When I was sixteen, I had a mental breakdown. It happened while I was on vacation in the Caribbean with my family. I’d been reading an old Zen book, and it did me in. I’d experienced some strange mental states before, but this was different. As I read this book, death moved to the foreground of all my thoughts—and then stayed there. I found myself in a tropical paradise, terrified. Living seemed too cruel to carry on with. Buddha had said all life was suffering and all that meant was that everything was hopeless. There was no way out. Escape was impossible. When you looked at things soberly, it was obvious. Life, inevitably, was really just suffering and death.
I kept this anxiety to myself as best I could. There was nothing to say anyway. No one could help. I was helpless, mortified, but aware that I was unable to do anything about it. The stress began to wear on my body. It felt worse and worse. I would have killed myself right there if death didn’t scare me even more than life. I reasoned if I killed myself at least this particular suffering would be over.
These feelings peaked and then went on, and on, and on. At some point, I took a drive with my family to a beach on the other side of the island. It was bad. My insides felt as if they were being torn out. I didn’t understand what was happening. I felt like vomiting but couldn’t. Finally, we arrived at the beach. I sat under a tree, in the shade, trying to act sane.
And then I thought I died.
Something happened and then nothing. And then there was something again. I don’t know. Was I dead? I looked around and realized I wasn’t. I was on the beach, under a tree. But there was no “I.” Everything was different. Everything had dropped off. Where was “I”? I didn’t exist. What was happening? What was this? It was indescribable. You couldn’t describe this. Any description was pointless. Everything was perfect just as it was, but at the same time, it wasn’t that. Because there was no everything. There was nothing at all. There was no need to describe anything ever again because there was nothing. Words and description were meaningless. Nothing was real. Nothing mattered!
And this was, undoubtedly, the best news possible. The greatest realization I could wish to have. Yet that couldn’t begin to explain how good this was. It was way beyond any conception I could come up with. Everything, and everybody, was saved. That was clear. Everything was fine—now and forever. Nothing needed to be done, ever. The whole thing—life, death, reality, individuality, good, bad, right, wrong—was a lie. An illusion. A sham. Everything just was—just is.
And this was perfection, beyond any belief, rationalization or label I could ever put on it. It made no sense, and it was perfect. It was before time itself. It transcended thought, was past my comprehension. Thought created all this suffering—and thought itself was not real. Without thought, all was grace—always. It was all blissfully and blatantly simple, yet totally illogical. I sat on that beach, thunderstruck. It was laughable. Whatever you thought, it didn’t matter. Thought had nothing to do with anything real. Everything was always perfect, no matter what you thought…