On going soft in the head

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco — The homeless girl with love in her eyes.

It was during a balmy mid-afternoon in Central Oxford that I and my friend of some 20 years’ standing gingerly negotiated a crossing of the busy street that had first been lain a millennia ago during Saxon times — then a loosely set cobbled carriageway running northwards up from the ford of the oxen at Grandpont, some half mile or so distant along adjoining St. Aldates. The year was 1992 and a palpably self-satisfied, Thatcher-hewn metropolitan hum of affluence pervaded the air in equal measure to the oppressive diesel fumes belching from the buses and taxis that laboured and lurched their way along Cornmarket Street towards Carfax, twixt which our bodies wove, breathing in unnatural rhythms, yet mysteriously embracing the effluvium with bare arms and wide open hearts, unburdened neither by concerns nor the otherwise ubiquitously lugged, logo-laden bags of well-sated shoppers.

And then it hit me. Like Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, like Drury’s hypnotically corrective stick — ich liebe dich! I knew I was now in love, and that I loved my friend; I loved the woman who brushed past us so irritably; I loved, too, the arthritic elderly gentleman who froze with anxious eyes in deliberating the manner of his crossing, and I loved the carcinogenic particles pumping through my lungs out into the yielding air, the dumb dummies posing erect at shined panes with their cold, dead eyes and synthetic elegance, the chaos and indecipherable din of a gaggle of garrulous language students, of horns a-honking, of the lumbering bells of St. Michael’s tolling optimistically, and of ancient Oxenaforda’s silenced, illustrious past; yet I was not only in love, as love was now in me as I turned, looking at my friend, laconically offering, “I feel great”, at which, with pursed smile, he said, “You feel it too, do you?”

A religious may call it God’s Presence, though in these days of Rationalism I should deem it the cranial release of monoamines and oxytocin. I’m unsure what to call it, ‘Love’ seeming as polluted a term as was Cornmarket on that summer’s day 25 years ago. Most will know of this state by whatever name or none; Buddhists call it ‘Mettā’ (Pali) or ‘Maitrī’ (Sanskrit), ancient terms denoting ‘kindly, loving feelings of amity and benevolence’, the Aristotelian ‘Philia’ and Judaic ‘Chesed’ meaning the same. It’s a state of mind, my friend and I feeling it contemporaneously in empathic triggering of a brain region known as the Periaqueductal Gray; mirror neurons firing sympathetically, some might claim. It matters little; what counts is its vividly transcendent actuality, its negation of isolative self-consciousness. Most interesting, is it being a state susceptible to nurturing in Buddhist mental culture practices.

I’ve no interest in quasi-religious cosmologies or in ritualistically indulging spiritual performances of any hue; although I do enjoy evensong at nearby Wells Cathedral, imbibing both quietude and its glorious choral music as an uninitiated yet appreciative bystander. Still, there exist practices of mental culture advanced in ancient canonical texts that benefit us in contemporary life, easing burdens and providing solace; moreover, quieting our troubling, nascent neuroses and supplanting them with those feelings of Mettā — the amity and benevolence that so readily mirrors in encounters, be they with friend, stranger, or foe. Yes, foe too, as in the culture of Mettā we extend the feeling even to those to whom enmity is harboured, reorienting our former negative emotional predispositions. In our polarised, hate-drenched world, now moreso than ever I find this quiet mental skill an incomparable boon.

People are hurting; they are fearful in a world at its most perilous juncture since October 1962; greater still given AUMF and AGW. Our individual deep traumas arising from horrifyingly common sexual and physical abuses, and the acute stress disorders brought on by profound adversities or our innate neurological imbalances, must be addressed by professional clinical means. Mettā is not a cure-all or some nostrum for the naïvely credulous; rather it is an engaging of focused, potent feeling which conciliates an agitated mind, loosens nervously held tension, and eradicates discordant enmity. Buddhist psychology addresses the subtle absence of contentedness which pervades consciousness in varying degrees, ubiquitously so. We tolerate this just as we might static in radio reception, or the buzzing of our refrigerator. Mettā ameliorates this negative hum, softening our mind and social interactions.

Mickie his name was, the weaver betwixt buses, he of the mirror neurons, my fellow choker in the pack. After that day he began to develop the mental culture of Mettā so as to be able to auto-intuit that same sense of amity and connection whenever it was helpful. He dissolved his former self-centricity — an affliction common to us all — and others would quietly remark to him that something was different, he’d changed, in subtext asking what alchemy had caused this. Yet there was nothing in Mickie’s nature that isn’t present in others too; he’d simply learned to access the contentedness and amity lying dormant within humankind. I so admired him for cultivating his mind with Mettā, that faculty of intuiting a kindly benevolence which he gifted to others as much as to himself, they mirroring silently, unbidden. I think of it as him having gone soft in the head. If only I were wise enough, I would too.

Mettā very much: Marie Williams & Mickie Brough-T.

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

 

The ambit of ambition

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

It was a bright and still morning as he stepped from his elegant Georgian town house in Bedford Square, the ad-be-clad double-deckers delivering the day’s first visitants to The British Museum on the far side of his familiar Fitzrovian neighbourhood. Sunday. Church bells pealing. An absence of sharp tailoring on the now ambiguously accoutred. More of a crinkled linen state of affairs, for those consciously á la modish. A day of rest, not of work, not for most. Free of the throbbing urgency of nine-to-five-ness; though usually for him, for my erstwhile friend, it was seven-to-ten-ness. Long days keeping his holed ship afloat. A captain of business anticipating, in some dread, any skipper’s final obligation should the waterline be holed.

A resting day, yes, and so he strolled towards a wooden bench in the tweet-filled square oasis, these days now twice tweet-filled, but then just sparrow emanations. A time to consider: options, options. In the past, Virginia Woolf may well too have weighed her fate here, before in time lining a weighty overcoat’s pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse on a similar Spring day four decades ago. Across the square, another local resident, John Maynard Keynes, would have sat considering means to palliate Capitalism’s frequent waterline breaches. Later still it would be Madonna Ciccone, then Lady Gaga, eyed at discrete distances by ex-vets, they too bereft of options within their muscle-twitching watchfulness. This quadrant, hemming in.

Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

A short stroll to the workplace; thirty seconds to key the alarm codes; an ascent to a now eerily quiet office; a passive stare at his Mac Classic and the sleep-depriving spreadsheet printouts; pour a single malt; more – at least three fingers; slump in the chair; toss the carton of Pethidine onto the desk; options, options. The ship was going down, and it needed half a million to stay afloat. These days, his home in Fitzrovia would amply cover that sum, nine or tenfold. But this was back in Thatcher’s day, and besides, the bank already had a charge over the house. Options, options none. He takes a pill, the first of forty. Clarity pacifies the mind where options once had wearied. Each pill a pocketed stone; each bell-tolled minute a step closer to the river.

And so it was, upon that bright sun Sunday, my friend found his way out. A victim of his own designs, sunk by ambition. Now I’m told that such striving is a healthy, natural human quality, hearing politicians’ endless mantras of ‘aspiration’, of people wanting to ‘get on’, to ‘work hard’, to ‘climb the property ladder’, and thereby ‘doing the right thing’. The message is clear: compete or fall by the wayside. I must set goals to ensure my security, must compete – perhaps even against my own instincts – so as to propagate and extend familial interests. Who, ultimately, is served, though? I witnessed so many follow this ambition-laden trajectory over the years, and learned that whatever promise was fulfilled, and mostly it was not, the price was heavy.

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Can sufficient ever satiate my fundamental desire for contentedness, or am I bound to a striven life irrespective of my material needs? As I heedlessly clamber, eyes directed skywards, over the failed ambitions of the many less able to compete, as I turn my thoughts away from the price others pay for my cutting myself a larger slice of the pie, do I feel true to the ethics I would so glibly espouse, in knowing I really am ‘doing the right thing’? Again, who or what is served in my assumed, self-centric ambitions, other than a vague article of misplaced faith which somehow came to inhabit me as if a given of nature? If my contentedness subsists in the ambitious pursuit of wealth or status, so my innermost needs are met. The thing is, it seems it is not so.

The ambit of ambition is exposed in asking just such questions, and yet why would I ever doubt my assumptions; why should my ambition be bounded? Is it not so that, just as my erstwhile friend believed, an endless succession of frontiers are there to be conquered, each elevating one to an ever higher degree of fulfilment? Or has what I serve now become a vacuous promise, a point at which my remaining time – perhaps a span shorter than I suppose – would best be passed in restraining my purblind acquisitiveness? Oh, the justifications leap quickly to one’s defence, do they not? As always, we find the complex though habituated easier than the simple yet uncustomary – a perverse trait in many higher animals, even we, the paragon amongst them.

The house was sold; the bank and preferential creditors paid off; the Mac and remaining assets auctioned; and in short time, Madonna arrived in the square – for the very first time – and Thatcher, in tears, left Downing Street – for the very last time. Unlike so many, and would he but have realised it, my friend could have attenuated his pernicious cupidity, spared himself that opiate-dulled submersion into the darkened waters of quietus. Most have not even the choice to indulge likewise such avarice, their ambitions extending no further than providing essentials, with perhaps the occasional purchase of some brief cheering. So it is that my words are as irrelevant to them as ineffectual they are to those spellbound by an ambit-less ambition.

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.

Contentedness embodied (Part One)

Old Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

Contented Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

As human animals we spend the greater part of our lives apprehending the world reflectively, as if peering through to it by means of psychical mirrors. Our minds evolved to affect this process unwittingly via constantly flowing streams of updating composite imagery, all unquestioningly taken as the world in itself – Naïve Realism made real. Such mirroring is presumed synonymous with our life itself too – all the sights, sounds, feelings, scents, tastes and thoughts that reflect to us, outside of which no phenomena may appear. These mirrored images are, for the most part, accurate reflections of what happens around and within us, and had our species not evolved to apperceive with this level of precision, then we humans may not be here on earth today. To that extent it is a success story, yet could our mirror-gazing existence be enhanced in the evolution of some quality we lack, yet innately intuit? And may we at times glimpse that which we are yet fully to embody?

A digression: a young woman feels she should take up meditation and so arranges to meet the abbess of a Buddhist monastery. The abbess, having ascertained the woman’s suitability for meditative training, asks why she has requested instruction. In response, the woman explains that whilst her life is comfortable, secure, and untroubled, still she senses the absence of an unquantifiable contentedness of sorts. She appreciates that happiness is ephemeral, coming and going in accord with events, though a disquieting lack of a deep satisfaction persists, and she is left pondering if that felt void, and the contentedness yearned for, has parallels in Buddhistic conceptions of human existence. She senses a subtle distancing, as if life were obscured by a gossamer filter, or remained slightly out of focus, enquiring of the abbess if such thoughts were valid. If so, she asks, might evolution fix this ubiquitous glitch? Smiling, the abbess asks ‘how long do you want to wait?’

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Street Seller in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

Beyond the essentials of life, we human animals devote much of our time to realising this same contentedness. Rarely do we conceive of such efforts in those precise terms, thinking instead that we desire happiness rather than to dwell in contentedness. This is because happiness is an overt feeling, and the human is a feeling-driven animal by and large. Behind this striving for a felt happiness, however, in fact lies a knowledge that inheres within the body and which understands that contentedness is the supreme goal. To be content is to be utterly beyond all desire, and such a state is not dependent upon feeling in the least; rather is it more akin to a psychological freedom, one which is not subject to the dictates of desire and aversion, nor wrought by virtue of any conditions. The human body knows this; it is far from being any philosophical abstraction. That is why the young woman was accurate in her appraisal before the abbess, and also why in turn the abbess smiled.

Our fallacy is to mistake a mere mirroring of pleasant sensations for true contentedness; it is the inclination of the mind to seek out a vaporous flux of sensory gratifications and think they will satisfy the body’s quest for that which it knows to be within and realisable now – almost as if that same knowledge were a cellular memory. It is a different mode of memory though, one which cannot ever be laid down for later recall as if an object stored in the mind. Rather, it is the body’s knowledge of itself, as itself, not as an image of itself in a certain state, such as a mood or felt disposition, but as itself alone. Contentedness is not any visualised echoing within the mind, something reflected in the mirror of the psyche, and so cannot ever be manipulated into existence by recall, intellect or volition. It is neither a spiritual attainment, nor result of any endeavour, nor may it be invoked by behaviour or genetic birthright, other than that common to all humans.

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Beauty Salon in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

After many years of earnest meditative application, the young woman, now in her forties, went for her afternoon stroll in a local park. She felt calmly observant, yet made no attempt at mindfulness and thought of nothing in particular. Suddenly, in an uncaused instant, a radical perspectival shift occurred, as if life had come into focus. The contentedness she had alluded to with the abbess arose, though not in any mirroring. Her mind leapt in so as to make sense of it all, though quickly she came to laugh at the futility of its blunted effort, as what presented needed no qualification, being starkly obvious in its perfected ordinariness. She knew now that the contentedness she had sought in life could never have attached to any subject, nor absorb into any seeker, as that same seeking subject was merely her own mind-creation. It was as if awareness were now unobstructed by past distinctions imposed by the mind, and the waiting the abbess spoke of had now ended.

Contentedness was now embodied, and she knew that whilst her body had realised itself, and with it her mind too, neither were in truth discrete entities standing in contradistinction to one another; they were both existent yet as perspectives of each the other. She saw that subject and object, as apprehended, were only ever psychical creations, so too that the point of centrality which localised her body and self-image was not so for awareness itself. She gazed over at the distant Chestnut trees, her mind enquiring as to what was so different, yet somehow the same, and ordinary. What was it that was imbuing her with this total desirelessness and ease at a perfect ordinariness? The park, the trees and she of course existed as spatially referenced in awareness, yet awareness also saw itself as itself, as non-local. Her self-centricity had dissolved, yet she remained, embodied as pure awareness and the contentedness she always intuited she had been.

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.

 

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?

 

Contentedness with little and the fetishisation of possession

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Writing as an inhabitant of an island which, whilst sinking in debt, is superficially moneyed, I’m conscious that the title of this piece is a little facile. I have no clever way with finances, and am still to luck-out on the lottery, yet hold few concerns over meeting my future needs, and none over my present. And I write having made what is I think a fair guess: that most readers too are similarly comfortable. But if like the good lady in our picture, your living is scraped selling wildfowl on the streets of Havana, these musings could but only appear both facile and irrelevant.

So the expression in the title ‘with little’ is relative. Contextually, it means the provision of one’s modest needs and comforts only, relative to societal norms. And the argument I put forward invites you to ponder a way of living contentedly which discounts unreasoned desire and aspiration. Now of course, we can dwell contentedly with any amount of excess or luxury, though these surfeits add naught to our emotional well-being. Once satiated psychologically, their indulgence produces nothing further in our subjective sense of ease – rien du tout, zip, nada.

So why argue the case for moderation; what’s the point in spoiling all the fun? From any ethical or environmental perspective, the case can be readily, if a little tediously, made; such positions need no reworking here. This is about contentedness; we’re juggling with ideas of personal passivity and (dare I say it?) acceptance. It’s about how these dynamics play out subjectively in the warp and weft of life. The case to argue here surrounds our compulsive possessiveness, our overstated claims, our overreaching desires, and how these blind us to our emotional needs. And what does any such lack of balance produce? For many it conduces only to ill health or the despoiling of relationships and family life. We pursue this myth of well-being through accumulation whilst neglecting ourselves and those closest to us. Not only this, but we miss the mark of contentedness itself; because by definition, to be content is to be satisfied and remain psychologically at rest with what one has. We need to re-examine what motivates this acquisitiveness and look at its effects – did it produce the sense of fulfilment we rashly assumed that it would?

Indeed, so blinded are we as to what motivates our accumulative nature that we’ve lost sight of its very purpose. We’re often only barely aware, if at all, of what drives our compulsive desires; whilst the vision we have of the objects of those desires retains an almost hallucinogenic vibrancy. We unthinkingly hunt down what occupies our attentions whilst losing sight of the primary reason for their pursuit. What drove the process was a matter of the psyche: a deeper need for emotional fulfilment. We confuse the means with the end, and are left dissatisfied time and again.

Much of this behaviour is rewarded with short-term gratifications. We momentarily or, perhaps for a day or two, feel satisfied with our successful acquisition. This fleeting sense of gratification acts as an endorsement of the process and so we fail to question whether our more fundamental psychological needs were met. We set out in our pursuit so as to feel happier or more contented; and this again, is what drove the whole process – the need for emotional fulfilment. In a sense we’re bought off by the fleeting gratification; we’re sold short, short-changed. And of course, because of this, the psychological needs remain in place. We still, albeit perhaps only at a barely conscious level, have a sense of lack or dissatisfaction. So accustomed are we to this vague feeling that we never question its existence; we accept it as part of the emotional wallpaper. And yet it’s this that triggers the next round of acquisitiveness, the repetition of compulsive desire. It’s no wonder that after a few years of this cycle, we become stressed and anxious; our health begins to fail; our relationships disintegrate; things fall apart.

So, moderation and a sense of balance are called for. In reappraising what it is that we want from life, we discover the fundament is simply contentedness. We now have a clear reference point from which we can navigate our way towards balance. For many of us, this reorientation will involve moderating desires and aspirations. Actually, it entails clarifying the hierarchy of our desires themselves. This means indulging only those reasoned conducive to emotional fulfilment, and bringing balance to any habituated tendency to acquire, accumulate and possess.

It’s not about asceticism and depriving ourselves of pleasure per se. Material acquisitiveness is hardly an assurance of delight and pleasure in any case. If we can calm this fetishisation of possession, of accumulation, we lend ourselves to a pleasing sense of ease amidst even the mundane, finding repose in our simple presence of being. So the moderation balances the overreaching fixation with goods, with what is truly good. Absenting this, we remain trapped in a cycle of desire and gratification, never free to realise any enduring emotional well-being.

In contentedness, we relinquish desire itself, and the need to moderate expires along with it. Desire on its own isn’t pleasant, no more than thirst and hunger are. It’s often accompanied with excitement, and we conflate and confuse the two. Clarifying this conceptual mess involves living contemplatively, and in so doing we disentangle ourselves from the whole sorry state. The idea of contentedness with little isn’t viewed as some trite and precious New-Age trope; it’s lived and is real. In using desire to overcome desire, we at last find what we’ve been looking for.

A friend seeks contentment the creative way

Photography by Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

He was very clear, very driven, and very talented. He knew exactly what he needed to do in life to find fulfilment. That clarity and sense of purpose, together with his precocious artistic talent, would see him home. There was no doubt about it. He could see the route to finding the contentment he instinctively sought. The plan was quite simple.

How lucky he was, at this tender age of fourteen, to know his purpose in life. How many of us have the remotest idea of what lies ahead beyond the dreams, the vague and perhaps utterly unrealistic visions, the naïvely faithful notions of our own abilities? But this young man had substance to it all. He had talent and artistic sensibility in abundance.

None of this would be easy though – and he knew it. It didn’t matter. It was Plan A, and it was the only plan. He didn’t need alternatives, reserve positions, a fall back. This was going to work; there was no question about it. All he had to do was hone his craft further. All he had to do was to give his natural ability time to mature and develop.

Five years he gave it; ten at the outside. It didn’t matter – it would happen. He’d devote himself wholeheartedly, sacrifice everything. Forget the girls, the blokey camaraderie, the non-essential studies and the qualifications. Forget the inevitable loneliness and isolation that this devotion would bring. This was art; you suffer for it – you have to.

He became a master of his instrument. It took less than four years. By the time he was eighteen he was hailed as the very finest in a field of other prodigiously talented young musicians. He could play any venue and the past masters would turn out to listen. He was in demand as a session player with recording artists too. He’d made it ahead of time.

Now in his mid-twenties, certain things were becoming apparent to him. He’d attuned to the success, but it gave him no real sense of fulfilment. I asked him why he seemed unhappy, why he wasn’t as responsive as he used to be. He replied: ‘Cos I’m depressed Hariod. Sometimes I feel like killing myself. The music’s never given me what I thought it would’.

Fortunately, my friend survived the crisis. The affection of a dog helped, as it always does. So did the wonderful countryside he found solace within. It was a long process though, several years in fact. Eventually, the adjustment was made, and the realisation set in that the creative impulse, as potent as it was, could never create contentment itself.

When we invest in our dreams we take a huge gamble. We love the content of those dreams, and we become wedded to the embedded illusory projections. Yet divorce is always painful. To invest our entire emotional and physical energy into what amounts to no more than desire, is dangerous. It feeds blind belief, and it abandons reason.

We create in our dreams a fairy tale in which we live contentedly, fulfilled, free of striving, free of internal strife. This narrative projection in effect becomes our personal identity. We inhabit this narrative thinking that it’s what our life will become. We project our personal self-entity so as that ‘self’ becomes both narrator and narrative alike.

It’s all incredibly creative. You might say it’s one of humankind’s most sophisticated attributes – the projection of the ‘self’ into a complex narrative. Very few other animals can do this; and even then, it barely warrants comparison. Our capacity to delude ourselves with these narrative creations and projections is enticing too. It feeds desire.

We can make intelligent plans; we can and must project into the future – of course. These plans can be as creative and ambitious as we like; there’s no harm in any of that. But when we project our ‘self’ into future scenarios, such that the projection becomes belief, then the creative force turns into an adversary. We think it’s our friend, but in truth it’s not.

We can’t create contentment. It can’t be willed or manipulated into being through self-interest and acquisitive desire. It’s in fact this self-interest that blocks any contentment. If we’re able to remove the ‘self’ from our plans and projections, then we’re immediately shielded from the intense negativity my friend suffered. So we need to uncreate this self-entity.

A friend seeks contentment the escapists way

Photo: Sukanto debnath, Flickr

Photography: Sukanto Debnath, Hyderabad

He’d moved to London from another country, knowing that this would be the place he’d find fulfilment. Here, in the capital, he’d access the vibrant core of the British music scene and escape the parochial, small-minded outlook of his friends and family. There’d be no looking back to the old country. The millennium was advancing, and so was he.

He vowed forever to release himself from the strictures of his Catholic upbringing, from what he saw as the provincialism of his parents and all they stood for. He’d be contented and free, endlessly creating new music to accompany him in his endlessly renewing life. There’d be obstacles; but with his talent, wit and charm, he’d find contentment and freedom.

The connections were built soon enough. Despite his tender years, he was savvy; he knew how to look the part, and how to play the part. He knew the music scene was largely theatre. Talent was partly optional, but in any case he had it in spades. Within two years he was playing sessions, and within four he was on a world tour with a huge star.

Yet still he felt trapped, still part of a controlling network of managers and agents, the hordes of goffers and of course, the stars of the shows. So he tried to escape through sex. He was a pretty boy, on show nightly to many willing and available girls. Maybe with them, each in turn, he would feel less trapped, find the contentment and freedom he sought.

But soon the girls became more of a burden than a pleasure, just more obligations and more small-mindedness. It felt a bit like the old country. So he tried to escape with cocaine, yet that proved even more of a trap, and his mind became smaller and more caged-in still. No matter how he tried to escape his sense of emptiness, he could never escape himself.

As the years passed, he turned back to the Catholic church of his homeland. He stopped rejecting his past and what felt most like home. He gave up on finding fulfilment in himself, and age dulled awareness of his discontent. Besides, now he had a son he could project all his own failed ideas into, and the circular predictability of it all came to pass.

I’m still in touch with my friend, but we don’t talk about much of this; it’s too difficult for him to swallow. And who am I to be telling others why their lives didn’t produce what they thought it would? My friend found credibility and prestige, has a wonderful family, health and wealth. What he didn’t find was how to escape the aching void within.

For 35 years he’d tried to escape that void, that inner sense of discontent and the absence of fulfilment. He tried escaping by leaving his country, by attaching to fame and glamour, by getting lost in music, lost in sex, lost in cocaine. He tried to escape vicariously through his son, who through his father’s connections now himself has fame and glamour.

But it’s futile to seek contentment by escaping, because in any seeking we always bring our self along. And it’s this idea we have of our self which is the problem; it’s this entity which thinks contentment can be found and attached to. The self-entity misguidedly attempts to manipulate the world in order to satiate its desires and avoid all else.

We can’t escape the self or its misguided manipulations. What we can do is deconstruct it, and see it for what it is. It isn’t what I am; it isn’t what you are. It’s an on-going narrative construct that embeds within our being as belief. This means we come to believe that this narrative that comprises the self-entity correlates to the actuality of our being.

That actuality – what I am and what you are beyond selfhood – has a default state of perfect contentedness in being. That actuality doesn’t need to escape anything, or discover anything, in order to dwell fulfilled and in an emotional and psychological well-being. This isn’t some fanciful idea; it’s fully provable through a cultivated presence in being.

In developing presence in being, and through living contemplatively aware, we see that escapism is redundant. In fact it’s utterly useless. We may escape into pleasure, into forgetfulness, into distraction and indulgence. But we can never escape our sense of self once there. In our informed presence we see this truth, seeing what we are beyond self.