What is it like for nothing to happen?

Painting the Earth. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England

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

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

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

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

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

Still Drying. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

Still Drying. By Ana Cooke, Farnham, England.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Contentedness embodied (Part Two)

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Ethiopian Cleaning Ladies. By Steve Evans, London

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

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

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Mother and Child in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

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

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

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Göttweig Abbey, Austria. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

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

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

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.

 

Offering presence

Photography: Diego Junca, Bogota, Colombia

Photography: Diego Junca, Bogota, Colombia

She was lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon, semi-conscious; yet that part of her which remained aware of the world would rather that it were not. This dear woman was seeing out her final months in a netherworld of darkened senses; all, that is, save for the searing illumination of her pain. I watched as she gently clasped her hands, half in prayer for her release, half as if to echo her fragile frame’s arthritic deformation. ‘Please, please help me, I need morphine; please help’, she mutters. A nearby nurse strides across; ‘not until four o’clock Doris, we can’t give you any more until then’. Moments later a kindly volunteer carer approaches, sits beside the bed and whilst gently stroking the old woman’s head, offers up an incantation: ‘There now Doris, let my hand wipe away the pain for you; there now, just feel it dissolving, wiping it all away; there now, there now, it’ll soon be all gone Doris, I promise.’

Earlier in the staff canteen, I drink coffee to combat fatigue, gaze at forlorn looking Christmas decorations, and listen to a gaggle of trainee nurses gathered ‘round an adjacent table. Overlapping voices; muted shrieks of derision or exclamation as each vie for attention; the staking of claims upon the situation; self-conscious affectations learned rote from trash TV planting the flags of selfhood; oppressive vitality. Up on the ward, both my mother and Doris, their beds adjacent and parallel, their end days adjacent and parallel, sought none of what captivated these nurses. They needed the caring, the medication too of course, yet more so some trace of emotional solace found only in the gentle presence of another: one to be there fully, unreservedly offering attention. I have but seven days to live, perhaps only two; after which I sense at some level that I’ll never know human contact again – for eternity. Be with me now.

Many years have since passed, over which time I’ve sought to build on any small capacity I had to listen, to be there giving attention, offering presence. We can only truly offer presence once we know it with respect to ourselves. Presence is not merely the physical occupation of space; it is to suffuse that space with the wordless knowledge that we are here fully, attentively, whole-heartedly and beyond the overt contrivances of selfhood. It is an intimate knowledge we have of our being prior to the narratives we construct about who and what we are; and it is a gift we may give to ourselves at any moment and in any given circumstance. Having cultivated this generosity towards ourselves, we are then in a position to emanate this presence and so offer it to others too. Those learning to do so possess at all times a boon to offer the world, to loved ones, and to strangers in need. It is a priceless gift, one of great value.

Be with me now. As I said, that is what I shall want, and that is what you too will want, as we lay during our end days, adjacent and parallel in circumstance, adjacent and parallel in need. Prior to this, it may be that others we know will similarly have these needs. They may well not tell us as much, because they had yet to learn the nature of presence as regards themselves; and yet they instinctively know of their need for it; it is an animal instinct, a human animal instinct. Be with me now. That is a simple request; I can fulfil it absenting any verbiage, any pretence of doing the right thing, any collusion with my sense of obligation. If I am unable to offer presence to myself, if I sense the need for it yet cannot understand that need, how am I to offer it to others? Hopefully, there is plenty of time remaining for us both to develop this simple skill, to naturalise it within us, to make of it both a private and public sanctuary.

Whatever our spiritual inclinations, whether they may be present or absent, this is the time of year when our mind’s turn to the offering of gifts. Here, we invariably sense the weight of obligation, of being seen to do the right thing, both sensing others expectations and feeling our own in respect to offerings. I am unsure as to whether the onus of obligation may be entirely set aside, though I do know of one way in which we may ease the burden and know within ourselves that the right thing is being done. It is to offer our presents with presence. There is a rather beautiful Buddhist tradition of offering gifts with both hands; it is as if to say we hold nothing in reserve, giving freely, openly. To look the recipient in the eyes, to consciously envelop them with presence, this makes as if little the physical content of our palms, and instead makes as of everything the content of our hearts. It is a gift shared for eternity.