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Early Experiences of the Witness

Being the 'Ground', Age 3-4

Somewhere around 3 or 4 years of age, I was playing in the grassy side yard of my home in Queens, NYC. It was a pristine lawn and garden in a fairly urban residential area of New York City, a real haven from the concrete jungle. While I was playing, my dad came into the cut the grass with a good old-fashioned Briggs and Stratton upright mower (which made great engines for go-karts in my adolescence!).

He gave the mower a mighty yank and its powerful two-cycle engine motored away in fury. Those upright mowers, with the wavy blades exposed to the front, were able to run in neutral so as to keep the blades from moving and thus slicing off unsuspecting toes. I watched from a short distance as my dad prepared to give the lawn another trim.

Now, like all young boys, I would watch my father very carefully, picking up clues on how to maneuver in the world like an adult and a man, and I noticed many times that he had a curious way of shutting off the mower - it had an exposed spark plug on the top with a little metal doohickey, which upon pressing down onto the spark plug, would short out and thus shut off the mower. As a little boy, I found that fascinating, to quiet such a snarling mechanical monster with such a simple stroke.

In fact, such as simple stroke that I bet that I could do it myself. Certainly it appeared a lot easier to shut the engine off than to start one of those big boys, pulling on that big rope so many times! In a moment, one of those moments when the watchful eye of a parent is momentarily averted, leading to potential disaster, I took up my position as the provocateur of disaster. As my father turned away from the mower for a few moments to attend to something else, I thought I would try my hand at shutting down the mower. I though it would make my dad proud that I could repeat his gestures and work a big machine.

So I waddled up to the engine, and pushed my little finger onto that metal flap that sits above the spark plug. However, one small issue arose - I wasn't sure how long I would have to keep my finger down to shut off the engine. So I kept it there, and kept it there. Way too long.

In a microsecond, I received a hard earned lesson in electricity - you don't short circuit a current with your own body - which is exactly what happened. The current from the spark plug went through me like a snake made of lightning and knocked me on my little ass. At first I lay there for moment in shock and then the tears came. But something was different...

I not only became the ground of electricity, I also became the ground of being, the Witness to my own pain. As I was bawling uncontrollably, from the shock and from the embarrassment, I remember my father, both angry and freaked out, coming forward and picking me up.

But I was in a different vantage point - I seem to be deep inside a great space, watching the crying from an unusual distance, as if I was watching another child crying. I could feel my dad pick me up and carry me into the house, all the while I was in this totally calm and still place, many miles distant from the emotional trauma that was ensuing in my little body. The sound of my crying seemed both different and distant. I do not know how long that 'state' lasted, but I never forgot it, as it was so oddly different than the immersion in the drama that I had normally experienced. Somehow, I had taken on another identity in a moment and that was as surprising as the shock of the spark plug. It took almost 40 years to understand the significance of that moment in the garden.

Fire Shock, Age 13-14

Cut to about ten years, and I am in the back-seat of my parent's car, my mom driving and my sister in the passenger seat. Everything is fine as we're following a young couple in a car in front of us for several miles. Then it all turns weird. The car in front starts to drive erratically and to my astonishment, the car is on fire! Fire is licking out from underneath the chassis on all sides, in similar fashion to turning up the gas burner on a small pot too high.

My mom slowed down to a crawl as we watched this bizarre scene in front of us unravel. Clearly the gas tank or gas line ruptured on the car and all it took was a spark to set the car ablaze. Then it took on a more personal turn – it seemed that the car was leaking gas for a long time, and it left a trail down the street, right under our car. And that trail of gasoline set on fire and came roaring at us, right under our car!

While watching this literal infernal drama unfold, something snapped in me. I don't know, perhaps it was due to watching too many cars explode in the movies or on TV, but a panic arose that triggered fight or flight in me. In a moment, I yelled something to the effect, “WE GOTTA GET OUTA HERE!” at the top of my voice and proceeded to open the car door while the car was still in motion.

But again, a shift occurred in that moment that allowed me to witness my own internal and external drama. I was watching myself yell and act to get out of the car. 'I' was completely still watching this freaked out individual react to a very basic mammalian fear, the fear of fire. This cut of identification with my own limited sense of self, to this calm and serene 'background position' lasted only for a few seconds, and when re-identification with 'normal consciousness' occurred, I had one foot on the street and another in the car, as my mom pulled to the side of the road.

Nothing of serious consequence happened; our car didn't blow up, the young couple got out of the car safely and the fire was under control in a short amount of time. I do remember being a bit embarrassed by my reaction, and totally puzzled as to what occurred to my normal stream of consciousness, what this gap was that shifted the sense of 'I' to this expansive and still position.

Disassociation from Trauma and Spiritual Revelation

Via many sources, it is clear that the mind does respond in very dramatic ways when faced with threat of extreme pain or extinction, real or imagined. I'm sure we've all heard of numerous stories of 'looking down at our body while our heart has stopped in the hospital”, or lost time (alien abduction?), to alcoholic blackouts, etc. And there have been many stories similar to mine during torture sessions, when a prisoner's normal consciousness recedes from the horror of the present moment to a very still and free place.

Certainly, one can say that these are normal reactions to the human mind under moments of duress and leave it at that. And that may be true, but it may be too much of a reductionist stance, in my opinion. What these moments may be are doorways to a promotion of consciousness, whereby all of the bonds of beliefs, assumptions about reality, energetic, psychic and ideational knots are (at least temporarily) loosened such that the reality of one's self-nature is laid bare.

And it appears that many spiritual traditions have used 'shock therapy' as a means to uproot any and all forms of limits in the consciousness of the aspirant. There are numerous stories of the crazy-wise man performing any and every kind of shocking behavior to bust the student out of self-enclosed suffering of ordinary self-consciousness.

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is perhaps the lineage with the most famous stories regarding the use of sudden actions or words to shock the student into more profound awareness. The very lineage holder of Chan/Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma was reported to sever the arm of one of his first encounters, bringing about a major shift in the now 'one-armed' monk. And it seems that stories about the slap of the Zen Master are too numerous to mention.


The Book “Daughter of Fire” is filled with stories of the main character being shocked by her teacher.

Dzogchen Buddhism

Dzogchen goes one step further into developing a practice to bring about heightened awareness:

“In order to free ourselves from envelopment in attachment to experiences, and in order to reveal the unadorned natural condition of naked intrinsic Awareness, which is in no way obstructed by anything that arises, that is, in order to realize that state…which is free from being attired in any conceptions whatsoever – we utter a thought-shattering “PHAT!” [NOTE: pronounced “PEH” in English]. That “PHAT! “ shatters the thought that has just arisen, like a bolt of lightning splitting apart a great tree.

This action interrupts the flow and continuity of our thoughts. This forceful and intense PHAT is extremely important because it shatters our meditation that has been created and constructed by our mental activity…In this way, we are freed from all conceptions, and thus we become actually liberated from them. And in its wake all that remains is a sharp startled awareness.

The transparent, unimpeded and unobstructed state of knowledge or primal awareness that follows in the wake of PHAT is just itself and nothing else. It transcends all extremes or limitations of existence and non-existence, as well as creation and cessation. It is a self-existing state which transcends all objects of thought and all efforts of speech and mind.
  -The Golden Letters, John Myrdhin Reynolds, pp 79-84.

The lineage of Dzogchen gives to us more evidence as to what the state of awareness that may be revealed once a shock to the system occurs, even if self-imposed. Try a “PHAT!” yourself and see what it left in its wake – what is revealed when the bands of conceptualization are temporarily broken and the nearly endless stream of thoughts is suddenly halted? What is it about that Awareness that is left? It represents the basis for our freedom.