I couldn't make out what it was at first, but then to my horror I discovered what was now curled in my robes; a large cobra! This was no imaginary ghost; this was real.

I could hardly breathe. I immediately launched into the inner work to keep my body still, but it was impossible to concentrate on the breath in my nose; I was fixated on the pressure of the snake against my stomach and the movement of the diaphragm in my solar plexus as it rose and fell with my breathing.

Any thought of the inner work had disappeared, everything in my mind vanished except the rising and falling of my diaphragm, along with memories of my last episode with a snake. I had no choice but to sit utterly still with the reality that death was only inches and moments away. For two hours I concentrated on my diaphragm, a concentration that became extremely refined as my mind involuntarily directed itself to the rising and falling in the solar plexus and held itself there without effort. There was only the extremely concentrated focus where I could hardly breathe or move with this deadly snake curled in my lap.

Then a strange thing happened; suddenly, I was overwhelmed with extreme rapture! Waves of incredible joy and bliss washed through my body, and I could feel every hair on my body stand on end as if I saw something so unimaginably perfect and beautiful that my mind could not absorb it. This was followed by a momentary ecstasy; a bolt of lightning unleashing a showering of emotions that drenched me again and again. My body seemed to be floating above the ground, completely immersed in floods of unimaginable rapture and indescribable joy. How was I able to feel such passion and ease? It seemed as if every one of my discontentment and fears, garnered over these many lifetimes, were all erased at the same time.

Then an overwhelming happiness overcame me, more of a contentment and peacefulness compared to the previous rush of rapture, a happiness that was accompanied by a distinct feeling of unification or one-pointedness of mind connected to the movements of the diaphragm.

Although not known to me at the time, I had attained the First Great Material Calm of Applied and Sustained Concentration; the initial confirmation that a key seeker is on the right track toward attaining his First Great Weapon, his sword of Concentration. And it all occurred because my mind had become calm enough for Reality to surface for only one, brief moment.

I didn't want to leave this exquisite world I found myself in, but suddenly there was another surprise; a circle of light appeared in my mind that I was somehow intuitively familiar with, and which was replacing my previous concentration object - my solar plexus. This light remained very constant, and as I continued to bask in its presence, I heard something . . . a far away sound that gradually came closer. I slowly opened my eye, and standing before me was a John with the entire community of key seekers, all holding their lanterns.

A John was talking to the snake, ". . . and so Mr. Cobra, I see that you must not be hungry as you prefer to curl up in a warm lap instead of hunting, but it will be daylight soon and you should be on your way to your hole. As you can see, you are coiled in the robes of a great key seeker who has become quite advanced because of you. Therefore, you will be assured of a human birth in your next lifetime, but only if you are careful not to harm any of us during our stay in your forest."

The snake slowly raised its head and expanded its hood, looking at the circle of men gathered round before it leisurely slithered off my lap and made its way into the trees. I stood up and to my surprise my legs were not the least bit cramped, even though I had been sitting absolutely still for many hours. In fact, I had never felt better. Everything looked so incredibly alive and different, the colors from the many lanterns were sparkling in stunning intensity, and everything was exceptionally vivid; a beauty I had never really seen before as if I had always been looking through dark glasses. Then I immediately began weeping as an astonishing joy lifted me to heights I never knew existed. If this experience was the result of touching Reality for only a moment, I could not imagine being completely immersed in it. Now I knew this key was no myth or fable; it was real, and I was determined more than ever to continue with this quest until I held the key in my hands.

A John put his arm around me and said, "Welcome to the community of key seekers. Why don't you spend the next couple of days by yourself? I'll ring the bell for you. You have done well."

The robed men slowly dispersed into to the hall, and I ‘floated' to my hut. Over the next two days in solitude, I integrated this First Great Calm into my heart, spending most of my time merely gazing at every-day things that had now become so astonishing and beautiful. What an amazing thing a tree was, how perfect. What magic could hold a tiny seed in its hands and then transform it into a mighty tree of such enormous beauty? I pondered the dead, brown leaves on the ground, then I looked at the new, budding leaves in the trees, and for the first time in my life, I intuitively understood the renewal of all things. I saw that part of me could never die, and the feeling was indescribable. I admitted to myself that there was much I did not know and might never know with my mind, but somehow, on this day, that was not important, because my heart knew . . . it knew that everything was faultless, and that there was no reason to ever worry or be concerned. All was perfect, just as it was.

I went over in my mind exactly what happened that night at the cremation sight when I was able to remain in the precious moment for hours. My inner work leading up to the experience must have served as a foundation by training my mind to remain attentive on a concentration object. It was difficult to stay focused on the spot in my nose where the incoming breath touched it when I began the practice. I would apply my mind to it but then thoughts interfered and it would slip away time after time, but the night with the cobra changed everything. My focus never wavered that night and I didn't have to apply my mind at all. All that I felt was a sustained attentiveness and a one pointedness of mind that required no effort at all, resulting in those exquisite feelings of rapture and happiness, and followed by the circle of light, which I somehow knew, was now my sign, my personal inner work object.

A John had once mentioned the importance of being a step away from oblivion, and when I found myself with a snake in my lap, I was able to experience a John's teaching with direct, fear-enhanced concentration. My whole existence since searching for this key, and the routine of these robed men in the forest, seemed to personify lives lived a step above oblivion. Not only were there the dangers of the forest, but I never knew whether I would eat the next day. In time, I began to understand the immensity of the practice a John represented, and realized that even though a part of me thought I knew more than these men and these villagers, another part, the part that was surrendering, began to recognize that I was really a novice and knew nothing.

This first taste of the power of this inner work, after a long, dry period with little results, instilled in me an unbelievably strong passion to go on no matter the cost. I could not explain the feeling, except that now . . . I "knew." What I knew, I couldn't say, but I was certain of something, even though it was still beyond my present intuitive abilities to understand. It was the strangest, most wonderful thing that I had ever experienced. The blacksmith, the sorcerer, Ariya, a John, and these robed men who have given up everything, including their lives at times to find their key, had my undying gratitude.

I lived with a John for ten years, traveling about the forest in the dry seasons and staying in the community during the rains. He nursed my body as well my spirit, curing my many discomforts. He fed me honey and bananas to alleviate the dysentery and convinced me to drink my own urine and practice my inner work hard to cure the many fevers.

It was a life of natural routine, where my fondest memories were those of serene mornings sitting together in the hall, trips to the villages, days when we gathered to dye our robes, and full moon nights that we would spend immersed in our inner work. A few families from the villages always attended these all-night vigils sitting up with us and waiting for the 3 a.m. talk by one of our senior key seekers. These villagers would then go back to work in the fields the next day not concerned in the least about the lack of sleep. How could I ever forget their kindness and generosity; they gave us food and robe cloth, candles and lanterns, and built our huts.

It was a peaceful life, very conducive to the inner work and my search for the key, and the village girl with the almond eyes that I fell so "in love" with years ago now had a fine husband and a lovely family.

One evening, a John made an unexpected visit to my hut, and I could tell by the look on his face that my life was about to change.

"The time is near when you will be leaving the forest and traveling by yourself again, this time to a far away country to the north," he announced. "I will give you some advanced instructions for your inner work to help you on your way, for you must now dedicate the rest of your life to finding your three masters, the only three that can take you to your key. You are still working on your sharp sword, The First Great Weapon, which is a concentrated mind, but remember, you will still have two more to master; the Great Weapon of How to Wield the Sword, which is an investigative mind; and the Great Weapon of How to Locate the Dragon, which is an insightful mind. These three weapons, Concentration, Investigation and Insight must be mastered before you have any hope of retrieving your key. These three are the only things powerful enough to defeat the Dragon of Atta, that most powerful being that is deep inside of you holding your key.

"You have made great strides with your inner work attaining the First Great Material Calm, but remember; you must master the other Seven Great Calms and also the Seven Centers before you can wield the First Great Weapon of the Sharp Sword - Concentration.

"In you travels, there will be certain key seeker communities you should avoid. Try to stay away from ones that are dilapidated, but be wary of famous ones as well. New ones could be a bother, especially if they are near a busy road, and stay away from ones near a pond or surrounded by fruit trees. Of course, shun any that are exposed to bad people, or communities that are under construction, or even ones that are near a frontier.

"But three types must be avoided at all costs; ones that are very large, that border another country, or are near a large city. The kamma connected with these types of communities will not be a good influence for your inner work, and are very susceptible to outside influences.

"In your travels, remember to always remain aloof. Keep yourself in seclusion, stay contented and dispassionate; and continuously move toward six things; fading, cessation, peace, wanting little, direct knowledge of the Source, and finding the key."

He handed me a map with landmarks so that I could find my way, and then became quiet. We looked at each other without speaking for a few moments, and in this precious silence, sitting here with my old friend, my heart was unbelievably touched.

A John only talked when silence was not better, rarely discussing anything other than the inner work and finding the key. He had always insisted that; yes, talking or reading could stimulate our intellectual centers, but only the direct experience of silence could reach beyond emotion and touch our hearts.

I trusted a John explicitly and had no misgivings regarding this passage. He was completely present in each moment and his actions were always concise and efficient, yet he was never cold or distant. He was full of love for everybody, never worrying about himself . . . and I understood that his work with me was now over. Where would I ever find another like him, this tiger of the forest?

I noticed when he said goodbye that his vacant eyes revealed an unusual compassion. He had always cautioned me about attachment, but right now as I closed the door to my hut, my heart went out to this funny, little man with the constant grin that had brought me so far. (To be continued)

Author's Bio: 

E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-nine years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit www.AYearToEnlightenment.com