Meditation has a way of changing our perspective on many levels. In this post, I talk about my first experience of pure perception and how the world changed before my very eyes.
It was 1996. I had just started my first year of grad school at Naropa University—a leader in contemplative education located in Boulder, Colorado. I was taking my first class on meditation with Dale Asrael. Dale is an acharya (instructor) of Shambhala Buddhism who later became my meditation instructor. For the record, I had never done anything like this before.
One afternoon after class, I stopped by the meditation hall to practice before heading home. It was the first of many visits to the hall. I walked into a simple room perfumed by the sweet aroma of incense. Meditation cushions were lined up neatly in rows on the floor, and a modest shrine representing basic goodness stood at the front of the room.
Basic goodness is our innate capacity to be touched deeply by our world. I would get my first taste of that shortly.
I took my place on one of the cushions and focused my attention on my breath.
This was always a process. My mind would wander. I would notice. Then I would bring my attention back to my breath. Repeating this process develops what I like to call the “oops reflex”—oops my mind is wandering again. Oops. Oops. Oops.
Meditation can have its frustrating moments, no matter how long you’ve been practicing. That’s why Dale taught us to observe our minds with upmost friendliness, simply allowing experiences to come and go. This wasn’t always easy given my perfectionistic tendencies. I was easily discouraged.
On this particular day, though, my mind finally started to relax. A sense of authentic presence opened in me. Chills went up and down my arms as though a great revelation had dawned. This had been a big deal for me, leaving my home state of Maine after 34 years and traveling all the way to Colorado. I was still finding my way around.
As I closed my meditation, I reflected on how peaceful I felt. Maybe I was starting to belong. I put on my shoes, gathered my things, and headed home up Folsom Avenue.
Everything was so vivid and fresh. One season melted into another as they often do in Boulder with leaves turning, flowers blooming, and people walking about enjoying the warm autumn air. I remember thinking to myself, “Folsom Avenue must be the prettiest street in Boulder.”
Realizing It Was Pure Perception
In fact, the next day I took the same route home just to enjoy the splendor. Much to my surprise, however, the intense beauty that had so captivated me was gone. Folsom Avenue was just like any other street in Boulder, charming as they are, but lacking the starkness I had experienced just twenty-four hours ago. I felt perplexed. What happened?
I’m embarrassed to say it took a while for the truth to sink in. Eventually, I understood. It wasn’t the street that was different. I was different! Something had opened in me during my meditation, and this subtle change in my mindset had influenced my whole experience.
It was several years before I put it all in context. I had had my first experience of what the masters call pure perception—a small glimpse into seeing things as they really are—stark, vivid, and clear. Longer periods of sustained wakefulness would eventually follow; this was only my first hint of things to come.
Yet in that moment, an important truth had dawned on me, a cutting-edge realization. Everything we see and understand about our world is intimately connected to our state of mind. This is a basic truth chimed by meditators and mystics alike, but it often gets lost on the rest of us.