Contributor: Anthony Amrhein. Anthony became a trained New Thought minister, then served at the Center for Spiritual Living and the Beloved Community of Spiritual Peace Makers. He earned a degree in psychology and gained thirty years’ experience in the field of substance abuse counseling. Finally, he studied under enlightened master Gesshin Myoko, Master of Sound Yogi Russill Paul, Vipassana master S.N. Goenka, and Zen master Dae Gak, traveling often throughout the United States, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Costa Rica on his quest to experience the truth. Here is the interview we did for my book, The Power of Acceptance.
Mollie: What are your spiritual beliefs? Are they grouped together as a recognized belief system of any kind?
Anthony: No. I do not have a belief system. I relate most closely with the “crazy wisdom” of Zen. I call my meditation practice “the un-meditation”. For me, true religion is like a cheesecake. And the various religions are like the toppings on the cake. But no matter what the topping, when you bite down into the center of it, it tastes like cheesecake.
Mollie: How long have you been practicing meditation?
Anthony: I learned zazen from Gesshin Myoko in 1977 or 1978 and, over the following three years, practiced daily for weeks at a time. I would falter for weeks at a time as well until 1987. Since then I have been practicing zazen daily. I have also experimented with over 130 different types of “formal” meditation practices. Since they all produce the same result, I always return to zazen.
Mollie: What made you continue to meditate after the experience in 1978?
Anthony: My ego would not let me quit. At the time, I wanted to be enlightened for all the “wrong” reasons. What I got instead of that enlightenment was “nothing” other than peace and a lot of laughs.
Mollie: Tell me what your definition of meditation is—just your own. (Don’t cheat.)
Anthony: The word “meditation” is so loaded with preconceived ideas that I rarely use it. If I had to define it, I’d say this: Meditation is nothing more than sitting still and taking a good look at how the mind operates. In silence without the distraction of body movement it becomes easier and easier to see how emotions, desires and ignorance arise. Just a glimpse into the nature of the mind reveals that the mind is a conditioned phenomenon that operates in a series repetitive loops regardless of whether your true nature is watching or not. Your true nature cannot control these thoughts nor can these thoughts control your true nature. Thus these thoughts dissolve without attention and one’s life can change completely. Thoughts are chaotic but the space in which they occur is imperturbable joy and peace. That is just the way it is. Everything turns upside down. What was once interpreted as excruciating psychological pain can become quite beautiful when fully allowed to move within this space.
Mollie: Describe your meditation practice. Do you focus on a thought or image, or just not think at all?
Anthony: I just sit still. It’s the practice of allowing what is … whether beautiful or not, whether blissful or not.
Mollie: Is there a learning process to meditation?
Anthony: Not in the sense that you acquire something. My view is that it is more about letting go of the many conceptions we are addicted to rather than about acquiring some special skill. Simultaneously it is also a learning process in that we learn to trust what is and let go of any attachment to the idea that any person, place, or thing could be permanent. When the mind is still it becomes undeniably clear that our ground of being is fluid and moves. It is not something concrete or solid. I believe that is the significance of Jesus walking on the water. It was a demonstration of the fluid nature of our ground of being.
Mollie: Have you ever experienced a healing through meditation–bodily or otherwise? Can you tell me about it?
Anthony: Yes. I have been healed from a lot of drama. One day I decided to read the Bible. When I got to the ten commandments I realized I hadn’t disobeyed them in ages, but not because I had awakened and become a saint. It was because the drama wasn’t worth the momentary pleasure.
For me, it is as though the future and the present are the same. They occur simultaneously for me. This true of all things including financial prosperity. Because of this conviction, I experience the consequences of my actions in the Now.
My future is real. The only thing missing is time.
Mollie: How often does meditation feel good in the moment? How often are you itching to get out of the chair?
Anthony: It is very rare that I experience either feeling during meditation. For me, the whole practice is about not superimposing any value judgments upon what is.
Mollie: What about when you’re depressed or angry or a bad mood? Does meditation still help you feel better? How often does it help you get out of your rut? How often does it fail to do so?
Anthony: Depression, anger and bad moods are valid sensations in my book. I sense that all enlightened masters have these physical-plane experiences. The difference is in their impermanence.
When an enlightened master gets angry, it’s like when a dog barks at the mailman. As soon as the mailman turns the corner the dog immediately goes back to chewing its bone without a second thought.
From my perspective, so-called negative experiences should be welcomed like old friends. We need to take very good care of these sensations like they are small children and experience them fully without resistance. Then these physical sensations dissolve all by themselves, seemingly through no effort of our own. But we have to learn to just sit with them, whatever “they” are.
Mollie: We sometimes talk about meditation as if it’s a similar experience for all. And we now know that the same regions of our brain are activated no matter which practice we use. What do you think: how close is what one person calls being “in touch with God” to the feeling experience another has of mere “rest and relaxation”?
Anthony: Well, I think these are probably both just irrelevant delusions. I once had a very real vision of Buddha. I was very excited and could not wait to tell Gesshin Myoko. She listened very attentively and laughed quite a bit. When I was finished telling my story she looked me straight in the eye and with deep sincerity and slightly sad concern said “Don’t worry. That will probably never happen again.” Then she burst out laughing.
I was so upset. I thought for sure having a vision of Buddha meant I was totally enlightened.
Mollie: What’s the best thing about meditation for you?
Anthony: This one is going to sound odd. It’s the discipline. There are benefits to doing at least one “formal” good thing for oneself on a daily basis that are ineffable.
What is your ultimate life goal?
Anthony: My ultimate life goal is to enjoy free time with the people I love. So I measure wealth and success in terms of free time rather than money or possessions.
Mollie: What is the goal of your meditation practice?
Anthony: That’s an easy one. There is no goal. I call it the un-meditation. There is nothing to gain but there is something to lose. The sensation of fear, for example, has completely disappeared from my body. But that was not a goal. It was a side effect. So when I sit I have no expectation. For me, meditation is nothing more than the daily discipline of knowing I did something good for myself. Meditation is simply a process of tapping into and paying attention to “what is” and experiencing the subtlest sensation of “what is” that the human body is capable of in this particular moment. And sometimes “what is” is not particularly pleasant. But that is irrelevant. What is important is to just sit with it. In many ways meditation is more like coming home to the body after having had a long day dream about somewhere else.
Mollie: Why don’t more people meditate?
Anthony: Without some sort of disciplined practice people cannot stand witnessing what their mind is actually thinking and doing. It is out of control. The average person finds lack of control very irritating.
Interestingly, the discipline does not have to be meditation. It could be dance, aikido, tai chi, yoga, baseball … just about anything. However, one has to find and practice their one thing. After about five years everything else falls into place seemingly through no effort of their own. It takes about five weeks of sitting meditation every day for twenty minutes a day to begin to see the beginnings of profound changes in one’s attitude and outlook on life.
Mollie: What is one of your so-called “success stories” regarding meditation?
Anthony: I’ve had so many, all completely different yet somehow all the same. A common denominator is that at the time I was experiencing the “divine” or “inexplicable” they seemed completely ordinary. I noticed nothing special until after the experience was over. I was completely incapable of forming any sort of reflective judgment what so ever because “what is” had my undivided awareness.
An example: I was sitting on a beach in Costa Rica. Behind me was an infinity of forest. The waves were gently lapping. Suddenly the thought occurred to me “God, haven’t I done everything you asked for twelve years now? Why can’t you let me repeat the bliss of my very first spiritual experience?” I was counting on God’s grace, but nothing happened.
Somewhat disappointed but also resigned and accepting, I stood up and began to walk. I looked down at my watch to see how many minutes of meditation I had “banked” into my spiritual war chest. (Are you hearing the subtle arrogance in all of this?) It was then I noticed my watch had stopped.
I began walking into the woods. As I did so, I found I could hear different creatures and miraculously locate them in space. Not only was my sense of hearing heightened, I saw more than the usual eight to ten shades of green. I felt I could literally see thousands of different shades of green so that the defensive camouflage of the insects and animals was no longer effective. I could easily see everything naked where it stood. But it all seemed perfectly normal. Everything was just being itself.
On that trip I was showing my aunt and uncle around Costa Rica. This heightened awareness experience lasted another three weeks. We had conversations that were typical yet somehow profoundly intimate. Everything just flowed. My uncle who is a self-made man and slightly on the crass side was overwhelmingly gentle and kind to both me and my aunt. It was as though he felt heard for the first time, if that makes any sense. Everything had a spontaneous yet purpose-filled sensation within it. Even the rocks felt alive. The trees were treeing, the waves were waving, the rocks were rocking and so on.
Then, it happened. We were headed back home. First we drove down the sandy beach road. Then we drove down the bumpy gravel road. Then we hit the pavement. Then we crossed the bay on a two and a half-hour car ferry. Then we stopped at the first light. Nothing yet. I was still in “flow-bliss.” Then we came to the second light. While waiting for it, it suddenly occurred to me that I am a business owner and I had important things to do when I got home. That was my first reflective thought involving the perception of future time and immediately I felt it enter my body. It was the physical sensation of fear. Almost immediately I realized I had been in the Zen Zone for the past three weeks and was amazed. It was my first thought of the past. Suddenly I had left the eternal and was back in the tyranny of time. I was “re-burdened” with the foolish concerns of the ego.
Believe it or not, almost exactly one year later I was sitting on that same beach when my watched stopped again, and again I fell into the bliss state. As before, I did not recognize I’d been in it until it ended with the idea of “I am important.”
Read the rest of this series at Spiritual Practice Success Stories.