A traveler came to a wide river and looked in vain for a way to cross. Then he saw a monk in deep contemplation on the far side. “Hey!” he called out. “How do I get to the other side?” The monk slowly raised his head, looked around, saw the traveler, and smiled. “You’re on the other side!” he called back.

Photo: Barry Evans.

The most astonishing aspect of meditation is recursion, like seeing my multiple reflections in a mirror that reflects a second mirror behind me. Whether I am (per a standard meditation instruction) “watching my thoughts” or whether self-awareness suddenly and spontaneously occurs, the sense that there’s something here (call it “self”) — sitting, observing, judging, breathing — is often a precursor to, “Who is noticing this?” — and my trip down the rabbit hole of recursion — who is noticing the noticing? — begins. For some of us, it never ends.

I’ve been involved with meditation for nearly 50 years — writing about it (so much easier than actually doing it!), teaching (ditto), researching, and — to the tune of a few tens of thousands of hours — sitting quietly, on a cushion or bench, staring at a blank wall. And I know I’m not alone in my conviction that there’s no there there, nothing at the end of the tunnel, no ultimate revelation or solidity. Is enlightenment nothing but realizing all the effort is bullshit, that there’s nowhere else to go and nothing more to attain? That this is it? That I’m already on the other side?

The Buddha (whose earthly existence I doubt) is on pseudo-record as responding to the question, “What are you,” with the claim, “I am awake,” (hence the title) prompting the obvious rejoinder, “How do you know?” For that matter, how can any of us know if we’re awake? I remember walking out of a showing of “The Matrix” and seeing a green-tinged sky … and waking from a vivid dream, wondering why I didn’t realize I was dreaming as I flew nakedly over crowds of astonished onlookers below … challenging my idea of rational waking consciousness.

The sense of self-witnessing comes in many guises: meditation, drugs, prayer, near-death, making love, out-of-body, dreams, intense fear, disassociation during trauma, childbirth (I’m told). Yet the common and commonsense reaction is (or should be, I get evangelical and argumentative over this), “Who’s witnessing the witness?” followed by “Who’s witnessing that witness?”, the Matrix within the Matrix within the Matrix, ad nauseam. 

Down the rabbit hole, as I say. 


Barry Evans gave the best years of his life to civil engineering, and what thanks did he get? In his dotage, he travels, kayaks, meditates and writes for the Journal and the Humboldt Historian. He sucks at 8 Ball. Buy his Field Notes anthologies at any local bookstore. Please.