Saturday, December 8, 2007

Talking Buddha

This morning during meditation, for the first time in my life, I had a genuine, bona fide hallucination. As I knelt breathing in and out, quieting my mind (and then bringing it back when, as always, it wandered), in front of my beautiful Indonesian mahogany Buddha, I opened my eyes, and, in the early-morning half-light in my attic, I saw the back-lit Buddha's lips start moving, and his eyes occasionally open and close. Incredulous, I wiped my eyes and looked again--and there it was--just as if the Buddha were talking (though I could not hear what he said).

This was, of course, a hallucination--there was no such thing. I could not clearly see the back-lit figure, with the morning sky in the window behind it, and I knew that I had "spots in my eyes" probably from fatigue, which floated across my field of vision, blotting out the dimly lit, shapely mouth of the Buddha to convey the impression, to the automatic face-reading "software" in my brain that interprets perceptual data, that his lips were moving--while my imagination filled in the blanks.

Still, it was extraordinary how long this illusion persisted. In part, out of curiosity, I deliberately yielded to it, let it go on, and gave my fancy free rein, so pleasant was the illusion of my wooden Buddha quietly talking to me. Yet another part of my consciousness--the rational, skeptical side--kept a firm grip on me, reminding me that this was an optical illusion, a mere hallucination, of no significance whatsoever. And sure enough, as I leaned closer, the "talking" abruptly stopped; the illusion vanished.

So I have a fairly good explanation, from the left-brain perspective, for how this hallucination worked--the combination of back lighting, floating spots in my eyes, and the hard-wired facial recognition software we all carry around in our brains combined to stage this illusion, and I chose, just for fun, to let my imagination give it free rein, up to a point.

But many might press me further to ask "What did it mean?" That is entirely up to me--whatever I wanted it to mean--or not. Meaning, after all, is not intrinsic; it arises from the interaction of subject and object within a specific context. At one point, during my meditative reverie, I imagined Thich Nhat Hanh saying "Let the Buddha talk; I don't have to talk"--very much on the model of the mantras he recently coined and gave us last summer: "Let the buddha walk; Let the Buddha breathe; I don't have to walk; I don't have to breathe.

That'll do. Still, I can readily see how some, more prey to their own imagination than I am, could easily make a big deal out of this, for good or ill. The more credulous might insist, "I actually saw the Buddha talk!"--whatever "actually" means. Others, particularly prying, voyeuristic shrinks, might want me to delve more deeply into what it "meant" suggesting (darkly, as always) that this "talking" Buddha was trying to tell me something about myself, that this was deeply signficant, and that I should have listened. Well--maybe, but I tried listening, and heard nothing.

I'm reminded of a scene in the Carlos Castaneda books when Carlos imagines he sees a strange, beaked mammalian creature down a hillside at dusk, and starts getting all weirded out and excited, until the "creature" resolves itself into the play of rocks and bushes, creating an optical illusion. As he tells his teacher, the Yaqui shaman Don Juan, of what he saw, Don Juan scolds him gently for not being willing to "go with it" and see what this (imaginary) being had to teach him.

But that's a wormhole I'd prefer not to go down. I am not William Blake, cannot live comfortably in a world of imagination and reality simultaneously. As another voyeuristic shrink once told me one evening, looking at me with the typical prying eyes and the "aha" look, "You seem to have a real need to be in control, don't you?"

To which I responded with a luminous tautology:

"Well, when you're out of control, you're out of control."