February 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
The homogenous state of the newborn infant’s brain is one in which there is no preference for one thing over another. Waves of sensation arise via the senses, but these are felt to be equally the same. Distinctions are made when the body experiences hunger or changes in temperature but for the most part these arise and fall away without disturbing the original homogenous state.
After a time, the brain begins to favor certain states that are deemed pleasurable. In itself this isn’t significant but at some point the I-thought, or ego, arises and with it the beginning of grasping after pleasurable states with a similar pushing away of unpleasant states. The effect of this grasping and pushing away is to create a state of tension in the homogenous state which marks the beginning of suffering.
Of interest is that where the ego finds suffering the tendency is to push it away, which only increases the tension and suffering. If the ego would stop resisting and ease into it, the suffering would equally ease. But to the ego letting go and returning to the homogenous state is the equivalent of its own death, so, it ultimately cannot of its own devices totally let go and resolve what the Buddhists call the matter of life and death.
Psychedelic states produced by LSD have on occasion created the phenomenon known as “ego dissolution” or “ego death.” According to researchers, this state is associated with “a state of high global integration.”1 A state that I liken to the homogeneous state of the newborn infant’s brain.
Once this state of global integration is experienced the tendency is to find a way to repeat it. Those who tried found the state could not be sustained by taking more LSD. Some tried meditation. Practically all who then subsequently realized this state ultimately concluded its attainment was not a result of any action taken on their part. They often say it was realized only through an act of grace. Franklin Merrell-Wolff said of it that, “It is as simple as turning from the object of, to the subject to, all relative consciousness, plus the spontaneity of the SELF.” (p. 38 Pathways Through to Space)
It is often said that any effort made by the ego to realize the original homogenous state will fail because effort involves grasping and pushing away. Actions that create a state of tension that necessarily inhibit the state from being recognized. Put another way, any effort made by the ego to realize God fails because God can only be realized when the ego gets out of the way or dies.
With the dissolution of the ego there comes the opportunity for Realization but, paradoxically, this Realization is not made by the ego. At that point the ego doesn’t exist. Rather, the homogeneous state realizes itself. Or, as the mystic says, “Consciousness recognizes Consciousness.”
It should not be concluded from the above that effort is useless. Rather the above points to the need to make the effort to let go of effort. To relax and do as little as possible. Because no effort will lead to Self-realization, we can finally see why shikantaza (zazen)is said to be the highest form of meditation. In shikantaza, you utterly let go of doing anything except just sitting.
But here’s the rub. It may take years of working through your conditioning, old guilts, old traumas, all that stuff you’ve been grasping or pushing away, before you can just sit. And even then, there is no guarantee of the ultimate realization. That comes from Grace or, as Merrell-Wolff said, the spontaneity of the SELF. And that is not something the ego can control.
January 29, 2021 § Leave a comment
“Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our heads. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.” — Pema Chodron
We usually think of the self-image as our public face. As the mask we wear when standing in a crowd of strangers or at work. We like to think we can take it off when at home or with friends. But few of us take that mask off completely even in the company of those we trust. In the above quote Pema Chodron implies that self-image deadens us to the beauty of the world. So, why do keep our self-image? As I see it, it’s a matter of survival. Survival of the ego. Let me explain.
The ego arises out of the original homogeneous state of the infant brain as the thought, “I am I and no other.” Fearing it might dissolve back into that seeming nothingness the ego looks for something to support it. We could compare the ego’s predicament to that of a man struggling to stay afloat in a vast ocean. Through his own efforts he can only stay above water for so long before he goes under. In desperation he grabs anything nearby that might help him stay afloat. In this analogy, what the man grabs and clings to is his self-image.
Self-image is captured by the phrase, “I am this, but not that.” It can rightly be called the ego’s identity, or ego identity, and is created through a process of grasping and pushing away. What the ego grasps becomes part of its conscious identity. In psychology, what it pushes away is called the shadow. In Jungian terms, the shadow lies in the unconscious mind and contains all that a person denies in himself.
Once cast into the unconscious the shadow seeks a return to consciousness. The ego resists this because the shadow is a threat to its carefully built self-image. The ego can only maintain its self-image by denying anything that questions its legitimacy. For example, we’ve all experienced times when our thoughts ran in circles trying to justify some impulsive action that didn’t fit within our usual way of doing things. That’s the ego trying to save face. In the view presented here, face saving arises out of the ego’s need to maintain its self-image, the loss of which means the ego’s dissolution or death.
It’s easier to understand why the ego gets so agitated when its self-image is threatened by using the analogy of the man in the ocean. As stated above, the man will drown if the flotsam that he clings to is lost. In the same way, the ego will dissolve back into the seeming nothingness out of which it arose if it loses its self-image. It’s a matter of life and death to the ego, so each time the self-image is threatened the bodies survival mechanism kicks in with a fight, flight or freeze response. The more this cycle repeats, the more preoccupied we become with our self-image. Or, as Pema Chodron said, the more deaf and blind we become to life.
It’s actually easy to see the ego trying to maintain its identity. Just focus on the “I” thought and hold it lightly in awareness. After a bit, thoughts will arise, some of which cause slight contractions in the body/mind. Those contractions are the ego withdrawing from thoughts and feelings that threaten its self-image. The more threatening, the greater the contraction.
It may be easier to see the ego at work by imagining that you’re in a group of people who suddenly break out in song. Do you notice any immediate tension arising in your body at this image? What if you imagine the group asks you to join in? If you find yourself pulling back even in this imaginary situation then you’re seeing the ego at work maintaining itself as it is. Once you see this reaction in operation, you’ll be able to recognize it in other situations. Your ego, in fact, is constantly at work choosing which thoughts, feelings and actions are ‘yours’ so you won’t act out of character. In a way, it’s a self-made prison.
Once you see what you’re trying to be, feel and act like in all situations you’ve found your self-image. Some people hold that image lightly, allowing for new experiences. Others hold that door firmly shut, fearing what’s on the other side. But even after a new experience those who hold it lightly return to who and what they think they are, thus perpetuating that sense of separation that having an ego provides. Which is why Pema Chodron said that “Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our heads. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.”
December 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
Continuing on the theme of experience and the brain, it occurs to me that the brain of a newborn could be said to exist in a state of homogenous, egoless consciousness. This may be inferred from the fact that the young brain, although receiving input from the senses, is not yet processing that input with concepts so experience is more or less formless. As the ego is a concept, the concept of who you are, it follows that the newborn brain has no ego. It is only after some months of interaction with the world through its parents that the newborn starts to organize itself conceptually and the ego develops.
A neurologist would call this organization establishing neural pathways. I find it more useful to think of it in terms of tension or contraction because the formation of neural pathways is associated with subtle contractions in the body. This is easily demonstrated simply by noticing how your body tenses and contracts while remembering some unpleasant experience.
It is my contention that ego formation is intimately connected to the brain’s survival mechanism that, when activated, causes the body to contract. My reasoning is that as the ego identity forms out of the original homogenous state there arises a sense that it can easily dissolve back into that apparent nothingness. This return is viewed by the ego as death. And it is this fear of annihilation that activates the survival mechanism that manifests as the fight, flight or freeze response.
Each of us tends to favour one survival response over the others. If you don’t know yours, just ask yourself how you usually respond to stress. If it’s with anger, then it’s likely yours is the fight response. As to the others, an example of the flight response was one I found in a woman I knew who readily admitted that when faced with stress her first impulse was to move to another town. I, myself, tend towards the freeze response that manifested generally as a desire to hide in plain sight. So, I did things when younger like not speak up in school or, later, not question my boss on important matters. My motto seemed to be, “Don’t bring attention to yourself.”
Each of us reacts with our dominant survival response when threatened. For the most part it’s an automatic reaction that is supposed to pop up and then drop away. This is what happens with animals, but that is not the case with most humans due to our ability to imagine threats that don’t actually exist in the present moment. As the brain is unable to recognize these threats as imaginary (even though you may be telling yourself it is) the survival mechanism kicks in. Especially when there is unresolved or on-going trauma, this leaves the body in a constant state of contraction. A state that is so disturbing that an individual may turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve the immense strain being put upon the body.
When I first noticed the freeze response operating in me, not knowing its origin, I sought a psychological remedy for it. I read many psychology books and learned dream interpretation to discover my deeper motivations. I also investigated my parent’s upbringing to discover how their experiences influenced them and, in turn, me and my siblings. None of this, however, actually reduced my anxiety as I was still not dealing with the essential issue of life and death that my survival response pointed to. I was still working hand in hand with my ego to avoid self-negation and maintain the ego as it is.
As many others do when faced with life’s perplexing problems, I took up meditation. Unfortunately, I glossed over the part that emphasized relaxation. That was a mistake, as the memories and conditioning associated with fear and stress are stored in the body as muscular contraction. This means that any minor distraction that produced tension in the body could activate a cascade of emotions, thoughts and imagining that totally defeat the aim of meditation to live freely in the present moment. Learning to relax teaches you where your body is contracting so that you may progressively learn to release that tension.
The relaxation method most often describe in the literature isn’t anything like sunning yourself on some beach kind of relaxation. You work your way up from the feet to the head, tensing each muscle and then relaxing them as you go. This teaches you where your body is holding tension and how to let it go. I ignored this instruction because I wanted to jump right into meditating. However, it seems to me now that this isn’t that much different than recognizing any other kind of distraction and returning to the present moment. That is, you see your body contract, then you relax. Each contraction leads to a relaxing into the now. Over and over. Just like when your body tenses as you enter a hot bath, only to relax once you’re in.
It is difficult to focus on the present moment when the body is in a continuous defensive mode. The instruction to meditate with an alert mind is often usurped by the ego to be alert for any threat to its survival instead. When the body is completely relaxed, however, the fight/flight/freeze response does not engage. Then one can relax in the present moment. I would therefore recommend to any who suffer from PTSD, unresolved trauma, fear or anxiety to forget about reaching some higher consciousness to resolve these matters. Learn how to relax the body instead. As mentioned above, learning to relax can be a meditation practice in itself.
November 30, 2020 § 5 Comments
In the last post I discussed how the world that you believe yourself to be living and walking in is actually something experienced inside your brain. The brain constructs this world from the ‘stuff’ provided through the senses and processes it with concepts that fill in the missing information that your senses don’t provide. As a simple example, the brain constructs the front of anything facing you from sensory data received through the eyes. But as there is no information about the back the brain must make it up. I called the former direct experience, while the parts the brain adds I called conceptual experience.
To expand upon this, the brain does not make up the missing parts arbitrarily or out of thin air. It fills in the missing pieces with concepts, which includes memory, to build a kind of virtual reality. For instance, right now my virtual reality consists of the trees that I’d normal see out my window but can’t right now because the curtains are drawn. Of cars that I hear driving by and birds whose songs are heard coming from outside. The trees, cars, birds and even the ‘outside’ all fall within the category of conceptual experience, as they are not things I directly experience right at this moment. My brain only infers their existence from the few sensory clues and from memory.
Nighttime is a good time to ‘see’ virtual reality. In nightly strolls my eyes register areas of darkness in which I can see no detail but over which my brain superimposes what it thinks is there, like shrubbery or the grass. If the brain wasn’t doing this, those areas would be experienced as gaps or holes in reality. Seeing areas of nothingness would be a very uncomfortable feeling. So, it is interesting that in certain circumstances the brain will, in fact, fill those gaps by projecting fears into them. As when children imagine monsters in the closet or under the bed. But adults are not immune from this effect, either.
Another time in which to see your brain overlaying a virtual reality over gaps in your sensory experience is when you go to bed. With the lights out and your eyes closed, ask yourself what exactly it is that your senses are receiving and what it’s making up. Are the walls of your bedroom, the window and dresser actually things being perceived through the senses? Or are they virtual?
Take this a step further. Turn your attention to the sensation of the blankets and the weight pressing down upon the mattress. Notice the breath and heartbeat. Then ask yourself, outside of these sensations, where is my body? This is a tricky one to investigate because the automatic reaction is to say that your body is in bed. Careful investigation, however, will reveal that what you call your body is a virtual experience inferred from grouping the aforementioned sensations together and then filling in the gaps with a concept called “my body.’ Outside of these sensations, isn’t your body nothing more than a conceptual experience?
If you choose to practice seeing your virtual experience try, after a while, applying it to your thinking. From childhood I’ve been wary of angry people that I experienced as being ‘out there’ somewhere, yet always immediately close and threatening. Intellectually I knew they weren’t there, but their virtual presence nevertheless affected me. After just a few weeks of practice, however, I spontaneously saw that angry people are only a concept. And seeing that has made it a lot easier to let go of that virtual reality.
I should add here that concepts like the one I just mentioned often arise in childhood as a way to keep a child safe, and so are protective in nature. To be totally free of their duplicitous effects it is necessary to see the virtual nature of the beliefs that support them. I am presently looking into whether I can drop these beliefs by practicing seeing virtual reality. I’m doing this by stopping at various times during the day to see what my brain is making up about the physical world. My hope is that by training my brain to see where it is manufacturing things in the outer world, that this awareness will eventually spread to my inner world.
If I can see how my brain is creating a virtual reality of the physical world with concepts, it should be easier to see how my other thoughts and beliefs are similar ‘fillers’ that are only virtual in nature. Then it becomes a question of whether these thoughts are functional or dysfunctional. If the later, then dropping them should be a lot easier.
October 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Wherever you are right now, take a look around. What do you see? Chairs? Computer screen? Trees? Are you aware of the distance between these objects? Of the distance between them and you? Do you feel that you’re acting and moving about in a real world? Would it surprise you to know that according to neurologists, all such experience is taking place entirely inside your brain? That, in effect, your brain has created this three-dimensional world and inhabited it with seemingly solid objects (including yourself).
Mystics say the same thing as neurologists except that the mystic says it is all arising in consciousness. The two parties differ only in that the mystic knows that experience arises in consciousness, while the neurologist assumes consciousness is a by-product of neural activity. One says consciousness is primary. The other says it is secondary.
Let’s look at experience from the point of view of the neurologist. According to him, information reaches the brain via the five physical senses. The brain takes this sensory data and processes it to re-create the world as something called experience. Ordinarily the brain does a very good re-creation but sometimes its basic assumptions about the world causes some anomalies. Like when the moon appears bigger on the horizon than when higher in the sky. Or when you look at a design and it keeps switching between two faces and a goblet.
Most of the time the brain’s basic assumptions produce a seamless experience, but has it ever occurred to you just how much of that experience is made up? Take, for instance, the back of any object facing you. None of the direct light coming from it ever reaches your eyes. So, as far as sensory input is concerned, the backs of all objects are missing. Yet if you look at the things around you, you know they have backs. You know because your brain is telling you they do. But that’s just thought. Imagination.
Mystics often speak of direct experience. To me, direct experience refers to what the neurologist calls sensory input. It is the light reaching the eye in every moment. The sounds reaching the ears and the other sensations that are directly experienced in the present moment through the senses. Contrast this to conceptual experience.
Conceptual experience is what the brain makes up to fill the gaps in your direct experience. One of those gaps is the back of a thing. Your brain has no direct sensory input from there so fills in that missing information with a concept. That concept is called the back. It was created over time from previous direct experience of the world. The brain also created other concepts like those written in Chapter Two of the Tao Te Ching where Lao Tsu writes,
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Lao Tsu could have gone on to say that space and time give order to the universe for they, too, are concepts. Although you may think that space and time are real, it is interesting to note that some scientists say that time doesn’t exist. While others say the universe is actually two-dimensional, like a holograph. Rather than just dismissing such remarks out of hand, it may benefit us to consider that they may arise out of an unrecognized notion that time, space and the apparent three-dimensional nature of our experience is something made up by the human brain!
But I digress. Let’s consider the nature of direct experience minus conceptual experience, or what I call the missing back.
Mystics have often remarked on the need to drop concepts and experience things directly as they are. In doing so, they tell us, the world becomes translucent, transparent, thin or flimsy. They also tell us, to quote Zen Master Dogen, that mind and body fall away. Could we not assume that what the mystic reports is just a logical outcome of seeing through the brain’s processing of the world with concepts. Such that even the concept of a separate self dissolves away?
I’m not saying that enlightenment is just a new way of rewiring your neural circuitry. I’m just trying to make what the mystic says more palatable to our 21st Century minds. Which is that the world as we ordinarily experience it isn’t as real and solid as we think. It’s more imagination than reality. True, the neurologist will tell you that your experience is based upon a real world existing outside of the brain. But isn’t that just another concept?
If we look only at our direct experience it is clear that the only constant is consciousness. All else, all that we experience, rises and falls away in that consciousness. Objects that do seem to last have that apparent quality only because we’ve conceived of the notion of persistence and superimposed it on those objects. Just as we superimposed upon our experience the backs of things.
If nothing else, perhaps what is written here will give you a framework (albeit imaginary) to understand some of the experience mystics report. Failing that, perhaps it will help when your child asks the bedroom door stay open. Perhaps in her experience, when the door is closed and the curtains drawn, you and the world outside her room cease to exist.
September 27, 2020 § Leave a comment
In the last post I mused on psychological projection, a process that operates in the human mind, using it to speculate on how Consciousness may create objects of experience. I was careful to state that in this interpretation projection is not seen as pathological. My aim was simply to use the idea of an initial whole negating part of itself to suggest how Consciousness might go about experiencing itself.
Thinking further on this, it occurred to me that creation being an act of negation of an initial Whole means that all objects of experience are essentially empty. An image I used before was that of a stream that in its motion around rocks creates eddies or whirlpools. We ‘see’ these whirlpools as distinct things when, in fact, they are really the absence of a thing, i.e., the absence of the stream’s water.
It then occurred to me that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can be considered with this view in mind. The Uncertainty Principle is one of the most celebrated results of quantum mechanics and states that you cannot know all things about a particle at the same time. That, for instance, you cannot completely know a particle’s position and its momentum at the same time. Now before today I thought that when physicists designed experiments to locate a particle’s position that they were measuring something substantial. In fact, they are actually negating the original whole in order to measure a part of it, and in so doing are measuring a relative absence of substance.
For me, this makes the Buddhist assertion that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, more approachable. One thing I’ve noticed in my own psychology is that my thinking has been highly conditioned by 20th Century scientific materialism. There is a persistent belief that the objects that I experience in my daily life are real things. Solid things. Yet the simple logic of negation as touched upon here shows that my experience is that of relative absence of substance.
Consider the following. When, lying down in a field of grass, looking up at the clouds, you may see in them faces and animals. Now you know that the forms you see aren’t really in the clouds. But you still believe that the clouds are there existing separately from your awareness. The materialist scientist has made it his mission, in fact, to discover what this ‘separate stuff’ is and through his research we’ve made great strides in improving our daily lives. But let’s look at what this research has actually discovered.
Clouds have always been associated with rain. No doubt when some ancient man, our first experimental scientist, climbed the hills to investigate the clouds that hung around them he discovered that when he touched them, they were wet. He then concluded that clouds were, in fact, water.
Much later other men came to the conclusion that water itself was composed of two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Not much later these elements were discovered to be composed of neutrons, protons and electrons. Very quickly after that these in turn were found to be made of other particles called quarks. And in the last century with the advent of quantum mechanics the best minds came to the conclusion that all sub-atomic particles were best defined as wave functions. In essence, they concluded that what was hitherto thought of as ‘real’ particles made of some ‘real’ substance only exist when they are measured or observed. And that prior to any observation they existed only as a wave function. In other words, they didn’t exist as anything other than a probability in a mathematical equation.
Lying in a field of green grass, looking up at the clouds, we know the faces and creatures we see aren’t really there. But today’s science now tells us that the very particles that make up the clouds aren’t there, either, unless they are being observed on a moment to moment basis. In the line of thinking presented here, what is being observed is a relative emptiness of consciousness. Which means that whatever is observed is consciousness (because you cannot separate the two).
Consciousness creates all experience, all objects, out of Itself to experience Itself. What my conditioning has told me over the years, that objects exist separately from consciousness, isn’t true. Likewise, I don’t exist outside of, or separately from, Consciousness. Of course, my conditioning still doesn’t allow me to realize this fully, but reasoning tells me that this is so. And where one is committed to discovering the truth, there can be no denying of truth.
August 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
We may ask the question, where does the world come from? By what process have the things that we perceive through the senses come about? Are they reality? Or is it the consciousness that perceives them that is real?
In considering these questions I’ve occasionally come across references in mystical writings that the world as we perceive it is actually a partial negation of Reality, which is defined as consciousness in its universal aspect. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, for instance, wrote that, “The apparently inert and lifeless matter comes to be viewed as merely a partially obscured Consciousness. Thus, if we regard a portion of an originally homogeneous Consciousness as partly blanked-out or neutralized by its own other, the result is some degree of relative unconsciousness. This relative unconsciousness is the objective world…” (Pathways Through to Space, p. 181)
I placed part of the above quote in italics because the idea of a thing being created by the neutralization of its own other always reminds me of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The uncertainty principle relates to paired opposites, like momentum and position. It says that we cannot measure the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other. Relating this to what Franklin Merrell-Wolff said, we find that a particle’s relative position can only be known when its paired opposite or own other, i.e., momentum, is blanked out or neutralized to some extent. And vice versa.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle seems to affirm in some degree the notion that physical reality is created through a process of negation. That there is an originally homogeneous something out of which the world as we perceive it comes into being through a partial blanking out of that something. The difference between the physicist and the mystic is that the former would hardly assert, as the mystic does, that this ‘something’ is consciousness.
In my own thinking of late it occurred to me that the psychological process of projection may be adapted as a means to becoming more familiar with how the negation of a part of consciousness can produce an apparently objective experience.
According to Wikipedia, psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. Considering projection without its defence mechanism, what we have is a process in which something is denied or negated, which casts this into the unconscious where it is then projected out onto the physical world. Once projected it is no longer seen as part of the self.
The creation of the universe may be likened to the process of projection found in the human psyche. Of course, I am not suggesting that this is the whole case. I’m simply presenting it as a way of seeing a world that is normally seen as something apart and distinct from consciousness as actually a part of consciousness. With the understanding that our true nature is consciousness.
If we then imagine an originally homogeneous Consciousness as wishing to create a universe, we see that it could do so by negating a part of itself. This relative negation of Consciousness is equal to saying Consciousness makes part of itself unconscious. Then, as in the process of psychological projection, the unconscious part is projected not outward onto the universe but outward as the universe.
We could further imagine that the original Consciousness projects what it has negated onto a ‘screen’ that we call objective consciousness. What is perceived then as the objective world is really a relative negation of Consciousness. It is not separate from consciousness but, rather, is consciousness partly negated. From the standpoint of Pure Consciousness the created world is nothing more than a dream, just as our nightly dreams are a part of our being.
July 25, 2020 § Leave a comment
“If you understand, things are just as they are;
if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”
When first stepping onto the Path the inclination is to treat it like any other course of study. You read books, watch videos, discuss the matter with friends and perhaps find a teacher. These, you believe, will bring about that “Aha!” moment called enlightenment. The above quote, however, points to the fact that studying Buddhism is not the same as practicing Buddhism. And that understanding isn’t a necessary precondition for enlightenment. That doesn’t mean that study doesn’t have a place but as Zen Master Dogen said, “Practice is enlightenment.”
What is practice/enlightenment? First, it’s not a thing you can experience or understand objectively. It’s not an idea. Nor is it a feeling or state. To me, it is synonymous with consciousness. So, when a teacher says, “You’re already enlightened,” she is really saying that I’m already the consciousness that I seek. That I Am Consciousness.
Consciousness, as it is used here, is a symbol. It is a finger that points to the moon. And just as it is pure foolishness to confuse a finger with the moon so is it folly to confuse the word consciousness with that which it points to. For unlike the moon in the sky, you cannot see, hear, think, feel or in any other way experience consciousness as an objective thing. It is the subject to all objects that is never an object, to use the language of Franklin Merrell-Wolff.
The mind, hearing all this, will nevertheless continue to look for this ‘thing’ called consciousness. That’s to be expected for that is what the mind does. No matter how many times a teacher tells you to ‘just sit’ or just be aware of the breath, the mind will continue to look for something to ‘get’ or experience. You can spend your entire life seeking this thing called enlightenment, but you’ll never find it for It isn’t an ‘it’ at all.
When a teacher tells you to give up the search, she doesn’t mean that you should abandon your practice. She means that practice isn’t a searching activity. It’s the practice of waking to distraction and returning to the present moment. Searching takes you out of the present moment and, as such, is just another distraction. Just another thought. When it arises, you acknowledge it as thinking (or searching) and return to the present moment. To things just as they are.
A while ago I was having my evening milk and cookies. I’ve grown quite accustomed to the way my mind always looks forward to this treat but then, when the time comes to enjoy it, curiously wanders off onto other matters. But that evening there was just the sweetness of the coconut cookie. Off to the side there was a vague sense of an I that in the past said it was what enjoyed the coconut but that night this I wasn’t enjoying the sweetness. There was just sweetness.
The mind always wants to superimpose something over direct experience. To call it good or bad. To compare it to the past or to something hoped for in the future. The mind has been doing this for so long that you’ve come to believe that these superimpositions are the reality of your life when they are just thoughts about reality. This false distinction leaves you one step removed from life. And the biggest cause of this sense of separation is the superimposed thought of a self, or ego, that is having this experience. And as long as you believe that you are this self, you’ll never get to experience things directly as they are in the present moment. You’ll never get to just sit in the sweetness of life.
The truth is there is no self-existent I. It is a concept made up of various sensations, thoughts and feelings that has been superimposed over the consciousness that is your true nature. When that concept falls away the sweetness of pure consciousness can be known directly. Sweetness that passeth all understanding. Sweetness that is, whether there is an “I” there to enjoy it or not.
June 30, 2020 § Leave a comment
Realizing the truth of impermanence is an important first step on the path to enlightenment. Impermanence is the Buddhist assertion that everything is constantly changing, that nothing lasts or has self-existence. Therefore, nothing can be grasped or held onto. Often the introduction to impermanence comes through the loss of a loved one or a life-threatening event that deeply affects a person and upends his or her sense of control over life.
Although I’ve experienced many losses in my life there’s always been an underlying sense of permanency that has gone untouched by these losses. You might say that I understood impermanence intellectually but not on a visceral level. Then I remembered something from a psychology class I once took. That the brain takes the stuff of the senses and with it ‘recreates’ the world, as opposed to making an exact reproduction of it. Analyzing this statement, I saw that it meant that there were two ways of experiencing the world.
The first may be called direct experience because it is the direct experience of the actual ‘stuff’ that comes through the eyes, ears, nose, and other senses. You might call this the aliveness of the present moment that is both dynamic and fluid. The second is the way the mind processes this raw sensory data with ideas and beliefs and so is called conceptual experience. As concepts by their very nature tend to turn things into permanent fixtures in life their use results in the world appearing to be fixed and solid.
Others have written of conceptual experience calling it stories. Stories are influenced by a variety of historical, cultural, religious and personal factors. Although they are just stories, like concepts they are often mistaken as real and given priority over direct experience. Here, however, I am not using the word story as I wish to emphasize how concepts organize and arrange direct experience. Specifically, I want you to consider concepts as windows in their frames which you look through to view the world.
When you look through a real window you see a particular part of the world. For example, right now I can see a tree out my window. Years ago, that tree was less than two meters tall. Over the course of time it grew, and its branches extended outward such that they now conceal the mountains that I once looked out at every morning. Today the tree is over 30 meters tall and looks very little like the two-meter tree it once was. But in my mind, it is the same tree. That is because I am also looking at the tree through a conceptual window that says it is the same tree. In effect, I am not seeing the ever-changing reality of the tree. I am seeing a concept.
There is a meditation practice that helps you to discover your conceptual windows by instructing you to experience the world as it is before the mind processes it. If you take up the practice the first thing you notice is how quickly the mind names a thing. If, for instance, you hear a bird singing, in the first second the mind will have identified it as a song, a bird’s song and then, perhaps if you know it, the name of the bird that’s singing. These identifiers are just some of the conceptual frames your mind uses to organize direct experience.
What you do not immediately see are the more subtle windows you’re looking through. Ones that you’ve been looking through all your life that say the song exists ‘outside’ of you and affects you whether it ‘enters’ your consciousness or not. Ones that organize direct experience into something called time and space. Ones that make you believe that direct experience is secondary to conceptual experience. All told, you’re not just looking through a solitary or double paned window. You are looking through numerous panes of glass.
It should be noted that in itself there is nothing particularly wrong with most of your conceptual windows. If they allow you to deal with the world in a fairly productive and functional manner your frame is just as useful as anyone else’s. It’s when you forget that they are just ways of organizing reality, and not reality itself, that problems arise. When that happens, conceptual experience replaces the primary world of direct experience and you end up living in a false secondary universe. It is this false reality that the Buddhist calls Illusion or Maya. And it is this secondary universe that is destroyed when you Awaken.
To be clear, awakening does not mean that the mind no longer sees through any conceptual windows. Were that to happen the Awakened One would no longer be able to live and act in the world. Rather, and more precisely, what disappears are all the windows related to the sense of a separate self or ego. With the ego gone, so also goes the sense of permanency that it gained from being a concept. The glass is removed, and the window opens. And all that remains is the gentle breeze of pure consciousness that ever flows through the windowless frame.
May 24, 2020 § 1 Comment
I live along what is ordinarily a busy street. Prior to the pandemic there’d be pretty much a traffic jam in the afternoon rush hour with cars and trucks backed up by the many traffic lights installed along the road. When that cleared the traffic would be still be continuous, lessening only late at night and during the wee small hours of the morning. Then the pandemic came. People couldn’t go to work. Restaurants, stores and theatres shut down. People had nowhere to go and stayed at home to keep the number of infected people entering hospitals low. As a result, the steady roar of traffic lessened and more or less came to a complete halt by early evening. Only then was there silence.
Having lived on this road for many years I had become habituated to the din of cars going by and hardly took notice of it anymore. When I did, especially while meditating, I started to think of it poetically as ocean waves rolling onto the shore. It occurs to me now that traffic is a good metaphor for thought and how thoughts prevent me from hearing the ground of silence that is always here. If only I would start listening to the spaces between the traffic, I might be able to hear this silence.
On sunny days I like to ride my bicycle to a nearby pond and sit beside its water. There I clear my mind and take in the surroundings. At the trees across the pond. At the occasional fish that jumps out of the water to catch its insect lunch. At the sky for an eagle, osprey or hawk. What I’ve noticed, however, is that anyone walking behind me interrupts this clear state. My attention is then drawn inward to the disruptive thought where it is observed by an attention that is subtly different from my normal attention.
I suffered trauma in my early life that conditioned me to always be on the lookout for danger. Meditation has reduced this conditioning, but there’s still a tendency to vigilance and thoughts of self-protection and safety. Even when I know that what is behind me is simply another person enjoying the sun these thoughts still arise to warn me of impending danger. But like the traffic on the streets during this pandemic, these thoughts have become fewer over the years and the space between them longer.
I’ve written before on how the ego’s main activity is to keep itself going. I phrased it as a directive to maintain itself as it is, through time. It does this mostly by thinking the same thoughts over and over. Loop thoughts is what I called this repetitive kind of thinking. In my view loop thinking is just another part of the Buddhist Wheel of Life that we need to jump off to attain freedom.
Loop thinking for those who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is layered with anxiety around dangers that have no identifiable source so are projected onto whatever is handy in the environment. Although imaginary these dangers are taken by the ego as a real threat to its integrity and survival. With PTSD, the ego’s drive to maintain itself becomes a drive to protect itself. The result is that thoughts of denial, self-protection and danger continually arise. This is the ‘traffic’ that runs through the traumatized mind. Even when the trauma is resolved, as it has with me, this traffic may still arise from time to time.
Above I identify loop thinking with trauma but the non-traumatized mind (if you can find one during a pandemic) has its own traffic that keep the ego going. This mind is just as habituated to its ego-maintenance as the traumatized person’s, which means they largely go on in an unawake state of consciousness. When they do attract attention, they usually appear reasonable and normal. Attention invariably then goes on to other matters and the unawake state resumes. An aim of meditation is to wake to these habituated thoughts so they may be observed, as when I sat by the pond and observed my own thoughts of impending danger arise.
Meditation acts to slow the traffic of thought, though as you begin to wake from your habituated state it often seems meditation only increases the noise. As you continue to mediate, however, you’ll start to notice some breaks in the traffic. Maybe not many and maybe not frequently but they do appear. As the breaks become more frequent you may find yourself beginning to enjoy the silence they bring and want more. More often, though, the ego resists these periods of silence, saying it’s boring and that it’s more enjoyable to think and fantasize. The urge to think is strong and it may take some time before you realize that silence is, in fact, golden. You’re just so used to looking for something to think about, that you haven’t yet realized that this silent nothingness is what you are.