In Buddhism, there's this idea called the alaya. It's similar to Jung's theory of the universal unconscious. Alaya is a Sanskrit word used to describe a personal storehouse of consciousness. It contains the essence of how we perceive the world and the experiences of our individual lives, and everything that happens to us arises from it. The seeds of everything you think and say and do are buried there. And if the causal conditions come together, certain seeds will ripen. That's what happened to me that night.

Do you keep coming up against painful habits and experiences?

Yes, but there are fewer and fewer of them because those seeds are being burned up.

It must be a tremendous relief.

Yes and no. For a Buddhist, negative emotions are something to work with. There's a joke about bodhisattvas, who are a kind of spiritual warrior in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition: The biggest problem for bodhisattvas is that they don't have much to work with anymore, because fewer and fewer things trigger their negative emotions. It's humorous because this is everyone else's dream come true, but it's a big problem for bodhisattvas. I'm not saying that I'm at that level, but I do know from personal experience that life can become smoother.

I once asked a spiritual teacher what happens as your life gets smoother, and he said you have to up the ante and go into more and more difficult situations. You have the capacity to go into the hell realms of the world and help the people there because you're less triggered by how awful things are. As your own life gets smoother, you can move closer to people who are in severe mental or physical anguish, because you no longer have any fear of it, and therefore you can be of some help.

Have you been doing that?

I'm embarrassed to say I haven't really gone looking for such situations. Any time a painful situation is presented to me, I jump right into it. But I haven't become a political activist or worked in homeless shelters, and I don't know if I will, because I'm getting older and my health isn't so good. All I can say is that whenever pain is presented to me, minor or major, I'm eager to work with it.

Turning toward pain instead of avoiding it is a common theme in your books.

Yes, because I realized what a source of happiness turning toward pain actually is. Our avoidance of pain keeps us locked in a cycle of suffering. The Buddha said that what we take to be solid isn't really solid. It's fluid. It's dynamic energy. And not only do we take our opponents and obstacles to be solid; we also believe ourselves to be solid or permanent. In the West, we add the belief that the self is bad. That night I spent meditating, I discovered that there is no solid, bad me. It's all just ineffable experience.

Is this experience what Buddhists would call "emptiness"?

I don't use Buddhist language very much, but yes, Buddhists would call it "emptiness" or "shunyata" or "egolessness." I would say I experienced the fluidity of what I once thought of as a solid self. And I actually experienced it in a traditional Buddhist way, by staying with the immediacy of my experience and not going off on story lines, as we are always doing. These stories we make up about ourselves distance us from the rawness of our immediate experience.

What we think of as our worst nightmares are what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle would call "portals." They are doorways that can take you to a different state of mind. Typically what happens when we experience pain is that our habit of avoiding pain gets stronger, or the pain gives birth to other sorrow-producing habits based on the fiction that there's something wrong. But when you taste experience fully the way I did that night, the doorway opens into what I would call "a timeless now."

There's nothing wrong with our thoughts and emotions except that we identify with them and make them seem solid. But if you don't identify with them, you begin to see life as a sort of movie in which you are the main character. It still has plot and conflict-there's no other way it could be-but you don't have this tight grip on it all. We need to let the story line go and have an immediate experience of what's actually happening, without blaming ourselves or anyone else.

This is an important message for Westerners, because we get hooked on a story about a problem. In Tibetan Buddhism this hooked feeling is called shenpa [Listen to an audio clip about shenpa.] It's an urge, a knee-jerk response that we keep repeating over and over again. We lose our balance and intelligence. But you can notice when it happens. You can acknowledge it. You can catch yourself. You can do something different, choose a fresh alternative.

Because if you do what you've always done, you're never going to get unhooked.