I saw something flicker on a few years back during Big Mind Month sessions, but it flickered off again. I don't know if anyone else noticed it, but I think it was the most important breakthrough I have witnessed this millennium.
It happened a number of times, but one time remains most clearly in my memory. We had started in on some relative voice. I wish I remember all the details, but I don't. Things moved so fast that I could not participate and take notes at the same time, not even mental notes.
In those days, many of the voices were not fully defined yet. We were exploring more. Even Roshi often didn't know where the voice was meant to go.
So it was common for the first speakers to present what were really quite different visions of the voice. Part of this was because the distinction between the immature and mature aspects of a voice had not yet been articulated. Part of it was that the words used to name certain voices allowed very different interpretations.
Another difference in those days was that for parts of the session, people would just speak out without the facilitator calling on anyone. A majority of the participants then had decades of experience sitting with Roshi and knew each other, so this was easier to do. Even in those days, it would only work for a while before some unnamed protocol broke down and someone went on too long. (The spontaneous calling out only worked when everyone spoke very briefly.) Or people would start trying to talk over each other or a near debate would break out. Then the facilitator would step in. This more free-form process was always on the edge of chaos but sometimes it worked.
The session I remember was one such day. Having just started to speak the voice, the participants were speaking very briefly. It is my nature to try to keep track of not only how I experienced myself as the voice but how the room as a whole seemed to be experiencing the voice. The two could be different. That time, around the 7th or 8th speaker or so, what was being said seemed to me to go offtrack. 2 or 3 participants said things that didn't make much sense and that also didn't seem to recognize the flow of previous speakers. Perhaps they hadn't been listening too clearly.
It was right at that point that things got interesting. The thread of the voice picked up on something in the, to be honest, foolish comments that had just been spoken, a few more participants spoke up and suddenly what was being spoken was a new teaching. Not a new recognition of the unity of a current teaching and an ancient Zen work. Not the room reaching the place that the facilitator had intended all along. But a new teaching.
I wish I remembered the content. If only there had been recording in those days. It would be fascinating to go back and review that session. But two things struck me immediately (and helped me forget everything else). First, the teaching had not emerged from some pearl of wisdom by one of the brighter or more articulate participants. The teaching had not emerged from any one speaker. Rather, in the course of a few comparatively silly statements, the room as a whole had somehow come upon the teaching. Second, the room as a whole had created the teaching. Some "We" had acted in a way that was beyond anything any one "I" had done.
After the session was over, we walked down the stairs and over to the other building to eat. Many of the participants were in awe of what had just happened. Over dinner, a discussion arose as to how Roshi had come up with the new teaching. It was intriguing that so many participants assumed that the teacher had created the teaching even when it was pretty clear that this time it had been the group as a whole that had done so.
This time, I am sure that is what had actually happened because at the start of the afternoon session the next day (in those days, Diane facilitated the morning sessions), someone asked Roshi where he got the teaching from. Roshi said that he hadn't known that teaching until he heard it during the previous day's Big Mind session.
That happened any number of times during Big Mind Months a few years back. I loved that and thought that it was a crucial breakthrough for modern Westerners. Almost all meditators and Big Mind participants have levels of education, factual knowledge, and intellectual skills and discipline far beyond what even the elite had in ancient days. When intellectual development and the opportunity for spiritual development were much rarer than now, the best way to do spiritual work was to maximize the impact of the tiny handful of people with education and meditative training. That meant to sit that person at the front of the room or forest clearing and have everyone else sit and listen. But in the modern age, where even students who are new to meditation or Big Mind or Zen have already spent thousands of hours sitting and listening and training their minds, other ways of working become possible.
And in an age in which humanity needs to develop wider identifications, for example to move from ethno-centric to world-centric perspectives, a process that can allow voices to speak that do not fit into anyone's previous understanding would be a precious gift.
This process of group awareness creating new teachings flickered back out again years ago. I never heard anyone else who was there specifically mention it so I don't know how many people noticed it. I think of it as a group peak experience: a brief flash of a state that will take years more training to make easily accessible, then consolidate and make enduring. In my opinion, contemporary spiritual communities are strongly influenced by traditional Asian models of how to organize practice (ie forms centered on a guru, lama, or zen master) and by contemporary models of marketing (ie forms centered on a media star). Both those models have vital strengths. The guru/lama/Zen master model taps into deep psychological patterns (established with our parents) and is very powerful at transmitting the spiritual development of the teacher. The contemporary media star model is very powerful at reaching large numbers of people very quickly. But both models are constrained by the level of development of the societies that created them. The collective creating that flickered on briefly will be a useful addition to our spiritual toolbox. And a very necessary one. Some day.
Our cultures have greatly liberated us from the limitations of artificial social constructs that bound our ancestors as tightly as the bound feet of Chinese women in olden days. "You were born into the caste of leather workers, so you are a leather worker". That kind of thing. But we are just starting the processing of reweaving freer, more individuated persons into new forms of community and society that work with individual character rather than against it.
I had a peak experience in 1977, near the beginning of my spiritual journey, that was so far beyond anything I was capable of in my ordinary state, that when it finished, I had literally no idea whatsoever how to find it again, what to do to become a person capable of sustaining that in day-to-day life. All I could do was follow the path that was in front of me (in those days, being a sannyassin of Bhagwan Shree Rajnesh, later known as Osho) and trust that eventually what I was learning at the base of the mountain would connect to what I had seen at the peak. Even though there were certain elements in that peak experience that I did not see or hear in any of the teachings I explored.
I feel that way with the aware creative "We" I witnessed and was part of in Big Mind sessions. I don't know anyone working with this. I haven't heard anyone talking about it. So I continue with my work and trust that eventually that will lead back to it.
One last thing. I only remember this happening when Roshi faciliated and only when he facilitated with a very light touch, just holding the space and bringing us back to the process if one or more of us went too much against the overall flow or there was just too much chaos. He was not trying to control where that that process went. He was not being the enlightened Zen Master transmitting the dharma. It was the most impressive way of teaching I have ever witnessed.