Mind is my obsession. Not the theory of mind or psychology (though my obsession has led to me dabbling in such areas), and not your mind or others’ minds, but my mind. It began one day when as a young teen I lay on the ground beneath a poplar tree on my parents’ farm in the South Island of New Zealand. I’ll never forget the birth of my obsession because it was quite a shock, one that catapulted me into a whole new way of looking at my world. I remember looking up into the blue sky through the gap between a cluster of branches, and suddenly I felt as if I’d shot up through that little hole and was floating in the sky.
I looked down through the leaves and saw, quite clearly, my body resting on the ground below, and in that moment, I knew my mind was not dependent on my body — assuming that I was looking at my body from the point of view of my mind. This didn’t come to me as thoughts, but as a knowing, an experience, and as soon as I knew this, a glimmer of fear passed through me. Was I dead? The next thing I knew I was on the ground looking up once more.
I lay there for some time unable to think or move, not because I couldn’t, but because I wanted to recall every detail. I didn’t want to diminish the experience by thinking that I’d imagined it. Only once I was quite certain that I’d not dreamed it, did I get up and walk slowly homeward. For more than a decade, I never told anyone, for I never doubted that anyone would believe me, certainly not anyone in my family. I didn’t realise then that I’d had what people call an ‘out-of-body experience’. We didn’t have the internet then, and though I scanned books on psychology and spirituality in my local library, I found nothing there that could explain my experience.
How was I — little more than a child, with no context for such an experience and no one I could ask about it — to interpret such a thing? Since I came from a Christian family, I assumed that this ‘me’ was my soul, and so I carried on my life safe in the belief that I did have one. And it seemed to me, in light of this experience, that the ‘soul’ that had floated above my body was the real me. Although the experience had lasted no more than a second, I knew that my mind, or soul, was not imprisoned in my body or my brain, and neither was my perception.
The out of body experience had given me a sense of freedom that I’d never had before, and I wanted to experience that again. I wanted to know this soul, this real me. The trouble was that it’d disappeared when I’d landed back in my body with a jolt.
Where was I to look for it? In my mind, of course. And so began my obsession with discovering my own mind. I watched my mind whenever I remembered, no matter where I might be at the time. Thoughts raced through it, but watching them bubble around in my head was not the experience I’d had while floating above my body.
For a while, life took me away from my quest to find that part of myself again, but when I left my rural home town to begin tertiary education in a nearby city, I found the book that gave a name to my experience in a little hippie shop full of Indian knick knacks and clothing that smelt of patchouli oil. It seemed that, without trying, I’d managed step one in something called astral travelling. Once I had a word for it, I managed to find how-to books on the topic, but try as I might, I never did manage to replicate the experience, let alone continue to do the kinds of things the books described. In the end I gave up, not because I failed, but because I couldn’t see the point of it. I was a hippie, but not a dippy trippy hippie. I believed in unconditional love and living in peace, and trying to astral travel didn’t help me with any of that.
You might have thought that an interest in mind might have sent me to university to do a psychology degree, and the thought did occur to me, but I came from a very practical family where earning money was held in higher esteem than education for the sake of education, so I trained as a primary school teacher because back then, in New Zealand, they paid you while you trained and guaranteed you a job at the end. I learned a little psychology at Teacher’s Training College, but though I found it interesting, it didn’t lead me back to that ‘real me’ that I had tasted and knew without a doubt existed.
I was more interested in my own mind — this ephemeral thing that resided nowhere and yet seemed to be at the helm of the ship of self — than in studying mind in general and from an outside perspective. Mind became my hobby, the place I went when I had nothing else to do, the thing I watched to see how it reacted to events and even how it created them.
When I discovered The Seth Material, books of talks given by a disembodied entity called Seth channelled through a woman called Jane Roberts, I spent ten years doing all the exercises, and only later, when I began to study and practice Tibetan Buddhism, did I realise that I’d been practicing a form of meditation and examination of mind similar to aspects of Buddhism. My study with Seth Material, however, looked at something that Buddhism didn’t look at, at least not in such an experiential way. Seth taught me about my beliefs, about the power they held over me and about how to release them. By the time I met Tibetan Buddhism, I was ready for it. My mind was already pliable and known to me, at least the appearance of mind was.
What attracted me to Tibetan Buddhism was the promise that I could learn about the essence or true nature of mind. Now that sounded to me like the kind of mind I’d experienced all those years ago, and I tasted it again on my very first retreat. I didn’t float above my body, but I experienced the same kind of freedom of mind. I never knew what set off that out-of-body experience, but I know what set off my experience of the essence of my mind — the fellow in the robe sitting at the front of the room: the lama and the central focus of the religion that I subsequently fell into, seduced by an experience I lusted after because of my obsession with mind.
Twenty years later after doing the required study and practice and gaining an even deeper understanding of my mind and its role in perception, I discovered that the lama so central to my spiritual life had abused his close student in ways that made me feel physically ill when I heard about them. In that shocking moment of discovery I realised that the beliefs of the religion were merely beliefs about reality, not reality themselves, and those beliefs fell away in an instant, shattered like a pane of glass hit with a stone.
What was I left with? Not even mind, just freedom. Freedom from beliefs, and freedom from mind.
Systems, approaches and instructions from wise guides are helpful and necessary to set us in the right direction, but in the end, the only way I can experience the depths of my mind and find its true nature is to look at my own mind. At a certain juncture listening to others talk about mind becomes a distraction from this main point. It’s a kind of laziness — let’s listen to someone talking about it instead of actually doing it ourselves.
So I have returned to my simple obsession with mind, with looking into it just as often as I can remember. Now, however, I see deeper. I see that mind, though definitely present as awareness, is an illusion. And looking into that illusory mind is a bit of an obsession for me. Why? Because freedom is intoxicating, alluring, and magical, and magnificent things spring from its depths.
Mind my obsession, for I may write more about it.