September 30, 2021 § Leave a comment
Previously, I compared the ground of being to the background awareness that exists in everyone. This background awareness is always here, always aware of whatever the senses are taking in, your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
It is easy to find this awareness. Simply turn your attention to something in your immediate experience other than what you are presently attending to. When you do, you discover that you were already aware of it. That, for instance, when you turn your attention to the breath, you find that there was already an awareness of your breathing in the background of your mind, you just weren’t aware of being aware of it.
A singular trait of the background awareness is that it takes in and accepts whatever is presented. It does not judge things as good or bad. It does not favour one thing over another. It is completely accepting of whatever arises and, as such, it may be described as pure, unconditional love for all things.
In contrast to this unconditional love is the ego-mind that constantly judges things as for or against the self (or indifferent to it). This constant judging is intimately connected to the body’s survival instinct. When there is a physical threat to the body its built-in defence mechanisms kick in. The body tenses and contracts as it prepares for fight or flight. The same reaction occurs when something is judged to be bad or against the ego’s self-image. When beliefs are threatened or the way you see yourself is attacked, contractions are felt in the body. Additionally, all the other ego defence strategies come online. Strategies that are mostly conditioned responses created in childhood and are therefore often inappropriate to the conditions existing in the present moment.
We may imagine the ego as a contraction in a boundless sea of awareness that is the ground of being. In contracting away from the ocean, the ego sees itself as separate from it. The unconditional acceptance or love that is your true nature is no longer felt. Rather, you grasp at things that are seen to enhance your ego, while pushing away that which is a threat. You are no longer one with your true nature or the world.
As the apparent separation from your true nature began with a simple contraction felt in the body, it would seem apparent that returning to your true nature would start by simply learning how to relax. Learning patience, acceptance and tolerance would follow. As grasping is also a form of contracting, learning to let go and be satisfied with things as they are would also contribute to the return to your true nature. Growing out of all this we see the justification for such things as passive resistance, kindness, and compassion. All things recommended by true sages throughout history.
Self-observation is also beneficial in that through watching where you tend to grasp or push things away you will learn where you need to relax, let go and be vulnerable. The ego, you see, has spent a lifetime learning to hide its vulnerabilities both from itself and others. Though it desperately wants to return to that unconditional love, it also feels that it is too vulnerable, too unworthy to receive that love. Having spent an entire lifetime judging, it expects to be judged upon its return to its true nature. Yet, as stated at the start of this post, that background awareness that is your true nature unconditionally accepts everything, even the apparent you that feels itself to be unworthy.
The next time you tune into your background awareness, see how it accepts everything even if your ego wishes to push it away. And then realize that this ground of being must therefore also accept you for its very nature, your very nature, is unconditional love. Then rest there.
July 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
It may not be readily evident in these posts, but in the last while I’ve been trying to simplify things. The last post was an attempt to show that what some call the ground of being is more easily understood as the background awareness that exists in everyone but is seldom noticed. It is found when you turn your attention to a thing and find that you were already aware of it, you just weren’t aware that you were aware of it. That which is aware before you become aware of being aware is the ground of being.
Silence is a variant of the ground of being. It, too, is something that is always here but seldom noticed. When a sound, any sound, arises, it arises against a background of silence. When the sound leaves, the silence is still there. Only in our age there is so much noise that we seldom notice it.
There are times when the silence is heard and heard very loudly. I’m referring to those times when a persistent noise that is perhaps somewhat annoying suddenly stops. The gap or absence of sound that follows is the silence that is always here.
In Pathways Through to Space, Franklin Merrell-Wolff spoke of an instance of silence that is familiar to many. He was describing a trip to a symphony where, when the music ended, there followed what he called the music’s “nirvanic counterpart.” I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences yourself when something quieted your thoughts and left you with a sense of uplifted well-being. That is an experience of silence.
Perhaps you’ve had a guided meditation in which you were asked to follow the sound of a gong or bell until it faded into silence. Admittedly, I didn’t really understand what the guide was trying to get at when I first had that instruction. It took a while for me to realize that I was being directed to the silence that I was then to rest in. The idea being that the more I found this silence, the more I’d be able to rest in it even when surrounded by noise. (Especially the noise of my own thoughts.)
In large part my inability to recognize silence came from a false assumption. That it (like the ground of being) was some grand experience. Even though realized men and women kept saying that what I was searching for is closer than the nose on my face. That it is ever-present or “just this.” I kept looking for something special that wasn’t here, now. Dissolving this false preconception is what motivated me to simplify my understanding about what this search for my true nature is all about.
Silence, like the background awareness, is always here. In fact, you could say that silence is the background awareness listening. Or, more simply, that when you follow the sound of a bell, when it fades off what remains is the listening.
Like the background awareness, when you turn your attention to a sound you find that you were already listening to it. You just weren’t aware that you were listening to it till that moment. And, of particular interest, you are listening in silence. What I mean by this is that when you listen to something you stop. Your thinking stops and you’re resting in silence as you listen. Go ahead. Try it right now. Turn your attention to some sound and notice that when you truly listen, your mind has stopped thinking. And that the moment you start thinking again, the sound falls into the background.
The mind’s constant chatter and looking for something else to do or hear is the main reason we don’t notice that all sound arises out of and dissolves back into silence. Not in a mysterious manner but simply as a function of how sound always exists against a background of silence. That non-mysterious silence is the ground of being. It is the silence of which the mystic Jakob Böhme said, “If you could be silent from all willing and thinking for one hour, you would hear God’s inexpressible words.”
July 9, 2021 § Leave a comment
When reading spiritual material, you may have come across a reference to the ground of being or the ground of awareness and wondered what that meant. I tended to associate it with something vast, as the word ‘ground’ implied a foundation that underlies everything. Seeing it that way I searched for something in my experience that was vast but couldn’t find it.
Further analysis revealed that anything that underlies everything must be here and here right now. That I failed to find it, I thought, could be a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees. Or like the time I was trying to point out some quails, but my brother could only see the leaves they were sitting behind. This, in turn, reminded me of what people who’ve had an awakening say. That what was revealed was so obvious that they don’t know how they missed it all their lives.
So. What is here, right now, and but easily overlooked? Let’s first address the latter part of this question and ask under what conditions we may overlook a thing. One answer is that something else has our attention, as with my brother who was so focused on the leaves that he couldn’t see the quails. Sometimes spiritual writers refer to this in the context of words written on a page. The whiteness of the page is clearly there but the reader only sees the words. Should someone come along and point to the paper he may acknowledge it but then quickly go back to what he was reading. It’s the words he values, even though without the paper the words would all fall to the floor in a heap.
This is what the search for the ground of being is like. It’s right before our eyes but we’re too busy looking for something vast, marvelous, or mysterious, and so we miss this one simple thing.
Years ago, I came across the phrase ‘aware of being aware.’ I described it then, as I have often since, in terms of becoming aware that when you turn your attention to something, like the beating of your heart or the birds singing in the distance, that you’ve been aware of it all along. You just weren’t aware that you were aware of it until you turned your attention to it.
This awareness that sits in the background is the ground of being or awareness. It is always here. It is always aware. And it doesn’t disappear if you’re not aware of it or when you’re asleep. We hardly ever notice it, though it may come to the foreground at times when out attention naturally falls upon leaves rustling in the wind or when we suddenly turn and catch sight of an owl silently darting across the twilight sky. At these times the noise of the mind falls away if only slightly and we experience a subtle, momentary sense of quiet or stillness.
This ground of being is what we seek in meditation but due to its simplicity, we often miss it or dismiss it in our search for some grand experience or deep knowledge that will ‘free’ us. But as Stephan Bodian wrote, “When I finally awakened to my essential nature, I looked back and realized that the innocent, open awareness with which I began my practice was in fact identical with the expansive, all-inclusive awareness that had subsequently awakened to itself through me.” (“Wake Up Now,” p83/4)
During an awakening experience the ground of being may seem very alive and intense. Having such an experience (or reading about one) may leave you to spend much time and effort trying to duplicate it. But it never left. It’s just fallen into the background where it continues to know everything that arises whether you are aware of it or not. All you need do is turn your attention to the very fact that you’re aware. All you need do is let awareness turn back upon itself.
So, what does this mean for you and your practice. Simply that as you go through the day take a moment every now and then to turn away from the usual chatter of your mind. Become aware of what you’re aware of in the background. It may be a small detail, something sitting on your desk or a sound in the distance. Or become aware of everything in your field of vision or everything you hear or whatever sensations are running through your body. The awareness of all these is already there. You don’t have to do anything special to recognize it. Just turn your awareness upon that awareness and rest in it. That’s it. That’s what the mystics are pointing at.
June 20, 2021 § Leave a comment
I came down the driveway the other day and stopped in front of the house to look at the foxgloves growing in the garden. As I watched my attention was drawn to a bumblebee who was flitting about the flowers. She entered one, completely disappearing. After a moment she came out and darted about again until she found another foxglove to enter.
As she busied herself in the flower a slight shift in consciousness occurred. Nothing spectacular. Some things, concepts, I guess, fell away and I started seeing the bee’s activity in a new way. It had no individual motive. It didn’t have any personal goals to achieve. It was just following its basic programming instilled in it by evolution over countless generations. And at the end of its life, it would leave no individual mark on the world. It would just cease to exist and be forgotten. In the same way that most of humanity has been forgotten over time. And the same way I’ll be forgotten when my turn comes.
As I watched, a feeling came over me that the universe was nothing more than mechanical action taking place for no reason other than its own sake. It was as if I were seeing the universe as it is when there is no ego.
Latter it came to me that although this bumblebee was completely void of individual attainment that it was still serving a purpose. It was working for the good of its community of fellow bees and in the process fertilizing the plants and flowers that would create the next generation. The bumblebee was, in fact, serving the very Life that it was part of.
This morning I had my second dose of the Moderna vaccination. I got up early and walked to the vaccination site for my scheduled 7:20AM appointment. Arriving I was directed to the back of a long line that grew longer as I waited. We in the line moved in an orderly fashion as each group at the front of the line were admitted into the building. When my turn came, I entered a large gymnasium where I was directed to a seat walled on three sides with plexiglass.
After a time, a woman came and asked me some questions on a list. She then went over another list of what I might take if I got any reaction to the vaccine. She was followed by a man who stuck a needle in my arm and then instructed I wait 15 minutes before leaving. As I sat there, I looked across the gymnasium. Chairs like the one I was sitting in covered the floor. Each occupied seat had a man or a woman in it who were busily going over the same lists that the woman went over with me.
I could see that each person in the room was engrossed in their own thoughts, much as the bumblebee was when it disappeared into the foxglove. Over and above this, however, was something else. Whether they knew it or not each person had come to that gymnasium to serve Life. Not just their individual lives but the lives of every person in their community and, ultimately, the world.
Over countless generations people have lived and died without any of us remembering who they were. Most of us will meet that same fate. But when you put aside your own ego and its desire to stand apart from others, you see that we are all part of a Life that doesn’t care about individual goals and accomplishments. Its only care is Life, Itself. And if you put your ego aside, you’ll see that you are part of that great movement to preserve life for its own sake.
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.