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An Empty Vessel

November 12th, 2010 6 comments

Funny Animals

It has occurred to me that for much of my life I have done nothing but copy the behaviours of other people.

It is as if I were an empty vessel, with no contents of my own at all. And in confirmation, if I look deeply within, beyond the ever-changing thoughts, feelings, sensations, I can find no “thing” at all. Just an empty presence, which observes, which is aware.

In early life this copying was of course almost entirely unconscious. There may have been instinctive responses and behaviours, but a combination of fascination, fear, enjoyment, horror and engagement with the people around me led me to mimic them, repeat them, and then apparently somehow adopt many of their behaviours as my own.

At a later stage, the copying became more selective, although still largely unconscious. There was some discrimination between behaviours which I found appealing, interesting, inspiring, beautiful, as opposed to those that were ugly, painful, inefficient, unnecessary. And there was a desire for, and an attraction to the more refined behaviours, which then presumably started little by little to manifest more in my own behaviour, and led to a more gratifying response from the world from the actions I subsequently took.

Now the process is much more conscious, and there is less inner resistance to it – perhaps because I recognise the illusion that I am actually anything tangible at all, and if I am not anything tangible, then there is no obstacle, no limitation to the ways in which I may express myself. Thus the delight of discovery of a special quality in someone becomes immediately a known new potentiality in my own behaviour.

The ultimate conclusion of this process, it seems, is to offer no resistance at all, to surrender completely any illusion of selfhood, and to recognise the oneness of us all. “My” qualities are not my qualities at all.  But neither are they “Yours”, because you copied them too! Rather, all qualities are inherent in us all. This is yet another pointer to the essence of non-duality.

Categories: Life, Spirituality Tags: ,

Consciousness and Awareness – What’s the Difference?

September 5th, 2010 39 comments

If you are seeing this picture and understanding what it represents, then you are conscious. This is an indisputable fact. The knowledge of your own consciousness is the one and only fact of which you can be absolutely certain. Everything else that you might think that you know is an inference or assumption, and therefore cannot be known with certainty.

The definition of consciousness that Francis Lucille has often used is based on this fact, and may be stated thus:

Consciousness is whatever is reading these words right now, and understanding them.

This is an experiential definition, and it seems to be necessary to define it this way because consciousness is not a “thing” or object per se, and therefore cannot be defined in terms of other things. Our minds simply cannot grasp the nature of consciousness, because of its lack on tangibility. Hence it can only be pointed to. And yet, it is apparent that consciousness is what we are ourselves. Whenever we refer to “I”, it is this very same consciousness to which we refer. So in the scheme of things, it seems important that we understand it!

An interesting point to note is that, according to Lucille’s definition (and also as he has pointed out himself), there is no distinction between consciousness and awareness. The two words are treated synonymously, and are used interchangeably.

Those of you who have an interest in non-duality will likely also have come across Sri Maharaj Nisargadatta. (A famous book documenting some of his discourses, I Am That (PDF), is available as a free download.) Nisargadatta spoke extensively about consciousness, but he also referred to awareness and made a distinction between the two. The following quote from the book illustrates this especially well.

What you need is to be aware of being aware. Be aware deliberately and consciously, broaden and deepen the field of awareness. You are always conscious of the mind, but you are not aware of yourself as being conscious.

But what exactly is the distinction here? This caused me some confusion, and apparently it has confused others too. The easy way out here might be to remember that we are talking about the intangible, and just paper over the cracks by suggesting that it’s not surprising that there would seem to be inconsistencies between intangible things when we try to conceptualise them. But in fact on further investigation there my be some rationality in the distinction after all. These further quotes from Nisargadatta may make things a little clearer.

The mind produces thoughts ceaselessly, even when you do not look at them. When you know what is going on in your mind, you call it consciousness. This is your waking state — your consciousness shifts from sensation to sensation, from perception to perception, from idea to idea, in endless succession. Then comes awareness, the direct insight into the whole of consciousness, the totality of the mind. The mind is like a river, flowing ceaselessly in the bed of the body; you identify yourself for a moment with some particular ripple and call it: ‘my thought’. All you are conscious of is your mind; awareness is the cognisance of consciousness as a whole.

Awareness is primordial; it is the original state, beginningless, endless, uncaused, unsupported, without parts, without change. Consciousness is on contact, a reflection against a surface, a state of duality. There can be no consciousness without awareness, but there can be awareness without consciousness, as in deep sleep. Awareness is absolute, consciousness is relative to its content; consciousness is always of something. Consciousness is partial and changeful, awareness is total, changeless, calm and silent. And it is the common matrix of every experience.

So the distinction that Nisargadatta is making appears to be between a mental/bodily consciousness (ie. our thoughts and sensory inputs) versus a broader awareness which extends beyond mentations and sensations. And this does appear to have a parallel with Lucille’s description of perception versus apperception (mentioned, for example, here).

“Perception” refers to the experience of an object (phenomenon, that which appears, thought, body sensation or external sense perception), whereas “apperception” refers to the experience of the subject (noumenon, that to which that which appears appears). The human mind is the experience of perceptions, but apperception takes place beyond the mind. (Extract from Francis Answers No 27)

Therefore I propose the following simple explanation of the distinction between consciousness and awareness.

  • Nisargadatta’s “Consciousness” = Lucille’s mentations and perceptions (particular to a body/mind)
  • Nisargadatta’s “Awareness” = Lucille’s consciousness (both perceptions and apperceptions, both particular to a body/mind and universal)

Having sorted out that little conundrum to the (hopefully not overly smug) satisfaction of my own mind, the next question is what an apperception is, and how on earth we can be aware of something that is not within our own mind or body?

Ah the joys of non-dual investigation!

A Fusion of Science and Spirituality

August 7th, 2010 No comments

In his book “The Fabric of Reality”, renowned theoretical physicist David Deutsch describes a world view that he arrives at through a deep and thoughtful consideration of quantum physics and the theories of knowledge, computation and evolution. It is a fascinating read, and demonstrates some of the clearest, most rigorous and elegantly argued thinking I have come across.

One of the concepts he explores in some detail is virtual reality, and one of the conclusions he comes to is that it is not possible for us ever to know with certainty whether or not we exist in an externally controlled virtual reality simulation. As a summary to one the chapters of the book, he says the following.

Virtual reality is not just a technology in which computers simulate the behaviour of physical environments. The fact that virtual reality is possible is an important fact about the fabric of reality. It is the basis not only of computation, but of human imagination and external experience, science and mathematics, art and fiction.

And from this, the essential point I would like to extract is that he is saying that virtual reality is the basis of human imagination and external experience.

If you have any argument with this point, as you may well do if you have an active and enquiring mind, then I highly recommend that you read the book to see exactly how he reaches this conclusion. It is quite compelling.

There is a very interesting overlap with the teachings of Advaita (non-duality) here. One of the tenets of non-duality is, of course, that any experience of duality that we think we may have is illusory ie. imaginary or dreamed. And here we have a scientist whose world view seems to be compatible with this, despite the very widespread belief system that reality is external to and independent of ourselves, and that our perceived reality is not virtual.

The wonderful thing about this is that he arrives at this conclusion through a careful and stringent consideration of the facts of our existence and experience, and attempts to avoid all assumptions that the less disciplined thinkers amongst us would normally make. And what this seems to demonstrate is that through the attempted use of pure reason, a physicist and a spiritual enquirer may well come to similar, if not actually the same, conclusions about the nature of reality itself.

Indeed, the Advaita teachings indicate that the main obstacle to the much sought “enlightenment” experience (the experience of the deeper truth of reality, rather than the dream), is our own ignorance ie. due to false beliefs we hold about the nature of reality, as a result of our failure to question and explore the reality of our own experience more deeply than we already do.

So apparently, the requisite questioning and exploration can apparently be either of a spiritual nature (for example, by a thorough and persistent investigation of who you are or what you may be) as carried out by the sages of the world, or it can be purely scientific, as carried out by the more advanced scientists, such as David Deutsch.

From someone with a strong interest in both of these approaches, it is inspiring to see such a rapprochement!

Categories: Spirituality Tags: , ,

Do We Really Think?

May 15th, 2010 2 comments

In the quest to know ourselves, it is likely that, at some stage or other, we will attempt to observe our own thoughts. Indeed, doing so is central to most techniques which purport to lead to self-realisation.

After all, much of our lives appear to be dominated by our minds, and although we have physical senses, our experience of them is typically interpreted continually by the mind. So clearly, any insight that we can obtain into thoughts and thinking will be key to self-understanding.

Having undertaken quite a lot of meditation myself over the years, I have gradually come to get a sense of what goes on in my own mind, and I am expressing here conclusions based on my own experience.

The first observation I have is that thoughts appear to come to me more or less instantaneously. I am unable to identify anything that I could reasonably call “thinking” which takes any length of time. Rather the thoughts just arrive or occur (as in the expression “it occurred to me that”).

It is true that there is a time-based element in what happens subsequently. For example if I want to express the thought verbally, this process takes some time. However, I am not necessarily actually thinking while I speak. Rather I am just holding the memory of that thought and transcribing it. During that process I might realise (ie. have another instantaneous thought occurence) that a word that I was about to use could be improved with the substitution of another. So I can have another thought occurrence while the memory of the original thought was still there. But it appears to me that this is still not really a process of thinking per-se, but rather the subsequent occurrence of further related thoughts. So while the talking may appear to be continuous, there is no continuity in the process that fuels it ie. no “thinking” process.

An apparent contradiction here is how I can appear to be able to string coherent, related sentences together. Would that not imply some kind of thinking process going on?

I suspect that can be explained by the fact that when I focus on a particular topic, for example, the thoughts that occur to me do usually relate to that topic, and to one another – and the reason for that is because I am filtering thoughts ie. choosing to ignore or disregard any thoughts which are not relevant, which gives the impression that only relevant thoughts are occurring to me at all. It is a matter of where I am putting attention.

In those cases where extraneous thoughts do also appear, they are usually ones triggered by some form of sensorial input eg. I may hear a sound, or see something that apparently triggers a “distracting” thought. However, might it not be the case that all that happened here was that the change of attention from the topic of discussion to the distracting sound/sight simply caused my focus to change, and hence be receptive to thoughts relating to the distraction rather than the original topic?

So the picture that I am painting here is one in which

  • thoughts occur to us – and that therefore we do not “think” per-se
  • the subject of thoughts that occur to us depends on our current focus of attention
  • the focus of our attention may or may not be changed by distracting phenomena that we perceive

The conclusion that we don’t actually “think” may seem contentious, as it seems to imply either a lack of individual control over our thoughts, or that there is no personal creativity involved. However, I cannot deny that some of the thoughts that occur to me are creative ones. They can at times be funny, inspiring or even beautiful, for example. But if they appear instantaneously in my mind rather than being constructed by me in some kind of process, then what actually created them, and can I really take personal credit for them?

This kind of self-questioning is central to the teachings of Advaita (non-duality). The results of such enquiry may seem to go against common sense, but unless you are actually prepared to question what is commonly accepted as true without question, then can you be sure that it is?!

The Joy of Not Knowing Who You Are

April 18th, 2010 No comments

There is a common thread amongst spiritual teachings of various origins that suggests that we should seek to still our minds in order to see the reality that our incessant thought stream prevents us from seeing.

What would we see if we were able to detach ourselves from our thoughts, our memories, our imagination, our desires?

The usual experience is that it is very hard to just stop thinking, beyond a few seconds at least, and that isn’t normally enough to be able to experience anything much different from our normal state of being. Even in meditation it can take extensive practice to achieve any degree of mental stillness. So how do we know if the effort involved would really be worthwhile?

Fortunately there are some transient things that can give you a taste of this state. One of these happens to us every day – waking up.

When we awaken naturally (as opposed to an abrupt awakening by alarm, for example), there will often be a brief, perhaps just very brief, moment upon awakening when we become conscious and have an awareness of self, but our memory of who we are, where we are, or what our current life circumstances are haven’t yet fully arisen. Unless we are awakening from unpleasant dreams, this is usually experienced as a pleasant, perhaps even blissful state. It is only when the memory of “who we are” or what our circumstances are returns that we resume our normal life attitude, which is usually a mixture in various proportions of anticipation of, and memory of, pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

Another one is a little less common – but many people may experience it once in a while, and in my own case rather often. This is when you nearly lose consciousness due to lack of blood flow to the brain. This occurs to me often, mainly when getting up suddenly after sitting down for long periods. This is know as orthostatic hypotension. The exact nature of the experience varies from occasion to occasion, and although it almost never leads to a full loss of consciousness, it does lead to a partial loss of self-identity, and/or awareness of immediate circumstances, typically for several seconds or so.

I usually find this to be an oddly deeply pleasurable experience, and it seems I am not alone in this as the Wikipedia article mentions “euphoria” as a possible symptom. I certainly don’t try to provoke it happening, and always take preventative measures (bending over, lowering my head) as soon as I feel it starting, as I do not want it to lead to a loss of consciousness, the after effects of which are not very pleasant at all. However, what I am suggesting is that what is at the root of the pleasure in this experience,  is the halting of thought and hence forgetting of the self that occurs.

Due to the recent re-invigoration of my meditation regime, I have managed on a few occasions to substantially reduce my thought activity for a time, and the feelings/sensations that came with this were not dissimilar to those that I experience from the other circumstances I’ve just described above – perhaps not quite as intense, but definitely of a similar nature. So there certainly appears to be a pattern in this – and the suggestion that it is our own minds and egos that stand in the way of a blissful existence is looking very plausible, to me.

So while the spiritual teachings beseech us to know ourselves, and we might assume that means to know our own personalities and minds, I would suggest that what it actually means it to know ourselves beyond our personalities and minds.

So who are you when you stop thinking, and stop imagining yourself as a personality?

It may take some courage to let go, but it seems that there is real joy to be had from no longer knowing who you are – or at least who you thought you were, and instead experiencing yourself as pure awareness and being.

Principles to Live By – Freeing Yourself from Preconceptions

August 30th, 2009 No comments

"Relativity" by M.C.Esher

"Relativity" by M.C.Esher

The biggest limitation to your enjoyment of life, your personal fulfilment and your peace of mind is nothing other than your very own set of preconceptions about life and your situation in it.

The reality of life is that there is nothing that can make us unhappy other than our own thoughts about, and resistance to, what we experience around us.

If you are unhappy, irritated, sad, angry, jealous, agitated, it is because you are holding on to a mental conception of how you think things ought to be, and dwelling in that unrealistic state rather than connecting with the truth, simplicity and immediacy of what is, right now.

Here is a challenge for you. Next time you notice yourself making a negative mental comment about yourself or your circumstances, stop and ask yourself whether or not that mental comment or perception is necessarily actually true. Look deeply, try to find the root of it – what may have generated that perception in you in the past, why it might have become a pattern of thought for you, whether you have challenged that attitude in yourself before.

Some examples?

  • I’m no good at this.
  • Life has been very hard on me.
  • If only I could afford a nice place to live, I would be happy.

And some possible corresponding truths?

  • I’ve always believed I was not good at this and have therefore never really tried, or given up without giving it a proper chance. In any case, what does “no good” mean – do I mean absolutely no good, or just relative to some other people, or am I just talking about other people’s opinions that I have adopted? Even by those standards, there may be others have have done it better, but no doubt also many others who have done it worse. Relative to at least one other person, I’m probably better. Maybe they could even learn something from me. Etc…
  • No person ever has a totally hard or easy life. Many people whom I imagine have had an easy life in reality may have experienced many hardships that I just don’t know about. How can I say for sure that my life is harder than anyone else’s? Even if I know a lot about their life, and think that their circumstances make it easy, is it not possible that they have their own private inner torment, and that they in fact experience life as even harder than I have done? Etc…
  • If I look back, I can remember thinking that I would be happy if only lots of different things had happened, and by now in fact some of them have happened. And yet I am probably no more or less happy than I was then. Actually I am sometimes happy now anyway, at least if I’m not thinking about wanting a nicer place to live. And who’s to say that even if I bought an expensive house, I would soon get used to it and then start noticing lots of little things that weren’t as good as I had imagined. Etc…

So even if you still think or feel that something is probably true, just the recognition that there is at least a small possibility that it may not be true is enough to begin the process of freeing yourself, and allowing yourself to experience the current moment a little more fully, with greater presence, greater joy.

And from that point on, it is simply a matter of rinsing and repeating, rinsing and repeating. Each time you notice and challenge your own preconceptions, their grip upon you becomes diminished. Even though some patterns of thought may be deeply embedded and ingrained, a continuing process of self-observation will eventually wash them away, and leave you freer, lighter, and more alive.

Principles to Live By – Balance

July 18th, 2009 2 comments

I intend to write about some principles that I have found to be invaluable in my own life.

Obviously I am writing about them as ideals. As imperfect humans we do not always manage to manifest our ideals perfectly. However, maintaining the intention to do so is a powerful practice in its own right.

The first one I will tackle is balance.

Do you lead a balanced life? Are you a rounded person? Do you maintain balance and poise no matter what is happening around you? Or are there aspects of yourself which are a little out of kilter?

The principle of balance works in many ways, at many levels. For example

  • Physically – Are you equally strong on both sides of your body, or equally supple? Is your upper body more or less well developed than you lower body? Of course we do not have complete control over these things due to our genetics, past accidents or influences which have left their marks. But we do have control over how we sit, stand, move and exercise and whether we put more effort into our weaker areas than our stronger ones, and whether we focus too much on one type of exercise which might overdevelop one aspect of ourselves in relation to others.
  • Emotionally – Are you more or less emotionally strong or resilient than you are physically or mentally strong? Do you repress your emotions or are you perhaps too easily emotionally aroused or too quick to dump your emotions onto others? Do you willingly put yourself into situations which you know will challenge you emotionally, or are you emotionally timid?
  • Mentally – Can you see both sides of an argument? Having decided on something after reasoning it through, are you able to maintain your resolve? Or do you often allow your emotions to hijack your thoughts?
  • Spiritually – Do you have a voice of conscience, a set of morals or standards that inform your thoughts, feelings and actions? Are your standards too highly enforced, leaving you often feeling guilty and repressed in your humanness, or do you overindulge yourself and put your standards aside rather too often?

In all these things (and in other aspects of life too), working towards balancing ourselves invariably leads to a higher quality of life.

If you thoughtfully examine current affairs, news and world events, it is possible to see how lack of balance of one kind or another has contributed to tensions and turmoil. Almost all distress in life comes through lack of balance of one sort or another and although much of the distress that you feel may come principally through a lack of balance by other people, groups or nations, balancing ourselves lessens the likelihood that we will inflict harm on others, and thus reduce the endless cycle of action and reaction that often ensues from this.

Although it is often futile to attempt to moderate the extreme or unbalanced behaviour of others through mental persuasion, the example that you set in your own life can be far more subtly influential, at least to those near enough to you to experience your presence and state of being. And with the whole world being within just six degrees of separation, any positive influence you have within your own immediate life sphere can spread far and wide – probably much more so than you might imagine.

Good luck with your efforts at finding a dynamic balance!

And in future articles, I will be seeking to do my own bit by covering a healthy balance of topics.

Categories: Life Tags: , ,