Wednesday, September 20th 2017

Peak experience: Empty and loving it

After years of yoga, meditation and an exhaustive soul search, “I” turned out to be the void  left when the rest of me was chiseled away

BY LAURA KATLEMAN-PRUE – As far back as I can remember, I wanted my life to mean something important. I intuited that life was a precious gift, but I had no idea how to make the best use of it.

As I entered my teens, the intuition about the importance of life was still present, but my dream of making my life matter seemed less attainable with each passing year.

While away at summer camp in Malibu, at age twelve, I was standing on a hillside overlooking the ocean. Like turning the page in a book, my perception shifted. Waves of iridescent mist entered my skin until I could no longer find where I ended and the mist began. I disappeared, becoming nothing and everything simultaneously. All the while, I was overcome with love for all of creation.

After returning to my ordinary state of consciousness the feeling of universal love remained and I cried joyful tears. This experience felt more real than my everyday life, but what was I to do with it? Whom could I share it with? Afraid that adults would think I was crazy, I kept the experience to myself but never forgot that glimpse into an alternate reality.

My big fat ego

In my early twenties, I wandered into a spiritual bookstore and was drawn to a book on meditation. A decade after first hearing about enlightenment, here it was again! The book explained that to become enlightened you had to meditate, but only a rare and gifted meditator actually succeeded.

Faithfully following the book’s instructions on how to sit, breathe properly, and synchronize a sacred mantra with my breath, I planted my feet firmly on the path of spiritual seeking and meditation.

Meditation was a struggle. One sunny morning in the spring of 1988, three years into my meditation practice, I found myself sitting alone meditating on a cliff overlooking the ocean. As usual, I was trying to push and prod my mind into becoming one-pointed. Alone, in a serene spot, on a clear day, overlooking an eternity of gray-blue ocean, the circumstances could not have been more conducive to a tranquil meditation. Yet I was failing miserably.

A half hour later I gave up, labeling myself a meditation failure. Then I remembered the age-old adage, “when the student is ready, the master appears.” I triumphantly proclaimed (internally) to the universe that I was ready. To my delight and amazement, it wasn’t long before a master actually did appear!

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Gurumayi was unlike anyone I’d ever seen before. There was complete repose in her presence—just looking at her was restful. Her innocence and vulnerability were disarming, like that of a young child. If this was enlightenment, I wanted it!

Gurumayi was a spiritual teacher or guru, the current head of the Siddha Yoga lineage. I was attending her weekend intensive along with 400 others, riveted by talks about transcendent meditation experiences and the coveted goal—enlightenment.

The purpose of the intensive was to receive Shaktipat (the awakening of a person’s spiritual energy or Kundalini Shakti) so that we could begin our journey toward enlightenment. Our presence there was proof of our good fortune or Karma enabling us to be in the presence of a true master, one who could awaken our Kundalini.

In the intensive, I learned that we had incarnated in human bodies for the sole purpose of attaining enlightenment. For this reason, a human birth was considered auspicious. No other life form could attain enlightenment. Even the gods in the heavenly realms envied human beings this opportunity.
Then came the rub.

Siddha Yoga, like my meditation book, taught that enlightenment was rare and hopelessly difficult to attain. It was reserved for the select, virtuous ones possessing the right Karma. Only a few fortunate souls would attain it in any age. Gurumayi did seem pretty darn perfect. If anyone was a candidate for enlightenment, it was her. How could I, a mere mortal, ever merit such an attainment? Siddha Yoga provided the answer—lots and lots of practice.

Gurus galore

For the next six years, my daily routine was: 4:00 am wake up, an hour-long meditation followed by a forty-five minute chant. Throughout the day I performed japa (mantra repetition) and chanted whenever possible. In my spare time, I attended the local Ashram and helped out with Seva (selfless service). Six years later, still sporting an ego no smaller than when I started, I gave up on Siddha Yoga.

One day, while browsing for audio books, I glanced up at The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle. There it was again, the magic word—enlightenment. Listening to the CDs produced a sea change in my spiritual journey. Eckhart Tolle was clearly enlightened; I could feel it in his voice. The depth of his wisdom pierced my heart and brought me to tears. Another enlightened one! I searched hungrily for more ways to connect with him and discovered that gatherings using his principles were being held all over the world.

My heart sank upon hearing that no Eckhart gatherings were planned for our area. Many spiritual teachers had been coming through Boston and the group began holding Satsangs (gatherings in truth) facilitated by these self-realized teachers instead.

The very next week I found myself sitting with just such a teacher named Neelam. As soon as I walked in the room, I felt peaceful and spacious. As Neelam started to speak I cried, grateful to once again be in the presence of a self-realized being and reconnect with the spiritual thread that had been running through my life.

Being in Neelam’s presence felt just like being with Gurumayi. I immediately fell into a still place inside myself, just as I had done at my first Siddha Yoga Intensive and on the hillside in Malibu when I was twelve.

This was my first exposure to Advaita Vedanta, an ancient, non-dual philosophy that taught the oneness of all things. We were already self-realized, we just didn’t know it. To experience this truth, we simply had to peel away the layers of misunderstandings that were covering it.

Unlike the daunting messages from the past, the Advaita teaching was encouraging. Self realization was possible for anyone who really wanted it, not just the select, virtuous few. Thank goodness! People everywhere were waking up! I was overjoyed at the real possibility that I would know the truth of my being one day.

Over the next three years, my passion for satsang was insatiable. I was like a bird that was constantly air borne. If I wasn’t attending local satsangs, I was on retreat somewhere: in Bermuda, Sedona or Tiruvanamalai, India with Stuart Schwartz, or in Puerto Vallarta with Pamela Wilson, or on The Green River in Utah on a silent canoe trip with Michael Regan, or in Hotchkiss, Colorado with Neelam, on the telephone with Gina Lake, or in Northern California for a five day retreat with Adyashanti.

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Living with nondual teachers was amazing. Completely unperturbed by life’s ups and downs, their joy was infectious. I’d never seen such happy, easygoing people and was convinced that they had attained an evolutionary stage far beyond what I had seen in other human beings (with the exception of Gurumayi).

I spent the most time with Stuart Schwartz, a former New York designer whose spiritual path included being a teacher of the Sedona Method (a methodology designed to free one of their emotional baggage using daily releasing) and a few precious years with his teacher, Robert Adams.

Stuart was constantly asking me, “How’s the presence?” or  “Where’s the quiet?” gently encouraging me to spend as much time in “the quiet,” outside of the chatter of my mind as possible. I committed myself to this practice, shifting from mental noise to the quiet, umpteen times a day. Gradually, the habit of living from the ego began to break down, and I began to notice an increasing awareness of presence in my daily life.

Nobody home

One early October evening in 2006, in the kitchen with a spiritual teacher named Mooji, I approached him and said, “I’ve listened to your CDs and I know you’re big on self-inquiry, but I have to tell you, I’ve tried it many, many times. It may work for some people, but not for me.” Regarding me quizzically at first, he smiled broadly, and said, “Oh really…” And then it began, the relentless inquisition:

Mooji: “What is this me that this inquiry doesn’t work for? Show it to me.”

Me: “I can’t.”

Mooji: “Try. Look for me.”

I closed my eyes and nothing.
“I can’t find anything.”

Mooji: “And who is reporting that?”

Me: “I am.”

Mooji: “Remind me again, who is this I?”

Me:  “No one”

Mooji: “Too quick. You must have read that somewhere. I don’t accept it. I don’t accept any answers from your mind. Now look and take your time with it.”

And on and on it went like that. To say that this exchange was uncomfortable is an understatement. No answer worked. I kept looking and not finding and Mooji, God bless him, just kept at it. He was ruthless, slashing away at my mind. There was nowhere to hide. Whatever response I gave, was not it. He kept pressing me, asking me to peel back another layer to find what was witnessing each discovery. The pressure was unbearable.

Without warning something shifted. To say something happened isn’t entirely true because whatever it was, happened outside of time. My first thought was, “This has always been so.”

Next, I had an image of a Laura puppet crumpled up on the floor. As I gazed down on it, I saw the absurdity of ever believing that I was the character, Laura. There was no death and this whole life thing that I had been invested in was all a big ruse. No one had ever been born, lived, and then died. I couldn’t tell you who or what I was, but I was crystal clear on what I wasn’t.

Thanks to Mooji’s loving persistence, his refusal to quit, the bubble of my individual identity burst. I could no longer believe the story that the character, Laura, was who I was. Other than that, I couldn’t find myself. The “I” that I thought I was didn’t exist and never had.
Once personal identification had been shattered, all that remained was the realization of what had always been so—awareness. I was the awareness in which all transient events, including the life of this Laura character, took place. How strange that I could ever have believed that I was a person! Not only that, the goal called self-realization never existed. It was merely a concept, an idea arising in the vast, empty oneness that I now knew myself as.

Life since that timeless moment has not been what I would call nirvana. Truckloads of conditioning, in the form of anger, sadness, crankiness, reactivity, and identification with the character Laura, have come up to be met by the spaciousness. The difference is the lovely, quiet joy that resides  most of the time. All in all, I wouldn’t change a single step on my journey. My heart is brimming with gratitude toward my family, friends, and spiritual teachers for the roles that they played in this cosmic discovery of no one home.

Laura Katleman-Prue is a graduate of the Theravision Institute of Transpersonal Pschology in Boston. She has been teaching meditation and self-inquiry since 2007 and has successfully counseled people about their eating issues, both individually and in Skinny Thinking Workshops. Skinny Thinking grew out of her desire to share the techniques that permanently healed her eating, weight, and body image issues. her book, Skinny Thinking: Five Revolutionary Steps to Permanently Heal Your Relationship with Food, Weight, and Your Body gives readers a step-by-step guide for healing their eating and weight issues once and for all.

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2 Comments on “Peak experience: Empty and loving it”

  1. Laura, we welcome you to Soul's Code -- and thank you for a fantastic sharing of your deep experience, honest experience and what others may use for the same.

    We look forward to more Skinny Thinking, a brilliant double entendre, Paul

  2. Laura,

    I enjoyed your provocative article and felt the stress of your search.

    Our stories have much in common. I tried so many ways to remove the suffering in my life, and it wasn't until I was exposed to Eckhart Tolle's teachings that things began to chenge for me (unlike you, I was in his presence twice). But it wasn't until I ran into the Advaita gang that my seeking stopped. Advaita's self-inquiry is simple and not cognitive, which works well for a right-brained guy like me.

    In your last paragraph, the word spaciousness jumped out at me. I, too, have learned to meet disorder with silence.

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