Present Moment Consciousness

January 1, 2019 § 1 Comment

In the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” Professor Kingsfield begins the first day of class with these words to his students, “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Other than the fact that I’m not going to be a lawyer, that was me when I started meditating. My skull was definitely full of mush.

The “mush” was mostly fear. My skull was full of it. I had spent many years trying to figure it out through psychology and dream interpretation but to no avail. It was only when life presented me with the opportunity to devote myself to a course of daily meditation and Buddhist study that things started to turn around. Even then it took quite a while before I started to believe that all those things my skull was telling me was real, wasn’t real, at all.

I also had a lot of mush about enlightenment. Still do, I suppose. Looking back, I don’t really know what I thought it was. I know I conceived it as some higher state of consciousness that I suppose, because of my fear, I saw as a place of refuge. The joke, as I later discovered, was that the door to enlightenment was exactly where my fear was most intense! It wasn’t a place of refuge from the world. It was, is, being fully alert, while facing the world.

But I’m not there yet. I’m still dealing with my mush. Sitting, watching, trying to discern the difference between the thinking state and the present moment. It’s becoming clearer but only in my seeing just how much more mush there is to clear away.

By ‘clear away’ I don’t mean fix. That’s what I was trying to do through psychology. Trying to fix myself. Turns out that’s an endless road to nowhere. The only solution I know of now is to see the difference between the thinking state and the present moment, and then choose to be in the present moment. Sounds simple but there’s nothing harder.

Like everyone else there are years, if not lifetimes, of conditioned thinking to see through. Conditioning that has left me identifying with an aggregate of thoughts and things that go into the making of my fear filled self. Conditioning that has me shy away from my mind’s most sensitive and vulnerable areas, while simultaneously trying to protect them. I am buoyed, though, by the growing certainty that success will come. Maybe not in this life. Maybe not in the next or even in ten lives after that, but at least I know nothing can stop it, now.

In the past I thought meditation would lead to some alternate state of consciousness that was somehow “elsewhere” from the one I was in. It never occurred to me that the alternate state I sought was the one I was in, just minus all the mush. And that just by watching and being friendly to all that is going on right now, without looking to the past or to the future and without trying to “fix” anything in myself, that I may realize this present moment consciousness, right now. And that it has been here all along. Life unfolding in the seemingly mundane activity of daily existence. My life. Your life, that is all Life.


A Chickadee At My Window.

September 10, 2018 § Leave a comment

The other day I turned my attention to a question about the nature of the physical reality that first came to my attention while reading Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, “Pathways Through To Space.” “Habitually,” he wrote, “we regard the material filling of sensation as being substantial.” In other words, we believe that the world is made up of solid things that exist whether we’re here to see them or not. But is that so?

Quantum theory tells us that it is not so. More than that, experiments done on the subatomic level demonstrate that observation is a key component in giving form to the world. These tests are repeatable, and they show that matter isn’t there before it is observed. Although the majority of physicists ignore the deeper implications of this fact, in my mind this stands out: Consciousness precedes matter, and not the other way around, as I was taught in school.

Merrell-Wolff went on to say that just before his enlightenment he realized that the world isn’t substantial but composed of relative vacuums or emptiness. The vacuums, he said, are created by a negation of Substance that is none other than Consciousness. (Note that he was not saying Substance is conscious but that it is Consciousness.)

To bring some personal clarity to this topic I had, in the past, compared physical objects to eddies swirling in a stream. Eddies seem to be real but in actuality they are a relative absence or vacuum of the surrounding water in which they appear. As an analogy, this seemed to express Merrell-Wolff’s thought quite well, and it gave more meaning to the Buddhist statement that ‘form is emptiness.’

The other side of the Buddhist phrase is that ‘emptiness is form.’ That seemed a bit harder to grasp because in spite of my analogy, I still saw water as form. But that day I recalled a photo of a boat appearing to float in mid-air, due to the water in which it sat being absolutely still and clear. That image took the idea out of my head that water is always a visible thing.

I imagined how it would be if a whirlpool suddenly appeared in crystal clear water. Wouldn’t it seem that it was a real thing spinning in empty space when, in fact, what appeared as emptiness was actually the real substance?

Thinking of this it occurred to me that perhaps ‘emptiness’ in the phrase, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” had two different meanings. In the former part of the phrase emptiness referred to the relative vacuums that appear in Consciousness (the whirlpool in clear water). In the second, it referred to the real Substance that only appears as emptiness because of its absolute clarity. As form arose in this emptiness, emptiness is form.

My analogy made what quantum theory said about the physical world more sensible. Prior to any observation there is only clear, formless substance. Things form when observations negate part of that substance, but prior to those observations they don’t exist. If I try to argue that they do exist but as formless things then I’m speaking gibberish because, by definition, a thing must have form.

My analogy also made it clear why I couldn’t experience my own true nature. Experience is awareness of form and form comes about by partially negating Consciousness, (i.e., my true nature). This means that while it is possible to experience modifications of Consciousness, it is not possible to experience unmodified, Clear Consciousness.

Even as I saw this I was acutely aware of just how actively my mind was looking and probing for a higher consciousness experience. I put forward a heavy effort to drop this search by constantly reminding myself that my true nature couldn’t be found in my experience. The result was a baffled awareness of emptiness that I, as the ego, knew I could never comprehend.

Much later, in Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, “Transformations in Consciousness,” I found this quote: “If I habitually center myself in the body, then I am there in an exceedingly narrow kind of bondage… However, I break this bondage every time I think myself away from body, as to some other base of reference.”

This quote seemed particularly apt for that night, after my day’s effort, I woke from a dream in which a chickadee came to rest part way through my bedroom window. Then, the next morning as I sat in my chair, I felt a momentary withdrawal into what I can only say was the clear, formless ‘water’ of my analogy.

Regarding this I found this from Franklin Merrell-Wolff, “…the consciousness related to the I is not a consciousness of the I. It is immediate ’knowledge through acquaintance” in the most rigorous sense. One might even speak of it as a sinking into the I (italics mine).”

It now seems that though my analogy does not contain the whole truth of the matter, it does serve a useful purpose when used to ‘think myself away from’ my habitual identifications. This is not mere wishful thinking or some fanciful imagining, but a sincere effort to change the base of reference away from the mass of swirling eddies in consciousness, to Consciousness, Itself. It is through such acquaintance that I come to know Myself.


December 31, 2016 § 2 Comments

dongyu-gatsal-ling-nunnery-calendar(Click on image to go to Dongyu Gatsal Ling website.)

Practice is the continuous movement from distraction to the present moment. Awakening from distraction to the reality of the moment is enlightenment. As Kosho Uchiyama said, “The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment.”

We only know life as vivid reality when we attend to it fully, without distraction. Until that moment, it seems as if life has placed a pane of glass between it and us. This feeling of separation comes from having attached qualities to the self that it does not properly have, like anger or loneliness. As these qualities are distinct and discrete it is falsely supposed that the self is, too. There arises the fiction of a separate body with its own life and own needs.

The belief that awareness requires a ‘somebody’ who is aware is, in the final analysis, just another thought. Like other thoughts, it distracts from the immediacy of the present moment with questions like, “How will this affect me? And, “What’s best for me?”

We can take that thought, that sense of self, into practice and observe it, just as we do with any other distraction. In observing what we thought was our self, the question will necessarily arise as to who is doing the observing. “Who am I?” we ask.

I, as observer, will ultimately be revealed to be no self, at all. As we step further back from what was thought to be a permanent, separate self our consciousness empties of thinkable content. To quote Tenzin Palmo, “the further back we go the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid little eternal entity, which is “I”, we get back to this vast and spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings. In this space you have to ask, where is the “I”, and where is the “other”.”

As Sri Aurobindo wrote it in the poem “Liberation”,

I have thrown from me the whirling dance of mind
And stand now in the spirit’s silence free,
Timeless and deathless beyond creature-kind,
The centre of my own eternity.

I have escaped and the small self is dead;
I am immortal, alone, ineffable;
I have gone out from the universe I made,
And have grown nameless and immeasurable.

My mind is hushed in a wide and endless light,
My heart a solitude of delight and peace,
My sense unsnared by touch and sound and sight,
My body a point in white infinities.

I am the one Being’s sole immobile Bliss:
No one I am, I who am all that is.

Past and Future are Cut Off.

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Past and future

In the first chapter of Zen Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō he discusses time, telling us that past and future are cut off from this present moment. Using the example of firewood Dōgen writes,

“Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after.”

The typical understanding of time is that the present flows like a raft on a river from the past into the future. In this view, ‘before and after’ is primary to the present moment. Firewood comes before ash that, in turn, comes after firewood. Adulthood comes after childhood and before old age. Depending upon one’s personal temperament, life under the sway of time is either ceaseless becoming or endless dying.

Dōgen tells us that this is not how things are. The immediate moment or space you are in, he tells us, is primary. What is here and now does have a before and after but that past and future is cut off. Our only actual experience or reality that we know, in other words, is this present moment and not of something coming into existence or ceasing to be. As Dōgen wrote it, “firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after… Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before or after.”

We may express these two views in terms of a motion picture. When we watch a movie we see one scene coming after another. When we examine the actual film, however, we discover that we were really watching a series of still images. Each image occupies its own position on the film with an image coming before and after it (except the first and last images, of course!) The before and after images, however, are ‘cut off’ from the center image by clear strips on the film. Every image is like this, having its own position and its own before and after.

Dōgen is not playing the cosmologist when he takes up the discussion of time. He is presenting us with a way to approach mindfulness and meditation.

The ordinary mind is continually thinking in terms of before and after. It is looking to the past for experience to draw upon and to the future for results. It is always occupied with a thousand desires and a thousand plans, searching and never still. This is the nature of temporal consciousness.

Dōgen presents us with an alternative to temporal consciousness that I call spatial consciousness. This consciousness is always here but is hidden by the noise of temporal thought and desire. To realize it all we need do is drop ‘before and after’ and stay with what exists now, in the present moment. We do not try to alter or deny it. Nor do we think of how it was in the past or how we want it to be in the future. We just stay with what is here in the present moment as it is. This is how we approach mindfulness and meditation.

Spatial vs. Temporal Consciousness

June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Stanley Park 2595

The story is told of a monk who sat in meditation. As he began he heard the evening bell toll. The morning bell then chimed with no sense of any intervening passage of time or loss of awareness.

This brief vignette serves to introduce the idea of temporal versus spatial consciousness. Temporal consciousness, as the name suggests, is awareness of change, of past and future. In meditation, for example, any sound we hear will arouse an awareness of duration, with a definite starting and expected end point to the sound.

Ordinary thinking that is desire based is temporal by nature. When we think of something we want it is typically with the hope that the desire will be fulfilled in time. When we put this desire into words we use a subject/verb/object structure that suggests the notion of time, as in, “I want to see Africa.” Because of its temporal nature, desire based thought mars meditation as it takes us out of the present moment and into memories of the past or dreams of the future.

Opposed to the temporal is spatial consciousness. While the former implies becoming, the latter suggests being. Spatial consciousness is not dominated by thought of what was or what might be but is an awareness of what is, here and now. It is reflected in concepts that suggest immediacy, such as ‘identity’ and ‘now’. In contrast to temporal thinking, spatial consciousness is represented in sentences without an object, as in the assertion, “I am.” Or in the Zen phrase, “Just this.”

We might describe meditation as the practice of minimizing temporal consciousness while maximizing spatial consciousness. In practical terms, this means turning attention away from thoughts that suggest process, such as how we are doing or what we will do after the meditation, to just sitting in the awareness of our immediate space. At first we do this by focusing on a particular location such as the tip of the nose, a candle or the hara located just below the navel. As we progress we come to a point where we just sit, alert and aware in the space we occupy in the present moment. When the monk did this in the above story, time ceased to exist.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” If we do not understand that the past and the future are temporal constructs while the present moment is spatial, the Buddha’s meaning might elude us. Yet if we understand this then we understand that the present moment is our immediate surrounding. And it is this space only that we need focus on in our meditation.

A note, do not think that spatial consciousness is nirvanic consciousness. The latter transcends both temporal and spatial consciousness and is, properly, neither. Spatial consciousness, however, is more like nirvana than is temporal. By focusing on the spatial we are aligning ourselves with Nirvana and therefore in a better situation to let it lift and transform us.

No object awareness

May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Warrior Hand

A First Nations story tells us that one evening the Great Spirit was looking for a wife. To each prospective bride the Great Spirit held out his cupped hands and ask, “What is in my hands.” Many sought to see what was there but in the end each could only answer, “Nothing.” Only one saw the night sky though the spirit hands and said, “I see stars.” In doing so she solved the riddle and became the Great Spirit’s wife.

Picasso may have done something similar to the Great Spirit’s bride when he drew “Warrior Hand” (shown above) after seeing his distorted fingers through a glass of water. And in meditation we must do something similar. We must look beyond the contents of mind to recognize the awareness that contains them.

We often approach meditation in the same way as the unsuccessful bride or non-artist. We seek something where there is nothing, all the while missing what is there. That is, we seek some special knowledge or a subtle object to experience, when the true ambrosia is awareness.

We falsely believe that because there is the word ‘awareness’ that awareness must be an object we can see.  But there is no object that is awareness.  There is no object awareness to observe.

When we take this false belief into meditation we seek some special awareness that will reveal our true nature.  But there is no special type of awareness; there is just your present, everyday awareness. Hence the instruction when meditating is to just be aware of being aware, just be or just sit. Yet in spite of these clear directions we continue to look for something in the awareness rather than the awareness itself. And in so doing we become unsuccessful brides who live in a sea of stars, yet see naught.


November 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

sitting buddha

As I sit by the fire Dogen’s words flicker to light my thoughts, “We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has it’s own before and after (while) ash stays in the position of ash, with it’s own before and after.”

With this Dogen invites us to the here and now where, “Past and future are cut off.”

Philosophers, scientists and science fiction writers have produced volumes on the subject of time.  H. G. Wells took the 19th Century reader into the far future in his work, “The Time Machine”.  Einstein taught us time flows at different rates in different parts of the universe.  Quantum physics tells us some particle reactions may flow backward in time.  While the cosmologist tells us that there is no particular reason the future should not flow into the past, instead of the way it does now, past into future.

But what is the past?  What is the future?

Recently, I came across the work of German mathematician Hermann Minkowski.  In 1907 he took the idea of three-dimensional space and added to it a fourth.  Three of the dimensions were assigned real number coordinates (think “x”, “y” and “z” for length, width and height).  The fourth, however, he treated as an imaginary number that “rotates” between the other three real dimensions.  Perhaps because this rotation could be either clockwise or counterclockwise, he realized this imaginary space could be reinterpreted as time.

It is important to note that treating one of a four-dimensional space as imaginary actually explains all of Einstein’s special relativity and all of quantum physics.  So treating time as an imaginary space does have meaning in mathematics and physics.

Pondering this, it occurred to me that if the rotation of an imaginary dimension around a three-dimensional space is the past and future, then the three-dimensional space is, itself, the present moment.   The world around you, in other words, is a spatial extension of that part of time we call “now”.

This is consistent with Einstein’s theory of relativity that no barrier between time and space exists.  Space can be described as time.  Time can be described as space.  Looked at this way, there is no here and now, the here is the now.

We cannot describe “now” as containing a little bit of the past or a smidgen of the future.  It is, as Dogen wrote, cut off from the past and future.

In our awareness of the immediate moment we are also cut off from the past and the future except, that is, through the memories and hopes for the future that arises in our imagination.

We cannot separate the awareness from the immediate moment that, in turn, is inseparable from the space about us.  So it follows that space does not stand alone, isolated from awareness.  As such, consciousness and space are not divisible!  Such a conclusion is, as I understand it, an expression of the Buddha Way.

In the Buddha Way, even when we don’t realize it, awareness, objects, action, and space are working together as one reality.  Subject, object and activity all arise together.  The runner, to use Nagarjuna’s example, is inseparable from the running.  The sitter, as Dogen says, and the sitting are one.





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