Reflective Consciousness / Polishing the Mirror

August 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

In one Zen story, upon seeing his student Daoyi sitting in meditation Master Huaizang took hold of a piece of tile and began rubbing it. His student asked, “Why are you rubbing the tile, Master?”

“I want to polish it into a mirror.” Huaizang answered.

“You cannot polish a piece of tile into a mirror,” said Daoyi.

Huaizang replied, “Since a piece of tile can’t be polished into a mirror, how can simply practicing sitting meditation make you a Buddha?”                    ______________________________________________________

Many have commented on this story and I understand it to say, at least in part, that the mirror of mind, once polished and clean, will reflect the light of consciousness so we can see our true nature.  There is an underlying assumption in this, however, that consciousness is in some sense not a property of the mind, or that the brain does not generate consciousness, that I wish to examine.  To do this I first turn to psychology.

In psychology, projection is defined as an unconscious mechanism that takes our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribes them to others.   The psychological function of displacement, on the other hand, is a redirection of frustrations, feelings and impulses onto people or objects that are less threatening than the original source of the feeling.  While both fall under the category of defence mechanisms they illustrate the brain’s ability to project unconscious qualities away from their source and out into the surrounding environment.  Animism, or the near universal tendency to think of objects as animate or alive, is another example of this ability of the brain to project qualities properly belonging to the self into the world.

I posit that projection, displacement and animism are examples of the brain’s natural tendency to establish our experience of the world as something lying separate and outside.  Of course you will immediately say that the world does lie outside of us and so it is no surprise the brain would externalize our experience.  But what you must realize is that the external world and our experience of it are two different things.

Our experience is a result of the brain taking raw sensory data and processing it through evolutionary and survival mechanisms that have developed over countless millennia.  The result is not just a simple one to one correspondence where every sensory input faithfully corresponds to a neuron firing in the brain.   The result is an experiential world that best suits our immediate and long-term survival needs on one level, and other needs and interests on other levels.  (To give a simple example, the world looks quite different to a hungry man than to one who’s full.)

The experiential world is, in fact, not a direct representation of the physical world but a “recreation” that lies solely within the brain.   This experience or, if I may use the phrase, the neural content, is then given the appearance of existing outside of the brain.  It is projected outward preventing the belief the neural content is solely within and part of the individual.

The brain not only projects sensory information outward but, as seen in the psychological mechanisms of projection, displacement and animism, also projects our inner emotional and psychological content outward onto the world as well.   But the brain’s power of projection does more than just externalize sensory and psychological content.  The brain also takes Observer Consciousness and projects it into itself, giving the impression that it is the brain that is conscious!

In a way difficult to describe, knowing that it is not the body, the brain, ego, thoughts or feelings that are conscious makes it easier for me to let go of these objects of consciousness and turn to the source of consciousness Itself.  I am not giving up anything by letting go of that which only borrowed Consciousness to begin with.  There is no need to polish the mirror.

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