘the periphery’, was peculiar in that it had only an inside edge. Picture frames have inner and outer edges because we can see beyond them; but by definition one cannot see beyond the visual field. It extends just so far, and then it somehow plays out. When I kept my attention on the periphery, I saw the visual field as one thing, one visual object with only an inner edge. There was something uncanny about this that my mind couldn’t comprehend. In a way the visual field was like my life, and the periphery like my first and last moments, at birth and just before death. Since I can’t see beyond my life, it also has a limit with only an inner edge.2
Keeping my eyeglass frames in view helped to maintain my attention at the periphery, since they were close to the edge of vision, and this kept my attention focused in the penumbra. This was useful done by itself; done with other explorations, such as peripheral listening, it took my mind down to deeper levels of quiet.
Watching the edge of vision distributes the attention evenly throughout the visual field, and stops the eyes from tracking. A test was devised for this. Sweep your head slowly from side to side; if individual objects become prominent, you are still tracking, or it’s started up again. Try doing this in front of a mirror; if your face comes into focus, you are tracking. [C.E.] The test itself is an effective way of beginning the exploration.
The visual periphery is not just to the sides; it includes what little I can see of my face without using a reflecting surface: a fuzzy blob for my nose, overhanging eyebrows, eyelashes seen through bright sunlight. Small children do not yet associate their reflections with themselves, and so go through a period of liking to look at ‘the baby in the mirror’. According to one writer, at this stage they see themselves as headless. Once I realized I am the baby in the mirror, I began ignoring the little fuzzy sensations I once thought were all the head I had, back in the days when I lived on the outside of my body.
According to the book On Having No Head 3, learning to attend to those sensations again can lead to an experience similar to what Zen Buddhists call satori, or enlightenment. The viewpoint that one is headless focuses attention on these ignored sensations, keeping it there longer.
Although I couldn’t see beyond the periphery, I knew what was there, for I only had to turn my head to see what was hidden. When I wasn’t turning my head, I was dimly aware of things in back of me. This sense that there was something more to be seen seemed to reside in its own mental space. I called this space the ‘umbra’, or shadow. There was also some sort of shadow, or opening, behind my attention; it moved with my head and therefore remained hidden. I could feel it there, just behind my eyes, where energy was flowing.
1 A Separate Reality, pp. 12-13.
2 I owe this comparison to the philosopher R.G.Collingwood, who owed it in turn to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. See bibliography.
3 Harding, D.E See bibliography.
(graphic from https://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/754369/)