The awakening of Todd Corbett
Todd: The question was: "What was the key that turned the lock that sent me naked through the gate?" Well, all of you here know this, but I'm going to say it anyway: there is no gate, and there's no one that can go through the gate. That might seem like a cliché for those of us who have been coming here for a long time, but it's not a cliché if we sink into what that really means.
So, what led up to this shift in this last retreat was a series of things that happened over several years. Actually, it's been going on probably since the year 2000 at a retreat with Andrea (Pucci). There was a kind of opening. Andrea and Joel (Morwood) co-taught several consecutive fall retreats which were very energizing, the two of them—a lot of this contrasting energy together. On the retreat in 2000, we were watching our breath. I was sitting in Alder Hall and I was just spending a lot of time gazing at the wall and watching the breath very meticulously, very precisely, and I got to this point at the end of the cycle of breathing—on the out breath—and there was this little brightening that happened in this space. Again, I was being very meticulous with the breath. Following it. Very, very closely.
Suddenly, when the breath stopped, there was this kind of brightness. As soon as that happened, of course, I thought, "Wow, what was that?" And the mind got lost in the idea of it for a little bit. Eventually, attention returned to the practice again, and after a while it happened again. There was this brightness. And then I just kept sitting with this, and sitting with it. And I began to notice that the brightness was there when the breath would start to move back. The breath would move through it. And I became more and more aware of something about this brightness. It was just very, very familiar. It was extremely freeing, and yet I had no conceptual idea of what it was, particularly, at that time. But it was very freeing, nonetheless, and I continued with this.
At one point on the retreat I started hearing this kind of buzzing sound. Then I thought, "Whoa, I don't remember Joel or Andrea talking about this." There was this little kind of buzzing. Finally I went down to the dining hall looking for someone, and I found Andrea and I asked her about this whole thing. I told her about how at the end of the breath there was this brightness and then this buzzing started. She sat me down at the table in the dining hall. She looked at me, and she had this funny little grin on her face, and she said, "I think you need to go back and watch your breath some more." I've been through this kind of distractedness many, many times. It's always a trip.
But this time it was different. I knew there was something funny about the buzzing. Within the next day that buzz had turned into a sore throat, and I had actually watched the process of the sore throat coming on. I was very aware of this early stage of the sore throat before it became a sore throat. It was a kind of hum.
After the retreat I pretty much just went back to my day-to-day working, meditating in the mornings. But I noticed that this brightness was still there. Every time I would sit to do the meditation, there was this brightness. It wouldn't be there until I started watching the breath meticulously. Then the brightness would come and breath would start moving back and forth through it. Gradually, the brightness over the months got brighter and brighter. Then it ceased to be brightness. It was awareness. It's what’s looking. That's what was so liberating about it. When it happened the first time without even knowing what it was, it was this sense of being free. So now for a long time since then, probably from about 2001 to the present, I've been doing this practice of watching the breath, getting to the stillness, and then just staying in the stillness with the breath moving through. Doing that, and spending the day walking around, doing my job, and as much as possible doing that practice.
And then what happened next was on the 2002 fall retreat with the instruction again from Joel and Andrea. In this retreat, I'm again paying attention to the stillness, and they're giving these incredible instructions, and I started recognizing my own thoughts and feelings arising in this stillness. And I began to see. It was a process of seeing a feeling, or seeing a thought, and when I would see it, it's like, it would burn it up. It was transformed. It was just awareness. It wasn't a thought, like we have ideas about things. It wasn't one of those ideas. It was just what it was. This was like, these things just burned up.
On this retreat, it got really, really intense. I'd start noticing how "I" was in the dining hall. All of those feelings and thoughts about "me" in the dining hall. And all of the feelings that were coming up associated with seeing through everything. It was like a laser would see them and they would—kind of like moths going through one of those electric zappers—they're cooked. They're transformed to awareness. I began to notice that the more I became conscious of presence of awareness, the more this would happen. So this process on that retreat reached a peak. It just went crazy. At one point I was kind of short circuiting inside. I started having a lot of fear around it because there was nothing.
At one point coming down to the dining hall, I remember coming in and I felt I was losing it. And I looked across, and Clivonne was a few tables down, and I looked at her and I could tell she could see something was really screwy with this boy. She said later that I was pale, and kind of crazy looking. All of that passed, but seeing how the mind reached its limit on that retreat was instructive. But that burning up thing, it continued to happen. Presence of awareness became more commonplace. There was also something that I realized, through going to retreats frequently, I was seeing that trying to achieve presence of awareness never would work. I could never achieve it. So what I found was, instead of achieving it, if I just let go and just started watching the movement of the mind to want something different than it is right now, then suddenly presence would be there, it would just happen.
So then there was the 2003 fall retreat. And there were the spring retreats, too, and they were also powerful, but I won't go into all that detail. But the 2003 retreat was one in which the burning up had kind of settled down. It wasn't as big of a deal. It was just hanging out in presence. It was like, "yea, okay, no self, okay, just thoughts passing through." I would think at the time it was pretty cosmic.
Then the 2004 retreat came along. And what happened on this retreat was different. First of all, I didn't have any expectation about the retreat. I pretty much was feeling as though presence of awareness was it. It's kind of like, "What else are we going to do? This is it. So, why am I going on this retreat?" I actually had been feeling that for some time. "Am I just going to go on these retreats forever? What's the deal here? Why would I? What am I going to accomplish? Because there's nothing to accomplish." Of course, we know this. There was this sense that there's nothing to do here, and it's kind of pointless. That sense was with me when we were going to Cloud Mountain. Robin and Vip and I rode up together, and Vip made some remark like, "Well maybe Joel means we're going to be listening to the Stones, you know, like, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." [everyone laughs]
Anyway, so we got up to the retreat and it started out much like many other retreats. Joel's retreats are beautiful. Very precise. It's all so well-organized. So very quickly, presence is flowing. It's great. Now, I don't know which day it happened. Everybody that's had one of these things happen seemed to know exactly when. I have no idea when. It was one of the days on this retreat. I know that. But I'm not sure if it was half way through, I'm not real sure when. But I came out at the end of the day, and there was just this stillness. I walked to my room. I opened the door. And I was getting ready to light the lamp. And I looked at my bed, and there was a being on my bed! Sitting on my bed. And kind of moving. Anyway, it was very freaky. I had, from a medical point of view, I had an adrenergic response. That is an adrenaline response.
Q: Could you describe the being, please. [People laugh]
Todd: Yes, I was just going to get to that! So, at that moment the room just kind of lit up, the pupils dilated. The room lit up, and the being on the bed had these big funny eyes, and he was speaking in something like Chinese. He started speaking, and it was like [Todd speaks Chinese-like gibberish]. In that moment, I have no idea what happened, but in that moment suddenly it was Abdullah [a fellow retreatant] sitting on the bed and I was in his room. [Everyone laughs] So I backed out of the room. But, you know, it's really funny, because when I closed the door, I had to look again because it was so astounding what I saw in there. When it lit up, it was like an Egyptian cave in there—it was just crazy looking. It was kind of bright, and the guy had beads and robes and big funny eyes. But it was just Abdullah.
That is really, that was the point where things were different, ever since that. You hear about all these weird things that happen to trigger Awakening, people blowing out candles, or whatever. Well, I have no comprehension of what took place in that moment. But after that, I walked to my room, and it was just stillness. I opened my door, went in and sat on the bed. And there was no sense of self. Before this happened, there was this mystical sense of no self, a sense of just this mystical thing happening. But after this, there was none of that. There was just stillness. I sat on my bed for probably an hour, and—as I was telling Clivonne today when we were riding up—it was like sitting in a huge auditorium with the lights out. That was kind of what it felt like—just this big, empty space. Sitting on my bed, the mind would kind of quiver once in awhile, like it was going to say something, but it never said anything because it was just so little, so unimportant. So, after awhile I lay down and went to sleep and there was a sense of just being aware all night. I don't know if it was all night. There was no sense of time passing. So it was kind of like just this sense of being aware, and then it was 5 o'clock in the morning and I was up again. Then I kind of sat on the bed some more, then the mind stirred and said, "This is different. This is significantly different than any of those other no-self things, because there's no self here." [People laugh] It sounds silly, but that was basically it. It feels different when there’s no self. When there's nobody. There's just awareness looking out at these thoughts. And these thoughts are the awareness that is looking. So it's kind of like, they're not important. And that's probably the most obvious thing that has happened since this.
When I finally got down to my house after the retreat, there was nobody there. I went in, I sat down, and it was just very quiet. The mind just wasn’t doing anything. So I've had to be a little bit organized about getting things done. It's almost like having a lot of senior moments. [Everybody laughs] And I guess that's going to continue. I'm trying to get used to that part, because being a nurse, it's important to pay attention. In the role of being a nurse, I've been trying to get there early now so I can get oriented to the circumstance. It's working. Actually I think I'm a lot more present with what's going on than I have been in the past. I've also been teaching some advanced cardiac life support classes for years and years, and I noticed that the number of classes that I'm teaching seems to have increased since the retreat. Which is kind of odd because I was kind of thinking I was going to get out of that earlier in the year.
Anyway, so that's pretty much what happened. I'm not really sure what else you'd like me to say, but I'm sure you guys will have some kind of questions for me.
Q: So, after you got home from retreat, did you have any doubt? Have doubts arisen since this 'Big E' happened? Have you doubted that it's 'The Big E'?
Todd: Good question. It's a funny thing, because thoughts continued. They're not as big as they were. They don't have that quality that they had before. So thought about, you know, "Is this enlightenment?" It's just a joke. It's just absurd. These are thoughts. Actually, when I went over to talk to Joel at retreat, I went in and we talked for a little while, and he said, "Okay, so say to yourself, 'I'm enlightened.' Then tell me how do you feel." And I didn't feel anything, basically. It's just a statement. It's a thought. It has no significance, really. Then he asked me, "Okay, now say, 'I'm not enlightened.' How does that make you feel?" Nothing. It's just a thought. And why would it make me feel something? Interesting. So that was a difference. Now, there have been times when I find myself doing things which you could say, "Wow, that was not enlightened!" [everyone laughs] But, you know, it's funny, because those kinds of thoughts come up.
Q: Would you say then that since the retreat you have not suffered?
Todd: No, I have not suffered. I've had a lot of back pain, I've had a lot of old piriformis pain, butt pain. I've got a lot of musculo-skeletal issues that I've had for years. They're not really a problem any more. I spend a long time stretching because they're asking to be stretched. They're asking to be listened to, so we listen to them. But no, it's all perfect. There's really nothing wrong.
The human condition gives us suffering for us to wake up. And there's really no other reason for it. I got catapulted with all the deaths that happened over a fifteen year period. There were deaths and huge losses every two or three years over a fifteen year period. Every time I thought I was getting to where I might be able to cope with one loss, there'd be another one. There was the death of a son, the death of a girlfriend, the death of another girlfriend. Then my brother had a huge stroke and he couldn't speak, and then he committed suicide three years later. So there were all these really dicey, juicy traumas. Fortunately, I was drawn to Joel after the son died and after the twenty-year marriage with Clivonne fell apart—it was her fault [everyone laughs]. I was drawn to the Center with all this stuff. My life had just fallen apart. It was showing me something which I was just not willing to look at. I'd come to the Center, and I'd talk with Joel, and he'd give me a practice to do. I'd go and do it. It would help. Gradually, I went on these retreats and big hunks of this stuff would fall away. But there'd be more. There was a lot of stuff to look at.
But finally, as this whole thing has moved along, I realized that the sorrows, the grief, the miserable things that would happen, they made me look. I would never have done these practices without them. Before the deaths and all this happened we were just very happy, having a good time, going to work, and having this little life that seemed very permanent and solid. It was a pretty good delusion. But it wasn't the kind of thing that could last. But there was a lot of belief in this at the time of the son's death. Then Clivonne's leaving, it just sort of fragmented my world. From that time on there was this little hole in my life. My life had a hole in it, and that hole just kept getting bigger. I tried to fill the hole in with stories, to fill it in here, but the hole was always there. And it showed the transience in a way that no teaching could show to me as clearly as the actual loss of a loved one. It happened repeatedly, really just kind of hammered this truth of transience home. Really made it real for me. And by making it real, that reality of a solid, real, separate self started to fray around the edges. It just doesn't hold water. You have to then question your whole world. So my whole world just started to get fuzzy and not very solid and very uncomfortable, and then there would be another death.
And so it was an interesting process. I don't really think I would recommend this as the best way to go for a spiritual path, to have frequent deaths like that; not that we have a choice. Although looking back it was perfect. It had to be this way. And this is the thing. Our lives are just what they are. We struggle and struggle. We think that we can somehow make it better. But we can't make it better: It's already perfect! I had a real insight into this. I had a friend Bonnie, who was a practitioner who was in the practitioners group before I was in the practitioners group. As a matter fact, I started coming to the practitioners group, taking notes for her when she was sick. She was my friend and we had a relationship going. She was a nurse at McKenzie-Willamette and I was a nurse down in Roseburg. I was working only half time so I would come up and spend a lot of time with her. She got sick and it was cancer. She had liver cancer. She came home sick from work one day and three weeks later she died. When she came home after she got the diagnosis, she was really sad and she was crying for a few days. And then two or three days into this, suddenly it was like, snap, it was different. Suddenly she said, "I don't have to worry about anything anymore. Worry's done. Let's go to the coast!" We went to the coast, and we did a lot of stuff, and she was dying. So that was kind of a powerful thing.
Q: What about your emotional world? What happens with your emotions? How do you see them? Are they like your thoughts? Do they burn off? How does that work?
Todd: Actually thoughts, emotions, all of it kind of play together. I’ll digress here for a moment. Another one of the big horrible traumas was this slide. We had this big mud slide down there and four friends were killed, including a girlfriend, and Clivonne's best friend. And right after that there were so many emotions. It was just swimming. It was just horrible. I thought I had some understanding, I'd been coming to the Center for a long time. And then this thing happened. It just wiped me out. I was like toast. I had all kinds of emotions, grief, just horrible, just the pits of despair. After a few weeks I was in that little book store, Paralandra. And there was this little book there called, "Spectrum of Ecstasy" by a guy named Ngakpa Chogyam with Khandro Dechen. It's about emotions. I found this and started reading it in the bookstore. I read the first chapter in the bookstore and bought and went home and read the rest of it that night. Since then I've probably read it a dozen times. This book really brought the whole emotion thing home. And Joel adopted the same book for the class. We went through it and Joel gave us practices, and we did very precise practices around emotions for a long time. We did a retreat on emotions before this book came along. Then we did another one, and Andrea did some emotion work on retreat, as well.
So, yes, emotions are wonderful to work with. They're very slippery at first. But it's important, for example, anger—I had a lot of anger after the slide. I was furious because this logging company had logged these trees above our property. They left all this debris down the mountain and down in the gulch there. They didn't clean it up. They were supposed to. They didn't do it, and because of that all the rain built up and there was this huge slide and all these people died. So, there was somebody to blame! We have our precept, you know, not to blame. Not to blame others for our own unhappiness. That's a powerful precept. But this helps you work with the precept: This book, these practices of sinking into the anger. When the anger starts to happen, you drop the story. Sometimes you have to be quick—when the story's gone, there's not much left. You start to notice that, gee, if I stop the story, the emotion evaporates, wow, what happens. It's very, very connected to the thought.
Sometimes you'll have emotions that'll just come up, though. Then the thoughts will start. Those are actually easier to work with because they're there. You feel them, and they can sink in. This is really for me the big secret with emotions. When you feel it, rather than thinking about it or trying to understand it, to try to just feel it, and be right with the emotion as you experience it. And you sink into the emotion, rather than trying to get to the end of it. A good example is sometimes I've gotten this queasy feeling. I used to get them a lot after someone would die. I would have this queasy feeling. It's kind of weird. I realized I couldn't get away from it. When it first happened after my son died I had a medical work-up because I thought something organic was wrong with me. It was just grief. So what I found was I couldn't really deal with it. I realize it's just got me. I feel like a bug with a pin in it. I would spend hours at my house in Umpqua just sitting with this emotion. "Okay, have your way with me. I can't get away from you so you own me, so if I'm going to die, then let it happen here." Kind of dramatic stuff.
I wasn't very refined in the way I was doing it, but it was helpful to recognize that all my attempts to get rid of it only made it worse. I was maybe conceptualizing too much. But with these Tibetan tantra practices later, it was more precise. After doing meditation practice for years, there's a kind of precision that starts to develop. So you can hang out with the emotion, actually feel it, sink into it, without any desire for it to be gone, and you end up in a kind of a spaciousness. But if you want spaciousness, though, if you want to get to spaciousness, you'll never get to spaciousness. So it's a resignation: "Okay, I'm just going to be with this." It's appreciation, you appreciate it. You begin to realize that it's appreciation that makes the whole thing fine. When you begin to appreciate these things in your life, suddenly there’s no problem. It’s funny.
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