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.

Mood balloons

Photography: Amy Elyse Stringer, London

Photography: Amy Elyse Stringer, London

A floating ascent, a drifting, a lifting and a releasing of the emotional ethers; something of this occurs within us perpetually. The inflation and deflation of mood balloons is a necessary concomitant to sensory contacts. Such balloons may be breathed into life by a trace of some abstracted thought, by a triggered memory, by a bodily sensation of pleasure or pain, by a taste, a scent, a sound. Or they can be inspired by the cyclical rhythms of our bodies, by lunar phases, or by a poignant anniversary perhaps. Many are the ways for a ballooning of our moods.

And yet we identify some as ‘being moody’, or others perhaps as ‘coolly self-possessed’. This is to misunderstand the ubiquitous nature of moods and mental states generally, both of which engage ceaselessly in the conditioned and conditioning interplay of human sentience. The confusion comes about in the conflation of the tonal qualities of psychical states with our habituated responses to them. Another way of expressing this is in terms of the degree to which we indulge our mental tonalities; the extent to which the self-entity inhabits our mood balloons.

All of that which is under discussion here applies to the healthy individual; and it must be accepted that clinical states of depression, anxiety or morbidity are issues of a different order, and which may well need addressing with the aid of medication, talking therapies, or both. Still, there are many instances of normatively healthy people who seek to deny free expression to their moods and mental states, instead choosing to view them as somehow indulgent displays of solipsistic self-concern. Here, we see a defensive response to any inflation of mood.

Elsewhere, it’s often erroneously thought that the psychologically mature, or those spiritually advanced, exhibit an equanimous repose in the face of emotively charged situations. Whilst it is so that, at a certain point in our development, we may gravitate towards a philosophising disposal of the effects of genuine adversity and elation, this is something of an intermediate stage of our maturation. It is the region within which awareness of our internal response mechanisms is sharply honed and perspicacious, and yet balanced too much in favour of this objectivity.

Once equilibrium is gained between our understanding and whatever situation we are faced with, then the biasing towards objectivity recedes and we ‘become the situation’, so to speak. Rather than maintaining an aloof and dryly intellectualised witnessing, which is false, we observe with an exquisite intimacy. Here then, for example, tears may flow freely in the presence of others’ suffering. The mood balloon inflates rapidly and is met with no resistance from the intellect as emotions are hoisted aloft, so allowing complete engagement with life, ourselves and others.

What does not recur in this more balanced scenario is any self-induced perpetuation of moods or states of mind. And it is by just those means that the ballooning of moods becomes challenging, causing distress, anxiety and so forth. The self-entity interjects with the idea ‘now I am this; and so it is that I suffer’. So there’s a becoming here that, whilst not in fact actual, grants an immersive quality to such unpleasant states. In identifying with emotions in selfhood, our awareness is hijacked and engulfed in a draining, cyclical vortex of perpetuation and indulgence.

What then, is the wiser response to any perfectly natural occurrence of mood balloons? One answer consists in a passively non-resistant mode of observation; this means not exerting a controlling influence which merely sustains our sense of selfhood and so with it any mood balloon. It’s not easy to passively allow deeply negative feelings to exist, as the urge is to obliterate them by means either of conflict or distraction; and whilst this may have some limited efficacy, it’s no long-term curative, at best serving only as a partial expedient – a head-in-the-sand approach.

So much of our angst is perpetuated in the identification of selfhood with emotions; as if believing, quite literally, that ‘I am in a mood’. No mood contains any ‘self of me’, nor can it ever. Yet understanding this intellectually alone no more than partially ameliorates negative feelings. Dwelling in contentedness amidst our mood balloons requires insight into our illusory self-construct and disentangling conditioned responses from arisen feelings. From here, concerns are allayed as to their inflation; we see them as natural colourings of our airspace, and all is well. Pop!

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?