Awakening Tom Kurzka
The awakening of Tom Kurzka
Q: Were there any particular practices which you feel were important leading up to your gnosis?
TOM: In the spring of `99 I went on my first Center retreat. Joel (Morwood) was giving these Buddhist teachings on the five sense fields and thought. We were supposed to experience sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes in their nakedness, without any mental concepts about them—like, sound is just sound, sights are just sight, sensations are just sensation, thought is just thought.
Sound was pretty easy for me. I'd listen to this train whistle at night, and then all these thoughts would come, like, "That's a train," and "I'm Tom sitting on the bed listening to it." Then I started to really see that these were just thoughts. They were not the whistle. That was just pure sound, no concepts attached. You can talk about this intellectually, but when you actually experience it, you go "Ahhh!"
I also tried to pay attention to thoughts, but there would be this, "Oh my God, if the thinking is only thinking, then the ego is only thoughts! But that means basically, it's nothing!" At that point, I stopped because—"No! No! I don't want to go there!" So I didn't get to fully experience thinking as thinking. Still, I was catching on.
In subsequent meditations back home, I really got into that practice. Not only in formal meditation, but even doing daily tasks. A sound would arise, and it would be just sound. Sometimes I could go through a whole day experiencing everything this way—sound is just sound, sight is just sight, taste is just taste. I could even start to see thought is just thought. Fear would still arise, because the fixation on ego would get threatened, but it wasn't such a big deal anymore.
Q: It sounds like that first retreat was a turning point—like the shift began back then, and the process just continued.
TOM: Yes. First you get an intellectual understanding, but then at some point you get an experiential understanding—you see it directly. There's a big difference. Then, in January, 2000, there was another shift. The meditations got to where I'd just sit down and there'd be this beautiful unfolding. I could experience everything in its nakedness, without effort. From that point on, it was like God was baking me. I wasn't doing anything anymore. I was being baked. Throughout the day things would just unfold. Now, if fear arose, I could deal with the fear. There wasn't such an aversion to it.
Q: What practices were you doing just before your Awakening?
TOM: Andrea (Pucci) was leading the Practitioner's Group. We were working with Pema Chodron's book, Start Where You Are, and doing Tibetan practices—mainly shi-ne` [emptiness meditation] and tonglen [taking and sending]. My primary meditation was the shi-ne`. In shi-ne`, you basically just relax into emptiness. That really worked for me. I also did a little tonglen, which involves taking on the suffering of others, and sending them love and compassion. But that only worked when some major emotions were coming up.
Q: So that was just before the Spring, 2000, retreat. Why don't you tell us what actually happened when you got there?
TOM: Before going on the retreat, there was a knowing that something major was going to happen. Mentally, I thought, "If it happens, it happens," but there was this inner sense that I was going to Pop. Along with that, though, there was also a lot of resistance. The first night, I remember sitting in the meditation hall, feeling like I was spreading out, expanding. But I was also thinking , "I don't like this! I don't like this!" Then, there was this feeling of just having to let go, followed by a profound sense that my heart was opening. Still, things didn't really start to happen until the next to the last day.
That was Tuesday morning, and I'm lying in bed at about 4:00 am—wide awake, meditating. Birds are beginning to chirp. I'm listening to the naked sound of the birds. It's just "sound is sound," and it's quite exquisite. Then, the mind kicks in and has some old thought—I don't know what it was. Then, the next thought comes, and the next, and I notice that I'm distracted. "Oh, you stupid idiot. You blew it! You're not listening to the birds anymore. You're thinking again." But then I go, "Well, wait a minute. Why are you dumping on yourself so much?" In practicing tonglen, we always talk about how we don't need to be so hard on ourselves, so self-critical. That's just another form of aversion, and we're supposed to be getting beyond all grasping and aversion. So, I think, "You're having aversion to thought, but thought is just phenomena. It's no big deal.
Even the thought that's judging thoughts is just another thought." Then I suddenly see that the thoughts, and the thought that is judging these thoughts, are just like the birds! There's no difference!— "thinking is just thinking." That broke everything loose—all significance or attachment to ego—because, in that moment, I saw right through the whole game. It's like Andrea says, "You can have thoughts, but don't let thoughts have you."
Q: Is that when you "Popped"?
TOM: No, not yet. It was more like, there's this window and I'm still on the outside looking in, but there are major cracks beginning to form. When someone gets to that point, everything really starts to get fragile. You can still stop the glass from shattering, but you're going to have to work awfully hard to keep all the pieces together.
Q: So, then what happened?
TOM: Later that morning, Joel led the last meditation before we were supposed to go off on our own for solo day. He was having us shift focus from whatever phenomena appear in the foreground of awareness, to the background—which is the Groundless Being of Consciousness, Itself. In my loosened state, I really started to sense this Groundless Being. So, again, there was this feeling of just spreading out more and more into that Groundless Being. Then, suddenly, I went into major fear. But then, instead of trying to escape the fear, I started to watch it, and I saw it was just fear. There was still a little attachment going on, but I could stay there with the feeling. It was just fear—very intense fear, but nothing more. Eventually the fear settled down, the heart settled down. There wasn't a sense of Groundless Being anymore, but I felt like I was on the edge of something.
Afterwards, I was walking to the dining hall for lunch. Andrea buzzed up and said, "What's going on?" I think I had caught her eye at the end of that meditation. She said we needed to talk. I hadn't talked to her or anyone up until then, because it seemed pointless. There were no more questions to ask. But now we did talk a little, and it was a great conversation. I was telling her about the fear of getting lost, disappearing. She said, "You still got bones. There're still bones in your body." I said, "Yeah, I guess there are still bones here." She said, "You're still going to be a husband and a father when you leave here." So, that was very reassuring. She was saying, everything isn't going to explode if you let go. But at another level it didn't make sense. How is it that there's nothing here, yet there's still something here? The mind tries to grapple with this, but the poor mind, bless it's little heart, can never figure it out. That's half the problem. On the path, you're always trying to figure it out. "If I could only figure it out, then I'd get enlightened." But you can't figure it. Your trying to figure it out is what prevents you from seeing it. That's where surrender comes in. You have to let go of wanting to figure it out.
Anyway, that evening, about five o'clock or so, I'm lying in bed, and the sensation that there is no difference between my body and the bed starts happening again. At first, it's the same old, "No no no, I don't want to go there!" Then, the thought comes, "Let's explore this." So, it's like I'm taking baby steps, just letting it out, letting it out, letting it out—the spreading thing. Now, there's nothing there, and yet nothing explodes, nothing disappears! Then, suddenly, there was this incredible sense of well-being, because it was all IT.
Going down to dinner that night, IT was still just there. I knew I was still Tom, and Tom knows this, and Tom remembers that, but there's just IT. And IT was wonderful! Whatever happened was just perfect. The right thing always happened at the right time. There was no trying to think my way through anything, or worry about what I should be doing. Everything just sort of happened. And there was still this incredible sense of well-being. I remember looking over at Andrea in the dining room while we were eating, and my eyes met her's and it was, "Yeah, I see you. Awareness sees Awareness," because everything is just IT.
That evening IT continued and I was feeling what Dr. Wolf called the "Current." Again, I let go of the body, and I just spread out across the room, and the sensation of well-being—this Current—pervaded everything. That's when I thought, "I really ought to check in with somebody, because something major is happening here." So I decided to go see Joel in the teacher's cottage.
I walk in and Joel looks up, and says, "What's going on?" I start to describe what happened with the birds and thoughts, and sensing everything is IT, and my feeling of well-being. His eyes sort of light up a little bit over that. Then, I say something like, "I think I'm getting enlightened." Suddenly, his face changes, and he starts yelling at me: "WHO gets enlightened? WHO? You go out there, and don't you dare go to sleep, until you have the answer to that question!"
So, this is where the shit hits the fan. I'm supposed to find out who gets enlightened. I've got to know this by morning, because tomorrow is the last day of the retreat, and it's like I've got to get enlightened before the retreat is over. That's basically the assignment.
By the time I leave there I don't feel very enlightened at all. But I've got to finish the term paper before morning, `cause that's when it's due. So I go to the meditation hall, and there's all this pressure on, but nothing's happening. I'm stuck in all these thoughts of inadequacy. "Gosh, I'm so stupid, I can't get it." I am trying to do shi-ne` practice, just watching these thoughts and saying, "That's just thinking. Let that go." I stayed up pretty much the whole night trying to do that, but nothing happened.
The next morning, we're eating breakfast. In an hour we're supposed to go to the main meditation hall for our final retreat sharing. Joel comes over, points to a clock on the wall, and yells, "You don't have much time left! You better hustle!" Suddenly, the whole situation becomes very amusing. "What am I going to do? I'm supposed to be getting enlightened! How do you get enlightened?" (laughs). So, I leave the dining hall and make a show of running up to the little meditation room they call Mist Haven on top of the hill.
When I get to Mist Haven there's no one else there. Now I'm really up against a brick wall. You can't make enlightenment happen. How do you make that happen? At that point, all the feelings of inadequacy of the night before came rushing back. I felt I just couldn't do it. That was the breaking of the heart. It was like my life became transparent. I talked before about living a lie, and knowing that there was a Truth that I wasn't seeing because I was living this lie. All of a sudden it was, "Oh, I can't do this anymore! How do I get enlightened? How do I do this?" I'm thinking, there's this little self inside here that's trying to control things, and do things to please people, and always trying to do the right thing, and sometimes it does the right thing, but sometimes it does the wrong thing, and it never knows for sure what the right thing is, and now it realizes it can't play the game anymore. The game is over. Going back to the so-called `world', and trying to operate under this lie—it just couldn't be done anymore.
So, I knew the game was over, and there was this incredible grief going on—grief just pouring out, pouring out, pouring out. I'm just crying, and crying. At some point, I just lie down on the floor, and say, "Take me, just take me! I don't care if I explode! I can't do this any more. I give up." But God didn't take me (laughs).
Q: So was this what Joel calls "kenosis," the exhaustion of will?
TOM: Yes. It was the exhaustion of will and the breaking of the heart, all in one fell swoop. Then, after about 45 minutes of intense sobbing, and rolling on the floor, pounding my fist on the floor like a little baby, crying "Just take me, take me. I can't do it anymore," I hear the gong ring, meaning the sharing is about to begin in the main meditation hall. I think, "To hell with them. I'm not going down there. I can't go down there like this." I didn't have the will to go down there. I was just stuck on the floor, and there was no place else to go. Finally, Joel sent someone up to get me. It was like I couldn't move on my own. Someone had to come up and say, Okay, let's go. Time to move. Life goes on. Come back to the world.
So, I went down to the main meditation hall, and every time someone shared something that happened to them on the retreat, I would feel so much love and compassion. If they had had a hard time, I was ready to cry. It was like something I'd never experienced before—being so open to the pain and suffering of other people.
At one point David was talking about what he called the "Dave Tapes"—meaning, those thoughts about yourself that constantly play in your head. I could relate to that, so when my turn to share came, I say, "I can't get rid of the Tom Tape." Andrea looks right at me and says, "You're resisting the Tom Tape. Why are you doing that? Stop trying to push it away." When she said that, I thought, "Ooooh, we're coming back to that one." It was like when I realized I was resisting thoughts in order to hear the birds sing—how that was an aversion. So here I was doing the same thing again, and Andrea was pointing it out. Not wanting the Tom Tape was just another form of aversion! That's what I mean about being baked. You don't have to do anything, but God keeps showing you things—subtle little graspings and aversions—and you just look.
Driving home, I experienced some fear in the car. The whole drama of feeling like I was gonna disappear came back. We stopped for a pee break at the rest area south of Salem. Some other Center people also stopped there. I remember standing around talking with them, and there was this fear that I'm the only one in the world—that I'm creating this whole reality, and when I wake up, it's all going to explode. Then, I look into Clivonne's eyes, and I see Divine Mother in her eyes, and I realize, "Of course, it's not this little self that's creating everything. It's Divine Mother! And Divine Mother is in Clivonne." Then, I could see Her in everything! It was like we were all just Divine Mother talking to Divine Mother. That was comforting.
Q: So you still hadn't Popped when you left the retreat?
TOM: No, that happened when I got home that night. I woke up at 2 in the morning. As I'm surfacing from sleep there was this experience of Pure Awareness, before any thoughts have arisen. I've had this before, quite often. There's no sense of body. You don't know who, or where you are. So, the mind begins to panic, and says, "What's going on? What's going on?" Then, the world starts to come into focus. "Oh yes, there's the body here, everything's okay." But there's always an instant before the panic hits, where it's just Pure Awareness, just Consciousness, Itself. Joel's talked about this, "If you didn't panic, you'd see, That's IT!" But then the thoughts come, and they start to cover IT up.
Actually, that Awareness is always present. You just don't recognize it, because there are millions of thoughts, coming and going. It's like a strobe light. In every instant your mind is creating all these thoughts, flashing on, flashing off. It's all happening so fast, and your mind starts connecting these thoughts, making them seem solid—like you're a solid person, in a solid world. But if you really look, you see it's all flashing, and it's just your mind that's filling in those gaps, making it seem real.
This is why meditation is so important, because it allows you to slow that down. When you practice watching your thought—seeing that thought is just thought—then you can start to see the space between the thoughts. It's the thoughts that really put us in a pickle—not that thoughts are bad, but that we're totally sucked in by them, like a vacuum cleaner. We can't get any distance from our thoughts to see what's really going on, and so we come to believe that we are the thoughts, when we are not.
Anyway, I was waking up, slowly, through this space of Awareness, only this time I didn't panic. Then, thoughts arose. The Tom tape came on, the ego tape, and there was this recognition that it was just like the birds. Now there was no grabbing onto the thoughts, but there was no pushing them away, either, because, instead of going "Yuck, I don't want you," I was giving them love. I saw, this ego construct is God, too.
Then, the ego-thoughts started to go, and so there was an impulse to grab them, like "Can I really let this go?" So, there I was, up against that brick wall again. But the experience of the last few days was showing me this kind of struggle doesn't work. It's totally dysfunctional and causes great pain. So, there was also this sense of, "Here's the opportunity. Take advantage of it."
I got up to go to the bathroom, and it felt like this collection of thoughts that was `Tom' was coming apart, like the knot was unraveling. I watched it and thought, "Oh yes, I can let go of that"—like throwing away the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, because I no longer felt they all had to be connected. So, it was like letting them go, piece by piece—"Let go of that one. That didn't hurt. Nothing exploded. Nothing disappeared. Okay, let's let go of this one. Oh, this is kind of interesting!" Then, I thought, "What should I do now—go back to bed?" But I knew I couldn't sleep. I could go upstairs to meditate. "No," I thought, "I don't want to meditate (laughs). After thirty years, I don't need that anymore! I'll just make myself a cup of tea and sit down in this chair here." So, I started making the tea, and the thoughts continued to drop away. Then, the fear came back that the little `self' was all there was. But I remembered the Divine Mother, and it was obvious SHE was in everything. Right after that I POPPED.
I can't describe the actual moment. I was just standing there when something shifted. There was like a break, then the spreading out-sensation. I looked around, and I saw what had been in front of me the whole time. It was God. It was all God! The counter was God. This hand was God. There was no difference. It all happened immediately. There was no more sense of a little `self' inside. The last piece dropped away, and with that the veil was removed. It wasn't like something new happened. It was just Recognizing what had always been there, all the time. It's what I was seeing when I was a little kid of five years old, looking into that mirror—only I never knew it before, because I was too busy being fixated in all these concepts of who I thought I was. But in that moment seeing the counter, I was free of being a slave to concepts. I could have the concepts but they couldn't have me. And so there was the space to see that God, or Divine Mother, or Groundless Being—whatever you want to call IT—encompassed everything. Everything arose in IT and also WAS IT. There was no difference.
Q: So that was the final shift, the Awakening. Has the old Tom ever come back?
TOM: That's an interesting question. Initially, I'd get ego-thoughts coming back, and it was like, "Oh God! What's the matter? We've got self here. We're not enlightened." But when I'd look around, there'd be Divine Mother the whole time. So at first, it was a little confusing. Joel gave me The Flight of the Garuda to read—a kind of post-enlightenment, Tibetan text. The idea is basically you just continue watching everything that arises—including ego thoughts—and just continue to Recognize what they are. That was very helpful. So was Dr. Wolff's The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object, which I also read.
Nowadays, what happens is, all the same stuff still comes up. The only difference is that I'm not fixated on it anymore. Now, it's like, "So what? When there's ego, there's ego. When there's no ego, there's no ego." There's this collection of memories, and there are old tendencies—I'm a vegetarian and I still prefer vegetarian food over meat. `Tom' is a useful concept to describe that, to provide a reference point. But then `Tom' shifts. `Tom' doesn't have to be a certain way all the time. The concept of `Tom' comes and goes as it pleases, and it doesn't matter. Tom is a rainbow.
Q: Could you describe how your perspective on life has changed since the breakthrough?
TOM: There's immense compassion. I used to care about other people, and I was always trying to fix things for them. The most profound thing now is, in each moment I'm no longer making an effort to have something happen. Things just sort of happen on their own. There's no attachment to the results, because I know we're not going anywhere. We never went anywhere. There's just this Awareness that's always ever-present, and doesn't change. It keeps creating phenomena that make it look like it's changing, but it's not. It's just a beautiful play. So, it's like the Divine is playing through me—like this body is a flute, and Divine Mother is the air. Before there was an obstruction in the flute. Now, the obstruction is gone and the air just flows through.
Q: In your daily life, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
TOM: I still get up in the morning, I still go to work. In one sense, nothing has changed at all. And, yet, in another sense, everything has changed—dramatically. It's like being in meditation all the time. You see something arise and then it dissipates. There's this global sense of Consciousness pervading everything. So you just go through your daily life, and it happens. Nothing is happening, yet something is happening.
Q: Have your family and friends reacted differently to you since your Awakening?
TOM: Dawn, my wife, is more friendly (laughs). I also think my relationship with my daughter has improved. As a parent, there's not much you can do with someone who's nineteen. When it comes to things like values and discipline, you've either blown it, or you've succeeded. But she seems to be opening up more. The few times I've tried to get a point across, she's said, "Okay," whereas, previously she would have said, "I'm not going to do that."
Q: Has anybody reacted to you differently where you work?
TOM: It's difficult to pinpoint a major difference. It wasn't like, bang!—one minute Tom's like this, and the next, he's totally changed. But there was a gradual transformation. It seems like they're more drawn to me. At one point, I actually tried to quit. But they said, "No, you can't go!" So, they made me a manager. When you're a manager you have to tell people what to do, but they still come to me with their personal problems, and I am open to that. Sometimes I think I've become sort of an unofficial spiritual counselor. For now, it seems obvious that this is where I'm supposed to be. Maybe in six months something will change, and it will be clear that it's time to leave. Either way, it doesn't matter, `cause it's all grace.
Q: Do you feel any need or desire to continue doing spiritual practices?
TOM: From one point of view, everyday activity itself is meditation—like breathing or eating. But I still do formal practice, too. Especially in my circumstance it's very helpful, because of the intensity of my job. It's not absolutely necessary, but there's a pull towards doing it. It's almost like, it's time to praise God. Meditation is when you're praising God. I've also been playing the harmonium and chanting.
Q: What would you call what's happened to you? Realization? Awakening? Enlightenment?
TOM: Recognition. None of these words do it justice, but I like Recognition best of all, because IT's been in front of you the whole time. You just weren't seeing IT. Then, all of a sudden, you recognize that IT's there.
Q: What's your advice for other seekers?
TOM: The key is to realize that most of delusion comes from your attachment to concepts. The ego is built from concepts. To get beyond attachment to ego, you have to get to the point where you give up on all your goals, and just do what's in front of you. Whatever comes up, you do it with love and service. You see yourself as being a servant of God. When aversion for something arises, you look at the aversion, let it go, and continue doing service. Just give loving kindness to every situation and person that comes across your path.
Q: Closing statement?
TOM: Life is too serious to take seriously.
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