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

 

Eyeing the I in the Eidola

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Eidola, the pluralised rendering of ‘eidolon’, are represented in ancient Greek mythological literature as what we commonly regard as phantoms, or apparitions – the spiritualised human form in other words.  These terms derive from ‘eîdos’, a Greek noun loosely translating as ‘a form seen’, yet broaden the meaning to embrace a supernatural element. Ever ubiquitous, humankind’s tales of ghosts, spectres and the like, extend to the animistic beliefs of indigenous tribal peoples, pervade the anthropology of religion, reach back to pre-literate cultures of ancestor worship, and are vividly alive in contemporary media too. In Christian theology, the fundamental reality, or hypostasis, of God, posits the same as existent consubstantially in three forms, one of which is the Holy Ghost. It would appear that eidola persist as a cultural universal, gripping the human mind in faith, awe and fascination.

Personally, I am not keen on being spooked, and the idea of one seeking out such dubious a privilege in film, books or theme parks is as much puzzling as it is anathema to me. This is not merely an inevitable by-product of my advanced years, for I have always eschewed the dubious delights of having my vampire juice flooded with neutrophilic leukocytes, or my sympathetic nervous system haunted by cloaked and shadowy adrenergic receptors – whatever those may be. Such beleaguering goings-on occur irrespective of my clammy-handed protestations, and much as I may bid to reassure the conscious self of the actuality of the situation, show me Regan’s swiveling head and the shivers start up unfailingly. Something odd is going on, as if there were a doppelgänger here; the one being self-possessed, reasoned and conscious, the other irrational, perturbable and asleep at the wheel.

Which is the essential me, the conscious rationalist, or the closeted and timorous absurdist? Still, in presupposing some enduring quintessence of selfhood within or about me, I unwittingly invoke an eidolon, a form seen in mind’s eye yet vaporously at best instantiated; a mind-blown ectoplasmic doppelgänger whose existence pervades my substance and reflectively conscious psyche, which itself is but partial, fleetingly present, a mere fluxing bundle of perceptual imagery alone – a Humean human, inhabited and haunted by a spectral homunculus.  In short, I too am a myth of sorts, a narrative of my own insignificant little odyssey. And yet I exist, so whilst excusing, if you will, the peccadillo of the double negative, I am not nothing. Selfless in the strictest sense, am I more than embodied characterisation, a spectre idling along in its dramaturgical existence, an empty ghost actor?

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Surely the eidolic invocation of self cannot be the primary evidence of my truest being; nor is my social construct consistently self-like, as it morphs from one encounter to the next. My physical presence fails the criteria too, for it changes and is subject to programmed cell death, or apoptosis, and the body is a cellular formation. As an adult, up to seventy billion cells die within me each day, so I am separated from my own cells at an astonishing rate. One minute they constitute what I am as an alive being, and the next they are dead, decaying within me and awaiting scavenging by white blood cells which smell their death. Am I somehow separate from the dead cells yet identical with any alive ones? No, they both are part of what I am, which is neither entirely alive nor dead, not inside or outside any self, part eidolon and part matter, not nothing, and yet for a while, an indefinite something.

Glib theories abound, yet which of them withstands scrutiny; which do not devolve to fanciful thinking at base? It seems implausibly dismissive to hold that consciousness does not exist so requires little accounting for – the view of Eliminative Materialism. And similarly so to assert that consciousness and transcendental idea alone are what I am; or otherwise to call forth the ineffable and regard myself as some play of Lila or Godhead. No, undeniably there is awareness illuminating all consciously apprehended phenomena, and there is this heaving heap of cells coming and going too, albeit only in loose aggregation. In all, some tight-woven interplay of mind and matter, a body subjected to endless sense impressions, a mind-created eidolon which spooks whilst affirming itself. And at times, a unified multiplicity prevails, a seamless non-localisation in which I as subject recede, give way, dissolve.

Phenomenologists, most notably Edmund Husserl, have in the past century proposed rigorous mind-analyses for disposing of eidola in contemplatively reductionist ways, echoing the ‘via negativa’ of Vipassana Buddhism and later Indian Advaita/ Natha doctrines, Greek Pyrrhonism, Epistemological Fallibilism, Maimonides’ negative Judaism, with correlates to the apophatic mysticism of Islam and Christianity. So too are there dubious quick-fix, pick ‘n mix bags admissible to the jaded, post-modernist mindset, they being largely corruptions of classical doctrines. All are attempts at debunking the mythological self and god by rejecting falsity; though curiously none state what persists thereafter. Elusive yet obvious when seen, eyeing the I in the eidola is unsusceptible to perceptual capture. Known by and as itself alone, it remains present to all awareness, ever thus, subtle, profound, not a myth.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Opinions and the illusion of certainty

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

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Perhaps one of the great current clichés, and one which we come across daily in the media, is that back-handed utterance ‘they’re entitled to their opinion’. It almost sounds as if the opinion holder should be grateful for not being denied their thought processes and the liberty of free expression. What’s implied by the phrase is a sense of tolerance and open-mindedness, yet simultaneously it’s insinuated that the other is misguided. The issuer of the cliché at once seeks to establish themselves as liberal minded, tolerant and right thinking. Politicians communicate relentlessly with sub-text in this way, their odious pursuit of one-upmanship being forged in a stock-in-trade Orwellian double-speak.

In a similar vein, many of us at times distort language and opine so as to manipulate by suggestion. We may subtly disparage the views of others, and seek covertly to impose our own in their place. The ether-borne caterwaul of subjective frothery screeches at us daily on forums and in the blogosphere. Everyone must have their say, to offer up their cherished opinions to an overwhelmingly indifferent world – just as I do here. That’s not to say that influences fail to be exerted in this labyrinthine process; they of course are. Yet most of the consciousness shifting is infinitesimal, such that we may wonder quite why it is that we take proceedings so incredibly seriously; but still, we do just that.

I think we can say that there are broadly two primary motives attached to the process of opinion manipulation. In the first, there’s the attempt to gain some material advantage in the external world – the power-seeking politician, the greedy marketeer, the status-seeking careerist, and so on. Then there’s the purely egocentric motivation of wanting to demonstrate our correctness so as to feel more secure in our personal identity. Here, we aim to build upon a personal narrative in which we come to regard ourselves as inherently perspicacious and savvy. Whether or not this lofty appraisal is shared, it’s our embedded belief in it that counts. As long as we have the illusion of certainty in our ideas, then all is well.

And that phrase is really the nub of it – ‘the illusion of certainty’. This is what generates the fiery passions that so often arise when, in the company of others, we take our (and their) opinions too seriously. Why does debate become ‘heated’; what do we gain by adding a feverish overlay? When observing this in action, we find the overheating debater tends to come across as less plausible, as somehow trying a little too hard to be convincing. We see in them a flaming of the passions which appear to serve as a propellant only for their own sense of certainty; all of which suggests they’re not quite as certain as they project themselves to be. Religious fundamentalists tend frequently to behave in this way.

Almost all certainty and perceptions of correctness are partially illusory – an unfashionable viewpoint, relativism being rather frowned upon in some circles. This deriding dismissal allies with humanist and meliorist tendencies: the belief in humankind’s progressive power to induce improvement in the state of the natural world. Such thinking might imply that the opining of the human mind – a function of the brain of a species of Great Ape – could at times exert a supra-natural capacity. And yet here we are, two centuries away from environmental catastrophe and far closer still to global economic collapse. So has our consensus of opinion led to any certainty of progress, or any proven correctness?

As a collective, the illusion of certainty in our best shared opinions has demonstrably failed us, and continues to do so in ever-threatening ways. On the level of the individual, we see a similar propensity to assume certainty where there is none and so persist in manipulating others with fallacious self-validations – illusions of our own correctness. We fear that should we appear uncertain, to doubt and to waver, then we’ll be judged as inadequate, as not capable of apprehending the obvious. And so we jump to form opinions and adopt them in belief, then defending those ideas with fervour. And should the evidence stack up against us in time, we quietly withdraw the belief, safely away from others’ notice.

Opinions, beliefs, certainties – these are all thoughts that we identify with egoically. That means we take these thoughts to be ‘mine’, as essential to my ‘self’, and as formed by ‘me’. But for this identification, they’re largely harmless, merely stuff floating through and recurring within the mind. We may notice their reiteration, yet there need be no egocentric attachment involved such that we feel defensive of them, needing to sustain and validate their appearance as if it were essential. Many people live in fear of being proven wrong in their opinions; they take great care to qualify and make watertight whatever they say. For them it’s as if to err is taboo, to be proven fallible, to be proven human.

If we suffer from this deadening attachment to our opinions, remedies may include speaking less guardedly, or at times acknowledging uncertainty and an absence of a definitive view. In not constantly and zealously asserting our supposed certainties, we become approachable and more pleasant to engage with. We see that the former imposition of our imagined correctness had created barriers as the egoical self stood alone on one side of an imaginary fence. If we just try sitting on it now and again, or even leaping over it occasionally, we find it’s not as uncomfortable as we’d thought. The illusion of certainty is seen to be just that, a pipe-dream of infallibility that fooled no-one but ourselves.