Todd Corbett is a nurse currently living in Umpqua, Oregon. He has been a member of the Center's Practitioners Group for over ten years. On the 2004 Fall retreat Todd had a Gnostic Awakening. Following is an edited transcript of a talk Todd gave on 23 February 2005 in which he shared his account of the Awakening with other Center practitioners. For more information about the Center, please visit the Center's website: www.centerforsacredsciences.org
Awakened by Death
Joel: Todd has been coming to the Center since about '92, so he’s an old timer. And I would say—I think he'll confirm this and I think maybe he'll talk a little more about it—but I would say of all the afflicted emotions, the one that has dominated Todd's life has been grief. When he first started coming to the Center, he reminded me of a character out of a tragic Russian novel, a monk or something. He had that look always on his face like, in the Middle Ages, the paintings of the saints, they always looked like they'd been tortured for the last year. [Joel makes a face, then Todd also makes a face and everyone laughs.] Yes, something like that! The accent here was this grief and that's what Todd was dealing with a lot.
And, I must say, I made very little headway with him, I felt. So he became my guinea pig. He was the subject of some of my more radical or extreme experiments. [Everyone laughs.] Once, on retreat, he was complaining about some incessant thought, so I gave him a task to start a visualization of digging a hole in the Earth, and to keep digging, and to not stop. So everybody else is sitting there trying to ignore their thoughts, and he has to continually generate thoughts, both in the formal meditation and outside the formal meditation. I was hoping he would get enlightened at the end of the retreat. He didn't get enlightened. He got exhausted!
And then, later, one of the numerous tragedies that have happened in Todd’s life happened to him and he came over to my house and I didn't know what to do for him so I got him drunk on ouzo, a Greek drink.
Todd: Ouzo! Oh is that what that was?
Joel: Yes. And then I gave him a very strenuous practice to do: He had to go out dancing. That was the practice.
Todd: He also sent Jennifer out to rent Zorba the Greek. She brought it back, then he had me get drunk watching Zorba the Greek.
Joel: That's right. Okay, good. So, anyway, time went on, years went by, and, I must say, in the last number of years, he seemed to have gotten lighter, and lightened up a little bit. He didn't complain as much, he’d sit there at retreat and sometimes he'd have a beatific look on his face. And he stopped talking as much and so forth. And then this last retreat, last fall, came along. The theme of the retreat was "Listening to the Stones," which is an allusion to something Meister Eckhart wrote: "All created things are God's speech. The being of a stone speaks and manifests the same as my mouth about God." Well, on this retreat Todd "heard the stones." Very clearly. We talked a little about it at the time. And we talked about it a little bit subsequently. Now, some of my students, some of you, have had genuine Gnostic flashes, Gnostic openings. They don't always last, which is fine. So I have come to the conclusion that it's better to not make a big deal out of it in the beginning. Just see what happens. Let it sit for awhile. And so that's been going on, and we've talked about it, and I think Todd still "hears the stones" very clearly.
Then, there's another tradition around here—as far as we have any traditions whatsoever—and that is that you don't teach unless either I ask you to teach or a student asks you. I might ask you to teach even though you're not awake but you're just an advanced senior student and I need some help. So I might ask somebody after awhile to lead Foundation Studies classes, or whatever. But if awakening has happened and you're going to be a teacher in your own right, you have to be asked to teach, and not just by me. So, not long ago, a question was left for Todd in the Center's question box, and the question was: "What were the keys that turned the lock that sent you naked through the gate?" Boom! There's the question and the request for a teaching. So I got a hold of Todd and said, "This came for you. Are you ready?" And he said, "Well, there's no one here to be ready, but I'll give it a try." So I'm going to turn the microphone over to Todd, he's going to tell you a little about his background, a little about what happened on retreat, and then we'll have time for questions and answers afterwards.
Todd: The question was: "What was the key that turned the lock that sent me naked through the gate?" Well, all of you here know this, but I'm going to say it anyway: there is no gate, and there's no one that can go through the gate. That might seem like a cliché for those of us who have been coming here for a long time, but it's not a cliché if we sink into what that really means.
So, what led up to this shift in this last retreat was a series of things that happened over several years. Actually, it's been going on probably since the year 2000 at a retreat with Andrea. There was a kind of opening. Andrea and Joel co-taught several consecutive fall retreats which were very energizing, the two of them—a lot of this contrasting energy together. On the retreat in 2000, we were watching our breath. I was sitting in Alder Hall and I was just spending a lot of time gazing at the wall and watching the breath very meticulously, very precisely, and I got to this point at the end of the cycle of breathing—on the out breath—and there was this little brightening that happened in this space. Again, I was being very meticulous with the breath. Following it. Very, very closely. Suddenly, when the breath stopped, there was this kind of brightness. As soon as that happened, of course, I thought, "Wow, what was that?" And the mind got lost in the idea of it for a little bit. Eventually, attention returned to the practice again, and after a while it happened again. There was this brightness. And then I just kept sitting with this, and sitting with it. And I began to notice that the brightness was there when the breath would start to move back. The breath would move through it. And I became more and more aware of something about this brightness. It was just very, very familiar. It was extremely freeing, and yet I had no conceptual idea of what it was, particularly, at that time. But it was very freeing, nonetheless, and I continued with this.
At one point on the retreat I started hearing this kind of buzzing sound. Then I thought, "Whoa, I don't remember Joel or Andrea talking about this." There was this little kind of buzzing. Finally I went down to the dining hall looking for someone, and I found Andrea and I asked her about this whole thing. I told her about how at the end of the breath there was this brightness and then this buzzing started. She sat me down at the table in the dining hall. She looked at me, and she had this funny little grin on her face, and she said, "I think you need to go back and watch your breath some more." I've been through this kind of distractedness many, many times. It's always a trip. But this time it was different. I knew there was something funny about the buzzing. Within the next day that buzz had turned into a sore throat, and I had actually watched the process of the sore throat coming on. I was very aware of this early stage of the sore throat before it became a sore throat. It was a kind of hum.
After the retreat I pretty much just went back to my day-to-day working, meditating in the mornings. But I noticed that this brightness was still there. Every time I would sit to do the meditation, there was this brightness. It wouldn't be there until I started watching the breath meticulously. Then the brightness would come and breath would start moving back and forth through it. Gradually, the brightness over the months got brighter and brighter. Then it ceased to be brightness. It was awareness. It's what’s looking. That's what was so liberating about it. When it happened the first time without even knowing what it was, it was this sense of being free. So now for a long time since then, probably from about 2001 to the present, I've been doing this practice of watching the breath, getting to the stillness, and then just staying in the stillness with the breath moving through. Doing that, and spending the day walking around, doing my job, and as much as possible doing that practice.
And then what happened next was on the 2002 fall retreat with the instruction again from Joel and Andrea. In this retreat, I'm again paying attention to the stillness, and they're giving these incredible instructions, and I started recognizing my own thoughts and feelings arising in this stillness. And I began to see. It was a process of seeing a feeling, or seeing a thought, and when I would see it, it's like, it would burn it up. It was transformed. It was just awareness. It wasn't a thought, like we have ideas about things. It wasn't one of those ideas. It was just what it was. This was like, these things just burned up. On this retreat, it got really, really intense. I'd start noticing how "I" was in the dining hall. All of those feelings and thoughts about "me" in the dining hall. And all of the feelings that were coming up associated with seeing through everything. It was like a laser would see them and they would—kind of like moths going through one of those electric zappers—they're cooked. They're transformed to awareness. I began to notice that the more I became conscious of presence of awareness, the more this would happen. So this process on that retreat reached a peak. It just went crazy. At one point I was kind of short circuiting inside. I started having a lot of fear around it because there was nothing. At one point coming down to the dining hall, I remember coming in and I felt I was losing it. And I looked across, and Clivonne was a few tables down, and I looked at her and I could tell she could see something was really screwy with this boy. She said later that I was pale, and kind of crazy looking. All of that passed, but seeing how the mind reached its limit on that retreat was instructive. But that burning up thing, it continued to happen. Presence of awareness became more commonplace. There was also something that I realized, through going to retreats frequently, I was seeing that trying to achieve presence of awareness never would work. I could never achieve it. So what I found was, instead of achieving it, if I just let go and just started watching the movement of the mind to want something different than it is right now, then suddenly presence would be there, it would just happen.
So then there was the 2003 fall retreat. And there were the spring retreats, too, and they were also powerful, but I won't go into all that detail. But the 2003 retreat was one in which the burning up had kind of settled down. It wasn't as big of a deal. It was just hanging out in presence. It was like, "yea, okay, no self, okay, just thoughts passing through." I would think at the time it was pretty cosmic.
Then the 2004 retreat came along. And what happened on this retreat was different. First of all, I didn't have any expectation about the retreat. I pretty much was feeling as though presence of awareness was it. It's kind of like, "What else are we going to do? This is it. So, why am I going on this retreat?" I actually had been feeling that for some time. "Am I just going to go on these retreats forever? What's the deal here? Why would I? What am I going to accomplish? Because there's nothing to accomplish." Of course, we know this. There was this sense that there's nothing to do here, and it's kind of pointless. That sense was with me when we were going to Cloud Mountain. Robin and Vip and I rode up together, and Vip made some remark like, "Well maybe Joel means we're going to be listening to the Stones, you know, like, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." [everyone laughs]
Anyway, so we got up to the retreat and it started out much like many other retreats. Joel's retreats are beautiful. Very precise. It's all so well-organized. So very quickly, presence is flowing. It's great. Now, I don't know which day it happened. Everybody that's had one of these things happen seemed to know exactly when. I have no idea when. It was one of the days on this retreat. I know that. But I'm not sure if it was half way through, I'm not real sure when. But I came out at the end of the day, and there was just this stillness. I walked to my room. I opened the door. And I was getting ready to light the lamp. And I looked at my bed, and there was a being on my bed! Sitting on my bed. And kind of moving. Anyway, it was very freaky. I had, from a medical point of view, I had an adrenergic response. That is an adrenaline response.
Bill: Could you describe the being, please. [People laugh]
Todd: Yes, I was just going to get to that! So, at that moment the room just kind of lit up, the pupils dilated. The room lit up, and the being on the bed had these big funny eyes, and he was speaking in something like Chinese. He started speaking, and it was like [Todd speaks Chinese-like gibberish]. In that moment, I have no idea what happened, but in that moment suddenly it was Abdullah [a fellow retreatant] sitting on the bed and I was in his room. [Everyone laughs] So I backed out of the room. But, you know, it's really funny, because when I closed the door, I had to look again because it was so astounding what I saw in there. When it lit up, it was like an Egyptian cave in there—it was just crazy looking. It was kind of bright, and the guy had beads and robes and big funny eyes. But it was just Abdullah.
That is really, that was the point where things were different, ever since that. You hear about all these weird things that happen to trigger Awakening, people blowing out candles, or whatever. Well, I have no comprehension of what took place in that moment. But after that, I walked to my room, and it was just stillness. I opened my door, went in and sat on the bed. And there was no sense of self. Before this happened, there was this mystical sense of no self, a sense of just this mystical thing happening. But after this, there was none of that. There was just stillness. I sat on my bed for probably an hour, and—as I was telling Clivonne today when we were riding up—it was like sitting in a huge auditorium with the lights out. That was kind of what it felt like—just this big, empty space. Sitting on my bed, the mind would kind of quiver once in awhile, like it was going to say something, but it never said anything because it was just so little, so unimportant. So, after awhile I lay down and went to sleep and there was a sense of just being aware all night. I don't know if it was all night. There was no sense of time passing. So it was kind of like just this sense of being aware, and then it was 5 o'clock in the morning and I was up again. Then I kind of sat on the bed some more, then the mind stirred and said, "This is different. This is significantly different than any of those other no-self things, because there's no self here." [People laugh] It sounds silly, but that was basically it. It feels different when there’s no self. When there's nobody. There's just awareness looking out at these thoughts. And these thoughts are the awareness that is looking. So it's kind of like, they're not important. And that's probably the most obvious thing that has happened since this.
When I finally got down to my house after the retreat, there was nobody there. I went in, I sat down, and it was just very quiet. The mind just wasn’t doing anything. So I've had to be a little bit organized about getting things done. It's almost like having a lot of senior moments. [Everybody laughs] And I guess that's going to continue. I'm trying to get used to that part, because being a nurse, it's important to pay attention. In the role of being a nurse, I've been trying to get there early now so I can get oriented to the circumstance. It's working. Actually I think I'm a lot more present with what's going on than I have been in the past. I've also been teaching some advanced cardiac life support classes for years and years, and I noticed that the number of classes that I'm teaching seems to have increased since the retreat. Which is kind of odd because I was kind of thinking I was going to get out of that earlier in the year.
Anyway, so that's pretty much what happened. I'm not really sure what else you'd like me to say, but I'm sure you guys will have some kind of questions for me.
Bruno: How does Abdullah feel about this? [Everyone laughs]
Todd: He was really mad, I could tell! No, he was very, very good. Were you mad, Abdullah?
Abdullah: Actually it was interesting because, it was probably towards the end, more than half of the retreat, and I usually don't go to my room. I usually go hang out at the dining hall. So I went that day and just sat there. Usually I don't do that.
Todd: With the light out.
Abdullah: With the light out. So you came and you opened the door, and I noticed that when you opened the door, you looked right into the light that was from the dining hall, so I was looking at you thinking you must be blind now. You cannot see. So I didn't say anything. I just sat there. I just wanted to see what you were going to do. [Everyone laughs]
Todd: It was a set-up!
Abdullah: Then the moment you came to turn on the light, before you hit the light, I just said, "Todd, God is waiting for you." So, you turned the light on, then you just shut it down, then closed the door, then you came back and opened the door. [Everyone laughs] And you closed the door again, and you left.
Todd: I did. And thank you very much! Yes, Merry Song?
Merry Song: So, after you got home from retreat, did you have any doubt? Have doubts arisen since this 'Big E' happened? Have you doubted that it's 'The Big E'?
Todd: Good question. It's a funny thing, because thoughts continued. They're not as big as they were. They don't have that quality that they had before. So thought about, you know, "Is this enlightenment?" It's just a joke. It's just absurd. These are thoughts. Actually, when I went over to talk to Joel at retreat, I went in and we talked for a little while, and he said, "Okay, so say to yourself, 'I'm enlightened.' Then tell me how do you feel." And I didn't feel anything, basically. It's just a statement. It's a thought. It has no significance, really. Then he asked me, "Okay, now say, 'I'm not enlightened.' How does that make you feel?" Nothing. It's just a thought. And why would it make me feel something? Interesting. So that was a difference. Now, there have been times when I find myself doing things which you could say, "Wow, that was not enlightened!" [everyone laughs] But, you know, it's funny, because those kinds of thoughts come up.
Merry Song: Can you give an example of that? [everyone laughs]
Todd: Yes, as a matter of fact, I had a patient at work that had psychological problems, was very difficult, but was a sweetheart, just a great little guy. But he was confused and I was trying to avoid having to put him in any kinds of restraints. Sometimes these patients require restraints, and I try not to put restraints on patients. Anyway, so the phone was ringing, and there was another patient coming, and I was like in six different places at once, and all of a sudden I see this guy is standing by his bed. He could fall and break a hip. So I was like "Holy Shit!" and I'm running in there, and I grab the guy and hold him while I'm hollering out for help; I get him into bed. This happened just a few days after the retreat and I'm thinking "I'm uptight"—It's not being 'spiritual'. [Everyone laughs] When it was all over, there was a lot of adrenaline, it was like, "Oh my God, this guy. Oh man, is this because I've been on too many retreats? I've got to pay attention around here, I can't be spaced by all these things going on." And so these kinds of thoughts are the garden variety neurosis thoughts. But when it's all done, they're just thoughts. It all just happens by itself.
But, yes, there was this thought that came in and says, "You know, you maybe had a good gnostic flash. But this is maybe…" And then that thought was seen. And then the whole rest of it was seen. Then it was just presence of awareness. It's just right here. And, as time has passed now, there have been a number of these kinds of things where, for a moment, there's like this confusion like, "Wow, what is going on?" Then there's seeing the thought, and really that's it: it’s that process of burning it up. It's like, I would imagine there will always be some little things that will come up that will go, "Hey, I'm real." And, for a moment, they're going to be real. And that's good. I mean, they're beautiful. I've noticed one thing about all this with the mind. The mind is cranking out thoughts sometimes, and some of them are real retarded kind of thoughts. They're just really retarded. But the thing that's interesting about them is if you look at them, you realize that these are a gift. There's nothing about them that's wrong. They're just what they are. And we don’t know what they are. This is the thing. For most of the people here, I would imagine that's why you're here, because there's something telling you that the world is not what our minds are telling us. That the world is quite different than what our minds are telling us. So that’s helpful.
Merry Song: Would you say then that since the retreat you have not suffered?
Todd: No, I have not suffered. I've had a lot of back pain, I've had a lot of old piriformis pain, butt pain. I've got a lot of musculo-skeletal issues that I've had for years. They're not really a problem any more. I spend a long time stretching because they're asking to be stretched. They're asking to be listened to, so we listen to them. But no, it's all perfect. There's really nothing wrong.
The human condition gives us suffering for us to wake up. And there's really no other reason for it. I got catapulted with all the deaths that happened over a fifteen year period. There were deaths and huge losses every two or three years over a fifteen year period. Every time I thought I was getting to where I might be able to cope with one loss, there'd be another one. There was the death of a son, the death of a girlfriend, the death of another girlfriend. Then my brother had a huge stroke and he couldn't speak, and then he committed suicide three years later. So there were all these really dicey, juicy traumas. Fortunately, I was drawn to Joel after the son died and after the twenty-year marriage with Clivonne fell apart—it was her fault [everyone laughs]. I was drawn to the Center with all this stuff. My life had just fallen apart. It was showing me something which I was just not willing to look at. I'd come to the Center, and I'd talk with Joel, and he'd give me a practice to do. I'd go and do it. It would help. Gradually, I went on these retreats and big hunks of this stuff would fall away. But there'd be more. There was a lot of stuff to look at.
But finally, as this whole thing has moved along, I realized that the sorrows, the grief, the miserable things that would happen, they made me look. I would never have done these practices without them. Before the deaths and all this happened we were just very happy, having a good time, going to work, and having this little life that seemed very permanent and solid. It was a pretty good delusion. But it wasn't the kind of thing that could last. But there was a lot of belief in this at the time of the son's death. Then Clivonne's leaving, it just sort of fragmented my world. From that time on there was this little hole in my life. My life had a hole in it, and that hole just kept getting bigger. I tried to fill the hole in with stories, to fill it in here, but the hole was always there. And it showed the transience in a way that no teaching could show to me as clearly as the actual loss of a loved one. It happened repeatedly, really just kind of hammered this truth of transience home. Really made it real for me. And by making it real, that reality of a solid, real, separate self started to fray around the edges. It just doesn't hold water. You have to then question your whole world. So my whole world just started to get fuzzy and not very solid and very uncomfortable, and then there would be another death.
And so it was an interesting process. I don't really think I would recommend this as the best way to go for a spiritual path, to have frequent deaths like that; not that we have a choice. Although looking back it was perfect. It had to be this way. And this is the thing. Our lives are just what they are. We struggle and struggle. We think that we can somehow make it better. But we can't make it better: It's already perfect! I had a real insight into this. I had a friend Bonnie, who was a practitioner who was in the practitioners group before I was in the practitioners group. As a matter fact, I started coming to the practitioners group, taking notes for her when she was sick. She was my friend and we had a relationship going. She was a nurse at McKenzie-Willamette and I was a nurse down in Roseburg. I was working only half time so I would come up and spend a lot of time with her. She got sick and it was cancer. She had liver cancer. She came home sick from work one day and three weeks later she died. When she came home after she got the diagnosis, she was really sad and she was crying for a few days. And then two or three days into this, suddenly it was like, snap, it was different. Suddenly she said, "I don't have to worry about anything anymore. Worry's done. Let's go to the coast!" We went to the coast, and we did a lot of stuff, and she was dying. So that was kind of a powerful thing.
Kiva: What about your emotional world? What happens with your emotions? How do you see them? Are they like your thoughts? Do they burn off? How does that work?
Todd: Actually thoughts, emotions, all of it kind of play together. I’ll digress here for a moment. Another one of the big horrible traumas was this slide. We had this big mud slide down there and four friends were killed, including a girlfriend, and Clivonne's best friend. And right after that there were so many emotions. It was just swimming. It was just horrible. I thought I had some understanding, I'd been coming to the Center for a long time. And then this thing happened. It just wiped me out. I was like toast. I had all kinds of emotions, grief, just horrible, just the pits of despair. After a few weeks I was in that little book store, Paralandra. And there was this little book there called, "Spectrum of Ecstasy" by a guy named Ngakpa Chogyam with Khandro Dechen. It's about emotions. I found this and started reading it in the bookstore. I read the first chapter in the bookstore and bought and went home and read the rest of it that night. Since then I've probably read it a dozen times. This book really brought the whole emotion thing home. And Joel adopted the same book for the class. We went through it and Joel gave us practices, and we did very precise practices around emotions for a long time. We did a retreat on emotions before this book came along. Then we did another one, and Andrea did some emotion work on retreat, as well.
So, yes, emotions are wonderful to work with. They're very slippery at first. But it's important, for example, anger—I had a lot of anger after the slide. I was furious because this logging company had logged these trees above our property. They left all this debris down the mountain and down in the gulch there. They didn't clean it up. They were supposed to. They didn't do it, and because of that all the rain built up and there was this huge slide and all these people died. So, there was somebody to blame! We have our precept, you know, not to blame. Not to blame others for our own unhappiness. That's a powerful precept. But this helps you work with the precept: This book, these practices of sinking into the anger. When the anger starts to happen, you drop the story. Sometimes you have to be quick—when the story's gone, there's not much left. You start to notice that, gee, if I stop the story, the emotion evaporates, wow, what happens. It's very, very connected to the thought.
Sometimes you'll have emotions that'll just come up, though. Then the thoughts will start. Those are actually easier to work with because they're there. You feel them, and they can sink in. This is really for me the big secret with emotions. When you feel it, rather than thinking about it or trying to understand it, to try to just feel it, and be right with the emotion as you experience it. And you sink into the emotion, rather than trying to get to the end of it. A good example is sometimes I've gotten this queasy feeling. I used to get them a lot after someone would die. I would have this queasy feeling. It's kind of weird. I realized I couldn't get away from it. When it first happened after my son died I had a medical work-up because I thought something organic was wrong with me. It was just grief. So what I found was I couldn't really deal with it. I realize it's just got me. I feel like a bug with a pin in it. I would spend hours at my house in Umpqua just sitting with this emotion. "Okay, have your way with me. I can't get away from you so you own me, so if I'm going to die, then let it happen here." Kind of dramatic stuff. I wasn't very refined in the way I was doing it, but it was helpful to recognize that all my attempts to get rid of it only made it worse. I was maybe conceptualizing too much. But with these Tibetan tantra practices later, it was more precise. After doing meditation practice for years, there's a kind of precision that starts to develop. So you can hang out with the emotion, actually feel it, sink into it, without any desire for it to be gone, and you end up in a kind of a spaciousness. But if you want spaciousness, though, if you want to get to spaciousness, you'll never get to spaciousness. So it's a resignation: "Okay, I'm just going to be with this." It's appreciation, you appreciate it. You begin to realize that it's appreciation that makes the whole thing fine. When you begin to appreciate these things in your life, suddenly there’s no problem. It's funny.
Kiva: Now, when emotions come up, do you get moved to tears, still?
Todd: Oh, yeah. Oh, a lot. It's wonderful. Sadness, it's wonderful. It's beautiful.
Merry Song: What about fear? Do you have any fear?
Todd: Sometimes there'll be fear and it will come through. Sometimes at work, like that circumstance I told you about: that guy is going to fall. So, there was an adrenaline surge and I'm in the room. It's very functional. Fear is a useful thing. But that other kind of fear—that kind of anxiety, sort of neurosis thing that I would say I became quite proficient at experiencing for many years, a sort of free-floating anxiety—I haven't had that since.
Merry Song: So, you don't have any fear that the self is going to come flooding back in?
Todd: It's interesting. I think what it is, is that it's okay. If the self wants to come, it's fine. It's not a problem, the self. Self is not a problem. Self sense is just an emotion-thought. That’s all it is. It's arising in consciousness. It arises and it passes away. It's always doing that. I can conjure up a sense of self any time. It's fine—not a problem.
Bill: What about Social Security and global warming? [many laughs]
Todd: Bummer. Bummer, yea.
Bill: But, has it changed? Seriously, though. Are you worried about it?
Todd: A lot of the anger and all that stuff—it's not there. George Bush doesn't exist. It's really funny. These are thoughts. And they're only thoughts. These are thoughts arising. We have a collective think tank going on.
Bill: I'm sure you were going along with less and less suffering as time went by with your own practice, so some of these things weren't as profound for you anyway. But what I'm saying is, was there more of a shift since this change? You're watching it, but you're removed from it.
Todd: Well yes. Emotions do come up. And sometimes you go, "What a dummy! What a dumb kind of guy!" But, you know, they're thoughts. Back on retreat, in that moment, sitting on the bed, being in that auditorium, that was the first time I'd really witnessed a mind in its proper place. The mind is very small. Normally, it's like having a television set right in front of your eyes, constantly, all day long, and you're focused on it. But actually, there's just a whole lot of space. And this little voice, and these little things going on—they're smaller than that. They don't have that real, live emotional sense, that overpowering sense, that they used to have. I'm not sure I'm really getting at your question. I'm still very concerned about some of those things going on. There is that. It's just a thought. Nevertheless, there is compassion for humanity. I send money. I send lots of letters. It’s not about being removed from emotions; rather, it's about being with them fully.
Vip: When you first started sharing with us tonight, you used the retreats over the last five years as a backdrop. Then you noted what seemed like a bunch of small steps that were taking place. That was really helpful. I wonder if you might expand. You mentioned the brightening that happened when you were doing the attendance to breath. You also mentioned the throat blockage. I know that you did have a bout after that of parathyroid adenoma. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on what role that might have played in a chakra-balancing thing that you had to go through to remove some kind of heart-head blockage or whatever. If you could tell us a little more about this because when these little steps occur—on retreat, particularly, that they're apt to happen—then there's the immediate trap of getting into the wanting to repeat it. "Oh, this must be something! Now we're getting somewhere." Even at an extremely subtle level, this sort of game-playing starts up, where it's like, "In this meditation session now, that brightening, maybe I could go for that." And you just said a sentence or two, when you were sharing with us earlier, where you had said how you had learned to get past that. I'd like to hear more about that.
Todd: I think that was something that had been occurring to me for a long time. I think it was often in the loss of loved ones, after someone had died. Most recently I had a girlfriend who had died in the slide. We had spent a lot of time together, and then all of a sudden she was gone. I had this sense that I didn't know her completely when she died. I felt like I was grasping to understand what it was I had failed to do in this relationship. Then it was realizing that thinking that I knew her, that I somehow knew who she was, was the blockage to actually knowing her. It was that image of who I thought she was that somehow was the blockage. That had a tremendous impact on everything.
I actually learned a lot from some of these death things because they dug really deep into a lot of the conditioning in ways I could never have probably fathomed. In the same way, with meditation, and with going to retreat, there was this realization that if I formed some idea of what is happening, really take it on as, "This is my experience, and I'm really digging it and I want it back again, and I'm going to go get it," then that precludes it's ever coming up again. It's for the same reason. It's because, If you think you know what the experience is, you’ve just cut if off. You've just blocked it. It's funny. Our grasping minds obstruct our ability to know directly.
On a retreat, I don't know how many years ago it was, I remember you making a comment on the retreat, something about the meditation, and you had had a profound kind of experience. I remember you actually saying, "It's something about just really relaxing, really relaxing." That's right. That's so true. But you can't relax if you have some idea about what's going to happen. So it's like, really relaxing, really dropping into the space that you are in this moment, that’s really all you can do. And if you try to dredge up some experience you had before, it's just the mind. And probably a useful thing to know is that whenever that's happening, you can just recognize what it is.
Since this last retreat, I've noticed that whenever the mind is speaking, whatever it knows, I don't know it, it knows it. The mind knows stuff. I don't know anything. It's really true. Thoughts come up. If it's a memory about a spiritual practice, it's all the more enticing to get trapped. But I don't know anything. Really, it's just this space and that's what we are.
Another thing that's interesting about all this is this whole thing about death. One of the biggest, most shocking realizations about all of this is that death really is life. Death is this space. That might sound really weird. We have ideas about everything. Well, our ideas about death are just wrong. Death is life. Death is what gives life its life. It's the space itself. It's all coming out of this space. And this space, as far as I can tell, it's death. Death is this nothingness that we are. And then this nothingness plays all these various tunes.
Vip: That's the passage from the Tao Te Ching that we were working with last Wednesday.
Todd: Maybe so. [laughs] I haven't been reading too much since the retreat. I have read some stuff, and it's different. Everything is different since the retreat. I've noticed one thing. Clivonne and I facilitated the Foundation Studies class last year. I said a lot of stuff in there, and I have no idea if it was right. I think it was probably okay.
Clivonne: It was good! Sometimes he got a little carried away. But then Joel does too!
Wesley: It seems like you were saying the one critical event was when you got shocked into this stillness. What predisposed you to be able to receive that gift, do you think? Was it the state of confusion, or uncertainty, that you were in, or just doing your faithful practice? What was it?
Todd: That's one of those questions that—I have no idea what happened. I just know that, when I was up at retreat, at the beginning I was very, very quiet, very, very still. There was this sense of being very still. And there's nothing wrong with that sense of being very still. It’s wonderful. But I wasn't in a particularly confused state, and actually that's kind of unusual. Years of many, many retreats have been just fraught with confusion, all kinds of dilemmas and struggles. But the last few years that's pretty much died away. Joel used to do this thing where he'd get everybody relaxed, give them a nice meditation, then he’d say "HUT!" real loud. I think that's probably what you were shooting for, huh, Joel?
Joel: Well, everybody, if you notice when he just did it, your mind for one instant came to a stop. And if you open the door to your room and God’s sitting there on your bed, it might cause your mind to stop. [everyone laughs] Especially if there's not too much going on in your mind to begin with. That's part of it. So there's a clarity there and the mind is not in its normal mode of immediately thinking up an explanation or story of how can I fit this into my life. So there it is, it's unexplainable. The mind cannot think in that moment.
Wesley: So could you say that that shock really shook you deeper into where you already were? It didn't take you into another kind of experience. You were already sensing and participating in this stillness.
Todd: Except that when this happened, it was very different. After that moment when I went back to my room, the sense of stillness was gone. It was just stillness. There was no sense of me having a mystical experience. There was just stillness. And then I went to see Joel. I didn't know what to tell him, other than, "It's very quiet." [everyone laughs]
Joel: That wasn't what tipped me off. A lot of people come to me and tell me it's very quiet. I say, "Oh yeah? HUT!" And it’s not so quiet anymore! But I will tell you what he said when he came to me. He came and, in not an excited voice, but very straightforward, he said, "You can't tell anybody this. You can't say anything, can you?" I said, "No. That's right." He says, "All the words are just bullshit. It's just nothing." I said, "Yes, that's right." And we went from there.
Clivonne: And you guys are still talking about it. [everyone laughs]
Joel: Well, at a certain point there's not much to say. A lot of people think it'd be great: Why don't all the great mystics and gnostics of the world get together and have a conference together? If we got together, we wouldn't have anything to say to each other. We'd say, "Hey, how was your trip over here? Was it nice weather?"
Clivonne: So, the call to the teaching is for people that are awake. It’s a compassionate act. The voice, the speaking, is compassion speaking for others because you're still trying to help the poor suffering beings, not you're trying, but the offering itself. Is this making sense?
Joel: No, but that's fine. That's just the way it is.
Clivonne: The value of the Buddha, the sangha, the dharma, the teaching. It's so sweet, is all I'm trying to say.
Joel: All that is true, whether you're seeking, or whether your seeking has ended. I just think what Todd has hit home a number of times, is that the difference is that all those things happen, but it's no longer 'me'. It's not coming out of some feeling that I'm a compassionate being. I'm not a compassionate being. I don't know where this stuff comes from. Sometimes, as you know when you've come here on Sundays, sometimes it's confused, sometimes it has more clarity, sometimes it has more energy, sometimes it has less. Who knows? The base line is different. It's not what's going on at the surface so much as it's where it's all coming from. It's coming from vastness. It's coming from stillness. It's coming from 'don’t know mind'. That's why it's not a problem. It’s only a problem when it's coming from 'me'. Then it’s a problem.
Abdullah: You mentioned about awareness burning thoughts, and then, towards the end, you said you see thoughts as awareness. Can you elaborate on that?
Todd: When you see a thought, there're actually several ways of looking at that. One way is to just recognize it's arising in space. It’s arising in consciousness. It arises, and it passes. As soon as a thought has happened, where is it? It's gone. It's just gone. So you recognize… I'm not sure, am I answering your question?
Abdullah: You just said it in one line as you were going through, you said you see thought and you see them as awareness. Is it like, when they arise, is that when you see them as awareness?
Joel: Can I take a stab? I think, and you correct me if I'm misinterpreting what you said, but he said thought is just awareness, and maybe it helps to go back to that image of the wave in the ocean. Thought is just a form of awareness, as is everything else, by the way. So thought isn't different in that sense. But normally we don't see thought as a form of awareness. We see there's awareness, and then there's thought. So now someone is aware of the thought. But when you take out the someone being aware of the thought, there is awareness, and this awareness takes all these forms. It takes the form of visual forms, it takes sound forms, it takes sensation forms, it takes a lot of forms. So there's no difference between the awareness and thought. There's no sense of someone being aware of the thought—that duality, that subject-object dichotomy—there's just awareness and awareness and it's forms. Even that’s saying too much. At least if you go back to the ocean/wave analogy, you can see how there are waves of the ocean and they're no different than the ocean, just the way thought is forms of awareness.
Todd: They're phenomena moving through consciousness…
Abdullah: Yeah, you know, I've heard that a million times. [everyone laughs] When you see it as awareness, I wonder, is it in the beginning?
Todd: What I've noticed is, as presence of awareness becomes clearer, and we begin to see as awareness more, we're feeling into our experience more, we see these things as phenomena. They're arising in consciousness. We see it as consciousness and just seeing it as consciousness, it is transformed. If we're looking at it like "Its me over here and I'm looking at thought," then it doesn't work quite so well. Although, when we first start our path, we do that. We sit and we watch thought and gradually it clarifies. I noticed this after the 2000 Fall retreat in which I began to realize that the space between the breaths was my own awareness. It had this weird effect. This recognition of presence of awareness would just come up. After that, I had that retreat where everything was burning up. It was so easy to see phenomena as phenomena. I would see, "Oh, there's that thought." And it would come up as awareness, like an emotion or a sense of 'me'. And it would burn it up. It would just be cooked. It was that kind of process, although until you recognize presence of awareness, it doesn't seem like it ever happened in that way for me. I didn't see it as consciousness. I saw it as ideas of consciousness maybe, but it never was recognized as consciousness.
Joel: Let's thank Todd very much. [everyone applauds] Poor Todd is like this one Zen monk in a monastery. The Zen master is getting ready to choose somebody who would go and be the head of a new monastery they were opening in a different location. So he gave a test for his students. And he put a vase down and he said, "Who can say what this is without using words and without not using words." And they all sat around scratching their chins and so forth, and finally the head monk said, "Well, you couldn't call it a shoe." Meanwhile, the cook—it's always the cook in the kitchen—who has heard the stones a while back, he comes along and he sees what's going on and he can't resist, so he kicks the vase and it shatters. And the master points to him and says, "You are going to head the monastery." But the commentary is: the poor fool of a monk who traded his pots and pans for this big administrative job running a monastery because he couldn't resist showing his enlightenment. So Todd has made a big sacrifice tonight. [everyone applauds]
Rich: Is that your retirement speech, Joel? [everyone laughs]
Joel: I wish it were!
- (c) 2005 Todd Corbett