What is it like for nothing to happen?

Painting the Earth. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England

Painting the Earth. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

As befits my contrarian nature, and whilst risking irritating some readers, I want to begin by asserting something unlikely to appeal to reason; that is to say, if we are fully aware, maximally aware, then nothing happens. This is a non-perceptual, albeit meditative, state of mental pellucidity alone; it is not a state of consciousness. How so? Consciousness per se denotes being ‘with knowledge’ – Latin: Con Scientia – and is commonly assumed synonymous with awareness. Still, as we are not ‘with knowledge’ in this maximal state1, let us for now term it ‘awareness’, analogously denoting what is akin to an illuminative trait of consciousness, as if it were to radiate light upon itself, rather as a solitary lantern illumines both itself and all. In conceptualising awareness this way, we ought not to do so as if it were being projected onto a sense datum, which falsely renders a dualistic, spatially separated conceit.

In this conception, consciousness is the appearance of ‘lit’ phenomena; it is being ‘with knowledge of (or as)’ something, having an inherent aboutness, meaning it is like being a particular way. Whilst awake (cognition persists when asleep), it is our knowing we are undergoing experience, or as some call this, ‘metacognition’. Pervading this aboutness is an illuminative quality which itself is devoid of discernible attributes, much in the way that light is indiscernible save that it illumines objects – as does our lantern both itself and surrounds, yet its radiating light forever remains unseen. This ‘light’ of awareness is not susceptible to recollection; nor is it stratified perceptually, e.g. oil lantern, gas lantern. Marked solely by lucidity and potency – potent, as our entire conscious world springs forth from it – objectless awareness rests both prior to, and as a constituent element of, all conscious cognition.

But is consciousness illumined, so to speak? Why not assume it identical to quantifiable, reflexively responding and infinitely recursive nervous system states? Are they not sufficient for, or constitutive of, apparent subjectivity? Do qualia, our characterised instances of the way things appear to us, by their hidden nature lead us to regard them as immaterial, unquantifiable by any methodology? Do naïve intuitions deceive us; ought we rather to take physical correlates as our only measures of consciousness? Some theorists may seek to explain away even consciousness itself, let alone permit of any intractable awareness. Otherwise, absenting any correlates to bodily states, Cognitive Science is ubiquitously disregarding; its precept seemingly ‘no content, no consciousness’; so an explanatory gap then appears between theorisations and an objectless awareness functionally analogous to light.

Various phenomenologies, Husserlian as well as Buddhistic and Advaitan conceptions alike, deem methodological approaches prerequisite to our addressing appropriately why there is something it is like for us to undergo physical processes in typified mind/body problems of consciousness. These remedies result in a suturing of both sides of this explanatory gap within a radical, enactive2 actualising of awareness such that theoretical constructs of the nervous system never broach in their intended technical remit. That actualisation ‘sees’ the irreducibility of experience and utter redundancy of resorting to reification of either the mental or physical, neither does it bind to any object vs. subject dichotomy. No scientific representation grants us the first-person immersion into the enactive2 nature of awareness necessary to suffice for resolving what are in, essence, manmade existential problems.

Still Drying. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

Still Drying. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

Why does any of this matter? Firstly, if objectless awareness is actualisable, then it must conform to any comprehensive theory of consciousness, and yet how might it? Research typically hypothesises higher order information processing and correlations between brain states and experience, as if they alone give rise to the subjective. Yet awareness remains neither any state of cognition or knowledge, nor is it a sleep state. It obtains without interfacing to memory functions, is devoid of aboutness, and presents as a featureless pellucidity and potent ground for nascent consciousness. It is as if a Tabula Rasa to that regarded as the conscious mind. It prima-facie exists; yet is not like anything. Ergo, we must account for it. Secondly, to address mind/body dilemmas effectively requires more than consensus, a template; it demands experienceable verification of aware mind’s enactive2, non-localised nature.

What is it like for nothing to happen? Thomas Nagel is often paraphrased in discussions on consciousness. He posited3 that there is always ‘something it is like’ to be conscious. In other words, to be conscious is for there to exist a unique, subjectively felt experience. Whilst this intimate aboutness is never descriptively reducible to a materialist paradigm of functions, intentional states, and higher order information processing, as in doing so we jettison the very thing we are attempting to describe – our apparent subjectivism as conscious beings, our personally felt experience – neither is it sufficient in accommodating a de facto objectless awareness. Hence Nagel’s trope is no use insofar as the state has no characteristics, is not a set of proliferations, and is utterly devoid of aboutness. Here, we can say little more than that it obtains, is accessible to any contemplative adept, and that it is well proven.

Remember the difficult opening statement: if we are fully aware, nothing happens. To be fully aware means not having its potency occluded by or in mentation. Thought is a product of concentration – a coalescing of attention around serial perceptual streams. Distractedness too is a mode of mental focusing, albeit with a rapid oscillation of attention. Yet maximal awareness rests prior to all thought and focusing of the mind, its illuminative nature being revealed in pellucidity and beingness only. It does not know itself as a reflected thing, so is not ‘conscious of awareness’. Nothing ‘happens’, whilst a potent, intuited presence pervades it. It may be accessed via first-person perspectival phenomenology, progressively reducing mental proliferations until the objectless awareness presents. To become adept in this practise requires skill and the overcoming of thought’s deep fear of its own absence.

What use is this experience? Firstly, it contextualises the nature of thought and results in a disidentification such that we cease feeling as if inhabiting thought neurotically. In turn this exposes the put-up job of self-sensing, and we see the ‘self-of-me’ as the narrative-based stream of mentation that it is. We feel a dramatic lessening in isolative self-consciousness, and a resultant tendency to attune empathically, with less cupidity. Our past omnipresent mental proliferations – i.e. chatter, worry – make way for a tranquil sense of immediacy and presence, whilst both subject and object, as apprehended, are clearly understood as psychical constructs alone, and ‘though obtaining still, they cease distancing us emotionally as we know they arise in unicity. Lastly, the subtly relentless interplay of desire and aversion is increasingly pacified as our innately given, indwelling contentedness surfaces unbidden.

In conclusion then, the purpose here is to float a provisional notion that no matter the sophistication and accuracy of our scientific representations of consciousness, of themselves they can never produce anything other than a reflected and partial understanding, one sufficient for our advancement in many spheres, but in others paling against consciousness’ full realisation of itself, as itself, rather than as an image of itself. Any direct actualisation will bestow benefits upon individuals to whom it appears, even though in their descriptions of the same they necessarily, and can only, evoke paradoxical, and hence unsatisfactory, an accounting for it. As such, the explanatory gap spoken of earlier can exclusively be sutured in a first-person apprehending, and a significant advancement towards that is this esoteric exposure to a maximal awareness. I welcome hearing readers’ views on any flaws herein.


1 Related research paper:  http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00099

2 Enactivism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enactivism

3 T. Nagel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_it_Like_to_Be_a_Bat%3F


Contentedness embodied (Part Two)

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Ethiopian Cleaning Ladies. By Steve Evans, London

Having previously seen that our everyday apprehending of the world and phenomena comes about via mental representations, we can now consider awareness as it runs more pervasively, seeing how any fundamental sense of contentedness may relate to this. Naturally, the mirror of consciousness continues to perceive reflectively, reflexively, and selectively throughout all psychological states, and our sensory systems persist in routine modes of functioning. The vast flood and flux of sensory data cannot all be reflected in the mind’s mirror, for it would instantly be overwhelmed and rendered unable to navigate the world. So it is that beneath the representations of mind we call consciousness, the brain’s algorithms select and time-shift events, order priorities, and focus attention, all of which occur beyond our ken. What we take to be the world is a composite, selective rendering of sense imagery, in isolation being distanced from any innate reposefulness.

It is worth reminding ourselves what this innate repose or contentedness is – a quality embodied via immanence, that is, from within. Put simply, it is our natural state prior to the mind’s overlay and manipulation of desire and aversion. Many may object to the idea that their lives are guided by these seemingly lower, or animal, impulsions, and that is due to them not being seen in their full subtlety. At a gross level are craving and hatred, yet myriad finer gradations subsist beneath, often running subliminally as if assumptions, though still impelling action in the mind and world. These we can term desire and aversion, and when they obtain, a level of discontent must logically persist. This too may run subtly, and in its ubiquity we may well deny its very existence. Many consider themselves to feel reasonably content; yet one cannot be so, any more than one can be partially pregnant. Contentedness is an absolute; it does not arrive in gradations of feeling.

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Mother and Child in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

We read above both of awareness as well as consciousness, and how the latter may isolate us from contentedness. Consciousness means being ‘with knowledge’, so refers to objects reflected in the mirror of mind; it is all of the phenomena known as thoughts, memories, imaginings, sights, feelings, scents, tastes, and sounds. Awareness, as connoted here, is the illumination of these phenomena – the lucid yet blank slate upon which the objects of consciousness are inscribed, as it were. The two are not mutually exclusive to themselves or to the body, and the three comprise an integrated unicity. In any isolative consciousness, desire and aversion have free rein, and the triumvirate’s innate contentedness is obscured. When a balance is struck in accentuating awareness, contentedness may arise via immanence. The stuff of consciousness is then seen as the psychical objects they are, no longer serving as agents for desire and aversion, and we are freed of all discontent.

That is quite enough of the dry technicalities; so let us now look at how awareness is accentuated. The flavour of this is analogous to a feeling of ventilating the mind, or of dropping the narrow grasping at objects of consciousness and letting the mind breathe more freely. We seldom realise how much we grasp at sense objects, and typically these will be visual or verbal in nature. Even when we close our eyes in a silent, darkened room, still the mind grasps at an internal monologue; or in sleep, the mind grasps at visual imagery in dreams. Abhorring a vacuum, the mind clings to some semblance of familiarity, or seeks patterns, however fantastical in nature. The trick is to turn awareness upon itself, rather than having consciousness run free. Now, awareness is objectless; it is just the mind resting in radiant lucency. This means it cannot grasp or be grasped at, so the first thing to do is to relinquish that stance, as if being asleep whilst remaining wide awake.

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Göttweig Abbey, Austria. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

Try this: Gently ask yourself now where awareness is, not where attention is placed, but where awareness itself is. Is it within your head, or maybe in thought alone; is it now residing in the blurred, opaque visual forms of your nose that you seldom notice, or perhaps on the screen where these shapes appear? Is it in the words you hear inside your head, whether these or your own commentary? Just become intimate with awareness itself now, having realised there is no answer. Remain curious, yet without grasping, without seeking out answers, without driving attention along. Let consciousness fall asleep, savouring instead the deliciousness of a ventilated mind, sensing how awareness has expanded as consciousness nods off. You will not quell the mind entirely, but you will balance your body and consciousness with awareness. It begins to feel pleasant as you turn from subtle desires and aversions to awareness, yet lose interest even in that pleasantness now too.

As we develop this technique alongside any mindfulness practices we may engage in, a disinclination inevitably develops towards the former grasping stance of the self-centric, unrestrained, conscious mind. We see that it was superfluous for the most part, as well as emotionally wearying, and that we function perfectly well with it attenuated and pacified. We steadily become more balanced as we go about our affairs, and desire and aversion continue to fade over time. When conditions are conducive, contentedness will arise, being sensed as a perfectly equanimous psychological freedom arising from within. Our presence-in-being feels both vitalised and delightful; so too consciousness itself becomes at once more vibrant yet tranquil. We cease to divide the world neurotically into a point of centrality, thought to be the subject of ‘me here’, and entitative objects, or ‘things out there’. Awareness appears seamless and non-local, as it is. Contentedness becomes embodied.

No carrots mummy

Chinese Buddhist monk. 1,050-1,150 CE. Drents Museum, Nederlands

Chinese Buddhist monk. 1,050-1,150 CE. Drents Museum, Nederlands

Faded salmon pink. No longer much give in the wool. Twenty and more years lining these corridors of quietude. Silent, ownerless footsteps. Not even that. Just a delicious, slow, rolling sensation of movement and pressure. Release; airborne. Now reappearing on the other side. Side of what? Subtle intimations of cedar incense mixed with the ubiquitous scent of layers of aging beeswax, each applied watchfully to the old pinewood architraves every winter. Upon the tray I hold, more scents rise from the day’s one full meal. The pealing bells of the church far below the monastery grounds just carry on the stilled autumnal air as I pass the last window before entering my cell. The silence is working now; a few days into the retreat and I can hear it; see the tranquil hush. I set down carefully; cutlery; attention. A last look out onto the closing day of the garden. Bliss in mind.

Many thousands of meals before, each inattentively consumed over chatter or thinking or impatience or just about anything other than the meal itself. The autopilot takes control; I’ve done this so many times I’m bored with the process; the robot is dreaming. This time it’s different. Everything matters. Everything is exquisitely alive and silent. A taster: something – I have no concern for whatever it is – rotates slowly within space. All this thingless something is comprises only colour and form – orange tones and a cylindrical shape with one beveled edge; the whole gaining in size over a slow pirouette. Absolutely captivating. A revolving revolution in perception. What just died within me in these moments, I wonder? It feels as though my past way of apprehending the world is mummified, still within, yet without use. A cognitive skeleton denuded of past meanings.

In Joachim Gasquet’s ‘Cézanne, – a Memoir with Conversations’ (1897 – 1906), Paul Cézanne, during the final years of his life said that “The day is coming when a single original carrot will give birth to a revolution”. He was talking about observing something directly, and then painting it in the very personal way it is seen, rather than by the book, so to speak. You have to be a true artist to do that, and I am not one of any kind. And yet each of us, even those with wits as dull as my own, may observe the world directly at times. What does that mean? It is the act of pure perception, and the purity is the absence of contaminating thought. Most of the time, when we see, the mind brings along a retained perceptual knowledge that loosely fits what is seen. This is the thought that knows the carrot is a carrot. That is mostly useful, as when needing to distinguish perceptual activity conceptually.

CT-Scan reveals mummified monk (possible self-mummification)

CT-Scan reveals mummified monk (possible self-mummification)

This process of verifying what we apprehend with our store of perceptual knowledge becomes ingrained, and we ourselves are imperceptibly released into a world of concepts, seldom to escape. It isn’t that we use probative words, such as ‘this is a carrot’; yet the knowledge that is synonymous with that idea is brought along with the pure perception, most of the time entirely unnecessarily yet without in the least discommoding us. Everything works, even though we remain one step removed from our actuality. And again, much of the time we need to know that the shape and form approaching us across the savannah is a lion; or that the appearances of vaporous clouds above liquid indicate extremes of temperature. By far the greater part of our lives is lived in a stream of mentation, of conceptual referencing. So this is a world of otherness, of ‘carrots’, ‘lions’ and ‘kettles’.

The Pyrrhonists of ancient Greece used the term ‘epoché’ to denote the suspension of this conceptual stream, and in modern times Edmund Husserl popularised the term in his phenomenology. Whenever this suspension occurs, not only do we become freed from the world of concepts, but the running assumptions of subject and object also dissipate. There is only what T.S. Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’. In mundane terms, we no longer possess any knowledge that we have a carrot on our fork and are about to eat it; all that comprises the entire world is shape and form, colour and movement, scent and feeling. The very greater part of our cognitive apparatus becomes temporarily mummified, preserved for another world, the world of concepts and ideas, thoughts and memories. The skeletal frame of our cognitive apparatus sits perfectly still.

I return the tray to the trestle table that two tonsured recluses have just erected downstairs beside the kitchen entrance, and walk slowly out into the monastery gardens with a mug of tea. Now resting on a varnished wooden bench beside a large algae-covered bubbling stone, the senses settle into their own slow rhythm, each a delicious presentation of a world that I am neither part of nor separate from. The freedom of not being anywhere. The view from nowhere. A bee, out to collect the last of the summer’s pollen, and perhaps sensing harmlessness, loudly passes inches from my nose and I feel the breeze its wings create upon my face. There is no desire, no aversion, none of the subtle awkwardness of my own self-aware existence. There is just a bee bee-ing. A marble Buddha stands watch in an arched hollow of the honeyed-limestone wall, and we all share smile.

Fork waters

Terrain 1. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

Terrain 1. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

I swim in currents of sensory stimuli; each illuminating with a greater or lesser lucency the waters I navigate. That which glows brightest through the fluids of potential experience causes awareness to snorkel in its direction. Relentlessly, forks appear in the pelagic wanderings of my life, and a selection is to be made as to my orientation. What determines any choice and propels me along this fork or that, remains opaque to me for the most part; it simply happens. Once in a while, I am forced to surface, to tread water and reflect. I am at what appears to be a critical bifurcation; my decision determines whether I sink or swim. Or so it appears as such to me.

With a shift in perspective, I see that the myriad forks which appear before me are of but a single perceptual stream, all a flowing continuum within a singular oceanic awareness. It is a life analogous to liquid in so much as it may course freely in all directions, yet remains within a torrent of unicity I see reflected in memory as life. One moment I funnel through tributaries, the next I am the limitless ocean. Now I apprehend only the flotsam, and next I behold the very depths. One is not distinct from the other; it is all but a frame of reference as to what makes it seem so. I cannot choose the ordering; yet in possessing a degree of buoyancy my drowning is spared.

And what if I seldom perceive the oceanic; what if my experience comprises solely the blind propulsion of the senses? Before too long, I feel inundated; my buoyancy begins to fail me; I am sinking. Wading onto shores beyond these metaphors, I may speak of becoming stressed, or increasingly prone to anxiety. Everywhere I look I see only chaotic presentations of imagery. None of it runs together seamlessly. Everything is fractured and pulling me in differing directions; I become exhausted and confused at the brutal cleaving of percept from sense. The mind aches for tranquillity, for perspective; objecting to objectifications, it hearkens for signs of peace.

How may the mind hear them, and what comprises such signs of peace? To hear distinctly requires a soundscape of silence. Only against such a backdrop can each sign be made distinct. In any cacophony we hear all and nothing at once. So, we come back to the body, to the silent knowledge of our being which some regard as presence. We hear the sound of silence, feel our occupation of pellucid space, and simply know that we are. Try this: At the end of this paragraph, the word ‘peace’ appears. As your eyes settle on that word, hold the vision whilst drawing back telescopically into a sense of beingness, feeling the space you occupy. This is our sign of peace.

Terrain 2. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

Terrain 2. By Béla Borsodi, Vienna

This simple technique is a refuge from the storm of sensory stimuli. It can be applied in any situation, for we are never apart from ourselves. When we find our mind inundated, when the cacophony appears, we come back to our silent knowledge of being. First, attend to a single sense, such as the breath as felt at the nostril or in the movement of the abdomen, then hold to that whilst telescopically drawing back as before into feeling the space you occupy. As we become skilled in this, which takes many repetitions, we find the body is flooded with feelings of calm; a suffusion of delight supplants the incipient stressfulness and a sanctuary is found within.

The perception of chaos and the inhabitation of a stressed mind both result from our estrangement from the simple peace of being. We instead dwell in a frightened and confused self-narrative which feeds off a heedless attentiveness. Undirected, our attention causes that which was first spoken of, and once again we face a cascading of the senses, an onslaught of forks in a fast-flowing river. We frantically attempt to plot our course, yet are diverted in wrong directions incessantly. Time speeds up; we fight to control our chaotic mind and are caught in a story disordered by a random pagination. Stop. Rest now in the sound of silence and at the sign of peace.

Even when life flows serenely, we still may take delight in our sense of beingness. That is because it is innately delightful, not by dint of contrast, for it is what we are in essence – silent, peaceful, contented. Many tend to disbelieve this; they assume there’s a wishful spinning of thought, some naïve New Age trope-mongering or similar. Or they envisage a labyrinthine teleological path needs pursuing to reveal the truth of it. This is not so; it is all much simpler and immediate; we are not seeking the apotheosis of Nondualism or Zen. On first hearing such an assertion, one may well feel dismissive, for what earthly use are silence, peace and contentedness?

We come back to sensory fragmentation, to the renegade and perfidious attentiveness which renders life episodically fractured and jarring. Rather than seeing the complete picture – a unified presentation of myriad fluxing phenomena – we see the whole divided, apprehending what we think of as unrelated imagery in thought and physical impressions. Though artfully contrived, the photographs here demonstrate the mind’s perfidy as perspective shifts; the unity of a single scene fragments into four quarters. Discerning the integrated wholeness, awareness is known as it is and always was; the mind quietens; the body pacifies, and we are reposeful.


Dog spider dreams

A colour woodcut by Yamamoto Shōun, 1906

A colour woodcut by Yamamoto Shōun, 1906

The world is as it seems; the world is not what it seems. We each of us hold to either statement in any given moment. For the greater part, we incline to the former; yet now and again must hold to the latter. How can the world be other than it seems; it is self-evident is it not? That is how we go about our days; at least, until reason supervenes and we see the evidence is faked.

Example: I observe a Heron on the far side of the river, for a while admiring its own still and statuesque beauty. My world is at one with nature, with this creature; I feel connected, blessed in some minor way. And then in an instant I see that the Heron is in fact a torn grey plastic bag that has become tangled in the distant bushes. The world is no longer what it seemed to be.

None of us knows how frequently appearances in awareness deceive us. We may wrongly think that instances such as I experienced with the ‘Heron’ are quite rare. Our minds create narratives from sensory input; and if all seems plausible, we take it that the world is as it seems. We render sensible our sense data, so believing our narrative always to be rational.

And yet we are not as reasoned as we would like to think, and are thrown into irrational responses very easily. There is a video on YouTube that demonstrates this point well; you can view it in the comments section below. So far, this video has been viewed well over 122,000,000 times. It went viral because what it shows is implausible, yet remains quite scary.

Night & Sleep. Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

Where do dreams begin and end? We tend to think of them as obtaining uniquely to our sleeping state. Some say they convey significant indicative messages; and doubtless this is so at times. Am I in the midst of a dream when I mistake a plastic bag for a Heron; and what might it possibly mean? Perhaps only that at that time I desired to experience beauty in the world.

Our notions of reality are just that, notional. They are suggestions we make to ourselves, perhaps formed upon tested theories; yet they remain only internalised representations of some collective otherness. And we never can quite know if our suggestions are true to that otherness, one which we regard as external to us. We are awake yet never know if we are dreaming.

Rationality is the arbiter; with reason, inference, syllogism, deduction and so forth, we distinguish any reality from our dreams. This all takes time; and whilst we have a hyper-fast form of reason known as intuition, this cannot be summoned by force of will. Most of the time, we depend upon our plodding reason to determine what we may come to regard as reality.

Example: At 3.30 a.m. I cross a deserted walkway, approaching the elevator to ascend a multi-level carpark. The lift apparatus forms muffled sounds which reverberate in its ghostly enclosure. As the doors open, I see a dead body on the floor, astride of which is a giant spider, some 3 ft. in span. It scuttles towards me; I run terrified from the scene, far too fast for reason.

The spider. Nikolaos Gyzis, 1884

The spider. Nikolaos Gyzis, 1884

Logic tells me that this event cannot be what it seems: there are no giant spiders; and if there were, we would not share elevators with them. And yet confronted with the situation I described, how would you react? Would you call on your theory that giant spiders are very scary, and run like hell just as I did, terrified? Or would you stand your ground rationalising the event?

In life, there frequently is no time to think before we act. We respond to the world based upon theories we hold about life generally, our past conditioning, and perhaps some genetic predispositions. To some extent we inhabit a reverie; we dream of our wakened state, seldom realising as much. So, our theories and our conditioning determine much of our life.

To recap: We never know to what degree our experience is purely imaginal. Only a fraction of our lives do we have time to endorse experience with reason. We unwittingly and perhaps frequently enter dream-states whilst awake, however fleetingly. Our life is a narrative formed of both dream-states and influences of the actual; so what we take to be reality is notional.

If you wish to view the video I refer to within this piece, please do so in the comments section below. Place yourself in the various scenes depicted and gauge your reactions as they unfold. Only with experience does knowledge about ourselves absorb fully; yet still we can imagine mock scenarios to good effect. You may find, just as I did, that you too have dog spider dreams.






Rivers of anticipation

Photography: J. Lau, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

Photography: J. Lau, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

I check the post, make a few calls, and then, beneath a cerulean sky, I wander over to Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street, where Jamaican Blue Mountain and croissants await, just as they do each workday. It’s going to be a fine start to the week, the mood feels good, and even the West End’s down-and-outs seem chipper at their day’s prospects. As I sip my coffee, I look forward to the visit of a very dear old friend back at my office, and also to the evening, when the two of us are off to see Oscar Peterson at the club ‘round the corner on Frith Street. In between, there’ll be fascinating anecdotes about my friend’s recent tour of South America. My mood balloons with each sip, each bite, and each expectant thought; I just know this will be an unforgettable day.

These anticipatory rivers flowed within me on the morning of Monday 26th of October 1981. Yet as I exit the patisserie, I feel a palpable tension rushing the veins of Soho; police trot purposefully along Greek Street up towards Soho Square, staccato bursts of urgent voices, mixed with static, crackle through walkie-talkies, the stressed faces of the officers betray to all that trouble is in the air. Earlier that morning, just a stone’s throw away, two taciturn young Irishmen had discretely descended to the basement of the Wimpey burger restaurant on Oxford Street. And just 29 minutes before, the IRA had issued their customary warning to Scotland Yard. In a few seconds, an explosives officer’s career will end abruptly, along with his life, in what I will feel and hear as a single dull ‘thwomp’.

Our days pass peering into the future expectantly; tidal streams of anticipation ebb and flood the estuarine contours of the mind as we imaginatively envision how our life will be in the next minute, hour, day, or year. Some even project as to the quality of their putative afterlife; whereas others illogically dread their inevitable non-existence. The colouration imbued within these projections reflects our character; we may conjure a Panglossian narrative in which all will be well in this, as Leibniz would have it, the best of all possible worlds; or we sense only foreboding as the weeping prophet of selfhood cries upon the shoulder of the Jeremiah within. These are the extremes of our anticipatory tendencies, the majority of which lean more to moderation.

It can be instructive to examine this ubiquitous tendency to anticipate, as for many of us, this necessary faculty is overused to the point of abuse. One may ask what harm may be done in our habitual projecting; to be forewarned is to be forearmed is it not? And yet, if it is Doctor Pangloss diagnosing optimistically within the cranial ward, we absorb only into a quasi-magical wish fulfilment, which in truth protects us from nought and holds reality in abeyance. On the other hand, should our own homunculus take on the character of the biblical weeping prophet, we then are rendered transfixed in a similar stasis of inaction. A useful moderator is to mindfully observe these internal patterns; in this way, we gain balance between a helpful preparedness, caution and idealism.

Any seasoned meditators reading here will know all too well the flow of their own anticipations. ‘Just sit’ the Roshi and Rishi advise, as if it were the simplest of instructions. Yet even as discursive thinking is allayed, and the mind pacifies in spaciousness, there still may at times be felt a momentum as expectation navigates awareness from one moment to the next; a subtle grasping at the immediate future; an almost imperceptible bumping along the tracks of time. Whilst this is an extremely subtle state of affairs, there remains a certain time thievery which brooks no interruption and seeks only now-ness in a curious denial of its presence. There’s a misguided, neurotic neediness to anticipate awareness itself as the busying homunculus within rejects all offers of an early retirement.

As I have aged, I increasingly distrust the mind’s projections about the world and my place in it, having come, slowly, to recognise their unreliability. I acknowledge also just how much of the life gifted to me has been squandered as I dwelt in expectation of this or that occurrence. Events turn out differently; just as they did for both Officer Kenneth Howorth and myself 33 years ago to this very day. With my quarter of the West End in virtual lockdown, my dear friend feels unable to visit; Oscar remains holed-up at The Dorchester; and I return home in the afternoon only to discover cause for the ending of a relationship. A river of anticipation forms; I surely face only this inhospitable tundra of the emotions; my past with its imagined securities detonates – ‘thwomp’.

The condensation of thought

Photography: Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet, U.S. Army

Photography: Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet, U.S. Army

I live in a wing of a building of seventeenth century origin, and which is situated on the waterlands of the Somerset Levels. It’s rather ramshackle in a charming way; the current roof superstructure envelops the original thatched one for example. The walls are ludicrously overbuilt in terms of their structural integrity, being a good two feet thick. Then again, due to them resting directly upon a formerly afforested sea-bed, and so subject to imperceptible undulations from the constantly shifting peat grounds beneath, it’s as well that they are so in order to grant something level on these un-level levels, and which nature might otherwise topple in time.

My bedroom windows are of the older variety: sash-style, timber framed with large iron counterbalances attached to rope pulleys which hoist the single glazed panels. Due to the absence of any effective thermal barrier, then as my body loses water overnight due to respiration and transpiration, so it is that much of the same deposits itself on the thin glass of those panels in a process of reverse vaporization. This occurs as the vapours cool in proximity to the glass, and when the outside temperature is lower than that of my bedroom. When I awaken each morning and peer out, the world appears opaque and hard to discern.

What also happens upon awakening is that I begin to generate thoughts. My brain rises in temperature and excites, sending vapours of thought-forms out into awareness. These are seldom very interesting. It feels like an involuntary purging that the mind obligatorily accommodates in its role as facilitator of the grey matter’s largely vapid outpourings, a few of which pass muster, yet by far the greater part of which do not. So there is this transpiration of thought-forms that echoes the nightly issuance of watery vapours into the air. And what are the effects of this? Again, they are analogous: the reality of life appears opaque and hard to discern.

Some may argue that for them this is not so, and that reality appears in pellucid clarity upon awakening: ‘It’s a nice day; It’s going to be fun in the office; I bet that new recruit was impressed by what I said to her; I’ll take her for a drink later; I’d better wear those snazzy new boxer-shorts today’. Yes, for this person, the world is perfectly clear, so much so that they even anticipate what may happen within it as apparent certainties. There’s no opaqueness, there’s nothing that’s hard to discern. The weather will stay fair; so their colleagues will be in a good mood; and the new recruit will undoubtedly succumb to their further charms.

So which of us is being more realistic? Is it the person who discriminates as regards their condensations of thought, seeing them for what they are in actuality, or is it the person who inhabits them as their world itself? This begs the question as to what is the meaning of clarity. We can have clarity of thought; we can be ruthlessly logical in our discursive thinking, such that it becomes impermeable to effective opposition from the vapours of other’s thoughts. This is all well and good up to a point. Additionally though, we can have clarity about the nature of thought itself. This, I would suggest, is a necessary prerequisite of knowledge.

How then, can one tell if another has clarity? It cannot be ascertained by the precision of their words, nor by their eloquence or poetic beauty. Neither can it be known by the other’s purposefulness, nor their piercing gaze. Perhaps the better indicators come in observing a certain coolness or insouciance within the emotional stance of the person projecting their thoughts. Such attitudes may indicate a lack of attachment to the mind’s projections – the narratives it cleaves to as part of an identity construct. Another indication is the willingness of someone to laugh readily at themselves; this too indicates clarity of thought on the human condition.

As soon as we think, or indulge any form of mentation, there’s a greater or lesser condensation of thought. There’s a reverse vaporization that to some extent renders the world opaque and hard to discern as it truly is. The condensation smears out across the window of pristine awareness, fabricating incredibly intricate patterns and rivulets as it does so. To gain true clarity, we need not attempt to overcome thought though. True clarity arises with the focused seeing of the condensation, with the knowing of its same one-dimensionality as the glazing, and with the overarching vision as to a beyond of the pane itself – all of this at once.


Where is awareness?

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney


At this moment, awareness is occurring for you; it’s creating experience; it’s creating the appearance of sounds inside your head and dancing with pixelated images upon a screen. Perhaps it’s also creating a backdrop of planning or judgemental thoughts along the lines ‘can I be bothered reading this?’ and ‘I’ll skim this and then grab a coffee’. Or maybe it’s creating irritable feelings now because an imperceptible flash of thought came to regard your dancing partner as presumptive. Can you say what appeared in that awareness over the past twenty seconds?

It’s rather complex isn’t it? When we look closely at this phenomenon, using memory or introspection, we begin to see that the intricate nature of awareness almost eludes thorough examination. Unless the mind is in a particularly concentrated state, then awareness is an ephemeral flux of sense representations such that knowing it retrospectively in its exquisite detail becomes almost too much a task. We know that, just then, our mood was such and such, or that, just then, certain verbal forms appeared; yet to know its true intricacy in recall is a problem.

Why should this be so? One answer is that in remembering, we’re creating an artificial locality of it; we’re referencing it internally as if there were some store of it within the cranial cavity. If you ask yourself now what your awareness presented during the first hour of today, you may find your eyes avert to mid-space as attention reaches back into the head to haul out an answer. We close down externality and direct the attention inwards so as to remember. This process indicates to us that we regard awareness as somehow storable, recallable, and localised.

What this means is that we regard awareness as a faculty of a subject. We presume there to be contained within the body a subject with agency – an entity with doer-ship, authorship and a receiver of what comes to be experience. This subject thinks that in some vague way, awareness is successively channelling towards it. Either this, or it loosely conceives of awareness as being able to stretch out into the world from say, the eyes, the nose or the ears, again creating a conduit along which it runs. So we regard this awareness as localised around a central subject of agency.

Sometimes though, it may be seen that awareness is in fact non-local; and when this occurs, it is also seen to be non-dual. To be strictly accurate, this occurrence is an instance of it seeing itself; again, as both non-local and non-dual. That is to say, it knows itself as itself rather than being mediated by an apparent subject. This subject – the imagined experiencer of experience – vanishes as a running aspect of awareness; and with its non-appearance, all notions of otherness vanish too. Now when this occurs, the question of locality is rendered meaningless.

As what’s just been stated may sound rather esoteric or fanciful, then for those who perceive it as such, I propose a little experiment. Whilst far from there being any certainty that this non-locality will be apprehended precisely as such, what will become apparent is that the question of locality is at least dubious. If we are able to arrive at this point of questioning, then dependent upon whatever inquisitiveness is brought forth, further exploration may follow. As the entirety of experience is but awareness, then this experiment is surely worthy of consideration.

It’s important that during this experiment we release all our knowledge, ideas and assumptions about awareness and our own being. So for now, forget about photons and sound waves channelling towards you; drop all that and just be aware along the lines instructed, remaining open to all possibilities as well as impossibilities.  This means allowing paradox to rest in the mind if responses appear to logic as such. Now, enquire what response you may make after very slowly, and with exquisite attentiveness, having read out aloud the following two paragraphs:

“I am very slowly reading aloud the words on my screen. I will remember to remain exquisitely attentive to awareness itself, not to ideas about its location, or where attention is placed, but to awareness itself. Read slower. Can I sense awareness now? I will rest for a few seconds in answering this: can I sense awareness now, without thought, without grasping, can I sense awareness now? Be utterly silent now . . . I am reading aloud slowly once more. I am beginning to feel the intimacy of awareness; as I grasp at it with the mind, that intimacy disappears.”

“I am aware of a blurring in the field of vision caused by the protrusion of my nose and which interrupts the lines of sight of my two eyes. This blurring in my visual awareness disappears in flashes as I concentrate hard on the words; now harder still. Why am I doing this? This is stupid and now I’m starting to feel uncomfortably self-conscious. Never mind, I am intensely aware of the process and am paying exquisite attention. By the end of this paragraph, which I see in peripheral vision is just coming up, I must know where this intense awareness is located. Where is it?”

So, photons were channelling through space; thoughts were channelling within the cranial cavity; sound waves channelled both through space and bodily tissue from your throat to your ears, and feelings channelled within your body and limbs. But awareness was not channelling, and this is because awareness has no locus and is itself not spatially referenced. It references phenomena and entities spatially, whilst being devoid of any locus itself. Eyes, ears, brain and nervous system are necessary causal participants, though are not locations of awareness.




Wasting time – an expert’s view

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary


How do you waste your time; how do you squander what surely is that most precious asset and which itself comprises all that ever is, and ever was, your life? Maybe you gawp mindlessly at the TV, prevaricate over what needs to be done, fixate upon the inconsequential, or seek perfection in what is never perfectible. What’s your preferred choice?

Or maybe you don’t waste time at all. Maybe your life is so driven and full of purpose that you dare not waste a minute of it. So you fill it with your productivity and goal-seeking, with reaching attainment and a sense of betterment. Days pass with what seems an increasing rapidity; the horizon of life foreshortens in your mind; you’re thirsting for time.

I spent the early part of my adulthood transitioning from a seemingly innate ability to waste time effortlessly, to doing so with a lot of effort. My student days amounted to a masterclass in wilful underachievement and insouciance. I could have written the book on it had I not then inclined to passing my time in a netherworld of do-nothing-ness.

Slowly, and a little reluctantly at first, I learned how to waste my time through piling effort into everything I did. I went into business and worked long hours in London’s West End – Soho, the then grimy part – six days a week, ten hours a day. I made money as the business grew, but was still just wasting time in never approaching my life’s purpose.

So there came a point when I needed to take stock of this time wasting. I was pretty darned good at it, though always sensed the profligate life was misdirected. I came to realise my squandering simply served no meaningful purpose at all; and it slowly became evident that behind each purposeless day was an undeniable pull towards contentedness.

And this was my life’s purpose; it was to find that contentedness. If you think deeply about it, you’ll realise that this too is your purpose. It’s true to say that however you’re wasting your time, or however furiously you’re employing your time, the fundamental motivation is to know this sense of contentedness. Peel away the layers and you come to just this.

We fixate upon our means of feeling secure, of feeling loved, of feeling respected, of feeling knowledgeable, of feeling better than, of feeling worthy, of feeling wiser, of feeling acknowledged . . . there’s no need to continue; it’s a very long list. And yet all of these means fixate upon layers of experience that themselves can never produce contentedness.

And contentedness is the fundament of what it is that we want from life; it is, to that extent, the very purpose of our lives. If we look at our aspirations, and at the way we structure and pursue our life, we find the primary catalyst and motivation is contentedness. As we don’t know how to approach it directly, we get side-tracked in a host of fixations.

In a very real sense we’re wasting time. It’s not that our relationships, our careers or our learning are futile. These pursuits have purpose and meaning, and at times can be emotionally fulfilling. Yet they never of themselves create contentedness in any profoundly felt sense of the term. Contentedness has a passivity beyond all pursuit or endeavour.

This all begs a question of course: how do we live in accordance with our needs and obligations without wasting time? This is also to ask what practical measures we may take so as to keep in sight our most deep-seated objective – the actualised emotional and psychological state of contentedness. So how can we use our time so as to fulfil this purpose?

A key requisite is to remain contemplatively aware of our intentions; and in particular, to explore the emotional causes of those intentions. In this way, we penetrate the superficiality of desire and becoming, so side-stepping the superfluous and vain. We’re now free to approach our life’s purpose; we cease squandering time and follow a path to contentedness.

Such a path necessitates this monitoring of our intentional stance – what emotional attitude underpins my current state of being? We’re almost always taking some stance or other, though mostly are unaware of it. Usually, there’s an aspect of desire, aversion, or of an inclining towards becoming which is rooted in self-identity – an attempt to morph the self.

This monitoring of our intentional stance is a highly practical measure that unravels the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ of our time wasting. It takes no effort, and can be applied during, or prior to, both mundane and critical events. Starting with the little things, we ingrain the awareness as a habit; as it becomes second nature we apply it to the bigger picture too.

We’re not automatons; nor are we slaves to old ways. In exploration we find a way out, so spending our time in fulfilment rather than seeking it. Examining life, we discover that behind all we ever sought was to rest contentedly in it. Life isn’t a becoming; there’s no arrival in seeking, and no enduring fulfilment in what’s sought. So why waste time in this way?


Nonsense and non-duality

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

Photography: C. Frank Starmer, Singapore

For those unfamiliar with the term, Nondualism is a philosophical principle emanating primarily out of Hindu culture and spirituality. It asserts the possibility of viewing all experience devoid of implicit notions of subjectivity and objectivity, of selfhood and otherness. This positing of an awareness undifferentiated by any assumed subject or self, has perceived similarities with many philosophical and religious traditions, from Mystical Christianity through Sufism to Zen Buddhism.

Whilst descriptions of the non-dual principle differ culturally, it remains broadly identical in concept. The experience of non-duality, meaning the actualised knowledge of it, this however, escapes any verbal description. Because of this, and due also to its sporadic actualisation, the tenet itself is open to widely divergent interpretations even amongst adepts. We could also say that any and all interpretation fails at the outset, as the knowledge is itself not susceptible to any mode of conceptualisation.

Nondualism is a profound and almost elusively subtle principle, and one which has gained increasing traction in The West. And yet it’s not merely an abstraction, not simply a philosophical construct nor a fanciful religious hypothesis. It’s ascendance in Western culture is no accident, and neither is its durability, it having been rigorously tested for three millennia. So the lived actualisation of this impersonal, non-dual awareness was seemingly always latent within the human animal.

Okay, so that’s a very general outline of the subject of this article. Yet what of its significance here, for those interested in psychological and emotional well-being? When the chips are down and life’s tricky, what’s in it for you and me? Is there any usefulness in this obscure principle of non-duality; can it extend meaning beyond the dusty confines of philosophical discourse and can we come face to face with it in daily life? With the audacity of a little hope, we can surely say ‘maybe’.

And yet it’s not actually a case of hope, and certainly not one of belief. Non-duality, or if you prefer, non-self, is both approached and actualised by the receptive and open mind. It’s not a matter of the intellect, so is not produced by the piling together and arrangement of thought. As to its usefulness, we need first appreciate that any prolonged emotional disturbance, or subtly enduring dissatisfaction, must recur and attach in self-entity, thus appearing to happen to ‘me’.

Now in non-dual awareness, the appearance of this ‘me’ is absent. This means the idea of ‘me’ vanishes both as an assumption and as a point of centrality around which experience accumulates. We remain consistent in our sense of being as before, and as a social construct we too must of course persist as some loosely fixed self-entity. What dissolves is the identification with any implied narrative of ‘me’ as a locus and subject of experience. Ergo, there’s nothing to which dissatisfaction may attach.

So this answers the question of ‘what’s in it for me’, and to be clear, the answer is unequivocally ‘nothing’. The question came from a perspective of selfhood, in which ‘me’ is taken as a subject or experiencer synonymous with a benefitting self. This same self was that which assumed its own substance and continuity, and as a consequence came to believe that dissatisfaction attached to the imagined continuum in a parallel progression. All of this fails to pass scrutiny and is invalid.

In non-dual awareness, both selfhood and otherness are apprehended as mental constructs. There is no subject either to which awareness appears to channel, or which is thought to grasp outwardly at otherness. The awareness is seamless and is recognised neither as appearing ‘here’ or ‘there’, which again are known as constructs and values of the sensory system alone. ‘Here’, ‘there’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, are still understood in a conventional sense, yet are known just as conventions; they’re notional.

‘But this is nonsense!’ I hear you screaming. Well, yes, it is non-sense. It is awareness knowing itself as itself and prior to the learned demands of the sensory system which conventionally overlay it. As I said, the experience of non-duality escapes any verbal description, and yet it’s valid to point to it nonetheless. Why so? Again it’s a useful principle, and one which extends meaning in daily life once actualised. This meaning is deeply significant, and as explained just above, is beneficial.

So how does one explore non-duality; where does one (or two), start? Here, I differ from many contemporary proponents in recommending the adoption of a contemplative system of discovery. This generally isn’t what people want to hear, particularly if they’ve heard or read others’ suggesting the redundancy of method and structure. Whilst it’s true that non-dual awareness doesn’t come into being formulaically, it’s assisted by receptivity, openness and a passively enquiring mental outlook.

The receptive and pliant mind lends itself to an intuitive ‘seeing’ which is non-verbal and uncontrived by thought – it’s not empirically or discursively arrived at. It’s not, in this case, new knowledge derived by means of old knowledge. Neither is it any representation of the sensory system such as a mood, any mental state, or feeling – it is non-sense. And much nonsense is written about non-duality too, some out of ignorance or egoic pride, and some because it defies clear categorisation.

So, this principle is potently beneficial, is actualised in receptivity, pliancy and gentle enquiry, and is brought to mind through being pointed to. In my view, the best pointers avoid allusions to the spiritual or divine (where?), the esoteric or the mysterious (what?), and the rigidly formulaic or prescriptive (how?). Whilst actualised non-duality is indescribable, pointers to it need not confound the hearer unnecessarily nor worthlessly engage the dubious. Awareness alone must know itself.