“Ten Zen Questions,” by Susan Blackmore
Title: “Ten Zen Questions.”
Author: Susan Blackmore
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford (2009).
Available from: Amazon.com.
Susan Blackmore’s Ten Zen Questions may at first glance seem silly or pointless — “Where is this?” for example — but when approached with a focused mind they can be used to push back our assumptions and let us have a glimpse at what’s really going on.
Susan Blackmore is justifiably something of a superstar in the small but important and expanding world that exists where science and Buddhism overlap.
She’s well-known on the TED circuit for her work on “memes” — ideas and cultural phenomena understood as viral-like entities that “infect” our minds and compete for dominance.
She is a psychologist by training, has 25 years of Zen practice under her belt, and employs both disciplines to study the mind in the field that’s become known as “consciousness studies.”
Blackmore emphasizes that she is not a Buddhist, but is “someone with a questioning mind who has stumbled upon Zen and found it immensely helpful.” Helpful, that is, not just on a personal level but as a tool to help her probe the mysteries of consciousness. Ten Zen Questions is a description of Blackmore’s attempts to combine her knowledge of the science of consciousness with introspective practice. It’s an extraordinary book: a sometimes heady but deeply rewarding read.
Although it isn’t billed as such, Ten Zen Questions is largely a spiritual autobiography, in which Blackmore outlines how she stumbled upon Buddhist practice, her struggles with various “koans” (questions that push the mind past limiting assumptions about how things are), and the insights that arose from these experiments. As an account of one person’s spiritual quest, it’s an exceptional piece of writing. But it’s also highly thought-provoking because of the sher intensity with which the author has explored the existential issues implicit in those Zen Questions.
Am I conscious now?
The questions themselves come from various sources, including her scientific training, but mostly they arise from her Buddhist practice. The “Zen” component of the title is slightly misleading because some of the questions are taken from Mahamudra reflections, albeit ones that she studied under her Zen teacher, John Crook.
Questions that arose from her scientific work and her teaching include “Am I conscious now?” and “What was in my consciousness a moment ago?” while questions that she describes as more classically Buddhist include “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquility and the mind moving in thought” and “How does thought arise?”
What was I conscious of a moment ago?
The purpose of the questions, though, makes more sense in relation to some of the outstanding problems faced by the field of consciousness studies. These problems are outlined in an introductory chapter called “The Problem of Consciousness.” Unfortunately going into these in depth would involve an extensive amount of regurgitation of the chapter, so I can only touch on a couple of points and hope that I haven’t distorted the rather heady problems Blackmore outlines.
One core problem is the relationship of consciousness to the physical body, and in particular to the brain. This is known as the “hard problem” of “how can objective, physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?” Electrical and chemical brain activity are one thing, but the experience of the color red, the feeling of sorrow, or a childhood memory appear to be completely different and irreducible to mere chemistry. This, Blackmore points out, is a modern form of the problem of Cartesian dualism, where physical things in the world and subjective experiences are regarded as fundamentally different things. But if they are truly separate things, then how do they interact? How does the body receive input from the physical senses? How does the mind give instructions to the body?
Who is asking the question?
Philosophical attempts have been made to eliminate the dualism by reducing everything to consciousness (idealism: the world is a creation of the mind — but then how to explain the world’s consistency?) or to reduce everything to matter (materialism: but then how to explain away the sheer subjectivity of our experiences? How can the color, taste, and aroma of a glass of wine be explained in purely chemical terms?)
The other big problem, besides dualism, is where is the “self” that we instinctively assume is sitting in the midst of our flow of experiences, monitoring inputs and deciding on our responses? The notion of a central self does not correspond to anything found in the brain, which lacks a central command center. It’s even been shown that when we make a decision the actual activity happens seconds before we are aware of it. The conscious mind claims to have made a decision only after it’s been made, in an act of post hoc rationalization.
Where is this?
This is all fascinating stuff, and very relevant to Buddhism, which states that there is in fact no self in the sense that we normally think of it, and that we are therefore deluded about the nature of our “selves”. Consciousness Studies and Buddhism therefore have at least some potential common ground, and Blackmore’s Ten Zen Questions are an attempt to explore “the conflict between scientific findings and our own intuitions” by means of introspective awareness engages in reflection.
Some of the questions are familiar to me as practices, while some are new. Asking “Am I conscious now?” is a common practice in one form or another and one that goes back to the earliest days of my own practice. The mindfulness bell for example (a bell rung at intervals as a wake-up call) is a wordless version of that question. The question “Am I conscious now?” brings about the disconcerting realization that often “the lights were on but nobody was home.” In other words in asking the question “Am I conscious now?” we most often become aware of the fact that actually we were not (really) conscious, just a moment before. Obviously something was going on in the mind before the question was asked, but whatever it was it didn’t involve the mind being conscious of itself.
How does thought arise?
This chapter, because of its relentless repetition of the question “Am I conscious now?” itself acts as a wake-up call. I doubt many people could read this chapter without finding the following days filled with moments in which they become aware that they have just “woken up” from unmindfulness.
In my own practice history, this question was phrased “Am I aware of being aware?” which I think is in some ways a more apt question (although it lacks that tangy word “now” that calls on us implicitly to look back at the previous moment). The thing is that we do not, in the terminology I favor, go from being not-conscious to being conscious but go from having simple consciousness (which includes sensing, thinking, and feeling) to having reflexive self-awareness (sensing, thinking, and feeling, combined with an awareness that we are sensing, thinking, and feeling).
There is no time. What is memory?
In hearing the mindfulness bell (or the question “Am I conscious now?” in whatever form of words is chosen) we become aware of ourselves as aware beings. Instead of the mind functioning on automatic pilot, with internal processes (sensing, thinking, and feeling) chugging along in an entirely habitual way, the mind becomes aware of its own inner states. Self-monitoring comes into being. This “being aware of being aware” allows us to make choices that affect what we do and how we respond: for example in simple consciousness we may be obsessed by a train of thought that is painful to us. Without any internal self-monitoring there is nothing to prevent us continuing to cause ourselves pain. When the mindfulness bell (in whatever form) rings and we become aware of being aware, we are able to evaluate the helpfulness or otherwise of our activities and can choose to let go of that pain-inducing train of thought.
When are you?
This twist on Blackmore’s question (moving from “Am I conscious now?” to “Am I aware of being aware?”) may make a difference to the analysis and reflection that she engages in with respect to the second question, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” She beautifully explores the nuances of this question as it percolates through her mind in meditation. We’ve all had the experience of suddenly hearing the last few seconds of the fridge compressor running before it cycles off. Had we previously been conscious of the fridge running? Usually, no. Yet when the fridge shudders to a halt the mind seems to jump back in time, retrieve the sensory impression of the sound of the compressor (from outside of consciousness? — from where then?) and thus allows us to make sense of the sudden quiet. You weren’t conscious of the fridge running. Then the fridge stopped. And then — what? — you realize you had been conscious of it after all? This doesn’t make much sense in the language of being conscious or not-conscious.
Are you here now?
Blackmore in fact frames her observations consistently in terms of conscious/not-conscious, whereas from my point of view anything that has entered our senses we are conscious of, but we are not necessarily aware that we are conscious of those things unless we “wake up” into reflexive self-awareness. The question “Am I conscious now?” is one possible prompt to make that leap.
I suspect that considering the fridge scenario in terms of “simple consciousness” and “reflexive self-awareness” simplifies things somewhat by allowing us to be “conscious” of the sound of the fridge running even though we weren’t reflexively aware of the sound. In other words we weren’t aware that we were aware of the sound. The stimulus of the fridge stopping acts as a mindfulness bell and we become aware that we were conscious of the fridge. Of course I could be wildly oversimplifying here — never underestimate the power of a consciousness researcher to spot an overlooked complexity. That’s what they’re paid for.
What am I doing?
Blackmore also brings up a question with regard to those “fridge” sensations that are retrieved from simple consciousness and made the object of reflexive self awareness. She asks, “Who, then, was conscious of them?” She also seems to implicitly assume that “someone” must have been conscious of them, but I’m not sure why she needs to assume that, or what she means by “someone.” It seems to me to be enough to say that the information (say the sound of the fridge) was being processed in the brain (in “simple consciousness”) and that we then then became aware that we were conscious of that particular sensation. Call me a reductivist, but I’m unclear why it has to be more complicated than that.
She also points out that there is no part of the brain that is a “special place where consciousness happens, or a special process uniquely correlated with conscious, as opposed to unconscious, events.” But since we don’t even know how the experience of consciousness relates to the electrical and chemical activity in the brain, I confess this doesn’t much bother me. Where is reflexive self-consciousness located in the brain? I couldn’t guess. Perhaps it’s a quantum process that involves the whole of the brain at one time. Maybe our current tools just can’t even begin to look for the kind of activity that reflexive self-awareness is. It’s not that I’m incurious — I love to see consciousness and the brain being studied — but more that I’m not unduly bothered by the inability of science to measure something that may be essentially intangible.
What happens next?
Blackmore’s investigations of the other eight questions are all described in an equally experiential and autobiographical way, often with blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in her meditation practice and the history of particular retreats she attended. Her writing style is vivacious and colorful. Her observations are thought-provoking. Her commitment to self-examination is something I frankly find both exemplary and shaming (what exactly do I do in my meditation practice — sometimes it all seems a bit flabby).
The questions tend to be cumulative, in that the insights or exposed assumptions raised in an earlier question tend to become part of the background for the next just as “Am I conscious now?” leads to “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” Blackmore’s analytical/reflective approach leads her to progressively analyze the notion of an “observer self” out of existence.
By Question Six, “There is no time. What is memory?” Blackmore’s spiritual autobiography has led her to experience the “great doubt” — a profound uncertainty about every aspect of experience, where all assumptions seem shaky and the security of knowledge frighteningly elusive. She arrives at the point where she recognizes that there is no past, no future, and not even a present moment. (She also, as an aside, asserts her individuality and departs from the way her teacher advises her to conduct her practice. She is, after all, “not a Buddhist” but hopefully even if she were she would still feel able to enjoy that freedom).
With Question Seven, “When are you?” Blackmore finds herself observing experiences manifesting from nothingness and then going back into nothingness, “with no continuous someone” to whom they appear, and while they appear they are essentially mysterious and unknowable. She recognizes that the self is a fiction, but some fear holds her back from abandoning her attachment to the notion.
With Question Eight, “Are you here now?” Blackmore is looking for the “pure pristine cognition” that Zen, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen assure us is ever-present and non-separate from the impermanent experiences that rise out of emptiness and fall back into it like waves rising and falling on the ocean. She realizes that her thoughts are her self, and “self seems to dissolve … so that there is no longer any central self whose attention switches.” She experiences something “like a void or an emptiness or a vast space of possibilities” rather than an observer separate from her experiences. She also experiences conflict with her teacher, John Crook, who has definite ideas about how her practice should proceed, and who thinks she is intellectually fixated on one approach to her experience.
Question Nine is “What am I doing?” Blackmore examines actions and their relation to “free will” and comes to the conclusion (one consciousness studies would agree with) that there is no such thing. It’s not that there is no choosing going on — there clearly is — but there is not conscious “I” who makes choices. “There’s no one in here making decisions.” Decisions, however, still happen.
In Question Ten, “What happens next?” there is some rather uninteresting questioning about reincarnation and survival, and some rather more interesting observation and reflection about the tendency to want to hold on in subtle ways: to observe experiences sinking, like waves, back into the ocean of emptiness, but to resist their passing. “The task is not to prevent it, not to interfere with it, not to suppose that there even is a me who could interfere with it.”
She explores the possibility that what seems to be her “self” merely arises along with whatever is being experienced, and passes away with it. If I may once again use a metaphor that Blackmore does not, the self is like the sum total of the waves on the surface of the ocean: there is no identity — no “thing” that endures because each wave, like each experience, is short-lived — but there is a continuity. Perhaps this continuity, she wonders, “is that of the timeless, emptiness, or void, or whatever it is, out of which phenomena appear.”
This is a conclusion that many a Buddhist tradition would recognize and embrace, of course.
After this final question there is a chapter on “Being conscious.” Perhaps I missed something here, but I found this chapter rather unsatisfactory. She mainly addresses some of the preoccupations of consciousness researchers, but since I don’t share those preoccupations I had the feeling Blackmore was talking past me (and to a large extent over my head).
In the introductory chapter she had raised the problems inherent in believing that there is a “self” that handles experiences, and she also outlines the “hard problem” of how subjective experience can arise on the basis of physical phenomena. While the chapter “Being conscious” reiterates the illusory nature of the self, it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about the “hard problem.” I found that rather disappointing.
She does make some interesting observations about the nature of consciousness — observations that also resonate with me as a practitioner:
At any time in a human brain there are multiple parallel processes going on, conjuring up perceptions, thoughts, opinions, sensations, and volitions. None of these is either in or out of consciousness for there is no such place. Most of the time there is no observer: if consciousness is involved at all it is an attribution made later, on the basis of remembering events and assuming that someone must have been experiencing them in the past, when in fact no one was.
She argues that “temporary observers” are constructed and that we need to study how this happens and she ventures some suspicions about how these temporary observers may come into being.
I find myself in agreement with most of what she says here, but I doubt, however, that consciousness is “an attribution made later.” Blackmore spends a lot of time dealing with sounds, and the nature of some of the questions she asks lead her to be aware of things that have just happened. “Am I conscious now” immediately leads to thoughts of what has just been. It can become essentially the same question as “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”
And sound has a peculiar nature. We can be aware of sounds as they arise, for example while listening to a piece of music unfold, or we can be aware of sounds that are in what’s called “echoic memory,” which is a kind of sensory buffer that stores around four seconds of auditory data. The purpose of this would seem to be to allow us to briefly skip back in time and check for important data we may have missed, just as you might skip back a few seconds in an audiobook to pick up the thread when you’ve been distracted from the narrative. A lot of Blackmore’s descriptions of mindfulness seem to have involved paying attention to what’s in echoic memory rather than what she was currently listening to. Rather than simply listening to what was at the forefront of her auditory consciousness, she made it a practice to sek out the sounds she was not paying attention to — and those by definition would be in echoic memory, and therefore in the past in some sense.
I think this emphasis on “skipping backwards” into echoic memory may have skewed her view of consciousness. As I’m writing this review I’m aware right now that it’s, well, right now. I’m here now, being aware of my experience, not attributing consciousness later. Unless, of course, I’m seriously deluded.
Part of the problem for me in staying engaged with Blackmore’s account of her explorations is the fact that she doesn’t define what it means to be “conscious,” and doesn’t generally make a clear distinction between the kind of consciousness we have just before we ask “Am I conscious now?” and the kind we have afterwards. The question “Am I conscious now?” implies that “conscious” is what I am once I’m in a position to ask that question. But what do we call the kind of awareness we had before we ask that question? Blackmore tends to use the word “conscious” there as well: “I can remember what was happening just before I asked the question, so it seems that someone must have been conscious.” A more careful use of terminology would have helped me be sure I knew what she was talking about.
Blackmore’s final words point to a spiritual experience of non-self that corresponds to what is known to be going on in the brain: “There is no persisting self, no show in a mental theatre, no power of consciousness and no free will, no duality of self and other — just complex interactions between a body and the rest of the world, arising and falling away for no one in particular.” This description very much accords with what I understand the state of bodhi, or enlightenment, to be — a radical acceptance of and non-interference with direct experience, a flow of experience undistorted by ego-based grasping or aversion.
Yet those final words also leave me feeling uneasy. Blackmore throws in the phrase “no power of consciousness” and I find myself wondering what she means. Why at the very end of the book introduce a new term? Did I miss something earlier? I’m sure I missed a lot while reading Ten Zen Questions, but I’m pretty sure she’s never used that phrase before. I’m sure she means something by saying there is “no power of consciousness” but it’s almost as if she’s so excited about what she’s saying that she doesn’t take the time to connect the dots — and perhaps to connect to the reader as well. Or maybe I’m being a bit dim? I experience doubt and confusion.
Spotting that final ambiguous and unexplained phrase (“no power of consciousness”) brought to my attention that throughout the book I had half-noticed other instances where explanations didn’t seem clear or seemed partial, and where phrases were dropped in as if of course you’d know what she was talking about. The feeling I’m left with is that Blackmore’s book to some extent went over my head. Some moments I doubt myself and think I must be too inattentive or lacking in intelligence to grasp her arguments, but at other times I suspect she may have a “feeling” of significance that hasn’t been fully thought out or articulated.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or join him on Facebook.