IT WAS IN THE SPRINGTIME that it happened. I was returning home to my apartment on the Left Bank after attending a class for pregnant women at the clinic across town where I would be having my baby six months from then. It was the first week of my fourth month of pregnancy, and I had just begun to feel the faintest stirring of my daughter's tiny movements, like being brushed by a feather from the inside. The month was May, and the sun felt warm on my head and face as I stood at the bus stop on the Avenue de la Grande Armee. I was in no hurry and had decided to take a bus instead of the metro in order to enjoy the lovely weather.
Several buses came and went before I finally saw the number 37 approaching down the wide avenue. Six or seven of us were waiting together at the stop, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and comments about the new advertising campaign that had been appearing on all the billboards. As the bus approached, we congregated expectantly near the curb. The bus lumbered to a halt, expelling the acrid odor of exhaust fumes and hot rubber into the warm spring air.
As I took my place in line, I suddenly felt my ears stop up like they do when the pressure changes inside an airplane as it makes its descent. I felt cut off from the scene before me, as if I were enclosed in a bubble, unable to act in any but the most mechanical manner. I lifted my right foot to step up into the bus and collided head-on with an invisible force that entered my awareness like a silently exploding stick of dynamite, blowing the door of my usual consciousness open and off its hinges, splitting me in two. In the gaping space that appeared, what I had previously called "me" was forcefully pushed out of its usual location inside me into a new location that was approximately a foot behind and to the left of my head. "I" was now behind my body looking out at the world without using the body's eyes.
From a non-localized position somewhere behind and to the left, I could see my body in front and very far away. All the body's signals seemed to take a long time to be picked up in this non-localized place, as if they were light coming from a distant star. Terrified, I looked around, wondering if anyone else had noticed something. All the other passengers were calmly taking their seats, and the bus driver was motioning me to put my yellow ticket into the machine so we could be off.
I shook my head a few times, hoping to rattle my consciousness back into place, but nothing changed. I felt from afar as my fingers fumbled to insert the ticket into the slot and I walked down the aisle to find a seat. I sat down next to an older woman I had been chatting with at the bus stop, and I tried to continue our conversation. My mind had completely ground to a halt in the shock of the abrupt collision with whatever had dislodged my previous reality.
Although my voice continued speaking coherently, I felt completely disconnected from it. The face of the woman next to me seemed far away, and the air between us seemed foggy, as if filled with a thick, luminous soup. She turned to gaze out the window for a moment, then reached up to pull the cord to signal the driver to let her off at the next stop. When she rose, I slid over into her seat by the window and bid her goodbye with a smile. I could feel sweat rolling down my arms and beading up on my face. I was terrified.
The bus arrived at my stop on the rue Lecourbe, and I got off. As I walked the three blocks home, I attempted to pull myself back into one piece by focusing on my body and willing myself back into it where I thought I belonged in order to regain the previously normal sensation of seeing through the body's eyes, speaking through the body's mouth, and hearing through the body's ears. The force of will failed miserably. Instead of experiencing through the physical senses, I was now bobbing behind the body like a buoy on the sea. Cut loose from sensory solidity, separated from and witnessing the body from a vast distance, I moved down the street like a cloud of awareness following a body that seemed simultaneously familiar and foreign. There was an incomprehensible attachment to that body, although it no longer felt like "mine." It continued to send out signals of its sensory perceptions, yet how or where those signals were being received was beyond comprehension.
Incapable of making sense of this state, the mind alternated between racing wildly in an attempt to put "me" back together and shutting down completely, leaving only the empty humming of space reverberating in the ears. The witness was absolutely distinct from the mind, the body, and the emotions, and the position it held, behind and to the left of the head, remained constant. The profound distance between the witness and the mind, body, and emotions seemed to elicit panic in and of itself, due to the sensation of being so tenuously tethered to physical existence. In this witnessing state, physical existence was experienced to be on the verge of dissolution, and it (the physical) responded by summoning an annihilation fear of monumental proportions.
As I walked into my apartment, Claude looked up from his book to greet me and ask how my day had been. The terror was not immediately apparent to him, which seemed oddly reassuring. I greeted him calmly as if nothing were wrong, telling him about the class at the clinic and showing him the new book I had purchased at the American bookstore on my way home. There was no conceivable way to explain any of this to him, so I didn't even try. The terror was escalating rapidly, and the body was panic stricken, sweat pouring in rivulets down its sides, hands cold and trembling, heart pumping furiously. The mind clicked into survival mode and started looking for distractions. Maybe if I took a bath or a nap, or ate some food, or read a book, or called someone on the phone.
The whole thing was nightmarish beyond belief. The mind (I could no longer even call it "my" mind) was trying to come up with some explanation for this clearly inexplicable occurrence. The body moved beyond terror into a frenzied horror, giving rise to such utter physical exhaustion that sleep became the only possible option. After telling Claude that I didn't want to be disturbed, I lay down in bed and fell into what I thought would be the welcome oblivion of sleep. Sleep came, but the witness continued, witnessing sleep from its position behind the body. This was the oddest experience. The mind was definitely asleep, but something was simultaneously awake.
The moment the eyes opened the next morning, the mind exploded in worry. Is this insanity? Psychosis? Schizophrenia? Is this what people call a nervous breakdown? Depression? What had happened? And would it ever stop? Claude had started to notice my agitation and was apparently waiting for an explanation. I attempted to tell him what had taken place the day before, but I was just too far away to speak. The witness appeared to be where "I" was located, which left the body, mind, and emotions empty of a person. It was amazing that all those functions continued to operate at all. There was no explaining this one to Claude, and for once I was glad he was the kind of person who didn't persist in pursuing a subject I didn't want to pursue.
The mind was so overwhelmed by its inability to comprehend the current state of existence that it could not be distracted. It remained riveted to the incomprehensible, unanswerable quandaries that were generated in an unbroken stream out of this witnessing state of awareness. There was the sense of being on an edge of sorts, a boundary between existing and not existing, and the mind believed that if it did not maintain the thought of existence, existence itself would cease. Charged with this apparently life-or-death directive, the mind struggled to hold that thought, only to exhaust itself after several fitful hours. The mind was in agony as it tried valiantly to make sense of something it could never comprehend, and the body responded to the anguish of the mind by locking itself into survival mode, adrenaline pumping, senses fine-tuned, finding and responding to the threat of annihilation in every moment.
The thought did arise that perhaps this experience of witnessing was the state of Cosmic Consciousness Maharishi had described long before as the first stage of awakened awareness. But the mind instantly discarded this possibility because it seemed impossible that the hell realm I was inhabiting could have anything to do with Cosmic Consciousness.
THE WITNESSING PERSISTED for months, and each moment was excruciating. Living on the verge of dissolution for weeks on end is stressful beyond belief, and the only respite was the oblivion of sleep into which I plunged for as long and as often as possible. In sleep, the mind finally stopped pumping out its unceasing litany of terror, and the witness was left to witness an unconscious mind.
After months of this mystifying witness awareness, something changed yet again: The witness disappeared. This new state was far more baffling, and consequently more terrifying, than the experience of the preceding months. One might imagine that a great weight would have lifted when the witness disappeared, but the opposite was true. The disappearance of the witness meant the disappearance of the last vestiges of the experience of personal identity. The witness had at least held a location for a "me," albeit a distant one. In the dissolution of the witness, there was literally no more experience of a "me" at all. The experience of personal identity switched off and was never to appear again.
The personal self was gone, yet here was a body and a mind that still existed empty of anyone who occupied them. The experience of living without a personal identity, without an experience of being somebody, an "I" or a "me," is exceedingly difficult to describe, but it is absolutely unmistakable. It can't be confused with having a bad day or coming down with the flu or feeling upset or angry or spaced out. When the personal self disappears, there is no one inside who can be located as being you. The body is only an outline, empty of everything of which it had previously felt so full.
The mind, body, and emotions no longer referred to anyone — there was no one who thought, no one who felt, no one who perceived. Yet the mind, body, and emotions continued to function unimpaired; apparently they did not need an "I" to keep doing what they always did. Thinking, feeling, perceiving, speaking, all continued as before, functioning with a smoothness that gave no indication of the emptiness behind them. No one suspected that such a radical change had occurred. All conversations were carried on as before; language was employed in the same manner. Questions could be asked and answered, cars driven, meals cooked, books read, phones answered, and letters written. Everything appeared completely normal from the outside, as if the same old Suzanne was going about her life as she always had.
In an attempt to understand what had occurred, the mind began working overtime, generating endless questions, all unanswerable. Who thought? Who felt? Who was afraid? Who were people talking to when they spoke to me? Who were they looking at? Why was there a reflection in the mirror, since there was no one there? Why did these eyes open in the morning? Why did this body continue? Who was living? Life became one long, unbroken koan, forever unsolvable, forever mysterious, completely out of reach of the mind's capacity to comprehend.
The oddest moments occurred when any reference was made to my name. If I had to write it on a check or sign it on a letter, I would stare at the letters on the paper and the mind would drown in perplexity. The name referred to no one. There was no Suzanne Segal anymore; perhaps there never had been. There is a turning inward that occurs when the mind searches for internal information, whether it be about feelings or thoughts or connection to a name or inner experience of any kind. This is generally referred to as introspection. Without a personal self, the inside or internal simply did not exist. The inward-turning motion of the mind became the most bizarre of experiences when time and again it found total emptiness where it had previously found an object to perceive, a self-concept.
The more baffled the mind became, the greater the fear. By this time, the body had locked into a pitch of terror that generated continuous shaking in the extremities and copious sweating. My clothing was constantly damp, and the sheets on the bed needed to be hung out to dry every morning. Worst of all, simultaneous with the cessation of personal identity, the experience of sleep had changed radically, leaving me with no escape from the constant awareness of emptiness of self. Sleeping and dreaming now contained the awareness of no one who slept or dreamed, just as the waking state of consciousness contained the awareness that there was no one who was awake.
Text copyright © 1996 Suzanne Segal. Photo of stairs by Henri Cartier-Bresson copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos. Color photo of Suzanne Segal by Sherry Burkart. This article is reprinted from the book Collision with the Infinite: A Life Beyond the Personal Self.
Suzanne Segal was an American psychologist who experienced an unexpected awakening in 1982. She died of a brain tumor in 1997.
By Suzanne Segal
This is a strange but fascinating autobiographical account by a twentieth-century American psychologist who can’t tell whether she has become enlightened or is suffering from a psychiatric disorder. After twelve years of misery, she finds bliss and decides that she is enlightened. She writes quite well and succeeds to a remarkable extent in conveying what her experience was like. This book has become a classic in spiritual circles -- some might say cult classic -- and we recommend it highly.
An extraordinary book -- one of a kind. Suzanne Segal's story is the subject of a great deal of controversy and debate within non-duality circles, but the way she writes about the experience of no-self, is compelling. I have read the book at least twelve times, and every time I read it I am amazed at the subtle power of her words and the magnetic pull of her writing style. This is one of several books I recommend to people who are interested in enlightenment because it helps to shatter the idea that one can practice one's way to what one already IS!
—CJ, an Amazon reviewer
This page was published on September 22, 2001 and last revised on May 17, 2017.