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

 

Synecdoche (Part Two): Little World

Fool's Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

Fool’s Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

In the first part of this article, we discussed how each person, in coming to understand how they construct themselves as the self-entity they take themselves to be, must in the process come to understand how all others do too. In other words, self-knowledge is not particular to the individual, because the self – in essence an embedded, accumulating and by graduation morphing narrative and body schema – comes into being by identical means in our species. Each of us remains unique in many ways, such as in our formative experience, our psychological make-up, conditioned traits, genetic inheritance, and in our individuated physicalities. Yet that which we regard as our quintessence, the enduring internalised construct we each unquestioningly hold as the self and the aspect of ourselves which we most intimately cling to, is little more than a formulaic pretence determined and governed solely by means of evolved, unbidden and unconscious processes.

Each character has a given name, societal position, cultural identity and perhaps a hierarchical status; yet all such markers are in part a figure of speech, or synecdoche, denoting an undeniable correlation with countless others. The markers delineate superficial distinctions alone, and the greater the number of them, the more we remove from our understanding the underlying truth of the other’s commonality with us.  In much the same way, in our coming to understand how the worlds we ourselves inhabit are constructed, we see also that same world as a synecdoche for all others. How I relate to my home and environment, my relatives and loved ones, those I engage with out of chance or necessity, and those whom I depend upon or those who depend upon me, human or non-human, all make up my little world. It is a relational world, an interactive adventure forged from myriad connections, surprisingly few of which do I have great control over.

The argument against this is to assert that such correlations are facile, that how can I, a materially secure Westerner living in a largely strife-free state, possibly share any commonality with the oppressed and malnourished other on, say, the Indian sub-continent?  Are these conditions not worlds apart, if only qualitatively? Well, in examining human suffering, we find it has a common genesis, proceeding as it does from the mind. For example, we commonly mistake unpleasant bodily sensations for suffering, failing to distinguish between physical pain and the attendant overlay of mental anguish. Is the suffering of the wealthy financier who contemplates suicide at her portfolio’s decimation greater than that of the homesteader in sub-Saharan Africa facing a crop failure of a few sacksful of grain? Objectively, then yes, these are worlds apart, yet the subjective suffering of each may be qualitatively indistinct, even in their wildly differing experiential settings.

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

And what of care and affection; are we to suppose that our world as comprising love is any the lesser or greater than others? Ought we to suppose the human instinct to loving solicitude is greater than that of our fellow creatures? Who amongst us knows what human love is as distinct from other forms of animal love, and whether it is qualitatively superior? Am I so arrogant as to suggest my altruistic benevolence is any the greater than that of my pet Border Collie, for it seems far from being so? If I am unable to define precisely what constitutes this world aspect, how am I to know that those of other animals are not simulacra of my own, there being no original and authentic love-world other than the one as represented by the many – is this not a truth hard to refute? I may describe a personal world of felt affection, yet in doing so prescribe but a figure of speech alone, a synecdoche for all worlds inhabited perhaps by most beings of sentience.

My little world is forged at the interface between psyche and otherness, between ideas and the world as impressed upon my senses. Those impressions and the precise nature of that otherness differ in every detail from the next person’s, yet the means of forging are identical. This shared action results in distinct narratives of course, and it is these that are held to in our bids to assert the pre-eminence of individuality over commonality. I want to believe I am, if not special, then unique; yet that is only true in the differing stories of what I am and what my little world is. To those without privilege to my narratives of self and world, my assumed mantle of uniqueness is meaningless, and the same is true of theirs to me. We may here be at a cold and sterile juncture, yet it also is a starting point from which we may begin to introduce the binding agents of humankind – our innate qualities of kindness and compassion, of empathic understanding.

So what, why should I care about such ideas when I have altogether more pressing concerns? What is the point in abstracting notions such as these from the warp and weft of daily living, the place where I earn my crust, feed my children, and work on my betterment as a means of personal fulfilment? Perhaps the answer lies somewhat starkly in the evidence, and which seems to me to be in a state of constant deterioration. We live in a polarised world, where theists fight theists and atheists argue against both, where the wealthy seldom flinch in their impoverishment of others, and where power-hungry and psychopathic leaders crush the potential of all they have dominion over.  Is it not time to find our common humanity, or even our common animality? We humans are destroying our sole environment; we are chasing down the darkening corridors of economic systems at the point of failure. Can we not rest awhile so as to perceive our little worlds as one?

Synecdoche (Part One): Little Person

 

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1965. Courtesy NZ governement archives

I am just a little person, one person in a sea of many little people who are not aware of me, yet each potentially a simultaneous understanding of the other; each, in a sense, a simulacrum or synecdoche for all others: if I understand myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, however remote my presence to them. This is not to say I can appreciate their specific complexities, of course, and the detail, the true intricacy of any given life, remains forever removed from that quota of awareness I am privileged to. Each little person, tagged with their own unique package of characteristics, is still a synecdoche though, potentially at least, for all the little people out in the sea of otherness. The word means literally ‘take with something else’, so conveying the idea that even a partial representation alone is sufficient to apprehend the whole, or vice versa.

This sounds rather fanciful to the contemporary mind, conditioned as it is in a belief as to the total, inarguable individuality of each little person. What an appealing belief this is too, for this same little person here finds a seemingly plausible counter to a reluctantly intuited sense of homogeneity, which word itself derives from the Greek ‘homogene’, meaning ‘of the same kind’: Homo Sapiens. Even though each of the little person’s internal organs are replaceable with those fished from the sea of many little people, even though their blood, hair, bones, limbs, eyes and hands can be substituted with biological or manufactured alternatives, still the little person resists the evidence, demanding their status as a uniquely enduring entity. It is of course the mind itself that insists upon countering the intuited and actual homogeneity, and the mind, so the little person believes, belongs to them.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1959. Courtesy NZ governement archives

This raises a problem, for if the little person’s physicality is all but totally interchangeable, then at what point during this theoretical process does the supposed possessor of the mind cease to exist? When does the point arrive at which we can no longer claim the mind belongs to any little person? If we hold to Physicalism, or Hard Materialism, we assert the mind belongs, if not to the little person, then to the organ of the brain. Should we be an Eliminative Materialist, we say there is no mind, and so no such question arises. I resist these philosophical perspectives, for to me there is a non-locality of awareness, meaning it arises both within as well as about what we think of as the little person, and whilst we call this aware experience ‘mind’, I do not adhere to any Cranialism; it’s not exclusively headstuff. In accepting this, we logically must ask whether the mind is under ownership.

Ownership implies agency, or self-determination, and it is belief in this that makes the little person feel unique and autonomous, directing their life just as all others would theirs. Yet this owning agent is never verifiable other than as consciousness, for it is only ever a belief that resides within and as that consciousness. Now, all conscious displays are themselves non-local simulacra, representations of otherness that are neither the little person nor any owning agent, and which clearly may never be evidenced outside of consciousness. This means the little person is always a thought-construct, a put-up job forged by mind and subsisting in otherness but never in essence itself. Should this hypothesis obtain, then the little person is a synecdoche for the entirety of others in kind; this is because every little person, being a fabrication of mind, comes into apparent existence in an identical manner.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1970. Courtesy NZ governement archives

Where are we? We heard that the mind persists in countering a reluctantly intuited homogeneity of all the little persons. Further, we said the mind forges each little person as a thought-construct, and that the little person does not exist as an enduringly instantiated entity – just like a house, a car, or a computer, its parts are interchangeable. Beyond this, we learned the mind produces only conscious effects as verification of its own fabrications, and that these subsist universally for all the apparent little persons, being as they are culled from the same sea of otherness. And lastly, we found that the hypothesis as a whole demonstrates that each apparent little person is a synecdoche for the sea of many little people. So, in understanding myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, which was the assertion of the opening paragraph and a challenge to the curious mind.

In the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox, a parallel question is raised: in replacing a wooden ship plank by plank, are the ongoing resultants still the original ship?  In point of fact, only the conception itself endures across the constant transitioning. The ship, as known, is not a wooden construct; it is a thought-construct, a fixed conception presenting to any observing little person, all of whom create each the other in identical fashion. Each parallel the ship in that their structure constantly mutates whilst a sense of enduring selfhood smears out across the whole, forged in mind in homogeneous ways. Now, if the little person turns the mind in on itself reflectively, they in time realise that they must be more than a thought-construct, a belief. They see that the little person whom they believed they existed as was a synecdoche: a motif in play which in its perfectly clear seeing brings knowledge of all of its kind.

 

Images courtesy of New Zealand government archives: http://archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=14847710

The unattainability of spiritual freedom

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

Some have referred to it as The Master Game, that grandest of all pursuits which rests upon winning or losing, that is to say, attaining or failing to attain, a mysterious state conceived of as spiritual freedom, and which goes by many names. Whilst the spiritual fainéant plays the game less intensely, casually group-thinking or timidly timing yoga minutes early each morning, others of a thirstier nature may make of it a lifelong contest of quite epic proportions. The gambits and stratagems of the spiritual aspirant are variously natured, being adopted as befits the character, with artifice and sophistry deployed pragmatically in subconsciousness so as to procure or sustain advantage over the player’s occasionally contrarian or doubt-inducing reflections. Stakes are high, and with each earnest investment of personal identity, emotional capital, and inner resolve, can only escalate. It is a contest without frontiers; a test of self-contra-self: The Master Game.

In a bid to escape their emotional and existential lacuna, the participant may devour the pabulum of self-help writings, or strain at obscurantist commentaries upon the alleged utterances of long-dead sages. They may cultivate a sapient and sciolistic presence which infrequently matches its promise in action, humility or compassion. Each of these, though the worst of the matter, are game strategies thought eventually to deliver a certain freedom of the psyche, something beyond the ordinariness of the world-perceiving mind, and which hence is often characterised as being spiritual in nature, whatever that means. The prize is imagined as an object acquired by a subject, or as the subject absorbing into an object. The game player may speak of enlightenment, self-realization, perhaps even God-realization, as if these were objects that could somehow be absorbed by the self, or vice versa, and The Master Game concludes only once such fallacies are realised.

Given these seemingly intractable and specious predispositions, then it’s understandable that some should conclude this can only be a losing game, which it is. That which is lost will not be mourned though, no more than one would grieve over the ending of a perpetually deceitful relationship.  Although finally revealed as ill-conceived, one’s approach to playing the game, if earnestly pursued, will yield many boons, and may yet result in victory, even though paradoxically, it will be known that there is no victor. That is why this is The Master Game; it can never itself be mastered by any, and instead will vanquish all contestants. The aspirant accepts this intellectually, freely entertaining ideas of non-duality, or the dissolution of enduring identity, intensively ploughing their phenomenological reductions as if beneath lay proof that the self was only ever a mythogenic cauldron. Yet the intellect has no capacity beyond thought, no real freedom.

The problem here is not so much that this spiritual freedom, however vaguely conceived, is being sought, rather that we presuppose the found freedom will attach to us, will be acquired and thus become ‘mine’. In other words, we imagine this freedom to in effect become enslaved to the self, which is no kind of freedom at all. Intellectually, we can accept the loss of the self, whilst emotionally, we still yearn for possession. Saying that we do not wish to acquire such liberty solves nothing, because the root of the problem remains, and the self has simply morphed desire into aversion. Besides, a psychological and emotional freedom – abandoning the adjunctive ‘spiritual’ – is far preferable to its opposite. We need to remain earnestly in play, whilst abandoning hope of gaining freedom. This is not to reject the liberation of the psyche, but to accept that by definition freedom cannot be possessed, acquired, forged, or accumulated, by any self-entity.

The Master Game finds its end in the realisation that it was played by the wrong set of rules all along. Issuing its stratagems from inside the self, the imagined subject-entity could not conceive it was no more than a mind-creation. Further, and due to its own presence, the subject-entity knew only of an isolative consciousness which enduringly apprehended awareness as if appearing here not there, as knowing all phenomena as internally possessed or as objectivised and thus forever apart. Then one day, the subject-entity forgot all about The Master Game; in a flash what was an impossible outcome was made possible; awareness realised and released itself; the world realised and released itself, and the futile contest was over. This came as a laughable surprise to the ghost-player left behind, who tried and failed to make sense of it all. Now and again, the phantasm may wander into the deserted arena, scratch its head, and wonder why it ever existed.

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.

 

 

 

Romantic spirituality

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

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Religion and supernatural ideas in general have proved remarkably durable across the totality of global society. The elevation of scientism and human reasoning which began over 300 years ago has far from disinclined us to the unreasonable. The particle physicist may still attend evensong, the neurophysicist continue to ponder an afterlife, and the philosopher forever cogitate on transcendent abodes of mind. So reason appears to have its limits in the face of our more intuitive inclinations.

Human reason does of course have limits in any case; it’s always constrained by the cranial organ we possess as a species of Great Ape. There’s a tendency to regard reason as limitless, at least in theory, and we readily grant faith in those few intellectual giants who occasionally appear in the world. We may come to regard them almost as demigods, taking their every utterance as somehow sacrosanct and inarguable – until the next appears, and perhaps reveals the firsts’ feet of clay.

And yet religious and supernatural beliefs have this durability that, as history has shown, eludes the products of reasoning itself. There’s something immutable in our species’ desire to hold to ideas of the transcendent, as if we sense the limits of reason. Our notions of spiritual dimensions barely lend themselves to any detailed examination; they’re largely allusions to a metaphysical beyond that remain susceptible only to retention as opaque, frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs.

So what is it that inclines us to these unprovable notions, these rather clouded and at times hesitant bundles of unreason? Perhaps we can say that we fall in love with them as projective ideas – the heaven that awaits us, or the nirvana we seek one day to possess. Adopting beliefs such as these is highly seductive to us as spiritual materialists; they’re quite easy to relate lovingly to as we form relationships with our imagined futures, romanticising our becoming selves in the process.

Now of course, huge emotional solace can be granted as a result of our adherence to these beliefs. This is not insignificant, despite the objections of anti-theists who, sardonically dismissing those unable to substantiate their beliefs evidentially, miss the point. To them, it’s as if subjectivity is utterly illusory and has no pragmatic value; whereas to the believer, their subjective world is largely paramount. William James writes eloquently on this in his great work The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Continuing with this theme, we might say the ardent materialist can be romantically diminished – at least as regards much of their inner world. Such an allegation may not disturb them in the least; they may even take pride in agreeing. Yet simultaneously they fail to acknowledge within a romantic attachment to their own self-entity, their own love of themselves beyond the measurable flesh and bone. Ask them to describe the self they believe in, and a hesitancy appears – so is that too ineffable?

It seems then, that we all have romantic attachments to things that, whilst they remain indescribable, we find difficulty in relinquishing. Whether it be an unwavering cleaving to our present self-construct, or more projective ideas about the future of our immortal self, these are all notions we cling to and lovingly identify with. There’s a need to believe in something beyond the mind and matter – a super-construct of a heaven, a transcendent psychical realm, or an enduring, changeless self.

Whilst much of this readiness to believe is harmful, elements of it can serve an important purpose. Not only does it provide some with the emotional solace already spoken of, it may also create a conduit for higher understandings. The problem is in distinguishing what may prove a healthy faith, from pernicious and misplaced beliefs. In the end, it comes down to instinct and intuition; we feel a gut reaction that grants sufficient faith so as to allow the leap towards ground as yet unseen.

We can always play safe of course, demanding verifications as to what lies ahead before proceeding. And sometimes this is wise, particularly so in matters of the material world where empirical proofs may exist. But in the world of subjectivity, there simply are no such proofs. In the subjective world, the unknown is just that, and there can be no evidence beyond hearsay. So faith is the only option if we want to explore this speculative unknown, and we come back to our intuitive inclinations.

This means being more liberal with our romantic indulgencies. I don’t argue for a love of the spiritual, because for me the word is meaningless. The spiritual is generally considered as an immaterial counterpart to, or issuance of, a substantive self. And yet the self is not substantive; it’s no more than a narrative construct; it is already immaterial and issued beyond the body, existing only and ever as a recurrent idea. So the romantic indulgence I advocate is to befriend this same understanding.

It’s to have faith that we ourselves must go beyond idea and narration to understand the true ground of our being. Contemplatively exploring the mind and senses, we fall out of love with selfhood, and into loving only the presence of being. We embrace this possibility not as any romantic spirituality, but instead as a lover of knowledge. We come to know that the dualistic play of self and otherness are but entrancements, the romance of self-love but fakery, and in such knowledge find well-being.