By: William T. Hathaway
I was sitting in full lotus, body wrapped in a blanket, mind rapt in deep stillness, breathing lightly, wisps of air curling into the infinite space behind my closed eyes. My mantra had gone beyond sound to become a pulse of light in an emptiness that contained everything.
An electric shock flashed down my spine and through my body. My head snapped back, limbs jerked, a cry burst from my throat. Every muscle in my body contracted ― neck rigid, jaws clenched, forehead tight. Bolts of pain shot through me. I managed to lie down, then noticed I wasn’t breathing ― maybe I was already dead. I groaned and gulped a huge breath, which stirred a whirl of thoughts and images.
Vietnam again: Rotor wind from a hovering helicopter flails the water of a rice paddy while farmers run frantically for cover. Points of fire spark out from a bamboo grove to become dopplered whines past my ears. A plane dives on the grove to release a bomb which tumbles end over end and bursts into an orange globe of napalm. A man in my arms shakes in spasms as his chest gushes blood.
I held my head and tried to force the images out, but the montage of scenes flowed on, needing release. I could only lie there under a torrent of grief, regret, terror, and guilt. I clung to my mantra like a lifeline to sanity. I was breathing in short, shallow gasps, but gradually my breath slowed and deepened, the feelings became less gripping, and I reoriented back into the here and now: my small room in Spain on a Transcendental Meditation teacher training course.
I lay on my narrow bed stunned by this flashback from four years ago when I’d been a Green Beret in Vietnam. I had thought I’d left all that behind, but here it was again.
I sat up and was able to do some yoga exercises but couldn’t meditate. Instead I took a walk on the beach. For the rest of that day and the next I was confused and irritable and could hardly meditate or sleep. But the following day I felt lightened and relieved, purged of a load of trauma, and my meditations were clear. My anxiety about the war was much less; the violence was in the past, not raging right now in my head.
Gradually I became aware of a delicate joy permeating not just me but also my surroundings. I knew somehow it had always been there, inhering deep in everything, but my stress had been blocking my perception of it. I felt closer to the other people on the course, connected by a shared consciousness. Then I started feeling closer to everything around me; birds and grass, even rocks and water were basically the same as me. Our surface separations were an illusion; essentially we were all one consciousness expressing itself in different forms. Rather than being just an isolated individual, I knew I was united with the universe, joined in a field of felicity. This perception faded after a few days, but it gave me a glimpse of what enlightenment must be like.
The whole experience was a dramatic example of what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi called “unstressing,” the nervous system’s purging itself of blockages caused by our past actions. Since my past actions had been extreme, the healing process was also extreme.
I had begun meditating in 1968, several months after returning from the war. I’d come back laden with fear and anger, but I had denied those emotions, burying them under an “I’m all right, Jack,” attitude. I was tough, I could take it, I was a survivor. Within certain parameters I could function well, but when my superficial control broke down, I would fall into self-destructive depressions. I finally had to admit I was carrying a huge burden of stress, and I knew I had to get rid of that before I could live at peace with myself or anyone else.
My best friend from Special Forces, Keith Parker, had started doing Transcendental Meditation and said it made his mind clear and calm. I tried it and found he was right. When I meditated, I sat with eyes closed and thought a mantra, a sound without meaning that took my mind to quieter, finer levels and eventually beyond all mental activity to deep silence. Subjectively, TM was like diving down through an inner ocean into a realm of serenity. The effects were more real than anything I’d experienced through prayer or psychedelics. My stress and pressure began to be relieved.
I started going on World Peace Assemblies, large courses led by Maharishi or one of his assistants where we meditated as a group. This strengthened the effects, making me feel both tranquil and energized. Then I attended this four-month course to learn to be a teacher of Transcendental Meditation. Every day we did hours of “rounding,” repeating cycles of meditation, yoga asanas, and breathing exercises, each taking us deeper towards transcendental consciousness. Afternoons and evenings Maharishi would answer questions and teach us how to be teachers of meditation.
One of his favorite topics was the connection between modern science and Vedic science. After getting a master’s degree in physics, he had studied metaphysics with one of the great swamis of India, so he could integrate both worlds. He taught us how the unified field that physics has discovered is the same as our own consciousness, that the fundamental level of the universe is the fundamental level of ourselves. And most importantly, he taught us how to experience this unity, where the duality of subject and object disappears and separation merges into oneness. This is the source of creation, a realm of bliss where even the concept of enemy doesn’t exist. It’s the level from which energy manifests into matter and form. Enlightened people live there all the time, but all of us can experience it, and once we do, our reality is different.
Ordinarily, our awareness is directed via sense perception outwards to physical objects. When we meditate, we reverse this direction and move our awareness back towards its source, the unified field. The mind goes inward and perceives progressively more refined levels of thinking until all thoughts drop away and we reach the ground state of transcendental consciousness, in which the mind is alert but without thoughts, pure awareness without an object. In place of thoughts, we are filled with a joy that can only be described as divine. Here we are united with all of creation. We are no longer observing the universe; we are the universe.
The path to transcendental consciousness, however, is not always smooth. Our stresses ― the inner effects of past actions ― can make our mind murky and unsettled, thus blocking us off from a clear experience of the transcendent. But stress can be healed. During Transcendental Meditation the nervous system repairs itself and removes the obstructions so that our awareness isn’t confined to the surface thinking level but can flow into the silent depths, providing deep rest for the mind and body. In this physiological condition, stress is cured and higher states of consciousness experienced.
The process can be unsettling because as stresses are dissolved, some of their qualities may affect our awareness in the form of physical pain, old buried emotions, or hectic streams of thoughts. Sometimes the unconscious has to be made conscious before it can be healed. I’d had a first-hand experience of this sort of unstressing, and it cleared away my war trauma. I haven’t had a flashback in all the years since then, but I’ve had many experiences of the blissful unity that came afterwards.
William T. Hathaway’s new book, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old Indian girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Chapters are posted at www.amazon.com/dp/1897455844. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.